When I read contemporary Vietnamese historical scholarship about the premodern period, that is, scholarship which is supposedly based on sources in either classical Chinese or Nôm, I always find people enumerating and listing things. They talk about how many times a word appears in a text or provide a list of the titles of books that an author wrote or something like that. I see number after number and list after list, but rarely do I find people actually talking about the CONTENT of the sources they are examining. What do the sources actually SAY?

I was just reminded of this when I stumbled across the text of a relatively recent presentation in Vietnam on spirit writing, a topic which I have posted a few entries about recently. The author enumerates how many spirit writing texts there were and how many places they came from, etc.

Then when he turns to look at the content of these texts, he says that they concentrate on two issues: calling on people to love the country and feel for the race, and to revive the national culture. (tập trung vào hai vấn đề: Kêu gọi lòng yêu nước thương nòi và Chấn hưng văn hoá dân tộc)

As evidence of this content, the author LISTS the “heroes and exemplary women of the nation” (các vị anh hùng liệt nữ của dân tộc) who revealed messages. Ok, but WHAT DID THEY ACTUALLY SAY??!!

What these heroes and exemplary women said in spirit writings over and over and over was that: sons should be filial to their fathers; wives should respect their husbands; daughters-in-law should serve their parents-in-law; women should follow their fathers/husbands/sons, etc.

Is this “loving the country and feeling for the race”? Hmmm. . . Is it “reviving the national culture”? Maybe, but this culture sure looks a lot like Korean and Chinese and even Japanese culture at that time, so. . .

To be fair, there are a few spirit writing texts which get a little bit nationalistic in the 1910s, when this movement was started to fade. But the vast majority of these texts deal solely with morality.

These texts also clearly reveal a view of the world which predates the world of nations and national cultures. We can see this in the hierarchical relations of the spirits who revealed messages in these texts, and the languages/scripts associated with them.

The most powerful spirits were “Northern” (i.e., “Chinese”) spirits, like Wenchang Dijun. These spirits had transformed the “North” with their writings (văn) by revealing morality books (thiện thư) in the past. Now (in the early 20th century) these Northern spirits were relying on “Southern” spirits like Trần Hưng Đạo to transform the “South” by using sounds (âm), i.e., Nôm. It is made very clear in these texts that sound is inferior to writing, but that is what is needed in order to transform illiterate people, or literally “stupid men and stupid women” (ngu phu ngu phụ). Then at the very bottom were Southern female spirits, the Sage Mothers. Their job was to use sounds to transform the really stupid and hard to transform – women!! (This is not my view. It is what is expressed in these texts.)

Hence, when one actually examines the content of these works, it is very difficult to find “love of country” or a “national culture.” What one does find is the Vietnamese world before it was transformed by nationalism. Oh but wait now, how do you list or enumerate that?

Aren’t lists and numbers convenient?