I was talking to a scholar from Hanoi yesterday who was telling me that scholarship in Vietnam is “open” (mở cửa). I then mentioned a few “sensitive” topics, and he said all of those were ok. I then asked if anyone had published anything on these topics, and he said “no.”

So the world of scholarship is open, but people don’t write about some of the things they know to be true, and as a result, people continue to publish views of the same topics which are clearly not true. So what is the benefit of being “open” in such a situation?

In thinking about this, what I realized is that the main problem is that scholars in Vietnam do not create professional historical knowledge. Let me explain what I mean.

Many people have written that the Bình Ngô đại cáo is a “declaration of independence.” There are some scholars in Vietnam who know that this doesn’t make sense. It would be easy for one of them to write an article which provided evidence in support of this point.

One could first look at the efforts of Vietnamese reformers in the early twentieth century to introduce the term and concept of “independence” (độc lập) as an indication that this concept was not familiar to people prior to that point. One could also look at the factional divisions at the time of the Ming occupation and use this to argue that the Bình Ngô đại cáo is not a “declaration of independence” towards China, but a statement of dominance by the victorious faction in Vietnam towards those who were on the losing side, i.e., those who had collaborated with the Ming (as well as anyone who might think of challenging Lê Lợi), saying “We are in the legitimate rulers now, so you will follow our orders.” One could finally also examine the text of the Bình Ngô đại cáo to make the same point.

If the scholar I was talking to is correct, then such a paper could be published in Vietnam today. However, it wouldn’t make any difference, because it wouldn’t serve to create professional historical knowledge, because there is no professional historical knowledge in Vietnam.

How is professional historical knowledge created? Let’s look at how a book gets published in the West. An author writes a book and submits it to an academic press. If the editor thinks it has potential, then it gets sent out to 3 anonymous experts in the field who decide if it is worth publishing and if any changes are needed. These experts will check to make sure that the author bases his/her argument on primary sources and that all of the relevant primary sources are used. The experts will also check to make sure that the author is using all of the relevant, and the most up-to-date, secondary scholarship on the topic, and that the author is faithfully representing the ideas of the authors of the secondary scholarship.

If the book “passes the test” of these outside readers, it will then get published (again, perhaps only after the author has made certain changes demanded by the outside readers). Once it is published, the press sends it to journals, which in turn finds experts to write book reviews of it. The reviewers check the book using the same criteria as the outside readers did.

The result is that within a few years of its publication, a book will have been read and commented on by as many as say 10 experts in the field. If these people generally agree that the argument of the book is believable, then that book has succeeded in creating what I would call “professional historical knowledge.” It is knowledge which an author’s professional colleagues agree is legitimate.

Once professional historical knowledge has been created, people in the field then must follow it. For instance, let’s say someone writes a book which argues that the Bình Ngô đại cáo is not a declaration of independence, that it gets published, and that reviewers think the argument is believable. Let’s then say that some other scholar writes something and refers to the Bình Ngô đại cáo as a declaration of independence. When that book or article gets sent to outside readers, they will challenge that point, and say, “You cannot say this now because the recent book by XXX demonstrates that this is not the case.”

The only way at that point that someone could say that the Bình Ngô đại cáo was a declaration of independence would be if that person then wrote a well-documented study of his/her own and went through the entire process of convincing outside readers and reviewers that this argument is correct.

None of this happens in Vietnam. So yes, maybe Vietnam is “open” now, and maybe someone could publish an extremely well-documented and convincing study which says that the Bình Ngô đại cáo is not a declaration of independence. But so what? Because someone else could then published a poorly-documented and unperceptive study which argues that the Bình Ngô đại cáo is a declaration of independence and that work would still get published.

Without a system which allows for the creation of professional historical knowledge and which demands that scholars adhere to the information which is produced in this system (unless they can go through the mechanisms of the system to prove a point otherwise), “openness” is meaningless.