In response to a question about the post on “Imprinting the Nation in Early Twentieth Century Vietnam,” I’m posting a translation of part of a preface from a history textbook from the first decade of the twentieth century, Hoàng Đạo Thành’s Đại Việt sử tân ước toàn biên.
Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, one could argue that there really wasn’t any “Vietnamese history” yet. Yes, there was a lot of information that had been recorded about the past, however in the minds of scholars, there was “History” and then there was “our kingdom’s history.” “History” referred to what we would today call “Chinese history.” “Our kingdom’s history” was less significant.
In the early twentieth century, educated Vietnamese came to learn that this is not the way in which educated people in Western countries viewed the world. In the West, having been recently transformed by nationalist ideas, each country had its own history, which was the equal of every other country’s history.
This was a very new concept to educated Vietnamese, and what we see in the preface to the Đại Việt sử tân ước toàn biên is an effort to change the way people in Vietnam think, from the “traditional” way of seeing the “history of our kingdom” as something less significant than “[Chinese] History,” to seeing it as the equal of the histories of other countries.
Finally, what is also interesting in this preface is that in addition to nationalist ideas from the West, there are also traces of other Western ideas, such as Social Darwinism and the Western concept of race. This is evident in the final two paragraphs below where the issue of weakness is mentioned. What I have translated as “kind” (tộc loại) has racial connotations to it, yet what is interesting is that these new racial ideas were being constructed from mythical information about the origins of Vietnamese history.
In sum, this document provides a wonderful view of a moment of intense intellectual change when educated Vietnamese were trying to rethink the past after having been influenced by the new Western ideas of nationalism, Social Darwinism, and racial thought.
“There is nothing great or minor with regard to nations. If there is a nation, then it must have a history. History is a moving picture of the people from all of the nation’s land, its dynasties, governance and education. All of the civilized nations in Europe, America and Japan revere the study of history. Among the myriad nations, history is a professional science. However, in our country, history is just an average topic.
When people reach the age of seven and enter primary schools, they should be made to learn the nation’s literature, and its history. The same should be true for women, for this is how we can get the word, “nation,” imprinted in each person’s brain. It must be made firm there so that it can not move; entwined so that it can not come loose.
Thereupon they will view the nation’s territory as their own property, and will treat their countrymen as compatriots. Everyone must combine into one large group, unite into one large band. Then together they can seek common peace and ensure common prosperity. Everyone must fulfill their duty to contribute to the task of strengthening the nation. This is not a casual matter!
Gloriously Our South has been demarcated by the celestial scripting (thiên thư). It is land granted in vassalage by the ancient emperors. Its climate is suitable for producing goods in abundance. The descendants of an immortal father and a dragon mother, their kind (tộc loại) has flourished and their character is beautiful. They thus have this superior standing.
However, today they are the weakest of peoples. Is this because we have been singled out for punishment by Heaven? The source lies in the fact that we do not teach practical/solid scholarship. As for practical/solid scholarship, national history is the most essential.”