Is Vietnamese history all about “resistance to Chinese aggression”? No, said DRV scholar Minh Tranh in 1954. Instead, he argued the Vietnamese and Chinese have always been “fighting friends” (bạn chiến đấu). He made this point in an article entitled “The Chinese People have been Fighting Friends of the Vietnamese People Throughout History (“Nhân dân Trung Quốc bạn chiến đấu của nhân dân Việt Nam trong lịch sử”).

Referring to Ngô Đình Diệm’s government in the South, Minh Tranh says at the beginning of this essay that “Recently, on orders from the French and American bandits the gang of traitors (bọn bán nước, literally, “the gang selling the country”) are exerting the utmost effort to distort history in an attempt to lead our compatriots who are in areas which are temporarily under occupation to not understand that the greatest friends of the Vietnamese resistance war are the people of China.”

Minh Tranh goes on to say that the gang of traitors hold commemorative events in which Vietnamese resistance to Chinese invasions is pointed out. The purpose of these events, according to Minh Tranh, is to create divisions between the Vietnamese and Chinese peoples.

According to Minh Tranh, however, the truth of history proves the gang of traitors wrong. For throughout history the Vietnamese and Chinese peoples have fought common enemies. When the Trưng sisters led their uprising, for instance, Chinese peasants were also rising up in rebellion against the feudal ruling class. What is more, these uprisings “helped the [participants in the Trưng sisters’ rebellion] achieve victory over the invading enemy troops.” (oh really? I never realized that Ma Yuan was defeated. . .)

The “righteous uprisings” (khởi nghĩa) of Lý Bôn and Triệu Quang Phục were also aided by the fact that Chinese peasant rebellions occurred during this period. For instance, Triệu Quang Phục was able to capture Lông Biên because the Chinese commander there was recalled to deal with a peasant uprising to the north.

Then in the case of the Mongols, these people were a common enemy of the Chinese and Vietnam, and both peoples fought them.

As for Lê Lợi’s defeat of the Ming. . . that’s right, it was also made easier because the Chinese were distracted putting down peasant uprisings in other parts of the empire.

Finally, as for Nguyễn Huệ’s defeat of the 20,000 troop Qing army at Đống Đa, like the Mongols, the Qing were a foreign people (Manchus) whom Chinese fought as well.

Minh Tranh obviously made these remarks because the DRV was allied with the PRC at the time and had just received a lot of assistance from the PRC in the final years of the First Indochina War. That said, there is some truth to some of the points he makes here. In some ways what he says here is historically more accurate than the idea that “the” Vietnamese always united together to resist “the” Chinese. Minh Tranh overstates his argument, but there is more historical complexity to his argument than the “resistance against foreign aggression” argument.

In any case, what I find interesting about this article is that it helps historicize the “resistance to foreign aggression” claim. The idea that Vietnamese have always been “resisting foreign aggression” is an invented tradition, and it is a very recently invented tradition. What this article shows is that in 1954, it hadn’t been invented yet. Yes, people were already talking about the “fighting spirit” of the Vietnamese, but the “resistance to foreign aggression” paradigm had yet to completely take shape.

What this article shows is that this paradigm couldn’t take shape as long as the DRV and PRC were on good terms. What changed everything, I think, was the Cultural Revolution. The DRV government started to encourage people in the North to become anti-Chinese during the Cultural Revolution so that the craziness of that movement would not take hold in the DRV.

This is not my own idea. There is some scholarship by a political scientist that I read which will come out soon, and he makes this point based on archival research in Vietnam.

Another point which I find interesting about this article is that it indicates that the government in the South was apparently promoting the idea of historical Vietnamese resistance to Chinese aggression in the mid-1950s, whereas the DRV government was not.

What all of this shows is that the world of ideas in the 1950s and 1960s was quite fluid. People in the North and South were responding to each other and to people and events outside of Vietnam at the same time. It’s a fascinating period.