So I was reading Wikipedia (“Bad historian!”) and came across the following line in an entry on “Vietnamese Daoism”: “Vietnamese Daoism is Daoism which became localized when it entered Vietnam from China.”

While I know that there can be serious problems with the information which we find on Wikipedia, the ideas in this sentences are ones which I repeatedly see in Vietnamese academic writings, ideas which are completely flawed.

This sentence is based on the assumption that “Daoism,” “Vietnam” and “China” are all distinct and clearly defined entities, and that they have always been that way.

In other words, it assumes that there is something more or less pure and complete which we can call “Daoism.” It also assumes that there are unified geographical entities and societies which we can historically define as “China” and “Vietnam,” and that “Daoism” moved from the former to the latter, and enjoyed a distinct status in each of these places as “Vietnamese Daoism” and “Chinese Daoism.”

In reality, there is nothing “pure” and “complete” which we can call “Daoism.” Instead, it is a very diverse body of ideas and practices which has countless local variations in terms of sects and practices and which developed over a long period of time.

What is more “Vietnam” (or more accurately, parts of the Red River delta) was one of the places where “Daoism” emerged, as it was across the entire area of what is today southern China and northern Vietnam that this diverse tradition originally developed.

So can we talk about a “localized” version of Daoism in “Vietnam.” Yes, but it’s “localized” everywhere. The only place where it is not localized is in our imagination, as we imagine that there is something identifiable that we can call “Chinese Daoism.”

Ultimately, there is no “Vietnamese Daoism” or “Chinese Daoism.” There are just countless diverse practices spread across an area stretching from what is today Vietnam to Koreawhich share enough traits as to be identifiable as part of a tradition. However, that tradition did not emerge in one unified society first and then spread to others. It’s a living entity which developed simultaneously in various places and gained a degree of commonality through contact and interactions.

What is more, its practitioners historically came from what we would today view as many different ethnic groups. Even within “Vietnam” there were Daoist practices which were employed by different ethnic groups, such as the Thái and the Kinh, and the practices of different peoples in different places likely differed. Therefore, not only is “Chinese Daoism” a product of our imagination, but “Vietnamese Daoism” is as well.