The concept of the nation, or a nationality, as consisting of a single people living within a defined territory speaking a single language and sharing a common culture is a concept which emerged in the West and then was adopted by many Asian societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

I came across a definition of the nation/nationality which Vietnamese scholar Nguyễn Bá Trác wrote in 1917 in the journal Nam Phong. It is a fascinating definition in that reveals a moment of transition, one in which this new concept was being adopted but older ways of thinking were still included.

Let us first look at what Nguyễn Bá Trác wrote. He asks rhetorically “What is our country’s nationality (dân tộc) like”? And this is how he answered:

“As for the races (chủng) of people, although there are the different categories of Giao Chỉ, Chiêm Thành and Chân Lạp, at present they have all mixed together and become a single and separate An Nam race. There are no divisions between races (chủng tộc). As for the spoken language, people from Cao Bằng and Lạng Sơn in the north to An Giang and Hà Tiên in the south can all sit on the same mat and talk to each other. There are no linguistic barriers. As for customs, there are no divergent customs when it comes to the rituals for funerals, sacrifices, capping ceremonies and weddings (tang, tế, quan, hôn). As for moral teachings (giáo hóa), all are united in respecting their elders and serving their superiors (kính trưởng sự thượng). What is more, in the country there is no discrimination between classes. Those among the common people who are talented at studying can become high government officials. Such is the equality [in the society]. Previously there were a few times when the Yuan troops were driven away and the Northern Barbarian [Hồ] raiders were captured. Such is the energy of the spirit of the people. As for the literature of the country, although it is overly weak and cannot avoid being dismissed by the new generation as [the literature of] old-fashioned scholars and rotten Confucian scholars [Nho sinh]. However, in ancient times it is from this [literature] that loyalty, filial piety and fidelity emerged, and that the proper norms of conduct and human relations were established.”

Like the concept of the nation, race was another new concept at this time, and it is interesting to see Nguyễn Bá Trác referring to an An Nam race which consisted of the “different categories of Giao Chỉ, Chiêm Thành and Chân Lạp,” or what we would today call the Kinh (or Việt), Cham and Khmer. It of course is also interesting to consider that Nguyễn Bá Trác believed that these peoples had all mixed together to create a single race.

Moving on to his description of the nation/nationality, we can see that he is employing the Western definition of a people who speak a single language and share a common culture, however instead of using the general word “culture” (văn hóa), Nguyễn Bá Trác employs specific terms which essentially point to what we would today might call “Confucian culture.”

In other words, what unites the An Nam race is that they all follow Confucian rituals and moral norms. One wonders if Nguyễn Bá Trác had ever actually met a Cham or Khmer. . .

Another interesting point is that we can see an early expression of the “resistance to foreign aggression” theme which would eventually become so central to Vietnamese identity in the second half of the twentieth century. The way Nguyễn Bá Trác expresses this concept is much more subdued than its later form, but it shows that this idea was starting to be expressed by this time.

Yet one more element about this passage which is historically specific is the way in which Nguyễn Bá Trác states that there was something weak about the literary tradition of the past.

Such a criticism of the literary tradition of the past was a popular lament across East Asia at this time, as was the effort on the part of some more conservative scholars to attempt to salvage the morals of that literary tradition.

Finally, the concepts of “equality” and “classes” were also new, having been adopted from the West.

As such, this is a fascinating passage which reveals a moment of transition when new and old ideas co-existed together. We could call this a process of “localization,” but it did not lead to a permanent localized conception of the nation. Instead, eventually Vietnamese scholars would go on to fully adopt Western definitions of the nation, such that today the most commonly heard definition of the nation in Vietnam is Stalin’s that:

“A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life and psychological make up manifested in a common culture.”