I’ve known for a long time that the field of historical scholarship in Vietnam has not been well, but I think I can now confirm that it has finally died. Historical scholarship in Vietnam has no life left in it. It is dead.
What made me realize this? It was a couple of recent articles which were sent to me about the question of whether Lý Công Uẩn, the founder of the Lý Dynasty, was “Mân” (i.e., from Fujian) or “Việt.”
There is a letter which a “Chinese” sent to Lý Công Uẩn, and which is preserved in an eleventh-century work by Sima Guang (涑水記聞, Shushui jiwen), which mentions that Lý Công Uẩn’s ancestors were Mân people and that he employed many Mân people at his court.
Vietnamese scholars have known about this since at least 1949 when Hoàng Xuân Hãn mentioned this in his book on Lý Thường Kiệt. Now some 60 years later people are again writing about this issue.
It is always good to revisit historical issues which have previously been discussed. However, the point of revisiting old questions is to use new ideas and new theories and new understandings in ones examination of the old issue. If one does not have any new way of looking at an old problem, then there is no reason to revisit it.
This is how I know that historical scholarship in Vietnam is dead. Because some 60 years after Hoàng Xuân Hãn brought up the point that there is a Chinese source which mentions that Lý Công Uẩn’s ancestors were Mân people, historians today cannot bring anything new to their examination of this issue.
The reason why this is particularly sad is because historical scholarship in many other parts of the world advanced tremendously during those 60 years, more than at any other time in human history. However, those developments have passed the world of historical scholarship in Vietnam by.
To engage in historical scholarship, you don’t have to have a specific theory which you deliberately apply. What you can do is to simply gain a more nuanced understanding of the past and how societies developed by reading what other scholars have written, and not just scholars in ones field, but from other fields and ones who focus on other parts of the world as well.
In the case of trying to understand who Lý Công Uẩn was, we need to think about issues such as how ethnic groups are formed, what ethnic groups existed in the past, and what terms like “Mân” or “người Giao Châu” might have meant to the people who used them.
We also need to consider the extent to which kingdoms were multi-ethnic in the past, and how ethnicity was not as important as say loyalty to a monarch.
Then in the specific case of Vietnam, we would need to consider issues such as those brought up in the recent article by linguist John Phan, which I mentioned several months ago in a post, in which he argues that the Vietnamese language was created when some speakers of a Chinese dialect switched to speaking a local language (like the Normans in England) somewhere around the ninth-tenth centuries.
It would also be good to consider the ideas of anthropologist Richard O’Conner (1995) that the people whom we refer to as the Vietnamese, Thai and Burmese were in part formed through participation in wet rice agriculture. His argument (very simply stated) is that through participation in wet rice agriculture, people of different ethnicities gradually form into a single ethnic group, as they follow the same rituals and communicate with the officials who oversee the control of water, collect taxes, etc.
When you have these insights in your head, then there is no problem in seeing Lý Công Uẩn as a Mân descendent. Lý Công Uẩn was part of an elite group that was undergoing changes that would create a new people – the “Việt.”
This group was made up of people of different ethnicities. Some had come at one point or another from the place we today call “China,” and were Mân or Cantonese or perhaps some form of Tai. Others were from the greater Red River Delta region and were Mường and other peoples for whom today we don’t have terms because they have disappeared into the “Việt.”
These people created an elite culture, and as they governed over the common people and got the common people to engage in wet rice agriculture, over the centuries those common people were gradually transformed into a more unified group – the “Việt.”
In the eleventh century this process was still in its early stages. In which case, it makes sense that someone in that century would refer to Lý Công Uẩn as “Mân,” and that people in later centuries would think of him as “Việt,” because Lý Công Uẩn was probably a localized Mân whose very existence helped create the Việt.
Does this mean that “Chinese” created “Vietnam”? No, it’s more complex than that. The way I look at it is like this: If Lý Công Uẩn was from a Mân family which had settled in the Red River Delta and “gone local” by intermarrying with local women and speaking an early form of Vietnamese, he probably had many counterparts in the area who were from local families which had become “Sinicized.”
So what was the difference in the Red River Delta in the eleventh century between a Sinicized local family and a localized Mân family? Probably very little.
This is a fascinating topic and there is much more that can be thought and said about it, but when I read what Vietnamese are writing about this today, I don’t find any fascinating insights. Very little has changed in 60 years.
Vietnamese historical scholarship is dead. May it rest in peace.