The nation (dân tộc) is a critical concept in Vietnamese scholarship. It is a concept which is ubiquitous in Vietnamese writings, and yet it is extremely under-theorized.
In the 1950s, Vietnamese scholars in the DRV made a serious effort to theorize the nation. The beginnings of this effort can be seen in an article that Trần Huy Liệu published in the journal Đại học sư phạm in 1955 in which he pointed out that the question of when the Vietnamese nation had been formed was a new issue for Vietnamese scholars, one that had not been publically discussed prior to that point.
Trần Huy Liệu encouraged scholars to take up this issue, and several did, such as Đào Duy Anh and Nguyễn Lương Bích. These scholars employed Stalin’s 1913 definition of a nation in an attempt to identify when Vietnam had become a nation.
In 1913, Stalin defined a nation as follows:
“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.”
In addition to offering this definition of a nation, Stalin also gave a sense of when such nations emerged. In particular, he argued that they appeared with the advent of capitalism. To quote,
“A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism. The process of elimination of feudalism and development of capitalism is at the same time a process of the constitution of people into nations.”
So in order to identify when Vietnam had become a nation, Vietnamese scholars in the DRV in the 1950s attempted to determine when the criteria of Stalin’s definition of a nation had been met in Vietnam. This, however, turned out to be difficult, and scholars struggled to find a time in the past when all of the criteria of Stalin’s definition could be met.
If they also considered Stalin’s claim that it was only when capitalism had developed that nations of the type he described were formed, then the task of determining when Vietnam had become a nation became all that much more difficult, as most scholars could only see capitalism developing during the colonial period.
This theory-based debate went on for about a decade. Then in the mid-1960s, politics intervened. In 1966, the general secretary of the Communist Party, Lê Duẩn, wrote that the nation of Vietnam had formed with the establishment of the country, not when capitalism had “infiltrated” (xâm nhập vào) Vietnam.
[Ở Việt Nam, dân tộc Việt Nam hình thành từ khi lập nước, chứ không phải từ khi chủ nghĩa tư bản nước ngoài xâm nhập vào Việt Nam.” (Lê Duẩn, Thanh niên với cách mạng xã hội chủ nghĩa, NXB Thanh niên, Hà Nội, 1966, 176)]
For several years following this political cue, scholars began to look for signs that a nation in Vietnam had formed prior to the advent of capitalism. While there were plenty of disagreements, scholars came to concur that Stalin’s definition of a nation was inadequate.
In the 1980s, and particularly after a conference with Soviet scholars in Tashkent in 1982 in which the Vietnamese delegates found that their Soviet counterparts were also abandoning Stalin’s definition, Vietnamese scholars more or less ceased to discuss this matter.
Just as they were doing so, the nation became a major focus of research in places like the US and Great Britain. The nation, ethnicity and nationalism all became “hot” topics in the 1980s, and works like Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) and Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983) inspired many scholars and stirred countless debates.
By the 1990s, scholars in the US, Great Britain, and wherever else these debates had been read, had gained a much more nuanced understanding of nations and when and how they were formed. Among such scholars, Stalin’s definition came to be seen as exceedingly simplistic, and was therefore not employed in these discussions.
For the past 15 years or so, the interest in theorizing the nation has died down in the US. So, like in Vietnam, it is not a topic which gets discussed much. People are more or less comfortable with their understanding of that concept.
As such, today scholars in places like Vietnam and the US have put the issue of theorizing the nation aside, as they both feel that for now enough has been said about this topic.
However, these two scholarly communities could not be further apart in their understanding of this concept.
It is good that Vietnamese scholars realized that Stalin’s theory of the nation is inadequate. However, there is so much about the nation which was discussed in the decades after they started to abandon Stalin’s ideas which they have yet to consider.
As a result, when one looks at the issue comparatively, it is clear that at present the nation is extremely under-theorized in Vietnamese scholarship.
When scholars do attempt to theorize the nation, as Dặng Nghiêm Vận did in his 2003 Cộng đồng quốc gia dân tộc Việt Nam, they ignore the two decades of theoretical contributions which transformed the way scholars in the US and Great Britain think about the nation, and simply add their own musings to the dead debate about Stalin’s definition.
I really wish a Vietnamese scholar would read a book like Imagined Communities, or someone would translate it into Vietnamese. The concept of the nation definitely needs to be better theorized in Vietnamese scholarship. Without a more nuanced understanding of the nation, scholarship can’t progress from its current position.