Ok, I know Wikipedia is not “scholarship,” but I’m going to use it to talk about scholarship anyway, because I just read an entry on the Vietnamese version of Wikipedia which nonetheless reminded me of a phenomenon which I commonly see in Vietnamese historical scholarship.

I was looking at the entry on “Wet Rice Civilization” (Văn minh lúa nước), and it says the following about the “quê hương” of wet rice civilization:

“Các nhà khoa học như A.G. Haudricourt & Louis Hedin (1944), E. Werth (1954), H. Wissmann (1957), Carl Sauer (1952), Jacques Barrau (1965, 1974), Soldheim (1969), Chester Gorman (1970)… đã lập luận vững chắc và đưa ra những giả thuyết cho rằng vùng Đông Nam Á là nơi khai sinh nền nông nghiệp đa dạng rất sớm của thế giới. Quê hương của cây lúa, không như nhiều người tưởng là ở Trung Quốc hay Ấn Độ, là ở vùng Đông Nam Á vì vùng này khí hậu ẩm và có điều kiện lí tưởng cho phát triển nghề trồng lúa.”

So this passage cites a long list of scholars (nhà khoa học) who have put forth a series of theories which hold that Southeast Asia is an area of the world where various forms of agriculture appeared quite early, and that contrary to popular belief, wet rice was not first cultivated in China or India, but in Southeast Asia.

So what is wrong with this entry? First of all, what year is it? It’s 2012. When does the scholarship in this entry date from? 1944-1974.

So have scholars really learned nothing new since 1974?

In fact, they have. Some have argued, for instance, that there is no evidence to support the ideas of scholars like Soldheim and Gorman mentioned in this entry.

Take a look, for instance, at what Ian C. Glover and Charles F. W. Higham, two mainstream academic archaeologists, wrote in the book The Origins and Spread of Agriculture and Pastoralism in Eurasia in 1996:

“Study of the origin and spread of rice cultivation in Southeast Asia has been characterized more by speculation than rigorous analysis. Gorman (1977) speculated that rice was among the earliest plants to be domesticated in the region, but his own and others’ archaeological evidence provides no support for this hypothesis.” (p. 419)

They also state that “Speculation on early agriculture in this region began with the excavation of Spirit Cave and Non Nok Tha (Solheim 1972). The former, a small rockshelter perched on a hillslope, was in fact a temporary base for foragers. The latter has, at last, an internally consistent chronology based on AMS radiocarbon dating of rice chaff from pottery temper, and it belongs to the later second millennium bc. Neither site has any relevance to the question of agricultural origins.” (p. 419)

They go on to say that “Our present understanding of the expansion of rice cultivation in Southeast Asia involves a late development. . . which probably originated in the context of expanding rice agriculturists from the Yangzi Basin, [who] reached into Yunnan, down the Mekong, Red and Chao Phraya rivers and as far west as India.”

What does this have to do with “real scholarship”? In actuality I find that the selective citing of Western scholars, which can be seen in this Wikipedia entry, is also very common in Vietnamese historical scholarship (this may be less the case in some other fields). I see people citing the ideas of Western scholars which fit their own, even when those ideas have long been discredited in the West.

In part this might be because scholars don’t know what current knowledge about certain issues is in the West. Or it might be because their scholarship is driven by other motives than to be “khoa học.” Tôi không biết.