The Geo-Body of Vietnam

In 1983, Benedict Anderson argued in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism that nations are “imagined,” and that one of the ways they are imagined is through the mass media of print.

For instance, before there were newspapers in which people could read about events throughout their country, it was difficult for them to conceive of all of the people in a given area as being the same. People identified with their locality more than with any larger entity.

Inspired by this argument, in 1994 Thongchai Winichakul published his book Siam Mapped: A History of a Geo-Body of a Nation in which he noted the importance of modern maps in creating a national consciousness.

Simply put, Thongchai’s argument is that without modern maps in which people can literally see their nation on a piece of paper, it is difficult for them to imagine it. He therefore created the term “geo-body” to refer to this phenomenon.

The geo-body of a nation refers not simply to 1) the territory of a nation, but to the fact that 2) the image of the territory of the nation is clearly recognizable to the citizens of the nation through their exposure to maps and images of the borders of the nation, and that 3) this image of the nation’s territory “is a source of pride, loyalty, love, passion, bias, hatred, reason, unreason” etc. (17)

Another point which is important about the geo-body is that it stands alone and is not reliant for its existence on anything outside its borders. This places the geo-body in contrast to earlier conceptions of space, such as those promoted by Buddhists, who drew maps which connected areas of what are today Thailand with the Buddha’s birthplace in what is today India.

More recently, in 2010, Momoki Shiro published an article entitled “Nation and Geo-Body in Early Modern Vietnam: A Preliminary Study through Sources of Geomancy” in Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century: The China Factor. In this article, Professor Momoki surveys extant texts on geomancy (phong thủy) from before the twentieth century, and argues that these texts “must have helped people. . . imagine a kind of ‘geo-body.” (138)

This geo-body, Momoki explains, “might not be a clearly bounded surface but a network of veins and focal points.” Nonetheless, he contends, “it is likely that geomantic descriptions helped people imagine the geo-body more vividly then maps did because the Lê maps, both national and provincial, contain few toponyms other than names of administrative units above villages, and were more obscure about natural topography like mountains and rivers.” (138-139)

Professor Momoki is correct when he states that geomantic texts do not present images of a “clearly bounded surface.” By this fact alone they do not create the phenomenon of a geo-body. Instead, they are similar to the premodern attempts of Buddhists in mainland Southeast Asia to connect their area and history to the Buddha and his birthplace.

Look, for instance, at this “map” from a work called the An Nam Phong Thủy. The circle in the middle of this map represents the main node of geomantic power in the region. From this node, power emanates outward in different levels of strength, and in the process kingdoms of different levels of strength and size are created, such as what is labeled on this map “Our Kingdom” (Ngã Quốc).

The source of geomantic power was not contained within the borders of Đại Việt. Therefore, from a geomantic perspective, Đại Việt could only be understood as part of something larger. It did not stand alone.

This connection to something more powerful was also reflected in ideas about where Vietnamese geomantic texts ultimately came from.

As Momoki Shiro points out, many Vietnamese geomantic texts upheld a common claim about their origin. They claimed to have first been created by the Tang Dynasty administrator Gao Pian/Cao Biền.

The story goes that Tang Yizong sent Gao Pian to An Nam to suppress powerful geomantic nodes which might lead to the emergence of a son of Heaven. Later, when the Ming occupied the same region, General Huang Fu/Hoàng Phúc brought Gao Pian’s manuscript with him. It then passed to the Vietnamese when the Ming were defeated.

So Vietnamese geomantic texts upheld a discourse which argued that there is power in the Vietnamese landscape, but that it can only be identified by certain individuals from the North (China). This same idea is also found in stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which, as Momoki notes, “there are ample episodes of burial practices carried out by Northerners or Northern visitors. . . which influenced the fortune of Vietnamese living around the burial sites.” (129)

In other words, Vietnamese geomantic texts demonstrated that geomantic power came from outside the kingdom, and knowledge of this power likewise came from outside the kingdom.

This is very different from the concept of a geo-body. The geo-body, like the nation it is supposed to represent, stands alone and is independent. Vietnamese geomantic knowledge was all about connections to a source of power outside of the kingdom. Therefore, for the geo-body to emerge, those connections had to be cut.

The processes of severing those ties began in the early twentieth century in the writings of reformist intellectuals who had been exposed to Western ideas. We can see this clearly in the opening passage of a work called the Nam quốc địa dư, a text intended for use in public education. That work began as follows:

“Our kingdom/country is located in the south of the continent of Asia [Á-Tế-Á]. To the north it presses against China’s [Chi-Na] Yunnanand Guangxi [provinces]. To the west it meets Laos [Ai Lao] and Cambodia [Cao Miên]. To the south it comes up against the China Sea. To the east it borders the China Seaand China’s Guangdong[Province]. The kingdom/country has been established here for 4,767 years. The total area of the kingdom/country is 311,100 square kilometers [cơ-lư-miệt]. (Bắc Kỳ is 119,200. Trung Kỳ 135,000. Nam Kỳ is 56,900.) Its territory is not insignificant [literally, “not small”].”

From the use of new foreign terms in this passage – Á-Tế-Á, Chi-Na, cơ-lư-miệt – we can see that the author was writing about space in a new way after having read reformist writings which were influenced by Western conceptions of space.

Like in the geographies of Western nations at that time, there was no place for geomantic nodes in the Nam quốc địa dư. Nor was it acceptable to see Vietnamese space as connected to some source of power beyond the boundaries of the kingdom/country.

In this text, geographic space was severed from its previous source of power. Now it stood alone. “Our kingdom/country” is in “Asia” and it is “311,100 square kilometers.”

Texts such as this one began to create a geo-body for Vietnam. When this information was subsequently taught through the modern school system, where classrooms had modern maps hanging on their walls like we see in the picture below, then the geo-body came into existence.

5 thoughts on “The Geo-Body of Vietnam

  1. Many thanks.
    I do agree that geomancy more or less reflect spatial consciousness from traditional cosmological and religious perspective rather than to present an idea of geo-politics. In fat, the purpose to use geomancy also specifically religious or ritual rather than geographical, cartographic, and political. It probably perfectly fits with category such as the ‘Traibhumi-Katha, A Thai Buddhist Cosmology (is believed to be created by King Lu Thai (1347-1374?)). Also, in Vietnamese perspective, those expert in geomancy were Chinese. You may see many stories of Chinese practiced or being invited to practiced geomancy in Vietnam, such as Pham Dinh Ho, Vu Trung Tuy But (Essays in the Rains).
    I was coming across another interesting paper by J. K. Whitmore, “Cartography in Vietnam”, in The History of Cartography, Vol. 2, bk. 2, eds. J. B. Harley and David Woodward (Chicago University Press, 1996). I think this on directly touch upon the main stream of the creation of Vietnamese geo-politic body and space.
    Thank for you comments on geomancy.

  2. I thinhk that some researchers here have unintentionally/intentionally left out a lot of pre-twentieth century geographical texts (“dư địa chí”, “đồ bản”,…) made by “Vietnamese” people such as: Dư địa chí (Nguyễn Trãi), Hồng Đức bản đồ (Đỗ Bá,…), Hoàng Việt dư địa chí (Lê Quang Định), Đại Nam nhất thống chí (Quốc sử quán triều Nguyễn),etc… How could you say about them, Prof? Of course, they’re not similar to mordern/ Western geography (and there’re no maps in some texts). But, it’s not accidental that they were made/compiled under the encouraging/command of “the South” courts. What were their purposes? Is there any geo-body which was created?
    A lot of questions are waiting to be answered!
    Thanks very much!

  3. Hi I would be interested to know about the geographical orientation of pre-modern or pre-colonial Vietnam. Was present day ‘south’ Vietnam referred to according to a different geographical orientation?

    1. Sorry for the slow response! Today I think a lot of people would answer this question quickly by saying “yes, as early as the 17th century the area of what is today south-central Vietnam was referred to as Đang Trong [the inner region] and the Red River delta area was referred to as Đàng Ngoài [the outer region].”

      However, I don’t think I’ve ever seen those terms used in premodern texts, so I’m not sure how “premodern” they actually are.

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