The Emotional Appeal of Lương Kim Định

On 14 July there was apparently a seminar in Hanoi to honor the work of philosopher Lương Kim Định on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of his death.

Born in Nam Định Province in 1914, Kim Định (he often wrote under the name “Kim Định”) became a Catholic priest, spent years studying in France in the 1950s (which included studying Confucianism at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Chinoises), and then worked as a philosophy professor in various universities in South Vietnam from the late 1950s through the early 1970s. He passed away in 1997 in the US.

Kim Định wrote over 30 books, and developed a very interesting theory. In a nutshell, his main idea was that the Bách Việt, or Hundred Việt/Yue, were the first people to start to create a sophisticated culture in the area of what is today China. The Hoa/Hua, or the people we today think of as “Chinese,” started to participate in this cultural world later.

Therefore, what we today consider “Chinese” culture is really “Việt” culture, and Kim Định used the term Việt Nho (越儒), or “Việt Confucian(ism),” to correct this “misunderstanding.”

A few years ago, historian Tạ Chí Đại Trường wrote an insightful article about Kim Định which was posted at Talawas (here). Tạ Chí Đại Trường points out that Kim Định’s arguments were groundless, but that they resonated with extreme nationalist sentiments at that time, and as a result, there were people who listened to what he said.

[Chính những loại khuyết điểm từ căn bản này đã làm sụp đổ mọi luận chứng, dù tác giả viết đến thiên kinh vạn quyển, có lôi bằng cớ chữ nghĩa uyên áo để trình bày ý tưởng của mình, chúng vẫn khó thuyết phục mọi người. . .

. . .Sự vô lí trong các luận cứ, cách thế “muốn nói gì thì nói” mà vẫn được người ta nghe theo, chứng tỏ một trình độ suy luận thấp của người thu nhận đã đành nhưng cũng cho thấy ông đã đánh đúng vào một tâm lí chung của thời đại: tinh thần dân tộc quá khích.]

Another insight which I got from Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s essay is that Kim Định lived in a world of loss. Originally from the North, he had lost his quê hương and could not return. Further, the place he lived, South Vietnam, was a land at war, and the way of life there was being lost to the destruction of war.

As such, his efforts to “return to the roots” (trở về nguồn) in his writings and to find solace and power there can be seen (I think) as a response to his powerlessness to stop the multifaceted changes that were taking place in Vietnam (brought about over the course of the twentieth century by colonialism, Westernization and war), and his inability to return to the past and his home.

Tạ Chí Đại Trường points out that Kim Định’s ideas were popular (and still are) among a certain segment of the overseas Vietnamese population after 1975. Having been uprooted from their home, it is easy to see why some such people would likewise identify with Kim Định’s effort to glorify the collective ancient roots of the Việt.

Finally, Tạ Chí Đại Trường also talks about how Kim Định’s ideas have become popular among a certain segment of the population in Vietnam over the past couple of decades. Indeed, as one reader of this blog pointed out to me a couple of years ago, people like Trần Ngọc Thêm closely follow, and continue to promote, the ideas of Kim Định.

What is the appeal to such people? While they have not been uprooted from their home, they have seen the world change before their eyes, and perhaps they seek refuge in the comfort of ideas that make them feel special and important, as problematic as those ideas may be.

This is what I think Tạ Chí Đại Trường is referring to when he says, and I’m quoting him very loosely here, that at a time when people’s perspectives are changing under the influence of globalization, some people have compensated for their limited and narrow knowledge by turning to the absurd.

[Tâm trí còn co hẹp trong viễn tượng thế giới mở rộng hơn, thế giới toàn cầu hoá, nên càng phải bù đắp lại bằng sự hoang tưởng.]

While that may be a sarcastic way of expressing a point, the point is that Kim Định’s ideas appeal to people who feel anxious about the world and their place in it.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Tạ Chí Đại Trường states that we need to pay attention to what Kim Định said, not because his ideas are important, but because there are people who believe them.

[Ðã nói, chúng ta phải quan tâm đến luận thuyết của ông chỉ vì có một số người nghe theo ông, lâu dài.]

What I would add to this is that in a place like Vietnam today, where the historical profession is far from being as healthy as it should be, where there is no peer-review process to determine and regulate what knowledge meets the standards of professional history, and where the powers that be do not allow for critical scholarship, there is no clear boundary between more accurate historical information and the fantasies of someone like Kim Định.

So as groundless as some of Kim Định’s ideas were, they can (and some do) get repeated by “serious” scholars. And without a clear and strong counter-voice, the public has little means to determine what information is accurate and what is not.

An article about this recent seminar that was published in several online papers stated that some of Kim Định’s views were a bit extreme and romantic (kiến giải của ông có phần cực đoan và lãng mạn), but that otherwise he “made manifest a sense of national pride from ancient writings” (thể hiện niềm tự hào dân tộc từ cổ văn).

4 thoughts on “The Emotional Appeal of Lương Kim Định

  1. Doctor Kelley, thank you for the article. I have been introduced to your writings recently when I began to study the “Hong Bang Clan.” I enjoyed your writings and talks. I began to read Kim Dinh and interestingly I run into you more times in your writings.

    My idea by having reflected upon this articles is that both you and Tạ Chí Đại Trường are right in your arguments, since Kim Dinh did not provide grounded information for history in a strictly scientific sense. However, we may have to get to the point of what he really intended in his writing in order not to disregard his major values by criticizing minority in what he did not intend.

    I remember a much quoted statement from Blaise Pascal: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing!” If so, then what being said by Tạ Chí Đại Trường, quoted below, will be a cause for people to look at “pure history” with indifference, since “pure historians” seem to disrespect their their heart knowledge.

    “… that at a time when people’s perspectives are changing under the influence of globalization, some people have compensated for their limited and narrow knowledge by turning to the absurd. [Tâm trí còn co hẹp trong viễn tượng thế giới mở rộng hơn, thế giới toàn cầu hoá, nên càng phải bù đắp lại bằng sự hoang tưởng.]

    I believe the reflective hearts of the majority may lack of information or systematic way to access to knowledge, but their judgement of the truth is rarely incorrect. Historians sometimes contradict themselves: they both try to convince public and distance from it at the same time.

    I think Kim Dinh must have been so well aware of the immaturity of history scholarship of Vietnam that he had to choose his own method to engage partly history in the Vietnamese consciousness to light up the spirit of groundedness and of joy to the Vietnamese heart that is being thirsty of a more truly human existence. That kind of historicity is no less important than the authenticity of history which you are tirelessly working for, Doctor. Having said so, I am looking to read more from you.

    1. Thanks for your comments!! They are great comments!!!

      You bring up many interesting points. Where to start? Let’s start with Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s statement. I agree that it can anger people and make them “indifferent” to “pure history” as you say. The problem, however, is that people don’t know what “pure history” is. And that is a big problem because people object to ideas that are different from their own, but they don’t understand why those counter-ideas exist.

      By “heart knowledge” I’m assuming you mean “knowledge that connects somehow to people’s feelings.” As such, “heart knowledge” should be something different from “pure, scientific knowledge” which is just aimed at establishing “the truth.” However, for a topic like history, there is no “pure, scientific knowledge.” Instead, the production of historical scholarship just continues a never-ended effort to understand the past in more sophisticated and complex ways, so that we can understand human beings in more sophisticated and complex ways.

      How does that relate to “the heart”? Because it’s fascinating to see the past in all of its complexity. It feels GREAT when you discover something or learn something that you never knew, or when you see that the past was very different from what people have said up to this point in time. To be able to do that, however, one has to be able to actually talk about what one finds in the past, and that may or may not make people today happy. However, the goal of “professional/pure” history is not to make people happy (that’s what “heart history” is about). It is just to try to understand the human condition, so that we can better understand what it means to be a human being, and seeing the past in all of its complexity can help us do that.

      Now as for Kim Định, he was not a professional historian, however he was definitely interested in creating “heart knowledge” as he felt that the people in South Vietnam needed some kind of philosophy or way of thinking that would link them to the past but also give them the confidence to move into the future. This was the purpose of his writings. In doing so, he made use of various academic theories, but he did not use them accurately, because again, his purpose was not to create “professional” knowledge, but instead, to create “heart knowledge.”

      So when a professional historian looks at what Kim Định did, it’s fascinating!! It’s so interesting to see what he tried to do and how he tried to do it. It is believable? No! There are countless ways in which his ideas can be discredited, but a professional historian doesn’t care about that. Instead, s/he can be fascinated by the complexity of Kim Định as a person and of the endeavor that he engaged in. That in turn can teach us about South Vietnam, and on a more general level, about the issues that intellectuals faced in post-colonial/newly-independent countries, which in turn can teach us something about the human condition. That’s fascinating!! And that is what touches the hearts of professional historians, not “the truth,” because there are many things that we can never know.

      That logic which I just expressed above, does not exist, as far as I can tell, in Vietnam. I don’t know of any historians who write with the purpose of trying to gain a deeper understanding of human beings and the human condition. Instead, the vast majority of historians write in order to say something good about Vietnam and the Vietnamese.

      As such, I think the difference between “professional/pure history” and “heart history” is that “professional/pure history” is about human beings, whereas “heart history” is about “my [imagined] group of people.” In researching and writing about human beings, professional historians can focus on a single individual or write about the entire globe, but ultimately what they have in their mind is a desire to understand something about the human condition. The people who research and write “heart history,” on the other hand, are not interested in that, and more importantly, they don’t have any knowledge or consciousness of what that is.

      So when you say that “heart history” is no less important than “professional/pure” history, my response would be to say that “professional/pure” history does not exist in Vietnam yet, so it’s really impossible to make a comparison. People should create professional history first, and then ask this question.

      Finally, one way to think about this is to ask historians what their scholarship tells us about the human condition. If an historian can’t do that, then I don’t think s/he is really engaging in professional/pure history. I wrote a book on Vietnam and China, but is that really what it’s about? No, who cares about Vietnam and China! It’s about two societies, one of which was an empire, and another that was on its periphery, and it’s about the complex ways in which the educated elite in that society on the periphery engaged with the culture of the empire. Such complexity can be found in the relationship between peripheral societies and imperial centers in other parts of the world at various times in history, and similar relationships exist today, so by looking at this one particular relationship we can gain some knowledge that we can use to think about other places and times, or in other words, to think about human beings and the human condition.

      Ok, I’d better stop writing, because I’m probably not making sense. . . 😉 but your comments got me thinking about a lot of things. Thanks again!!

      1. Good morning Dr. Kelly again. Thank you very much for your response which I enjoyed reading very much. Your response also provided several insights of the noble role/s of history studies. Yes, understanding the human condition is challenging, but it is inevitable and history will help to reveal. Of this, you remind me and inspire me of thinking more.

        From your response, I would like to dialogue with you a few points. As a matter of facts, I am not an expert nor a student of history field; however I am really interested in it.

        My first point is a question. Doctor, in your professional opinion, what are the most insightful contributions that Kim Dinh has for the field of history studies of Vietnam as well as of the area?

        I am still reading him. I am sure he had to struggle a great deal to choose his own method. I believe he used an interdisciplinary approach, that is, to combine different methods to reconstruct a reality, not as a complete fact in history, but as an on-going reality – foundational but necessary to be expressed and proceed rather with imagination of this on-going reality. He intended to reconstruct a philosophy according to the humanism of Taoism-Ancient Vietnamese. (Cfr. https://www.catholic.org.tw/vntaiwan/kimdinh/detien.htm) and also in several of his books such as “Việt Triết Tố Nguyên, Nhân Chủ,Gốc Rễ Triết Việt…) It is not easy, and not fair as well, if we assumed that he used one method which was motivated by one cause, thus basing on it to critique him! Moreover, reality is always bigger than of what it was/has been written. Different cultures with different mentalities have different ways to record history. When we have not come to the point of a mutual agreement of “a best method” then it is likely we have no right to deny others provided they had to be of scientific works. With this I move to the second point which is a comment.

        Vietnamese history has so far got some problem, which is both about the authenticity of information itself and the weak scientific methods that historians of Vietnam have used. I rather think, the problem is about us more, contemporary people who judge history with our own method than the historians! What do you think? I said so because, reality in history could only selectively recorded, and more importantly, recorded in away that truth would be best informed. In other words, there is always truth hidden in history. But first, we have to find down the situations and the methods that historians chose to engage truth and thus handed down to next generations.

        Hihihi I also have to stop here otherwise I would destroy the good taste of your weekend.

        Have a wonderful weekend.

      2. A long time ago I wrote a post on what I called the “blank space” in Vietnamese scholarship.
        https://leminhkhai.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/the-blank-space-in-vietnamese-historical-scholarship/

        That blog post was about North Vietnam and contemporary Vietnam. Basically, what I tried to point out is that in the 1950s and early 1960s, historians in North Vietnam did try to use new theoretical approaches that were popular in other countries at that time (namely the Soviet Union and China, but they were theories that got discussed in the scholarship of people in other countries too). However, by the late 1960s, that engagement with theory stopped and it hasn’t ever re-started.

        This is a big problem because right around the time when historians in North Vietnam turned away from theory was right at the time when a “theory explosion” was starting in take place in North America/Europe/Australia, and that is something that continued up into the 1990s, when it started to slow down, which is also right when Vietnam started to “integrate” (hoi nhap) with the world. In that integration, I haven’t seen historians in Vietnam pay attention to the 4 decades of theoretical scholarship that they “missed,” which makes it pretty much impossible for historians inside and in places like North America/Europe/Australia to communicate, because by now the two worlds of knowledge are too different/unequal.

        What I wrote that blog post, I was unaware that Kim Dinh had also engaged with theory. To be fair, his use of theory was as problematic as the efforts of North Vietnamese historians at that time, but that’s ok, because these were just first steps for everyone, and if they had continued to seriously engage with theory and to improve over time, then some solid scholarship might have eventually emerged. But that didn’t happen. And that’s unfortunate, particularly as Kim Dinh was engaging with some of the ideas of people who were starting the “theory explosion” in North America/Europe/Australia, people like Claude Levi-Strauss, because that movement transformed (for the better) how historians research and understand the past. The way that historians in places like North America/Europe/Australia study and understand the past today is much more sophisticated than it was 50 years ago, and that is thanks in large part to the insights that different theories and approaches to studying the past brought to the field.

        What I think was most important about Kim Dinh is that he made an effort to engage with theoretical ideas. I don’t think his findings help us understand Vietnamese history at all, but I do think that his effort to use the ideas of people like Levi-Strauss was good. There were problems in how he employed those ideas, but that always happens with the first people to employ a theoretical approach. Nonetheless, their efforts are necessary so that later people can improve upon them. The problem is that after Kim Dinh, no one did that.

        If they had, and they had improved upon his use of theory, would they have come to agree with Kim Dinh’s ideas about the past? No, I think they would have rejected much of what he wrote, but it is possible that someone could have been inspired by his use of structuralism to study something like 19th-century Vietnamese society, and produce an insightful study.

        One of the most important contributions of the “theory explosion” was that it really made people think in sophisticated ways about how knowledge is constructed. So, for instance, when you say that Kim Dinh “intended to reconstruct a philosophy according to the humanism of Taoism-Ancient Vietnamese,” because of the influence of all of the “post-” theories (post-structuralism, post-modernism, post-colonialism) in North America/Europe/Australia over the past 1/2 century, if an historian there were to investigate what you say in that statement, these are the types of issues that s/he would look into:

        1) “Humanism” is a Western concept that people in Asia only came to learn about in the 20th century. So what could KD have meant if he talked about the “humanism of Daoism”? And why was he using this Western concept to talk about an ancient non-Western philosophy?

        2) What is “ancient Vietnamese”? How is that concept constructed by KD? What evidence does he use from the past to characterize/define the ancient Vietnamese? Why does he do it that way?

        Through such a questioning of how Kim Dinh constructed his knowledge about the past, historians can ultimately learn one important thing: that what KD said about the past had more to do with what he wanted people to think in the present than it did to any actual reality in the past. That’s important to know, because we can then go further and ask, “why did he want people to think this way”? and “why did he use the terms and concepts that he did (like humanism) in his writings”?

        Ultimately where such an investigation will lead us is to a deeper understanding of South Vietnamese society (and post-colonial societies more generally) and the issues and concerns that some intellectuals at that time had. Some of those same issues and concerns continue to exist today, and as a result, we can learn something about the present as well.

        But as for learning about the actual past that he wrote about, unfortunately KD’s writings are not going to help us much with that.

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