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).