Dương Bá Trác on the Origins of the Vietnamese Race

Scientists have long noted that there is no biological basis for race. Races of human beings do not actually exist. They are social constructs. People create different categories of human beings that they call “races.”

This way of viewing the world is one that emerged in the West, and was adopted by people in Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As people there did so, they had to adapt their understanding of the world and the past to this new way of viewing the world.

One such person who did this in Vietnam was the scholar and reformer Dương Bá Trác. One of the founders of the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục, Dương Bá Trạc was imprisoned when that school was shut down by the French. Eventually he was pardoned, and when the journal Nam Phong was established, Dương Bá Trác wrote for it.

One article that he wrote was entitled “An Examination of Việt History” (Việt sử khảo) and it appeared in Vietnamese and classical Chinese in the same issue (Deptember 1918). In this essay Dương Bá Trác discusses the origins of the Vietnamese race.

Dương Bá Trác says that there was an original Giao Chỉ race in the Red River Delta. Then a new race formed when members of the Han race arrived as first the Qin and then the Han Dynasty extended its control across the region. These men intermarried with local women, and eventually the old Giao Chỉ race was largely absorbed, which in turn created the Vietnamese race.

The author points to the well-known historical figures, Lý Bôn (a.k.a. Lý Bí) and Hồ Quý Ly, as examples of this phenomenon, as both men were descended from ancestors who had migrated into the region from areas in what are today China.

Although at one point Dương Bá Trác says that the mixing of the Han and Giao Chỉ races created the Vietnamese race, later in the essay he indicates that this was more of a process of assimilation of the Giao Chỉ race by the Han race.

In the Vietnamese version of this essay, the author states that “one can see that the current Vietnamese race is largely of Han stock” (thì biết giống người Việt-Nam bây giờ phần nhiều là Hán-tộc), while in the classical Chinese section the same sentence is “there is no doubt but that our country’s race was assimilated into the Han race” (則我國種同化於漢族可無疑矣).

The author then goes on to relate with pride the achievements of the Han race, and in the process he seamlessly moves from discussing what we would today call Chinese history to Vietnamese history.

Referring to “our Han race” (Hán-tộc ta) in the Vietnamese version, and “the glorious Han race” (堂堂漢族) in the classical Chinese version, Dương Bá Trác says that the fact that it was able to expand southward through history, driving away other peoples along the way, until it finally reached what Dương Bá Trác refers to as “our country” (nước ta) in the Vietnamese version and “this land” (斯土) in the classical Chinese text, is evidence of the civilized character and competitive power of the race.

Further, it is this power of the Han race, Dương Bá Trác tells us, which enabled it to bring Champa (Chiêm-thành) under its control, occupy Cambodia (Chân-lạp), pacify the various savages, bring into submission all of the older races and become the lord of “this piece of land” (cái miếng đất này) or “this land” (斯土).

Viet su khao

4 thoughts on “Dương Bá Trác on the Origins of the Vietnamese Race

  1. Đỗ Ngọc Yến, a Vietnamese woman studying at Yale was assailed by the online community a few years ago for writing: “Người dân Việt Nam bắt nguồn từ Trung Quốc, Vua của Việt Nam cũng khởi tổ từ người Trung Quốc, coi vua Trung Quốc như anh như cha.”
    Her point of view has some commonality with Dương Bá Trạc – except that he was more deeply immersed in Chinese cultural traditions. It’s dangerous to espouse such views in such a nationalistic environment.

    • Yea, I think it was the cultural identification which led people like Duong Ba Trac to imagine a biological connection.

      The other thing that is interesting about the writings from the early 20th century is that it was quite common to speak with pride about the fact that the Viet had conquered Champa, the Khmer, etc. From a Social Darwinist perspective, that was a good thing.

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