I love reading historical documents because they never fail to demonstrate how so much of what people think today is a recent invention/construction.

I was reading a history that was written in 1945 and which the National Library of Vietnam recently digitized. It is by Nguyễn Duy Phương and is called Lịch Sử Độc Lập Và Nội Các Đầu Tiên Việt Nam [The History of the Independence and the First Cabinet of Vietnam].

This work was clearly written at some point in the spring or early summer of 1945. It refers to March 9, 1945 as the day when “our country of Vietnam was liberated” (nước Việt Nam ta được giải phóng).

March 9, 1945 was the day that the Japanese overthrew the Vichy French government in Indochina and had Bảo Đại declare independence and Trần Trọng Kim form a government (all of these things may not have happened on that day, I can’t remember, but the ninth was when all of these changes began).

Nguyễn Duy Phương is happy that Vietnamese independence is helping to bring prosperity to the Greater East Asian (Co-Prosperity Sphere), and he thanks the Japanese emperor. He also recognizes the Vietnamese soldiers who had sacrificed their lives and shed blood together with the Japanese to drive out the French.

While some might dismiss what Nguyễn Duy Phương wrote as propaganda for the Japanese by a “collaborator,” it is clear that Nguyễn Duy Phương was very nationalistic. And if you look at the way in which Vietnamese wrote their history, it changes over the course of the twentieth century, and it is precisely with people like Nguyễn Duy Phương in 1945 that it starts to get very nationalistic.

The reason why I find this interesting is because it points to the ways in which the “official narrative” of the past has 1) erased so much and 2) created much that is new.

The Trần Trọng Kim era does not get much credit, but this was a very important period (as was the Vichy government period, as that government encouraged Vietnamese to become more nationalistic to counter Japanese efforts to create pan-Asian sentiments). A lot of ideas, particularly nationalist ones, which became dominant later, were first expressed openly during this time, and Nguyễn Duy Phương’s history is an example of this.

In respect to the way that the official narrative has created much that is new, it is interesting to note where Nguyễn Duy Phương began his history of Vietnamese independence – with the Trưng sisters. He does not mention any Hùng kings or Lạc Long Quân, etc.

After Vietnam became divided, scholars in the South did not talk about those figures either. Instead, it was in the half of the country that promoted the “scientific” approach to scholarship that those figures were officially incorporated into the nation’s past.

There is much about the way in which Vietnamese history is presented today that is not “fact.” Much of the narrative of Vietnamese history is a recent construct that was created for ideological purposes. Books like Nguyễn Duy Phương’s and Nguyễn Phương’s (which I wrote about here) remind us that there are other ways that Vietnamese history can be written.