Khoa Học and the Bình Ngô Đại Cáo

Continuing from the entry below, there is another way to look at this same issue.

Of course we can never be certain what a writer had in his/her mind when s/he quoted the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” and wrote “bắc nam.” Even though an author did not capitalize these terms, s/he might have still thought in her/his mind that these two terms referred to what we today call “China” and “Vietnam,” respectively.

However, when authors translated the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” into foreign languages, there was no ambiguity about what they thought. And as we saw below, there was an original French translation (1952), and an English translation (1967) that clearly saw “bắc nam” as referring to distinctions within Đại Việt, and then a second French translation (1972) that saw those same terms as referring to “the North” and “the South,” that is, to “China” and “Vietnam.”

This later French translation was produced in North Vienam, and it represents the understanding of that line that is widely believed to be accurate today.

North Vietnam in 1972 was a place where scholars believed that historical scholarship is “scientific” (khoa học). Today this term is still employed, although I find it difficult at times to understand what it really means. I’m never sure if I should translate it as “scientific” or simply “academic.”

Either way, I think that people would agree that knowledge that is “khoa học” is supposed to be produced and verified in ways that demonstrate its correctness (just as “scientific” and “academic” knowledge is).

Regardless of how that is done, I think that it is the norm in scientific/academic communities that the manner in which information gets to be accepted by scientists/academics follows a similar path.

1. There is an existing idea/view of something.

2. A scientist/academic (or a group) then challenges the existing idea/view by putting forth a new idea/view that is based on evidence.

3. The rest of the scientific/academic community then examines the argument and evidence for this new idea/view, and if they are convinced by the evidence, then they agree with and adopt this new idea/view.

In other words, for a “scientific/academic” idea/view to be accepted, an argument with supporting evidence has to be put forth, and other scientists/academics have to accept that argument based on the persuasiveness of the evidence.

In the case of the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo,” it is clear that the current understanding of the line that refers to “bắc nam/Bắc Nam” has not always been the way it is now. In which case, there must have been a time when someone made an argument for understanding that line to be referring to “China” and “Vietnam,” and that person must have supported that argument with evidence, and that evidence must have convinced the rest of the scientific/academic community in Vietnam of its correctness.

So who made that argument, and what was the evidence that s/he provided to support the argument? I have been looking and looking for this, but I cannot find it anywhere.

If, however, it turns out that no such argument was ever made, then how do we know that the current understanding is “khoa học”?

This question is particularly important when we consider that there were intelligent and well-trained scholars in the 1950s and 1960s who did not read that line in the way that it is read today.

Who made the argument that they were wrong? Where was that argument made and published? What evidence was used to support the view that is accepted today?

12 thoughts on “Khoa Học and the Bình Ngô Đại Cáo

  1. The case of bac nam might be in point as what you’ve said. Yet, how do we know an idea was changed at a point in the past was better than a revised/ changed idea that people later came up with?

    1. Thank you for commenting. This is exactly why it is important to see the evidence for why it was changed. As I noted in an earlier post, grammatically it does not make sense to see that line as meaning North and South. The subject of that line is still Dai Viet (or Nga Viet/Hoang Viet in some versions) [the subject in classical Chinese stays the same until a new subject is introduced]. My guess would be that people like Ung Qua and Truong Buu Lam saw this as well. So if the person/people who changed it provided evidence that somehow the grammar can make sense for this to be North and South, then I would love to see that explanation, and to see what evidence s/he provided to support such a claim.

      I had a Han Nom scholar in Vietnam explain to me once that the perspective of this opening passasage is like a warning to people who might challenge Le Loi’s authority. The elite in Thang Long knew that Le Loi was from someplace else, and they also knew that people there were culturally a bit different. And there were many Thang Long scholars who had supported the Ming. So that scholar explained to me that the lines are saying “there are differences in our land, [but] it has always been ruled from one place [meaning there has only ever been one emperor], just like the Han, Tang, Song, etc. were only ruled from one place.” In other words, what was NOT going to be acceptable was for Dai Viet to experience a period like the Three Kingdoms when there was more than one person trying to rule.

      Historically, this makes a lot of sense to me. Dai Viet was an absolute monarchy, not a modern nation. The concerns of people like Nguyen Trai were not exactly the same as the concerns of people today. The way people like Nguyen Trai saw the world was not exactly the same as the way people today see it. So I think it is completely normal to see a perspective that has its differences from some of today’s perspectives. That is all very natural.

      Thomas Jefferson wrote in the American declaration of independence that “all men are created equal.” At the time, he owned slaves. . . so he obviously did not think that “all men are created equal.” So why did he write that? He wrote it to counter a popular idea at the time – the divine right of kings – as a way to say that “there will not be any kings in America.” “All men are created equal, no man is divine and can claim the right to be a king” is what he intended when he wrote that line. Today what people think when they read that line is very different from what it meant at the time. Could the same thing be happening with the Binh Ngo dai cao?

      The context that the Han Nom scholar suggested to me for the Binh Ngo dai cao seems very reasonable to me. Like the real reason for why Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” it seems much more historically appropriate than the current interpretations do. Finally, I keep coming back to the point that grammatically that sentence just cannot be read to mean North and South. The subject of that line is still Dai Viet. My guess would be that Ung Qua and Truong Buu Lam translated the sentence the way they did because gramatically that is what makes sense. And if Tran Trong Kim and all the others who wrote “bac nam” rather than “Bac Nam” had the same thought in their minds (which I think they did), then that would be even more evidence that this is the common sense reading of that line. Those scholars knew Han very well.

      Again, this is why it is so important to see the evidence that was used to support the change in interpretation/translation.

      As for which interpretation is “better,” as an historian I think that the historically more accurate understanding of anything is always better. When I think about what Thomas Jefferson wrote, I can be proud that he was attempting to create a form of government that would hopefully be better than a monarchy, but I don’t like the fact that he owned slaves, and I don’t like the fact that women were not allowed to vote in the US until the 20th century. In the end, I think it is better to see the good and the bad in people, and to understood the opportunities and the limitations they faced, than to create some idealized vision of the past. The present is complex, and the past was complex too. If we understand the complexity of the past, I think we will have a better ability to understand the complexities of the present. If we only talk about the past in ways that make us feel good about ourselves, then I think we make it harder for ourselves to deal with the issues we face in the present. That said, there is plenty of stuff in the past to be proud of. Historical accuracy doesn’t eliminate that.

  2. I think that khoa học in Việt Nam is a political word. This goes back to Trường Chinh’s Đề cương về văn hóa Việt Nam, which seems to be cribbed from Mao Ze Dong’s writings on culture. Khoa học is part of the trinity of “dân tộc hóa,” “đại chúng hóa,” and “khoa học hóa.” He calls these “ba nguyên tắc vận động” – three campaign principles. Khoa học hóa is clarified further: “chống lại tất cả những cái gì làm cho văn hóa trái khoa học, phản tiến bộ.” – oppose all things that make culture contrary to science, anti-progress. But progress here has to mean the advancement of their national and political program, and never has had anything to do with scientific method. I suspect this is the case with the capitalization you have found.

    1. Thanks for pointing out that connection. I think you’d probably agree though that in the North there was at least some effort in the 1950s and early 1960s to try to employ “scientific” methods in various disciplines. That seems to have changed in the mid-1960s, however, with the need to mobilize people for the war effort.

  3. I’ve grown skeptical about scientific method in Vietnam. (My latest trip to VN gave me a great deal to despair about). When people employed it in the 1950s and early 1960s, it was only because they got away with it. I think those who did were directly educated by the French, not within the Vietnamese system.

    1. It seems the rise of social sciences and a desire to “đong đo cân đếm” everything was not anything particular to either Vietnamese, French or Soviet block in the settings of the 1960s.

      1. Yes, that’s true, but we can see instances in which scholars in the North were clearly engaging ideas that were coming from Soviet scholars, and in the South I think the connections were a bit more individual. People seem to have decided more on their own what ideas they wanted to promote, but the international ideas they turned to were often French, although by the 1960s, I think Southern scholars were starting to engage with ideas from places like America and even Chinese language scholarship coming from Hong Kong (the “free Chinese” world). So yes I would agree with you that it was part of a larger trend, but there still were identifiable links between the scholarship in Vietnam and certain other places.

    1. Just as a reminder that written Vietnamese hasn’t so far had a universally accepted rule of capitalization, especially between the North and the South Vietnam during the time 1954 -1975. Even now, to somebody, your name should be written as Lê minh Khai instead of Lê Minh Khai. Also until now when translating these words North, East, West, South from foreign languages, some will capitalize them as the original some just use the lower case depending on their tastes!
      This fact might be one of these factors contributing to the variations in writing of the words bắc nam in varous translations of BNĐC.

      1. I agree, that’s why we can’t rely on the issue of capitalization 100%. The translations are better evidence. It’s just interesting that the capitalization (or lack thereof) seems to coincide with the differing interpretations. I only found evidence of capitalization from the North from around the time that I found that translation from the North which interprets that line as referring to “the North” and “the South.”

    1. Điếu phạt comes from điếu dân phạt tội (吊民伐罪), sometimes written as phạt tội điếu dân (伐罪吊民). Điếu dân means something like “to soothe or care for people who have undergone hardship” (慰问遭遇不幸的人) and “phạt tội” means to “punish crimes” but in this context it means more like “to punish a ruler for his crime [or people for their crimes] of ruling poorly and not taking care of the people.

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