I was reading Robert Pringle’s 1970 work, Rajahs and Rebels: The Ibans of Sarawak under Brook Rule, 1841-1941 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press) recently, and found some interesting information there about what we call “ethnogenesis” or the process by which a group of people comes to think of themselves as ethnically distinct.

If we were to go back in time to say the 1950s, we would find that many people then believed that ethnic groups represented long-lasting communities of people who shared language, territory, ancestry and traditions.

Then in 1969, the Norwegian anthropologist, Fredrick Barth, published a work in which he argued that ethnic groups are not primordial and unchanging, but instead, that they are created through interactions. In these interactions, some people create a sense of identification with each other, and differentiate themselves from other peoples.

That said, even in these cases where people do create boundaries between themselves and others, these boundaries are always permeable, and there continues to be a large degree of heterogeneity within the group that defines itself as different from others.

[See Fredrick Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference (London: Allen & Unwin, 1969).]

Pringle’s work on the Iban that he published in 1970 clearly supported Barth’s ideas. This, for instance, is what Pringle said about the formation of the Iban, one of the main ethnic groups on the island of Borneo:

“. . . before the Ibans came into contact with the Europeans they had no word that expressed their own relative cultural unity, any more than did the members of the other tribal societies in Sarawak. They identified themselves by river: ‘We of Skrang’ (kami Skrang) or ‘We of Undup’ (kami Undup), or sometimes merely ‘We of this area’ (kami menoa) – where menoa could refer to a river segment, or only to the territory of a single longhouse-village unit.” (18-19)

According to Pringle, it is through their interaction with Europeans, people who wanted to know “the name” of each tribe, that people who previously had not thought of themselves in such terms, began to do so.

Reading about the Iban made me think about “the Việt.” Like all ethnic groups, the idea of being “Việt” likely emerged though contact with peoples who were perceived to be different, and out of a desire to differentiate oneself from those other people.

So who were those other people? I think many people today would immediately say that it was “the Chinese.” However, as I mentioned here, the earliest use of the term “Việt” was in political contexts where it was used by people who were part of the Sinitic cultural world. What is more, some of these people lived in the areas of what are now parts of “China.”

So if “Việt” was used at that time to make a distinction between one group and another, it was a distinction that was being made by political elites who shared a great deal in terms of culture and ideas. The difference they were making had to do with political control, not with ethnicity. My guess would be that Lý Bí and Lin Shihong (mentioned in the post that is linked to above) had more in common with each other than they did with many of the people who lived around them.

So when did the term “Việt” come to indicate an ethnic group? How was it formed? Who was it formed in opposition to? Where did the people who claimed to be “Việt” live? It was certainly an area that was much smaller than the area of present-day Vietnam, or even of what we would today call northern Vietnam.