A few months ago I wrote (here) about how we can see signs of Social Darwinist ideas in the Mirror of Southern History (Gương sử Nam), a 1910 work by Nguyễn Dynasty official Hoàng Cao Khải.

I was just looking at another work of his, the Outline of Việt History (Việt sử yêu), published in 1914, and found in that work ideas that fit a concept known as “unilineal evolution.”

Unilineal evolution was a theory about societies which argued that all societies move in a single line from primitive to more civilized forms. This theory was developed in the West. Some of the earliest proponents of this idea were intellectuals in the eighteenth-century Scottish Enlightenment, such as Adam Smith, who argued that societies pass through the following stages: hunting and gathering, pastoralism, agriculture, and commerce.

In his Outline of Việt History, Hoàng Cao Khải does not mention hunting and gathering, but states instead that after humankind emerged, the first people were pastoralists, people who “resided wherever there was water and grass.” He then says that later came agriculturalists, people who lived in a defined area.

These stages, according to Hoàng Cao Khải, represent the “law of the stages of evolution” (進化階級之公例).

Having established this “fact,” Hoàng Cao Khải then goes on to quote a famous passage about the area of the Red River Delta in antiquity that appeared in various Chinese texts in the early centuries of the common era. That passage stated that the people in the area cultivated grains in accordance with the rising and falling of the floodwaters [today the term here literally means “tide” but in classical Chinese it also referred to the rising and falling of river water as well].

Hoàng Cao Khải then argues that this record demonstrates that when the first kingdom emerged in the region, it was already part of the agricultural stage of evolution.

The theory of unilineal evolution ultimately came to be discredited later in the twentieth century. At the time that Hoàng Cao Khải wrote these lines, anthropologist Franz Boas had already begun to critique theories of social evolution. However, the majority of Western scholars at that time still took such theories for granted.

In any case, it is interesting to see how Hoàng Cao Khải adopted these ideas and viewed the past from this new perspective.