A few months ago I wrote a post on a scholar from the early twentieth century, Dương Bá Trác, and his ideas about the origins of the Vietnamese race as expressed in an article that he wrote entitled “An Examination of Việt History” (Việt sử khảo) that appeared in Vietnamese and classical Chinese (or Hán) in the same issue (December 1918) of the journal Nam Phong.

Later in that same essay, Dương Bá Trác discusses what the Vietnamese version calls “the level of evolution” (tiến hóa trình độ), and what in the Hán version is labeled as “the level of the citizens” (quốc dân trình độ 國民程度). What does this refer to? Let us let Dương Bá Trác explain.

Dương Bá Trác says that in distant antiquity, people’s knowledge was simple and crude. As the world became more open-minded (khai thông 開通), humankind evolved. This, he says, is the law of natural development (thiên diễn công lệ 天演公例).

Although China (Chi Na 支那) was historically powerful, Dương Bá Trác  argues that its power had limits. And while it did launch numerous southern invasions, Dương Bá Trác states that the strategy of the kingdom was to present documents filled with empty words declaring to be a vassal of the Middle Kingdom and then the kingdom was left in peace.

Meanwhile, to the west, Ai Lao was within the kingdom’s sphere of influence. Siam and Burma were not enemy kingdoms. Therefore, there was no competition in the area surrounding the kingdom, and all was at peace in the four directions.

What is more, within the kingdom there were sufficient resources for people’s livelihood. “To travel there was no need for steam ships or trains. To live there was no need for tall buildings or beautiful pavilions. There was no need for food and clothing to be luxurious or attractive.”

And whether it be digging a well or cultivating a field, there was nothing that people had to do, because nature had provided them with so much.

It is therefore not surprising to Dương Bá Trác that such a people who enjoyed a life of ease and did not have to compete would lack the impetus to evolve like Europeans did. Nonetheless, the people had evolved over time, and Dương Bá Trác divided this process of evolution into three periods.

The Vietnamese translation simply lists the three periods, which it labels the primitive (hồng hoang) age, the savage (giã man) age, and the semi-civilized (bán khai) age.

The Hán version of this text, however, provides details about each period. It calls the first the primeval (hỗn độn 混沌) age and says that it lasted from the time of the Hùng kings to Kinh An Dương. At that time there were stories about things like a sac with 100 eggs (the children of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ), a turtle claw and goose feathers (from the story of Mỵ Châu and Trọng Thủy) because the people then were like the people in the Middle Kingdom in high antiquity who lived in caves in the wild and who ate raw meat and blood.

This period was followed by the era of savagery which began when the region came under the internal jurisdiction (nội thuộc) of the Eastern Han. At that time people learned to use weapons and to write, however their writings were hollow.

The savagery of this age, however, can be seen in the cruel manner in which people engaged in warfare. During the time of Le Thánh Tông, for instance, the corpse of the ruler of Champa, Trà Toàn, was decapitated and his head was stuck on the front of a boat.

In addition, the court relied on geomancy and the common people believed in prophecies. This, according to Dương Bá Trác, was far from the world of rationality in Europe.

The third era that Vietnamese society had evolved into was the “half-open-minded era” (bán khai thông半開通). At the end of the Tự Đức reign, before “new learning” had entered the kingdom, there were already those who requested that people be sent overseas to study military techniques in Europe. They also requested that the ports be opened so that trade could be undertaken with the myriad countries.

Now, according to Dương Bá Trác, the times had changed and there were great opportunities for the land to evolve and to head into the civilized (khai hóa 開化)  age.

The Hán version at this point is damaged, and there is some text that is not visible, but it does not appear to mention what the Vietnamese translations does, which is that the civilized country of Great France was guiding the Vietnamese into the civilized age. Nonetheless, the Hán version makes it clear that at the very least what made the civilized age “civilized” was that it was Westernized.

There is much that one could say about this short passage. First, it is interesting to see the ways in which Dương Bá Trạc attempted to reinterpret Vietnamese history by using the categories of race (discussed in the earlier post) and evolution. Second, it is also interesting to note that these categories are no longer used.

This then leads one to think about how Vietnamese history is organized and interpreted. The way that Vietnamese history is represented changed significantly over the course of the twentieth century. Dương Bá Trác’s ideas here represent some efforts from the early twentieth century. There were many others who followed him, and who offered different explanations for how we should understand Vietnamese history.

While it is easy to find flaws in Dương Bá Trác’s ideas, it is also easy to find flaws in concepts like the grand narrative of “resistance to foreign aggression” that is used today to categorize the Vietnamese past. Here it is particularly interesting to see how Dương Bá Trác felt that Vietnam had not been threatened enough in the past, and that this lack of “competition” had led it to stagnate and not evolve.

While we don’t have to believe Dương Bá Trác’s argument, the fact that he came up with a view of the Vietnamese past which was in many ways the opposite of the widely-held view today of a long history of resistance to foreign aggressors does call into question how valid the present view is.

Obviously there is more than one way to view the Vietnamese past. As for the most accurate depiction of Vietnamese history, I think all of this suggests that there is still room to “evolve” into yet another age.

(There is a pdf file of the Vietnamese version of Dương Bá Trác’s essay at the bottom of the earlier post – here.)

(Also, the two images above come from gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France.