In the early twentieth century, Vietnamese historical writing changed dramatically. After producing historical scholarship for centuries that highlighted the achievements and failures of monarchs, in the early twentieth centuries some Vietnamese scholars began to produce historical scholarship that focused on “the nation” (dân tộc).
This was a way of writing history that had originated in the West. As Vietnamese scholars became familiar with this way of viewing the past, they also learned about other popular concepts in the West at that time, such as the theories of evolution and Social Darwinism.
We saw evidence of this in Dương Bá Trác’s “An Examination of Việt History” (Việt sử khảo) that we discussed in the previous post. In that work, Dương Bá Trác argued that Việt Nam had not evolved much in the past because it had lacked competition from neighboring kingdoms.
Four years after Dương Bá Trác published that article in the journal Nam Phong, Lê Dư, writing under the pseudonym of Sở Cuồng, published in that same journal an article that was also influenced by these same new theories.
Entitled “Việt Nam’s Glorious History” (“Việt Nam quang vinh chi lịch sử” 越南光榮之歷史), Lê Dư’s article encourages people to follow the guidance of the French to modernize the nation. While perhaps Lê Dư intended for people to read between the lines and to envision a future without the guidance of the French some day. Whatever the case may have been, he tried to inspire his fellow Vietnamese by showing them the vitality and achievements of their ancestors.
What exactly were their achievements? According to Lê Dư there were two main achievements in the past. The first was that Việt Nam was never annexed by its powerful northern neighbor. And the second was that Việt Nam had instead annexed other kingdoms itself.
Lê Dư begins his essay by saying that the Middle Kingdom [and since he uses Trung Quốc 中國 rather than Chi Na 支那, as Dương Bá Trạc did, my translation here is different] had annexed numerous kingdoms in Asia in the past. Kingdoms like Qi, Chu, Yan, and Zhao were all destroyed.
“How ferocious and powerful the Middle Kingdom is!” Lê Dư says. And yet somehow Việt Nam was historically able to exist beside this ferocious and powerful land without being (permanently) annexed.
As remarkable as this was, what made Việt Nam’s history even more impressive to Lê Dư was that it had not only avoided being annexed by its “ferocious and powerful” northern neighbor, but that it had annexed other kingdoms itself.
Lê Dư notes that when Việt Nam was established at the time of the Hùng kings, its territory was no bigger than that of a province in the Middle Kingdom. Nonetheless, Việt Nam was able to expand from its tiny land and to encompass the area of several kingdoms. “Is that not the most glorious and remarkable of achievements?” Lê Dư rhetorically asks.
Lê Dư then goes on to discuss some of the kingdoms that Việt Nam came to annex. He starts with Champa [Chiêm Thành 占城] and notes that the area of this kingdom was not small, as it extended from the sea in the east to Ai Lao in the west, and from Hoàn Châu in the north to Water Zhenla [Thủy Chân Lạp 水真臘] in the south.
He then mentions a few key moments in the gradual conquest and annexation of Champa over a roughly 500-year period from 1044 to 1691. Lê Dư then concludes this passage by declaring that “The final day of the extermination of the kingdom of Champa is the day of commemoration for the completion of the martial achievements of Our Việt.”
Lê Dư then goes on to recount how the area of Water Zhenla, which he says is the same as the eastern part of present-day Cambodia [Cao Man 高蠻], was similarly annexed to become the southern third of Việt Nam, or Nam Kỳ.
He then concludes by reiterating the point that “Our Việt Nam not only did not get annexed by the Northern Kingdom, but was able to annex several kingdoms to expand its territory to this great extent.”
And finally, he calls on his fellow Vietnamese to honor this heritage by moving towards an even brighter future that the guidance of the French in modernizing people’s knowledge affords.
This article is not unique. To the contrary, there were many writings by Vietnamese intellectuals in the early twentieth century that glorified the historical expansion of Vietnamese control and the conquest of the Cham and Khmer.
This perspective is of course very different from the one that we tend to hear today – the history of “Vietnamese resistance to foreign aggression” – but in the end these two perspectives are in many ways the same.
Both the glorification of conquest of others and the glorification of resistance against others are ultimately political statements, rather than historical ones. The complexity of the past can never be reduced to single perspectives or categorizations. However, that is precisely what Lê Dư attempted to do in this article, and what countless writers who have promoted the resistance to foreign aggression narrative have done in the past half century.
The drawn map above comes from Phạm Văn Sơn’s 1949 work, The History of the Struggle of Vietnam [Việt Nam tranh đấu sử].
The two other images above come from gallica.bnf.fr/Bibliothèque nationale de France.
The citation for the essay discussed in this post is Sở Cuồng [Lê Dư], “Việt Nam quang vinh chi lịch sử” 越南光榮之歷史 [Việt Nam’s Glorious History], Nam Phong 58 (4/1922): 20-21.