Historian Keith Taylor made the comment a few decades ago in his The Birth of Vietnam that the Vietnamese “learned to articulate their non-Chinese identity in terms of China’s cultural heritage.” (xxi)

This is an interesting idea, but how is it possible? How can someone articulate a “non-X” identity in the cultural heritage of “X”?

If it is possible, then what kind of identity is it? Can an ethnic group have an identity of itself as different from an Other by expressing itself through the Other’s cultural heritage?

These questions were in my mind recently when I read some comments that Ngô Sĩ Liên made in the fifteenth century in a document that he drafted when he presented his history, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, to the emperor.

This is what he wrote,

“Đại Việt is located to the south of the Five Passes, Heaven’s delineation between south and north. Its founder was one of Shen Nong’s descendents, an emperor given rise to by Heaven. This is why he was able together with the Northern Court to each empire over a separate area.”

大越居五嶺之南,乃天限南北也。其始祖出於神農氏之後,乃天啓真主也。所以能與北朝各帝一方焉。

Nước Đại Việt ở phía nam Ngũ Lĩnh, thế là trời đã phân chia giới hạn Nam – Bắc. Thủy tổ của ta là dòng dõi họ Thần Nông, thế là trời sinh chân chúa, cố thể cùng với Bắc triều mỗi bên làm đế một phương.

The Vietnamese translation here comes from an edition published by the NXB Khoa Học Xã Hội in 1998. I have some issues with it.

First of all, in the original, Đại Việt is not referred to as a “country” (nước). In translating from classical Chinese, I think it is important to attempt to not add words that are not there.

Another word that is not in the original is “our” (ta). The Vietnamese translation mentions “our founder,” whereas the original just talks about “its” founder, with “its” clearly referring to Đại Việt.

Finally, the Vietnamese translation refers to the dividing line that the Five Passes makes as one between “the South and the North” (Nam – Bắc). In Vietnamese writings since at least the 1970s, capitalizing these terms has usually indicated that the translator believes that these terms are referring to what we would today call “Vietnam” and “China,” that is, to two political entities.

However, in countless “Chinese” writings prior to the time Ngô Sĩ Liên wrote this line, the Five Passes had been seen as a natural dividing line between the more Sinicized world to the north, and the less Sinicized world to the south of the passes. What is more, Ngô Sĩ Liên never makes the claim that this line represents a political border. He never claims the territory of what is today Guangdong and Guanxi Provinces as part of Đại Việt. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that the terms “south and north” be capitalized here.

These points might seem trivial, but I would argue that they are insidious because they place a bias in translations that are not in the originals. By adding words like “country” and “our” where they do not exist, translations reinforce a sense that there is a “we” that has existed since time immemorial that has always been thinking about a “country.”

Those are concepts that are not in the original, but which have been very central to modern Vietnamese nationalism. That is why these ideas slip into translations, and is why translations are never a substitute for original documents.

Finally there is one more issue in this translation that I would like to point out. After mentioning that Heaven created a line between south and north at the Five Passes, and after mentioning that the founder of Đại Việt was also created, if you will, by Heaven, the Vietnamese translation simply goes on to say that he was able to empire over a separate area together with the Northern Court.

This leaves out an important phrase – “this is why” (所以). It is because Heaven demarcated a divide in the world, and it is because Heaven created a descendent of Shen Nong that could establish a separate kingdom that he was able to do so.

This gets us back to the point I began this post with. Is this a case of “a non-Chinese identity” getting articulated “in terms of China’s cultural heritage”?

The evidence of “China’s cultural heritage” is ubiquitous in this passage. However, what exactly is the “non-Chinese identity” that is articulated here? Certainly there is a political statement being made here. Ngô Sĩ Liên was making a strong statement about political differences, and he was clearly employing “China’s cultural heritage” to do so.

That said, did Ngô Sĩ Liên view this cultural heritage as “China’s”? It looks to me like he simply believed that the things he wrote about were common sense.

So what kind of identity is being articulated here?