An S-Shaped Country and Historical Scholarship in the Digital Age
There is a short video clip about Vietnamese history that is getting a lot of attention these days. Called “Vietnam, an S-shaped country!,” it was produced by graphic design students at Saigon Technology University.
It’s well made. It’s cute. It’s fun to watch. I think the students should be proud of their creation.
At the same time, however, this clip also made me think about various issues.
Graphic design students should not be expected to produce sophisticated renderings of the past, and as should be expected, there are things that professional historians can find problematic in the content of this video.
For instance, the content of this video is teleological (that is, it assumes that history has a purpose and moves towards a single goal). It assumes that the “s-shape” of Vietnam was inevitable, and that the essence of “Vietnamese” history for more than two thousand years has been to realize that s-shape and to protect it.
Since this is all presented as inevitable, nothing really bad along the way ever happens. The Cham are not conquered. Land is not stolen from Khmer. Minority peoples are not marginalized. And in the twentieth century there are no major divisions between Vietnamese. . .
Again, I think it is fine that some graphic design students present the past in this manner. They should not be expected to understand the problem of teleological interpretations of history (namely that it is very problematic to take the result of complex historical processes and to assume that those historical processes were all inevitably moving towards that ultimate goal). What troubles me is that I have no idea where in Vietnam I can get an alternative to this interpretation of the past, a view which, again, basic historical theory can demonstrate is not valid.
By contrast, let’s look at neighboring Thailand.
I recently visited the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall in Bangkok. This is a new museum exhibit that covers history from the founding of Bangkok and the Chakri Dynasty in 1782 up through the mid-twentieth century.
This exhibit is extremely high-tech. At one point you sit down to watch a video clip that is projected on the walls of a room, and as you watch (but without you realizing it) the room elevates you to the next floor (as the room is actually a large elevator).
So the technology in this museum is impressive. As for the history that is presented, it definitely has a perspective. In particular, nothing critical of the monarchy or the elite is presented. Instead, the idea that is presented is that history has progressed in an ultimately positive manner over the past two centuries in large part thanks to the intelligence and benevolence of the monarchs of the Chakri Dynasty.
After touring the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall, I then walked over to Thammasat University and took a look at an exhibit about the life of the founder of the university, Pridi Banomyong. His life was placed in the larger history of nineteenth and twentieth century Thailand, and the perspective of that history that this exhibit presented was very different from that in the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall.
In particular, one of the first things visitors see in this exhibit are images that contrast the lives of the ruling elite in the nineteenth century with those of the common people. The ruling elite are seen living in luxury, while the common people are shown toiling in the fields and living in poverty. This was definitely a less positive picture of the elite than was presented in the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall.
Then there is the Museum of Siam, not far from these two exhibitions. This museum deconstructs the concept of “Thai-ness” and can in many ways be seen as an “anti-Thai-nationalism” museum.
One idea that is important for Thai nationalism is that there is a clear line that connects kingdoms in the past, namely Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, with the current Chakri Dynasty. This is very similar to the idea of “orthodox succession” (chính thống) in Vietnam.
The scholars who created this museum reject that idea and see it as a later creation that was projected back onto the past. Further, I know one of the scholars who helped develop this museum believes that the imagined history that is traced back to Sukhothai ultimately does harm as it gives people a stronger sense of historical “Thai-ness” than can actually be demonstrated, and that this contributes to a sense of superiority on the part of the Thai that has led to negative consequences, particularly for minorities in Thailand and Thailand’s neighbors.
As such, Sukhothai is not even mentioned in this museum. This would be like having a museum about Vietnamese history that did not mention Văn Lang (for the same reasons that the Thai scholars rejected Sukhothai’s position in “Thai” history).
My point here is that it does not bother me when I see how history is presented in a place like the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall because I know that serious Thai historians know better, and that they have made it possible for others to learn what it is that they know.
By contrast, when I watch the “Vietnam, an S-shaped country!” video, I can’t think of where I can find an alterative to this view that serious Vietnamese historians have produced and which others can learn from.
Whenever I talk in Vietnam about the lack of scholarship that can challenge the orthodox (nationalist) narrative, I inevitable get told, “Oh, you should go talk to Professor so-and-so. His ideas are different.” In other words, people supposedly know better, but you have to go talk to them to find this out.
We can call this “sidewalk scholarship” (khoa học vỉa hè). Although it can lead to enjoyable conversations, it is nonetheless an extremely ineffective way to produce and disseminate knowledge. First, the ideas that get talked about on the sidewalk never become truly sophisticated as they are just tossed around in casual conversations. And second, they only reach the people who happen to be there at the time to hear them.
This then leads me to another point that this video made me think about.
I recently read an article called “The Historians’s Craft, Popular Memory, and Wikipedia” that was published in an online book called Writing History in the Digital Age. In this article, the author, Robert S. Wolff, pointed out that the field of professional history emerged in the West over a century ago and that from its beginnings it sought to differentiate the knowledge it produced from the “memories” of people.
How did it do this? It did so by establishing rules for how historical knowledge was to be produced and published, such as by means of the peer-review process. These rules were meant to ensure that professional historical knowledge was based on primary source materials and that the arguments made based on those materials were valid.
This system worked quite well for almost a century, in part because there were not many alternatives to the information that professional historians produced. If you took a history course at a US university in the 1980s, for instance, professors assigned peer-reviewed works of historical scholarship that were published by academic presses, and that was the main information that students accessed.
The Internet has changed all of this.
Now when a student wants to know something about the past, the first information s/he is likely to find is on the Internet from Wikipedia, where historical knowledge is being produced in a very different manner, and is in fact more like the world of “memory” that professional history was first created in opposition to over a century ago.
In his article, Wolff argues that given how the world has changed, historians need to change with it. In particular, he argues that instead of ignoring the historical information that is on the Internet, historians should use their professional knowledge to engage and challenge the ideas that non-professionals place there.
I agree with Rolff. Therefore, when I saw the “Vietnam, an S-shaped country!” video, one of the first things that came to my mind was, “Damn! I need to learn graphic design!!”
In conclusion, just as the exhibits in Thammasat University and the Museum of Siam provide a more sophisticated understanding of the past than the ideas presented in the Rattanakosin Exhibition Hall (but still do so in engaging, and high-tech ways), serious historians need to produce things like You Tube clips that offer more sophisticated (but still engaging) renderings of the past as well.
Talking about history on the sidewalk has never been an effective way to disseminate ideas that challenge simplistic renderings of the past. In relying on such techniques, Vietnamese historians have fallen behind their Thai counterparts. Now in the digital age, sidewalk scholarship is even less effective.
It’s time to get serious and go digital.