The Cham-Việt Frontier as a “Middle Ground”

One of the most important books written about the history of North America in recent decades is Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. What this book did that was so important is that it examined the contact between Native Americans (or “Indians”) and white settlers (French, British, etc.) in one area of North America over a period of a couple of centuries, and explained that interaction in much more complex and sophisticated terms than anyone had before.

mid ground

To quote from the back cover, the book “seeks to step outside the simple stories of Indian/white relations – stories of conquest and assimilation and stories of cultural persistence. It is, instead, about a search for accommodation and common meaning.”

“It tells how Europeans and Indians met, regarding each other as alien, as virtually nonhuman, and how between 1650 and 1815 they constructed a common, mutually comprehensible world in the region around the Great Lakes. . . Here the older worlds of the Algonquins and various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and of exchange.”

“Finally, the book tells of the breakdown of accommodation and common meanings and the re-creation of the Indians as alien and exotic.”

In other words, White depicts a time when Native Americans and white settlers didn’t really understand or like each other, but nonetheless found ways to live with each other (although plenty of problems and violence persisted), and created a shared world.


I’ve been reminded of White’s book recently as I have been reading a work by Hồ Trung Tú called Có 500 năm như thế: hình dung sự hình thành bản sắc Quảng Nam [There Were 500 Years Like That: Picturing the Formation of the Characteristics of Quảng Nam].

This book covers a lot of ground. It looks in detail, for instance, at the “Southern Advance” (Nam tiến), or southward migration of Việt-speaking peoples over the centuries, and points out that it was really much more complex than a smooth southward movement like that term implies.

This critique of the Nam tiến is one that many people are familiar with. What people will find that is refreshing in this book is its effort to keep the Cham in the picture of the Nam tiến.

There are some scholars outside of Vietnam who have written about the southward movement of Việt peoples and have talked about how the Việt changed as they adopted cultural practices from people like the Cham and the Khmer. In making this argument, however, these writers have focused on the Việt. We never really see the Cham very clearly. They are simply there somewhere for the Việt to assimilate things from.

On the other extreme, Hồ Trung Tú criticizes scholars in Vietnam who make the same argument about Việt adoption of the cultural practices of others, but who describe a process where Việt migrate into areas that people like the Cham have abandoned (after a war, for instance). Here again, the Cham are acknowledged, but they are still not really there in the story.

cham ruins

Hồ Trung Tú, by contrast, tries to keep the Cham in the picture, and tries to document their continued presence in areas that Việt migrated into/occupied. He also points out, for instance, that there were periods of time when in Quảng Nam the Việt were a minority living amidst a Cham majority, and that we therefore have to think about what kind of interactions took place in such locations at such times.

In a long section on language, one intriguing argument that Hồ Trung Tú makes is that the reason why the version of Vietnamese spoken in the Quảng Nam region is so different from the Vietnamese just on the other side of the Hải Vân Pass might be because the Vietnamese in Quảng Nam is “Chamicized” (I’m inventing this term here), namely, that it resembles the Vietnamese that was spoken by people whose native language was Cham.

I’m not a linguist and have no way of verifying this view (for a positive review [in Vietnamese] of this work by a linguist, however, click here), but what I do like about this point is that it makes us think about Cham-Việt relations in complex ways. In what context would such a new version of a language appear? The explanations about the Nam tiến to date (where the Việt adopt Cham practices) cannot explain why the Việt would end up speaking Vietnamese the way that some Cham did.

To explain that we need a more complex understanding of the history of Cham-Việt relations than one that sees a uni-directional process of Việt moving southward and assimilating cultural elements from other peoples.


Hồ Trung Tú’s Có 500 năm như thế thus does a good job of pointing out the need to think about the Nam tiến and Cham-Việt relations in more complex ways, and the ideas it offers get the reader thinking about these issues.

And as I reflect upon these issues while reading this book, I keep thinking of White’s Middle Ground. If you changed a few words on the back cover of that book, it could probably describe the history of Cham-Việt contact quite well:

“It tells how Việt and Cham met, regarding each other as alien, as virtually nonhuman, and how between 1306 and 1471 they constructed a common, mutually comprehensible world in the region around Quảng Nam.”

“Finally, the book tells of the breakdown of accommodation and common meanings and the re-creation of the Cham as alien and exotic.”

This is not exactly what Hồ Trung Tú does in his book, but he takes the discussion a long way in this direction. And it’s an enlightening direction to go.