In the 1880s, the compilers of a new geography of the Nguyễn Dynasty realm, the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí 同慶地與誌, included information about the customs of the people in virtually every administrative district of the kingdom. In the process, they of course included information about minority peoples who resided in places like the mountainous province of Hưng Hóa 興化 to the west of the Red River delta, where they recorded that the Thổ 土 people of Sơn La 山羅 and Phù Yên 扶安 subprefectures both spoke “gibberish” (chu li 侏離).
Then at some point in the first half of the twentieth century, someone affiliated with the École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO), the premier research institute in French Indochina at the time, collected some manuscripts from this same area. Labeled collectively as “savage texts” (man thư 蠻書), additional cataloging information makes it clear that some of these writings had been produced by Đeo Tiền Suối “savages” from Bản Thải in the Phù Yên – Sơn La area.
“Bản” comes from a Tai-language word for village, “baan,” while “Đeo Tiền” is a subgroup of a language family known as the Iu Mien or Yao. So it looks like what the compilers of the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí referred to with the single term of “Thổ people” was actually at least a couple of groups of people who spoke very different languages, namely what are now referred to in Vietnam as Dao (Yao language speakers) and Thái (Tai language speakers). What is more, while Nguyễn Dynasty officials might have dismissed the languages of these two peoples as gibberish, the Dao and Thái both recorded information in their languages,
There are many sources in Dao and Thái that remain today, however very few people can read them, and there is very little scholarship based on these texts. Recently there was a “Yao Script Project” in northwestern Vietnam that tried to preserve works and promote literacy in Yao/Dao (there is a good report on it here). However, we are unfortunately still a long ways away from seeing the information in Dao and Thái texts employed in the writing of histories by scholars today.
The Nguyễn Dynasty ruled over a multi-lingual realm in which various peoples recorded information in their own languages (Dao, Thái, Cham, Khmer, etc.). There were therefore multiple “voices” in the past. The ruling elite at the time, however, viewed such voices merely as “gibberish.”
Today it would be nice to see a history of “Vietnam” that would allow such silent voices to be heard.
Anybody know how or where I can learn Dao?