A few years ago I was extremely pleased to see that the National Library of Vietnam was starting to digitize some of the Hán Nôm manuscripts that it holds. It did this in collaboration with an American organization, the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation (VNPF).


This is what the VNPF says about the project on its web site (here): “The National Library of Vietnam (NLV) in Hanoi holds a special collection of some 4000 ancient texts in Hán and Nôm, the former ideographic writing systems of Vietnam. Since 2006, the NLV has co-operated with The Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation (VNPF) to preserve this important cultural heritage through the creation of a digital library. What you see in the images and metadata on this website are the first steps for creating a digital library for scholarly research, teaching, and learning in Vietnam and abroad.”

This is all wonderful. However, when I actually use this digital library I sometimes get frustrated because it employs a premodern catagorization system for this digital-age resource.


In the past, Confucian scholars in East Asia divided texts into four categories: Confucian classics, history, philosophy and literature (kinh sử tử tập 經史子集). Where did Buddhist texts fit in this scheme? They didn’t. Confucian scholars didn’t think such texts were worth reading, so they were not worth categorizing and preserving either.

In reality we know that people whom we can refer to as “Confucian scholars” did in fact read Buddhist and Daoist texts. However, when it came to creating an official collection of works (such as the Qing-era Siku Quanshu project), texts from those traditions were excluded.

Many of the texts that the National Library of Vietnam preserves are precisely the type of texts that Confucian scholars would never have included in any collection (and this is what makes that collection so precious). In addition to Buddhist texts, the National Library has morality books (thiện thư 善書) and collections of spirit writing (giáng bút 降筆).


These are all texts that fell outside of the categories of kinh sử tử tập, so ideally one should use a different categorization system to categorize such texts (because they don’t fit into any of those categories).

By far the most “advanced” people in creating such digital libraries are the South Koreans. Like the Vietnamese, the Koreans have a rich textual heritage. However, the South Koreans are far ahead of most other people on the planet in “updating” their cultural heritage for the digital age.

They have created a wonderful resource called the “Database of Korean Classics.” You need to know Korean to use it effectively (which I don’t), but if you just go and click on a few links you can get the sense of what they have done.

Korean database

Essentially what people in South Korea are doing is taking texts that were originally written in classical Chinese, inputting the text so that it can be searched, translating the texts into modern Korean, and including scanned images of the originals.

This is fantastic, and it is also clearly the direction that everything is heading. So while the digital library that the National Library of Vietnam and the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation have started to build is wonderful, there is still so much more that can and should be done. Think of how fantastic it would be if such a digital database could eventually be created for Vietnam’s written cultural heritage.