The late Professor Trần Quốc Vượng was a creative thinker and a wonderful storyteller. He wrote extensively, and his writings are enjoyable to read.
One aspect of thầy Trần Quốc Vượng’s writings that I find notable is the way that he tied together pieces of information and revealed connections and a logic to the past that other people had not thought of.
I was reminded of this today when I was looking at a collection of his writings called Văn hóa Việt Nam, tìm tòi và suy ngẫm [Vietnamese Culture, Inquiries and Reflections]. I randomly opened that book to an essay on “Một nét bản sắc của văn hóa Việt Nam” [One Characteristic of Vietnamese Culture] and found a lot to think about immediately on the first page.
Professor Trần Quốc Vượng begins this essay by stating that one natural characteristic of Vietnam is its peninsular character. Vietnam is on the Indochinese Peninsula and it therefore possesses a peninsular character.
What exactly is that?
According to Professor Trần Quốc Vượng it consists of a maritime (or Mã-Lai or fishing) character, and a valley (or Tày-Thái or wet rice) character. Thầy Trần Quốc Vượng states that these two characteristics seeped into the structure of ancient Việt culture and were present already during the Dông Sơn period.
He then says that the cultural heroes of the ancient Việt rose up from the water. The Fish Essence (Ngư tinh), the Fox Essence (Hồ tinh) and the Tree Essence (Mộc tinh) were active in the three areas of the sea, the delta, and the mountains, respectively. And then of course there was Lạc Long Quan (whose story connects the sea and land).
As I said above, writing like this draws connections and reveals a logic to the past that many people probably never thought of. But is any of this true?
There are a couple of assumptions that Professor Trần Quốc Vượng’s ideas here are based on. First, he sees “Việt” culture as being at its core a multi-ethnic culture that already blended into a single culture in antiquity. The second assumption is that this ancient culture somehow still has meaning and resonance today because some essence of it has endured for 2,000 years to the present.
What is problematic about this? First of all, I’ve had experts on Tai linguistics tell me that there is very little evidence that there were Tai speakers in the Red River Delta in the BC period. It is only close to 1,000 AD when the branch known as “Southwestern Tai” (or what the Vietnamese call Thái) started to form that Tai-speakers migrated southward into the mountains of what is today northwestern Vietnam.
A few days ago I wrote about the writings of a Thái group in northwestern Vietnam, the Tai Dam or Black Tai. Their main history, the Kwam to muong, does not talk about any past blending into any ancient Việt culture. Given what linguists say, that makes sense, as they would not have been in the area in ancient times.
Second, the Fish Essence (Ngư tinh), the Fox Essence (Hồ tinh) and the Tree Essence (Mộc tinh) are concepts that come directly from the Sinitic literary heritage. (I wrote about the fox essence long ago here.) Further, we only have evidence of the stories about these “culture heroes” starting in the fifteenth-century Lĩnh Nam chích quái.
Third, how was it possible for people living along the coast and people living inland to have the same culture and the same “culture heroes” in the BC period? How did the maritime character of the coast reach the valley character of Phong Châu and intermix, and vise versa, such that the people throughout this region could somehow end up the same?
So on a factual level, thầy Trần Quốc Vượng makes connections here that are difficult to support with historical evidence and logic. So why put forth such an argument?
I do not know enough about Professor Trần Quốc Vượng’s overall approach and beliefs to say for certain. My guess would be that he perhaps had a desire to counter a “Kinh-centric” (or ethnic Vietnamese-centric) view of Vietnam by making Vietnam by definition multi-ethnic.
If so, that is a noble desire. However, in having contributions from other ethnicities blend into an “ancient Việt” (Việt cổ) culture, a culture that is defined today by the ethnic Kinh, his vision of the past still ends up being Kinh-centric.
Professor Trần Quốc Vượng begins this essay by mentioning “bản lĩnh – bản sắc” which he glosses with the French word “identité.” I’ve talked about the problem of “bản sắc and identity” here before (here, and there is a Vietnamese translation here, and another post here). This opening passage of thầy Trần Quốc Vượng’s essay illustrates this “problem” very well.
Thầy Trần Quốc Vượng was looking for something that (he apparently believed) really exists, and he brought together pieces of historical information in an effort to support his point. However, the historical information he used does not support his point. Therefore, the thing he says exists, doesn’t really exist.
However, in making this argument, Professor Trần Quốc Vượng shows us what he “thinks” or “believes.” And to “prove” what he thinks, he “constructs” a story that supports his “beliefs.”
This is “identity.” It is not something real. It is something that people think about themselves.
Further, whenever someone seeks to construct an identity for a group, power is always involved because no single person can ever speak for an entire group. That it was Professor Trần Quốc Vượng, a member of the Kinh majority, who determined the role of other ethnicities in the area in the past, is a sign of the power relations that were at play in his idea of the “identity” of the Vietnamese.
Even if he wrote this way in an effort to create a less “Kinh-centric” vision of Vietnamese culture, it was still him, as a member of the majority, who was determining the role of minorities in that vision.
Identity is not something that exists out there in the world that can be identified. When people try to do so, whether they realize it or not, they exercise power.