Trần Quốc Vượng, Identity and Power


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.

Tai map

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.

Son La

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.”

ban sac van hoa

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.

22 Responses to “Trần Quốc Vượng, Identity and Power”

  1. 1 y

    Thank you for this lovely example on how history is put together.
    I’ve been thinking that “identity” is really a modern construction, but haven’t got around to tracing its genesis and understanding the ways in which it is distinct and similar to how earlier societies experienced and perceived the individual in relation to the other and the world (then again, “individual” is possibly another concept that is alien to them too; how to transcend the limits of language in order to move closer to thought systems that lie beyond it?). Would be lovely to hear your thoughts on the topic of identity when there’s the opportunity.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      First of all, I wouldn’t call what Tran Quoc Vuong wrote here “history.” Yes, history is “put together,” but the goal is to “put together” information that other information cannot prove to be incorrect.

      I don’t know what TQV actually believed, but I think this kind of writing style is more about wanting to get people to think about the past in a certain way, rather than trying to show people what we can honestly say about the past.

      “Propaganda” is information that tries to get people to think a certain way, and to some extent that is what TQV produced here, but what he did is much more “creative” and “intellectually playful” than propaganda usually is.

      I’m not sure what to call this type of writing.

      As for “identity,” that’s an endless topic. I’ll try to post more on it in the future (not that I’m an expert on the topic or anything, but there is plenty of stuff to talk about on that topic).

  2. 3 Random Viet person

    The link to the past article about the fox essence myth really surprised and enlightened me.
    Vietnamese people would probably be much more willing to contest long-held myths about a unified and established Vietnamese identity/culture going back to ancient times if there was more awareness about world history/cultures in general. A lot of Vietnamese don’t seem to realize how across the world, a lot of civilizations went through the same thing. Vietnam is not a unique case, and it’s not something to be ashamed of or overcompensate for The whole complex is rooted in some sort of special snowflake syndrome. Then again, Vietnam is hardly unique in that either, look at Korea claiming 5,000 years of continuous history.

    And, I really, really need to improve my Vietnamese.

  3. You are exactly right. Many things that have been written by Vietnamese scholars simply lose their credibility once you know about places other than Vietnam. Becoming familiar with the histories (and scholarship about) other places is really important. If you don’t know about other places then you don’t know if what you are saying about your own place actually makes any sense or not.

    You are also right that this is not something unique to Vietnam. However, there are at least Korean scholars who are aware of the limitations of Korean scholarship and have tried to move beyond those limitations. The book below is a good example of that. I’ve also been at conferences and listened to Korean scholars present on Sino-Korean relations, and they are much less nationalistic and much more realistic now then they were say 20 years ago. So while the situation that Vietnamese scholarship is in is not unique, that doesn’t excuse it, because it doesn’t have to be this way.

    Author: Pai, Hyung Il.
    Title: Constructing “Korean” origins : a critical review of archaeology, historiography, and racial myth in Korean state-formation theories.
    Publisher: Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Asia Center, 2000.

    1. The Formation of Korean Identity — 2. The Colonial Origins of Prehistoric Korea — 3. The Mythical Origins of Ancient Korea — 4. Korean State-Formation Theories: A Critical Review — 5. Lelang: A Case Study in Cultural Contract and Cultural Change — 6. The Leland Interaction Sphere in Korean Prehistory — 7. Nationalism and Rewriting the Wrongs of the Past.

    “Hyung Il Pai examines how archaeological finds from throughout Northeast Asia have been used in Korea to construct a myth of state formation emphasizing the ancient development of a pure Korean race that created a prehistoric civilization rivaling those of China and Japan. Pai traces the many facets of the development of this myth from the theories of Japanese archaeologists working for the colonial regime in Korea through the reaction to these theories of nationalist historians in postwar South Korea. Her deconstruction of the uses and abuses of archaeology reveal how archaeological data have been utilized to legitimate Korean nationalism and a particular form of “pan-Tongi” ethnic identity. Her re-analysis of the archaeological data, however, shows that state formation occurred much later in the peninsula through a process of sustained culture contact and culture change stimulated by the material culture of Han China.”–BOOK JACKET.

  4. Cho hoi Ho ly tinh, Ngu tinh co the nao dich sang tieng anh hay hon khong? Chu truoc gio chi nghe toi Chicken essence la nuoc cot ga ma Chi Bao hay quang cao tren tivi :)

    • Toi dong y!! “Spirit” cung ok, nhung toi nghi rang y nghia cua “spirit” la qua rong.

      Toi da nhin thay co nhung nguoi dich la “sprite.” Y nghia cua chu “sprite” hep hon, nhung chu “sprite” cung khong pho bien lam. Nhung chac la tot hon “essence.”

      sprite also spright
      1. A small or elusive supernatural being; an elf or pixie.
      2. An elflike person.
      3. A specter or ghost.
      4. Archaic A soul.
      5. Meteorology A large, dim, red flash that appears above active thunderstorms in conjunction with lightning.

  5. 7 Kuching

    Thanks for the post and replies to the comments so far. Not sure if I am any expert on the topic of identity and on Tran Quoc Vuong, but at least can raise several points here for further discussions.

    1. I don’t think that Professor Tran Quoc Vuong claimed his work to be a historical text, but rather an anthropological piece. Within anthropology, there is cultural anthropology and his work seems to fall into this category. His work seems to dig ‘cultural essence’ of various places (vung, mien) in the place called Vietnam today. And myths and legends and beliefs are all elements of how ‘cultural essence’ is constructed.

    2. The ways he presented many points about ‘identity’ or ‘ban sac’ in his work fall somewhere between essentialist and non-essentialist traditions/approaches/perspectives. In talking about ‘unity’, he did talk about diversity and how that unity was constructed and made possible by a shared sense of Vietnamese (of course this is arguable and could be highly problematic). What I want to emphasise here is the term ‘sense’. At the personal level, identity, as you rightly put it, refers to the sense of who you are and the meaning(s) you and others construct for you. This understanding of identity applies to all levels, say national or regional, and to all entities, say a community, an association and a nation.

    3. Professor TQV, however, did not make clear (or even acknowledge) the limitations of his approach.

    Thanks and looking forward to responses.

  6. Thank you Kuching!

    Yea, now that you mention anthropology, and in agreement with what you say in #s 2-3, I think I would call this type of writing something like “un-self-reflexive anthro-historical musings.”

    You are right, he was trying to give a “sense” of what he “thinks” or “believes” based on various pieces of anthropological and historical information that he brings together and gives meaning to.

    However, he does this without informing his reader of what the limitations of his approach are, without acknowledging other views that challenge his ideas, without being self-reflexive of what he is doing.

    Anthropology in the English-speaking world started to go through a “reflexive turn” starting in the 1970s in which anthropologists were encouraged to be “self-reflexive.” To quote the web page below, “In the face of post-modernism’s rise, anthropologists began asking themselves if it was possible to create an objective study of a culture when their own biases and epistemologies were inherently involved.”

    In his writings, I don’t know that TQV wrote about his “own biases and epistemologies.” He tells you what he “thinks” or “senses” but he doesn’t tell you who he “is” and why he might “think” or “sense” that way.

    Further, by occasionally citing the work of other scholars (both domestic and foreign), he gives his writing a “sense” of scholarly objectivity, when it is largely a record of his own (un-self-reflexive) personal “sense” of things.

    Finally, this style of writing is by no means unique to TQV. I think that there are many Vietnamese scholars who have written and who continue to write in this manner. It’s a topic that is definitely worthy of study.

  7. 9 Kuching

    Great response. I can also give you many examples of this style of writing in postmodern and media and cultural studies scholarship everywhere :). So there must be something ‘cool’ or ‘self-indulged’ about this style of writing that travels across borders and across disciplines.

    And the “reflexive turn” you mentioned here has only become more recognised in other fields of studies over the past decade or so. ‘Reflexivity’ is now one of the coolest terms in scholarship and methodology. But reflexivity has its limitatations too, because there is always a likelihood to construct a certain ‘reflexivity’ based on a certain selective narratives. Therefore reflexivity can still be biased and bounded.

    I guess the ‘biased and bounded’ problem in Prof TQV’s “explorations and reflections” lies in his conscious selection of what he chose to, could, and was allowed to reflect and present.

  8. Ok, let me ask you this though. When a Vietnamese reads what TQV wrote here, does that person believe what he literally wrote? Or does that person read this as a kind of “free-flowing meditation” on the part of TQV and that you therefore can’t necessarily believe every word, but instead, you read it to get a kind of “sense” of something?

    What he wrote might look “cool” to us because we can read through it. But I think that for a lot of people, this just looks like “fact.”

    When people read post-modern writings, I think that they are aware of the style of writing they are reading, and that awareness also informs how they read the text.

    What do people think when they read TQV? Do they see it as a different form of writing from others? If so, how does that inform their reading of the text?

  9. 11 Kuching

    I don’t think I can speak for other people in terms of how they read and interpret TQV, but I can only speak for myself. How I read his work 10 years ago is different from how I read it today, partly because I am constantly exposed to new scholarship that challenges a lot of what I knew before, and partly because I now read his work with more awareness of the bounded space in which he was developing his ideas. I guess this is part of reflexivity.

    A few weeks ago I was at a seminar where a colleague presented something related to the sociology of ideas. He referred to some publications he found in the archive that offer significant results and implications for our understandings of the difference between how historians as experts in the discipline read historical textbooks and how high school students as explorers and consumers of knowledge read the same historical texts. The point he then concluded from reading such publications is that historians do not see what presented in historical texts as fact, while high school students do see the same information as fact.

    I guess people have different purposes in reading and tend to look for different information and evidence from the same text, depending on where they stand, what they want to achieve, what prior knowledge and exposure to related ideas they have had, why that text matters, and how aware they are of their stance, and how knowledgeable they are of any critiques against the text they read, etc.

    I have answered some of your questions above, but not in the most direct way as you may have expected, but I think I have touched upon the many points you have raised too.

    • Ok, so it’s possible to defend/excuse what TQV wrote if we stand here in the post-modern present and talk about how “authors don’t control texts” because the signifiers don’t signify the signifieds in a stable manner and therefore readers can understand texts in ways that the author did not intend, etc. . . but TQV did not live in such a post-modern world. He lived in a highly nationalistic world, and he wrote for that world.

      Further, it is very difficult to read his work in Vietnam in the kind of multiple ways that you suggest because the knowledge that one needs to be able to do that is not available (and TQV must have been aware of that and should not have expected his readers to be able to do that). Who in Vietnam, for instance, has written about the history of Tai migrations and has said that the Tai were only present in the Red River Delta around 1,000 AD? Pham Duc Duong wrote about this and has the Tai there in the BC period, as TQV did. Has anyone updated this view? No one that I know of.

      Who has argued against the idea that the Ngu tinh, Moc tinh, etc, are “culture heroes” and has pointed out the many ways that demonstrate that these stories clearly come from a medieval Sinitic literary tradition? No one that I know of.

      So if that knowledge is not available to you, how can you read TQV in any other way than a literal way? How do you know where he is saying something intelligent, and where he is telling you nationalist lies?

      It isn’t simply a post-modern case of texts being open for people to read in different ways. Historians make arguments based on historical information, but those arguments have to be able to withstand counter-arguments.

      TQV’s writings were not subject to counter-arguments. He wrote what he wrote and no one challenged him on what he said (at least not as long as it fit a nationalist framework, and talking about “ban sac,” “anh hung van hoa” etc., definitely fit a nationalist framework.)

      TQV is a loved and revered figure, but he never worked in what I would call an “academic” environment (by which I particularly mean that there was no blind peer review process for publishing, and there were limitations on what could be said), so his writings can’t be viewed as “scholarship.” They are something else. It’s not a post-modern matter of how one reads a text. It’s an historical matter – this was an intelligent person who worked in a dysfunctional academic world. That being the case, its impossible to tell from his writings what he actually thought. In which case, why should anyone read what he wrote, other than to try to understand the world of thought of intelligent people in such conditions?

      Ok, Kuching, I think that should provoke you. :)

  10. 13 Kuching

    Oh I think you have raised so many important points here. I can also see that you turned up the heat a bit in your response. I guess you must have been provoked by your own concerns about serious scholarship or what serious scholarship ought to look like.

    I do not have a copy of his book right here with me but if I remember correctly, this book is a collection of his essays written at different points in time and was based on his field trips to various places in Vietnam. I can see that the book was written in a highly personal manner and many ‘facts’ were formed out of tales and recollections of memories. I do not defend Prof TQV’s work, but I can say with confidence that I have come to understand a lot about diversity in ‘Vietnamese’ culture by reading his writing. So at least he has done some good justice to the many ethnic groups living in the area. While I do not have enough knowledge to evaluate the trustworthiness of the many facts he presented, my reading of his work suggests that he was at least trying to propose an approach to understanding culture, which is an embedded approach, meaning embedded in the everyday lives of ordinary people, and thus culture is from within and embedded. Of course I acknowledge that this approach is limited too.

    I am not sure if you are suggesting that nationalist environment cannot produce any good scholarship. But I can argue that scholarship in a seemingly liberating world is still controlled by personal and institutional interests and constraints.It can also be manipulated by a number of figures who are considered ‘academic gods’ in that world, and normally people don’t challenge them directly because they are too powerful and can silence views which are critical of their scholarship.

    There are also an increasing number of foreign ‘politician academics’ who now write the kind of nationalist scholarship to satisfy leaders of other countries and/or institutions that have a lot of money to fund research. These academics live in a liberating world, yet they are driven by neoliberal values and produce superficial scholarship to buy themselves research grants rather than working on critical scholarship.

    I love ‘arguing’ with your ideas here, and I think before scholarship everyone should be equal too :). And I think by engaging with Prof TQV’s ideas, we in fact further develop many of the points he has raised in his work. By pointing out the limitations and flaws in his work doesn’t mean that his work is of no value to scholarship.

  11. Kuching,

    1) Yes I’m confidently declaring that a nationalist environment cannot produce good scholarship. If it can, I have yet to see it. I will gladly change my opinion if someone can provide me with evidence to the contrary. The example I gave about Korea above demonstrates this. It is precisely when Korea started to become less nationalistic that solid scholarship started to emerge. (and as always, I’m talking about historical scholarship, not other fields)

    2) The second point here is definitely true about “some” scholarship. But in a “seemingly liberating world” there is also a lot of scholarship that is NOT “controlled by personal and institutional interests and constraints.” Such scholarship does not exist in a “nationalist environment.” So just because there is some bad scholarship in a “liberating world” does not excuse people in a “nationalist environment” for not producing good scholarship, because there is also a lot of good scholarship in a “liberating world.” So where is the equivalent body of good scholarship in a “nationalist environment”? Toi khong nhin thay.

    This is good because I feel like I am getting somewhat of an emotional response from you, and that is I think a problem that people have to overcome. People have invested so much emotion into scholars like TQV that he becomes “untouchable.”

    What you say here is accurate. I think that the writings in this book are somewhat “casual.” But where is his really “serious” scholarship? And how is it really different from his essays in this book? I don’t see a major difference. And as I said before, you cannot tell where his non-seriousness ends and his seriousness begins.

    So this is the problem, you can’t touch the work of people like TQV, even though it is filled with problems. So if you can’t touch that, then how do you move forward? How do you determine what information is believable and what isn’t? If you come to realize that the stuff TQV said is not true, how do you move forward if you can’t touch TQV because he is so revered? How do you talk about something that counters what TQV said if you can’t actually challenge what TQV said?

  12. 15 Kuching

    Hello again! I’d love to see you show me evidence where people can’t touch TQV’s work. I think many just avoid engaging with his work for different reasons.

    More soon, so keep the discussion going :). Thanks.

  13. Let me change the direction a bit of this discussion to make a (hopefully) clear point (it’s morning here though so I’m not sure if I’ll succeed. . .).

    Let’s say I use the information on that page and write a sentence in a paper like this,

    “According to Professor Tran Quoc Vuong, there was a shared ‘ancient Viet’ culture that started to form as early as the first millennium BC that brought together maritime, or Malay, elements and valley, or Tay-Thai, elements, and this mixture of elements from the sea and land is mirrored in the stories of culture heroes from that time, such as Ngu tinh, Ho tinh and Moc tinh.”

    Depending on the journal that I submit this to, 1) my article might not even get sent out for peer review if it contains sentences like this, 2) if it did get sent out for peer review, a sentence like this would definitely get challenged.

    So my point is that I can’t use the actual information that TQV wrote when I write a scholarly article. I could write a scholarly article “about” TQV and try to talk about what he did in his writings, but I can’t write something about history and and use his writings for evidence, because there are just too many uncritical/problematic points in what he said.

    So what do we do with writings like that?

  14. 17 Kuching

    Good morning to you! I will also try to see if I can take the dicussion forward. I think one way to use writings like that is to take the problematic/uncritical points out of them for critique and for your depature, and then build on your critique to invite readers to what you want to argue for or against with your writings.

    Hope this makes sense.

  15. 18 Bai Yue

    Mr. Le,

    I have reviewed this paper on Bai Yue, would you mind to give some your thoughts on this.

  16. So the point of this article is to say that the attempts by Chinese scholars to links the ancient Yue that we find mentioned in texts with the Tai is problematic for the following reasons:

    1) They are confusing archaeological cultures with ethnicity.
    2) Second, we do not even know for certain whether the various types of historical Yue described in the texts were, anthropologically speaking, sub-divisions within one ethnic group.
    3) Third, the Chinese approach to ethnicity, i.e. the one language – one culture – one people concept is fundamentally problematic.

    I agree. I’m going to post more on this soon, as I’ve just been reading some more recent scholarship on this issue. But yes, linking ethnicity to names in ancient texts is extremely problematic.

    While I agree with the general argument in this article, some of the details are outdated now. I don’t think scholars of Tai linguistics still place the origins of Tai languages in the northwestern Vietnam-Laos border area. Instead, I think they now see the Guangxi-Guizhou area as the more likely place.

    One think that I find odd, however, is that while she criticizes Chinese scholars for linking current ethnic groups to names in ancient Chinese texts, she does this herself in the following passage:

    “The concept of men from Yue, however, also incorporated a larger category of people than those who resided within the ancient Yue state. For example, the character used to write Yue is exactly the same as that used for the Viet in Vietnam. In modern Mandarin, pronunciation, Vietnam is Yuenan, or the ‘Yue of the south.’ These men of Vietnam are just one group of people who figured into this broader notion of the Yue.”

    I’ll post on this soon too. Thank you for drawing my attention to this article. I had read it years ago but I had forgotten what it is about.

  17. 20 Yuenan

    I am sure you are a busy person but if ever you have a spare minute would you be kind enough to have a quick skim through this discussion thread about Vietnamese history!

    I know there is quite some immaturity there but if you just focus on the core arguments of the original poster would you be inclined to agree that it is a valid theory concerning Vietnamese history


  18. Sorry, but I still got kind of lost reading this as there are a lot of different ideas that come up.

    There is one big issue which I think people don’t realize, or haven’t dealt with enough yet. And that is that there is no identifiable group of people that we can trace through time from the first millennium BC to the present.

    Just because the term “Yue” was used in the first millennium BC and it is the same term that is now used to refer to the “Vietnamese” doesn’t mean that there is an actual connection that we can trace over this same period of time.

    The same rule applies to the “Tai” and even “the Chinese.”

    People need to see how ethnic groups have emerged (or been “invented”) over time and how they have changed. They need to think about how languages have changed, and languages change in many ways – sometimes its through migration and conquest.

    Sorry that this is all a bit general, but hopefully it makes some sense.

  19. “People need to see how ethnic groups have emerged (or been “invented”) over time and how they have changed.”

    greatest quote ever!!!

    The real question: When will we all get along and play nice? :)

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