I’ve written before about how the concept of “identity” is understood in radically different ways in Vietnam and in certain places outside of Vietnam.

I’ve recently come to realize that the same phenomenon applies to the concept of “culture” (văn hóa), and I came across an example which, I think, nicely demonstrates this.


If you look at the English-language Wikipedia page for “culture,” you find that what it contains is information about what it calls “discourses.” It doesn’t say what culture “is,” but instead, goes through the history of modern debates about how to define and understand culture.

In reading through this page, a reader will get exposed to various theories that scholars have proposed from the nineteenth-century to the present, and a reader will also see the counter-arguments that other scholars have proposed.

By the end of the article the reader will realize that people have looked at this issue in many different ways, and that there is no single way to view or explain what culture is.

van hoa

Now look at the Vietnamese-language Wikipedia entry for culture (văn hóa). It starts with a “definition” (định nghĩa) of what culture “is” and then it has a section on the “structure of culture” (cơ cấu của văn hóa), which contains sections on topics like values (giá trị) and purpose (mục tiêu).

This page is therefore radically different from the English-language page. The English-language page talks about theories of culture, whereas the Vietnamese-language page talks about what culture “is.”

Well if people in the English-speaking world have been debating for over a century and cannot decide what culture is, how is it that people have been able to come to a conclusion in the Vietnamese-speaking world? Who has decided what culture “is”?

thao luan

It is always interesting to click on “talk” (thảo luận) at the top of a Wikipedia page to see what comments people have made about the entry.

When I did so on the Vietnamese-language page, I found a couple of people stating that they felt that the entry relied heavily on the ideas of a single person – Trần Ngọc Thêm.

[Thấy các bác bàn về định nghĩa văn hoá, cháu có cảm tưởng gần như đây là quan điểm của Viện sỹ Trần Ngọc Thêm được “bê” vào đây, không biết điều này cháu có chủ quan không ạ?]


I need to examine this issue in more detail, and that will take time, but the one thing I can say now is that I think these two Wikipedia entries are a good illustration of how different the intellectual worlds are between Vietnam and certain places outside of Vietnam.

The English-language page shows readers that many theories about culture have been proposed, and it clearly maps out those debates and explains who said what. It also has 188 footnotes with references to many specialized works for readers to examine the issues further.

The Vietnamese-language page show readers what culture “is.” There is no real debate, and there is therefore no need to know who said what. Further, the 28 footnotes just cite a handful of general introductions to the topic of culture. There is no guidance as to how to pursue the topic further.

These two Wikipedia pages point to two very different intellectual worlds. When I think about this I always wonder how communication can ever be possible when people look at the world, and engage in the production of knowledge, so differently.

I also wonder if this will change in the future, or if this is one of the many ways that globalization, contrary to what many people believe, isn’t necessarily making the world more homogenous.