I’ve written briefly about the work of the historian Nguyễn Phương on this blog before. Nguyễn Phương published a book in Vietnamese in Huế in the 1960s called Việt Nam thời khai sinh [Vietnam at the Time of its Birth] (Huế: Phòng Nghiên Cứu Sử, Viện Đại Học Huế, 1965).
It essentially argued that the Vietnamese were people who migrated southward into the Red River Delta in the first millennium AD. By the tenth century their numbers had become big enough, and they had developed common interests, and this all led to the emergence of a separate state in the region at that time.
Over a decade after publishing that work, Nguyễn Phương wrote a book in English on the same topic, entitled “The Ancient History of Việt-Nam: A New Study.” This book, however, was never published.
I don’t know the details of Nguyễn Phương’s life, but in the acknowledgements section of “The Ancient History of Việt-Nam,” he makes it clear that he left South Vietnam in 1975, and then was offered a grant to go study in the US. This is what he wrote:
I left Vietnam last year, when it stopped to be free. . . Homeless and stateless, when I was month after month confined in St. John’s Island, Singapore. All my work, all my career, seemed condemned to be ended for ever. . . Fortunately, I was accepted into the United States, where [the] Ford Foundation gave me a fellowship to study history. Of course I was deeply grateful for this grant.
But how much I was more so, when the subject agreed upon was the ancient history of Vietnam, because while studying it, I felt that I still have a country that had successfully managed to be free.
So thanks to [the] Ford Foundation, I know more about the basic part of Vietnam history. Now I am happy to present it to the benevolent Foundation and to the public.
“The Ancient History of Việt-Nam” is quite different from Việt Nam thời khai sinh. The later work is not merely an English-language translation of the earlier work.
Nonetheless, the main argument is the same – that “Chinese colons” grew in numbers and overtook the “autochthons” or indigenous people and became, by the tenth century AD, the Vietnamese.
“It was these descendants of Chinese colons who grew into the majority of the population, especially after the defeat of Trưng Trắc, that constituted the Vietnamese. They were gradually aware of their common interests, of their identity, and of the possibility, even the necessity, of being politically independent from China.”
“As the uprising of Trưng Trắc was the last attempt of the autochthons to regain tribal power, the uprising of the colon Lý Bí was the first attempt of the Vietnamese to initiate a new country.”
“Lý Bí failed as Trưng Trắc did, but Trưng Trắc marked an end, while Lý Bí a beginning, which would come into full realization with Đinh Bộ Lĩnh.” (pg. 181)
I once heard that Nguyễn Phương spent the time writing this book at Cornell University. At that time, the main historian there who worked on Vietnam was O. W. Wolters.
Nguyễn Phương’s ideas did not fit with those of O. W. Wolters. For Wolters, Vietnam was part of Southeast Asia, and therefore the Vietnamese had to be different from the Chinese. In his writings on Vietnam, he repeatedly emphasized that even though Vietnamese wrote in Chinese, it meant something different. He thus argued that the Vietnamese “drained” Chinese texts of their original meaning and used them for their own purposes. . .
I’m not sure why Nguyễn Phương’s manuscript never got published, but the only copy of it that I know of is in the Cornell University library. While Nguyễn Phương stated in his acknowledgements that he was presenting the completed work to the Ford Foundation and to the public, no “public” has ever seen it, as far as I know. It is a “lost history.”
Nguyễn Phương’s idea that it was migrants to the Red River Delta who became the Vietnamese when their numbers grew big enough that they became the majority is too simplistic of an explanation for what may have taken place in the past. For instance, one could make the argument that a minority elite could have established cultural practices and norms that over time came to be adopted by the majority.
So I don’t agree with Nguyễn Phương’s argument, but I find it to be much closer to the truth than what O. W. Wolters wrote about Vietnam. And while it can take a long time, I think the truth eventually gets revealed and accepted.
I was at a conference recently where a senior scholar presented a very good paper on Vietnamese history that was much more in line with the views of Nguyễn Phương than those of O. W. Wolters. . .
I’m attaching below files of Nguyễn Phương’s two works, the one that was published and the one that we might call his “lost history.”
“The Ancient History of Việt-Nam”
Việt Nam thời khai sinh