For a long time now I have felt that the first decade or so of the twentieth century is the most important period for anyone who studies Vietnamese history to understand. To date, however, it is a decade that we actually know very little about.

Why is this the case?

I think it is because the first decade of the twentieth century was a time of tremendous change. Reformers at that time were interested in changing the way people thought. In the end, they succeeded in doing so. In fact, they succeeded so well that when people in later times looked back and sought to write about this and earlier periods, they couldn’t do it, because they no longer saw the world as people in those earlier times had.

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Let me give an example of what I mean. This is a passage from a dissertation that was completed in 1965 at the University of Denver. It was written by Phan Thien Long Chau. I don’t know who this person was, and I’ve chosen this passage simply because I’ve seen statements like this in many other works.

In talking about the changes that took place in the early twentieth century, this author mentions the impact of colonial rule and “the disruption of the ancient Vietnamese society which was based on the five Confucian social relationships and the four traditional social classes.”

Ok, so it is true that certain relationships (cương thường 綱常) were considered important, and it is also true that in some situations the people in the land were referred to in terms of four different types of people (tứ dân 四民), but is this really what society was “based on”? Were these concepts so important that they were always in people’s minds? Would people at that time have characterized their world by boiling it down to these two concepts?

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The use of concepts like these to characterize the past is what I refer to as the “textbook-ification” (sách giáo khoa hóa) of the past. The idea that you can define precisely what a society was based on and list or enumerate that information is an idea that fits the work of people who create textbooks.

Textbooks take reality and neatly label and categorize it in order to make it easy for people to understand. The problem, however, is that reality is not easy to understand, and therefore the textbook version of ends up limiting our understanding of the world.

This doesn’t really matter, as long as there are other books that explain things in more detail. It only matters when all that people know about something is the textbook version. Unfortunately, this is more or less the case with many writings on pre-twentieth-century Vietnamese history.

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Let’s take a look at what a Vietnamese scholar wrote in the nineteenth century about the geographical position of the Nguyễn Dynasty empire.

In 1853, a scholar by the name of Phạm Phục Trai produced and had published a textbook for children that provided information about the geography of the Nguyễn Dynasty domain. His book was called A Recitation of the Essentials for Enlightening Children (Khải đồng thuyết ước 啟童說約).

In discussing the land, Phạm Phục Trai begins by discussing the creation of the earth and then goes on to examine the world as seen from the vantage point of the Middle Kingdom (or what I called in the previous post, “the Center”) before eventually turning to talk about the Nguyễn Dynasty’s domain.

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In discussing the world (as seen from the Middle Kingdom), Phạm Phục Trai notes that “in the northwest there are many mountains, and in the southeast much water.” He also notes that territorial divisions exist to differentiate Di (Chn., Yi 夷) from Hạ (Chn., Xia 夏), where “outside are the Di and inside are the Hạ.”

Western scholars have translated the terms Hạ/Xia and Di/Yi as “Chinese” and “Barbarian,” respectively. However, Phạm Phục Trai clearly considers himself to be one of the Hạ in the interior of the world, and he explains why this is the case when he notes that, “The Việt domain is one of civility [văn hiến 文獻], its geomantic arteries are very special. The Hoàng Kun[lun] is the ancestral node, and from its core it divide into three [arteries].”

Phạm Phục Trai goes on to note that “Northerners state that the writings of [the people of] Giao Chỉ [i.e., ‘Vietnam’] and the rituals of [the people of] Goryeo [i.e., ‘Korea’] complement each other,” and this therefore demonstrates that “the Việt domain is one of civility.”

As for why this is the case, Phạm Phục Trai explains that it is because there is a geomantic ancestral node (tổ mạch 祖脈) in the Himalayas, or what he calls the Yellow Kunlun (黃崑崙) mountains, and from that node a main artery proceeds to the Southern Kingdom where it then divides into three branches. It is because of this geomantic energy that the Southern Kingdom is destined to be part of the inner world of the Hạ, rather than the outer world of the Di, and the recognition of this fact by Northerners themselves serves as proof of this fact.

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So what does this have to do with “the five Confucian social relationships and the four traditional social classes”? Not much (at least not directly). Nonetheless, the ideas that Phạm Phục Trai expressed here were very basic. Why wouldn’t someone say that these are the kinds of ideas that society was based on?

Phạm Phục Trai’s book was a textbook. Like all textbooks, it sought to simplify information and to present it in a clear way that is easy to understand. That said, we can find many other works from that period that reveal these same ideas.

What is important is that the way that he presented information about the world at the time is very different from the way that people in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have presented information about that same world in which Phạm Phục Trai lived.

Why is this?

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It’s because of the dramatic changes that took place in the first decade of the twentieth century. In the early twentieth century, the way that Vietnamese thought changed radically, and after that point most people lost the ability to understand the world as Vietnamese in the nineteenth century had seen it. And they came to rely on simplified textbook explanations of the past that reflected the ideas of the present more than they did the ideas of the past.

Seeing and understanding that transition is critical for understanding what we now “know.” We have to accurately see what was there before and how it changed so that we can evaluate what it is that we currently think we know.

At present, too many scholars use what we now “know” to talk about the time before everything changed. When they do that, they end up saying things like society “was based on the five Confucian social relationships and the four traditional social classes.”

That’s not the world that Phạm Phục Trai described. Yes he produced a simplified explanation of the present. But his goal was to describe the present. Today, meanwhile, many works are produced that are supposed to be about the past, but I would argue that they are also ultimately (whether their authors realize it or not) simplified explanations of the present.

Saying that a past society was based on A and B is easy for us to understand, and fits our way of viewing the world today. That we explain the past in this way is a sign of how we think today.

Phạm Phục Trai explained his world in ways that do not make sense to us today. If we really want people to understand the past, then it is necessary to convey that sense of alien-ness.

Doing so might not make us feel good in the present, but it will give us a more accurate picture of the past. To do that we have to move beyond the textbook knowledge that was produced in the twentieth century, and rediscover what people like Phạm Phục Trai actually thought and how that world of thought changed in the first decade of the twentieth century.

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