In 1971, Alexander Woodside published a work entitled Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Nguyễn and Ch’ing Civil Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. The basic thesis of this book was that Vietnam is a “Southeast Asian” land and yet the Nguyễn Dynasty “adopted” a “Chinese model” of governance that did not really fit the “Southeast Asian” reality of Vietnam.

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I recently heard Professor Woodside give a talk in which he revisited some of these issues. Not surprisingly, he no longer talks about a “Chinese model,” but instead, talks about things like “internationalized states” and “transnational transmissions.”

I say “not surprisingly” because besides the obvious fact that any intelligent person will invariably have different ideas about something s/he wrote 40+ years earlier, Alexander Woodside has spent a lot of that time thinking comparatively (see, for instance, his Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History), and thinking comparatively can be intellectually very liberating.

lost mod

I was reminded of this as I started to read a recent book called A Thousand Years of Caps and Robes (Ngàn năm áo mũ) by a young Vietnamese scholar named Trần Quang Đức. I’ve known about this book for a while, but I’ve only now started to read it, and I’ve only read 21 pages, but I feel like those are perhaps the best 21 pages of historical scholarship in Vietnamese that I have ever read, so I am definitely looking forward to reading the rest of this book.

Why are those 21 pages so good? First, because unlike an innumerable number of people who write about premodern Vietnam, Trần Quang Đức can DEFINITELY read the primary sources in their original language, Hán. This is “rule number one” for any historian anywhere. You base your scholarship on primary sources that you read in the original language, and that is exactly what Trần Quang Đức does, and he clearly does so with complete competence.

How do I know this? Because every time he quotes from a source, he provides the Hán text in his footnote so that the reader can verify what he is saying. That is excellent! Among other things, it shows the total confidence of the author in his scholarship.

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The other reason why these first 21 pages are so good is because they are comparative. And thinking comparatively forces scholars to think intelligently.

This book examines the caps and robes that were worn by the various royal courts from the Lý to the Nguyễn, and in the introduction of the book Trần Quang Đức argues that the choice of caps and robes was to a large extent influenced by two streams of thought: an imperial ideology (tư tưởng Đế quốc) and a Hoa-Barbarian ideology (tư tưởng Hoa Di).

Ultimately, Trần Quang Đức is saying things here that Alexander Woodside said 40+ years ago, namely, that the various Việt courts saw themselves as a kind of “Middle Kingdom” (Trung Quốc).

At the same time, however, what Trần Quang Đức argues in his introduction is also in line with what Alexander Woodside is saying today – that the various Việt kingdoms saw themselves as “Hoa” surrounded by “barbarians” is not because they had “adopted” a “Chinese model,” but because they were an “internationalized state,” like the kingdoms at that time in the places we today call “Korea” and “Japan.”

But in terms of the richness of the documentation that Trần Quang Đức provides, I think that he surpasses Woodside. He provides numerous examples to support every one of his points, and not only from Vietnam but from Korea and Japan as well, and as a result, his points end up being extremely convincing.

This book is thus not bia hơi that you can drink quickly. It’s like fine wine that has to be consumed slowly and appreciated at a leisurely pace, because you really need to read all of the citations carefully. So it’s going to take me a while to get through this book, but it will be an enjoyable journey.

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And while I’m very happy to be reading a work of this quality, I’m also aware that there are quite a few young Vietnamese scholars who are working on PhDs overseas who I’m sure will also produce strong works of scholarship very soon. What I really like about this book (so far) though is that it demonstrates that to produce good historical scholarship, what is essential is that the historian be able to read the primary sources in the original language, and be able to look at the past from a broad perspective.

Those are skills that can be developed anywhere. They just require hard work, and judging from what I’ve read so far, Trần Quang Đức has worked his butt off. Good job!! I look forward to reading more of this book and will write more about it when I do so.