One work that I have been meaning to read for several months now is The Shadow Left Behind: A Monograph on the Painting The Mahasattva Trúc Lâm Coming Out of the Mountains (Bóng hình để lại: Số chuyên đề Trúc Lâm Đại Sĩ xuất sơn đồ) by Nguyễn Nam.

This monograph is about a painting that was produced in 1363 about an event that had occurred in 1304. In 1304, Trần Nhân Tông, a Trần Dynasty emperor who had stepped down from the throne in the late thirteenth century and had retreated to the mountains to practice Zen, emerged from the mountains to confer the Bodhisattva commandments on his son, the current emperor Trần Anh Tông.

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How does one paint a scene of an event that occurred some 60 years earlier? That’s a problem. Further, there were many Ming Dynasty intellectuals who later wrote poems and other literary pieces about this painting (that were ultimately written on the painting). Again, how do we understand their views, given that they were written long after the fact and were produced by multiple authors?

These questions are the issues that Nguyễn Nam looks at. Obviously this painting and the literary pieces that accompany it are not representations of “reality.” So what does all of this represent, and how do we understand it?

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Ultimately Nguyễn Nam argues that the imagery in the painting is stylized to some extent (understandable, given that it was painted long after the event it depicts), and he sees the literary information as representing a kind of “co-authored” text.

Beyond this, there are many details in the world that Nguyễn Nam discusses in this work that point to the rich social and cultural setting of the time. While Trần Nhân Tông was a “Buddhist,” “Confucian” and “Daoist” ideas and images abound in the writings from this period. We also see that the elite in this period was extremely cosmopolitan. Daoist masters from Fujian arrived in Đại Việt and found a welcome home, as did Song dynasty soldiers who fought alongside Đại Việt troops against the Mongols.

In the end, to thoroughly understand this period is very difficult as one has to be well versed not only in classical Chinese, but in Buddhist writings in classical Chinese as well. Nguyễn Nam is a brave man to take on the challenge. I am definitely a neophyte when it comes to this latter field, so that is one aspect of this book that I feel that I simply cannot evaluate.

That said, I don’t think that there are many people out there who can, and this gets me to the point that I really want to make about this book, and that is that it (like a lot of other scholarship) should be read by more people than it ever will be in its current form.

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The world of scholarship in Vietnam is fixated on books. Why? I think it is for social reasons more than for scholarly ones.

There is a very rich social tradition in Vietnam surrounding books. Scholars love to give others their books, and scholars love to receive books from other scholars. When people give a book to someone, they write a nice note on the first page, and this exchange serves a very important social function.

While this is all wonderful on a social level, it is a big problem for the advancement of knowledge. Because when so many books are published in small numbers, if a person is not there when a book comes out or when a scholar is giving out the copies that s/he has, then. . . you may never be able to read what that person wrote.

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I feel like this is particularly the case with The Shadow Left Behind as it was published in a journal, Suối nguồn, which as far as I can tell, is not available anywhere outside of Vietnam (this is the case with some other journals as well, like Nghiên cứu và phát triển, but some issues of that journal are at least available online).

While this has long been a problem, it is getting more acute now that in other parts of the world 1) libraries do not have money to buy books and 2) people are moving toward publishing in non-book forms.

You have, for instance, platforms like Scalar, that are emerging and that are being developed to enable people to publish academic works online in new ways. As I was reading The Shadow Left Behind, it struck me that this is a work that would benefit greatly from being published in a non-book form.

This text is accompanied by various images, the original Han text and appendixes. In the linear form that books take, it is difficult to try to move back and forth between the Vietnamese text and the original Hán text in the back of the book, etc.

Platforms like Scalar, however, allow people to create “non-linear” texts. And they allow readers to make choices – they can keep reading, or they can click to  go look at the original Hán text, and then they can click and go back to the main text, or they can click to go of in some other direction, etc., depending on how the author designs the “book.”

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A platform like Scalar also makes it possible for readers to leave comments. In a field like pre-modern Vietnamese history where there are so few people who can read classical Chinese, and even fewer people who can understand Buddhist writings written in classical Chinese, producing a “public” and “living” book that readers can comment on, and which an author can “revise” at any time, would be great for scholarship.

Obviously it would take courage on the part of an author to make a text “public” for others to comment on (and I guess I should practice what I preach and try it first). And another problem concerns how such online texts can be evaluated – some people need to publish material in an “official” format for it to be recognized for their job (but this is something that will inevitably change as the publishing culture changes).

Ultimately, continuing in our present mode of producing knowledge just doesn’t seem to make much sense. Why make the effort to produce something that only a small number of people will ever be able to read? And when people work in small fields, why produce work in ways that it can’t be quickly corrected/changed/improved/expanded?

Trần Nhân Tông may have spent years contemplating the impermanence of life, but we are wasting our own impermanent lives if we spend our time producing scholarship that few people ever see or comment on.

It’s time to free ourselves from books and linear thought. It’s time to go Scalar (or some comparable means of producing “books” in the digital age).