A few days ago someone pointed out to me that a new general history called A History of the Vietnamese by Keith Taylor is now listed on Amazon, and is soon to be available for purchase.
I went online and was able to read some of it on Amazon and some on Google Books. In the introduction, Taylor has a section called “Vantage” (pages 2-4) that is absolutely beautiful.
I would like to cite here a few of the statements that he makes in that section as I think that they are extremely important.
Taylor begins this section by stating that, “Vietnamese scholars have endeavored to project a sense of national identity back into the past as far as possible. In the modern period, it became common for Vietnamese to affirm a national history going back four thousand years to when archaeologists date artifacts that they have assembled and categorized under the name of Phung Nguyen Culture.”
He then notes that “Many Vietnamese scholars are inclined to draw a line of continuity, and even ethno-linguistic, development from Phung Nguyen to modern Vietnam. This inclination, however, makes an exuberant use of evidence.”
Taylor then goes on to say that this practice of searching for origins has been common to many peoples around the world throughout history. In the case of the Vietnamese, certain individuals at the courts of the Trần and Lê engaged in this practice.
Taylor explains that “They did this not only by culling references from classical Chinese texts about what they imagined to have been their ancestors in antiquity but also constructed a ‘southern’ history for themselves that is largely parallel with and a response to ‘northern’ imperial history.”
This effort to imagine origins and to connect oneself to an imagined past is, according to Taylor (but I certainly agree), “a means of self-affirmation, not a scholarly endeavor.” To put this in my own more simple terms, what (I think) Taylor is saying is that scholars at the courts of the Trần and Lê created histories about antiquity not because they were true, but for political (and perhaps also personal) reasons.
Taylor then goes on to talk about the role of the historian and what historians can say about the Vietnamese past. He says, for instance, that, “I believe that the task of historical scholarship is to look at what survives from the past as coming from people with their own existence, not as evidence of people who attain significance primarily as precursors of people today.”
Then summarizing in a sentence a point he made in his 1998 article “Surface Orientations in Vietnam: Beyond Histories of Nation and Region,” Taylor states that, “The Vietnamese past does not display an internal logic of development leading to the present.”
Instead, he says that, “Vietnamese history is a convenient name for what can be known about a certain aspect of the past. What makes it Vietnamese is that the events which it is comprised of took place in what we now call the country of Vietnam and that certain versions of it have been taught as a common memory to generations of people who speak the Vietnamese language, thereby inducing a sense of ownership.”
That “sense of ownership,” I have argued on this blog, can be an obstacle to engaging in scholarship. Once one sees history as “ta” (our) history, then it becomes difficult to remain completely rational about it or to maintain a sense of scholarly detachment.
Taylor, however, very clearly distances himself emotionally from the topic of his research. He states that “I find interest in the Vietnamese past not because it is Vietnamese but because it is about how human society has been organized and governed during many centuries on the edge of an empire.”
He finally notes that “Vietnamese history as we know it today could not exist without Chinese history. The manner in which Vietnamese history overlaps with and is distinguished from Chinese history presents a singular example of experience in organizing and governing human society within the orbit of Sinic civilization that can be compared with Korean history and Japanese history.”
And at the same time, he points out that in the 11th-14th centuries, Đại Việt existed alongside other kingdoms in Southeast Asia (Angkor and Pagan) and can therefore be compared to those other polities.
More specifically, I think what Taylor is arguing here is that to some extent one can compare the efforts of the governments of Đại Việt, Angkor and Pagan to control and organize their respective populations. What he does not appear to be saying is anything about Đại Việt being “culturally Southeast Asian” and therefore comparable to Angkor or Pagan.
For anyone who has read Taylor’s 1983 work, The Birth of Vietnam, it is obvious that some aspects of Taylor’s “vantage” have changed over time. This book is a reflection of decades of work and thought, and if these opening pages are a sign of what is waiting in the remaining 700+ pages, then we readers are in for an incredible treat.
On the Amazon page there is a statement of advance praise by Shawn McHale which says, “This book is a landmark in scholarship, the product of Keith Taylor’s four decades of intensive and prolonged engagement with Vietnam. There is no other book quite like it,” and one by Peter Zinoman that says, “Elegant, erudite and stunningly comprehensive, A History of the Vietnamese is, by a wide margin, the finest general survey of Vietnamese history ever produced in any language.”