I’ve been meaning to write a more formal review of Trần Quang Đức’s A Thousand Years of Caps and Robes (Ngàn năm áo mũ). The customary manner to write such a review in the world where I work is to talk about the historiographical context in which the book is written (i.e., to talk about what previous studies exist on the topic, and where the current work fits in that history of writing on the topic), to summarize the contents of the book, and then to talk about its strengths and weaknesses. That is what I will attempt to do here.
As a history of the clothing worn by members of the court, the government, and common people over a period of some 1,000 years, this book does deal with a topic that some scholars in Vietnam have previously written about. However, as the author makes clear in his preface, earlier works relied heavily on modern Vietnamese translations of texts that were originally written in Hán (classical Chinese). Trần Quang Đức, on the other hand, makes extensive use of sources written in Hán by both Vietnamese and Chinese authors over many centuries. Therefore, while this topic may have been discussed before, this book is unprecedented in the scope of the sources it is based on, and in the expertise of the author’s reading of those sources.
The book contains an introduction and five chapters. In the introduction of the book Trần Quang Đức argues that the choice of caps and robes used by the various emperors and officials over the centuries 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). In the following five chapters we then see what exact choices were made as the chapters move chronologically through time and examine the clothing of the emperors and officials, as well as the common people, during the periods of the Lý, Trần, early Lê, post-Lê Restoration (Trung Hưng) and Nguyễn dynasties.
I wanted to come up with a way to talk in detail about each chapter, however, I have been unable to find a way to do so as each chapter is packed with information. That said, one aspect of this book that I really like is that even though it is filled with information, that information is still presented in a very clear and logical manner.
One of the problems that scholars encounter is that they often find many smaller “sub issues” while they are researching their “main” topic. What do you do with that information? Do you leave it out of the book and just focus on the main topic? Do you include it in the book? Many people do so, and the result is that their book ends up being “cluttered” with appendixes, etc.
In this work Trần Quang Đức has done a creative job of using the visual layout and presentation of the book to include such information without distracting from the main narrative of the text. So, for instance, in the chapter on the Trần, Trần Quang Đức includes his thoughts on the clothing that we see in the painting that scholars have recently been discussing, the Trúc Lâm Đại Sĩ xuất sơn đầu. When he does so, he uses a slightly different color for the page, and places the text over a background of the painting. This is a creative and effective way to present diverse types of information and to maintain a sense of coherence to a book.
This focus on the visual presentation of the book of course also extends to the inclusion of a very large number of pictures. Trần Quang Đức has done an amazing job of searching through a wide array of sources to find images that relate to his topic. What is more important, however, is that he is also critical of how we “read” pictures and images.
So while the book is enjoyable to read, its greatest strength is the wide range of primary sources that it is based on, and the incredible effort that Trần Quang Đức has exerted to make sense of those sources. Researching about the history of clothing is not easy, because there tend to be very few places where one can find a detailed explanation of what clothing was worn at a given time and what it looked like. Instead, one has to build one’s understanding of this topic from brief statements made in many different sources. And there is an easy way to do this, and a difficult way to do this.
The easy way to research this topic is to do what previous scholars have done – to read through modern Vietnamese translations and see what information is there about clothing. There are two problems with this approach. First, it greatly limits the information that one can use, because there is much more information available in Hán than there is in modern Vietnamese translations. Second, in order to translate information about clothing from a text written in Hán, one needs to have knowledge about the clothing that the text is talking about. Many of the people who have translated Hán texts have not possessed that knowledge, so their translations are not always accurate or helpful.
The difficult way to research this topic is to comb through a wide range of sources in Hán and to try to find information about clothing. That is difficult. What makes it even more difficult is that much of the information that one finds in Hán texts was written by people who knew that their readers already more or less knew what they were talking about. As a result, their “descriptions” of clothing tend to be quite brief. This makes it very difficult to understand what exactly clothing in the past looked like. A modern scholar therefore needs to find various passages that refer to the same cap or robe in order to get a good sense of what it actually looked like. Then finally there is the fact that clothing styles changed repeatedly over the centuries, and keeping track of all of those changes is likewise extremely difficult.
In A Thousand Years of Caps and Robes, Trần Quang Đức has employed the “difficult” way of researching this topic. The result is that this work is infinitely stronger than any study that has preceded it. And while later scholars might find mistakes here and there (and who knows, maybe someone will discover that a picture is labeled incorrectly), I don’t envision this work ever being seriously challenged. This book is an “instant classic.” It is so solidly researched, and it is based on such a vast variety of sources, that I think that this will be the authoritative study on clothing in imperial Vietnam for many years to come.
Finally, yet one more aspect about this book that it nice to see is that it is comparative in its approach. Trần Quang Đức does not examine the history of clothing in Vietnam in isolation, but instead, makes reference to related developments in places like Korea and Japan, and he of course looks closely at the history of clothing in China. When one looks at a topic comparatively, one avoids the trap of making unfounded claims about the uniqueness of one’s topic. This, therefore, makes one’s scholarship much more accurate.
This book therefore marks an incredible scholarly accomplishment. I therefore do not really see “weaknesses” that I can comment on, however, I would nonetheless still like to make one suggestion about where future scholarship on this topic might go. Trần Quang Đức has done a fabulous job of clearly documenting “what” people wore, but I still want to know more about “why” they wore the clothes they did. The imperial ideology (tư tưởng Đế quốc) and Hoa-Barbarian ideology (tư tưởng Hoa Di) that Trần Quang Đức mentions partly explains this, but I think we can go deeper into explaining why people wore what they did.
When a Vietnamese emperor performed the annual Nam giáo sacrifice and wore robes with images of the sun, moon and certain stars on them, while his officials all stood or kneeled in attendance dressed in very specific caps and robes. . . something important was happening. The caps and robes that these people were wearing were “doing” something, and everyone there believed that their caps and robes were “doing” something.
In English-language historical scholarship, one term that is getting used these days is “power dressing.” In the past, the clothes one wore were intimately related to one’s power. How clothes related to power, however, is something that appears to have differed across the globe and across time.
It would be very interesting to look more deeply into this topic in the case of Vietnam. To do that, however, requires that one have an accurate understanding of “what” people wore, and Trần Quang Đức has unquestionably provided us with that information, and much much more, in his A Thousand Years of Caps and Robes.