I recently wrote (here) about a concordance tool that I was able to get to work with the Hán (i.e., classical Chinese) text of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư (ĐVSKTT). Someone asked me what is new about this tool and what we can do with it. That’s a good question.
Here is an example. Throughout Vietnamese history there were people who were referred to in historical sources as “savages” (man 蠻). I would like to know more about such people. Where were they? Did their location change over time? In what contexts were they mentioned in historical sources? What was the discourse about “savages” in a Vietnamese historical text like the ĐVSKTT?
These questions are not new. I could have asked them 30 years ago. However, it would have been extremely difficult to answer these questions at that time.
If I were to engage in this study 30 years ago, how would I have done it? First, I would have looked through the Hán text of the ĐVSKTT line by line looking for the character for “savage” (蠻). When I found it, I would have written down notes about its usage in the text, and after going through the entire text I then would have tried to mentally “process” my notes and see what I could say.
Then to visualize where the 蠻, or “savages,” were, I would have made some maps by hand.
All of this would have been incredibly time consuming, so time consuming, in fact, that I probably would not have even tried to engage in such a study. By about 10 years ago, however, such a project started to become more feasible.
10 years ago if I wanted to engage in this project I could have used the pdf file of the quốc ngữ version of the ĐVSKTT that is available on the Internet and done a word search for “man.” However one can’t be sure that 蠻 always gets written as “man” in a translation, so this approach would not have been perfect, but it probably would have worked ok.
So having a digitized text to work with (in pdf form) finally made a project like this possible. However, now with a concordance tool and the digitized Hán text of the ĐVSKTT (it’s actually still in the process of being digitized), it has become easy to engage in a project like this.
Further, digital mapping tools today can also make the other part of the project – visualizing where the savages were over time – easier as well.
So what would such a study show? I’m not sure, but I suspect that we would see that there was a “savage frontier” that gradually got pushed back over the centuries from a “Việt core” and that an “anti-savage discourse” facilitated this expansion (just as the Orientalist discourse supposedly facilitated Western expansion in 19th-century Asia).
There is nothing particularly “new” about this topic, but it would have been very difficult to try to research before. However, digital tools and the digitization of texts now make engaging in research on such a topic much easier.