If you want to understand the past, you have to engage in comparative history. If you just study about one place, then you cannot possibly gain an accurate understanding of the past, because you will never see what was “normal” in the past. This is something that only comes from looking at the histories of multiple places.
If you want to understand Vietnamese history, for instance, it is essential to study about China (obviously), but it is also extremely important to study about places like Korea and Japan, as these are areas that were historically in a similar position to Vietnam, that is, situated on the edge of various Chinese empires.
Another place that is very helpful to look at is Taiwan. The history of Taiwan is complex, but the gist of it is like this:
1. It was originally inhabited by speakers of Austronesian languages
2. Then “Han Chinese” from Fujian started to settle there (16th-17th centuries)
3. Then in 1895 it became a Japanese colony
4. In 1945 it was “returned” to the Republic of China, the officially recognized government of China at that time, under the control of the Guomindang
5. The ROC/Guomindang government then “fled/retreated” to Taiwan in 1949 when it was defeated on the mainland by the Communist forces that opposed it
6. From 1949 until 1987, Taiwan was under marshal law
7. After 1987 a discourse started to emerge in Taiwan that Taiwan was different from China and did not want to be part of China
Where did that discourse come from? It largely came from “Taiwanese.” Who are “Taiwanese”? Taiwanese are descendants of the Han Chinese who migrated to the island of Taiwan starting a few centuries ago before the “Mainlanders” came in 1949 with the ROC/Guomindang government.
So that means that Taiwanese are actually “Chinese.” So why did/do they want to be different from China/Chinese? Well in part it is because they did not like the period of marshal law when the ROC/Guomindang government came to Taiwan and basically dictated many things about how people would live.
In other words, a sense of being “different from China/Chinese” developed in Taiwan among people who historically are actually from China, but who did not like people who came to Taiwan from China after them and who ruled over them.
Let’s now think about the historical situation in Vietnam. Originally you had people there who were different from the Han Chinese. For all we know, they could have been speakers of Austronesian languages (the images of people on Đông Sơn bronze drums certainly suggest this).
Then Han Chinese came, first as administrators, but then as the founders of “independent” dynasties – Lý Công Uẩn, the Trần family, Hồ Quý Ly. . . in perhaps a process not all that different from the arrival of migrants from Fujian to Taiwan.
Then the Ming came and occupied the land, again, kind of like the ROC/Guomindang arrival on Taiwan in 1949.
This is where things get more complex. Lê Lợi was probably non-Han, but there were a lot of people in the Red River Delta by this point who had originally come from places in “China” (including people who ended up working for Lê Lợi).
What does all this mean? It means that people come up with a lot of crazy ideas about who they are, but they do so because they do not like to be pushed around. If, however, you live on the edge of an empire, there is a good chance that (at least once in a while) you will get pushed around.
America was once on the edge of an empire, but most “Americans” at the time that they fought for independence were from the place they were fighting for independence from.
Many Taiwanese want Taiwan to be independent from China, but at the same time, they recognize that their ancestors all came from China.
The videos that I’ve placed here are of three different versions of Lim Giong’s “Marching Forward” (林強 – 向前行), a song that was recorded in Taiwanese in the late 1980s after marshal law was lifted. During the period of marshal law, I think it was illegal to record in Taiwanese. Recordings had to be in Mandarin.
In any case, the song is about a young guy taking the train from the countryside to Taibei to work. It describes an experience that thousands of Taiwanese young men had experienced over the previous three decades of economic development.
By the late 1980s, the “Taiwan miracle” had achieved great results. Taiwan had officially become a “tiger economy.” While that process had been overseen by ROC/Mainlander officials, much of the actual work had been done by Taiwanese laborers, and I’ve always seen this song as a protest from the Taiwanese working class to the ROC/Mainlander elite to say “Hey! WE are the ones who made possible the economic miracle!!”
Since that time, those “Taiwanese versus ROC/Mainlander” politics have transformed into “Taiwan verses PRC” politics, and in the latest version of the song that I post here, the same sense of local pride is still there, but there is a guy and girl in the video who appear at what we might call the climax of the song (starting around 3:58) who are wearing shirts that are made from the ROC flag.
So a song that started with the Taiwanese as a kind of anti-ROC/Mainlander anthem is now presented as a kind of anti-PRC anthem for the combined Taiwanese/ROC Mainlanders.
What does this have to do with Vietnam? What I’m trying to say is that the way that people talk about the Sino-Vietnamese relationship is far too simplistic. People think that although the Vietnamese have “adopted” a lot from the Chinese, they have always been different from the Chinese and have always wanted to be different.
The history of Taiwan, on the other hand, shows that categories like “Chinese” and “non-Chinese” are really malleable, and therefore, problematic.
The one thing that is definite, however, is that people who live on the edge of an empire tend to not like the imperial center.
Not liking Beijing, or Washington DC or Moscow is common sense. But what we say about the people who do not like those imperial centers needs to be more insightful. The complexity of the Taiwanese model is a good example of why this is the case.