There is a theory that has developed over the past few decades among anthropologists and historians that is known as “the stranger king theory.” What this theory tries to explain is why it is that throughout the world, and throughout history, we can find so many examples of people from one place who become the rulers of other places, that is, why people who are “strangers” to a given society, can become the “kings” of those societies.

In general, scholars have taken two approaches to answering this question. Some have emphasized cultural beliefs in the (mystical/divine) power of outsiders, while others have emphasized the practical role that outsiders can sometimes play. For instance, in some places where groups are at war with each other, sometimes a person from the outside can be more successful at maintaining the peace through his/her (perceived) position of neutrality.

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David Henley, has argued for the value of the stranger king theory in Sulawesi, an area of what is today eastern Indonesia, and in 2006 he was the co-organizer of a symposium that invited scholars to examine this phenomenon in other parts of Southeast Asia and the world. A report on the symposium by Mary Somers Heidhues can be found here. A couple of years later some of the papers from the conference were published in a special issue of Indonesia and the Malay World 36 (2008).

In her report on the symposium, Mary Somers Heidhues wrote that “David Henley has speculated that the receptivity of the people of North Sulawesi to Dutch colonialism may have been motivated by a kind of stranger-king phenomenon, a willingness to accept foreign rule and rulers because the outsiders acted as impartial adjudicators in the many disputes that had previously typically led to outbreaks of violence. Supernatural prowess is another possible characteristic of stranger-kings, while others may win over followers by their facility in trade or special access to technology.”

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The stranger king theory has been particularly used to talk about how Europeans gained colonial control over certain parts of the world. The theory argues that to some extent, and for various reasons, indigenous peoples allowed the European “stranger kings” to take control.

As Ian Caldwell and David Henley note in their introduction to the special issue of Indonesia and the Malay World, this theory would have been unspeakable in the 1950s-1970s “when a cresting wave of anticolonial nationalism. . . inclined even conservative scholars to downplay the role of foreigners,” but that “In our own era of multiculturalism, globalization, and the waning of egalitarian ideals, it has perhaps become easier to admit the historical importance of alien influences and elites alongside local genius and solidarity.”

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It might be easier today for some scholars to “admit the historical importance of alien influences and elites” but most scholarship on Vietnamese history today is still about “local genius and solidarity,” because the “wave of anticolonial nationalism” has still not crested.

It’s too bad that that is the case, and it’s too bad that no one who works on Vietnam (or any of the mainland areas) was at this symposium because I think that places like the Red River Delta fit the stranger king model very well.

As is well known, the founders of two important medieval dynasties in the Red River Delta, the Lý and the Trần, both either came from, or were members of families that had come from, “China,” and the area of what is today Fujian Province in particular.

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While this is well known, a great deal of effort gets expended in trying to explain away the foreignness of these people and to emphasize that either they had become local, or that even though they were from Fujian, they were not “Chinese” because there were non-“Chinese” people who lived in Fujian, etc.

This latter point is true, but it’s also true that one of the earliest kingdoms in Fujian, the Kingdom of Min/Mân, was established by one of those “Chinese” who had come from the north – a “stranger king.”

Film Title: Cowboys & Aliens

I think it makes perfect sense to argue that the Lý and the Trần were also founded by “stranger kings.” What is more, we can compare the situation in the Red River Delta with the countless other examples of stranger kings throughout the world throughout history to gain a sense of what type of stranger kings they were and what “model” of the stranger king phenomenon they fit.

Nationalist histories seek to show that a certain group is special. Non-nationalist histories identify phenomena that are common to human beings. Stranger kings are a common phenomena, and the Red River Delta is not an exceptional part of the world.

The founders of the Lý and the Trần were one form of stranger king, and it is therefore their “strangeness” that in part enabled them to become “kings” in the Red River Delta. We could learn a lot more about the history of that region of the world if we examined them as such.

Film Title: Cowboys & Aliens

I’ve got pictures from what are known in the US as “Western” movies here because that genre relies heavily on a variation of the stranger king idea, the “stranger comes to town” theme. You have a town where there is some kind of trouble. A stranger comes to town. He ends up getting involved, sees who is really causing the problem, and “brings justice” to the town.

Historically there have been many places in the world were it took a “stranger” to bring peace and justice to an area. And in many ways, it was that person’s “strangeness” (whether that be a mystical power, an impartial outlook, or some combination of those elements) that enabled him to do so.