In the Analects (Lunyu 論語), there is a line that goes as follows:
“The master said, ‘If names are not rectified, then what is said will not obey/follow [true meaning], and if what is said does not obey/follow [true meaning], then affairs cannot be accomplished.’” 子曰：「名不正，則言不順；言不順則事不成」
The idea here is that people can attach agreed upon, and accurate, meanings to words, and that from time to time people need to “re-do” this because reality changes, and/or people’s understanding of reality changes, and when this happens, the terms that they had been using no longer match reality, so they have to “rectify names” (正名) so that words can more accurately depict reality.
This is a point that the Swiss linguist, Ferdinand be Saussure, both agreed with and challenged in the early twentieth century when he argued (and I’m simplifying his ideas here) that the relationship between words, or what he called “signifiers,” and the ideas they referred to, or what he called “the signified,” was arbitrary and did not remain stable over time.
So Confucius and Saussure agreed that the relationship between words and their meanings was not stable, but Confucius felt that from time to time people could stabilize that relationship by “rectifying names.” Saussure, on the other hand, (I think) would have argued that one could never succeed in doing that because the relationship between words and their meanings is arbitrary, and that therefore people will always understand words in different ways.
I agree with Saussure that we can’t completely control how people understand words, but I also agree with Confucius that we nonetheless need to at least try to make an effort to use words that reflect what we understand of reality as clearly as possible, and that as our understanding of reality changes, we need to “rectify” the words we use to talk about reality.
So maybe we could combine the ideas of Confucius and Saussure and talk about the “rectification of signifiers.” The idea here is that we need to “rectify” words so that we can more accurately express what we understand, but that we also acknowledge that words as “signifiers” (in Saussure’s sense), are never stable, and that there will always be people who will understand them differently from the way that we use them.
With that in mind, let’s look at the signifier, “Việt.” The area of the world where the modern nation-state of Vietnam is located has undergone many changes over the past 3000 years. Many people understand this, but none of us, I would argue, have accurate words to describe this.
If, for instance, we use a single term to refer to people in the area of the Red River Delta over the course of those 3,000 years (such as “Việt”) then we get a sense of continuity. However, it is obvious that tremendous changes occurred over that period as well. Isn’t that also important to recognize?
Contemporary Vietnamese scholars sometimes add the term “ancient” (cổ) to a term like “Việt” to talk about the “ancient Việt” (Việt cổ). This indicates change, because the “ancient Việt” had to change to become the “modern Việt,” but it also emphasizes continuity as well – everyone is “Việt.”
As far as we can tell, however, “Việt/Yue” is a term which people from outside the region gave to numerous peoples who lived in an area that today covers much of southern China and extending into northern Vietnam. We don’t have evidence to support the idea that people in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC actually called themselves “Việt.”
So why should we call them that? When we include the term “Việt” in a name that we give to the people in the first millennium BC (such as Lạc Việt or người Việt cổ) we indicate continuity and a direct connection with the present. But what is it that continued? What is the connection?
Certainly not language or culture. Those both changed dramatically, so much so that I can’t think of a “signified” that the “signifier,” “Việt,” can refer to across that long period of time other than blood. But is blood really that important? If so, why and how?
In the end, I have no idea what to call people in the Red River Delta at various points in history. I do think that we should use multiple names to indicate how people changed culturally, linguistically and socially over time, but in creating such names we will also give the sense that these changes were much clearer and more comprehensive than they probably were (for instance, if we create names based on what we know about how the elite changed, we will run the risk of implying that everyone changed at that same time in that same way).
As problematic as that is, I still think it’s worth trying. Because although we now understand that the relationship between “signifiers” and the “signified” is much more complex than Confucius did, I still think he was right in thinking that if we don’t make an effort to try to agree upon what words indicate, then we simply can’t communicate with each other. And it is clear that there were too many changes in the past for a single signifier to capture.