Today I was looking at a work that was published in 1985, the History of Vietnam (Lịch sử Việt Nam). The first chapter deals with archaeological information and the second chapter then deals with the formation of the country of Văn Lang during the time of the Hùng kings.
This second chapter opens with a passage that states that before a history of the “nation” or “nationality” (dân tộc) was compiled, among “our people” (nhân dân ta) there were “myths” (huyền thoại) and “legends” (truyền thuyết) that circulated, such as the story of the Hồng Bàng clan, the story of Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh, and the Tale of Watermelon. It also says that the compiling together of these stories in works like the fifteenth-century Lĩnh Nam chích quái can be seen as the creation of a “folk history” (bộ sử dân gian).
The author of the second chapter then goes on to talk about some of the information in such “folk histories.” In particular, he mentions how the account of the geographical extent of the Kingdom of Văn Lang that says that it extended all the way north to Lake Dongting is clearly not accurate. He then talks about what he thinks is accurate, and says the following:
“Based on [the information about] the 15 regions of the country of Văn Lang, and based particularly on the process of historical transformation from the country of Văn Lang during the time of the Hùng kings to the country of Âu Lạc during the time of King An Dương, and then to the two commanderies of Giao Chỉ and Cửu Chân during the time under the jurisdiction of the Triệu/Zhao and the Hán/Han, it can be affirmed that the area of the country of Văn Lang was comparable to the area of the Northern Region, and the northern part of the Central Region of our country today, as well as a part of the southern areas of China’s Guangdong and Guangxi [provinces].”
I find the writing here fascinating in the way that it builds upon assumptions, and in the way that it blurs the line between what we know and what we don’t know.
The assumptions that this information is based upon are that there has been a “nation” or “nationality” since the first millennium BC, that there were “legends” that were passed down before they were recorded, and that there was a unified “people” who shared these legends. These are all points that are assumed to be true. They are not shown to be true.
The way that the author then blurs the lines between what we know and what we don’t know can be seen in the way that he dismisses the account of the area of the Kingdom of Văn Lang that has it extending all the way north to Lake Dongting at the same time that he uses the “15 regions” of Văn Lang (which some accounts placed in the area of the Red River Delta) to help “affirm” where the area of the Kingdom of Văn Lang was.
Both of these pieces of information – the account of the Kingdom of Văn Lang’s territory extending northward to Lake Dongting and the mention of the 15 regions – are equally problematic, because, among other reasons, both of these pieces of information first appeared in texts over 1,000 years after the period that they purport to describe.
So why is one “right” and the other “wrong”? Because the one that is “right” (about the “15 regions”) fits more closely with the assumption that there has always been a single nation in the area of the Red River Delta.
To be perfectly fair and honest, when I read a text like this one, I get the sense that the author understood these points and was very careful in what he wrote. When he wrote that “Based on [the information about] the 15 regions of the country of Văn Lang, and based particularly on the process of historical transformation. . .” I think that the use of the word “particularly” (nhất) in that sentence is significant, as it was a way to indicate that the information about the “15 regions” is not the most reliable or important.
Ultimately, however, this creates problems because it blurs the lines between what we know and what we don’t know, and between the information that we can use to understand the history of the Red River Delta region in the first millennium BC and the information that we can’t use for that purpose.
At this point in time it would be really helpful to go back and attempt to delineate more clearly the lines between information that can be used and information that can’t be used to talk about the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC. To do this would of course require that we put aside some of the assumptions that earlier historians relied upon.
I’m not sure what we would end up seeing, but at the very least we would get a clearer sense of what we actually can know. At the moment, assumptions and blurred lines prevent us from doing that.