I was looking around in the Texas Tech Virtual Vietnam Archive when I found quite a few materials that were from an organization called the American Friends of Vietnam (AFV). Today there is an organization by that name, but it is different from the AFV in the past, which was a private organization that sought through various means to strengthen American support for South Vietnam.
One way they did this was by helping the University of Hue. Established in 1957, the University of Hue needed plenty of assistance, and the AFV did a lot of work to get various people and organizations in the US to donate books to the university library.
There are a lot of documents in the Virtual Vietnam Archive about this, but in looking through these records I also found a couple of documents (here and here) about a “Historical Documents Translation Project” at the University of Hue.
In 1959, the Rector of the University of Hue, Lê Thanh Minh Châu [diacritics correct?] established a board that was to oversee 1) the translation of Vietnamese historical sources from classical Chinese to vernacular Vietnamese and 2) the cataloging of the extant historical materials in Hue, the former imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty.
One of the people on that board, Taiwanese scholar Chen Jinghe (Trần Kinh Hòa), was chosen by the other members of the board to serve as the “Secretary General” of these projects, and he definitely did not disappoint people.
The first achievement of the “Historical Document Translation Project,” under Chen Jinghe’s directorship, was to produce a translation of Lê Tắc’s An Nam chí lược.
What was significant about this project was that the scholars involved attempted to create a “critical edition” of this work. At that time, there were copies of this text in Vietnam, China, Japan and England, and the scholars at Hue wanted to collect all of these different versions and produce a work that showed how the various editions differed.
For historical scholarship, this is an essential first step. If you have various versions of a text, the first thing that you have to do is to compare them and come to an understanding of how they differ. It is then extremely helpful to show others this information. And the way you do that is by creating a “critical edition” (or what some people call a “collated edition”) of a text.
The ultimate example of this is Chen Jinghe’s “critical edition” of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư which he published in Japan in the 1980s. What Chen Jinghe did in this work was to take one version of that text as his “base text,” and then at the bottom of each page he indicated how other versions of the text differed.
While there are some mistakes in this text, it is still THE BEST version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư for scholars to work with, as it shows them the places where different versions of the text differ. That is incredibly important for scholars to see and know.
So the best version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư for scholars to work with was compiled by a Taiwanese scholar and published in Japan. . . The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, meanwhile, is arguably the most important text for the Vietnamese nation.
Does this make anyone feel uncomfortable? It certainly makes me feel uncomfortable! Sure, I don’t have a problem with foreigners producing insightful scholarship about a given nation, but there are some things that scholars within a given nation really need to take charge of themselves.
Reading these two documents and seeing that the rector of the University of Hue understood this, and that the board of the “Historical Documents Translation Project” understood this, makes me feel even more uncomfortable.
This doesn’t have to be political, as ultimately it comes down to personal pride. People (anywhere in the world) should have the pride to produce work that is the best it can possibly be.
Chen Jinghe had that pride, and that is why he produced the best version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư for scholars to work with.