I recently started reading the famous Indonesian novel Never the Twain (Saluh Asuhan) by Abdoel Moeis. Written in 1928, it is about a young Minangkabau man, Hanafi, who has become very Westernized, so much so that he rejects the “traditional” Minangkabau world where he comes from.
He lives in a town, Solok, with his mother in a Western-style house. This is how their house is described in the novel:
Everything about the house was European, from the front veranda to the kitchen and the bathroom. Hanafi’s mother could not feel at home in such a house. Like most village women, she preferred sitting on the floor; her betel-nut case, spittoon, and cooking utensils in the kitchen were the only objects in the house she felt comfortable with. They were her world.
But Hanafi hated his mother’s world. . .
Hanafi said every time his mother spread her mat on the back veranda to wait for the visits of her friends: her village friends, “Mother, in the longhouse in Koto Anau you can spread your mat on the floor. . . wherever you like, but this is Solok. All my friends are Dutch.”
Hanafi’s mother then says, “But my back hurts when I sit on a chair, my feet too.”
And Hanafi replies, “That’s what’s wrong. That’s what’s wrong with our people; they’re backward, out of touch with the modern world, sitting on the ground like water buffalo. And that betel-nut chewing; it’s too much.”
This conflict between Hanafi and his mother is meant to represent the larger changes that were taking place in the Netherlands East Indies in the early twentieth century. There were people like Hanafi who were changing through their contact with the Dutch, but more than that, these people were also rejecting the world that they had come from.
This combination of adopting something “foreign” and rejecting what is “local” led to massive changes; the way people dressed, sat, ate, thought, the language they spoke, etc.
When people change this much, they cease to be the same as their ancestors. They become a new people.
This process began in the early twentieth century in the Dutch East Indies and it is continuing today. “Indonesians” are being created out of various ethnic groups, and over time some of those ethnic groups will decrease in size and importance and become socially marginalized.
If we go to the Red River delta, I think that we would find that the same thing started to happen there roughly 1,000 years ago. At that time there were foreigners that some local people interacted with and a foreign culture that some local people adopted. As they did so, they also rejected the world of their ancestors.
In previous posts on this blog I talked about how the Đông Sơn bronze drums and a musical instrument depicted on them, the khene, were never important to the Việt. And what is more, that the Việt referred to people who used bronze drums as “savages” (man 蠻).
This is because the Việt are like Hanafi. The category of being “Việt” emerged when some people adopted foreign cultural practices and rejected local cultural practices. Also like Hanafi, at first it was just a small number of people who did this, but because they were the elite, over time their ideas and cultural practices spread, slowly creating a “new people” in the process.
Hanafi still had the same blood in him as Minangkabau people, but through his adoption of foreign ways and his rejection of local ways, he was becoming something else – Indonesian.
People like Đinh Bộ Lĩnh and Ngô Quyền probably still had some of the same blood in their veins as Đông Sơn peoples, but through their adoption of foreign ways and their rejection of local ways (including bronze drums and the khene), they were becoming something else – Việt.