The Bách Việt and the Absence of Postcolonial History in Vietnam

Not long after many colonized peoples around the globe gained independence in the middle of the twentieth century, some scholars started to notice that in many ways colonialism still existed, and that the place where it still existed was in people’s minds. Even though people had become politically free, their minds were still colonized.

During the colonial era, the colonizers came up with ideas about the colonized and their histories. After the colonial era ended, people from former colonies “resisted” their former colonizers by “re-writing” what the colonizers had said about them.

What is interesting, however, is that in “writing back” against the ideas that the colonizers had created, the former colonized used the exact same concepts that the colonizers had created, but simply reversed them, making themselves superior and the former colonizers inferior.

This is what scholars refer to as “mental colonization.” It refers to this phenomenon where the former colonized still use the concepts that their former colonizers created. People who cannot think beyond the concepts that the colonizers created are still “mentally colonized.”

colonizerandcolonized

A good example of this can be seen in an early article that Keith Taylor wrote. Even though Taylor was not a member of a colonized people, an article that he published in 1980 is nonetheless a perfect example of “writing back” against a colonizer by using the ideas that the colonizer created.

In an articled entitled “An Evaluation of the Chinese Period in Vietnamese History” (Journal of Asiatic Studies 23, no. 1:139-63), Taylor responded to a claim that Henri Maspero had made early in the twentieth century.

Maspero had argued that before the Chinese had come, the Việt had not been unified, and that it was the Chinese who taught the Việt how to unify and build a strong country.

Taylor responded to this by talking about figures like the Hùng kings to argue that there already existed a strong political tradition before the Chinese arrived, and that therefore, the Chinese had not taught the Việt how to unify and create a strong country.

maspero

So what Taylor did in this article was to take the ideas that Maspero had proposed and to argue against them. But in arguing against them, Taylor used the same concepts that Maspero had proposed.

Was Maspero right? Does it make sense to talk about political unity 2,000 years ago? Or is that a concept that’s not really applicable to that period of history? Was there a strong unified country anywhere in the world at that time?

Probably not, and it looks like this is something that Taylor has come to conclude, because in his recent book on Vietnamese history, he doesn’t even talk about the Hùng kings anymore.

vietnamese

So how can a scholar go from using the Hùng kings as evidence to counter the ideas of Henri Maspero to writing a book about the history of the Vietnamese in which he doesn’t even talk about the Hùng kings?

I would argue that what happened is that Taylor “decolonized” his mind. He must have come to conclude that the concepts that Maspero used to view the past were not accurate, and that it was therefore better to ignore what Maspero said and to come up with a new way of viewing the past, one that he himself created.

bachviet

This is something that has not happened in Vietnam yet. And recently in reading some articles where I see people talking about the “Bách Việt,” I can see this very clearly.

The term “Bách Việt” was used by certain people in the area of what is today “China” over 2,000 years ago to refer to people who lived to their south. The “Chinese” at that time, saw the “Bách Việt” as “barbarian.”

Today there are Vietnamese who are “writing back” against this view, and are arguing that the “Bách Việt” were actually in many ways more “civilized” originally than the “Chinese.”

This is a classic example of the type of scholarship that gets produced by people who are mentally colonized. These scholars produce scholarship to refute the claims that Chinese made over 2,000 years ago. In doing so, however, they use the exact same mental concepts and categories that the Chinese did over 2,000 years ago.

The only difference is that they reverse the importance of these categories, and make the “Bách Việt” important and the “Chinese” not important. But they are still using the same categories that the “Chinese” created.

colonizedmind

This is mental colonization, and it is China-centric scholarship. When you take Chinese ideas and reverse them, you are still using Chinese ideas, and your scholarship is therefore still China-centric.

It’s only when you move beyond the concepts and categories that others create, that you become truly independent. This is something that Vietnamese historians have not done yet.

To date, as far as I know, no Vietnamese postcolonial theorist has emerged who talks about these issues. Unlike in India and in the Pacific where postcolonial theory is very well developed, in Vietnam this is unexplored territory.

As a result, colonized minds continue to produce colonial scholarship. By reversing what the colonizers said, they think that they are doing something new, but by following the same concepts that the colonizers created, they remain mentally colonized and their scholarship remains colonial.

4 thoughts on “The Bách Việt and the Absence of Postcolonial History in Vietnam

  1. Thanks for the very interesting piece. Do you think that if a concept is useful for your analysis, it does not matter for scholars whether it is colonialized or postcolonial? And in the case of Bách Việt, what concept would you suggest to relace then?

    1. Thanks for the comment!!

      I guess I would say that we should always reflect on the concepts we use, and always question how we know the things that we know, and always ask if the concept still makes sense as our knowledge grows and changes. If some concept can “survive” those questions, they yes, keep using it.

      The other thing I would say is that it is important to try to keep emotions and ego out of scholarship. Colonial scholars saw their own people as great. After the colonial era ended, some people wrote back and said “No, we are great.” The key is to just write logically about the past.

      As for the concept of Bách Việt, I wouldn’t replace it with a clear concept. I would just say that there were a lot of different peoples who lived to the south of the Yangzi river. A tiny number of people from an area to the north of the Yangzi wrote a little bit about them in antiquity, but the things they said about them had more to do with things that were in their own heads, rather than any reality on the ground, and the way they talked about the Bách Việt changed over time.
      [There is a good article about that here: http://www.ihp.sinica.edu.tw/~asiamajor/pdf/2003a/03%20brindley.pdf%5D

      Further, the people who lived to the north of the Yangzi were not a culturally-unified group, nor were the people to the south of the Yangzi. From material culture we can see that some objects were shared, but (good) archaeologists will remind us that we cannot determine ethnicity or language from material objects (think of the present – people all over the world drive Toyota cars, but that does not make them “unified” in any way other than the fact that they all drive Toyota cars).

      We also have pretty much no idea what people to the south of the Yangzi thought about themselves.

      So that is the “concept” that I would replace Bách Việt with – just explaining what we know and don’t know, and what we can’t know.

      Thanks again for the comment!!

  2. Thank you for this piece. I have long been a follower of your blog and I find it very useful. I agree with you that postcolonial theory has not been explored by Vietnamese scholarships. What do you think are some of the postulated causes of this unexplored territory? Is it because of the inherent challenges in methodology that prevent scholars from venturing into this realm? or any other reasons?

  3. Yea, if you look around on the web you can see that individual Vietnamese scholars have interacted with the works of various postcolonial scholars, but most of that has been by Vietnamese who have studied abroad, and whose voices to not really get heard back in Vietnam. I have yet to see a Vietnamese historian based in Vietnam attempt to address the issues that postcolonial scholars have addressed. And yes, I think that it has to do with the difficulty of understanding the methodology, as well as the lack of understanding and support by other scholars in Vietnam to do so.

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