Several decades ago in North America it was common for archaeologists to use historical texts to interpret and explain their findings. Then archaeologists started to realize that many historical texts are not true, and that rather than using texts to explain their findings, they should just interpret their findings on their own.
I was reminded of this as I read a passage in a Vietnamese history textbook that combined textual and archaeological information. The textual information was a story recorded in the fifteenth-century collection of tales, the Lĩnh Nam chích quái, called “The Tale of Heavenly King Đổng” (a.k.a. Thánh Gióng).
In this story, a Hùng king hears that the Ân/Yin (i.e., the Shang Dynasty, 16th-11th centuries BC) is going to attack to punish him for not having paid homage at the Ân/Yin court. The Hùng king’s officials then find a boy who has grown into a giant, and this boy fights off the Ân/Yin army, and the Ân/Yin king died in the battle.
If this (or something like it) had actually happened, one would assume that some reference to it would appear in Chinese sources. But there is no reference to these events in Chinese sources. Instead, this information first appears in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái over 2,500 years after the time that this story describes.
So what do you do with information like this?
Well in the 1960s, scholars in North Vietnam decided that the way you deal with problematic historical information like this is to look at information in other fields, such as archaeology, ethnology and linguistics. They believed (without evidence to support this view) that the stories in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái were tales that had been passed down orally through the centuries, and that there therefore must be some kind of evidence out there that can help verify the information in these stories.
So starting in the 1960s there were many people who called on scholars to connect this written information with the findings of archaeologists and ethnologists. The above passage from an article that Hoàng Hưng, an historian from the Institute of History, published in 1972 is representative of the comments that many people made at that time. Essentially what he says is that if a scholar does not know how to “cautiously select” (thận trọng chọn lọc) the right information from a text like the Lĩnh Nam chích quái then s/he will make mistakes. Hoàng Hưng then argues that in order to avoid making mistakes about the past, one has to use the findings of scholars in other fields to help determine what information in texts like the Lĩnh Nam chích quái is correct.
On the surface, this call for scholars to be “multidisciplinary” is a good idea. Today this is something that many scholars around the world strongly agree with. However, the way in which this “multidisciplinary” approach has been implemented in Vietnam has not necessarily been successful.
The reason why it has not been successful is because before you can check texts against other evidence, you have to reach the best conclusion about those texts that you can possibly make. You have to decide what evidence in those texts might possibly come from an earlier period, and what evidence seems unlikely or impossible to have come from an earlier period.
For the most part, this process has not taken place in Vietnam. Instead, scholars freely decide what information that they want to select from a text like the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and then they combine that information with information from other fields to “prove” that the information in the text is correct.
Here is an example that illustrates this. In a history textbook that is used for university-level courses, there is a passage at the beginning that states that archaeology has “proven” that the above story about Thánh Gióng is historically correct. The archaeological “evidence” for this is that more weapons have been found from the Đông Sơn period than from the earlier Phùng Nguyên period. The idea here is that those extra weapons were used by people like Thánh Gióng to fight off the Ân/Yin.
There are various problems with this passage. First of all, from the mere existence of weapons we cannot tell who was fighting whom. It could have been that people in the Red River Delta fought with other people in the Red River Delta.
Second, and more importantly, before someone can make a claim that archaeological evidence “proves” that the story of Thánh Gióng is historically correct, we need to first engage in a critical examination of the Thánh Gióng story to see what we can determine by textual analysis.
Fortunately, there are two scholars who have done this.
Tạ Chí Đại Trường and Trần Quốc Vượng both examined this story and came to the same conclusion. They both concluded that this spirit was first worshipped as a nature spirit, that Buddhists later appropriated it and created a story about it, and that finally in the late 14th century “Confucian” scholars did the same, creating the story about Thánh Gióng fighting off the Ân/Yin.
Finally, not only were the critical textual studies of these two scholars convincing, this pattern of nature spirits being appropriated by first Buddhists and then Confucian scholars that they document is one that has been very well documented by scholars for other parts of East Asia, and this makes their argument even more convincing.
Archaeology therefore does not “prove” that the story about Thánh Gióng is historically accurate, because critical textual scholarship has proven that the story of Thánh Gióng was created in the late 14th century, or perhaps even later.
Multidisciplinary scholarship only works when the scholarship in each of the respective disciplines meets the standards of each discipline, and when everyone uses the best scholarship from each discipline in their research. In the case of Vietnam, scholars started engaging in multi-disciplinary scholarship before many basic issues in historical scholarship that can be resolved had been resolved.
The story of Thánh Gióng is an exception in that it has been resolved. Tạ Chí Đại Trường and Trần Quốc Vượng came to a convincing conclusion that the story of Thánh Gióng is not historically true. So scholars should take note of that and not use that information to interpret archaeological findings.
At the same time, there is a great deal more information in a text like the Lĩnh Nam chích quái that critical textual scholarship can also demonstrate is not historically true (like the Xích Quỷ kingdom, the Việt Thượng, Văn Lang, the 15 regions, etc.). Until scholars do that, there will continue to be many unsuccessful examples of multidisciplinary scholarship.