A friend recently pointed out to me that there is an article that North Vietnamese historian Trần Huy Liệu wrote in 1956 that more or less set the guidelines by which later scholars in the North examined the early history of the Red River Delta.
In reading this article I was fascinated to see how clearly it reflected a sense of romantic nationalism.
Romantic nationalism is a way of viewing the world that emerged in Eastern Europe in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. At that time, there were German-language speakers who resided in various polities, and some intellectuals (like Johann Gottfried von Herder) started to argue that all of those German-language speakers actually made up a single group of peoples (a nation), even though in reality they were divided by many cultural and religious differences and had never been politically unified.
To tie together these diverse peoples, some scholars looked to “the folk” (or common people) and argued that “the folk” maintained a cultural tradition that defined the nation. This was the emergence of “folklore.”
In reality there wasn’t any common cultural tradition that unified the people, but the production of “folklore” and “folk tales” by intellectuals helped create the sense that such a tradition actually existed.
Finally, intellectuals like Herder talked about the existence of “a spirit” that was shared by “the folk” as a result of their having shared a common historical experience.
Therefore, romantic nationalism, like other forms of nationalism, was used by intellectuals to invent/imagine/create nations.
The same process is clearly evident in Trần Huy Liệu’s essay. He begins by talking about some of the texts that record information about the early history of the Red River Delta (texts that were written down centuries after the time they record information about), and makes the following (not clearly written) comment:
“In mentioning those early days of the nation’s establishment, we all know that there were no written records. But the myths and legends that remain for us today, reflecting from a social reality, can still help us see the essence of a story that sheds light on some aspect of reality.”
[Nhắc đến những ngày đầu lập quốc, chúng ta đều biết rằng lúc ấy chưa có sử sách. Nhung những truyện thần thọai và truyền thuyết còn để lại cho chúng ta ngày nay, phản ánh từ một hiện thực xã hội, vẫn có thể giúp cho chúng ta tìm thấy thực chất của câu chuyện để rọi ra một phần nào của thực tế.]
I wish Trần Huy Liệu had written those sentences more clearly, but what he seems to have wanted to say is that the stories that we have about the early history of the Red River Delta show us at least some aspects of the reality of life at the time of the nation’s foundation, more than 2,000 years earlier, and that therefore, the nation and its “folk/dân” had existed for that long as well.
Trần Huy Liệu goes on to talk about various things that we find in these texts that he argues symbolize the shared practices and efforts that have united the people in the nation since the time of the nation’s founding, such as struggling against nature and fighting off foreign invaders.
In other words, just as romantic nationalism imagined a common history for “the folk,” Trần Huy Liệu here likewise argued that from the time of the Hùng kings to the present there had been a common history for all of the people of Vietnam that had given all of the people a common purpose. That common purpose was to protect the fatherland.
What is interesting here is that Trần Huy Liệu made these comments at a time when Vietnam was divided, and he makes specific reference to that fact at the end of his essay. Romantic nationalism was perfect for this, as it was created in order to unite people who were not united. And in both the German and Vietnamese cases it largely succeeded in doing so.
In the end, Germans and Vietnamese were united in the same way, by being told by intellectuals that they were part of a “folk/dân” who shared a common language, common traditions, a common history, and a common spirit or sense of purpose.