I have been reading accounts of the early history of the Red River Delta and am trying to see how historians (both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese) deal with the fact that the historical information that we have about much of the first millennium BC appears in sources that were compiled over 1,000 years later.

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In reading the works of Vietnamese scholars I see a general pattern in the way that scholars justify their interpretation of the past, and I will use the above book as an example.

The above author first talks about the historical sources that say that there was a line of kings called the Hùng kings who ruled in the first millennium BC, and then says that premodern scholars had doubts about this information, but that they did not examine this information with a methodology enabled them to get to the truth.

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Then in the twentieth century the French introduced new ways of looking at the past. Some of the French scholars were Sinologists (“người thông thạo Hán học” – and therefore not really knowledgeable about Vietnamese society), and in looking at early Vietnamese historical sources they concluded that information about early kings – the “Hùng kings” – was not historically accurate.

At the same time that French scholars dismissed information in Vietnamese historical sources, they introduce the practice of archaeology and found evidence of a sophisticated society in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC – the Đơng Sôn society/culture.

The above author (like many other authors), goes on to say that because the French were “Euro-centric” and had a “colonialist” mindset, they did not interpret their findings correctly. In particular, they emphasized foreign influences on the region rather than talk about indigenous developments.

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It was thus only in the late 1960s when scholars in North Vietnam examined the first millennium BC that a “correct” understanding of the past finally emerged.

What these scholars argued was that the developments that took place in the Red River Delta throughout much of the first millennium BC were indigenous.

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That is fine, however in making this claim, scholars then make what we can call a “semantic slide.” They go from talking about archaeological artifacts (without making reference to historical texts) to saying that the “Hùng king period” (thời đại Hùng Vương) really existed.

This expression – the “Hùng king period” really existed – is extremely vague. In saying that the “Hùng king period” really existed, are scholars saying that we can rely on what is written in later historical sources? Or is this simply an expression that is used to “talk back” to the colonial French scholars, and what it really means is that there was a “sophisticated indigenous society” in the Red River Delta (which may have been completely unrelated to what was later written in texts)?

It’s very difficult to tell, and this is one aspect of the “semantic slide.” Scholars do not make it clear what they think, and therefore it is easy for “meaning” to “slide” from one point to another.

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However, even if there are cases when scholars use the expression, the “Hùng king period,” to refer in general to a “sophisticated indigenous society” in the first millennium BC and do not argue that what was written later in texts was actually true, they nonetheless go ahead and use information from those later historical sources to talk about the first millennium BC.

This is another aspect of the “semantic slide.” Once a scholar has declared that Đông Sơn artifacts demonstrate that the “Hùng king period” really existed, then s/he will go ahead and use whatever information from historical sources s/he wants.

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The problem is that archaeologists have not found evidence to support what is written in those later sources. No one has found the Hùng king’s capital. The border of the kingdom, as described in historical sources, does not match the area that archaeologists look at. The list of differences between what was written later and what archaeologists have dug up from the ground goes on and on. . .

So archaeologists have not found evidence of any actual Hùng kings. They have simply found evidence of a sophisticated indigenous society. However, when scholars declare that this archaeological evidence proves the existence of the “Hùng king period,” they blur the lines between these two points, and allow meaning to slide in the direction they want it to.

This “semantic slide” is extremely convenient. It enables scholars to avoid having to be precise, and gives them the freedom to use whatever information they want, however they want.