I came across an article that Đào Duy Anh published in 1954 in the journal Văn Sử Địa. In this article, Đào Duy Anh argues against the ideas of European scholars who had said that the bronze-age Đông Sơn culture showed signs of influence coming from either the Hallstatt region of Europe (Janse and Heine-Geldern) or from China (Goloubew and Finot).
This reminded me of a conversation the other night that I had with an archaeologist. I asked what the latest theories about the spread of the use of bronze, and metallurgy in general, to Southeast Asia are.
The archaeologists told me that people now believe that knowledge of metallurgy in Southeast Asia came from the north, and that ultimately they see it coming from areas to the west of China. The debate among archaeologists who focus on Southeast Asia is whether knowledge about metallurgy came to Southeast Asia from Central Asia after developing for a while in China, or whether it came more directly from Central Asia (via the Gansu corridor and Yunnan).
[There are a couple of articles that are freely available on the Internet that cover these debates: “On the Metallurgy in Prehistoric Southeast Asia: The View from Thailand” and “The Transmission of Early Bronze Technology to Thailand: New Perspectives”]
It is interesting how these ideas have in some ways come back to the ideas of people like Janse and Heine-Geldern. This points to an important issue about the way in which people think about colonial-era scholarship.
In the post-colonial era, it became easy, and even fashionable, to dismiss the scholarship of colonial-era scholars. In reality, however, the problem sometimes was not with the ideas that scholars of that era came up with, but with the way that they explained what they saw.
If we take Henri Maspero and the Hùng kings, for instance, we see that he didn’t see evidence that any such kings had ever existed. The way that he then explained the mentioning of Hùng kings in medieval texts was by saying that Vietnamese scholars had mistakenly copied the character for “lạc” in early Chinese accounts of the Red River Delta as “hùng” (or more specifically, that Chinese scribes had made this mistake and later Vietnamese scholars somehow did not notice and just perpetuated the earlier Chinese mistake).
So there are two points here: 1) one is the statement that there were no Hùng kings and 2) the other is the statement that the use of the term “hùng” was the result of a scribal error.
In challenging Maspero’s claims, Vietnamese scholars have refuted both of these points and have seen his ideas as “colonial” or “Euro-centric.”
As I see it, it’s only the second point that we can associate with a “colonial” mindset. Maspero could not see the Vietnamese as having agency, and as having created an invented tradition about their past.
To Maspero, Vietnamese did not have that kind of agency. They could not be inventive or creative. They could only copy. And in the case of the character for “hùng,” he argued that this was a case of the Vietnamese having copied something incorrectly.
As for the “Hùng kings,” no one since the time of Maspero has demonstrated that they existed. People have found archaeological artifacts in the Red River Delta, but no one has been able to clearly connect those artifacts with information in texts about the Hùng kings.
Someone was living in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC, and Cổ Loa was a citadel that was constructed at that time, but that’s all we know. We haven’t found evidence of “Hùng kings,” just of “someone.”
So in that sense, Maspero was right. There were no Hùng kings. However, he was wrong in arguing that the mention of Hùng kings in historical texts was somehow the result of an early copying error. That was a very condescending (and “colonial”) way of looking at the Vietnamese and their past.
I don’t know all of the details that archaeologists are using to talk about their theories of how knowledge about metallurgy spread to Southeast Asia. I also can’t remember all of the details that Janse and Heine-Geldern used to argue that Đông Sơn culture had been influenced by the Hallstatt culture of Europe. However, my suspicion would be that this is a case similar to that of Maspero. What Janse and Heine-Geldern saw is not the problem. The problem is how they explained what they saw.
In colonial-era scholarship it was the explanations of some scholars that were sometimes “colonial.” Their ideas, on the other hand, were not necessarily “colonial,” and it has been the mistake of subsequent generations of scholars to dismiss them as such.