There was a brief article in VnExpress the other day called “What can you do if you study Hán Nôm?” “Hán” is the same as what other people call “classical Chinese” and “Nôm” is the name for a demotic script that was developed in the past to write the Vietnamese vernacular. It is based on Chinese characters.

In Vietnam, “Hán Nôm” is a field of its own. People who study in that field learn to read classical Chinese and Nôm and then they read texts and either translate them into modern Vietnamese if the original text was written in classical Chinese or transliterate them into the Romanized script that is used today in Vietnam if the original text was in Nôm.

Scholars who study Hán Nôm also write about various textual issues that they come across, such as the authenticity of certain texts or the accuracy of information in texts.

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So what can you do if you study Hán Nôm? The VnExpress article lists various things, from teaching Hán Nôm to working as a translator, but I found it interesting that there is one profession that was not listed – historian.

I find this interesting because in history departments in Vietnam, students are not required to gain a solid knowledge of classical Chinese or Nôm in order to study the past, even though the vast majority of historical sources up until the early twentieth century are in that language.

In many other parts of the world, it is inconceivable that someone can become a professional historian without an ability to read primary sources in their original language. For some reason, however, this is acceptable in Vietnam, and I have never been able to understand why.

Meanwhile there are people who can read those documents – people who study Hán Nôm – but those people are not trained in history or historical methodology. And as the VnExpress article indicate, becoming an historian (or teaching history) is not really an option for people who study Hán Nôm.

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Why is it the case that the people who learn to read primary sources in the original language are off in a field of their own? I think it has to do with the history of Vietnam’s engagement with the outside world. The field of Hán Nôm studies is a continuation of the field of philology, a field that was particularly strong in Europe and the Soviet Union, but which has become marginalized in the Anglo world over the past 60 years in favor of a broader approach to studying texts and the past, one that combines linguistic ability with knowledge of an academic discipline (or disciplines).

So there is a divide in academia in Vietnam that doesn’t exist in some other countries, and I would argue that it’s a very destructive divide as it means that no one is getting fully trained to be able to examine the past.

It would be wonderful if some institution in Vietnam would recognize this someday and make changes that would allow students to get equipped with the skills that they need to study history.