I keep coming across writings that claim that there was a matriarchal society in the Red River Delta at some point in the distant past that was later replaced by a patriarchal system and I keep wondering where this idea comes from and what the evidence for it is.
Scholars in the 1950s and 1960s in North Vietnam repeatedly mentioned this. In 1956, for instance, historian Trần Huy Liệu argued that the mention of 50 sons following their mother to the mountains and 50 their father to the sea in the Lạc Long Quân-Âu Cơ story is a sign of the transformation from a matriarchal system to a patriarchal system.
I’m not exactly sure how it is a sign of that, but more importantly, reading this made me wonder where Trần Huy Liệu got the idea that there had been a matriarchal system in antiquity in the first place?
Well I finally figured this out. These ideas ultimately come from Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, a work that had been translated into Vietnamese by that time and which was frequently cited by historians in North Vietnam. In that work, Engels in turn cited the writings of scholars like anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan and Johann Jakob Bachofen, a Swiss professor of Roman law and an anthropologist.
In 1861, Bachofen published a book called Das Mutterrecht which was an examination of the cultural and religious developments of early human societies. Engels built on Bachofen’s evolutionary scheme and argued that there was one phase in early human development when women were the rulers in society (gynaecocracy).
The overall arguments that Bachofen and Engels made were complex and filled with details. The Wikipedia page for Bachofen gives a sense of this. Essentially, however, what these men created was an idea that all societies passed through similar stages of development and that one of the earliest stages was characterized by the rule of women, a stage that was replaced by patriarchy.
So this idea that Vietnamese society was once matriarchal is not based on historical evidence from the region. Instead, it is based on the assumption that this evolutionary explanation of history that was developed in the nineteenth-century by Western men can be used universally for all societies on the globe and that it is still valid.
In the West, this view is no longer followed by serious scholars.
This gets to an interesting point about scholarship and “the East” and “the West.” I repeatedly encounter people who tell me that you can’t necessarily use “Western” theories to explain the Vietnamese past, and yet those same people are unaware that many of the ways they think about the past were developed in the West but are no longer followed there.
This idea that there was a matriarchy somewhere in the Vietnamese past is a perfect example of this. In thinking that there was a matriarchy in antiquity might make people feel like there is something unique about Vietnamese society that makes it different from Western societies, but in fact, this very idea was created in the West, and is now rejected there.
So does that mean for Vietnamese society? Is it really “non-Western”? Or is it different from Western societies because people follow Western ideas that Westerners no longer follow? If it is the latter, then what exactly is that? And why would it be the case that Western theories cannot be used to explain such a society if the ideas that people uphold come from the West?