In the 1950s, scholars in North Vietnam started drafting a new history. They ran into troubles, however, in trying to write about early history because 1) there were not many sources and 2) they tried to interpret the past in Marxist terms (this meant identifying specific stages that the society had passed through, from primitive communism, to a slave society, to feudalism, to capitalism, etc.), and scholars could not agree on how the Vietnamese past fit the Marxist model.
With the war in the 1960s, the writing of this history took on more immediate political purposes. The ruling elite in North Vietnam wanted to use the past to inspire people in the present to unite and fight.
So the pressure on scholars was increased in 1967 when the journal Historical Research (Nghiên cứu lịch sử) encouraged scholars to study early history. In addition, conferences on this topic were held, called “The Hùng Kings Established the Country” (Hùng vương dựng nước).
By 1969, two of these conferences had been held, but a clear understanding of the past had still not emerged. What is more, some of the interpretations that scholars were putting forth were faithful to the Marxist approach to the past, but they didn’t fit wartime needs.
There was one scholar (Trường Hoàng Châu), for instance, who modeled his interpretation of the past on Friedrich Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. In that work, Engels talked about how members of Germanic tribes conquered territory at the time of the fall of the Roman empire, and this scholar argued that the Việt had done the same in creating the territory for the Hùng kings’ kingdom of Văn Lang, a process which this author said was accompanied by a “struggle” (đấu tranh) against “the pack of aristocrats and gentiles” (bọn quí tộc thị tộc) that had power and wealth.
Such interpretations of the past that described internal conflicts and external conquests did not fit the need to get people to unite against foreign aggression, so in 1969 more specific guidelines were provided for historians.
We can see this in an article that was written at that time by Nguyễn Khánh Toàn, the director of the Vietnamese Committee of Social Sciences (Ủy ban Khoa học Xã hội Việt Nam) in the inaugural issue of the journal, Archaeology.
In his article, Nguyễn Khánh Toàn stated that the new history should open with an introductory essay that introduces the land and nationality of Vietnam. The portion on geography was to be brief, but was to point out the wealth and beauty of the land, and the unity of the land in geographic terms from north to south.
The section on the nationality, meanwhile, was to emphasize that Vietnam is a place where some of the earliest peoples in the world lived and to show that the Vietnamese nationality consists of many components (thành phần) but that it is unified.
Nguyễn Khánh Toàn really emphasized this point, saying that in talking about the “components of the nationality” it was essential to make it clear to readers that their roots were all within the current boundaries of the territory of Vietnam, and that they were not of a different race (giống nòi) from the Việt.
Legends, Nguyễn Khánh Toàn asserted, supported this point. The story of the 100 eggs, he argued, demonstrated that the components of the nationality all came from a common source.
Nguyễn Khánh Toàn also urged the writers of the new history to confirm that the country had existed for 4,000 years. According to Nguyễn Khánh Toàn, legends and texts had long made this point, and that it therefore must be true.
Nonetheless, historians and archaeologists still needed to document its existence and its character. For this, Nguyễn Khánh Toàn stated that:
“The important point that archaeologists and historians must affirm first is the existence, the truth of the period of the Hùng kings with the culture of Văn Lang, with its unique character [tính độc đáo], its indigenous character [tính bản địa] in our country, and its ancient character [tính cổ xưa]. The ancient character, with regards to such a culture, can not be viewed and calculated in terms of decades or centuries, but must be done so in terms of millennia.”
With regards to this ancient culture of Văn Lang, Nguyễn Khánh Toàn also instructed scholars on what to say about it. In particular, they were encouraged to talk about the persistence, patience and skillfulness of the people, about the intelligence and creativeness of their minds, and how this led to their spirit of independence and self-reliance.
Historians were also encouraged to write about the challenges that this early community faced from the natural environment, and how this led them to unite (đoàn kết) and remain unified (thống nhất).
Finally, they were to point out how the creation of national borders (quốc giới) created the need to protect the territory from outside invaders. It was in this historical context, Nguyễn Khánh Toàn argued, that a national consciousness (ý thức dân tộc) started to form as the people were tempered by their consciousness of needing to build and preserve the country (ý thức dựng nước và giữ nước).
I doubt that the ideas that Nguyễn Khánh Toàn expressed in this article were entirely his own. The decision to offer more specific guidelines for how the new history was to begin was likely a collective decision, and Nguyễn Khánh Toàn was perhaps merely the messenger for that decision.
Nonetheless, regardless of who decided how the new history should begin, the guidelines that were offered in this article were followed, and the result was that a single interpretation of the past emerged, whereas prior to this point there had been more of a diversity of views.
Prior to 1969, scholars in North Vietnam had employed Marxist theory in their examination of the past and had come up with contending ideas and interpretations. After 1969, however, their ideas became more uniform. The Marxist faith in the ability to “scientifically” understand the past remained, but the effort to clearly plot the Vietnamese past in an evolutionary schema, which many scholars had attempted, was abandoned.
In place of this, scholars agreed that the origins of the nation lay in antiquity, that the Hùng kings and the kingdom of Văn Lang had really existed, that the nationality had a spirit and tradition of uniting and resisting against foreign invaders, that there were myths and legends that had been passed down since antiquity. . . the list goes on and on.
This interpretation of the past was influenced by many non-academic factors. The emphasis on the nation shows the influence of nationalism. Mention in the above article of the strength (sức mạnh) and aspirations (nguyện vọng) of the nation points to the influence of a particular brand of nationalism, Romantic nationalism, that emphasized the point that nation’s have a spirit that provides the logic for the nation’s development and perseverance through time.
At the same time, I would argue that this particular brand of nationalism in North Vietnam incorporated aspects of filial piety as well, as people were taught to feel gratitude for the people in the past who had established the country (dựng nước), and they were to show their gratitude by preserving the country (giữ nước).
Finally, these ideas were all expressed during a time of warfare, when people were making incredible sacrifices for a higher cause, and they were meant in part to encourage people to support the war effort.
The result of all of this, I would argue, is that the new history that was eventually written was influenced by a complex combination of factors that we might label something like Filial-Romantic-Marxist-Wartime Nationalism.
What this means is that such an interpretation of the past is entwined with many different kinds of emotions, and that it makes it very difficult to deconstruct.
People can perhaps reject elements of Marxist theory in this history, and they can reject the elements of Romantic nationalism, but the way in which ideas of filial piety are tied together with this history, and the fact that some people’s ancestors made incredible sacrifices at this time put a limit on how far some people can rethink this view of the past.
For those who can read Vietnamese, I’m attaching Nguyễn Khánh Toàn’s article here.