The concept of race is a concept that Vietnamese only came to learn about in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Once they had, some people tried to figure out what race they belonged to and how it had formed.
In 1919, a scholar by the name of Nguyễn Văn Mai offered an explanation of how “the race of the Annam people” (dòng giống người Annam) had emerged. This is what he wrote:
“The Annam people belong to the same branch as the Chinese and Japanese, which came from a place of origin in Tibet. In the beginning, when this branch first broke away, it spread toward the east, to the area of what is today Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong provinces. [These people] collided with the people from the Central Plains, and not being able to resist them, they poured southward, to the area of the Northern region [of present-day Vietnam] where they encountered indigenous peoples: Lào, Lâm-âp, Chiêm-thành (Chams), Chơn-lạp (Cambodians).
“At that time they had to fight many battles with those peoples, and it was only after a long period of time that they were able to take the country of those people. After that they all lived together, they procreated, and the race of the Southern people [người Nam] gradually became mixed.
“Then in the end, from the time of Emperor Xiaowu of the Western Han, the Southern country was subjugated by people from the Central Plains (111 B.C.). As Chinese then came and established themselves, befriended women of our territory and reproduced, the original character of the Southern people changed again, but it was not lost.”
There is a lot about this short passage that one could comment on, but what I find fascinating are the two main processes that Nguyễn Văn Mai believed were important for the formation of the Annam race: conquest and intermarriage.
He argued that some early peoples migrated into the Red River delta, conquered the indigenous people there, and then intermarried with them. Their offspring, in turn, were also later conquered by Chinese, and then intermarried with Chinese.
Conquest and intermarriage are two phenomena that one can find examples of from all over the globe for all of recorded history. While we can easily find problems with Nguyễn Văn Mai’s argument (there is no evidence of an ancient migration from Tibet, for instance), I think it is interesting that he recognized the importance of these two phenomena.
It is also interesting, that these two phenomena have by now largely disappeared from the writing of Vietnamese history.
[The above picture is from the French National Library.]