The study of nations and nationalism is a massive and complex field of study, but it’s possible to point to three main approaches that have been employed in the study of nations.
1) There is the perennialist perspective which argues that nations have more or less always existed (a view which is now largely discredited).
2) There is the modernist perspective which argues that nations emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries together with modernization.
3) And there is the ethno-symbolist perspective which agrees with the modernists that contemporary nations were forged in the modern era, but argues further that one can find roots to many modern nations in the pre-modern period in the form of ethnic communities or “ethnies.”
Today one of the main proponents of this ethno-symbolist approach is Anthony Smith. Smith has written extensively on this topic, and it is easy to see that the history of the Vietnamese nation fits nicely with his ideas.
In his recent work, Ethno-Symbolism and Nationalism: A Cultural Approach (2009), Smith defines an ethnie as follows:
“. . . a named and self-defined human community whose members possess a myth of common ancestry, shared memories, one or more elements of common culture, including a link with territory, and a measure of solidarity, at least among the upper strata.” (27)
So for Smith, an ethnic community can exist at “the upper strata,” among members of the elite. He calls this type of ethnie a “lateral ethnie” (an ethnic community that is spread across the top of a society).
The way that nations formed from such lateral ethnies was through the expansion of the bureaucratic state (which the lateral ethnie controlled).
Smith talked about how this happened in the case of various European nations in his 1991 work, National Identity, as follows:
“In England, France, Spain, Sweden and to some extent Poland and Russia, the dominant lateral ethnie, which formed the state’s ethnic core, was gradually able to incorporate middle strata and outlying regions into the dominant ethnic culture. The primary agency of such incorporation was the new bureaucratic state.
“Through its military, administrative, fiscal and judicial apparatus it was able to regulate and disseminate the fund of values, symbols, myths, traditions and memories that formed the cultural heritage of the dominant aristocratic core.” (55)
While much of Smith’s ideas have been developed through his study of European history, I would argue that Vietnam fits this model very well.
In the medieval period (~10th-15th centuries) there was an elite in the Red River Delta that upheld values that made them distinct from the rest of the population (Confucian values, for instance), that dressed differently from the rest of the population, that wrote in a foreign language (classical Chinese), and that created stories/myths about the past in that foreign language and in genres of writing that were not indigenous to the Red River Delta.
In other words, the medieval Việt elite were a classic example of a “lateral ethnie.” And it would be easy to document how the culture of this lateral ethnie gradually spread to the other members of the population over the following centuries as the reach of the bureaucratic state spread.
Finally, there are two more points about Smith’s ideas and the ethno-symbolist approach that are important in relation to Vietnam. First, while Smith does argue that modern nations have pre-modern roots, he only sees those roots extending back to the early-modern or medieval periods, NOT to antiquity. He does not argue, for instance, that modern Italy can be linked to an ethnie in the Roman empire.
Second, Smith accepts that some of the myths and beliefs that ethnies and nations use are invented. It is not a problem for him that a medieval lateral ethnie would create myths about the past or that those same myths would get transformed in the modern era.
In fact, this is one of main the contributions of the ethno-symbolist approach, as it shows how ideas get created/invented, spread and then get transformed in the modern period so that they come to seem like a “natural” part of a “natural” nation.
As such, the ethno-symbolist perspective is perfect for understanding how a medieval elite in the Red River Delta created ideas and beliefs that were gradually adopted by other members of the population, and that were later transformed and made central to the modern nation building process in the twentieth century.