I’ve recently been reading a book that Théophile Marie Legrand de la Liraye published in (I think) 1865 called Notes historiques sur la nation annamite (Historical Notes on the Annamite Nation).
Legrand de la Liraye was a missionary who was sent by the Missions Étrangères de Paris to the Red River Delta in 1843, where he worked until illness forced him to return to France in 1856. He recovered and returned to Asia to assist the French forces as an interpreter in their attack on the Nguyễn Dynasty starting in 1858.
The following year when the French captured Saigon, Legrand de la Liraye took up residence there to continue his religious vocation. However, a year later he resumed his work as an interpreter and continued to do so throughout the 1860s as the French established an administration in the Mekong Delta.
The book that he wrote is significant as I think it may very well be the earliest book to present “Vietnamese” history as the history of a “nation,” a term which in French at that time had the sense of “a people,” like the word “nationality” does in English.
Prior to 1865, Vietnamese scholars had written several historical accounts, but none of them had ever placed “the people” at the center of history.
Instead, they had written histories about monarchs and an orthodox political genealogy (chính thống 正統) that linked kingdoms together over time.
Legrand de la Liraye, on the other hand, began his work not by talking about monarchs or an orthodox political genealogy, but by trying to determine who the Annamite (i.e., “Vietnamese”) people were.
He notes that in Chinese and Vietnamese sources one can find many different names over the course of history for the political entities and administrative districts that existed in the Red River Delta, but that there is one ancient term that the Chinese used to refer to the far south that he argues is the most important – Giao Chỉ 交趾.
Although this term can literally mean “crossed toes,” Legrand de la Liraye says that it means that the big toe is “outspread” (écarté), and that this is a distinctive trait that one can find among the indigenous Annamites.
As such, Legrand de la Liraye argues that the term “Giao Chỉ” can refer to the Annamites in a racial sense.
This was all very new. Vietnamese historians at that time were unaware of the concept of race, and they did not present their histories as histories of a people. However, by the early twentieth century there were Vietnamese scholars who started to write about the past in these (Western) ways.