I mentioned in the post below that in the 1860s a Frenchman by the name of Théophile Marie Legrand de la Liraye published a book called Notes historiques sur la nation annamite (Historical Notes on the Annamite Nation).

Then in 1868, Legrand de la Liraye published a Vietnamese-French dictionary, and in that text, there was no word that he translated as “nation.” He found words in Vietnamese that he could translate as “kingdom” (quốc, nhà nước – royaume) and “homeland” (nước – la patrie), but nothing that he could translate as “nation.”

Why was that the case?


To answer that we need to look at the meaning of the French term “nation” over time (this web site helps with that).

Since at least the late seventeenth century, the word “nation” in French was used as a collective term to refer to “All of the people of the same state, of the same region, who live under the same laws and speak the same language.” (Tous les habitants d’un mesme Estat, d’un mesme pays, qui vivent sous mesmes loix, & usent de mesme langage &c.)

A problematic word in this definition is “pays,” which I’ve translated here as “region.” In fact, it also could mean “country,” and the term “nation” could therefore refer to people from the same country as well.

As such, there were multiple (but related) meanings of the term “nation” at that time.


Moving into the early nineteenth century, we find the following definition: “The totality of people born or naturalized in a country and living under the same government.” (La totalité des personnes nées ou naturalisées dans un pays, et vivant sous un même gouvernement.)

It is interesting to see that language is not mentioned in this definition. Instead, “nation” has more of a political meaning here.

However, this political meaning did not erase the sense that there was something else that tied certain peoples together, and this gets revealed in the following definition from the late nineteenth century:

“A collection of people living in the same territory, subject or not to the same government, and having long held quite common interests for which they are regarded as belonging to the same race.” (Réunion d’hommes habitant un même territoire, soumis ou non à un même gouvernement, ayant depuis longtemps des intérêts assez communs pour qu’on les regarde comme appartenant à la même race.)


There are two new concepts in this definition. First, there is the idea that ideas – common interests – are important for nations. Second, the concept of race was new as well.

How, one might ask, could the fact that certain people have common ideas make others view them as belonging to the same race?

That is difficult to answer, but it points to the complex and competing ideas that people in France (and Europe in general) in the late nineteenth century had about this concept. This is why a French scholar by the name of Ernest Renan wrote what is now considered to be a very influential article in which he sought to theorize the nation, an article called “What is a Nation?” (Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?)


What Renan attempted to show people was that things like language, race and geography are problematic when they are used to define a nation. For example, if language is of central importance for a nation, then multi-lingual Switzerland cannot be a nation, and yet it clearly is.

So what then is a nation, according to Renan? Renan argued that a nation is based on two things: “One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together.”

To Renan, a nation is a group of people who have shared memories about the past, and who consent to live together in the present.

There is one other point that Renan made that is important and which has been very influential. Regarding those memories about the past, Renan stated that “Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation.”

The people who “remember” the past, only “remember” aspects of the past that support their effort to unite people together in the present. Therefore, they “forget” that their ancestors conquered a neighboring people, and “remember” that their ancestors resisted an invasion, as such positive thoughts help create the emotional ties that bind the people of the nation together.


Why did the meaning of the term “nation” change over time? It changed because European society changed. When “nation” referred to a group of people from a region who spoke the same language, there were many monarchies in Europe that ruled over multilingual and multicultural populations. It was therefore a term that was used to identify groups within a kingdom.

The straightforward definition from the early nineteenth century of a nation as “the totality of people born or naturalized in a country and living under the same government” reflects the changes in society and the needs of the government in the aftermath of the French Revolution. With the monarch gone, now there was an effort to mobilize “the totality of people” in the country to support the government, and the meaning of the term “nation” changed to fit this new need.

And this change was very important as it is at this time that the core idea about a nation that people think of today – that it refers to all of the people in a country – became important.

Then with the emergence of the concept of race, and as countries in Europe became more democratic and promoted the idea that “citizens” or “the people” played a role in determining the destiny of the country, the meaning of the term “nation” changed yet again.


No developments like these, however, took place in Vietnam during this period. In the nineteenth century, when Legrand de la Liraye compiled his dictionary, the Nguyễn Dynasty was an absolute monarchy, like the monarchy in France had been before the Revolution. There was therefore no political need to appeal to “the totality of the people,” as started to take place in Europe after absolute monarchies were overthrown, and therefore, no need for such a concept either.

So it is not surprising that in 1868 Legrand de la Liraye could find Vietnamese words that referred to the “kingdom” (quốc, nhà nước) and “homeland” (nước) but no word that referred to “the totality of people” in the country, that is, the “nation.”

That word (dân tộc), however, eventually did come, but that is another complex story. . .