I spent some time today looking through a journal that was published in Hanoi in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries called Revue Indo-Chinoise. This was a time when the French were attempting to firmly establish their control over the areas of what are today Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
To do so the French needed knowledge about these areas and the peoples who lived there, and many of the articles in Revue Indo-Chinoise served precisely that purpose.
Hence, in the early twentieth century one can find several articles by Auguste Bonifacy, a military officer and gifted linguist who wrote extensively about the minority peoples in the area of what is now northwestern Vietnam, and Gustave Dumoutier, a scholar who produced pioneering work on the religious beliefs and practices of the “Annamites,” or the people whom we today refer to as the ethnic Việt.
These two topics – ethnic minorities and the religious beliefs of an ethnic majority group – might seem unrelated, but today as I was looking through what these two men wrote, I realized that these two topics are very closely related, and that they are also relevant for a certain debate that is currently taking place.
In 1904, Bonifacy published an article in the Revue Indo-Chinoise about the “White-Trouser Savages” (Man Quần Trắng), a group of people whom we would today refer to as Dao/Yao. In talking about their religious ideas, Bonifacy noted that the key figures in their religious worldview included the Jade Emperor (Yu Di 玉帝), Pan Gu 盘古, Fu Xi 伏羲 and Shen Nong 神農, all of whom are individuals from what we might today call “Chinese” antiquity.
Similarly, in talking about the religious beliefs of the Việt, Dumoutier made reference to such figures as Confucius 孔子, Shi Xie/Sĩ Nhiếp 士爕, Shen Nong/Thần Nông 神農, Maitreya (Mile/Di Lạc 彌勒), Guanyin/Quan Âm, Ziwei/Tử Vi 紫微, Xuandan/Huyền Đàn 玄壇, etc. . .
. . . as well as to certain ritual ceremonies to mark the summer solstice (Duanwu/Đoan Ngọ 端午) and the mid-autumn moon (Zhongqiu/Trung Thu 中秋).
What all of the above people and events share is an origin in the place that we today refer to as “China.” They are all part of what we can refer to in general as the “Sinitic” cultural world.
And given how important religious beliefs are for human communities (particularly in the past), what all of this also shows is that the groups of people whom we today refer to as the Yao/Dao and the Việt would be very different peoples if they had never included in their religious worldviews all of those elements from the Sinitic cultural world.
The reason why this is important is because today there are people who are talking about the need to “escape” from the Sinitic cultural world. However, for people like the Yao/Dao and the Việt, that would be about as possible to do as it would be for Europeans to escape from the Christian and Roman cultural elements that their societies were created from. In other words, for all of these peoples it is impossible to “escape,” because to do so would be to become someone else, and people can’t do that. They are who they are.