I was reading a book that contains essays that the late Vietnamese scholar, Trần Quốc Vượng, wrote in the 1980s and 1990s. One of the essays is on the Vietnamese historical tradition in the context of Southeast and East Asia (Truyền thống văn hóa Việt Nam nam trong bối cảnh Đông Nam Á và Đông Á).
In this essay, Trần Quốc Vượng addresses a question that many scholars in the West also asked at that time – Does it make more sense to view Vietnam as part of East Asia or Southeast Asia?
As Trần Quốc Vượng points out, the concept of Southeast Asia has only existed since the time of World War II.
During World War II, the Allies divided the world into different “theaters” (or “regions”) and created military strategies for each theater. The area between India and China was called the “Southeast Asian” theater.
That name stuck, and starting in the 1950s, a lot of money started to get spent (particularly in the US) to encourage research on this region. It was in this context that the question of where Vietnam “belongs” emerged. Prior to that time there had been little question but that Vietnam was a “little dragon” that belonged to the East Asian world. However, the emergence of Southeast Asian studies (and the politics of the Vietnam War) led some scholars to claim a place for Vietnam in Southeast Asia.
This is also what Trần Quốc Vượng attempts to do in this essay. We can see this in his conclusion where he says that over the course of history, while the Vietnamese have been influenced culturally and politically by China/East Asia, they have always maintained their Southeast Asian cultural foundation and geographical context (Tóm một câu, trên diễn trình lịch sử, nước Việt, dân Việt nhân nhiều ảnh hưởng văn hóa – chính trị Trung Hoa Đông Á song vẫn luôn luôn duy trì nền tảng văn hóa, môi cảnh địa – nhân văn Đông Nam Á của chính mình).
Ok, but what exactly is Vietnam’s Southeast Asian cultural foundation? Trần Quốc Vượng never explains this. Instead, he argues that Vietnam is a peninsular (bán đảo) world that integrates the land and sea.
This integration, Trần Quốc Vượng contends, can be seen in legends where we see a pairing of women from the land who marry men from the sea, such as the Vietnamese story of Âư Cơ & Lạc Long Quân and the Khmer story of Liễu Diệp (Liu Yi) & Kaundinya.
Beyond that, Trần Quốc Vượng does not provide any more information about “what is Southeast Asia.” Instead, he spends the rest of the essay talking about how Korea is also a peninsular country (although he doesn’t demonstrate that there are similar legends there about women from the land marrying men from the sea), and how Korea and Vietnam were both deeply influenced by China.
I find this essay to be very representative, as I’ve read many other articles like this, and I have heard many Vietnamese make the same points. The essay makes a claim that many people today want to hear (that is, many Vietnamese want to be told that they are fundamentally different from Chinese), but it does not provide evidence to support its claim. Instead, it is based on superficial evidence and outdated theories.
Trần Quốc Vượng claims in this article to follow the ideas of Géo-Culture (Địa –Văn hóa) and Géo Histoire (Địa – Lịch sử). I’m not sure what he is referring to here as he does not cite any sources. However, his thinking appears to reflect the ideas of the long-discredited idea of “environmental determinism,” that is, the idea that geographical environments shape ideas and culture.
That said, even if we were to believe in environmental determinism, the examples that Trần Quốc Vượng gives to demonstrate the “peninsular” world of Vietnam are examples that only emerged after indigenous people in this region came in contact with non-indigenous cultural worlds (Chinese and Indian), and are stories that were recorded in foreign scripts (classical Chinese and Sanskrit).
Therefore, it is difficult to see how such stories represent some kind of “cultural foundation” (nền tảng văn hóa).
On the other hand, it interesting to see how easily Trần Quốc Vượng switches from talking about “Southeast Asia” to talking about Korea, a land that is, like Vietnam, very much a part of the East Asian cultural world. It is clear in this essay that he feels much more comfortable talking about Korea than he would be talking about say Java or Borneo or Sulawesi or Mindanao or Sumatra.
Why is this? It’s because geography does not determine culture, and it is therefore easier for a Vietnamese to understand and talk about Korea, a place that is geographically different but culturally similar, than it is to talk about Laos, a place that is geographically similar but culturally different.
As I’ve argued many times before, the thing that we today call “Vietnamese” culture was created in opposition to the thing that we today call “Southeast Asian” culture, and that this was done through the use of cultural ideas and practices that came from outside of the region (i.e., “China”).
This, of course, is not something unique to Vietnam. Many of the countries in Europe, for instance, were created through a process of “Latinization/Christianization” that was brought about in opposition to indigenous ways.
This point actually view fits nicely with a larger argument that Trần Quốc Vượng puts forth in this essay about the importance of viewing Vietnam in a larger context. In this essay Trần Quốc Vượng sought to view Vietnam in a regional context, but if we expand our view to a global context, then we can come to a very different conclusion than he did.
For anyone interested, here is the essay that I am referring to: Truyen thong van hoa VN. . ..