I’ve seen several articles and events recently about the publication of a new book in Vietnam – a Vietnamese translation of Le Thanh Khoi’s Histoire du Vietnam: Des origines à 1858.
Many of the recent reports that I’ve read indicate that this book was first published in 1982, but I just got a copy out of the library that was published in 1981. Further, on one of the opening pages of the book, the author indicates that he completed this survey of Vietnamese history in 1971.
So why then, one might ask, would anyone want to translate a general history of a country over 40 years after it was written? I guess it would make sense to me to do so if the book contained new insights, or employed new sources or changed the way we think about the past (although I’m not sure how any of this could remain “unknown/hidden” for so long).
However, I cannot find much of anything that is new in Le Thanh Khoi’s Histoire du Vietnam: Des origines à 1858. It is not new today, and in 1971 it wasn’t really new either as it largely repeated ideas that had already been presented in specialized studies.
Hence, in the footnotes we can see cited studies by scholars like Madeline Colani, Henri Mansuy and Henri Maspero. . . studies that were all well-known by 1971.
Further, if we look at the opening passage of the section that deals with recorded history, we will find that it is not all that different in terms of the information that it presents and in the way that it presents that information from the opening passage on recorded history in a work like Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký’s Cours d’histoire Annamite, published almost a century earlier in 1875.
Perhaps this explains why it has only been checked out of the library here four times since 1981. . .
So why translate this book now? And why hold events to talk about this book?
Ultimately I think all of this says more about the field of historical scholarship in Vietnam than about this book.
There is always something “happening” in the field of historical scholarship in Vietnam. . . but ideas never change.
New books get published and celebrated. Debates take place about obscure topics. But the general information about the past, and the way of viewing the past, never change.
Le Thanh Khoi’s Histoire du Vietnam: Des origines à 1858 will not change any existing ideas about the past in Vietnam. That is why it has been translated, and that is why its publication is being celebrated.