I recently had an email exchange with a young scholar who, among other things, tried to define the concept of “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition.” That got me thinking about how difficult it is to describe something like a “Vietnamese intellectual tradition.” People in the past who have attempted to do so have used terms like “Confucianism,” and “Western ideas,” etc., but such terms are all so vague.

The way that Vietnamese intellectuals think today is the product of something more specific than such vague terms can describe. So how can we describe the way that Vietnamese intellectuals think?

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I just read an essay that the late Vietnamese scholar Trần Quốc Vượng wrote in 1987 on “A Characteristic of Vietnamese Culture: The Ability to Improvise” (Một nét bản sắc của văn hóa Việt Nam: khả năng ứng biến), which I think can point us in the direction we need to go if we want to identify something that we can call “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition.”

On the one hand, Trần Quốc Vượng’s essay is creative and is enjoyable to read. On the other hand, it is also filled with numerous conceptual flaws.

However, the mixture of ideas that we can see that this essay contains and the way that they work together is what I find the most interesting, as they point to what it is that (I think) is circulating in the brains of many intellectuals in Vietnam today (sure, the younger generation is skeptical of these ideas, but many of the people in that generation don’t really understand what the problem with these ideas are and how one can move beyond them), and is what I would at least today refer to as “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition.”

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In this short essay, Trần Quốc Vượng builds on an idea that intellectual historian Cao Xuân Huy had earlier put forth that water (nước) can serve as a symbol for Vietnamese philosophy, because like water, the way Vietnamese think transforms and is adaptable. According to Cao Xuân Huy, Vietnamese philosophy can therefore be characterized as a “philosophy of water” (triết lí nước) or the “Way of malleability” (Nhu đạo).

Trần Quốc Vượng builds on this idea by noting that the distinctive natural feature of Vietnam is that it is on a peninsula, and that therefore, it is a region that contains both land and water.

It is therefore not surprising, Trần Quốc Vượng argues, that the “cultural heroes” (anh hùng văn hóa) connect the water and land worlds together.

Nonetheless, to Trần Quốc Vượng, it is water that defines this world, and it is the character of water that therefore defines Vietnamese culture.

What is the character of water? To Trần Quốc Vượng it is the fact that water can change its shape but in doing so it never ceases to be water, and to demonstrate this point he cites a folk saying that goes: “in a gourd it is round, in a piece of bamboo it is long” (ở bầu thì tròn, ở ống thì dài).

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How is Vietnamese culture like this? Trần Quốc Vượng looks at the clothing that Vietnamese have worn throughout history. He states that during the Đông Sơn period men wore loincloths, that during the medieval period they wore Chinese-style trousers and that in more recent times they have come to wear Western-style pants.

However, like water that can change its shape but never lose its essence as water, these changes in clothing do not reflect to Trần Quốc Vượng that any serious changes occurred in the past to the “basic characteristics” (bản sắc) of Vietnamese culture, because its most basic characteristic comes from an internalization of the property of water – the ability to improvise and adapt without ever ceasing to be water – and because in the case of clothing (and quoting another folk saying), “virtues defeat beauty” (cái nết đánh chết cái đẹp), which implies that there is something constant – virtue – that one can identify from the period of the Đông Sơn to the present.

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There are numerous problems with Trần Quốc Vượng’s ideas and logic in this essay. First, he assumes, rather than demonstrates, that there was a community of people who shared a common culture from the Đông Sơn period to the present. Were the “virtues” of the people we see on the Đông Sơn bronze drums the same as those of Vietnamese today? If so, how do we know this? Trần Quốc Vượng assumes this, but he doesn’t demonstrate it. That is a problem.

Second, Trần Quốc Vượng inserts many French terms in his essay, such as identité, héros culturel, intériorisé, which (I would argue) are employed as a means to show his readers that he is up-to-date with what “Western” scholars think.

However, his ideas in this essay were not the same as what Western scholars thought at that time. For instance, in 1987 the idea that the environment had a significant impact on cultural communities was an idea that had certainly been rejected, at least in the Ango-speaking world, for decades by that time.

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Third, Trần Quốc Vượng’s citation of folk sayings is related to a conservative tradition in Vietnam (and many other places in Asia) that goes back to the early twentieth century. By citing folk sayings, Trần Quốc Vượng attempts in this article to say that Vietnamese have something to contribute intellectually to the ideas of the modern world (in the first half of the twentieth century, conservative Vietnamese scholars tried to argue that Confucian morality could contribute to the modern world).

In reality, however, the “folk wisdom” that he offers, was being completely contradicted in the West at that time by the various theorists of nationalism (such as Anderson, Gellner, and even Smith) who argued that the idea that there were cultural communities (and values and ideas) that persisted through the ages is a modern myth/invention.

So in combining French terms and Vietnamese folk sayings, Trần Quốc Vượng attempted to say that Vietnamese knowledge has validity because it agrees with Western knowledge, but this was not true, as he did not actually engage (or “integrate,” to use a term that is popular these days) with Western knowledge.

Finally, there is a problem of comparison. Trần Quốc Vượng made these comments about the distinctness of Vietnamese culture without reference to any other parts of the world. Greece is also on a peninsula, as is Italy, so does that mean that Greece, Italy and Vietnam are all the same?

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So what then is “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition”? Is it a “philosophy/culture of water”? If it is, then I guess the philosophy/culture of Socrates and Plato must also be a philosophy/culture of water.

But what does that mean?

Environments do not play such a profound role in shaping human societies as Trần Quốc Vượng claimed (just look at the impact of Buddhism/Islam/Christianity across the globe in different environmental settings). Human societies also do not remain unchanging through time, as Trần Quốc Vượng’s comments about the “virtues” of the Vietnamese likewise claimed. And there is no society on the planet that can be understood totally without reference to other societies.

Vietnam is not unique, but Trần Quốc Vượng tried hard to both make it unique and to connect his ideas to those of Westerners. And this effort worked as long as 1) Vietnamese didn’t know more about the West or the world than Trần Quốc Vượng did, and 2) people familiar with what Western scholars have written didn’t read what Trần Quốc Vượng wrote and point out the flaws in his ideas.

So if I had to define the “Vietnamese intellectual tradition,” I would try to find a way to explain 1) what it is that Trần Quốc Vượng was trying to do, and 2) the historical/cultural/intellectual conditions that led intellectuals like Trần Quốc Vượng to say the things that he did.

If we do that, then we will get closer to being able to define “the Vietnamese intellectual tradition.”

This is the essay that I’m referring to: Tran Quoc Vuong.