I was reading an essay by the late Trần Quốc Vượng in which he talked about Vietnamese and Chinese culture.

Trần Quốc Vượng states at the beginning of the essay that Vietnamese culture has been different from Chinese culture from the time of its origins. He then points out, however, that there were Vietnamese scholars in the past who were so infatuated with Chinese culture that they did not pay attention to Vietnamese culture.

At the same time, according to Trần Quốc Vượng, there were other people in the past who were aware of this distinction between Vietnamese culture and Chinese culture and who resisted the efforts of the scholarly elite who wanted to change Vietnamese culture so that it more resembled Chinese culture (muốn cải biến văn hóa Việt Nam theo văn hóa Trung Quốc).

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One such person, again according to Trần Quốc Vượng, was the Trần Dynasty monarch, Trần Minh Tông. Trần Quốc Vượng cites a passage from the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư (ĐVSKTT) where Trần Minh Tông states that “Our country has its own established rules: what is more, the customs of the South and the North are different from each other.”

(Nước ta đã có phép tăc nhất định: vả lại Nam Bắc phong tục khác nhau.)

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There are problems with Trần Quốc Vượng’s translation of this passage, so let’s first look at what the text actually says. Trần Minh Tông is quoted as saying “The kingdom has its own rules. The South and North are different. If I listen to the archaic strategies of you pale-faced scholars then there will be chaos.”

(國家自有成憲,南北各異,若聼白面書生求舊之計,則亂生矣)

The ĐVSKTT simply mentions “the kingdom” (quốc gia 國家), not “our country” (nước ta). The ĐVSKTT also doesn’t mention “customs” (phong tục), but simply says that the South and North are different, without explaining in what way.

So Trần Quốc Vượng added information to this passage that is not in the text. At the same time, he did not explain the context for Trần Minh Tông’s comments.

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The context is that there were some scholar-officials at Trần Minh Tông’s court who submitted a memorial which stated that “The people are idle and do not engage in work. The elderly are still not on (the tax) books. People do not pay their taxes or [fulfill their obligation to provide] corvée labor, and [the duty of] requisitioned services is not fulfilled.”

(時有士人上疏,謂民多遊手遊足,年老無籍,賦役不供,差役不及)

Trần Minh Tông reportedly responded to this by saying “If things are like this, then how else can one establish a peaceful age. Do you want me to punish them and see what disturbance that will create?”

(不如此,則豈足成太平之業。汝欲我責後成何事哉)

The text then states that some scholars wanted to change “the system” (chế độ 制度), and in response, Trần Minh Tông reportedly declared that, “The kingdom has its own rules. The South and North are different. If I listen to the archaic strategies of you pale-faced scholars then there will be chaos.”

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Let’s now return to Trần Quốc Vượng’s translation. Trần Quốc Vượng presents Trần Minh Tông’s comment as if it represented the voice of “us” (ta) the “real Vietnamese,” who have to remind “pale-faced scholars” who admire “China” that the “Vietnamese” have their own “customs” and that “Chinese” ways of doing things are not appropriate for “Vietnam.”

What, however, was Trần Minh Tông actually talking about? Trần Quốc Vượng says that his statement was meant to resist the ideas of people who wanted to change Vietnamese culture. But was he really talking about culture?

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The “pale-faced scholars” had pointed out to Trần Minh Tông that the kingdom was a mess. Whatever “system” (chế độ 制度) was in place was not working. People who should have been providing taxes and services were not doing so.

However, Trần Minh Tông defended this “system.” Why would he do so? Well we know that the Trần, like countless other ruling families around the world at that time, essentially saw the kingdom as their own private (or family) territory (which is why Trần Minh Tông did not refer to it as “our country” because it was “HIS kingdom”).

We also know that the Trần family created massive private estates, and that they enslaved people who were not on the tax registers and forced them to work on those estates.

This was the “peaceful age” that the Trần had established. They had established a “system” where their family could benefit from the fact that the institutions of the kingdom did not actually work the way they were designed to.

What the “pale-faced scholars” were threatening to do, was to dismantle this parasitic system that benefited the Trần dynasty family at the expense of common people, and to try to put in place a more rational system (undoubtedly inspired by their study of similar efforts in China, such as perhaps the reforms of Wang Anshi) that would create better conditions for the common people and the kingdom as a whole.

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So were Trần Minh Tông’s comments really about “Vietnamese culture”? If they were then it must mean that having a governmental system that doesn’t work, and refusing to change it, has been a central part of Vietnamese culture from the time of its origin, and that anyone who seeks to create a more rational system is not following Vietnamese culture, but instead, is infatuated with China. . .

That doesn’t make any sense, and nor does what Trần Quốc Vượng wrote in this essay make any sense either.

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I recently read some comments on the Internet that I liked about the need for historians to respect the past. The past was different from the present, and we have to respect that, otherwise historians simply become propagandists.

In this essay, Trần Quốc Vượng does not respect the past. He takes a modern concept (“culture” – a Western concept which Vietnamese in the scholars in the past were unfamiliar with), and then uses that concept to look at the past so that he can fulfill a present political need (the need to promote Vietnamese nationalism).

In the process, he distorts the past.

Trần Minh Tông’s comments are very interesting. What they show us, however, has nothing to do with “Vietnamese culture.” Instead, they show us the actions of a parasitic monarch who sought to defend his own interests, as well as the actions of some well-intentioned people who tried to challenge that monarch.

We can find examples of similar interactions from around the world at that time including. . . in “China.”

[I was going to write about the entire essay, but I already wrote a lot in just talking about issues on the first couple of pages. . . Here is the essay: VN & TQ.]