After getting distracted by certain issues in the opening passage of an essay by Trần Quốc Vượng on Vietnamese culture (see the last post below), today I read through the rest of this essay.

The argument that Trần Quốc Vượng makes in this essay is that Vietnamese scholars in the past (before the 20th century) were so infatuated with Chinese culture that they did not recognize the distinctness of Vietnamese culture. However, according to Trần Quốc Vượng, in the second half of the twentieth century Vietnamese Marxist scholars succeeded in bringing to light the fact that the roots of Vietnamese culture can be found in the first millennium BC (the Đông Sơn culture), before the area of the Red River Delta came under the control of the Han Dynasty, and this original culture persisted in the villages after the elite later adopted various aspects of Chinese culture.

Trần Quốc Vượng then goes on to make his own argument that this original culture can be traced back even earlier, to the Neolithic period (the Hòa Bình and Bắc Sơn cultures). In making this argument he cites the work of various Western scholars to demonstrate 1) that the Neolithic was a very important period and that 2) culture is influenced by the environment. He does this in order to make the point that the environment of Vietnam influenced the type of culture that was created during the Neolithic there, and that this cultural tradition persisted through the ages, up until at least the 18th and 19th centuries.

In doing so, however, Trần Quốc Vượng misrepresents what Western scholars actually wrote about.

Tristes_Tropiques

In arguing for the importance of the Neolithic, Trần Quốc Vượng cites a passage in Tristes Tropiques, a famous work by French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, as follows:

“One of the most creative phases in human history took place with the onset of the neolithic era: agriculture and the domestication of animals are only two of the developments which may be traced to this period. It must have had behind it thousands of years during which small societies of human beings were noting, experimenting, and passing on to one another the fruits of their knowledge. The very success of this immense enterprise bears witness to the rigor and the continuity of its preparation, [at a time when writing was quite unknown].”

Trần Quốc Vượng then states, without providing any evidence or citing any source to support his claim, that “Every archaeologist, ethnographer and historian knows that the lifestyle of the Neolithic, in its basic form, continued to be maintained in the lifestyle of villages of humanity all the way until the 18th and 19th centuries.”

Levi-Strauss

I put the phrase “at a time when writing was quite unknown” at the end of the above quote from Tristes Tropiques in brackets as Trần Quốc Vượng did not include that phrase in his quote. However it is important because in this passage Lévi-Strauss was talking about his theory of writing, not the Neolithic period. What Lévi-Strauss argued was that one would think that the invention of writing must have created massive changes because people could record more information than they could remember and that this could enable them to do things that they could not do before writing was invented, and yet a change as important as the Neolithic Revolution occurred before writing was invented.

So Lévi-Strauss starts looking at other ways in which writing was important.

He ultimately argues that what is really significant about writing is that it seems to have appeared around the world in connection with cities and empires. In these contexts, Lévi-Strauss argues, what was really significant about writing was that it enabled the exploitation of the common people.

To quote, Lévi-Strauss stated that, “This exploitation made it possible to assemble workpeople by the thousand and set them tasks that taxed them to the limits of their strength. . . If my hypothesis is correct, the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings.”

writing

My point here is that Lévi-Strauss wrote about writing, not about the Neolithic period. So his book is therefore not a source to cite about the Neolithic period. It is a work to cite if you are researching about theories about the emergence of writing.

However, Trần Quốc Vượng cites this work to note that the Neolithic era was one of the most creative periods in human history, and then he makes an ungrounded claim that the lifestyle of the Neolithic continued in villages up until the 19th century.

Trần Quốc Vượng then goes on to cite Marx and Engels in the same way. He cites their works out of context to make his own argument, an argument that is not related to what Marx and Engels actually wrote about.

Marx

First Trần Quốc Vượng cites a passage from Marx’s Capital in which Marx was talking about the “social process of production” that takes place under the “capitalist process of production.” Here Marx states that the “social process of production” took place “under specific historical and economic production relations” and that “the aggregate of these relations, in which the agents of this production stand with respect to Nature and to one another, and in which they produce, is precisely society, considered from the standpoint of its economic structure.”

This is not easy to understand, but (as far as I can tell) Marx was essentially trying to explain how society is the product of the economic relations between people.

Engels

Trần Quốc Vượng then cites a letter by Engels in which he stated that “By economic relations, which we regard as the determining basis of the history of society, we understand the way in which human beings in a definite society produce their necessities of life and exchange the products among themselves (in so far as division of labor exists). Consequently the whole technique of production and transportation is therein included. . . Under economic relations are included further, the geographical foundations . . . and also, naturally, the external milieu surrounding this social form.”

Like Marx, Engels was talking here about economic relations, and he made the point that geography plays a role in the economic relations between people.

TQV conclusion

After quoting the comments by Marx and Engels on economic relations, Trần Quốc Vượng then states that “Therefore, when we talk about the special features of Vietnamese culture [!!!], we have to search for their roots in the Neolithic, the period when agriculture and villages emerged, and we must pay attention to the geographic foundation and the natural environment that produced those special characteristics of the culture. . .”

This conclusion that Trần Quốc Vượng comes to has nothing to do with what Lévi-Strauss, Marx and Engels talked about in the passages that Trần Quốc Vượng cited. Instead, Trần Quốc Vượng just takes the fact that Lévi-Strauss mentioned “the Neolithic,” that Marx mentioned “society,” and that Engels mentioned “geographic foundation,” to support his own un-documented idea that Vietnamese “culture” (a topic which none of these scholars talked about in the cited passages) formed during the Neolithic and was influenced by geography and the environment. And then he adds to this his own idea which “every archaeologist, ethnographer and historian knows” (and I guess that’s why there was no need to provide any evidence to support this idea. . .) that the lifestyle of the Neolithic was maintained in villages up until the 19th century.

On the surface, this essay looks good. Trần Quốc Vượng cites the work of famous Western scholars and makes an argument.

But if you actually look at what those scholars wrote about, and then compare that with what Trần Quốc Vượng argues, then his argument falls apart. It is not supported by the work of the scholars he cites. It is just an argument that he himself made up, without any serious documentation or evidence.

tt

When you cite the works of scholars, you cite them for the ideas that those scholars put forth. Marx and Engels talked about economic relations in the passages that Trần Quốc Vượng cited, not about the role that geography and the environment might (or might not) play in shaping culture. Lévi-Strauss wrote about his ideas about the emergence of writing in the passage that Trần Quốc Vượng cited, ideas that had come to Lévi-Strauss while conducting anthropological research in South America. The Neolithic period is merely something that he mentioned in passing in this book. He did not put forth ideas about the Neolithic period, and was not an expert on the Neolithic period.

In citing the works of Western scholars for ideas that those scholars did not put forth, Trần Quốc Vượng produced an article that looks like it must be valid, but it’s not.

[The essay I’m referring to is attached to the post below.]