I was reading an essay that is included in a collection of writings by the late Trần Quốc Vượng in which he encourages people to study about what he refers to as “the issue of the Hùng Kings” (vấn đề Hùng Vương).

The purpose of studying this issue, Trần Quốc Vượng states, is not to attempt to find out something concrete about a specific Hùng king, but instead is to focus on “people, society and our nation during the time of the Hùng Kings, to research the ancient culture of Vietnam of the time of the Hùng Kings – the period in the history of Vietnam of the establishment of the country.”

Trần Quốc Vượng goes on in this essay to argue that the best way to do this is to employ a “comprehensive applied approach” (phương pháp vận dụng tổng hợp) which combines information and insights from history and other disciplines.

On the surface, this is a good idea, however the way that Trần Quốc Vượng actually employs this comprehensive applied approach in this essay is selective and flawed.

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Trần Quốc Vượng argues in this essay that there were 15 “tribes” (bộ lạc) before and during the Hùng Vương period. In actuality, there is only one historical text (the 14th-century [Đại] Việt sử lược) that mentions tribes. Other historical texts (such as the 15th-century Đại Việt sử kỳ toàn thư) mention 15 “regions” (bộ).

However, there is a bigger problem, and that is that these historical texts recorded this information about tribes/regions over 1,500 years after the time when they supposedly existed, and all of the names of these tribes/regions are written in classical Chinese, with some terms dating from the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD).

Trần Quốc Vượng notes that scholars had argued about this issue before, but he states that we can reach a conclusion about this matter, and he cites a statement that historian Đào Duy Anh made in 1964 to indicate what we can conclude:

“. . . we can guess that when historians of our country wanted to give concrete substance to the country of Văn Lang in legends, they took place names from the time of the Tang and earlier, selected a few of them; first in order to have one for each of the 15 regions in the legend, and second in order to find a way to cover the entire area where our ancestors lived during the time of the Hùng Kings.”

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This statement that Đào Duy Anh made is based on various assumptions which Đào Duy Anh did not provide evidence to support. In order to argue that medieval historians tried to give concrete substance (nội dung cụ thể) to legends from the first millennium BC, Đào Duy Anh would need to provide evidence that those legends do actually date from the first millennium BC. He would also need to show that it was possible to transmit that information (apparently orally) for more than 1,000 years. However, Đào Duy Anh does not do this.

Trần Quốc Vượng, meanwhile, avoids addressing the fact that one medieval history refers to 15 “tribes” (bộ lạc) while another refers to 15 “regions” (bộ). Which one of these statements is historically accurate? How do we know?

Finally, Trần Quốc Vượng begins his essay with even bigger assumptions by assuming that “our nation” existed during “the time of the Hùng Kings” and that therefore the culture of that time was “the ancient culture of Vietnam.”

So the “historical” information in this essay is built on a large number of assumptions that are not supported by historical evidence, and from these assumptions, Trần Quốc Vượng then goes on to produce some of his own ideas. In particular, he takes some of the names of the supposed “15 tribes” and makes the argument that we can read through the Chinese characters that were used to write these names (some 1,500 years after they reportedly existed) to see the names of birds (Mling, Bling, Kling Klang, Blang) which Trần Quốc Vượng claims were the totems of some of the tribes during the time of the Hùng kings.

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What is wrong with this approach? The problem is that Trần Quốc Vượng takes information that has not been verified in any way (be it through historical texts or archaeological evidence) – such as the idea that there were 15 “tribes” in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC – and then he develops ideas based on this unverified information, which he then believes can help prove that the unverified information is true.

In this essay, for instance, Trần Quốc Vượng believes that the linguistic ideas that he puts forth help to prove the existence of the 15 tribes that are mentioned in “legends.” However, this is not true because his ideas do not answer any of the questions that surround the existing unverified information.

Saying that “Mê Linh” was actually the name of a bird, Mling, does not show us how this information could have been passed on orally for 1,000 years. It also does not explain why one medieval text refers to 15 “tribes” while another refers to 15 “regions.” And it doesn’t explain why some of those “tribes/regions” were named after place names that only came into existence during the Tang Dynasty.

Instead, Trần Quốc Vượng avoids all of these important issues, and develops his own ideas based on ungrounded assumptions.

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This is thus not a “comprehensive applied approach” to studying the past. It is a “SELECTIVE applied approach” to studying the past (phương pháp vận dụng lựa chọn). Trần Quốc Vượng selects information that he wants to use, and then develops his ideas from that information.

What is a better way to look at these issues? First of all, it is necessary to demonstrate that an oral tradition can get passed down through time for 1,500 years before it is recorded. Such evidence does not exist for the Red River Delta, so a scholar would have to find evidence from some other part of the world to show that this is actually possible, and then use that evidence to say “while we don’t have evidence from the Red River Delta that these ‘legends’ were passed down orally for 1,500 years before they were recorded in writing, we do know that this happened in XXX, and therefore, it is theoretically possible that this could have happened in the Red River Delta as well.”

As for the “15 tribes,” modern Vietnamese scholars have pointed out how important archaeology is for understanding the past. This looks like a perfect issue for archaeology to explain. Have archaeologists found 15 different cultural complexes in the Red River Delta? Have they found evidence of 15 different totems in the Red River Delta?

If there is evidence from somewhere in the world that it is possible for a legend to get passed down for 1,500 years before it is written down, and if there is evidence from the archaeological record in the Red River Delta that there were 15 distinct groups in the first millennium BC, then we can definitely argue that the “legends” like the one Trần Quốc Vượng works with in this essay are based on some historical reality.

However, this is not what Trần Quốc Vượng does. Instead, he takes numerous assumptions – that there was a nation in the first millennium BC in the Red River Delta, that it contained 15 tribes, etc. – and then he creates his own ideas to “prove” that these assumed ideas are true.

This is not valid historical scholarship, because the ideas that Trần Quốc Vượng creates do not resolve any of the existing problems surrounding the ideas that he bases his own ideas upon. He simply ignores the true historical issues, and then makes up his own ideas.

This is the essay I’m referring to: Tu Truyen Thuyet, Ngu Ngon Den Lich Su.