In early 1976, a book by South Vietnamese historian Tạ Chí Đại Trường was the subject of a long critique in the journal, Historical Research (Nghiên cứu lịch sử).
The name of the book was The History of the Civil War in Vietnam from 1772-1802 (Lịch sử nội chiến ở Việt-Nam từ 1772 đến 1802), and it was about the Tây Sơn Rebellion and the rise to power of the Nguyễn Dynasty. Tạ Chí Đại Trường researched and wrote this work as an MA thesis in the early 1960s and it was published, apparently with only minor revisions, a decade later in 1973.
Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s book was critiqued by two scholars, Nguyễn Phan Quang and Nguyễn Đức Nghinh. In examining this book, these two men were interested in determining what the “guiding ideas” (ý tưởng hướng dẫn) behind Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s historical scholarship were.
In the end, they concluded that rather than demonstrating “guiding ideas,” Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s work revealed a “political motive” (ý đồ chính trị).
What was that political motive? Simply put, the way in which Tạ Chí Đại Trường wrote about the late eighteenth century was not the same as the way that historians in North Vietnam were writing about that period, and in the politically charged environment of 1970s Vietnam, that made his work political.
Nguyễn Phan Quang and Nguyễn Đức Nghinh stated that many historians in North Vietnam had already “resolved” (giải quyết) various issues concerning the period that Tạ Chí Đại Trường wrote about.
For instance, they had determined that the Tây Sơn movement had made great contributions (cống hiến vĩ đại) with their annihilation (tiêu diệt) of the reactionary feudal powers (những chính quyền phong kiến phản động) and in their glorious victories over foreign invaders (chiến thắng ngoại xâm oanh liệt).
Historians in the North had also determined that the the Tây Sơn leader, Nguyễn Huệ, had put forth progressive policies (chính sách tiến bộ), as was particularly evidenced by his movement’s unification of the country.
Finally, historians in the North had also identified the reactionary character (tình chất phản động) of the Nguyễn family, as could be seen in their betrayal of the people (phản bội) by selling the fatherland for a pittance to foreign bandits for their family’s own personal gain (bán rẻ Tổ quốc cho giặc ngoại xâm vì quyền lợi ích kỷ của một dòng họ)
Tạ Chí Đại Trường wrote a response to this critique in 1978 while he was in a re-education camp. In this response, Tạ Chí Đại Trường made a comment that I really like.
He noted (and I’m explaining his point here rather than actually translating what he wrote) that the mixing together of the effort to explain the past with the effort to create norms or standards about the past makes it difficult to produce valid scholarship because one can never rise above fixed views to gain a deeper understanding of the past.
(Lẫn lộn giữa tính cách giải thích (explicatif) và tính cách quy phạm (normatif) thì khó làm việc khoa học, không thể vươn lên trên định kiến để tìm ý nghĩa sâu xa của sự việc hơn.)
The “norms” (quy phạm) that were being applied to the Vietnamese past in the 1970s were ultimately political norms. These days, many of the norms that Nguyễn Phan Quang and Nguyễn Đức Nghinh mentioned in their critique are not promoted anymore, and Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s book has been published in Vietnam, albeit with an altered title.
That said, many people still seem to struggle to rise above fixed ideas to gain a deeper understanding of the past. I wonder why that is.
For people who can read Vietnamese, the 1976 critique of Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s book and his 1978 response are attached below.