Michigan State University (MSU) recently announced a “soft launch” of a digital archive that some people at MSU are creating to document materials produced and collected by a technical assistance program for the Republic of Vietnam that MSU ran from 1955-1962.

In looking through some of the materials I came across a document entitled “The Vietnamese Historical Sources Project – A Proposal” which the Japanese-educated Taiwanese historian of Vietnam, Chen Jinghe (Ching-Ho Chen), had written while he was a visiting professor at the Center for Vietnamese Studies at Southern Illinois University in the early 1970s.

This proposal was to support the creation of printed, collated versions of Vietnamese historical sources and was to involve the cooperation of three universities: Southern Illinois University, Hue University and Keio University.


In his proposal, Chen Jinghe provided a detailed history of the modern efforts to index and categorize Vietnamese written sources. While the efforts by French scholars such as Cadiere, Pelliot and Gaspardone are well known, I was unaware of the efforts of Japanese scholars at that time to do the same (Matsumoto Nobuhiro, Yamamoto Tatsuro, Iwai Taikei, etc.)

He also talks about the efforts of French, Japanese and Vietnamese scholars to publish copies of certain historical sources in the twentieth century.

This then leads Chen Jinghe to the “problem” that his proposal sought to address.

To quote, he stated that, “From the above description on the work of introducing and publishing Vietnamese historical materials, we can see that the works done in Vietnam mainly concerned the translation and transcription into the Chu Quoc Ngu (Romanized characters) of the sources originally written in Chinese or Chu Nom. The reason is that the majority of contemporary Vietnamese scholars have difficulties in reading Chinese and Chu Nom.”

“However,” he notes, “the translators and transcribers of these works generally lack bibliographical training and experience in compiling and editing historical materials, so the translated or the transcribed editions published tend to be of minor importance.”


What made these works of minor importance to Chen Jinghe was that scholars had not always published the classical Chinese text of the works they translated, and they did not “revise” the sources, by which he meant they had not “collated” the sources.

If there are multiple manuscript versions of a text, what is considered by many scholars to be the best thing to do is to create a new version of the text in which one can see where the various manuscripts differ.

The way to do this is to use one text as the “main” text, and then to indicate when other versions differ from the main text.

Chen Jinghe did this in the early 1960s for one historical text, the An Nam chí lược. With The Vietnamese Historical Sources Project, however, he proposed to produce collated versions of many other texts.


First and foremost, Chen Jinghe proposed to collate and publish the chronicle, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư (the ngoại kỷ, bản kỷ and tục biên). However, there were many other works that he proposed to publish.

From 1959-1962, Chen Jinghe was supported by the Harvard-Yenching institute to classify and arrange the 611 volumes of records (châu bản) in the Imperial Archives of the Nguyễn Dynasty, documents which in the early 1970s were being held in Dalat. As part of The Vietnamese Historical Sources Project, Chen Jinghe proposed “to extract the part of this group of materials which deal[s] with foreign relations, external trade and missionary activities during the four reigns of Gia-long, Minh-mang, Thieu-tri and Tu-duc (1802-1883). in order to compile them into a collected edition of historical materials on the foreign relations of the Nguyen, so as to promote the study of modern Vietnamese history.

Chen Jinghe also proposed publishing the geographical works, the Đại Nam nhất thống chí and the Gia Định thành thông chí, as well as Phan Huy Chú’s history of institutions, the Lịch triều hiến chương loại chí.

15 ph2

Once these works were collated and published, Chen Jinghe proposed to move on to “Phase II” and to do the same for some 15 more works.

What ultimately came of this proposal? Apparently it was funded around 1973 by the National Endowment for the Humanities. I’m not sure how long the funding lasted, but 1975 undoubtedly brought an end to collaboration between Southern Illinois University and Hue, etc.

Several years later, Chen Jinghe did publish in Japan a collated version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư as well as a collated version of the Việt sử lược.

The Chen Jinghe version of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư does contain some errors, but it is by far the best version of that text to work with.


Until I came across this proposal, I had no idea that Chen Jinghe had planned to do so much more, and that at least initially, there was financial support for such a project.

Today it is extremely difficult to find funding for a project like this. Collating texts is something that funding agencies are not interested in supporting as it is an activity that scholars in many fields engaged in decades ago, and it is therefore something that is supposed to be “complete” by now.

Other than the three texts that Chen Jinghe collated, however, no other collated versions of Vietnamese historical texts exist, as far as I know.