In his 1973 work, Việt Nho Structure (Cơ Cấu Việt Nho), Kim Định introducted the theory of structuralism to his readers. Relying heavily on information in Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology, Kim Định noted to his readers the importance for structuralism of the findings that Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure had produced in the early twentieth century.
In arguing that language consisted of linguistic “signs” that were comprised of a sound-image (the signifier) and a concept, or concepts, associated with it (the signified), and that the meanings of signifiers were established through their relations with other signifiers in the language, de Saussure argued that language must be studied as it exists at one point in time (synchronically) so as to understand how the entire system of relational linguistic signs functions, rather than to examine how individual signs had changed over time (diachronically) as linguists had done before his day.
Having thus introduced this concept of a synchronic approach to the study of language, Kim Định then goes on to explain how this approach can be applied to the study of history.
Kim Định introduces his readers to the distinction between synchronic history (sử hàng dọc) and diachronic history (sử ngang dọc), or what he also referred to as historicism (duy sử). This latter approach focuses on documenting observable changes over time, or what was termed in French historical scholarship in the twentieth century as “events” (événements). Synchronic history, Kim Đinh explains, is different as “it operates with the subconscious, does not need to manifest itself in an individual and therefore cannot be recorded in time or space, but it can still be called history because it is true although not real (vraie mais irréelle).” The way Kim Định writes this in Vietnamese is “thật tuy không thực (vraie mais irréelle).”
This idea of something that can be “true although not real” is one that Kim Định sees paralleled in the Zhuangzi where there is a line describing the universe that says, “That which exists but which has no location, is the universe” (有實而無乎處者, 宇也). Relating this concept to history, Kim Định states that “that which exists” is an effect (tác động) or principle (nguyên lý) that can guide, or an ideal (lý tưởng) that can assist, people, but the fact that it “has no location” means that it does not need to crystallize or take form in a particular individual. It is thus an archetype (sơ nguyên tượng) or a model (điển loại) that exists in a kind of paradise (thiên thai) that people desire to see become manifest.
To provide an example for these abstract concepts, Kim Định turns to the story in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư of Đế Minh, the third-generation descendent of Thần Long who went southward to the area of the Five Passes (Ngũ Linh) and married a woman by the name of Vụ Tiên.
Prior to the twentieth century, scholars in Vietnam suspected the veracity of that story, but they nonetheless valued it as a sign of a line of legitimate political descent (chính thống) which linked subsequent Vietnamese dynasties to an ancient source of political authority. By the early twentieth century, this story was interpreted by first French and then Vietnamese scholars to indicate actual migrations that could help explain who (in racial terms) the Vietnamese were.
In Việt Nho Structure, Kim Định offers a new interpretation of this story, one inspired by, but not strictly following, the ideas of structuralism. According to Kim Định, there is no reason to think that the people mentioned in this story ever existed. Instead, what this story reveals to him are the principles and archetypes that one finds in the structure of society.
First, Kim Định sees in this story a principle of moving towards light (“minh” in the name Đế Minh, means “brightness” or “light”), a reference to the south. Second, he argues that it reveals an effect of retreating before an invading army. And third, the reference to the Five Passes is an indication to Kim Định of the presence of a culture that follows the concept of the Five Phases (Ngũ Hành) in the Yijing.
How on earth did Kim Đinh come up with these ideas? In part it was by employing some of the concepts of structuralism. In particular, a structuralist reading of a story looks for concepts, particularly ones that are in binary opposition to each other, to try to find a general pattern for the information presented.
What are the binary oppositions in this story? Well, the opposite of light is darkness. Light is usually associated with things that are good, and darkness with things that are bad. The opposite of moving toward the south is moving toward the north.
How, however, do we get the Five Passes somehow indicating a culture based on the Five Phases? That is where Kim Định ran into trouble. . .
One of the main critiques of structuralism is that it grants too much power to the “structuralist” (i.e., the person producing the scholarship) to determine meaning. This definitely happened in the case of Kim Định. First of all, Kim Định did not approach the study of the past from a neutral standpoint. He had a clear agenda. He wanted to create a kind of moral/spiritual foundation for the Vietnamese people, and he wanted that foundation to be their own, not something that was “imported” from China or the West.
So the way that he did this was by declaring that “before China was China” there was already a culture there, and that that culture was “Việt.” To prove this, however, he needed evidence, and for the earliest periods of history in the region (i.e., the time of the mythical rulers such as Thần Nông/Shennong and the Yellow Emperor) there is very little information. Structuralism, however, provided Kim Định with “evidence” because it enabled him to interpret the limited information at his disposal in novel ways. And that is precisely what he did.
Was he correct in what he concluded? No. His conclusions are deeply flawed. However, if we view his work from the perspective of the time when he produced it, it is nonetheless extremely impressive. That he was able to master the abstruse concepts that people like Claude Lévi-Strauss were talking about, connect those concepts to passages from ancient Chinese texts, and come up with a novel explanation/interpretation of early Vietnamese history based (at least to some extent) on all of these ideas is extremely impressive.
Put differently, trying to understand what Kim Định sought to accomplish, and figuring out how and why he failed is simply fascinating.