I’ve been thinking about several topics that I’ve written about before on this blog: the promotion of Vietnam’s integration into the global world of scholarship; the absence of engagement with historical and/or theoretical scholarship from outside of Vietnam on the part of historians within Vietnam for the past several decades; and the historical scholarship of South Vietnamese scholars Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Nguyễn Phương and Lương Kim Định.
In the second half of the twentieth century there were four scholars who were collectively credited with establishing the field of historical research in Vietnam, and who are thus known as the “four pillars” (tứ trụ) of historical scholarship. These four men all began their academic careers in North Vietnam, and then continued to work in the years after the North and South were united.
While their accomplishments are indeed deserving of praise, the more I read of the work of other historians from the time when Vietnam was divided, the more I realize that there are other historians who deserve a great deal of praise as well.
In fact, in addition to the current “four pillars,” I can think of at least four more: Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Nguyễn Phương, Lương Kim Định, Đào Duy Anh. The first three lived and worked in South Vietnam, while Đào Duy Anh lived and worked in the North.
These four men did not work together, and from what I can tell, some of them were certainly not friends. However, as I read their writings, I can’t escape wondering what the state of historical scholarship, particularly scholarship about early history, would be like today if these four had set the foundation for future generations of historians.
As colonial rule in Vietnam gradually came to an end in the years after World War II, historians across the country embarked on the task of writing a new history for the nation. As they did so, they had more than a half century of scholarship that had been produced during the colonial period that they could build upon. Not everyone, however, did.
In general, scholars in the North turned away from the scholarship of the colonial period and sought to find inspiration in Marxist historical models that they adopted from China and the Soviet Union. They thus tried to figure out when Vietnam became a nation following Stalin’s definition of a nation, and they sought to determine when there had been a slave society in Vietnam, a stage that Marxist historiography indicated all societies passed through.
These experiments, however, were short-lived, and by the 1960s this engagement with theory was abandoned.
As for the four other pillars of Vietnamese history, they continued to engage with scholarship from the colonial period. Indeed, Đào Duy Anh’s career as a scholar began in the late 1930s, so one could theoretically consider him to be a colonial-era scholar, but his work in the 1940s and 1950s did take him in new directions, particularly as he sought to “read through” early sources to find symbols of meaning that scholars had not considered before. What is more, Đào Duy Anh could come to the ideas that he did because he could read not only the sources (in classical Chinese) but ideas that scholars outside of Vietnam had produced as well on various topics (in French).
Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Nguyễn Phương and Lương Kim Định all produced scholarship in South Vietnam, and their works likewise built on the earlier studies of colonial-era scholars. Nonetheless, they all produced ideas that were original.
As should be clear from some of my recent posts, Lương Kim Định was the most theoretically engaged with Western scholarship. He lacked Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s strength in reading original sources critically and accurately, but he communicated on a broader level, which makes his scholarship more understandable to an international readership.
Nguyễn Phương’s writings on early Vietnamese history were in the 1960s the most radical in that he came to conclude that there essentially was no Vietnam until the tenth century AD. And while he attributed the emergence of Vietnam to the gradual southward migration of peoples from China, in the past few decades the writings that Tạ Chí Đại Trường has produced regarding the creation of stories about early Vietnam around the fourteenth century demonstrate that Vietnam is as young as Nguyên Phương argued in the 1960s. It’s just that its formation is not based on migration, as Nguyên Phương believed, but cultural and social developments.
Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s conclusions about the formation in the nation in Vietnamese history mirror what Western scholars started to say about many societies in the 1980s and 1990s as topics like ethnic identity and the formation of nations became popular. Lương Kim Định’s scholarship, meanwhile, was deeply engaged with a long line of theoretical scholarship in Europe from the fields of sociology, anthropology, linguistics and Sinology.
Đào Duy Anh’s scholarship is the product of an earlier, and less theoretical age, but it easily stood alongside the best scholarship at that timing coming out of places like Hong Kong and Taiwan where scholars were engaging original sources in similar ways. And finally, Nguyễn Phương rationally developed existing scholarship to its logical (at that time) conclusion.
While these four scholars are all different, the one thing that unites them is that they all engaged with existing ideas and then came up with new ideas about the past. The past, in their scholarship, is “alive,” because they show the past to their readers in new ways and get their readers to think about the past from different perspectives.
In all honesty, there are multiple “worlds” of scholarship in the world today. The goal of scholarship is not the same everywhere. However, in some scholarly worlds the goal is to find new ways to think about a topic so that we can understand it better, and in doing so, the engagement with theory and existing scholarship from around that world is the norm.
That is the world that the scholarship of Tạ Chí Đại Trường, Nguyễn Phương, Lương Kim Định and Đào Duy Anh integrates into. In that world, they can also definitely be considered “four pillars.”