As I stated in an earlier post, structural anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss sought to employ a “synchronic” (hàng dọc) approach to the study of human societies. The synchronic approach required that one study a society at a given point of time (such as the present), rather than trying to understand a society’s evolution or development over time (that is, “diachronically” – ngang dọc).
The reason why this appealed to anthropologists was because some of the societies that they studied (such as “primitive” societies) did not possess detailed information about their pasts, except for some brief information in oral stories and myths. It was therefore very difficult, if not impossible, to determine how such societies had developed over time.
The synchronic approach of structural anthropology attempted to make up for this inability by trying to find a way to gain a deep understanding of a society without knowing its history. By attempting to discover an unconscious structure of meanings for the ideas and actions of people in the present, structural anthropologists sought to find a way to gain a more thorough understanding of the lives of people for whom information was limited.
At the same time that there was limited information about the histories of the “primitive” peoples that some anthropologists studied in the twentieth century, scholars like Kim Định realized that there was likewise limited information about the early inhabitants of places like the Red River delta. Other than some comments in what he labeled “myths” (thần thoại), there was not much else to build an understanding of early societies on.
This is why the structural anthropological approach appealed to Kim Định, because whereas other scholars had determined that it was very difficult to link the information from myths to what was known from recorded history, Kim Định felt that one could examine the information from myths synchronically and still learn a great deal.
The only problem is that this is not what he actually did. Instead, his synchronic examinations were always created from a diachronic perspective. In particular, Kim Định had a very clear idea of what had happened in the past, and when he sought to explain the structure of meanings behind myths, rather than create a synchronic model of those meanings that fit together as a system of ideas (as Lévi-Strauss sought to do), Kim Định simply interpreted parts of myths according to his diachronic view of history.
We can see this in his examination of some basic information from The Tale of the Hồng Bàng Clan, mentioned in a blog post below, where he sees Đế Minh’s journey to the south, as indicating a move toward light, and away from an invading army (I don’t think this story is actually a “myth,” but that’s a topic for another post. . .).
Where does he get any idea about an invading army? Can that be determined by creating a model of the unconscious structure of meaning that this story is built upon? If so, how? Kim Định never explains.
However, it is clear from reading his work that ultimately he comes up with ideas like this because they reflect his view of the history of the region, and his view was unique.
In particular, Kim Định felt that originally the area of what is today China was inhabited by people who engaged in agriculture (nông nghiệp) and whom he refers to as the “Viêm race” (Viêm tộc). According to Kim Định, the people whom we now refer to as the Han Chinese, but whom Kim Định refers to in this early period as the “Hoa race” (Hoa tộc), then migrated into the region.
The people of the Hoa race, again according to Kim Định, were pastoralists (du mục). These people ultimately started to conquer the Viêm race, but in the process, they adopted many of the Viêm race’s cultural practices as well.
When one understands this diachronic view of history, then it becomes easy to see how in his “synchronic” examination of a “myth,” Kim Định would see signs of a move away from an invading army. The “invading army” is the pastoralist Hoa race coming to conquer the lands of the agriculturalist Viêm race.
There is nothing in the “myth” itself that can clearly lead to this conclusion, but if one views the myth through the diachronic view of the past that Kim Định created, then it is possible to come to such a conclusion.
This, however, leads to two fundamental problems. The first is that there is no evidence that the Hoa/Han migrated into the area of what is today China, and there is no evidence of pastoralists conquering agriculturalists.
The second is that by engaging in a synchronic examination of a “myth” by viewing the information in the “myth” through a diachronic lens, Kim Định undermined what he claimed to be doing. You cannot produce a synchronic understanding of a “myth” by looking at it diachronically. There is no such thing as a “diachronic synchronic approach,” but that is precisely what Kim Định’s interpretations represent.
As such, there were some fundamental contradictions in Kim Định’s approach to studying the past, and these contradictions ultimately undermined his scholarship. Nonetheless, those contradictions are there amidst a great deal of creativity, intelligence and even brilliance, and that is what still makes his work fascinating to read.