The Exchange of Women (trao đổi đàn bà) in Obscure History (huyền sử)

In his book, The Philosophy of the Communal House (Triết Lý Cái Đình), Kim Định has a chapter entitled “The Three Strata of Communication” (Ba Giai Tầng Thông Giao) in which he begins by citing a sentence from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Structural Anthropology that says “In any society, communication operates on three different levels: communication of women, communication of goods and services, communication of messages.”

This first issue, the communication, or exchange, of women (trao đổi đàn bà) is a key concept that Lévi-Strauss developed concerning the origins of human society, and it is one that Kim Định demonstrates that he understands in his The Structure of Việt Confucianism (Cơ Cấu Việt Nho).


Lévi-Strauss discusses the concept of the exchange of women in his 1949 work, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Structures élémentaires de la parenté). In this work, Lévi-Strauss sought to demonstrate that below the surface of the many different and intricate systems of kinship relations around the world were some basic and universal concepts that informed those relations, the most fundamental of which was the prohibition of incest (cấm loạn luân).

There is nothing in nature that stops relatives from having sexual intercourse with each other. The prohibition of incest is therefore a social construct, and to Lévi-Strauss it marked the origin of human societies, or a “transition from nature to culture.”

In addition to the fact that the prohibition of incest required people to marry outside of their immediate group, Lévi-Strauss adopted the idea from French sociologist Marcel Mauss that exchange was a fundamental technique for creating social cohesion to argue that not only did people start to marry out of their group by offering their daughters to another group but that they also came to expect that the other group should offer daughters of their own group in return, thereby establishing a foundation for social relations.

Mauss gift

While it is clear that Kim Định understood this concept, in The Philosophy of the Communal House he puts forth a different argument regarding the exchange of women. The gist of his argument is that we can find repeated examples in ancient texts of marriages between men from the central region of what is today China (the area around the Yellow River valley) and women from the periphery. The Yellow Emperor’s son, Changyi, for instance, married a woman from Shushan, or what is today Sichuan. Đế Minh, in the Việt annals, went to the south and married Vụ Tiên, King Mu of the Zhou went south (actually, I think it was west) and married Thịnh Cơ/Shengji, and Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo married a Việt woman, etc.



To Kim Định, the first three examples belong to the realm of “obscure history” (huyền sử), which means that we can’t be sure if these events actually happened, but they nonetheless represent to him some kind of fact, and to Kim Định that fact is that the place that one marries a woman from is a place that has a higher culture (Theo huyền sử. . . lấy vợ đâu thì đấy kể là có văn minh cao hơn).

At the same time, another explanation for this process is that it is a step towards the conquest of these peripheral regions. However, Kim Định argues that this political process of conquest is still connected to culture in that the places that get conquered are perceived to be culturally superior by the conquerors.


Kim Định makes these points because he wants to demonstrate that the core area of “Chinese” culture, the Yellow River valley, was originally not as sophisticated as other areas, such as the area of Sichuan, where, be believes, people of the Viêm race (of which the Việt were a part) lived. However, there is no sociological/anthropological argument that “the place that one marries a woman from is a place that has a higher culture,” and Lévi-Strauss certainly did not make this argument.

In making these points, Kim Định cites Herold Wiens’s Han Chinese Expansion in South China (earlier published as China’s March Toward the Tropics) where Wiens does make the argument that Sichuan was a culturally developed area in antiquity, however Wiens does not make the claim that Sichuan was at a higher level of cultural development than the area around the Yellow River.


Wiens says, for instance that “The earliest cultural center of South China appears to be Sichuan at a time contemporary with or even preceding the first appearance of Han-Chinese culture in the Yellow River Valley,” and that if the information about marriage between the family of the Yellow Emperor and people in Sichuan is true, then there were “very intimate connections” between the area of Sichuan and the Yellow River civilization.

However, Wiens does not describe those relations as culturally hierarchical. If, on the other hand, we were to follow the ideas of Lévi-Strauss more faithfully than Kim Đinh does, we could come to the opposite conclusion that he does.


Lévi-Strauss felt that the most fundamental aspect of creating a society was the sending of daughters outward from the group, and that a more complex form of society required that the “receiving” group send back a daughter of their own.

In these stories about the early history of China, people from the Yellow River area marry women from outside that region, but women from the Yellow River are not granted in return. Wouldn’t it therefore be possible to argue the opposite point that Kim Định did, that is, that the Yellow River was culturally superior and that surrounding peoples were willing to grant their daughters to that world in order to build a connection to it, whereas the people of the Yellow River area felt no need to do the same?

7 thoughts on “The Exchange of Women (trao đổi đàn bà) in Obscure History (huyền sử)

  1. In assessing the validity of that argument, you might want to take into consideration the tendency among women in present-day Vietnam to marry men from, inter alia, China, South Korea, Taiwan and the Vietnamese Diaspora. A reverse flow of women from abroad to this country does not seem to be discernible.

    1. Yes, and if we follow Kim Định’s claim that such marriages are part of an effort to ultimately conquer the area (as Đế Minh and Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo did), then to follow your present-day example, the future of Vietnam should look pretty bleak. . . 😦

      Good thing that Kim Đinh’s ideas are problematic. 🙂

  2. Thank you for your posts revisiting the thinking and works of Kim Dinh . It’s quite interesting , it opens the mind to others cultural and historical aspects though I confess, it’s a little bit arcane to me
    A small offside remark : I think huyền-sử is a two-word expression invented by the Japanese to translate ” legend “

    1. Thanks for the comment.
      Huyen su, as far as I know, is not a term in Japanese.

      I think Kim Dinh invented it, but it could be his translation of something that Marcel Granet talked about. I came across a reference that Kim Dinh made to Granet talking about “huyen su,” but I did not have Granet’s book with me at that time, and now I can’t remember where Kim Dinh mentioned that. . . but it made me wonder if he got the idea from a term that Granet used.

      1. _ I don’t mean , huyền-sử is Japanese . I mean , when Japan opted for modernisation , they used Han words to translate european technical , scientific , administrative words For Vietnamese knowing French , huyền-sử definitively means legend

  3. Yes, I know what you mean, but “huyen su” is not that type of word either. The Japanese use “truyen thuyet,” “than thoai,” etc. These might be terms that the Japanese “created,” meaning that they already existed, but they weren’t used in the way that they are today, or to mean what they mean today. However, the Japanese then used these terms to translate Western concepts like “legend” and “myth.”

    But “huyen su” is not one of those terms. You cannot find it in a Japanese dictionary. I think it’s definitely a term created in Vietnam.

    1. I think , it’s this ” huyền ” , 玄 = black ( color ) ; mysterious , wondrous
      It’s in the opening words of “Tao te KIng”
      Mystery within mystery;
      The door to all marvels.

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