One of the things that makes reading the works of South Vietnamese philosopher Kim Định so interesting is that they are filled with ideas. Kim Định of course had his own ideas, but in order to understand those ideas, one also needs to know a lot about other people’s ideas and actions as well.
To get a sense of this, let’s take a look at what he wrote in two pages of his book Việt Lý Tố Nguyên. The first topic he touches on is archaeology.
The field of archaeology began in Vietnam with the work of amateur French archaeologists. While they deserve a great deal of credit for pioneering a new field, their techniques were by today’s standards at times quite rudimentary.
To put it bluntly, in the first half of the twentieth century scholars like Madeleine Colani and Henri Mansuy dug up bones from the ground, measured them, and then declared them to belong to a certain “race,” such as the “Indonesien” or “Mongoloid” race.
Such pronouncements contributed to a discussion that French historians and anthropologists had already been engaged in based on textual and ethnographic information. There were theories that the Vietnamese (Mongoloids) had migrated into the region from places to the north, and there were theories that the Vietnamese were the mixture of a group (Mongoloids) that migrated into the region from the north and then intermarried with an indigenous people (Indonesien).
Then there were people like Bình Nguyên Lộc in South Vietnam who argued that the Việt were “Mã Lai” who had migrated into the region in antiquity from the Himalayas. By “Mã Lai” he meant roughly the same thing as what French scholars referred to as “Indonesien” – that is, more or less the same as what we would today call “Austronesians,” a group of linguistically and culturally related peoples who live across a vast area of the globe from the Central Highlands of Vietnam to Taiwan and the islands of the Pacific.
Kim Định did not think highly of these archaeological findings and the conclusions that people like Bình Nguyên Lộc drew from them. In fact, he accused such scholars of being complicit in the colonial project.
As he explained in Việt Lý Tố Nguyên, French scholars like Henri Maspero had been influenced by a sense of cultural superiority and the colonial desire to dominate, and that when they wrote about Asia they thus depicted it in negative terms so that the colonized people would more willingly accept the domination of the colonizers (out of a sense of inferiority).
This is an argument that Edward Said would famously make about the complicity of academic (and other) writings and colonialism a few years later in his book, Orientalism.
According to Kim Đinh, the Vietnamese scholars who argued for the “Mã Lai” roots of the Vietnamese were complicit in the same act that scholars like Maspero had engaged in, as they depicted Vietnamese origins in negative and inferior terms.
“Mã Lai” culture, Kim Định argued, had contributed nothing to Vietnamese culture, and had particularly done nothing to contribute to the spirit of the Vietnamese (tâm hồn người Việt).
Kim Định actually uses the term “Mã Lai Á,” which refers to the country of Malaya/Malaysia, but it is clear that he was referring to “Mã Lai” in the sense of “Indonesien,” or as is more common now, “Austronesian.”
He argued further that if the roots of the Vietnamese were “Mã Lai,” then what were the centuries of writing in Vietnam a product of? They made no sense from the perspective of “Mã Lai” culture. Therefore, if one were to argue that the roots of Vietnamese culture were “Mã Lai,” then this would mean that the written heritage of Vietnam was “mere literature” (văn chương thuần túy) with no significant connection to the people.
It would also mean that the roots of Vietnamese civilization were unimpressive, and this is where Kim Định felt that scholars who argued for the “Mã Lai” origins of the Vietnamese were complicit in colonialism, for just as the colonizers had tried to argue that the Vietnamese were inferior and therefore in need of colonial rule, so were the people who argued that the origins of the Vietnamese were inferior, because from Kim Định’s perspective there was nothing sophisticated about “Mã Lai” culture.
To Kim Định, however, Vietnamese origins were definitely impressive, as he felt that they were reflected in such works as the five “Confucian” classics (Ngũ Kinh), which, he argued, represented the original culture of the Việt, the earliest civilized people in Asia.
The ideas that Kim Định expressed here were fascinating. Several years before the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism popularized the concept that scholarly writings about “the Orient” contributed to the creation of a discourse about that part of the world which lent justification to its conquest and colonization by “the West,” we see that Kim Định was already well aware of this concept.
Then alongside this clarity of vision, we can also see how a strong sense of nationalism and some ethnocentrism worked to distort his view of the past.
Nonetheless, he certainly provided his readers with a lot to think about.