I’ve said many times that the most important moment in Vietnamese history, in my opinion, is the early twentieth century, because it is the time when the Vietnamese world view changed 180 degrees. This intellectual transformation, however, has not been clearly documented and it does not get discussed much.

Instead, what gets discussed is a political transformation, that is, that the “traditional” world of the Nguyễn Dynasty came to an end and the “modern” world of revolutionaries arose to replace it.

In contrast to the field of Vietnamese history, this intellectual transformation that occurred at the turn of the kind of the twentieth century is a kind of “founding paradigm” for Western scholarship on Chinese history.

There were historians like John King Fairbank at Harvard who developed what is known as the “impact and response” view of modern Chinese history which basically saw China as a “sleeping giant” that was awoken by the “impact” of the Western presence.

This idea that the West is the main reason for change in China has subsequently been contested, and now there is a more “China-centric” understanding of the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but some of the scholarship of the “impact and response” approach still contains important insights, particularly the work of Joseph R. Levenson.

Levenson, a historian at Berkeley, gave a similar degree of agency to the West, but he focused more on intellectual issues than Fairbank did, and many of his insights are still valuable.

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Take, for instance, this passage from the first volume in his trilogy (i.e., 3 book series), Confucian China and its Modern Fate:

“Modern Chinese intellectual history, the period of Western influence, may be summed up as two reciprocal processes, the progressive abandonment of tradition by iconoclasts and the petrifaction of tradition by traditionalists.

“But both of these processes – not only the traditionalistic, but the iconoclastic as well – show a Chinese concern to establish the equivalence of China and the West. Many different intellectual choices have been made in modern China, but the choosers’ considerations were not, nor could they have been, entirely intellectual; always, along with the search for right answers, or ideas acceptable to anyone, there continued a search for ideas that Chinese could accept.” (xvi)

These are brilliant comments. In these few lines Levenson was able to characterize virtually all of the ideas that Chinese came up with in the twentieth century. Those ideas were either 1) a way to break away from the past, or 2) a way to preserve the past, but 3) they were all done now with a conscious sense that they had to “meet the standard” of the West and be its equal.

If Levenson had written about Vietnam, he would have been able to write about this same intellectual transition. The one difference, however, is that he would have had to argue that a comparison with China has been more important for Vietnamese intellectuals than a comparison with the West.

Like this:

“Modern Vietnamese intellectual history, the period of Western influence, may be summed up as two reciprocal processes, the progressive abandonment of tradition by iconoclasts and the petrifaction of tradition by traditionalists.

“But both of these processes – not only the traditionalistic, but the iconoclastic as well – show a Vietnamese concern to establish the equivalence of Vietnam and China. Many different intellectual choices have been made in modern Vietnam, but the choosers’ considerations were not, nor could they have been, entirely intellectual; always, along with the search for right answers, or ideas acceptable to anyone, there continued a search for ideas that Vietnamese could accept.” (xvi)

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Why is China so important in modern Vietnamese intellectual life?

It is because prior to the twentieth century, educated Vietnamese saw themselves as members of a world civilization that was centered in the part of the world that we now call “China.” They were “Hoa” (a term I translate as “efflorescents”) and people who were different from them were “Di” (barbarians).

Then through contact with the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, educated Vietnamese came to realize that this was not the only way to view the world. Instead, people in the Western world saw themselves as members of nations, each of which was supposed to have its own language and be culturally distinct.

The area of what is today “China,” is the area where the majority of the cultural practices that came to be identified as Hoa civilization emerged. Therefore, while educated Chinese went through the same dramatic transformation in the early twentieth century from seeing the world as being divided between Hoa and Di to seeing the world as made up of many distinct nations, the fact that the Hoa civilization was so closely identified with the area within their political borders meant that it was easier for the Chinese to transform that civilization their “national culture.”

They could then, as Levenson argued, focus on attempting to demonstrate the equivalence between China and the West.

For Vietnam, however, this transition was more difficult. That transformation created the idea that Vietnam is a nation. Being a nation, in turn, requires having a distinct culture. But before that time, Vietnam was part of a shared civilization. So how do you create a distinct nation out of a shared civilization?

That’s a problem, and as a result, if Levenson could have written “Confucian Vietnam and its Modern Fate,” he would have talked about iconoclasts and traditionalists, as he did with China, but he would have had to talk about their concern to establish the equivalence of Vietnam and China, that is, to search for ideas that Vietnamese [who had come to learn that the world was divided between nations rather than between Hoa and Di] could accept.

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In recently reading writings from North and South Vietnam from the 1960s and 1970s, I’ve found it interesting to see that scholars on both sides of that divide engaged precisely with these issues.

Scholars in the North took what I would call a “classic” nationalist approach by arguing for a “pure Vietnamese-ness” that has always existed (as a equal counterpart to “Chinese-ness”). Essentially what they did was to say that the Vietnamese were a distinct group of Di, and that all of the Hoa civilization stuff came later, but that it didn’t change their Di essence.

By arguing that there had been a Vietnamese culture before any contact with the Chinese, and that this culture endured through the centuries all the way up to the present, these scholars could then make the presence of Hoa civilization an idea “that Vietnamese could accept,” as it could be seen as something that “the Vietnamese” had decided on their own to adopt. Vietnam was thus an equal of China.

However, this then raises various questions. What exactly is this Vietnamese culture that has endured through the centuries? And how do we deal with all of the Hoa civilization in the past? If it was “adopted,” should we see it as something superficial, and not really essential for “true Vietnamese” culture? If it wasn’t superficial then doesn’t its presence at some point change the original culture so much that we can’t argued for its continued existence anymore?

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Scholars in the South differed from their counterparts in the North in that they viewed Hoa civilization as more central to Vietnamese culture. However they still struggled to find a way to make that an idea “that Vietnamese could accept,” that is, to make it acceptable to people who now viewed the world as divided between culturally distinct nations, rather than between Hoa and Di.

Historian Nguyễn Phương essentially argued that the people we today call the “Vietnamese” were migrants from “China,” and that therefore, of course Hoa civilization is essential for Vietnamese culture, because it’s all basically the same thing. In other words, Nguyễn Phương felt that the Vietnamese were Hoa. This created a form of equivalence with China, but ultimately it was an idea “that Vietnamese could [NOT] accept.”

Philosopher Kim Định, meanwhile, argued that the foundation of Hoa civilization was first created by the ancestors of the Vietnamese, and that therefore, of course it is essential for Vietnamese culture, because it’s basically all the same thing. At the same time, Kim Định argued that the Chinese were different in that they came later and appropriated those ideas and that through their dominance those ideas eventually came to be seen as Hoa civilization.

So from Kim Định’s perspective, the Vietnamese are the true Hoa, whereas the Chinese are originally Di who stole cultural practices from the Hoa Vietnamese. This is an idea “that Vietnamese could accept.” What is more, rather than creating equality between Vietnam and China, this interpretation actually made the case for Vietnamese superiority over China.

But such ideas, as Levenson noted, are not “entirely intellectual.”

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As a result, none of these explanations are ultimately convincing. There is no evidence of any “cultural core” that has existed through the centuries. There is no evidence of a big enough migration southward that could lead to the creation of a new culture all on its own. And there is no evidence that the ancestors of the Vietnamese created the foundation of what many people now refer to as “Chinese” culture.

So all of these efforts to explain who the Vietnamese are and what constitutes their culture fail in one way or another. The important point, however, is that they have all failed for the same reason, and that reason was identified by Levenson years ago: they are not intellectual arguments, but arguments that aim to create an equivalence between Vietnam and China that Vietnamese can accept.

Further, the “two reciprocal processes” what Levenson mentioned (the progressive abandonment of tradition by iconoclasts and the petrifaction of tradition by traditionalists) is also present in Vietnam, although by the 1960s those two processes became more complex.

The “iconoclasts” in the North sought to reject the Hoa heritage of the past, and the “traditionalists” in the South sought to preserve the Hoa heritage of the past, but it would be difficult to argue that someone like Kim Định tried to “petrify” tradition, for he was very innovative in the way that he sought to preserve tradition, and as a result, the “tradition” that he sought to preserve ended up being quite different from the tradition of earlier generations of “traditionalists,” such as that of Nguyễn Dynasty officials in the first half of the twentieth century.

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So why does the field of Vietnamese history need a Joseph Levenson? Because he showed people how this important transformation that followed the intense contact between “East” and “West” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played out, and he showed how ideas in the twentieth century were transformed by the total change in world view that this encounter brought about.

For Vietnam, we don’t know this story. What has been told countless times is that the Nguyễn Dynasty and the traditional order “died” in the late nineteenth century, that the revolutionary world of the twentieth century then emerged, but “Vietnam” as a nation, endured through this transition, as it had endured through the centuries. . .

This, however, is a political story. Joseph Levenson told an intellectual story. And ultimately, one can’t understand the political story if one doesn’t understand the intellectual story, because it is through the changed ideas of that intellectual transformation that the political story has been told.