At the end of his book, Việt Lý Tố Nguyên, Kim Định has a few short chapters that discuss certain political and social issues of his day that can help us understand what he was trying to accomplish through his writings in the 1960s and early 1970s.
In his writings, Kim Định argued that in antiquity there was a large group of people in the Far East (Viễn Đông), a term that he often used, that he called the “Viêm race.” The term “Viêm” comes from the name Viêm Đế/Yandi (“the Fiery Emperor”) which was another name for the mythical ancient figure, Thần Nông/Shennong (“the Divine Agriculturalist), a person who is associated with the development of agriculture.
Kim Định argued that the members of the Viêm race were agriculturalists and that they created a philosophy that he called “Việt Nho,” or what I will translate as “Authentic Việt Confucianism.” The basis of this philosophy were concepts like âm dương/yinyang and the five phases (ngũ hành/wuxing), concepts which Kim Định argued that Han Chinese, members of what he claimed was a pastoral group that migrated into China after the Viêm race was already prospering there as agriculturalists, later appropriated and made part of what Kim Định referred to as “Hán Nho” (Han Confucianism).
For the many centuries that followed, Han Confucianism was central to the cultures of Vietnam and China. However, in the twentieth century scholars of “new learning” (tân học), by which Kim Định meant “iconoclasts” who had learned new ways of thinking from the West, sought to discard Han Confucianism as an outdated and oppressive ideology.
Kim Định was more of a “traditionalist,” however he did not want to preserve the Han Confucianism that the iconoclasts rejected. Instead, he wanted to “preserve” the “Authentic Việt Confucianism,” which essentially was a philosophy that he was creating through his writings. What is more, the ideas that he expressed in his writings were clearly influenced by a broad range of Western thinkers at that time, from Sinologist Marcel Granet to structural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.
As such, Kim Định was perhaps what we could label an “eclectic traditionalist.”
So what was it about the times he lived in that led Kim Định to come up with and write about these ideas?
It is clear that Kim Định was not happy with the state of society in the Far East in the middle of the twentieth century. The rise to political power of Communist parties was one development that he did not like. However, he was even more unhappy with what he saw as the failure of Nationalist parties to offer a strong alternative to Communism, and here he felt that their greatest failing was that they did not offer a philosophical alternative that could provide a spiritual basis for society.
At the same time, Kim Định did not really think that Communism offered a meaningful philosophy either. Its success in the Far East, he argued, was not due to the ideas of Marxism-Leninism, but instead to certain deviations from the tenets of Marxism-Leninism that first Chinese and then later Vietnamese Communists had taken.
Those deviations brought those two groups closer to Kim Định’s idea of Authentic Việt Confucianism.
Citing Lucien Bianco’s 1966 study, Les Origines de la révolution chinoise 1915-1949, Kim Định argued that what had led to the success of the Communists in China was the fact that Mao Zedong had gone against some of the theories of Marxism-Leninism and had followed a path that fit better with China. In particular, he emphasized patriotism, the army and the peasantry.
Given the deep resentment in China at the actions of Westerners and the Japanese in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Kim Định says that the Communists were able to appeal to a deep sense of patriotism and to unify people in resisting foreign aggression. In the process, the Communists also trained a strong and disciplined army.
Meanwhile, rapid population growth, a lack of land, exploitation by landlords, the loss of small industry to Western competition, and spiritual decline brought on by the abandonment of traditional education all created hardship for the peasantry. Reforms were therefore needed, but according to Kim Định, the reforms that the Nationalist government implemented were superficial. The Communists, on the other hand, actually distributed land to poor peasants, and because of this they were supported.
This was significant, Kim Đinh, argues because theorists such as Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Stalin had all held peasants in contempt. Mao, however, saw “the existing potential of the people of the Viêm race and attained great success” (Chính vì Mao đã nhìn ra cái khả năng cố hữu của dân gian của Viêm tộc đó nên đã thành công một cách lớn lao. . .). Westerners, Kim Định notes, saw Mao’s reliance on the peasantry as “the Sinicization of Communism.”
The reality, Kim Đinh contends, was that the power of the Chinese peasants had been relied on by rulers many times before, and that there was therefore nothing new about Mao’s policy. The implication here was that anyone who relied on the power of the Viêm race could succeed, as long as their actions intersected with Authentic Việt Confucianism, the basic belief system of the Viêm race.
Thus, Kim Định felt that in seeking to help the peasants, the policies of the Chinese Communists had intersected with some of the basic beliefs of the Việm race, a people whose descendents still resided throughout China. Nonetheless, Kim Định felt that there was still a major flaw in Chinese Communists rule in that the Chinese Communists did not establish a new spiritual foundation (cơ sở tinh thần) in the form of a philosophy that could motivate the intellectual class.
The Nationalists, Kim Định felt, had also failed at this. He argued that there had been potential in Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People to build a spiritual foundation, but it needed to be developed into a philosophy. In the years after Sun’s death in 1925, however, the Nationalists promoted outdated Han Confucian ethics together with foreign concepts such as militarism, Puritanism and asceticism.
This resulted in Chiang Kai-shek’s New Life movement which promoted hygiene as much as proper behavior, all in the name of “Confucianism.” With such developments, Kim Định argues, Confucianism had become devoid of meaning and had no relevance for the people.
On the other hand, while Mao outwardly rejected Confucianism, in reality, Kim Định argues, his actions revealed characteristics that had long been part of Confucianism (since the time when Authentic Việt Confucianism first formed): getting close to the peasants, dividing property equally, establishing a strong army to resist invasion.
As for the Vietnamese Communists, Kim Định attributed their success to the same basic factors, such as their ability to mobilize people’s sense of patriotism.
At the same time, Kim Đinh was particularly critical of what he terms the “Nationalists” in Vietnam, meaning the South Vietnamese government.
The ultimate problem, according to Kim Định, was that the educated elite were doing nothing to create a spiritual foundation for the nation. Instead they argued over politics and society, but Kim Định states that this of course fails because there is no philosophical grounding to their actions.
He writes that other than a few translations of Bergson, Plato, Kant and Descartes, there was nothing for people to learn from, and at the same time, Confucianism had been discarded. As for the Nationalists, that is, the ruling elite, Kim Định expresses frustration and distain. He says that they are like the Romans having a great time while Mount Etna erupts. He characterizes them as a bunch of rich people who have good will for the fatherland but think in Western terms.
At a time when the world was at war on an ideological level, it was obvious, Kim Định states, that the Nationalists would lose to the Communists. To Kim Định however this was not because one ideology had defeated another, but because the Nationalists simply did not have an ideology, and that the Communists had made use of patriotism to motivate people. What is more, Kim Định argued, while the Communists are Marxists, in their writings they value the people of their nation more than the Nationalists do.
What was one to do in such a situation? Kim Định wanted intellectuals to act as idealistically as Confucian scholars supposedly did in the past.
To demonstrate how Confucian scholars supposedly acted, Kim Định cites the work of American Sinologist Herrlee Creel, who presented a very positive image of those men. Creel stated that the scholars of China “successfully governed one of the largest empires on the globe through a longer period than any other has persisted without fundamental change.”
“Time after time representatives of other systems have taken the reins in China, only to fail,” Creel wrote. Men like the founder of the Han dynasty, uneducated rustics who looked down on the Confucian scholars as impractical bookworms, have come to the throne.”
The rise to power of Confucian scholars in China marked a “revolution in governmental policy,” according to Creel, “but it came silently and without bloodshed. The manner of its coming is most interesting. The scholars who triumphed appeared to have everything against them, while the powerful rulers and military who opposed them seemed to hold all the trump cards.”
In citing information like this from Creel, was Kim Định attempting to document an historical fact, or to paint a glorified image of himself? It’s not easy to tell. There do not seem to have been many intellectuals who were ready to follow his ideal model.
From what Kim Định says, the intellectuals of his day appear to have been mainly interested in Wesern ideas, but Kim Định was also critical of the West. He felt that Western philosophers from Neitzsche to Hiedegger to Foucault had been gradually destroying Western philosophy by pushing spiritual and humanist concerns to the side.
As such, in Kim Định’s eyes, everyone was failing. The people of the Far East were thus at a crossroads (“Trước Ngã Ba Đường, “Before the Crossroads” is the name of his final chapter on this topic). They had to decide on a direction to take in order to be able to move forward.
Ultimately, however, the path that they needed to chose was clear to Kim Định. He felt that they needed to “rediscover” and promote Authentic Việt Confucianism, as that would provide them with the spiritual foundation that would enable them to prosper.
Why did it have to be Authentic Việt Confucianism (Việt Nho) rather than “regular/normal” Confucianism? Because it looks like this was part of an effort on the part of Kim Định to “de-Sinify” Confucianism so that Vietnamese could accept it as an essential part of their culture (in the nationalistic world of a mid-twentieth-century society going through a process of decolonization), as well as to distance it from the Confucianism of conservative elders in Vietnamese society, which clearly did not appeal to the young, more Westernized, generation.
In any case, what should be clear, is that Kim Định was a complex person. He is easy to dismiss if one just looks at his main conclusions, but if one traces what led him to come to those conclusions by looking at the intellectual issues mentioned in the post below and the political issues discussed here, then it is clear that he had a lot on his mind.