I recently came across a small booklet that the South Vietnamese government published in English in 1973 entitled Vietnamese Studies and Their Relationship to Asian Studies.

Written by Nguyễn Khắc Kham, this booklet is wonderful for gaining a sense of where scholarship on Vietnamese culture stood in the academic world in South Vietnam at that time.

While from today’s perspective there are many faults that we can find in this book, for its time, it was quite good, and it is particularly interesting to see the scholarship that Nguyễn Khắc Kham cites.

In particular, we can see that Nguyễn Khắc Kham was building on decades of scholarship by French scholars, and adding to that the scholarship of Vietnamese researchers in South Vietnam, and finally, introducing work from the 1960s by scholars in the English-speaking world.

So in reading a booklet like this today, it is easy to start to wonder “what if this scholarly tradition had been able to continue. . .”

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At the same time however, when one reads the conclusion to Nguyễn Khắc Kham’s booklet, it is also amazing to see the degree to which he shared key ideas about Vietnamese culture with scholars in the North.

Let us see what he wrote.

Nguyễn Khắc Kham says that starting in antiquity, three great cultures (Austro-Asiatic, Indian and Chinese) spread across Asia. “The result [is] that there has not been so far any pure culture in any Asian people including India[ns] and Chin[ese] themselves.”

“Thus the cultural past of Southeast Asia has handed down to us many valuable experiences in the various fields of cultural interrelations.”

“With regard to Vietnam especially, she can show us a very interesting case of cultural change.”

OK, so far so good. There is no such thing as a “pure culture,” only “cultural change.”

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Then, however, Nguyễn Khắc Kham goes on to say the following:

“In successive contacts with exogenous cultures [such] as Austro-Asiatic, Indian and Chinese cultures, she [meaning “Vietnamese culture”] has taken over some elements from foreign cultures, while rejecting other ones. This process testifies to the preexistence of an indigenous culture in prehistoric Vietnam which must have played a decisive role in cultural selectivity on the occasion of each of her new acculturation[s].”

Ok, so according to Nguyễn Khắc Kham there has never been a “pure culture,” but there was “an indigenous culture in prehistoric Vietnam,” which predated contact with any exogenous cultures and “which must have played a decisive role in cultural selectivity on the occasion of each of her new acculturation[s].”

This may not be a “pure culture,” but certainly Nguyễn Khắc Kham is arguing that there is at least a “pure cultural core” in Vietnamese culture.

Nguyễn Khắc Kham then goes on to say “The most salient characteristic of Vietnamese culture, which is its profound originality in spite of the heterogeneity of its cultural borrowings in the course of its history, may throw much light on the mechanism of transculturation as well of neoculturation. At the same time, it proves to be very instructive for cultural anthropologists. It is the more so because Southeast Asian cultures are undergoing a grave crisis originated from their contacts with other new cultures, of the East as well as of the West, some of which are basically opposed to their traditional spirit.”

“What can we do before this jeopardy which is challenging our national cultures? Our only hope, we dare think, is in Orientalists and their welcome traditionalists to Humanistic sciences.”

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OK, so if “the most salient characteristic of Vietnamese culture” is “its profound originality in spite of the heterogeneity of its cultural borrowings,” and if there was “an indigenous culture in prehistoric Vietnam which must have played a decisive role in cultural selectivity on the occasion of each of her new acculturation[s],” then why is there a “grave crisis” in the present originating from contact with new cultures? Isn’t the selective adoption of elements from foreign cultures supposed to be exactly what is so great about Vietnamese culture??

This passage is filled with contradictions, but they all stem from a single issue – the tension between the desire to be original and the reality that one is not really original.

Nguyễn Khắc Kham was correct, I think, in arguing that humanists can provide a resolution to this tension, and their answer has been that there is no such thing as an original or pure culture, so stop desiring this!! However, that is a desire that still dominates Vietnamese academia.

So while there are aspects of Nguyễn Khắc Kham’s booklet that make one wonder “what if,” there are other aspects that suggest that such a “what if” would have still been very hard to obtain.

But I still wonder. . . what if. . .

For anyone interested, here is the booklet: Nguyen Khac Kham_Vietnamese Studies.