The Problem of “Either-Or-but-not-Why” in Vietnamese History

After writing the post below about Ngô Thì Sĩ’s appraisal of Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo, I came across a Wikipedia page in Vietnamese on the topic of “the problem of the orthodox succession of the Triệu Dynasty” (Vấn đề chính thống của nhà Triệu).

This web page discusses an issue which many Vietnamese scholars have discussed, namely, whether or not the kingdom that Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo established at the end of the third century BC, the Kingdom of Nam Việt/Nanyue can be seen as part of an “orthodox succession” (chính thống) of Việt dynasties/governments that begins with the mythical figure of King Kinh Dương in distant antiquity and leads up to the current government in Vietnam today.

In reading the information on that Wikipedia page, it strikes me that this “problem” is a good example of a larger problem with the way that Vietnamese history is studied and discussed in Vietnam. Simply put, Vietnamese historians talk about that past as “either/or,” but rarely if ever talk about “why.”


As for “the problem of the orthodox succession of the Triệu Dynasty,” on the one hand this Wikipedia page notes that there is a long tradition of viewing Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo as part of an orthodox succession of Việt political authority. This position was perhaps first expressed by historian Lê Văn Hưu in the thirteenth century, and was repeated by others (Lê Tắc, Nguyễn Trãi, Ngô Sĩ Liên, Nguyễn Dynasty historians, etc.) right up to the twentieth century (Trần Trọng Kim, Hồ Chí Minh).

On the other hand, this Wikipedia page also documents a minority position in the premodern era, held by scholars like Ngô Thì Sĩ in the eighteenth century, that Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo was not part of an orthodox succession of Việt political rule.

Then this Wikipedia page says that from the 1960s, Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo gradually came to be seen by historians in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam [i.e., North Vietnam] as “an enemy invader” (kẻ thù xâm lược).


In other words, this “problem” is an “either/or” problem – “either” Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo is part of the Việt orthodox succession “or” he is not.

To me, however, the bigger “problem” is that no one asks “why.”

Why did someone like Lê Văn Hưu come up with the idea that there was an orthodox succession that started with Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo? Why did Ngô Sĩ Liên extend that orthodox succession far back in time to the mythical figure of King Kinh Dương? Why did Ngô Thì Sĩ doubt all of this? Why did the term and concept of an “enemy invader” become popular in the 1960s? Why don’t most Vietnamese historians today ask these kinds of questions?

Asking questions like these can take us beyond “either/or” and can lead us to a more sophisticated understanding of the past and of human societies, both past and present.


The real “problem” therefore is not the “problem” of whether or not Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo was part of an orthodox succession, but instead is the problem of only looking at the past as “either/or.”

In the twentieth century, Vietnamese historians became obsessed with “either/or” questions that related to the concept of “the nation.” Either Nguyễn Huệ unified the nation or Nguyễn Ánh did. Either Trương Vĩnh Ký and Phạm Quỳnh were traitors/collaborators or they made contributions to the nation, etc.

There have been countless questions like this that Vietnamese historians have asked about the past, but essentially they are all the same: they are all “either/or” questions and they all relate to the concept of “the nation.”

Why don’t people ask “why”? I’ve always thought that asking “why” is the starting point of all scholarship.

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