Southeast Asian Rice and Vietnamese Ultranationalism

In the previous post I wrote about this Vietnamese ultranationalist idea that there was an ancient divide in Asia between agriculturalists (= the ancestors of the Vietnamese) and pastoralists (= the ancestors of the Han Chinese).

For that idea to make sense, it’s necessary to show that agriculture emerged first somewhere to the south of the Chinese world, such as in Southeast Asia, and that it then spread northward.

This is the argument that Vietnamese ultranationalists make, and they do this by stating that rice was first cultivated in Southeast Asia.


Is there evidence that rice cultivation first began in Southeast Asia?

No, there isn’t. Instead, today the international scholarly community has come to an agreement that the earliest center of rice cultivation was in the mid and lower Yangzi region in what is today China, although there are some people who argue that the Ganges river valley in what is today India was the site of the earliest cultivation of rice.

Either way, Southeast Asia is not viewed by the international community of professional archaeologists as the earliest site for rice cultivation, and this includes professional Vietnamese archaeologists.

Nonetheless, there was a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when some archaeologists “proposed” that Southeast Asia “might have been” the place where rice was first cultivated, but they did not have solid archaeological evidence to back up their proposals, and as a result, today these positions are no longer upheld as solid archaeological evidence has been found in other places.


The idea that Southeast Asia might be where agriculture in general, and rice cultivation in particular, first began was initially proposed in 1952 by American geographer Carl O. Sauer in his Agricultural Origins and Dispersals.

Sauer made this suggested based not on archaeological evidence, but on speculation. This is what he wrote:

“As the cradle of earliest Agriculture, I have proposed Southeastern Asia. It meets the requirements of high physical and organic diversity, of mild climate with reversed monsoons giving abundant rainy and dry periods, of many waters inviting to fishing, of location at the hub of the Old World for communication by water or by land. No other area is equally well situated or equally well furnished for the rise of a fishing-farming culture.” (24-5)

In other words, Sauer first came up with a conceptual model for the environmental setting where he believed agriculture should have emerged first, and then he looked for a place on the planet which fit that model and found. . . Southeast Asia!

sauer map

Again, Sauer did not provide archaeological evidence to support his claims.

American archaeologist Wilhelm Solheim and his students, Chester Gorman and Donn Bayard, however, suspected that they did find such archaeological evidence in Thailand in the 1960s when they investigated three archaeological sites: Non Nok Tha and Ban Chiang in northeastern Thailand and Sprit Cave in northwestern Thailand.

At Non Nok Tha, potsherds (i.e., pieces of pottery) were found at a level dating to roughly 3,500 BC that had imprints of cereal grains (which Solheim believed was rice), and various plant remains were found at Spirit Cave (including eventually, rice).

Solheim sent these samples to Douglas Yen at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to examine further. Yen also journeyed to Thailand to obtain more samples with Gorman.

In the meantime, Solheim published an article in Scientific American in 1972 entitled “An Earlier Agricultural Revolution,” in which he stated that “The agricultural revolution, which was thought to have first occurred some 10,000 years ago among the emerging Neolithic societies of the Middle East, seems to have been achieved independently thousands of miles away in Southeast Asia.

“This separate agricultural revolution involved plants and animals for the most part unknown in the Middle East, and it may have begun as much as 5,000 years earlier.” (34)


Solheim should have waited for Yen to complete his tests, because when Yen finally published the findings of his tests in 1977, they did not support Solheim’s claim, as Yen ultimately concluded that the rice samples from these sites represented wild rather than domesticated rice.

While the excitement of the possibility of “an earlier agricultural revolution” in Southeast Asia did still inspire some scholars, increasingly detailed, and earlier, archaeological evidence from China combined with the lack of clear evidence in Southeast Asia to lead the professional archaeological community to conclude that the mid and lower Yangzi River area is the site where rice was first cultivated (although, as I mentioned above, there are some scholars who argue that the Ganges River area was an earlier site for rice cultivation).

lua nuoc

While that is what is believed by professional archaeologists, the idea that rice was first cultivated in Southeast Asia is widely believed at a popular level in Vietnam, and it is a central tenet of Vietnamese ultranationalism, as the supposed dichotomy between “agriculturalists” and “pastoralists” will only make sense if it can be demonstrated that the “agriculturalists” had rice first.

So what evidence is provided to support this idea? It’s the writings of Sauer, Solheim, Gorman, etc., writings that are no longer seen as accurate in the West, but which still get cited over and over in Vietnam.

5 thoughts on “Southeast Asian Rice and Vietnamese Ultranationalism

  1. I happened upon a discussion forum about Sino-VN relationships . Some
    members are VN or chinese chauvinists , they trade bodily blows , hurling low-flying epithets . Others are more composed and give interesting insights
    or data .
    Leminhkhai ‘s SEAsian history blog is cited as reliable sources
    [ Le Minh Khai seems to be a good researcher of history of Vietnam and its interactions with China. I have read some of his blogs. Highly professional written, quotes provided]


    1. I just clicked on one of the links and the first thing I saw was “do you know who is Le Minh Khai, he is not Vietnamese, he is white man.”
      Yes, but they should know that he is not a pastoralist (người du mục). His ancestors were all agriculturalists (người nông nghiệp), but they ate potatoes, not rice, so there is still probably something seriously wrong with him. . . 🙂

      No, I noticed a long time ago that this blog was getting cited on various forums. I’m very happy about that. I realize that information can get distorted, but in general the information that I put on this blog is all “academic,” and the way I look at it is that the more academic information that gets put on the Internet in a form that “normal people” can appreciate the better.

      To be honest, I’m very. . . thất vọng. . . what’s the word for that? I feel bad that after years of doing this I’m still virtually the only academic (at least that I know of) who researches about Southeast Asia and who engages with the “virtual world.” There is the New Mandala blog at ANU which does that, but it focuses on politics, as does Johnathan London on his blog. There is, where some scholars upload their papers, but it would be much, much better if they “explained” their ideas to the public as well. The only person I know of who shares ideas with the public in an understandable way, that I know of, is a young scholar in the UK who works on Burma – Johnathan Saha. He doesn’t upload to his blog all that frequently, but when he does it is definitely worth reading. Oh, and the Vietnamese archaeologist whom I cited in this post, Lam Thi My Dung, has had a blog for years as well.

      Academics should be on blogs, on Wikipedia, on YouTube. . . EVERYWHERE!!! In the digital age, the ivory tower is getting even more remote, when in actuality it has become easier than ever for academics to find a “popular” audience.

      1. Yes, I think that it is fine to have ‘niềm tự hào dân tộc’. It’s just that it should be based on something that one can be proud of. Inventing something that everyone knows is not true and being proud of that. . . That’s just a waste of time.

        If people are taught things that are true, or at least as accurate as we can determine, then they can become knowledgeable and can gain as clear a sense about reality as possible, and based on that they can gain as best a sense of possible of how to live in the world. When, on the other hand, people are taught lies that make them feel good, they will either live their lives as fools, or will someday end up “un-learning” what they learned and then “re-learning” what they thought they knew. Either way, it’s a waste of people’s time on earth.

  2. Also relevant, is that rice cultivation has absolutely zero to do with advanced civilization.

    The Chinese civilization around the Yellow River Valley grew around millet cultivation and later wheat cultivation. Those were the grains which fed the Shang and Zhou dynasties, and around which Chinese civilization centered around accomplishments in bronze metallurgy and the creation of the Chinese writing system in the form of the “Oracle Bone Script”.

    The Chinese workers who cast bronze ding cauldrons and wrote inscriptions in the first Chinese characters were eating millet and wheat, and so were the Shang Kings who formed an advanced civilization.

    Ancient Egyptian civilization thrived on wheat and so did Sumerian civilization. They didn’t eat rice.

    Rice is cultivated by less advanced civilizations. There are minority tribes all over southeast Asia and Indonesia which cultivated rice, and so did Taiwan Aboriginals. These civilization lacked literacy and advanced metallurgy.

    The fact that Vietnamese ultra nationalists think rice cultivation=advanced civilization automatically disqualifies them from holding any academic credentials.

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