In looking at all of the racialized/essentialist/Orientalist concepts that Trần Ngọc Thêm employs in his textbook, Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture (Tìm về bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam), in order to promote the idea of Việt supremacy, I started to wonder how far back in time we would have to go in order to find a work like this in “the West.”
While there were certainly many racialized/racist ideas that were expressed in writing during the first half of the twentieth century when much of the world was under the colonial rule of Euro-American nations, Trần Ngọc Thêm’s combined use of concepts from yin yang theory in the Yijing, to racialized explanations of culture, to ideas of environmental determinism, lead to think that we might have to go all of the way back to 1854 to a work like Types of Mankind to find a work that is comparable to Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture.
In that work, Josiah Clark Nott and George R. Gliddon built on the racial theories of Samuel George Morton to argue that human beings were so racially distinct from each other that they must have developed from multiple lineages.
In making this argument, and as the cover of the book indicates, Nott and Gliddon, like Trần Ngọc Thêm, made use of a similarly diverse range of source materials (race/geography/the Bible vs. race/environment/the Yijing) to make similarly essentialist conclusions.
While I was looking for a book that we could compare to Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture, in addition to Types of Mankind, I came across another interesting work, a book called Races of Mankind.
This book was written by Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Fedorovich Nesturkh and was published in English in 1963.
In it, Nesturkh presents a non-essentialist explanation of race. To quote, he states that “Soviet anthropology proceeds from the concept of races as biological subdivisions of mankind that have taken shape in the course of a lengthy and intricate evolution.” (8)
He goes on to say that “Races and racial differences are not something eternal, immutable and inherent in man.” (9)
In fact, to Nesturkh and other Soviet scholars, none of the categories that we use to organize human beings – race, nation, ethnicity – were eternal, immutable or inherent in mankind and he quotes Marx and Engels as saying that they “can and must be eliminated by historical development.” (9)
Nesturkh’s book contains a preface by Nikolai Nikolaevich Cheboksarov, the Soviet scholar whose ideas about race we saw Trần Ngọc Thêm distort in the first post of this series.
Writing in 1963, Cheboksarov noted the importance of Nesturkh’s challenge to the racist idea that there were different types of people who were eternally part of some inherent category of human being. To quote, he wrote the following:
“A correct conception of the races of mankind is of particularly great political and scientific importance today, in the period of the collapse of the colonial system and the unparalleled development of the struggle for national liberation by the dependent and colonial peoples. The ideologists of imperialism, in their effort to provide a basis for class, national and colonial oppression, have advanced the false ‘theory’ of the physical and mental inequality of races, of the existence of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races, of races that are capable and those that are incapable of independent social, economic and cultural development.” (5)
In other words, Cheboksarov believed that the colonized, and people in newly-independent countries, needed to free themselves from the idea that there were inherent differences between peoples so that they could transform themselves and their societies for the better.
At the same time, however, Cheboksarov realized that this would be very difficult, for as he noted, “Racism is closely bound up with reactionary nationalism and chauvinism” and that “nationalist prejudice and the survivals of former national discord constitute the sphere in which resistance to social progress may be the longest, fiercest, most stubborn, and most implacable.” (5-6)
If we cold bring Nikolai Nikolaevich Cheboksarov back to life and get him to read Trần Ngọc Thêm’s Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture, I am certain that he would shake his head and sigh at how stubbornly the author sticks to nationalism and chauvinism.
At the same time, if we could bring Josiah Clark Nott and George R. Gliddon back to life and get them to read Trần Ngọc Thêm’s book, while I’m certain that they would completely disagree with his argument for Việt supremacy, I don’t think that they would have any difficulty in understanding his use of racialized and essentialist binary categories, as well as his use of an ancient text to “prove” the existence of those categories in certain human populations.
So here we are in the twenty-first century, the age of globalization when Vietnam has “integrated” (hội nhập) into the world, and the official textbook at the university level in Vietnam for teaching students about their own society reads like a book that a nineteenth-century racist American could have written. . .
Sorry Thomas Friedman, but the world is not flat. In fact, it is nowhere close to being flat, as there are mountains that divide some countries from other, less reactionary parts of the world.