Last summer I wrote a blog post on the South Vietnamese philosopher, Lương Kim Định, that I entitled “Vietnam’s Greatest (unknown/unrecognized) Historian.”
Although a philosopher by training, Kim Định wrote extensively about the early history of East Asia and essentially argued that the Việt migrated into the area of what is today China earlier than the Chinese, and that the Việt created the foundation of the intellectual tradition that people today think of as “Chinese philosophy.”
The point that I tried to make in that post is that although Kim Định was not a “good” historian in the sense that he did many things that a professional historian should never do (such as base his ideas on undocumented information), he was nonetheless “great” in that he put forth a bold vision of Vietnamese history that was inspired by cutting-edge ideas in the international world of scholarship (sociology, structural anthropology, etc.).
Further, I also argued that Kim Định’s scholarship “could have” led to a better understanding of Vietnamese history “if” there had been people who possessed the same level of knowledge that Kim Dinh did who had challenged his ideas, and “if” there had been an academic culture in Vietnam which recognized that the challenging of ideas is an essential step in advancing scholarship.
Of course, there are no historians in Vietnam who have possessed the same level of knowledge about international scholarship as Kim Định did, and there is no academic culture in Vietnam which recognizes that challenging ideas is an essential means for advancing scholarship. Therefore, Kim Định’s bold and critically-inspired vision of Vietnamese history has not led to a better understanding of the past.
Instead, as the late historian Tạ Chí Đại Trường pointed out in a posthumous writing (di cảo) that is now available online, Kim Định’s “greatness” today comes from the fact that many of his flawed ideas continue to circulate, making him one of the most “influential” Vietnamese historians of the 20th century. . .
While I agree with Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s assessment of Kim Định, I’ve been reading a book about the structural anthropologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss which confirms what I originally stated.
The book is a biography of Lévi-Strauss written by Patrick Wilcken entitled Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Father of Modern Anthropology.
If we think of an anthropologist as someone who learns a foreign language (if they study a society other than their own) and spends an extended period of time living in and studying a society, then Lévi-Strauss was a TERRIBLE anthropologist.
His only “fieldwork” was a very brief period in Brazil in the 1930s when he raced across the interior over the course of a few months, with little or no linguistic ability, and visited various communities, sometimes for just a few days at a time.
What is more, Lévi-Strauss did not “write up” his “field notes” until many years later.
I think that everyone would agree that this is not a sign of good anthropology.
So how then can Lévi-Strauss be regarded “the father of modern anthropology”?
He is the father of modern anthropology because be pushed the field forward, and the way he did this was by putting forth bold ideas (inspired by theories in other fields, like structural linguistics), supported by a mass of (problematic) evidence, that forced people to think about what he was saying, and to work hard to reject it.
However, in rejecting the ideas of Lévi-Strauss, anthropologists ultimately arrived at a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of human societies.
The more I read of Kim Định, the more I see him as a kind of Lévi-Strauss of Vietnamese history. Kim Định was a TERRIBLE historian, but he put forth bold ideas (inspired by theories in other fields, like structural anthropology), supported by a mass of (problematic) evidence.
The main difference is that people in Vietnam have accepted Kim Định’s ideas rather than seek to reject them, and produce a deeper and more sophisticated understanding of Vietnamese history in the process (like what happened in the field of anthropology with regards to Leví-Strauss’s ideas).
Here is an example of one of Kim Định’s ideas that is very “Lévi-Straussian.” There is a poem called “Large Rats” (Shuoshu 碩鼠) in the Classic of Poetry (Shijing 詩經) which has a verse that goes as follows:
Large rats! Large rats!
Do not eat our sprouting grain!
Three years have we put up with you,
But you have never extended your sympathy to us.
We will leave you,
And go to that happy frontier!
Happy frontier! Happy frontier!
For who needs to moan forever?
碩鼠碩鼠、無食我苗。 Thạc thử! Thạc thử! Vô thực ngã miêu.
三歲貫女、莫我肯勞。 Tam tuế quán nhữ, Mạc ngã khẳng lao.
逝將去女、適彼樂郊。 Thệ tương khứ nhữ, Thích bỉ lạc giao.
樂郊樂郊、誰之永號。 Lạc giao lạc giao, Thùy chi vĩnh hào!
The traditional interpretation of this poem is that it is a critique of an exploitative government or government official (the “large rat”).
For Kim Định, however, this was a poem about antiquity when the Chinese supposedly migrated from the northwest into the region of what is today China and oppressed the more indigenous Việt.
Of course for that to make sense one would first need to believe in the key point that Kim Định never documented – that there had been two migrations in distant antiquity into the area of what is today China, one by the Việt who were agriculturalists, and a later one by the Chinese (or Hoa) who were pastoralists.
But let’s put that aside for the moment and look at Kim Định’s explanation of this poem. Kim Định argues first that the “large rats” in this poem represents the invading Chinese.
What I have translated above as “sprouting grain” is a character (miao/miêu 苗), which literally means “sprouting grain,” but which also appears in the name of a non-Han-Chinese group of peoples who lived to the south of the Yangzi river in antiquity, the Youmiao/Hữu Miêu 有苗, whom Kim Định claimed were part of the original group of migrants (that included the ancestors of the Việt) into the area of what is today China.
Further, Kim Định sees the “three” in “three years” as indicating a long period of time, rather than “three years,” and argues that this is a reference to the idea that the Youmiao/Hữu Miêu had been in the region a long time before the Chinese arrived.
Finally, what I have translated as “happy frontier” is “lạc giao” 樂郊. When seen in their phonetic transcription, these two terms immediately call to mind terms that are related to the ancient Việt.
Early Chinese authors recorded the name of one group of people who lived in the far south (of the world as it was known to them at the time) as the “Lạc Việt” 雒越, while “Giao Chỉ” 交趾/阯 was the name of an administrative unit that the Han Dynasty established in the Red River delta.
However, the characters for “lạc” and “giao” in the expression “happy frontier” are different from the characters used in the terms “Lạc Việt” and “Giao Chỉ.” Nonetheless, Kim Định played with the sonic connections between these terms and argued that the final lines of this poem indicate that people were moving away from the “large (Chinese) rats” to form a new region for the “Lạc Việt” 雒越, and that they were “happy” (lạc 樂) about this.
So based on Kim Định’s explanation, this verse could perhaps be rendered as follows:
Chinese invaders! Chinese invaders!
Do not oppress the Hữu Miêu!
For long we have preceded you,
But you have never recognized our labors.
We will leave you,
And go to the Lạc Việt frontier!
The Lạc Việt frontier! The Lạc Việt frontier!
For who needs to moan forever?
I would argue that this is exactly like the type of scholarship that Claude Leví-Strauss produced.
Kim Định and Leví-Strauss both sought to reveal “hidden meanings” below the surface of texts and human societies by providing bold and new ways for interpreting human societies and the past, but their ideas were incredibly subjective, and seriously flawed.
In the case of Leví-Strauss, subsequent anthropologists have revealed how subjective his interpretations of human societies were, and they have sought to offer more sophisticated interpretations.
In the case of Kim Định, his ideas have never been seriously challenged, but instead, today form the core of an official university-level textbook in Vietnam.
Therefore, I think that Tạ Chí Đại Trường and I are both correct. Kim Định is “Vietnam’s Greatest (unknown/unrecognized) Historian” . . . We simply indicate different aspects of this “greatness” and employ varying degrees of sarcasm in making our points.