There is a book that was compiled in fifteenth century Vietnam called the Treatise on the Territory (Dư địa chí 輿地誌). This work was supposedly initially compiled by the scholar-official Nguyễn Trãi, but the versions that exist today also contain information that later scholars added.

The way this text is usually talked about in Vietnam today is as an example of any early “geography” or as a work of “historical geography.” As one scholar put it, Nguyễn Trãi’s text planted the seed that would eventually lead to the development of the field of “the historical geography of the Vietnamese people.” (Lần đầu tiên, Nguyễn Trãi đã đặt nền mống xây dựng khoa địa lý lịch sử của dân tộc Việt. . .)

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Yes, people today use the Treatise on the Territory to study about historical geography, but is that why Nguyễn Trãi wrote that work? Did he write it simply out of an academic desire to record information, and did he do that for “the Vietnamese people”? Or did he have other reasons for doing so?

One way of thinking about this issue is to look at the Treatise on the Territory from the perspective of the ideas in James Scott’s well-known book, Seeing Like a State.

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In this book, Scott explains that early states did not have much information about the land that they tried to rule over.

As he explained in an essay about the book, “It is both striking and important to recognize how relatively little the pre-modern state actually knew about the society over which it presided. State officials had only the most tenuous idea of the population under their jurisdiction, its movements, its real property, wealth, crop yields, and so forth.”

And this lack of information could lead to problems. It could lead pre-modern governments to take too much from the people in an area, and that could lead to rebellion, or a government could fail to effectively make use of resources out of a lack of knowledge that such resources actually existed in the areas it controlled.

Over time, however, pre-modern states learned to “see” what was in their land/kingdom, and they did this by recording information about the resources and geography of the land.

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While I’m sure that there must have been some efforts by governments in Vietnam prior to the fifteenth century to “see” the resources in the kingdom, there are no texts that remain from that period that were for that purpose.

Today, the earliest example that we have of a text that records information about what resources were in the region is a work that was created during the period of Ming Dynasty rule, the An Nam chí nguyên/Annan zhiyuan (see here and here).

Like the Treatise on the Territory, this book also contains information about “historical geography,” and like the Treatise on the Territory, this text contains information about things like local products (thổ sản 土產).

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Why would Ming Dynasty officials want to record information about local products in An Nam/Annan? Was it just out of an academic desire to record information about the natural history of the region?

Of course not. It was so they could exploit those resourses.

Such information in Nguyễn Trãi’s Treatise on the Territory served the same purpose. Both the An Nam chí nguyên/Annan zhiyuan and the Treatise on the Territory are examples of the early efforts of dynastic governments (the Ming and the Lê) to “see like a state.”

In other words, both of these texts recorded information so that the dynastic governments could “see” what was “out there” in their lands, so that they could effectively make use of the resources that existed there for their own benefit.