As the previous post demonstrated, while it is clear that in writing his An Historical Outline of Vietnamese Culture (Việt Nam văn hóa sử cương, 1938) historian Đào Duy Anh was influenced by Yang Dongchun’s A General Outline of the Cultural History of China (Benguo wenhuashi dagang 本國文化史大綱, 1931), he was also influenced by French scholarship.

We can see this right away at the beginning of the book in the section on “What is Culture?” Right after Đào Duy Anh more or less repeats word-for-word the opening passage from Yang Dongchun’s book, he then offers discusses the issue of why different people have different cultures.

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This is what he wrote:

“Why are the cultures of peoples different? It is because the livelihoods [sinh hoạt] of peoples are not the same. Precisely because natural geographic conditions lead different people to live based on different economic foundations, their livelihoods different as well. Because of that, if one wishes to research about a people’s culture, first and foremost one must observe what kind of geographic conditions that people were born and raised in.

Vì lẽ gì văn hóa của các dân tộc lại khác nhau như thế? Vì rằng cách sinh hoạt của các dân tộc không giống nhau. Chính vì những điều kiện tự nhiên về địa lý khiến mỗi dân tộc sinh hoạt ở trên cơ sở kinh tế khác nhau, cho nên cách sinh hoạt cũng thành khác nhau vậy. Bởi thế muốn nghiên cứu văn hóa của một dân tộc, trước hết phải xét xem dân tộc ấy sinh trưởng ở trong những điều kiện địa lý thế nào.

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“Those geographic conditions [điều kiện địa lý] exert a big influence on the livelihoods of people, however people are an active species and therefore they can use their strength to order and transform those conditions to make them fit their needs. Researching how the various aspects of the actions taken by a people to live have changed from the past to the present is to research the cultural history of that people.”

Các điều kiện địa lý có ảnh hưởng lớn đối với cách sinh hoạt của người ta, song người là giống hoạt động cho nên trở lại cũng có thể dung sức mình mà xử trí và biến chuyển những điều kiện ấy cho thích với những điều cần thiết của mình. Cách sinh hoạt vì thế mà cũng biến chuyển và khiến văn hóa cũng biến chuyển theo. Nghiên cứu xem sự hoạt động để sinh hoạt về các phương diện của một dân tộc xưa nay biến chuyển thế nào, tức là nghiên cứu văn hóa sử của dân tộc ấy vậy.

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This explanation of why different peoples have different cultures, and about the relationship between a people’s livelihood and the geographical conditions in which they live, is actually a perfect summary of the main ideas of the most influential French geographer of the early twentieth century – Paul Vidal de La Blache.

Vidal is regarded as “the father of modern French geography,” and he promoted an approach to studying the relationship between humans and the environment that is referred to as “Vidalian geography.”

There are three key elements in Vidalian geography: milieu (the environment), genres de vie (lifestyles or livelihoods), and circulations (contacts between different societies). What is more, the relationship between these three elements is exactly what Đào Duy Anh discussed in his An Historical Outline of Vietnamese Culture.

The milieu, or what Đào Duy Anh referred to as the “geographic conditions” (điều kiện địa lý) influence the type of genre de vie, or what Đào Duy Anh called “livelihood” (sinh hoạt), of the people who live in a given milieu.

However, ideas and technologies that spread through circulations, or connections and interactions between societies, can provide people with the means to transform their genre de vie in ways that reduce or eliminate the influence of the milieu.

That is what Đào Duy Anh was referring to when he said that people can use their strength to transform geographical conditions in order to meet the needs of their livelihood.

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These ideas were very influential in the first half of the twentieth century, and many books that were written by French authors at that time about Indochina took this approach. They began by discussing the natural environment, then the human habitation of that environment, and then the various economic, political and cultural practices that the various peoples Indochina had developed over time.

In the second half of the twentieth century, however, Valdian geography lost much of its influence. What scholars increasingly came to realize is that there are very few societies where one can see a strong influence of the milieu, or environment, on the genre de vie, or lifestyle.

This is because the transformations that circulations enable (such as industrialization, colonization, urbanization) ultimately are more significant than the influence of the milieu.

Vidal recognized this, but did not write much about it. Instead, his main interest was in trying to understand the relationship between milieu and genre de vie.

As scholars have come to view that relationship as less and less important, however, Vidalian geography has likewise become less and less important.

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That said, Valdian geography is still alive and well in Vietnam, and can be seen in the writings of current cultural theorists such as Trần Ngọc Thêm where the relationship between the environment and the lifestyle (in the singular) of the Vietnamese takes on a more nationalist tone.

This nationalist use of Valdian geography is another reason why scholars in the West today distance themselves from this approach, as it was likewise used for nationalist purposes in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.

Đào Duy Anh, however, did not employ the ideas of Valdian geography in order to promote a sense of national uniqueness or cohesion. He simply used it, as many French authors at the time did, to point out that there was a clear distinction between the livelihoods, or genres de vie, of the people who lived in the milieu of places like the Red River Delta and the peoples in the mountainous areas on its periphery.

What is more, Đào Duy Anh also recognized that circulations had completely transformed the world of the Vietnamese, and he predicted that those transformations would only intensify through continued contact with the French and the world at large, further weakening any influence of the milieu on the genre de vie of the Vietnamese.