In the nineteenth century when reformist Japanese scholars sought to learn about the West, they had to come up with many new terms in order to translate words and concepts from Western languages that did not exist in Japanese. Those terms were then adopted by speakers of other languages, such as Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese.

As such, new terms were created to translate Western words like “economy” (經濟 keizai/jingji/kinh tế) and “society” (社會 shakai/shehui/xã hội) and those new terms came to be employed by people in East Asia without much difficulty.

There were other terms, however, that were more difficult to translate, and none perhaps more so than the two terms “nation” and “nationality.” In Western languages, the meanings of these terms changed over time, and they also overlapped, and that made it difficult to translate these two terms.

In the end, a single term came to be used in order to translate both of these words (民族 minzoku/minzu/dân tộc) and this term was widely used in East Asian languages throughout the first half of the twentieth century.

Then in the 1950s it suddenly became a problem for some people that East Asian languages did not have terms to make the distinction between “nation” and “nationality” that could be found in Western languages. In particular, as Marxist historians in the newly-established communist states of the PRC and North Vietnam set about writing new histories in accordance with Marxist theory, they found that they needed to make that distinction in order to clearly follow certain Marxist ideas. And that ended up being a problem.


The main Marxist theory of what a nation is was penned by Joseph Stalin in his 1913 work, Marxism and the National Question. In that work, Stalin stated the following:

“A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.”

[Нация есть исторически сложившаяся устойчивая общность людей, возникшая на базе общности языка, территории, экономической жизни и психического склада, проявляющегося в общности культуры.]

[Dân tộc là một cộng đồng thể người ổn định, hình thành trong lịch sử, có ngôn ngữ chung, địa vực chung, sinh hoạt kinh tế chung, cùng là trạng thái tâm lý chung biểu hiện trong văn hóa chung. (bản dịch của Đào Duy Anh, 1955)]


Stalin argued further that all of these characteristics that define a nation must be present, otherwise it is not a nation. And finally, he attributed the emergence of nations to a particular moment in history – the rise of capitalism.

To quote, Stalin wrote that,

“A nation is not merely a historical category but a historical category belonging to a definite epoch, the epoch of rising capitalism. The process of elimination of feudalism and development of capitalism is at the same time a process of the constitution of people into nations.”

[Нация является не просто исторической категорией, а исторической категорией определенной эпохи, эпохи подымающегося капитализма. Процесс ликвидации феодализма и развития капитализма является в то же время процессом складывания людей в нации.]

[Dân tộc không phải là một phạm trù lịch sử giản dơn, mà là một phạm trù lịch sử của một thời đại nhất định, tức là thời đại đương lên của chủ nghĩa tư bản. (bản dịch của Đào Duy Anh, 1955)]


In Marxism and the National Question, Stalin explains all of these points concerning the nation in detail, and throughout that discussion he consistently employs the Russian term for “nation” [нация, nacija] to do so.

Then in 1950, Stalin indirectly revisited this question of what defines a nation in a piece called Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics.

That work is about language, but there is a passage where Stalin states the following:

“Later, with the appearance of capitalism, the elimination of feudal division and the formation of national markets, nationalities developed into nations, and the languages of nationalities into national languages.”

[В дальнейшем, с появлением капитализма, с ликвидацией феодальной раздробленности и образованием национального рынка народности развились в нации, а языки народностей – в национальные языки.]

[Theo với sự xuất hiện của chủ nghĩa tư bản, sự tiêu diệt của tình trạng phân cát phong kiến, sự hình thành của thị trường dân tộc, thì các bộ tộc (nationalité) cũng biến thành dân tộc. . . (bản dịch của Đào Duy Anh, 1955)]


In this passage, Stalin made a reference to nations [нация, nacija] and to something that he said preceded nations – nationalities [народност, narodnost, literally something like “the condition of being a people”].

Clearly Stalin saw a distinction between these two phenomena, and the person who translated Stalin’s text into Chinese that same year (1950) clearly understood that there was a difference between the Russian words, narodnost and nacija. This is because the person who translated Stalin’s text was Li Lisan 李立三, a Chinese communist leader who had spent many years in the Soviet Union and who knew Russian well.

Li Lisan employed the term “buzu” (部族, Viet., bộ tộc) to translate “nationality.” This term had at times been used for the concept of a “tribe,” but there was another term that was more commonly used for tribe, and that was “boluo” (部落, Viet., bộ lạc).


Nonetheless, the word buzu still has more of a sense of “tribe” than “nationality.” Perhaps it is because of this that in 1979 when this text was included in a new collection of Stalin’s writings that was published in China, both “nation” and “nationality” were translated as “minzu” (Viet., dân tộc). In other words, the compilers of that collection decided to return to the pre-1950 practice of using the same Chinese word (minzu) to translate both of those Western terms (nation and nationality).

That said, they didn’t completely disregard what Stalin had actually written. Instead, they added a note where they explained that they were translating both narodnost and nacija as minzu. They stated that Stalin had used narodnost in his text to refer to a type of community of people that emerged later than tribes and were part of the periods of human development associated with slave societies and feudalism. They also stated that Stalin had used the term nacija to refer to communities of people who formed during the capitalist period and later.

The compilers of this edition then stated that whenever the term narodnost appears in Stalin’s text, they would translate it as “minzu,” but would place the Russian word “narodnost” after it in parentheses. As for naciya, they said that they would also translate it as “minzu,” but would only provide the original Russian if that term appeared in the same sentence as the term narodnost.

[注:俄文 “народность” 和 “нация” 一般都译为“民族”。斯大林在本文中把“народность”一词用来专指产生于部落之后的、奴隶社会和封建社会的人们共同体,把“нация”一词用来专指资本主义上升时期和这个时期以后的人们共同体。本文中 “народность” 译成“民族”,并附注原文; “нация” 译成“民族”,一般不附注原文,只是在同句中有 “народность” 时,才附注原文,以示区别。——编者注]


This was an odd way to deal with this linguistic problem. Instead of using two separate Chinese words to translate two separate Russian words, the compilers of this edition of Stalin’s writings used a single Chinese word and then indicated to readers (by including the original Russian word in parentheses) when they were supposed to understand that term differently from the times when the word appeared without being followed by the original Russian term.

Why did they do this? I would argue that this is an instance of nationalist emotions overcoming the efforts of these scholars to produce “purely scientific” scholarship.

These scholars could understand on a rational level that capitalism led to a greater degree of social integration than had been the past in pre-capitalist societies. Nonetheless, their nationalist desires led them to wish to see some kind of significant integration prior to the advent of capitalism. This was especially the case for countries in Asia, where there was very little evidence of capitalist development before the arrival of Westerners.

If the nation (minzu, dân tộc) only emerged under capitalism, did that mean that there was “nothing” before Westerners had arrived in China? Had their only been “tribes” (buzu, bộ tộc) before that time?

Of course these scholars felt there had been something more, but they didn’t have a name for it.

Western languages did have names for this (narodnost, nationalité), and those names could be used “scientifically,” but they also had nationalistic sentiments attached to them as well. In other words, Western scholars could recognize that capitalism created new forms of human communities, but terms like narodnost and nationalité indicated to them that those new human communities were build out of older communities that were noteworthy in their own ways. They were not “tribes.” They were “nationalities.”


This then brings us to Vietnam. In North Vietnam in the 1950s scholars engaged in a debate about when the Vietnamese nation had formed, and in doing so they relied heavily on Stalin’s writings.

In 1955, in one of his contributions to this debate, historian Đào Duy Anh cited the above passage from Stalin’s 1950 work, Marxism and the Problems of Linguistics. Following Li Lisan, Đào Duy Anh translated narodnost as bộ tộc (Chn., buzu, “tribe”) and then he placed the French word “nationalité” after it in parentheses. He then translated the word nacija in that same sentence as “dân tộc” (Chn., minzu, “nation”).


Đào Duy Anh did not read Russian, and was therefore translating this passage from a French translation. The French translation used the two terms “nationalité” and “nation,” and therefore what Đào Duy Anh wrote was an accurate translation.

However, as was the case in China, the term “bộ tộc” did not take hold in Vietnam. Instead, Đào Duy Anh soon started to refer to types of communities that preceded the nation in Vietnam by different terms, such as “the feudal nation” (dân tộc phong kiến) and “the pre-capitalist nation” (dân tộc tiền tư bản).


In other words, like his Chinese counterparts, Đào Duy Anh decided to continue to use the single word, dân tộc (minzoku/minzu) that had been created (by Japanese) in the nineteenth century to translate two Western terms (nation and nationality).

And also like his Chinese counterparts, Đào Duy Anh agreed with Stalin’s point that there had been a different form of human community that had preceded the nation, but he used the same term in referring to that and other earlier forms of human communities. He only differentiated them by adding adjectives, like “pre-capitalist” and “feudal.”

Why did he choose to do that? I would argue that it was also part of an emotional need to have something admirable and recognizable exist before the modern nation emerged.


What is the problem with this? The problem, I would argue, is that when one uses the same noun (dân tộc) to refer to different concepts, it makes it harder for people to conceptualize the differences between those concepts, and makes it easier for people to imagine more similarities and continuities between those concepts than actually existed.

This is even more so the case now that Marxist theory is not as widely referenced as it was in the 1950s. Does anyone today, for instance, make reference to the “pre-capitalist Vietnamese nation” of the eighteenth century? No, they will simply refer to the Vietnamese “nation” (dân tộc) in the eighteenth century.

But is it possible that when people today refer to the Vietnamese “dân tộc” at that time, they actually mean the Vietnamese narodnost/nationalité and not the Vietnamese nacija/nation?

Without separate words, there is no way to know what people actually think, but my guess is that the widespread use of the term “dân tộc” for all periods indicates that people see the “nation” in all periods.

Those darn nineteenth-century Japanese reformist scholars! In the nineteenth century they should have come up with separate terms for “nation” and “nationality.” Because now, over 100 years later, the fact that there is only one term in Asia for these two Western terms makes it impossible for people from those two regions to communicate with each other about the very basic topic that Stalin addressed so many years ago: “What is a nation”?