[For an addendum to these opening comments, see this post.]
Ben Kiernan begins his new Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present with the following sentence: “The mountains are like the bones of the earth. Water is its blood,” wrote a Vietnamese geographer in 1820.” (1)
That sentence is the perfect sentence to open this book, as it perfectly symbolizes how flawed the scholarship in the pages that follow is.
Kiernan claims to be quoting G. Aubaret’s 1863 (really bad) translation of Trịnh Hoài Đức’s 1820 gazetteer of the south, the Gia Định thành thông chí.
However, Aubaret wrote “L’eau est à la terre ce que le sang est dans les veines de l’homme: elle a comme des alternatives de respiration et d’aspiration pendant lesquelles elle avance ou se retire.”
[Water is to the earth what blood is like in the veins of man; it has alterations of breathing in and breathing out, during which it advances or withdraws.]
That’s not the same as “The mountains are like the bones of the earth. Water is its blood.”
The text that Aubaret claimed to have “translated,” meanwhile, was written by Trịnh Hoài Đức in classical Chinese and was not the same as what Aubaret wrote either. That passage repeats something that was written in Wang Chong’s 王充 first-century CE Balanced Discourses (Lunheng 論衡) where it explains how tides are created:
“Water constitutes the earth’s arteries. Tides are created by the intrusion or extrusion [in the earth’s arteries] of khí/qi.”
If we could go back in time and get Wang Chong to understand what Kiernan wrote, I suspect that he would be very surprised, as would Trịnh Hoài Đức, as “The mountains are like the bones of the earth. Water is its blood” is not what these men thought or wrote.
Instead, it’s a “double-distortion.” Aubaret did not understand what Trịnh Hoài Đức had written and Kiernan willfully twisted Aubaret’s bad translation yet further.
Given that so little work had been done on Vietnam when Aubaret made his translation, we can understand why it would be flawed. However, here in the twenty-first century the field of Vietnamese history has developed in places like North America to the point that it can no longer tolerate such flaws, let alone “double-distortions.”
That said, the problem with this book is much deeper than the problem of relying on bad translations, even though working with (and distorting further) bad translations leads to complete distortions of the Vietnamese past.
As the previous posts have indicated, there are conceptual problems with this book, there are methodological problems with Kiernan’s scholarship, and Kiernan’s understanding of the scholarship on Vietnamese history is woefully outdated.
And then there are the factual mistakes. Oh, there are so many factual mistakes!
Just to give a couple of the many examples that one could point to, Kiernan says on page 53 that King An Dương, a well-known figured in early Vietnamese history, is described in a Chinese source as a prince of the kingdom of “Chu.”
This should be “Shu.” Chu 楚 and Shu 蜀 were two separate kingdoms.
After discussing King An Dương’s conquest of Văn Lang, Kiernan says, apparently following Henri Maspero’s early-twentieth-century dismissal of King An Dương as legend, that “All this occurred within what is now China. It was Zhao Tuo (V. Triệu Đà), not his predecessor, who subsequently took over the Lạc regions to the south, within modern Việt Nam.”
King An Dương is discussed in a text called the Jiaozhou waiyu ji 交州外域記 (Record of the Outer Territory of Jiaozhou) in relation to a place called Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ 交趾. That refers to northern Vietnam.
What is more, the passage about King An Dương in that text comes right after a passage about “lạc fields” which Kiernan himself mentions on pages 41-43 as a sign of early “aquatic agriculture” in the Red River Delta.
So according to this logic, the “lạc fields” were within modern Việt Nam but King An Dương, who is recorded in the same text as conquering the area where the lạc fields were located, was in China. . .
And with regard to the term “Jiao/Giao” in Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ or Jiao/Giao Region 交州, as the area was also known, Kiernan cites page 32 of Edward H. Schafer’s 1967 work, The Vermilion Bird: Tang Images of the South, to say that “Historian Edward Schafer has speculated that the first Chinese name for the region, Jiao, may be the same word as jiao (crocodile, dragon).” (38)
On that page, however, Schafer does not talk about Jiao region. Instead, he has a passage about the main Chinese administrative center in the region, Long Biên 龍編, where he says “The old name Long Biên means Dragon Twist, and is said to have been given to the place in the dim past because of a jiao dragon which coiled in the river near the newly founded city.”
That story comes from the Shuijing zhu 水經注 (Annotated Classic of Waterways) and is about an event that took place in 218 CE. The “jiao dragon” in this story that Schafter mention is jiaolong/giao long: 蛟龍. The “jiao/giao” 蛟 in this expression is different from the “jiao/giao” 交 in Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ or Jiao/Giao Region.
The name “Jiao” for a place in the south is much older, and is not related to crocodiles or dragons.
One could go on and on and on like this, but I hope I have made my point over the course of these posts.
When manufacturers produce a product that is defective, they issue recalls.
This book is completely defective. It does not meet even the most basic scholarly standards.
Oxford University Press should issue a recall.