Deconstructing Trần Ngọc Thêm’s Nationalist Propaganda

Whenever I feel the need to be reminded of how deceitful nationalist “scholarship” can sometimes be, I open up one of Trần Ngọc Thêm’s books and start to read. It never takes long. I just have to read a paragraph or two, and the evidence manifests itself.

Today I opened up his Tìm về Bản Sắc Văn Hóa Việt Nam (2004, orig. pub. 1996) to page 78 where there is section on “The problem of the Southern Asian [this is a problematic term which I’ll deal with in a future post] origins of Thần Nông/Shen Nong and some Chinese mythical figures” (“Vấn đề nguồn gốc Nam-Á của Thần Nông và một số nhân vật thần thoại Trung Hoa”).

Trần Ngọc Thêm begins this section by stating that for a long time now people have believed, based on writings in Hán (i.e., Chinese), that Thần Nông/Shen Nong is part of Chinese mythology and was one of the Three Emperors (Tam Hoàng/San Huang 三皇) of antiquity.

He then quotes Derek Bodde’s introduction to the English-language version of Feng Youlan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, which he says was published in 1968, in order to emphasize this point that the earliest periods of “Chinese” history are mythical. The section he quotes is as follows:

“Traditionally, the history begins with a series of sage-kings, said to have reigned in the latter part of the third millennium B.C. It is the uncritical acceptance, both by Chinese and Westerners alike, of the stories about these men, that has created the erroneous widespread impression regarding the excessive antiquity of Chinese civilization. Today, however, scholars are generally agreed that these sage-kings are little more than mythical figures, and that the stories about them are the idealized inventions of a much later period. The historical existence ofChina’s first dynasty, the Hsia [i.e., Xia] (trad. 2205-1766 B.C.), is likewise uncertain, though it may some day be confirmed by future archaeology.”

“Theo truyền thuyết, thì lịch sử Trung Hoa được bắt đầu bởi một loạt thánh vương trị vì từ 3.000 năm trước công nguyên. Những truyền thuyết về các nhân vật ấy, mà cả người Trung Hoa và phương Tây đều công nhận không bàn cãi, đã tạo thành một ý niệm sai lầm và rất phổ biến về lịch sử quá xưa của văn minh Trung Quốc. Tuy nhiên, ngày nay các nhà bác học đều đồng ý mà cho rằng các thánh vương ấy chỉ là những nhân vật hoang đường, và truyền thuyết về các nhân vật ấy chỉ là sự bày đặt lý tưởng hóa vào một thời ký về sau. Nha Hạ, triều đại đầu tiên của Trung Hoa (thường được coi là bắt đầu từ 2.205 đến 1.766 trước công nguyên) cũng dang còn là không chắc, mặc dầu một ngày kia khoa khảo cổ học có thể xác nhận.”

Having employed the work of a Western scholar to demonstrate that the origins of Chinese history are mythical, Trần Ngọc Thêm then turns to the work of another Western scholar to indicate when Chinese history “really” begins.

In particular, he cites a work by Will Durant which was published in translation in Vietnam in 1990 as Lịch sử văn minh Trung Quốc [History of Chinese Civilization], where he says the following about Chinese historians [note that the Vietnamese translation is not exact]:

“We cannot trust them further back than 776 BC; but if we lend them a ready ear they will explain in detail the history ofChinafrom 3000 BC, and the more pious among them, like our own seers, will describe the creation of the world.”

“Chỉ từ năm 776 trước tây lịch, những lời của họ (các sử gia Trung Hoa – TNT) mới gần đáng tin, mặc dầu họ chép kỹ lich sử của họ từ 3.000 năm trước tây lịch và nhiều người không do dự gì cả, kể cho ta nghe cả thời khai thiên lập địa nữa.”

Ok, so let’s pause and see what Trần Ngọc Thêm is doing here. He is saying that people have long thought that Thần Nông/Shen Nong was one of China’s “Three Emperors,” but in fact, one Western scholar argued in 1968 that the figures like the Three Emperors are mythical, and another Western scholar argued in 1990 that Chinese history really only begins in 776 B.C.

In other words, Trần Ngọc Thêm uses the “authority” of Western scholars to reduce the significance of Chinese antiquity, and to only give it importance starting in 776 B.C.

Now, let’s look at some of the problems here. First of all, Will Durant’s “1990” History of Chinese Civilization was actually published in 1935 as a chapter in the first volume of his 11-volume series, The Story of Civilization.

“Civilization” to Durant meant “Western Civilization.” The first volume in this series was called Our Oriental Heritage and it focused mainly on the Near East (the other 10 volumes are on the West). However, there were chapters at the end on India, China and Japan. The chapter on China was published in Vietnam in 1990 as Lịch sử văn minh Trung Quốc.

So Will Durant was not an expert on Chinese history. His field was Western philosophy, and he wrote for a popular audience, rather than for academics. No one in the West who writes anything about China would ever cite his book. Why a publisher in Vietnam in 1990 chose to publish a book on China from 1935 by an American author who specialized on writing about Western philosophy for a popular audience is a mystery to me.

If Trần Ngọc Thêm was truly interested in producing academic scholarship, he never should have cited such a work. However, producing academic scholarship is not Trần Ngọc Thêm’s aim. His aim is to produce nationalist propaganda. And citing a “Western authority” to show that reliable Chinese history only begins in 776 B.C. is perfect for that.

Moving on to Derek Bodde’s introduction to the English-language version of Feng Youlan’s A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, while Trần Ngọc Thêm quotes a 1968 edition of this work, it was actually first published in 1948 (and then again in 1959 and 1966 – I can’t find evidence of a 1968 version).

What is more, the paragraph which Trần Ngọc Thêm cites from begins with a sentence which he omits: “The general reader may find it helpful to be given a brief résumé of the course of Chinese history, before concluding this introduction.”

Derek Bodde was therefore writing for a general audience. Specialists had known for years by that point that the earliest information about Chinese history was mythical. In China, scholars from Kang Youwei to Gu Jiegang had deconstructed Chinese antiquity for over half a century by the time Bodde wrote these lines, and Bodde was surely aware of that.

Also, while Trần Ngọc Thêm quotes Bodde to note that the earliest periods of Chinese history are mythical, and Will Durant to say that reliable Chinese history begins in 776 B.C., in actuality Bodde had stated clearly in his 1948 introduction that recorded Chinese history unquestionably begins between those two points, during the Shang Dynasty. The paragraph following the one which Trần Ngọc Thêm cited from states the following:

“With the Shang dynasty (trad. 1766-1123 N.C.), however, we reach firmer historical ground. Its capital, which has been partially excavated, has yielded an abundance of inscriptions carved on bone and tortoise shell.”

Work on these “oracle bones” as these materials are now known was still developing in 1948 when Bodde made this comment, but by the time Trần Ngọc Thêm first wrote this book in 1996, an enormous body of writings on these historical documents had been written in Chinese, and David Keightley of Berkeley had written extensively about them in English as well.

So by the time Trần Ngọc Thêm first published his book in 1996, there was no reason on earth to say that Chinese history only reliably begins in 776 B.C. So why would he cite the 1935 work of a non-specialist to make this point? He did this in order to show that Thần Nông/Shen Nong is “not Chinese.” Because if “Chinese” history only begins in 776 B.C., then anyone before that point is not “Chinese.”

Trần Ngọc Thêm goes on in this section to talk about how Thần Nông/Shen Nong was a mythical figure associated with agriculture, that he was connected to people in “the South” (phương Nam), and that he was eventually incorporated into Chinese civilization.

He also says that the period when the myths say Thần Nông/Shen Nong was active (roughly the end of the fourth millennium B.C.) was a time period when agriculture in Southeast Asia (Đông Nam Á) really developed.

Trần Ngọc Thêm then states that “Therefore, ‘Thần Nông’ is in essence a logo for the collective achievements of one period of time.”

“Như vậy, ‘Thần Nông’ thực chất là tên gọi biểu trưng cho những thành tựu tập thể của một giai đọan.”

Ok, what is going on here?

Trần Ngọc Thêm is attempting to deny the antiquity of “Chinese” history, and to say that there were people in “the South” who did great things first, and then they were incorporated into “China.” So “China” is not really great. It’s “the South” which is great. And since Vietnam is part of “the South,” then Vietnam is also great.

Now, let’s look at the weaknesses in his argument.

First, Trần Ngọc Thêm cited Bodde to indicate that early Chinese history is mythical and therefore unreliable. But Trần Ngọc Thêm then uses the actual time when the myths say Thần Nông/Shen Nong was active to argue that it corresponds with a time when agriculture in “Southeast Asia” flourished, and that therefore, Thần Nông/Shen Nong is somehow associated with agriculture in Southeast Asia.

If you discredit early Chinese history by saying that the information about it is mythical, you can’t use those same myths to give credit to some other history. That’s completely illogical.

Second, what is “the South”? Historians of China have long known that Thần Nông/Shen Nong is associated with “the South.” I think it is mentioned in early works like the Mencius (Mạnh Tử/Mengzi 孟子). And they all know that belief in Thần Nông/Shen Nong was ultimately incorporated into what we today refer to as “Chinese culture.”

That’s not a problem. The problem is determining what “the South” referred to in antiquity.

If we are going to follow Trần Ngọc Thêm and cite the work of Western scholars who published before 1950, then here we should note the 1942 ethnographic study by Wolfram Eberhard, Lokalkulturen des Südens und Ostens, which was published in English in 1968 as Local Cultures of South and East China.

In that work, Eberhard wrote the following:

“Considering all the elements that are directly or indirectly linked to Thần Nông/Shen Nong, it appears clearly that he was a god of the wet-field peasants, closely connected with their systems of agriculture and settlement. However, there are also undeniable relations to the Ba [= Sichuan] and Tibetan cultures, and these relations make it appear not improbable that Thần Nông/Shen Nong can be identified with other agricultural deities who are usually also connected with the Tibetans or with emanations of the Tibetan culture. These relations came into being through the fact that the center of the Thần Nông/Shen Nong cult was located in south Henan and north Hubei, the meeting place of the Ba and Thai cultures.”

Through his ethnographic research, Eberhard determined that the center of the Thần Nông/Shen Nong cult was originally in the area of what is today southern Henan and northern Hubei provinces. In antiquity, that was “the South” of the Chinese world.

While Eberhard’s claim that there were Thai in that area is now debatable (I think scholars today argue that the Tai emerged in the area of what is today Guangxi), what is not debatable is the fact that the region which was the center of the Thần Nông/Shen Nong cult was far away from Vietnam, and that Vietnam had nothing to do with that world in antiquity.

In Trần Ngọc Thêm’s nationalist project, however, “the South” is everything which is “not Chinese.” And Vietnam is part of “the South.” Therefore, anything that happened in “the South” is related to Vietnam, and points to “collective achievements” (thành tựu tập thể).

Look at how much I’ve written! And this is only about three paragraphs in a 690-page book!!! While there is much more than can be said about even these three paragraphs, I think the message should be clear.

Diễn Biến Hòa Bình and Historical Logic

I have often gotten into discussions about history with Vietnamese, and when I try to make a point which a Vietnamese disagrees with, the Vietnamese person will say, “Well that’s one perspective. There are many perspectives in history. For instance, the Chinese might say one thing, but the Vietnamese say something else.”

I’ve often wondered where this kind of logic comes from, because people in other places do not use this form of (relativistic) logic to dispute historical matters as much as Vietnamese do. Instead, other people use evidence to argue over whether one view is more believable than another.

Recently I realized that this form of thinking probably comes from the “peaceful evolution” (diễn biến hòa bình) discourse. For at least the past couple of decades, Vietnamese have been warned about the dangers of peaceful evolution.

What is peaceful evolution? It is the idea that the Western capitalist world is attempting to undermine Vietnam by seducing people with ideas about how good capitalist and democratic societies are, and corrupting their minds with ideas about the problems in Vietnamese society.

One form of argumentation which is used in the discourse about peaceful evolution is to say that whatever ideas come from the West are merely perspectives.

Whether or not people agree with this, I think that they have internalized this form of argumentation, and that they use it today to debate about things like history.

However, not all history is perspective. In fact, most of it is not. Saying that the Khmer Rouge years in Cambodia were a disaster, for instance, is not a perspective. There is much evidence which can be used to demonstrate that this view is correct.

In any case, this form of historical logic – arguing that a certain position about the past is a perspective – is not a universal form of logic. It is, however, prevalent in Vietnam. There has to be a reason for that. My guess would be that it comes from the diễn biến hòa bình discourse.

I also see it as a kind of “coping mechanism.” When you don’t like what someone says, all you have to do is say, “well that’s one perspective,” and by saying that, you can continue to feel good. You don’t have to change your ideas. It’s very convenient.

The “Blank Space” in Vietnamese Historical Scholarship

In the 1950s, historical scholarship in the DRV was part of an international world of scholarship. First and foremost, Vietnamese historians in the DRV were in dialog with their Communist Chinese and Soviet counterparts, and all were involved in creating a new “scientific” history based on Marxist historical theory.

Edward Yang has written about the dialog between the Chinese and Soviets in his “Between Marxism and Nationalism: Chinese Historiography and the Soviet Influence, 1949-1963,” Journal of Contemporary China9:23 (2000): 95-111.

In dialog with Soviet historians, Communist Chinese historians in this time period wrote about such topics as the formation of the Chinese nation, the periodization of Chinese history, the role of peasant wars in Chinese history, signs of the emergence of capitalism in the Chinese past, and the issue of land ownership in “feudal” China.

These are all topics which Vietnamese historians in the DRV addressed as well. They did so in a journal which they entitled Nghiên cứu lịch sử, a title remarkably similar to the title of the journal which Communist Chinese historians published their articles in, Lishi yanjiu. . . As such, Vietnamese historians were part of an international effort to use a certain theoretical approach to address certain issues. (Patricia Pelley deals with this to some extent in her Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past.)

Then in the 1960s this all came to an end. During the war, nationalism took prominence over Marxist theory, and since that time I would argue that the role of theory in historical scholarship in Vietnam has disappeared. For the past 50 years, I cannot find any serious signs that Vietnamese historians have employed any new theoretical insights to advance historical scholarship.

What I do see many signs of, instead, is a “blank space.” What I mean by this is that I find no signs of the major theorists that have influenced historical scholarship in the West over the course of the past half century.

So whenever I read something which a Vietnamese historian writes these days, I get confused. I don’t understand what Vietnamese historians think they are doing.

Do they think that they are participating in the world of “international” scholarship? If so, then they desperately need to fill in that “blank space” because they will not understand anyone outside of Vietnam, nor will anyone be able to understand them, until they do so.

Do they think that they are participating in a more limited world of “Vietnamese” scholarship? If that is the case, then there is really no reason to hold “international” conferences and workshops in Vietnam, and there is no reason for Vietnamese historians to attend such events outside of the country, because these two worlds have no reason to interact with each other.

Ultimately my guess is that historians in Vietnam simply don’t really know or think that much about what they are doing. They are just content to drift through that “blank space.”