Is There a Purpose to this Blog?

Is there a purpose to this blog? I guess I would say “sometimes.”

If there is a purpose to this blog it would be to counter the negative effects of nationalism on the writing of history. That is what the majority of entries in this blog that have a “purpose” are about.

If one is not familiar with the topic of the negative influence of nationalism on the writing of history, then a good place to start to familiarize oneself with this topic is this Wikipedia page on Historiography and Nationalism (I don’t always recommend Wikipedia, but this entry is ok).

It also has a list of suggested further readings, which I have pasted below, that give a sense of some of the work that has been done on this topic. In fact, the amount of articles and books that have been published on this topic in the past thirty years in the West probably numbers in the thousands by this point.

As such, for anyone who has studied at the postgraduate (UK system) or graduate (US system) level in Europe, North America or Australia, the concepts that this blog deals with should be very familiar. Indeed, there are entire courses at countless universities that are dedicated to the topic of nationalism and the various ways that it has influenced modern societies.

For people in the places that this blog covers, however, the issue is not so simple, as the topic of the negative influence of nationalism on historical scholarship has not received much attention (privately it has, perhaps, but not publically in print). In fact, nationalism still exerts a significant influence on scholarship (to varying degrees and in various ways) throughout not only much of Southeast Asia, but some other parts of Asia as well.

The “purpose” of many of the entries in this blog is to point this out.

And here is that reading list from the Wikipedia page mentioned above (whoever made the list appears to have an interest in archaeology, a field that has also been deeply influenced by nationalism):

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Verso, 1991 [2nd ed.]).

George C. Bond and Angela Gilliam, eds., Social Construction of the Past: Representation as Power (Routledge, 1994).

Margarita Díaz-Andreu, A World History of Nineteenth-Century Archaeology: Nationalism, Colonialism and the Past (Oxford University Press, 2007).

Margarita Díaz-Andreu and Tim Champion, eds., Nationalism and Archaeology in Europe (Westview Press, 1996).

Marc Ferro, The Use and Abuse of History: Or How the Past Is Taught to Children (Routledge, 2003).

Patrick J. Geary, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe (Princeton University Press, 2002).

Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Cornell University Press, 1983).

Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Eric J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds.. The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Philip L. Kohl, “Nationalism and Archaeology: On the Constructions of Nations and the Reconstructions of the Remote Past,” Annual Review of Anthropology 27 (1998): 223-246.

Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Blackwell Publishers, 1988).

Ronald Grigor Suny, “Constructing Primordialism: Old Histories for New Nations,” The Journal of Modern History 73.4 (2001): 862-896.

Michael Bergunder, “Contested Past: Anti-Brahmanical and Hindu Nationalist Reconstructions of Indian Prehistory,” Historiographia Linguistica 31.1 (2004): 59-104.

Garrett G. Fagan, ed.), Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public (Routledge, 2006).

Philip L. Kohl and Clare Fawcett, eds., Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (University Of Chicago Press, 2000).

The Origins of Patriotic Education in Vietnam

Following the ideas of the previous two blog entries below, one of the main elements of the dominant paradigm of Vietnamese history is that Vietnamese have always felt patriotic towards their nation.

Contrary to this assertion, we can clearly document the emergence of the concept of patriotism (ái quốc in Hán, but commonly expressed now as lòng yêu nước in tiếng Việt) in Vietnam to the early twentieth century. We can see its emergence at that time in, among other places, a new style of textbook that was published which clearly promoted this concept, and which clearly indicated that it was new.

One example of such works is the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư (改良蒙學國史教科書). I’m not sure about the exact publication date for this work, but it should be around 1912 or so. Its argument about the need for a new mindset is similar to what can be found in works like the Việt sử yếu (越史要) from 1914.

What is the new mentality that these works encouraged? They argued that “Vietnamese” (Note that in the passage below the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư does not use this term. I’m just using it here for the sake of simplicity.) did not have a sense of patriotism because they had never really thought about their own land. Instead, they had just focused on learning about that big place to the north.

This was one of the most important intellectual changes that took place at that time. After centuries of living in a world in which educated Vietnamese valued certain knowledge as universal (what we would today call “Chinese” knowledge), in the early twentieth century educated Vietnamese moved away from that way of viewing the world and started to emphasize the need to know about their own land.

Why did this happen? It is because Vietnamese intellectuals at that time came to learn of the concept of the nation, and that in the West people did not emphasize some universal form of knowledge as they did, but valued instead information about their own individual countries.

This was a new concept, as were many terms associated with it such as:

“nation” – It is often difficult to detect when this concept is being used in this transition period, because the term for “kingdom” (quốc 國) was used to indicate this new concept as well. So when intellectuals in the early twentieth century talked about “quốc sử” (國史), it is difficult to know if they meant “national history” or “the history of the kingdom.”

“nationality” (dân tộc 民族) – This was a new concept. It was created by Japanese reformers in the second half of the nineteenth century, and then entered the Chinese language.

“fatherland” (tổ quốc 祖國) – Another new concept at the time which was probably created in Japan as well.

“citizen” (quốc dân 國民) – Also created in Japan to translate a concept that did not exist in languages like Japanese and Chinese.

With all of this in mind, let’s look at the opening part of the preface to the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư:

“In a realm there are three things of importance. The first is history. A nation’s/kingdom’s history records the [times of] strength and weakness of a nation’s/kingdom’s nationality [dân tộc], and the speed of their evolution. Studies in the Occident [old word for the West – 泰西] place first importance on national history. All of the male and female students in each school are first taught their own nation’s history, and then the histories of foreign countries. Children practice it, and when they get bigger they become adept at it.

Trong cõi có ba điều quan trọng, một trong số đó là sử. Quốc sử là cái dùng để ghi lại sự mạnh yếu của dân tộc và sự nhanh chậm trong tiến hóa của nó. Sự học của Thái Tây trọng hơn hết là quốc sử. Hễ trong trường học, học sinh nữ hay nam đều trước hết dạy cho lịch sử bản quốc, sau đó [học] đến lịch sử nước ngoài. Lúc đồng ấu học tập thứ ấy, lớn lên sẽ tinh thông thứ ấy.

“Reading the history of the [times of] strength and prosperity of one’s fatherland, one becomes happy. Reading the history of the [times of] decline and weakness of one’s fatherland, one becomes sad. These citizens will then gain a strong sense of patriotism. Everyone will exert their utmost to move the fatherland toward strength and prosperity, and to raise their fatherland’s reputation. The history of a nation truly has the most intimate of relations with its citizens.

Đọc lịch sử [khi] tổ quốc cường thịnh thì vui sướng mà kính nể. Đọc lịch sử [khi] tổ quốc suy vi thì xót xa mà buồn thương. [Như thế] nên những quốc dân [đọc sử ấy] được làm giàu có [thêm] lòng yêu nước; [mà] người người sẽ hết sức gắng gỏi để thúc đẩy tổ quốc đến cường thịnh và làm danh dự tổ quốc được vẻ vang. Quốc sử đối với quốc dân thực có quan hệ mật thiết nhất.

“Studies in our kingdom/nation just stick to using rotten Chinese [It’s very interesting that the author uses 支那 Chi Na. This was a derogatory term used by the Japanese at the time (Shina in Japanese).] writings. As for this nation’s [writings], they know nothing, as if they were in a fog. Even if you ask high-class students which nation/kingdom they live in, they cannot answer. Oh! The people of this nation/kingdom are not clear about the matters of this nation/kingdom, [like] Ji Tan forgetting his ancestors [A reference to a person in the Zuozhuan], and almost don’t even know the origin of their own bloodline [This is another new concept.]. Therefore the spirit of patriotism is shallow and weak, causing the fatherland’s future to daily descend into the realm of decline and oblivion.”

Sở học của nước ta rặt chỉ theo nước China mà mô phỏng lối văn hủ lậu, thứ đó (=lối văn hủ lậu) đối với bản quốc vì thế thực là mông lung, [người học học nó thì] như sa vào chốn sương mù. [Điều đó khiến cho] đến mức học sinh cao đẳng trong xã hội lớp trên mà [khi] hỏi rằng thân này ở nước nào cũng không thể đối đáp được. Ôi! Với việc quốc nhân mình không biết rõ quốc sự mình, [khác gì] [chuyện] “Tịch Đàm vong tổ” (Tịch Đàm quên tổ tiên của mình)? Cơ hồ không biết huyết thống thân ta từ đâu mà ra, cho nên lòng yêu nước đã nông cạn lại mỏng bạc, mà khiến cho tiền đồ tổ quốc ngày càng hãm vào vực suy nhược chìm vong.


What I have translated as “patriotism” here is “ái quốc tâm” (愛國心) or “ái quốc chi tâm” (愛國之心). While you can find the term “ái quốc” used prior to this point, it did not carry the same sense as the term “patriotism.” What was valued prior to the twentieth century was loyalty (trung 忠) to a monarch. “Ái quốc” thus indicated more of a connection to the monarch, the royal enterprise, and the monarch’s kingdom than a connection with “the citizens” and the land, which patriotism emphasizes.

For people to have a sense of “patriotism,” they had to think of their land as a “nation” with “citizens” and a “national history” about this “fatherland” that the “nationality” needed to know so that they could feel a sense of “patriotism.”

The curriculum that scholars studied before the twentieth century emphasized very different points. People needed to learn the classics in order to develop the morality that they would need to govern well and to maintain their loyalty to the monarch.

Further, those classics were universal. It was thus impossible to have a modern/Western sense of patriotism when one’s education focused on material that came from someplace else.

The Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư demonstrates that intellectuals in the early twentieth century were coming to this realization, and were attempting to dramatically change the way that people in their land viewed the world they lived in.

A century later we can see that they definitely succeeded. Today many people are unaware that this transition ever took place. As a result, the dominant paradigm that declares that the Vietnamese have always had a sense of patriotism toward their nation gets repeated over and over.

Patriotism and History in Malaysia and Hong Kong

There have been a couple of related news events recently that are quite interesting. A few days ago media in Malaysia reported that a new history curriculum is being developed for high schools that will get students to learn “the rudiments of patriotism and loyalty.”

Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin stated that, “The government is drafting a new curriculum particularly for secondary students based on recommendations by the special committee studying the History syllabus and textbooks.”

That special committee was established in 2011 following allegations that the history that was being taught in Malaysian schools was “biased and inaccurate.”

Not only is a new curriculum being developed, but history is being made a compulsory topic for secondary school students. The deputy prime minister commented on this point that,

“The era of thinking that anyone can teach history and of regarding it as a sideline subject has passed.

“We want history to be given a breath of fresh air and serious attention to ensure it is taught by teachers with expertise and deep knowledge.”

And why do certain people in Malaysia want to give history “a breath of fresh air”? So that “the spirit of unity and patriotism could be fostered among the younger generation.” That apparently is what makes history “accurate” and not “biased.”

Meanwhile, a day ago in Hong Kong tens of thousands of young people protested plans to implement a similar curriculum. Some of these protestors have covered their eyes and tied themselves up to symbolize the way that such forced views of the past simply blind and limit people rather than educate them.

At a “Globalising Higher Education in Malaysia” conference in 2006, plans were announced to make Malaysia an international hub for higher education by 2010 (did it work?), to raise the capacity for knowledge and innovation, and to nurture a “first class mentality.”

I’m not sure what a “first class mentality” is, and a report I looked at to find out more only contains this term in its title. It doesn’t explain what it is (see here). However, whatever it is, I definitely doubt that it can be created by the current plans to change the history curriculum.

Patriotism may be an important ideology to promote during the early stages of the nation building process, but eventually it loses its relevance. The world we live in is too complex to examine through the simplistic lens of patriotism. And it is too wasteful of human potential to not expose young people to the complexities of their own country’s past when they are still in high school.

Some governments, I guess, fear that if students have an accurate understanding of history, that they will oppose the government or betray the country. That is ridiculous.

If students are provided with a more accurate picture of the past, they will come to appreciate how complex issues were in the past. And with this knowledge, they will be better able to appreciate how complex the issues that governments and nations face in the present are as well.

In our current interconnected and information-filled world, dealing with complexity is what it is all about. Teaching patriotic versions of history eliminates the complexity from the past. And that ultimately destroys hope for the future.

Instead of producing people who have the intellectual skills to come up with innovative solutions, patriotic education produces too many people who just repeat the simplistic information they were taught, such as the victim narratives that I discussed here.

Victim narratives might help create a sense of legitimacy, but they do nothing to solve any of the complex issues we face. Only people with a “first class mentality” can solve complex problems, and patriotic education does not produce such people.

Paradigm Shifts in Vietnamese History

The term “paradigm shift” is often used by academics. It is a term that was created by Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. While the term had a specific meaning related to the hard sciences in that book, scholars today in other fields often use it in a more general sense to talk about a change that takes place when a long-held view about something gets overturned.

How does a paradigm shift come about? Well it is usually the case that people start to notice ways in which a certain view or interpretation of something doesn’t make sense. Then eventually someone takes this evidence and makes a strong argument in support of a new way of viewing or interpreting something, and this leads people to stop viewing/interpreting the issue or event in the old way and to adopt this new perspective.

I recently mentioned Lien-Hang Nguyen’s new book, Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam. This book has the potential to bring about a paradigm shift, because it challenges many long-held views about the war, and it does so by providing lots of evidence which does not support the existing interpretation.

Where does that evidence come from? First, from Lien-Hang’s work in archives from the around the world. And second, from the work that other scholars have recently conducted on this topic, as these other studies likewise provide evidence that shows that the dominant paradigm is inaccurate.

This then leads to certain questions. If other scholars have already provided evidence which counters the existing paradigm, why hasn’t it changed already? What has to happen for a paradigm to finally change?

These are difficult questions to answer. One can never predict when exactly a paradigm will get overturned. A scholar can know all his/her career that certain things that people think and say are not true, but those views may never change in a given scholar’s lifetime.

In other cases, however, the way a certain topic or field is viewed can change radically in a short period of time.

This then brings us to Vietnamese history. There are many explanatory paradigms about the Vietnamese past that are inaccurate, and which many people know are inaccurate. We could create a list that could go on and on.

Many people really believe that there was a kingdom called Văn Lang in the first millennium BC that was ruled over by Hùng Kings.

Many people have no idea how completely the way that educated Vietnamese viewed the world was transformed in the twentieth century, and as a result, uncritically make use of modern terms like “dân tộc” when they talk about the period prior to the twentieth century (when Vietnamese intellectuals in the first half of the twentieth century made it clear that this was a new concept to them).

Many people believe that the idea that Vietnamese have “always been resisting foreign aggression” has been part of the consciousness of “the Vietnamese” since the beginning of time, and do not see that this is a modern discourse that was created in the twentieth century to rally people to do precisely what they were not doing—resisting.

These views are part of a paradigm, a way of viewing the past, and there is a great deal of evidence that counters this paradigm and its numerous elements. There are also many people who realize that this paradigm is not accurate, and yet the paradigm persists.

Why does it persist? It persists outside of Vietnam because so few people outside of the country produce knowledge about the Vietnamese past. It is therefore difficult for enough evidence to accumulate to finally attract enough people’s attention.

Within Vietnam paradigms persist for various reasons. People do not look at Vietnamese history comparatively and therefore do not see the ways in which developments in Vietnamese history fit with historical developments in other areas, and they then make statements about the Vietnamese past which don’t make sense in a comparative context.

People have not been exposed to many ideas and theories that have become common knowledge in the West over the past several decades, something I wrote about here.

Finally, in some ways political legitimacy is tied to the existing paradigms, and that makes it difficult for people to challenge existing paradigms because there is the potential that their scholarship might be interpreted as a political challenge (which of course it shouldn’t be, but one can’t control how other people think).

So if you are a scholar and you see that an existing paradigm is not accurate, what do you do?

One approach is to introduce new ideas that change an outdated view, but that don’t touch upon topics that can be seen as “politically sensitive.” There is recent good work which some scholars have conducted on the history of international trade, for instance, which does this. These scholars use theories and perspectives that are employed by scholars from around the globe, and in the process they engage in an international scholarly dialog, and produce new perspectives about the Vietnamese past.

That is good, but at the same time it leaves all of the problematic fundamental issues in Vietnamese history untouched. So ultimately, little changes. That said, it may be the wiser way to introduce new ideas. Or we might live our entire lives knowing that so much that is written and said about the Vietnamese past is incorrect, without ever seeing any of it change.

The Problem of the Term “Việt” In a National History

Many people today write histories of nations. They create a narrative about the origins of a nation and then follow its development through time.

That is one way to write history. However, many scholars who study about nations argue that viewing groups of peoples as “nations” is a modern phenomenon.

Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), for instance, argues that it was only at the end of the nineteenth century that many people in “France” came to see themselves as “French.” Before that time most people had a local, rather than a national, identity.

Then you have a non-academic book like Cecil Jenkins’ A Brief History of France (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2011), where the table of contents demonstrates that the author talks about all of history in the area that we today refer to as “France.”

However, he also follows Weber in saying that the sense of being French is very recent. To quote, he says that,

“Frenchness is largely a historical construct, as indeed is the country itself. . . And French national feeling, in a country where barely 10 per cent of the inhabitants spoke French before the Revolution [1789], is largely the effect of Napoleonic conscription [~1799-1815] and the introduction of schooling with patriotic indoctrination by the Third Republic [1870-1940].” (4-5)

So there is somewhat of a contradiction here. If “France” and the sense of being “French” is modern, then how can a book about “France” start in ancient times?

On the other hand, while “France” and the sense of being “French” is new, some of the people who live in the area of what we today call “France” do have ancestors who lived in that area going back for hundreds or even thousands of years, even though they never thought of themselves as “French” until maybe 100 years ago. So doesn’t it make sense to write about them?

This then is the key point: While we can in some cases trace blood over a long period of time, we cannot trace a single consciousness or identity over that same long period.

With that in mind, if I was to write a history of the area of what is today the Red River Delta and to talk about the people who have historically lived there, how would I do it?

Well the first thing I would do would be to try to get a good understanding of the term “Việt.” Where did it come from?

We know that in the first millennium BCE people who lived in the area near the Yellow River referred to people who lived to their south, and whom they perceived to be different from them as “Việt/Yue,” and that they created the term Bách Việt/Baiyue (i.e., “Hundred Việt/Yue”) to refer to those peoples collectively.

On the other hand, there is very little evidence that any of these “Hundred Việt/Yue” actually referred to themselves as “Việt/Yue.” We essentially have no idea what these various peoples thought of themselves, or how they referred to themselves. All we know is that the term “Việt/Yue” was created and used by outsiders.

[For more on this, see Erica Brindley, “Barbarians or Not? Ethnicity and Changing Conceptions of the Ancient Yue (Viet) Peoples, ca. 400–50 BC,” Asia Major 16.1 (2003): 1–32.]

As we move from the end of the BCE period through the first millennium CE, we do find certain members of the elite in the area of what is today southern China and northern Vietnam employ the term Việt/Yue in certain political contexts.

At the end of the third century BCE, Zhao Tuo referred to himself as the Emperor of Nam Việt/Nanyue, with a capital in the area of what is today Guangdong Province.

In the sixth century CE, Lý Bí also declared himself the emperor of a Nam Việt in the area of what is today northern Vietnam.

In the early seventh century, Lin Shihong declared himself King of Nam Việt/Nanyue, from where he was based in the area of what is now Jiangxi Province.

Also in the seventh century, a powerful man in the area of what is now Guangdong Province, Feng Ang, was encouraged by his supporters to declare himself King of Nam Việt/Nanyue, but he declined to do so.

In 917, a Kingdom of Dại Việt/Dayue was established in what is today Guangdong Province.

And later in that same century, a Kingdom of Đại Cồ Việt was established in the area of what is today northern Vietnam.

So the term Việt/Yue appeared in certain political contexts over a period of more than 1,000 years in an area stretching from what is today Jiangxi Province to the Red River Delta.

What does this demonstrate? It shows that the elite across this area were literate enough to know that in ancient times the term Việt/Yue was associated with that part of the world, and they used the term in their titles.

What does this tell us about the common people who lived in that same area? Absolutely nothing. We have no idea what they thought about themselves, or what they thought about the people who declared the establishment of these kingdoms.

Given the fact that this was a premodern world with limited communications and very little schooling, it’s reasonable to assume that most people lived their entire lives in villages and had little if any knowledge of anything beyond their rice fields.

(to be continued. . .)

Nationalist Victim Narratives in China and Vietnam

Recently there have been anti-Japan demonstrations in China, and anti-China demonstrations in Vietnam. These demonstrations in both instances are related to issues about certain uninhabited islands (“rocks in the sea” is what I prefer to call them), but there is something else that they share. They are both informed by “nationalist victim narratives.”

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Chinese talked about the “national humiliation” (guochi) that they faced as Westerners encroached upon their land, starting with the Opium War.

When the Communists came to power in 1949, they declared that they had put an end to a “century of national humiliation” (bainian guochi). However, this narrative was revived in the 1990s, and it was evident in the recent protests.

In the middle of the twentieth century, Vietnamese started to talk a lot about “struggle” and “resistance” and this ultimately led to the idea of a “history of resistance against foreign aggression” (lịch sử chống ngoại xâm). This narrative has continued to play an important role to the present.

The “century of national humiliation” and the “history of resistance against foreign aggression” are both “victim narratives.” They both stir emotions by appealing to people’s perceived sense of having been wronged by others, but they both also are consoling in that they imply that such wrongs have been righted in the past, and that all future wrongs will likewise be righted “if” the people continue to act as they supposedly always have in the past.

In his China’s New Nationalism: Pride, Politics, and Diplomacy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), Peter Hays Gries has a nice explanation of how such narratives work in people’s lives. He says the following:

“Narratives are the stories we tell about our pasts. These stories, psychologists have argued, infuse our identities with unity, meaning, and purpose. We cannot, therefore, radically change them at will. Far from being simple tools of our invention, the stories we tell about the past both constrain and are constrained by what we do in the present.

“Simply put, the storied nature of social life provides our identities with meaning. ‘Identities,’ Stuart Hall notes, ‘are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves in, the narratives of the past.’” (46)

So in the case of China, the “century of national humiliation” is not “fact” (because there are many other ways that one could explain that same period, particularly by focusing on Chinese “failures”), but it is also not a complete “invention” (because events like the Opium War did take place).

What Peter Hays Gries is pointing out, however, is the way in which the narrative of the “century of national humiliation” becomes part of people’s identities through its repeated telling. And then once that has happened, it informs the way they think and act.

So today Chinese are determined to “wipe clear” the “national humiliation” of Japan’s claiming control over some rocks in the sea, and Vietnamese are determined to “resist the foreign aggression” that they see in China’s claiming control over some other rocks in the sea.

In both of these instances, the Chinese and Vietnamese, respectively, feel a strong sense of righteousness as they both “know” that they have been “victimized” like this by the Japanese and Chinese, respectively, before. At the same time their “knowledge” that they have triumphed over such wrongs in the past gives them the conviction in the present that they will triumph again.

One point that I find fascinating is that the values that these narratives glorify are precisely the values that were perceived to be lacking when these narratives were created.

Paul Cohen has pointed out that during the late Qing and in the early Republican years in China, there were many writers who were frustrated to find that many Chinese did not seem to feel humiliated by the many “national humiliations” that were taking place. [Paul A. Cohen, “Remembering and Forgetting National Humiliation in Twentieth-Century China,” Twentieth-Century China 27.2 (2002): 1-39.]

Therefore, part of the reason why certain intellectuals wrote about “national humiliation” was because they felt that too many people were not feeling humiliated, and that positive change could never take place if they remained passive and indifferent.

The same point applies to Vietnam. The “resistance against foreign aggression” narrative began to take shape in the second half of the 1940s when there was an immediate need to fight the French, and then it took its final form in the 1960s when the nation was divided and when there were many people who were not perceived to be “resisting foreign aggression.”

Peter Hays Gries says that we cannot “radically change [narratives] at will.” That may be true, but it’s worth trying to at least bring about some change.

It is not difficult to determine when a certain narrative emerged and why. When we discover that information, then the “emotive truth” of the narrative weakens.

If there are more complex explanations for what happened in China from the Opium War until 1949 (rather than a single simplistic explanation which evokes emotions), then there should be complex explanations for what is happening today as well.

If Vietnamese history has been more complex than a simple emotive tale of people uniting against foreign aggression, then the issues which Vietnam faces today should likewise be viewed with more complexity.

Problems are easier to solve when fewer emotions are involved and when more sophisticated modes of thinking are employed. Victim narratives, however, are based on the exact opposite. Without a heavy dose of emotion and a simplistic view of the world, a victim narrative cannot survive.

As long as victim narratives dominate, problems will endure. Human beings probably cannot live without narratives about themselves, but they can perhaps create narratives that allow for more complexity than victim narratives do.

Gaining a clear understanding of when and why current narratives emerged is an obvious first step to take.

Vietnam Mapped

I have absolutely no desire to get involved in the Trường Sa/Hoàng Sa debate. Why? Because I’m an historian and as an historian I can’t stand listening to the historians in this debate (on both sides) talk about “sovereignty” (chủ quyền/主權) prior to the twentieth century.

“Sovereignty” is a WESTERN concept. IT DID NOT EXIST IN ASIA PRIOR TO THE 20TH CENTURY. If it had existed, then why did the Japanese have to create a new term – “shuken” (chủ quyền/主權) – to translate the Western word, “sovereignty”???

Prior to the 20th century, concepts of borders and the control of territory were more vague in Asia than they were in the West. It is only through contact with the West that this changed. The classic academic treatment of this topic is Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped, which demonstrates how Siamese elites only came to view their land as a clearly-defined territory and to map it (in the Western sense) after the Siamese were forced to defend their kingdom from the threat of Western conquest.

The Siamese learned to “map Siam” in a Western way in order to demonstrate where the territorial boundaries of the kingdom were (as these were issues which the Siamese had not bothered with before) so that the British and French could be kept at a distance.

The story of how Vietnam came to be “mapped” has yet to be told, but there is plenty of material to determine how this happened.

What is clear is that ideas about mapping in Vietnam gradually started to conform to Western standards in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I was just looking at a work called the Bản quốc dư đồ. This map is undated, and there is no information about who created it, but I would argue that it was probably created in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

Why do I think this way? First, because it contains the above image of mainland Southeast Asia. I don’t think that Vietnamese ever obtained such knowledge of this region themselves (this map even has the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra on it). Instead, it had to have come from others, such as the French (or maybe some map created by a Chinese or Japanese reformer, which in turn would have been new because of their contact with Western mapping ideas), and yet this map in its style (it doesn’t clearly indicate borders, for instance) more closely resembles a traditional Vietnamese map than a nineteenth-century Western map.

Also, on this map Vietnam is referred to as “Vietnam, that is, An Nam.” That terminology strikes me as post-French contact. If it was a map which predated French contact then I think it should say Đại Nam or Thiên Nam. Also, it has Jianpusai (柬埔塞, how do we write this in quốc ngữ?) rather than Cao Miên (高棉) for Cambodia. That is also a more modern term. (Did Vietnamese ever use it much?)

The following image is also interesting. It is a map of the “entire kingdom.” It is not how Westerners arrange maps. In this map the north is to the right and the south is to the left. However, it is rare to find a map of the entire kingdom in pre-twentieth-century Vietnamese geographies. And I do not know of any traditional geography which places the kingdom in the larger region like the image above does.

In other words, this map looks like a kind of transitional map between a traditional map and one which is based on Western principles.

Having said all that, there is yet one more thing about this image of the “entire kingdom” which is interesting. . . Out in the sea this map has two circles. One of those circles is labeled “Yellow Sand Islets” (黃沙渚, Hoàng Sa [what is 渚 in quốc ngữ?]) and the other is labeled the “Vast Reservoir” (洪潭, Hồng Đầm).

So does this map show that “Vietnam” had “sovereignty” over the Hoàng Sa islands? Rather than answer that question directly, let’s look at some of the other parts of the map.

At the top of the map there are various names for places which are today in Laos, and in the upper left is the term for Siam. There is no line indicating that these areas were in separate territories. Does this mean that “Vietnam” had “sovereignty” over Laos and Siam?

Maybe those names are just there to put “Vietnam” into geographical perspective. If that is the case, then perhaps the Hoàng Sa islands are there for the same reason.

The only place on this map where we can get a sense of a border is on the right-hand side. There we find some border passes. These are border passes between “Vietnam” and “China,” though there are no names here for “China” or “Guangdong” or any other such places to indicate what is on the other side of those border passes.

So what is my point? My point is that concepts of space and borders and political control were different in the past. They were much more vague than they are today.

Historians can seek to understand how people in the past understood these concepts differently, but they should never try to find modern ideas (like sovereignty) in the past where they did not exist.

The Geo-Body of Vietnam

In 1983, Benedict Anderson argued in his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism that nations are “imagined,” and that one of the ways they are imagined is through the mass media of print.

For instance, before there were newspapers in which people could read about events throughout their country, it was difficult for them to conceive of all of the people in a given area as being the same. People identified with their locality more than with any larger entity.

Inspired by this argument, in 1994 Thongchai Winichakul published his book Siam Mapped: A History of a Geo-Body of a Nation in which he noted the importance of modern maps in creating a national consciousness.

Simply put, Thongchai’s argument is that without modern maps in which people can literally see their nation on a piece of paper, it is difficult for them to imagine it. He therefore created the term “geo-body” to refer to this phenomenon.

The geo-body of a nation refers not simply to 1) the territory of a nation, but to the fact that 2) the image of the territory of the nation is clearly recognizable to the citizens of the nation through their exposure to maps and images of the borders of the nation, and that 3) this image of the nation’s territory “is a source of pride, loyalty, love, passion, bias, hatred, reason, unreason” etc. (17)

Another point which is important about the geo-body is that it stands alone and is not reliant for its existence on anything outside its borders. This places the geo-body in contrast to earlier conceptions of space, such as those promoted by Buddhists, who drew maps which connected areas of what are today Thailand with the Buddha’s birthplace in what is today India.

More recently, in 2010, Momoki Shiro published an article entitled “Nation and Geo-Body in Early Modern Vietnam: A Preliminary Study through Sources of Geomancy” in Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century: The China Factor. In this article, Professor Momoki surveys extant texts on geomancy (phong thủy) from before the twentieth century, and argues that these texts “must have helped people. . . imagine a kind of ‘geo-body.” (138)

This geo-body, Momoki explains, “might not be a clearly bounded surface but a network of veins and focal points.” Nonetheless, he contends, “it is likely that geomantic descriptions helped people imagine the geo-body more vividly then maps did because the Lê maps, both national and provincial, contain few toponyms other than names of administrative units above villages, and were more obscure about natural topography like mountains and rivers.” (138-139)

Professor Momoki is correct when he states that geomantic texts do not present images of a “clearly bounded surface.” By this fact alone they do not create the phenomenon of a geo-body. Instead, they are similar to the premodern attempts of Buddhists in mainland Southeast Asia to connect their area and history to the Buddha and his birthplace.

Look, for instance, at this “map” from a work called the An Nam Phong Thủy. The circle in the middle of this map represents the main node of geomantic power in the region. From this node, power emanates outward in different levels of strength, and in the process kingdoms of different levels of strength and size are created, such as what is labeled on this map “Our Kingdom” (Ngã Quốc).

The source of geomantic power was not contained within the borders of Đại Việt. Therefore, from a geomantic perspective, Đại Việt could only be understood as part of something larger. It did not stand alone.

This connection to something more powerful was also reflected in ideas about where Vietnamese geomantic texts ultimately came from.

As Momoki Shiro points out, many Vietnamese geomantic texts upheld a common claim about their origin. They claimed to have first been created by the Tang Dynasty administrator Gao Pian/Cao Biền.

The story goes that Tang Yizong sent Gao Pian to An Nam to suppress powerful geomantic nodes which might lead to the emergence of a son of Heaven. Later, when the Ming occupied the same region, General Huang Fu/Hoàng Phúc brought Gao Pian’s manuscript with him. It then passed to the Vietnamese when the Ming were defeated.

So Vietnamese geomantic texts upheld a discourse which argued that there is power in the Vietnamese landscape, but that it can only be identified by certain individuals from the North (China). This same idea is also found in stories from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in which, as Momoki notes, “there are ample episodes of burial practices carried out by Northerners or Northern visitors. . . which influenced the fortune of Vietnamese living around the burial sites.” (129)

In other words, Vietnamese geomantic texts demonstrated that geomantic power came from outside the kingdom, and knowledge of this power likewise came from outside the kingdom.

This is very different from the concept of a geo-body. The geo-body, like the nation it is supposed to represent, stands alone and is independent. Vietnamese geomantic knowledge was all about connections to a source of power outside of the kingdom. Therefore, for the geo-body to emerge, those connections had to be cut.

The processes of severing those ties began in the early twentieth century in the writings of reformist intellectuals who had been exposed to Western ideas. We can see this clearly in the opening passage of a work called the Nam quốc địa dư, a text intended for use in public education. That work began as follows:

“Our kingdom/country is located in the south of the continent of Asia [Á-Tế-Á]. To the north it presses against China’s [Chi-Na] Yunnanand Guangxi [provinces]. To the west it meets Laos [Ai Lao] and Cambodia [Cao Miên]. To the south it comes up against the China Sea. To the east it borders the China Seaand China’s Guangdong[Province]. The kingdom/country has been established here for 4,767 years. The total area of the kingdom/country is 311,100 square kilometers [cơ-lư-miệt]. (Bắc Kỳ is 119,200. Trung Kỳ 135,000. Nam Kỳ is 56,900.) Its territory is not insignificant [literally, “not small”].”

From the use of new foreign terms in this passage – Á-Tế-Á, Chi-Na, cơ-lư-miệt – we can see that the author was writing about space in a new way after having read reformist writings which were influenced by Western conceptions of space.

Like in the geographies of Western nations at that time, there was no place for geomantic nodes in the Nam quốc địa dư. Nor was it acceptable to see Vietnamese space as connected to some source of power beyond the boundaries of the kingdom/country.

In this text, geographic space was severed from its previous source of power. Now it stood alone. “Our kingdom/country” is in “Asia” and it is “311,100 square kilometers.”

Texts such as this one began to create a geo-body for Vietnam. When this information was subsequently taught through the modern school system, where classrooms had modern maps hanging on their walls like we see in the picture below, then the geo-body came into existence.

On Not Theorizing the Nation in Vietnam

The nation (dân tộc) is a critical concept in Vietnamese scholarship. It is a concept which is ubiquitous in Vietnamese writings, and yet it is extremely under-theorized.

In the 1950s, Vietnamese scholars in the DRV made a serious effort to theorize the nation. The beginnings of this effort can be seen in an article that Trần Huy Liệu published in the journal Đại học sư phạm in 1955 in which he pointed out that the question of when the Vietnamese nation had been formed was a new issue for Vietnamese scholars, one that had not been publically discussed prior to that point.

Trần Huy Liệu encouraged scholars to take up this issue, and several did, such as Đào Duy Anh and Nguyễn Lương Bích. These scholars employed Stalin’s 1913 definition of a nation in an attempt to identify when Vietnam had become a nation.

In 1913, Stalin defined a nation as follows:

“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.”

In addition to offering this definition of a nation, Stalin also gave a sense of when such nations emerged. In particular, he argued that they appeared with the advent of capitalism. To quote,

“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.”

So in order to identify when Vietnam had become a nation, Vietnamese scholars in the DRV in the 1950s attempted to determine when the criteria of Stalin’s definition of a nation had been met in Vietnam. This, however, turned out to be difficult, and scholars struggled to find a time in the past when all of the criteria of Stalin’s definition could be met.

If they also considered Stalin’s claim that it was only when capitalism had developed that nations of the type he described were formed, then the task of determining when Vietnam had become a nation became all that much more difficult, as most scholars could only see capitalism developing during the colonial period.

This theory-based debate went on for about a decade. Then in the mid-1960s, politics intervened. In 1966, the general secretary of the Communist Party, Lê Duẩn, wrote that the nation of Vietnam had formed with the establishment of the country, not when capitalism had “infiltrated” (xâm nhập vào) Vietnam.

[Ở Việt Nam, dân tộc Việt Nam hình thành từ khi lập nước, chứ không phải từ khi chủ nghĩa tư bản nước ngoài xâm nhập vào Việt Nam.” (Lê Duẩn, Thanh niên với cách mạng xã hội chủ nghĩa, NXB Thanh niên, Hà Nội, 1966, 176)]

For several years following this political cue, scholars began to look for signs that a nation in Vietnam had formed prior to the advent of capitalism. While there were plenty of disagreements, scholars came to concur that Stalin’s definition of a nation was inadequate.

In the 1980s, and particularly after a conference with Soviet scholars in Tashkent in 1982 in which the Vietnamese delegates found that their Soviet counterparts were also abandoning Stalin’s definition, Vietnamese scholars more or less ceased to discuss this matter.

Just as they were doing so, the nation became a major focus of research in places like the US and Great Britain. The nation, ethnicity and nationalism all became “hot” topics in the 1980s, and works like Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) and Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983) inspired many scholars and stirred countless debates.

By the 1990s, scholars in the US, Great Britain, and wherever else these debates had been read, had gained a much more nuanced understanding of nations and when and how they were formed. Among such scholars, Stalin’s definition came to be seen as exceedingly simplistic, and was therefore not employed in these discussions.

For the past 15 years or so, the interest in theorizing the nation has died down in the US. So, like in Vietnam, it is not a topic which gets discussed much. People are more or less comfortable with their understanding of that concept.

As such, today scholars in places like Vietnam and the US have put the issue of theorizing the nation aside, as they both feel that for now enough has been said about this topic.

However, these two scholarly communities could not be further apart in their understanding of this concept.

It is good that Vietnamese scholars realized that Stalin’s theory of the nation is inadequate. However, there is so much about the nation which was discussed in the decades after they started to abandon Stalin’s ideas which they have yet to consider.

As a result, when one looks at the issue comparatively, it is clear that at present the nation is extremely under-theorized in Vietnamese scholarship.

When scholars do attempt to theorize the nation, as Dặng Nghiêm Vận did in his 2003 Cộng đồng quốc gia dân tộc Việt Nam, they ignore the two decades of theoretical contributions which transformed the way scholars in the US and Great Britain think about the nation, and simply add their own musings to the dead debate about Stalin’s definition.

I really wish a Vietnamese scholar would read a book like Imagined Communities, or someone would translate it into Vietnamese. The concept of the nation definitely needs to be better theorized in Vietnamese scholarship. Without a more nuanced understanding of the nation, scholarship can’t progress from its current position.