Writing History and Denouncing an Historian in 1950s North Vietnam

In 1958, North Vietnamese scholar Văn Tân published an article in the journal Văn Sử Địa entitled “Contributing to the Building of a General History of Vietnam – Some Views Regarding Some Published History Books” (Để góp phần xây dựng quyển thông sử Việt Nam – Mấy ý kiến đối với mấy bộ sách lịch sử đã xuất bản).

At that time there was a government-sponsored effort underway in the North to produce a new, and official, history of Vietnam. The goal was to produce a history that was based on scientific theory (which in this case meant Marxist theory), so as to move beyond the biases of earlier historians who had lived and worked in feudal (meaning “traditional” or “premodern”) and colonial societies.

Continue reading

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.”

Krushchev and the Denunciation of Trần Hưng Đạo’s Personality Cult

In June of 1956, Minh Tranh published an article in Văn Sử Địa with the long and awkward title of “Oppose the worship of individuals, but it is necessary to recognize the role of individuals in history” (Chống sùng bái cá nhân, nhưng cần nhận rõ vai trò cá nhân trong lịch sử). This article was clearly written in reaction to events which had transpired earlier that year in the Soviet Union.

In February of that same year, Nikita Khrushchev gave a report at the Twentieth Party Congress inMoscowentitled “On the Personality Cult and its Consequences.” This report constituted a critique of various aspects of Joseph Stalin’s rule and of the personality cult (or “cult of the individual”) that had developed around him.

This was followed in March by an editorial in Pravda entitled “Why the Cult of the Individual is Alien to the Spirit of Marxism-Leninism,” some of which Minh Tranh cites in his article.

The promotion of individual heroes was a critical element in Vietnamese nationalism. With Krushchev’s denunciation of the cult of the individual, Minh Tranh appears to have tried in this article to find a way to save these “personality cults” that were essential for Vietnamese nationalism.

Minh Tranh begins this article by noting that “Human society has existed and developed based on never-ending struggles; the struggle with nature and social struggles.” He then points out that it is not individuals who engage in these struggles, but groups of people, particularly workers and producers (người lao động sản xuất).

This is why, Minh Tranh notes, Marx stated that “the history of human society is first and foremost the history of producers” (Lịch sử xã hội loài người trước hết là lịch sử những người sản xuất). Actually what Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 was that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” In any case. . .

Minh Tranh then asks if this means that the individual plays no role in history. “No,” he responds. Individuals do play a role in historical processes, however they do not play a defining role. That role is performed by the workers.

He then states that Vietnamese everywhere have always felt proud of their history and of the heroes who represent their nation, such as the two Trưng sisters, Ngô Quyền, Trần Quốc Tuấn (i.e., Trần Hưng Đạo), Lê Lợi, Nguyễn Huệ, and now Hồ Chí Minh.

Minh Tranh then clarifies here that pride in one’s nation then leads people to “revere” (tôn kính) heroes, because this is a way of expression one’s pride in one’s nation. This, he argues, is very different from the worship (sung bái) of individual heroes, which Minh Tranh says is a form of superstition (mê tin), because individuals are seen as divine gods (thần thánh) who decide all, while the people (nhân dân) are disregarded.

Minh Tranh then goes on to look at the case of Trần Hưng Đạo. Here argues that Trần Hưng Đạo is a hero because he succeeding by working together with the people. He was not some divine being who had supernatural powers.

There is much more to this article, but I will stop here. I posted an article recently about someone who visited Trần Hưng Đạo’s temple in 1942 in Kiếp Bạc in order to pay his respects to Trần Hưng Đạo the national hero only to find the temple overrun by people who were worshiping Trần Hưng Đạo as a deity. The author of that article criticized these “superstitious” practices, but did not call for their elimination.

This article here goes a step further in delimiting what is acceptable about Trần Hưng Đạo. In response to Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult, Minh Tranh strives to eliminate any such worship of Trần Hưng Đạo as an individual or a supernatural deity. Instead, to Minh Tranh, Trần Hưng Đạo could only be honored as a representative of the nation as a whole.

In her book on Trần Hưng Đạo, Phạm Quỳnh Phương argues that Trần Hưng Đạo has always been revered as a hero of the nation. If you read what is written about him in historical sources, from the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư onward, it is clear that this is not the case. It’s only in the twentieth century that Trần Hưng Đạo came to be regarded as a hero of the “nation” (dân tộc) because it’s only in the twentieth century that Vietnamese started to think of themselves as a nation, and to find the need for “national heroes.”

Minh Tranh’s article here is part of this process of creation. It was written in a rather unique context – by a Marxist in the aftermath of Krushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult – but it’s effort to distance Trần Hưng Đạo the national hero from the worship which surrounded Trần Hưng Đạo the deity was part of a larger process which was already underway by that point.

Vietnamese nationalists needed national heroes. Creating them was a challenge as the religious beliefs of common Vietnamese and the changing orthodoxy of international Marxism got in the way.

Stalin and Vietnamese Scholars

“It is generally recognized that no science can develop and flourish without a battle of opinions, without freedom of criticism.”

This is a statement which Stalin made in 1950. I found it quoted at the beginning of a 1954 issue of the journal, Tập San Đại Học Sư Phạm.

Stalin made this statement in a work entitled Marxism and Problems of Linguistics, and they were directed at people who were upholding the ideas of the linguist Nicholas Yakovlevich Marr. Marr was a linguist who began his career studying the languages of the Caucasus. After he became established, he then started to engage at what people today refer to as “pseudo-linguistics.”

Marr came up with a theory know as the “New Linguistic Doctrine” which linked certain types of languages to different stages in the development of human societies as posited by Marxist scholars, from primitive communism to communism. In keeping with this theory, Marr argued that when communism is achieved, a universal language will emerge.

Marr’s ideas were not based on any of the linguistic criteria which linguistic scholarship in Western Europe and America was based on (Hence the label “pseudo-linguistics”). Nonetheless, after he died in 1934, his ideas remained dominant in the Soviet Union, as they were supported by his students and others for political reasons.

For some reason or other, Stalin decided in 1950 that enough was enough. He decided that this theory was ridiculous (which it was) and publically criticized it. It was in this public criticism that he made the above statement.

However, there was more that Stalin said other than this one line. In particular, the paragraph in which this statement appears was as follows:

“It is generally recognized that no science can develop and flourish without a battle of opinions, without freedom of criticism. But this generally recognized rule was ignored and flouted in the most unceremonious fashion. There arose a close group of infallible leaders, who, having secured themselves against any possible criticism, became a law unto themselves and did whatever they pleased.”

In hindsight, it is interesting that the first sentence of this paragraph appeared in a journal in the DRV 1955, but not the rest of the paragraph.

I think that there was a genuine effort to debate issues at that time. However, by the end of the 1960s, Stalin’s other statements in this paragraph had come to apply to the world of scholarship in the DRV, and remain applicable today. Just as Marr’s erroneous ideas about linguistics were upheld for years by a certain clique of powerful scholars, so are many erroneous historical ideas in Vietnam today upheld in a similar manner.

This makes me wonder. When will a Vietnamese Stalin come along and complete the paragraph which Tập San Đại Học Sư Phạm left incomplete in 1954?

The Chinese as “Fighting Friends” of the Vietnamese

Is Vietnamese history all about “resistance to Chinese aggression”? No, said DRV scholar Minh Tranh in 1954. Instead, he argued the Vietnamese and Chinese have always been “fighting friends” (bạn chiến đấu). He made this point in an article entitled “The Chinese People have been Fighting Friends of the Vietnamese People Throughout History (“Nhân dân Trung Quốc bạn chiến đấu của nhân dân Việt Nam trong lịch sử”).

Referring to Ngô Đình Diệm’s government in the South, Minh Tranh says at the beginning of this essay that “Recently, on orders from the French and American bandits the gang of traitors (bọn bán nước, literally, “the gang selling the country”) are exerting the utmost effort to distort history in an attempt to lead our compatriots who are in areas which are temporarily under occupation to not understand that the greatest friends of the Vietnamese resistance war are the people of China.”

Minh Tranh goes on to say that the gang of traitors hold commemorative events in which Vietnamese resistance to Chinese invasions is pointed out. The purpose of these events, according to Minh Tranh, is to create divisions between the Vietnamese and Chinese peoples.

According to Minh Tranh, however, the truth of history proves the gang of traitors wrong. For throughout history the Vietnamese and Chinese peoples have fought common enemies. When the Trưng sisters led their uprising, for instance, Chinese peasants were also rising up in rebellion against the feudal ruling class. What is more, these uprisings “helped the [participants in the Trưng sisters’ rebellion] achieve victory over the invading enemy troops.” (oh really? I never realized that Ma Yuan was defeated. . .)

The “righteous uprisings” (khởi nghĩa) of Lý Bôn and Triệu Quang Phục were also aided by the fact that Chinese peasant rebellions occurred during this period. For instance, Triệu Quang Phục was able to capture Lông Biên because the Chinese commander there was recalled to deal with a peasant uprising to the north.

Then in the case of the Mongols, these people were a common enemy of the Chinese and Vietnam, and both peoples fought them.

As for Lê Lợi’s defeat of the Ming. . . that’s right, it was also made easier because the Chinese were distracted putting down peasant uprisings in other parts of the empire.

Finally, as for Nguyễn Huệ’s defeat of the 20,000 troop Qing army at Đống Đa, like the Mongols, the Qing were a foreign people (Manchus) whom Chinese fought as well.

Minh Tranh obviously made these remarks because the DRV was allied with the PRC at the time and had just received a lot of assistance from the PRC in the final years of the First Indochina War. That said, there is some truth to some of the points he makes here. In some ways what he says here is historically more accurate than the idea that “the” Vietnamese always united together to resist “the” Chinese. Minh Tranh overstates his argument, but there is more historical complexity to his argument than the “resistance against foreign aggression” argument.

In any case, what I find interesting about this article is that it helps historicize the “resistance to foreign aggression” claim. The idea that Vietnamese have always been “resisting foreign aggression” is an invented tradition, and it is a very recently invented tradition. What this article shows is that in 1954, it hadn’t been invented yet. Yes, people were already talking about the “fighting spirit” of the Vietnamese, but the “resistance to foreign aggression” paradigm had yet to completely take shape.

What this article shows is that this paradigm couldn’t take shape as long as the DRV and PRC were on good terms. What changed everything, I think, was the Cultural Revolution. The DRV government started to encourage people in the North to become anti-Chinese during the Cultural Revolution so that the craziness of that movement would not take hold in the DRV.

This is not my own idea. There is some scholarship by a political scientist that I read which will come out soon, and he makes this point based on archival research in Vietnam.

Another point which I find interesting about this article is that it indicates that the government in the South was apparently promoting the idea of historical Vietnamese resistance to Chinese aggression in the mid-1950s, whereas the DRV government was not.

What all of this shows is that the world of ideas in the 1950s and 1960s was quite fluid. People in the North and South were responding to each other and to people and events outside of Vietnam at the same time. It’s a fascinating period.

Đào Duy Anh’s Ambiguous Statements about the Hùng Kings

The topic of Đào Duy Anh’s comments about the term “Hùng” came up in a discussion to a previous post, so I thought I would post his essay here.

In the second of the Hùng Vương Dụng Nước volumes, Đào Duy Anh has an article called “Offering an Opinion on the Question of the Hùng Kings” (“Góp Ý Kiến Về Vắn Đề Hùng Vương”). At the beginning of this paper he talks about the Chinese sources which refer to kings in the Red River delta in the past as either “Hùng” or “Lạc” and states that one can surmise that what was originally written as “Lạc” was changed to “Hùng” in a later text.

Having argued that the original term was more likely to have been “Lạc” than “Hùng,” he then states, “In any case. . . the name Hùng Kings is connected to the origin and destiny of our ancestors, and having passed through so many old histories, from the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư onward, and since the traditions of the people [dân tộc] also use this term, today we will still honor and preserve it.”

“Dù sao nữa. . . cái danh hiệu, Hùng Vương gắn liền với nguồn gốc và vận mệnh của tổ tiên chúng ta mà trải qua bao nhiêu đời sử cũ từ Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư về sau và truyền thống của dân tộc vẫn gọi thế, thì ngày nay chúng ta vẫn trân trọng và giữ theo.”

In other words, what Đào Duy Anh says here is that, “In examining the evidence, it appears that A is correct, but since we’ve always said that B is correct, we should keep saying that B is correct.” This is truly “khoa học”. . .

What Đào Duy Anh says after this is fascinating. He goes on to talk about Vietnamese historical sources and notes that Vietnamese scholars have never examined the various versions of a given text and tried to produce a collated “authoritative” version. Forty years later, this is still the case. In I think the 1980s, the Taiwanese scholar, Chen Jinghe, produced such a version of the Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư, but no Vietnamese scholar has ever done anything like this.

He then notes the problems with Vietnamese historical texts. Many of them are hand copies filled with mistakes. He then states that one particular problem is that during the colonial period, the EFEO procured copies of texts, but because they apparently paid more for more pages of text, people would add material from other texts when they were copying a text for the French.

He uses the Lĩnh Nam Trích Quái as an example of this. Although I had never considered that the chaotic condition of the extant versions of that text might be because of this problem in the way the French procured texts, it makes sense that this might be a contributing factor, because that text is extremely problematic.

Đào Duy Anh then goes on to talk about the problem of translating texts from classical Chinese to quốc ngữ. He points out that people should not translate a classical Chinese text into quốc ngữ unless that text has been “organized” (chỉnh lý), that is, unless it has been compared with other versions of the same text and a authoritative collated version has been produced.

Đào Duy Anh also notes that simply knowing classical Chinese is not enough to translate a text. A translator has to truly understand the content as well.

There is more to this article, but this first part is very interesting. The late 1960s was a difficult time to be a scholar in Vietnam. Scholars in the North were being pressured by the government to create a history of the “Vietnamese nation” which extended back to the time of the “Hùng Kings.”

Đào Duy Anh clearly had some problems with this. He made it evident that the term “Hùng” was a problem, but he didn’t fight it. That said, in reading what he says about Vietnamese sources, I think he did challenge the powers that be.

The effort in the North in the 1960s to “prove” that the “Hùng Kings” had truly existed was spearheaded by the Institute of Archaeology. At the end of the first section, on page 282, Đào Duy Anh basically says to the Institute, “if you folks are doing this, surely you are going to make use of the sources in classical Chinese in a professional and accurate manner.”

Obviously he knew that this was not the case. At least that is how it appears to me. So to me Đào Duy Anh seems to be saying in this essay, “You want me to say that there were Hùng Kings. Ok, there were Hùng Kings, but I’m an old scholar who is not going to live much longer. If you really want people to believe you, your scholarship better be good.”

The scholarship which was produced by scholars at that time was not good, but it is still believed today. Since that time, no Vietnamese scholar has produced a collated version of a premodern text, and many many many translations into quốc ngữ have been made by people who know classical Chinese but who don’t really understand the content of the text they translate.

At least we know that “Hùng Vương có thật”. . .

I’d be curious to hear from someone who can read between the lines of an essay like this better than I can.

Trần Quốc Vượng’s Khun Argument: Why Vietnamese Scholarship Doesn’t Progress

In an article entitled “On the Title ‘Hùng King’” (Về Danh Hiệu ‘Hùng Vương’”) in the third Hùng Vương Dụng Nước volume (this volume was published in 1973, but the article was presented at a conference in the late 1960s), Trần Quốc Vượng argued that “Hùng” was perhaps the ancient Việt pronunciation for a word which signified a leader of a nation/ality. This is similar, he notes, to the term “khun” which is used by various Mon-Khmer and Tai speakers.

Trần Quốc Vượng also says that it is related to the Mundari term, “khunzt.” Mundari is an Autroasiatic language spoken by a people in the area of what is today northeastern India, Bangladesh and Nepal known as the Munda people.

Trần Quốc Vượng then uses this information to say that this demonstrates that in antiquity, during the period when the “Hùng Kings established the country,” there was a close relationship between the speakers of Austroasiatic and Tai languages.

There are numerous problems with Trần Quốc Vượng’s linguistic argument here, which I’ll turn to below. Ultimately, however, this article is not about linguistics, but is nationalist propaganda posing as a scholarly study. What Trần Quốc Vượng wanted to demonstrate was that the various peoples who inhabit the modern nation-state of Vietnam have been in close, and friendly, contact since the beginning of time.

In 1983, Keith Taylor cited this article by Trần Quốc Vượng when he wrote in his The Birth of Vietnam that “According to a recent Vietnamese study, the name Hùng derives from an Austroasiatic title of chieftanship that has persisted up to the present time in the languages of Mon-Khmer-speaking peoples living in the mountains of Southeast Asia, as well as in Mường, the upland sister language of Vietnamese; the title is also found among the Munda of northeast India, who speak the most western of the surviving Austrasiatic languages” (3).

Taylor left out mention of the Tai, probably because his mission in this book was to demonstrate that there was a direct line which linked the “Vietnamese” of the period of the “Hùng Kings” with those who emerged “independent” in the tenth century with the “birth of Vietnam.” Taylor was not as concerned with the non-Kinh population. He simply wanted to demonstrate that the Kinh had their own language and culture prior to the period of Chinese rule, and that they persisted and survived through that thousand-year period.

Let’s now look at Trần Quốc Vượng’s evidence. He says that the following three words are related: hùng, khun, and khunzt.

First of all, words do not simultaneously appear in languages from different language families. A word must appear in one language first, and then it can be adopted in others. When this happens, some sounds might change. However, linguists establish rules for this.

Trần Quốc Vượng says that linguists argue that the initial “h,” “kh,” and “k” are all interchangeable. To some extent this is true, but linguists establish rules by looking at multiple examples to say, for instance, that when a word which begins with “kh” in language A is adopted by speakers of language B, the initial “k” gets dropped and they keep the “h.” The same holds for the endings of words, such as the very different “n,” “ng,” and “nzt,” which Trần Quốc Vượng does not address.

In other words Trần Quốc Vượng did not make a believable argument in this paper. He has three words which seem to resemble each other, but he doesn’t explain what the original word was, which languages it was adopted into, and what linguistic changes took place when this happened.

Finally, the source for the Mundari term, “kunzt” (Bhaduri’s, A Mundari-English Dictionary, 1931) which Trần Quốc Vượng used is not the best source for that language, but it was probably all that was available to him at that time. A better source is John Hoffmann’s multi-volume Encylcopaedia Mundarica (1930-79), where this term is transcribed as “khut,” a transcription which lessens the similarity with “khun” and “hùng.”

Now that I have criticized Trần Quốc Vượng linguistic knowledge, I am going to put forth my own undocumented argument, but it is one which I have had confirmed by Tai linguists. The term “khun” is a term which we find in Southwestern Tai languages. Southwestern Tai languages started to develop separately from other Tai languages around the time of the ninth or tenth century or so. In Vietnam today, the languages which are spoken by “Thái” are Southwestern Tai languages.

So while “khun” is in Southwestern Tai languages, it is a word which was borrowed from the Chinese 君. This is pronounced “jun” in modern Mandarin, but in the middle period it was pronounced differently, and it is where the “khun” in Southwestern Tai comes from, as well as the “cun/khun” in Mườmg, and even the “kun” in Japanese, a term which is today used as a particle which is added to names when referring to someone in an informal manner, such as “Koji-kun,” but in centuries past it had a different usage.

In other words, there is a term which was historically shared by Tai and Mường speakers in Vietnam (and probably by proto-Việt speakers as well). However, it has nothing to do with antiquity, the ancient Việt language, or the Hùng Kings. My guess is that it was a word which entered these languages near the end of the millennium of Chinese rule in the region, when Southwestern Tai was starting to develop.

Regardless of what I think, it is clear that Trần Quốc Vượng’s linguistic argument is unfounded, and yet this point has been repeated over and over and over in Vietnamese texts (for a recent example, see page 25 of Nguyễn Quang Ngọc, ed., Tiến Trình Lịch Sử Việt Nam).

This is one small example of a problem which is ubiquitous in Vietnamese scholarship. Someone comes up with a crazy idea. Scholars might know that it is incorrect, but no one writes anything which directly refutes it. And then since there is no peer review process, the idea can easily get repeated and re-published over and over and over again. The result is that scholarship never progresses. The same bad ideas stay in circulation for decades.

Trần Quốc Vượng:



Phan Huy Lê and 4,000 Years of Vietnamese History

Phan Huy Lê, Trần Quốc Vương, Hà Văn Tấn and Lương Ninh published an official textbook in the 1980s for use in universities in Vietnam entitled the History of Vietnam [Lịch sử Việt Nam].

Phan Huy Lê wrote the chapter on early history. In this chapter, Phan Huy Lê notes that one of the main accomplishments of scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s was to establish “a foundation of scientific materials about the period of the Hùng kings.” Here he argues that the most reliable type of information is that produced by archaeology.

He then makes the following comments about the time period when the Hùng kings supposedly ruled over their kingdom of Văn Lang:

As for the time period of “the county of Văn Lang,” its end point can be determined around the time of the third century B.C. when the country of Âu Lạc was established and replaced the county of Văn Lang, however the starting point is very obscure. Legends and ancient texts place “the county of Văn Lang” in a legendary period called “the era of the Hồng Bàng clan,” which includes the periods of King Kinh Dương, Lạc Long Quan and the Hùng kings, and in the fifteenth century when Ngô Sĩ Liên wrote the Outer Annals of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, he set as a starting date the Nhâm tuất year, that is 2879 B.C. And in the “forward,” Ngô Sĩ Liên said, “the writing of the Outer Annals is based on unofficial histories,” and “for the time before the Hùng kings there is no annual chronology.” The initial year for “the era of the Hồng Bàng clan” is one which the author inferred: “King Kinh Dương . . . was contemporaneous with Di Yi, therefore one should record his first year together with Di Yi’s first year.” The perspective of the people (dân gian) in general is to view the period from the Hùng kings to the present as one of about 4,000 years and there are the common sayings that: “a country for 4,000 years,” “a country established for 4,000 years,” “4,000 years of civilization (văn hiến)”. . . One can see this as a legendary time period which serves as the basis for establishing a timeframe of what needs to be researched about the period of the Hùng kings.

Về thời gian tồn tại của “nước Văn Lang” thì giới hạn sau có thể xác định vào khoảng thế kỷ III tr. CN khi nước Âu Lạc thành lạp thay thế cho nước Văn Lang, nhưng giới hạn mở đầu thì rất mơ hồ. Truyền thuyết và thư tịch cổ đặt “nước Văn Lang” trong một thời đại truyền thuyết gọi là “kỷ họ Hồng Bàng” gồm các đời Kinh Dương Vương, Lạc Long Quan và Hùng Vương, mà đến thế kỷ XV, Ngô Sĩ Liên khi viết phần Ngoại kỷ của bộ Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư đặt cho một niên đại mở đầu là năm Nhâm tuất tức năm 2879 tr. CN. Như trong phần “phàm lệ,” Ngô Sĩ Liên đã nói: “việc chẽp trong Ngoại kỷ là gốc ở dã sử,” và “từ Hùng Vương trở về trước không có niên biểu.” Niên đại mở đầu “kỷ họ Hồng Bàng” là một niên đại do tác giả suy đoán: “King Dương Vương. . . cũng với Đế Nghi dồng thời, cho nên chép năm đầu với năm đầu của Đế Nghi.” Quan niệm dân gian phổ biến coi thời Hùng Vương đến nay khoảng 4,000 năm với cách nói quen thuộc như: “bốn nghìn năm mở nước,” “bốn nghìn năm dựng nước,” “bốn nghìn năm văn hiến”. . .Có thể coi đó là một niên đại truyền thuyết làm cơ sở cho việc giới hạn phạm vì thời gian cần nghiên cứu về thời đại Hùng Vương.

Does anything here make any sense? What was Phan Huy Lê trying to say?

He notes that people today talk about “4,000 years of history,” but what did people in the past say? 1,000 years ago, did Vietnamese talk about “3,000 years of history”? 500 years ago, did they talk about “3,500 years of history”? If so, where is the evidence for this? If not, why is it important to note that people today talk about “4,000 years of history”? Why should this information have anything to do with our understanding of early history if this is a perspective which is recent?

And what about Kinh Dương Vương and Lạc Long Quan? If they are legendary, then why talk about them? What are the “scientific materials” which demonstrate their existence?

Also, what is “scientific” about using a “legendary time period” to serve “as the basis for establishing a timeframe of what needs to be researched about the period of the Hùng kings”? Shouldn’t scholars be using “scientific materials,” like archaeological evidence, to determine the timeframe of the period of the Hùng kings?

Finally, Phan Huy Lê puts terms like “the country of Văn Lang” (nước Văn Lang) and “the era of the Hồng Bàng clan” (kỷ họ Hồng Bàng) in scare quotes as if to indicate that we can’t be sure that they were real, but by the end of the paragraph the reader is left with no evidence to counter the idea that Vietnamese history must be 4,000 years long and must therefore encompass this entire “legendary period.”

I would argue that this passage is a wonderful example of what happens when an intelligent scholar is forced to write a nationalist piece of writing for a government. The result is information which is beautifully incoherent. It sounds nice, but if you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense.

Trần Huy Liệu and the Problem of 20th Century Vocabulary

In 1969 Trần Huy Liệu wrote an article in Nghiên cứu lịch sử in which he defended the importance of patriotism and differentiated it from what he called (chủ nghĩa dân tộc hẹp hòi). Ultimately what he argued was that unlike nationalism, true patriotism would not contradict the tenets of international communism, and therefore it was acceptable and good.

Trần Huy Liệu essentially argues that prior to the 20th century it was the scholars who led the people to protect the country, and the scholars were conservative and xenophobic. This is what made their nationalism “narrow.”

In the 20th century, however, a capitalist society then emerged. Subsequently, the Party began to lead the workers to protect the country. Because the Party was dedicated to creating a socialist society, and was thus part of an international community, the sentiment which they instilled in the workers was not a conservative and xenophobic “narrow nationalism,” but a true patriotism which encompassed a love for socialism. This patriotism therefore did not contradict the tenets of international communism which theoretically frowned on national distinctions.

While this is the main argument of Trần Huy Liệu’s article, there are other aspects of this article which are interesting. For instance, Trần Huy Liệu spends a good deal of time talking about the history of nationalism in Vietnam. What follows is an example:

Vì ở một vị trí luôn luôn bị đê dọa và xâm lược, chủ nghĩa dân tộc đã sớm nảy sinh và phát triển trên đất nước ta. Nhưng từ tình cảm yêu quê hương, yêu đất nước, yêu những người cùng nòi giống với mình đến ý chí bảo vệ chủ quyền và lãnh thổ, kiên quyết chống giặc ngoại xâm, làm cho nước được độc lập, dân tộc được tự do là cả một quá trình lịch sử trên cơ sở của dân tộc thành hình, quốc gia được xây dựng. Điểm lại, những cuộc kháng chiến chống phong kiến ngoại tộc Hán, Đường, Nguyên, Minh, Thanh của dân tộc ta hàng nhìn năm trước đều sáng ngời chính nghĩa với tính chất tự vệ của nó.

“Because it was in a position constantly under threat and invaded, nationalism emerged and developed early in our country. From the sentiments of love for one’s home village (quê hương), love for the country, and love for the people of the same race, to the will to protect the sovereignty and territory, to resolutely resist foreign invaders so that the country can be independent and the nationality can be free, this is all an historical process [which took place] on the foundation of the formation of the nationality (dân tộc) and the establishment of the nation (quốc gia). In sum, our nationality’s resistance wars from the previous millennia against the feudal outsiders (ngoại tộc) of the Han, Tang, Yuan, Ming and Qing were all gloriously righteous in their character of self defense.”

In this passage, Trần Huy Liệu is talking about the period before the 20th century. However, he uses numerous terms which only entered the Vietnamese language in the 20th century. At the turn of the 20th century there were many new terms which entered the Vietnamese language. These terms were all Western in origin and had been coined largely by Japanese when they translated Western books in the late 19th century. These Japanese translations of Western works were then translated into classical Chinese by Chinese scholars, and these works then made their way to Vietnam by the early years of the 20th century.

Some of these new terms were made by creating totally new expressions, whereas for others, existing words were used, but were given a new meaning or connotation. In terms of Trần Huy Liệu’s article, the passage cited above uses the following terms which a scholar in the 19th century either would not have known, or would not have used in the manner in which Trần Huy Liệu did:

xâm lược = invade (premodern texts sometimes say lai xâm, but not xâm lược)

chủ nghĩa = -ism

dân tộc = nationality/nation

phát triển = develop

nòi giống = race

chủ quyền = sovereignty

lãnh thổ = territory (this term existed prior to the 20th century, but was not commonly used)

giặc ngoại xâm = foreign invader

độc lập = independent

tự do = free

quá trình = process

quá trình lịch sử = historical process

quốc gia = nation (this term existed, but it took on a new meaning in the 20th century)

kháng chiến = resistance war

phong kiến = feudal

ngoại tộc = outsider (In premodern texts, this refers to people of a different clan than one’s own. Here it has racial overtones. Race is a Western concept.)

Put differently, if a literate Vietnamese in the 19th century could have read Trần Huy Liệu’s article, the bold terms below are all terms which that person would either not understand or find strange:

Vì ở một vị trí luôn luôn bị đê dọa và xâm lược, chủ nghĩa dân tộc đã sớm nảy sinh và phát triển trên đất nước ta. Nhưng từ tình cảm yêu quê hương, yêu đất nước, yêu những người cùng nòi giống với mình đến ý chí bảo vệ chủ quyền lãnh thổ, kiên quyết chống giặc ngoại xâm, làm cho nước được độc lập, dân tộc được tự do là cả một quá trình lịch sử trên cơ sở của dân tộc thành hình, quốc gia được xây dựng. Điểm lại, những cuộc kháng chiến chống phong kiến ngoại tộc Hán, Đường, Nguyên, Minh, Thanh của dân tộc ta hàng nhìn năm trước đều sáng ngời chính nghĩa với tính chất tự vệ của nó.

Because it was in a position constantly under threat and invaded, nationalism emerged and developed early in our country. From the sentiments of love for one’s home village (quê hương), love for the country, and love for the people of the same race, to the will to protect the sovereignty and territory, to resolutely resist foreign invaders so that the country can be independent and the nationality can be free, this is all an historical process [which took place] on the foundation of the formation of the nationality (dân tộc) and the establishment of the nation (quốc gia). In sum, our nationality’s resistance wars from the previous millennia against the feudal outsiders (ngoại tộc) of the Han, Tang, Yuan, Ming and Qing were all gloriously righteous in their character of self defense.

What should be evident here is that basically everything which Trần Huy Liệu says here employs language which did not exist in the period he is talking about. So this then leads to some obvious questions:

1) If terms for certain concepts did not exist in the past and new words had to be created for them when these concepts were eventually introduced from the outside, how do we know that people understood and thought these same concepts before they were introduced?

2) If terms for certain concepts did not exist in the past, how can we use those terms and concepts to understand and describe the past?

3) If, when we examine the past, we use terms and concepts which did not exist in the past, then to what degree do we misinterpret or misunderstand the past in doing so?

Trần Huy Liệu, “Phân biệt chủ nghĩa yêu nước với chủ nghĩa dân tộc hẹp hòi” [Differentiating patriotism from narrow nationalism] Nghiên cứu lịch sử 121 (1969): 1-2 and 40.

Deconstructing Vietnamese Scholarship: Nguyễn Linh & Hoàng Hưng

In an article from 1968 entitled “The problem of the Hùng kings and archaeology,” Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng examined information from historical texts and archaeological artifacts in an effort to determine the following two issues:

1. The territorial extent of the kingdom of Văn Lang.

2. The correspondence between historical and archaeological sources with regards to the history of Văn Lang.

To determine the territorial extent of the kingdom of Văn Lang, the authors turn first to an historical text which were compiled at least 1,500 years after this kingdom had supposedly existed, Ngô Sĩ Liên’s fifteenth-century Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư.

Ngô Sĩ Liên recorded that the capital of Văn Lang was at Phong Châu. Nguyễn Trãi said in the fifteenth century that this was Bạch Hạc, while Phan Huy Chú, writing in the early nineteenth century, had it covering a larger region around the three provinces of Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây.

Ngô Sĩ Liên also recorded that the Hùng kings ruled over Văn Lang from what in the Western calendar would be 2879 – 258 B.C.E. This is a period which the authors of this article state corresponds with the latter part of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.

What they essentially do then is to argue that any objects unearthed in Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây which date from the Neothlitic and the Bronze Age (actually they use “Brass Age”), are artifacts from Văn Lang. After that, they say that the extent of the kingdom can be determined by comparing the artifacts from the capital area with other regions. If artifacts from other regions look similar, then that region was part of the kingdom of Văn Lang.

The authors then note that artifacts which date from the Neothlitic and the Bronze Age have been unearthed in Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây. However, they do not describe these artifacts or attempt to categorize them in any way.

They then look at other places and note that in many of them, such as Yên Bài, Tuyên Quang, and Thái Nguyên no late Neolithic or Bronze Age sites have been found, but scattered (lẻ tẻ) objects have been collected. The implication is that these objects are the same as those from Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây, however the authors never indicate what is similar about any of the objects that have been found.

Nonetheless, they conclude that all of these archaeological findings fall within the bounds of the kingdom of Văn Lang. At present, they state that the territorial extent of Văn Lang covered a good part of the northern region of Vietnam, but they suggest that further research should be conducted in other areas, including Yunnan, to see if the bounds of the kingdom extended further than they had discovered.


From today’s perspective, the methodology of Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng is horribly flawed. Archaeologists should never use historical texts which were written centuries after the time they are examining to explain what they find. Instead, they should simply examine the objects they unearth and explain what they find.

What Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng did here was to say that an historical text which was written in the fifteenth century indicates that the kingdom of Văn Lang existed from 2879 – 258 B.C.E. in the area of Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây. Therefore, any object found in that region which dates from that period must be from Văn Lang.

How do they know that a text which was written at least 1,500 years later is correct? They don’t know, and this is why archaeologists are never supposed to do what these two scholars did.

Something else which archaeologists are not supposed to do is to equate artifacts with ethnic groups or polities. An easy way to understand this is to imagine that everyone on earth suddenly died, and then thousands of years from now some alien archaeologists came and examined the earth. They would find automobiles all over the planet. From that they could conclude that planet earth was inhabited by a single ethnic group who lived in a single country since everyone all over the world had this same object, the automobile. However, if they did this they would be wrong, because material objects are not limited to single countries or ethnic groups.

Hence, the attempt by Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng to determine the territorial extent of the kingdom of Văn Lang by trying to see where similar archaeological artifacts can be found is based on a flawed methodology.

To be fair, while archaeologists today know that one should not project historical texts onto the distant past, and one should not equate artifacts with polities or ethnic groups, this was not generally known in the 1960s. That said, Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng still do not come close to supporting their claims. All they say is that artifacts had been found in various places. They don’t clearly categorize these objects or demonstrate in what exact way they are similar. Nonetheless, they conclude from their study that the kingdom of Văn Lang had truly existed and that this was supported by archaeological evidence. However, nothing they say here actually demonstrates that point.


Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng then turn to their second point, which is to examine the correspondence between historical and archaeological sources with regards to the history of Văn Lang. The text they use is the Đại Việt sử lược, which they date to 1377. There are a couple of passages in this text which mention Văn Lang, one of which says that Gou Jian, the ruler of the ancient kingdom of Yue, sent an envoy to issue a decree, but the Hùng king resisted this.

Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng cannot find any archaeological evidence to indicate that such an event ever occurred, nonetheless they say that what is important is that the Hùng king resisted!!!

From such a statement, the true intent of this “scholarship” becomes apparent, and it gets even clearer in the final paragraphs when Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng state the following:

“The problem of the Hùng kings is not simply an academic (khoa học) problem, but is also a political problem and an emotional one. It is not a coincidence that while we (chúng ta) in the North are going to great pains to research the period of the Hùng kings, and are seeing the degree to which our ancestors struggled against hardships 3-4000 years ago to establish and protect the country, in the South there are those (kẻ) who feel that the Hùng kings were just figures who were borrowed in the past from [the history of] the kingdom of Chu.”

“In positively resolving the question of the Hùng kings, not only will well resolve an academic problem which is very important for the history of Vietnam but from that we can also elevate our patriotic ardor. A nationality which 3-4,000 years ago established the society of Văn Lang with its unique Bronze Age culture, that nationality was clearly a nationality which had a exceptional vitality. That exceptional vitality enabled our nationality to exist and develop right up to the present. Today it is also precisely that exceptional vitality which enables our nationality to dare to take on the biggest and most powerful empire in the world, the American empire, and to currently defeat the American empire in this first round of a local war.”

In the late 1960s, scholars in the DRV made an intense effort to “resolve the question of the Hùng kings.” What is clear from this article is that they did not seek to “resolve” this question in an academic manner, for their “evidence” does not support an academic argument. This was a political problem to these scholars and they brought this issue to a political conclusion. Scholars in the DRV sought to demonstrate they were the ones who truly understood and protected Vietnamese history, while “those people” (kẻ) in the South were illegitimate scholars. In the process, scholars such as Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng produced hopelessly flawed scholarship. While one can understand why they did what they did at that time, unfortunately their general “findings” still influence the field of history in Vietnam today.

Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng, “Vấn đề Hùng vương và khảo cổ học” [The problem of the Hùng kings and archaeology], Nghiên cứu lịch sử 103 (1968): 18-23.