Snakes and Clothing in the Ancient Red River Delta

I was reading the Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu 水經注), a sixth century text that contains information about the Red River Delta region and came across a passage about snakes.

The text mentions a kind of snake called a “ranshe” 髯蛇 (literally, a “whiskered snake”) that was very large and could eat boars and deer.

The text then says that when people confront one, they throw women’s clothing on it (搏之以婦人衣投之).

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Cung Đình Thanh – The Most Influential Vietnamese Historian of the 21st Century (so far)

There are certain ideas about early Vietnamese history that one can easily find expressed on the Internet, such as the ideas that 1) Hòa Bình was one the site of one of the earliest agricultural societies on the planet, and that wet rice was grown there as early as 10,000 years ago, and 2) people of this Hòa Bình culture brought their knowledge of rice cultivation northward and introduced it to the place that we now refer to as “China.”

As evidence for the first point, on web page after web page (and in numerous books) we find a statement that American archaeologist Wilhelm Solheim made in 1971 that “the first domestication of plants in the world was done by people of the Hoabinhian culture, somewhere in Southeast Asia. It would not surprise me if this had begun as early as 15,000 B.C.” [Wilhelm G. Solheim, “New Light on a Forgotten Past,” National Geographic Vol. 139, No. 3 (March 1971): 339.]

As evidence of the second statement, we find that a 1998 article by a group of genetic scientists led by J. Y. Chu is repeatedly cited. [J. Y. Chu, et al., “Genetic Relationship of Populations in China,” PNAS Vol. 95 (1998): 11763-11768.]

The person who introduced this perspective on the past and who first used the articles by Solheim and Chu to support his argument has now largely been forgotten. His name was Cung Đình Thanh, and although he passed away in 2006, the ideas that he introduced before he died are today widely discussed and reproduced on Vietnamese-language web pages.

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Trịnh Hoài Đức, Gabriel Aubaret and the Production of Knowledge about the Mekong Delta

In the early nineteenth century, Trịnh Hoài Đức, a Vietnamese scholar-official of Chinese descent, compiled a geographical gazetteer of the Mekong Delta region entitled the Comprehensive Gazetteer of Gia Định Citadel (Gia Định thành thông chí 嘉定城通志).

In 1863, Gabriel Aubaret, a French Naval officer who knew Chinese, published a translation of this work as The History and Description of Lower Cochinchina (Country of Gia-dinh) (Histoire et description de la Basse Cochinchine [pays de Gia-dinh]).

Trịnh Hoài Đức compiled his text not long after the Nguyễn Dynasty had consolidated its control over the Mekong Delta region, and Gabriel Aubaret produced his translation as the French were gaining control over the area around Gia Định.

As such, both of these men were the first to produce knowledge about this region for their respective readers/governments. In reading what they wrote, it is fascinating to see the way in which each man’s worldview influenced how he wrote or translated.

Educated on classical (Chinese) texts, Trịnh Hoài Đức viewed and described the region in East Asian geomantic terms (what we now call phong thủy/fengshui). Unfamiliar with that worldview, Aubaret unwittingly omitted the geomantic information in Trịnh Hoài Đức’s text in his translation, and reorganized the text so that the information could be presented in a way that was more comprehensible to European readers. By doing this, Aubaret made it impossible for readers of his translation to access Trịnh Hoài Đức’s ideas.

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A Conversation With Nhà Sàn Collective (Parts 1 and 2/of 7)

The eighth Engaging With Vietnam conference, held in Honolulu in October 2016, focused on the theme of “Engaging With Vietnam through Scholarship and the Arts.”

Our inspiration for that conference came from our realization that many people in the arts world in Vietnam are asking a lot of the same questions that academics ask, and are doing so in very sophisticated ways. We therefore wished to highlight this intersection between the arts and scholarship.

In preparation for the conference, Engaging With Vietnam conference founder Phan Lê Hà and I met in the summer of 2016 with Nguyễn Quốc Thành and Trương Quế Chi, two artists and curators from Nhà Sàn Collective, an art space in Hanoi.

Our conversation went on for well over an hour and it covered numerous topics, from discussing some of Nhà Sàn Collective’s projects to highly philosophical discussions about the contradictions between activism and the arts, and the difficulty over overcoming the limitations of discourse.

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A 20th-Century Vietnamese Origin Story (Part 1)

In the summer of 2016 I gave a talk at Nhà Sàn Collective, an art space in Hanoi, on some of the historical ideas that the South Vietnamese philosopher/historian, Lương Kim Định, produced in the 1960s.

This was the abstract for that talk:

“Virtually every human society today has a story about where it came from, or what we can call an ‘origin story.’ In the case of Vietnam, one could say that the story about Thần Nông, Kinh Dương Vương, Lạc Long Quân and the Hùng Kings is a kind of origin story. However, there was a new origin story that emerged in the 20th century that argued that the ancestors of the Vietnamese were agriculturalists (người nông nghiệp) who migrated into the region to get away from pastoralists (người du mục) to the north. This talk will examine how and why this ‘alternative origin story’ emerged in the 20th century.”

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Art, Liberal Orientalism and the “I Love Vietnam Fetish”

Last week an article repeatedly appeared in my Facebook feed. It is a critique by a Vietnamese photographer (Hà Đào) of the works of a French photographer (Réhahn) based in Vietnam.

Entitled “Smile For The Camera: Reconsider Réhahn’s Works,” the article has received lot of attention, and has been both praised and criticized.

I was unfamiliar with the work of both Hà Đào and Réhahn, so I tried to learn what I could from the Internet, and then after I had done so, I read the article.

In reading the article, I found that I really liked the author’s critique, and the eloquent manner in which it is made, but that I was also dissatisfied with some aspects of the author’s argument, and that made me think about how we can make such a critique more insightful.

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Emperor Tự Đức as a Reformer

In English-language writings on Vietnamese history, the Nguyễn Dynasty has long been depicted as resistant to reform. In this depiction, people like Emperor Tự Đức are said to have been so absorbed in the world of Confucian tradition that they did not recognize the need to change.

My suspicion is that this view of the past was probably first developed by French authors during the colonial period as a way to justify their rule, and it later fit the needs of twentieth-century Vietnamese nationalists as well, and has become part of the nationalist narrative of Vietnamese history.

In terms of English-language scholarship, I think that this view has persisted simply because there has been so little work done in English on the Nguyễn Dynasty, because when one looks at the historical record, it is clear that the depiction of the Nguyễn Dynasty as resistant to reform definitely needs to be revisited.

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Gia Long and Nôm

In his 1971 work, Vietnam and the Chinese Model, historian Alexander Woodside sought to demonstrate that there was a discernable distinction between a (Southeast Asian) “Vietnam” and a “Chinese model” of elite cultural ideas and practices that the Nguyễn Dynasty sought to impose in the nineteenth century.

In making this argument, Woodside indicates that without a deliberate effort to force Vietnamese to follow the Chinese model they would not do so. We see this with the issue of Nôm, or the demotic script that was used to record the Vietnamese language.

For example, Woodside argued that there was a return to the use of Nôm in the chaotic years of the Tây Sơn Rebellion in the late eighteenth century when it was difficult to impose the “Chinese model” and that Nôm continued to be used in the early years of the Nguyễn Dynasty under Emperor Gia Long.

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Minh Mạng and Nôm

Alexander Woodside’s Vietnam and the Chinese Model (1971) is a pioneering work of scholarship that remains today an important study of nineteenth-century Vietnam and the Nguyễn Dynasty. Woodside was the first scholar in the English-speaking world to make extensive use of Nguyễn Dynasty sources and no scholar since has produced a work of scholarship that ranges so broadly over the nineteenth-century Vietnamese historical record.

Like any pioneering study, however, Vietnam and the Chinese Model can still of course be improved upon, and we can see this with regards to one issue that Woodside discusses in this work, the role of Nôm, or the demotic script, in early nineteenth century Vietnam.

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