Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past



The Problem of “Textual Drift” in Studies on Premodern Vietnamese History

There is a new survey of Vietnamese history that has just been published. It is a book by Yale professor Ben Kiernan called Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present (Oxford, 2017). Kiernan does not know Vietnamese or classical Chinese, but he has read a lot of what has been written about Vietnamese history in English, and he has taught about Vietnamese history for many years.

His book therefore can be seen as an effort by an educated person to try to make sense of the extant English-language scholarship on Vietnamese history. His conclusions, I would argue, can in turn enable people who specialize on Vietnamese history to gain a sense of how well they have been able to educate readers about the Vietnamese past.

Continue reading “The Problem of “Textual Drift” in Studies on Premodern Vietnamese History”

The Long Shadow of a “Family Crime” in the Field of History in 1950s North Vietnam

The 1950s in North Vietnam witnessed a great deal of debate in the field of historical scholarship about how to produce a postcolonial history for Vietnam. This is a topic that historian Patricia Pelley covered in a book entitled Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past (Duke University Press, 2002).

While that book does a great job of introducing the debates that took place among historians at that time (such as when the nation was formed, how to periodize Vietnamese history, when the period of a slave society existed, etc.), it doesn’t inform us about what was happening “behind the scenes” of those debates.

Continue reading “The Long Shadow of a “Family Crime” in the Field of History in 1950s North Vietnam”

The Yijing is Vietnamese Animated Movie

Having written extensively over the years about the idea that South Vietnamese philosopher Lương Kim Định promoted that the Yijing (Kinh Dịch) was created by the ancestors of the Vietnamese, I think it’s time tell that story in the form of an animated movie.

It may take me a while to create all of the necessary characters (or puppets, as they are called), but here is a trailer to give a sense of where that project is heading.

When was the Vietnamese Nation Formed?

In North Vietnam in the 1950s there were a few major historiographical debates that took place between scholars, and which were published in two journals: Tập san Đại Học Sư Phạm and Tập san Nghiên cứu Văn Sử Địa.

One of the debates was about when the Vietnamese nation had formed. This video summarizes that debate (as an imaginary conversation between children in a schoolyard):

Modern Vietnamese Historians and the “Dân Tộc” Question

In the nineteenth century when reformist Japanese scholars sought to learn about the West, they had to come up with many new terms in order to translate words and concepts from Western languages that did not exist in Japanese. Those terms were then adopted by speakers of other languages, such as Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese.

As such, new terms were created to translate Western words like “economy” (經濟 keizai/jingji/kinh tế) and “society” (社會 shakai/shehui/xã hội) and those new terms came to be employed by people in East Asia without much difficulty.

There were other terms, however, that were more difficult to translate, and none perhaps more so than the two terms “nation” and “nationality.” In Western languages, the meanings of these terms changed over time, and they also overlapped, and that made it difficult to translate these two terms.

Continue reading “Modern Vietnamese Historians and the “Dân Tộc” Question”

Đại Việt Man Meets Đông Sơn Man

I’ve always wondered what would have happened if someone from the Đông Sơn period (that is, the time at the end of the first millennium BC when people in the Red River delta made bronze drums) could have met and tried to talk to someone from Đai Việt (that is, one of the dynastic kingdoms in the Red River delta after 1000 AD).

My guess is that it probably would have gone something like this:

The Other North American View of “The 30-Years War in Vietnam” – the View that Will Never Change as Long as Academics only Speak to Fellow Intellectuals

In the previous post I commented on a recent essay that historian Christopher Goscha published in the New York Times called “The 30-Years War in Vietnam.” In those comments I attempted to point out the places where Goscha was basing his ideas on new scholarship.

What then is “old scholarship”?

Continue reading “The Other North American View of “The 30-Years War in Vietnam” – the View that Will Never Change as Long as Academics only Speak to Fellow Intellectuals”

The 30-Years War in Vietnam, and 30 Years of Western Scholarship

Historian Christopher Goscha had an essay published in the New York Times yesterday (7 February 2017) entitled “The 30-Years War in Vietnam.” This essay is about the wars that took place in Vietnam between 1945 and 1975. Goscha has recently published a survey of Vietnamese history, and the essay in the New York Times is based on his more detailed coverage of that same period in that book.

Goscha’s survey is called Vietnam: A New History, and it is indeed a “new” history. It is a history that is based on Goscha’s own research, but also on his extensive reading of the new scholarship that has emerged in the past 30 years in “the West.”

Continue reading “The 30-Years War in Vietnam, and 30 Years of Western Scholarship”

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 “Writing History and Denouncing an Historian in 1950s North Vietnam”

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