Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past



A Conversation (in Vnese) with Nguyễn Sử about the History of Vietnamese Calligraphy

This video is of a conversation that we had in the summer of 2017 with Nguyễn Sử, the author of a recent book on the history of Vietnamese calligraphy (Lịch Sử Thư Pháp Việt Nam).

In addition to being an expert on the history of Vietnamese calligraphy, Nguyễn Sử is also a scholar of religion. In early January of 2018, Nguyễn Sử was a keynote speaker at the 9th Engaging With Vietnam conference where he gave a fascinating presentation on the commercialization of religion.

This conversation is in Vietnamese. I will write a post about the book in English soon, and will try to include some of the points covered in this video.

Vin(group) University, Melbourne U. and the Future of the Humanities (and Asian Studies)

[I posted this piece on the Content Asian Studies site. Given that it covers topics (the future of Humanities/area studies education in and outside of Southeast Asia) that overlap with issues that this blog deals with, I thought I would post it here as well for anyone who might be interested.]

Major Vietnamese property developer, Vingroup, just announced that it will build a world-class university in Vietnam with consultation from some of the world’s top universities, such as Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania.

Vin University, or VinUni for short, “will be a private, non-profit university of Vietnam established on international standards and integrating the world’s elite models of higher education.”

What exactly are “the world’s elite models of higher education”? A recent job application for a historian of Vietnam at Melbourne University, one of the top-ranked universities in the world made me wonder about that, and what the implications of “the world’s elite models of higher education” are for the future of Humanities scholarship, the “home” of some of the key fields in Asian Studies.”

The trend in “the world’s elite models of higher education” indicates quite clearly that the future of the Humanities and Asian Studies is bleak as long as we persist on doing things the way we always have. But there is a potentially much brighter future awaiting for us if we change.

Reading Phan Bội Châu (LMK Vlog #01)

I think it’s time to start Vlogging. Here is my first Vlog, on Phan Bội Châu’s 1908 “Examination of Vietnamese History” (Việt Nam quốc sử kháo 越南國史考) and its Vietnamese translation.

The Trans-Contemporary Approach to Heritage at The Myst Dong Khoi

There is a new hotel in the heart of Saigon that is unique. It is called “The Myst Dong Khoi,” and what makes it unique is that it demonstrates that I would call a “trans-contemporary approach to heritage.”

Let me explain what I mean by that.


Continue reading “The Trans-Contemporary Approach to Heritage at The Myst Dong Khoi”

7. Going Backwards: (Mis)Citing Lê Thành Khôi

In the second chapter of Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present author Ben Kiernan has a passage where he writes about Việt society in the third century AD.

His point in this passage is to argue that even after a long period of Chinese rule, indigenous social and religious practices persisted.

To quote, he states that,

“Even after three hundred years and fifty years [sic] of imperial rule in Jiaozhi and Jiuzhen, and even as Confucianism took root among the emerging elite, the Chinese were still able to rule much of the countryside only indirectly, if at all. Việt customs and gender relations persisted.” (92)

What were some of these customs and gender relations? One, Kiernan argues, concerned the involvement of women in the performance of certain religious rites.

Continue reading “7. Going Backwards: (Mis)Citing Lê Thành Khôi”

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).

Continue reading “Snakes and Clothing in the Ancient Red River Delta”

6. Going Backwards: An (Updated) Addendum

[12/11/2017. Note: Professor Kiernan has responded to this post and has graciously pointed out that a comment I made is incorrect. There is one character that is discussed in this post that is very important, and in my original post, I stated that in the “two” versions of the text that is discussed below that I consulted the character in question appears as “xuyên 川” meaning “river.” In fact, it is true that in “one” of the texts I consulted the character in question appears as “xuyên 川” but in the other it appears as “thủy 水” which in its most basic sense means “water” but which is also used (including in the context of this text) to mean “river.”

My apologies to readers for not including an image from the version of this text that does use the character “xuyên 川.” Here it is:

Continue reading “6. Going Backwards: An (Updated) Addendum”

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Trịnh Hoài Đức, Gabriel Aubaret and the Production of Knowledge about the Mekong Delta”

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