Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past



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.

Continue reading “A Conversation With Nhà Sàn Collective (Parts 1 and 2/of 7)”

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.”

Continue reading “A 20th-Century Vietnamese Origin Story (Part 1)”

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.

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

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.

Continue reading “Emperor Tự Đức as a Reformer”

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.

Continue reading “Gia Long and Nôm”

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.

Continue reading “Minh Mạng and Nôm”

Engaging in Vietnam in An Giang

Engaging With Vietnam is going to An Giang!! Our original plan for the upcoming 9th Engaging With Vietnam conference was to have the conference in HCM City and Phú Yên. We are now dividing it between HCM City and An Giang.

For more information see the following video:

And for more information about the conference, please consult the conference website:

6. Going Backwards: An Addendum

In a conclusion that I wrote to a series of posts on Ben Kiernan’s new Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present I noted that the book begins with the sentence, “‘The mountains are like the bones of the earth. Water is its blood,’ wrote a Vietnamese geographer in 1820” (1), and I stated that this “sentence is the perfect sentence to open this book, as it perfectly symbolizes how flawed the scholarship in the pages that follow is.”

My argument was that Kiernan had produced an inaccurate translation of a bad French translation of a classical Chinese text, and that this example of the uncritical use of a flawed source was typical of Kiernan’s own flawed scholarship in this book.

Continue reading “6. Going Backwards: An Addendum”

The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War

There is a major new documentary about the Vietnam War that is about to be broadcast on TV in the US. It is called The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick.

Burns and Novick have made some very successful documentaries together, but they are not experts on Vietnamese history, and while experts were consulted during the making of this documentary, I think it will be safe to assume that this documentary will essentially be a documentary about “what the Vietnam War means to a certain segment of the American population.”

That is fine. As long as educated viewers understand what this documentary is, and what its perspective is, then they can appreciate it for what it is.

Continue reading “The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War”

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