Vietnamese Prehistory and International Scholarship – Part 2: Thought & Solheim

In 1971, archaeologist Wilhelm “Bill” Solheim made some comments in the magazine National Geographic about the origins of agriculture. His comments were premature, and turned out to be false.

Then in the late 1990s those comments were discovered by some Vietnamese who were interested in prehistory. They now serve as “evidence” to support the idea that the ancestors of the Vietnamese were the first people in Asia to cultivate wet rice and that they introduced this technology to the Han Chinese.

To learn more about this, please watch the following video:

Vietnamese Prehistory and International Scholarship – Part 1: Introduction

For the past half century or so there has been an idea circulating in the Vietnamese world that holds that the ancestors of the Vietnamese were the first people to inhabit the Asian mainland, and that they established the foundations of East Asian civilization but were then driven southward by the Han Chinese who claimed that civilization as their own.

In recent years, individuals who promote this view of the past have cited Western scholarship to support their views. In this video series we will examine the Western scholarship that is used to support this perspective on prehistory.

The video below is an introduction to this topic.

Tiền sử Việt Nam và học thuật quốc tế (phần 1)

This is my first attempt at making a video in Vietnamese. . . You gotta start somewhere. . .

In recent years some Vietnamese people interested in history, both inside and outside of the country, have created a new story about Vietnamese prehistory (Note: We are not referring to people classified as “historians” in the official academic sense).

For instance, in contrast to the widely-held belief that wet rice was first cultivated in the area of the Yangzi River, the above-mentioned historians hold that the ancestors of the Vietnamese were the first people in Asia to cultivate wet rice, and that they spread this knowledge to the area of what is now China through ancient migrations from south to north.

To prove their points, these individuals cite studies by “international scholars.” In this series of videos, we will examine the ideas that these historians have put forth, as well as the research by the international scholars that they cite. At the same time, we will point out some problems with the way works are cited and how that influences historical arguments.)

Trong những năm gần đây, một số nhà quan tâm nghiên cứu lịch sử Việt, cả trong và ngoài nước, đã tạo ra một câu chuyện mới về tiền sử Việt Nam (Lưu ý: chúng tôi không nói đến các “nhà sử học” theo quan niệm chính thống của giới hàn lâm).

Ví dụ, ngược lại với ý tưởng được nhiều người tin tưởng rằng lúa được trồng sớm nhất ở khu vực đồng bằng sông Dương Tử, các nhà nghiên cứu nói trên có luận điểm rằng tổ tiên của người Việt Nam là những người ở châu Á trồng lúa nước sớm nhất, và họ truyền kiến thức trồng lúa nước đến khu vực đồng bằng Dương Tử thông qua các cuộc di cư cổ xưa từ nam ra bắc.

Để chứng minh quan điểm của mình, họ trích dẫn các nghiên cứu của “các học giả quốc tế.” Trong loạt video clip này, chúng tôi sẽ xem xét những ý tưởng mà các nhà nghiên cứu lịch sử này đã đưa ra, cũng như xem xét các bài nghiên cứu của các học giả quốc tế mà họ trích dẫn, và đồng thời chỉ ra một số vấn đề liên quan đến trích dẫn và ảnh hưởng của nó đến cách lập luận lịch sử.

Lý Đông A, Kim Định and a Mid-20th–Century Unorthodox Version of Early Việt History

I’ve written quite a lot on this blog about the South Vietnamese philosopher, Lương Kim Định, and his ideas about history.

What was Kim Định’s view of the past? In a nutshell his view was that originally the area of what is today China was inhabited by people who engaged in agriculture (người nông nghiệp) and who were the ancestors of the Việt. Kim Định refers to them as the “Viêm race” (Viêm tộc). According to Kim Định, the ancestors of the people whom we now refer to as the Han Chinese, but whom he referred to in this early period as the “Hoa race” (Hoa tộc), then migrated into the region.

The people of the Hoa race, again according to Kim Định, were pastoralists (người du mục). These people ultimately started to conquer the Viêm race, but in the process, they adopted many of the Viêm race’s cultural practices as well. This included concepts that we find in the Yijing.

These concepts, according to Kim Định, eventually came to be part of the “Confucian” world of the Han Chinese. As a result, people today see a text like the Yijing as “Chinese,” but according to Kim Định that text represents ideas that were created in the pre-Chinese world of the Việt.

Kim Định therefore coined a term, “Việt Nho,” which we can loosely translate as something like “Việt Confucianism” to refer to this pre-Sinicized body of ideas.


How did Kim Định come up with such a view of the past? There are several people who have suggested to me that Kim Định might have gotten these ideas from an earlier, and somewhat mysterious, figure who wrote under the name of Lý Đông A.

Lý Đông A’s real name was Nguyễn Hữu Thanh. He was born in 1920, and apparently spent some time as a teenager helping take care of Phan Bôi Châu while he was under house arrest in Hue. During WW II he became a revolutionary and wrote various tracts to encourage people to resist the French (and the Chinese and the Thai and anyone else who might stand in the way of the Vietnamese). However, Lý Đông A’s anti-colonial efforts competed with those of the Việt Minh, and he was assassinated in 1947.

Many of Lý Đông A’s writings were later republished in South Vietnam, so we have a sense of what it is that he thought, and from those writings we can see that the outline of Kim Định’s ideas about history were already expressed in the 1940s by Lý Đông A.

In particular, Lý Đông A argued that all of humanity originally migrated outward from the Pamir Mountains around 5,000 BC and that the Việt (or Viêm) made it to the area of what is now Mount Taishan in Shandong Province where they created texts that are related to the tradition of the Yijing, such as the Hetu/Hà Đồ (the Yellow River Chart) and the Luoshu/Lạc Thư (the Luo River Square). However, the Việt were then pushed southward by the Chinese, until they finally established a base in the Red River Delta.

This view of the past is very similar to Kim Định’s, minus the detail of a difference between agriculturalists (the Việt) and pastoralists (the Chinese). However, Kim Định never cited Lý Đông A or any other Vietnamese when he presented this information.

He did, on the other hand, cite the works of some modern Chinese scholars for factual information and Western Sinologists such as Herrlee Creel, Wolfram Eberhard and Harold Wiens for their comments about how the world of the ancient Chinese had been much smaller, and that ancient China had been much less ethnically homogenous, than scholars had been previously believed.

But none of those scholars said anything about ancient migrations of agriculturalists and pastoralists, or of any pre-Chinese people creating concepts that we can find expressed in the Yijing.

ctl text

So did Kim Định “steal” these ideas from Lý Đông A?

I think the answer to this question can be found in the way that Lý Đông A presented information about the past. He did not write a narrative in which he explained his ideas. Instead, he presented his ideas in lists of points, or in questions.

What is more, it is clear that he was able to present his ideas so briefly in this outline form because his readers must have already known what he was talking about.

Take, as an example the following two questions that Lý Đông A asked his readers in an essay that he wrote in 1943.

  1. “Was our race locally born or did it descend from the Pamir Mountains?”
  2. “How many years before the Han and the Yi [‘barbarians’] did [our race] descend into East Asia, and what was the history of that like?”

The second question only makes sense if one knows how readers will answer the first question, and readers will only be able to answer the first question in the way that Lý Đông A expects them to if they are familiar with the topic.

There are many more examples like this in Lý Đông A’s writings that we could point to.

ctl 2

So what does this mean? It suggests to me that in his writings Lý Đông A expressed ideas about the past that while not “official,” were nonetheless probably well-known at a popular level.

This “unorthodox” version of the past contained ideas about race and ancient migrations into Asia from places to the west, and these were all ideas that French authors discussed in numerous writings in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

It would therefore make sense that some of those ideas would have made it into circulation at the popular level among Vietnamese, and that these ideas would be transformed to some extent.

This would also explain why Kim Định wrote about the past in the way he did. That view of the past was probably not limited to Kim Định and Lý Đông A.

Instead, my guess would be that it was something that was commonly known, but as an “unorthodox” view of the past, it did not make it into most books and textbooks.

If this view had been unique to Kim Định and Lý Đông A, then I don’t think they would have written the way they did. Lý Đông A would have had to explain more, and Kim Định’s views would have been too absurd for anyone to accept.

But if these ideas about the past were already in popular circulation, then the writings of both of these men would have made sense to many people.

Dương Bá Trác on the Origins of the Vietnamese Race

Scientists have long noted that there is no biological basis for race. Races of human beings do not actually exist. They are social constructs. People create different categories of human beings that they call “races.”

This way of viewing the world is one that emerged in the West, and was adopted by people in Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As people there did so, they had to adapt their understanding of the world and the past to this new way of viewing the world.

One such person who did this in Vietnam was the scholar and reformer Dương Bá Trác. One of the founders of the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục, Dương Bá Trạc was imprisoned when that school was shut down by the French. Eventually he was pardoned, and when the journal Nam Phong was established, Dương Bá Trác wrote for it.

One article that he wrote was entitled “An Examination of Việt History” (Việt sử khảo) and it appeared in Vietnamese and classical Chinese in the same issue (Deptember 1918). In this essay Dương Bá Trác discusses the origins of the Vietnamese race.

Dương Bá Trác says that there was an original Giao Chỉ race in the Red River Delta. Then a new race formed when members of the Han race arrived as first the Qin and then the Han Dynasty extended its control across the region. These men intermarried with local women, and eventually the old Giao Chỉ race was largely absorbed, which in turn created the Vietnamese race.

The author points to the well-known historical figures, Lý Bôn (a.k.a. Lý Bí) and Hồ Quý Ly, as examples of this phenomenon, as both men were descended from ancestors who had migrated into the region from areas in what are today China.

Although at one point Dương Bá Trác says that the mixing of the Han and Giao Chỉ races created the Vietnamese race, later in the essay he indicates that this was more of a process of assimilation of the Giao Chỉ race by the Han race.

In the Vietnamese version of this essay, the author states that “one can see that the current Vietnamese race is largely of Han stock” (thì biết giống người Việt-Nam bây giờ phần nhiều là Hán-tộc), while in the classical Chinese section the same sentence is “there is no doubt but that our country’s race was assimilated into the Han race” (則我國種同化於漢族可無疑矣).

The author then goes on to relate with pride the achievements of the Han race, and in the process he seamlessly moves from discussing what we would today call Chinese history to Vietnamese history.

Referring to “our Han race” (Hán-tộc ta) in the Vietnamese version, and “the glorious Han race” (堂堂漢族) in the classical Chinese version, Dương Bá Trác says that the fact that it was able to expand southward through history, driving away other peoples along the way, until it finally reached what Dương Bá Trác refers to as “our country” (nước ta) in the Vietnamese version and “this land” (斯土) in the classical Chinese text, is evidence of the civilized character and competitive power of the race.

Further, it is this power of the Han race, Dương Bá Trác tells us, which enabled it to bring Champa (Chiêm-thành) under its control, occupy Cambodia (Chân-lạp), pacify the various savages, bring into submission all of the older races and become the lord of “this piece of land” (cái miếng đất này) or “this land” (斯土).

Viet su khao

An Examination of the Name Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi

Chen Jinghe/Trần Kinh Hòa was an historian who was born in 1917 in the Japanese colony of Taiwan. However, he went to school, from elementary to university, in Japan.

As a university student, Chen studied history at Keio University under a professor, Matsumoto Nabuhiro, who had obtained his PhD in Paris. Through Professor Matsumoto’s connections, the young Chen went to Hanoi around 1943 and spent the next 2-3 years as an intern at the École française d’Extrême-Orient.

This was the beginning of a long and productive academic career for Chen. He produced a large body of scholarship on Vietnam and the Chinese in Vietnam, and he also published critical editions of important historical texts, like the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and the An Nam chí lược.

One of Chen’s early writings was called “An Examination of the Name Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi” (交趾名稱考). It was published in 1952 in Taiwan.

In this long and dense article, Chen examines all of the explanations for the meaning of this ancient name for the area of the Red River Delta that he could find. In the process he deals with historical texts as well as linguistic and anthropological information.

I read this article many years ago and liked it. The other day I came across a Vietnamese language translation of the article that was published in the South Vietnamese journal Đại học in 1960.

Neither the Chinese language original nor the Vietnamese language translation are easily available, so I have decided to place them both here for anyone interested in trying to figure out where the name “Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi” came from and what it means. Enjoy!!

Jiaozhi kao – QN1

Jiaozhi kao – QN2

Jiaozhi kao 1

Jiaozhi kao 2

The Absence of Historical Memory in Early “Vietnam”

When medieval Việt scholars wrote the first histories of the Red River Delta region, they structured their histories around the political principle of an “orthodox line of succession” (正統, chính thống) from one ruler to another.

The [Đại] Việt sử lược began this line of succession with Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo, a man who was from the area of what is today Hebei Province, but who established his own kingdom in the area of what is today Guangdong Province and declared himself to be an “emperor” in the late third century BCE.

An envoy from the Han Dynasty subsequently convinced Zhao Tuo to stop using the term “emperor,” and his successor therefore appears in Chinese sources and the [Đại] Việt sử lược as “King Văn/Wen” (Văn vương/Wenwang), “king” being an acceptable term for the ruler of a polity which had declared its allegiance to the Han, which is what Zhao Tuo was supposedly persuaded to do.

The later Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư extended the “orthodox line of succession” further back into history to the mythical Kinh Kinh Dương, and passed through the Hùng kings to Zhao Tuo.

Like Chinese histories, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư also indicated that Zhao Tuo gave up using the title of “emperor” and it refers to his successor as “King Văn/Wen.”

In fact, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư does not merely follow the content of earlier Chinese dynastic histories on this point, the information it offers is in many cases word-for-word the same.

This leads to various questions: Are works like the [Đại] Việt sử lược and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư part of a separate Việt historical tradition? Or are they medieval creations which relied on extant Chinese written sources? Put another way, do they contain any historical memory, or were they compiled by people who simply looked at what had already been written by Chinese scholars?

Archaeology can help us answer these questions. In the 1980s, Chinese archaeologists unearthed the tomb of what they believe was Zhao Tuo’s successor, “King Văn/Wen.” Much to their surprise, however, they found in the tomb a seal for “Emperor Văn/Wen” (文帝行璽).

While Chinese and Việt historical sources indicate that Zhao Tuo stopped using the title, “emperor,” this archaeological find indicates that this is not what happened. Instead, his successor continued to use the title, “emperor.”

As I mentioned above, the first Việt histories were structured around the concept of the political principle of an “orthodox line of succession.” The fact that Zhao Tuo had declared himself “emperor” was very important for these works, as he was the first person in “the South” to do so.

Given how important this concept was, why don’t these works indicate that his successor also used the title of emperor?

They don’t mention this because there was no historical memory and no historical tradition in the region. The [Đại] Việt sử lược and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư are the products of a process of historical invention that took place in the medieval period. There is no memory in these works.

This then leads us to an even bigger question. If Việt historians did not remember “Emperor Văn/Wen,” then how could they have remembered the even earlier Hùng kings?

Nguyễn Phương on the Origins of the Vietnamese Nation

Nguyễn Phương was a Catholic priest and historian who worked at the University of Hue in the 1960s. In 1965 he published a book entitled Việt Nam thời khai sinh [Vietnam at the Time of its Birth] (Huế: Phòng Nghiên Cứu Sử, Viện Đại Học Huế, 1965).

Many of the chapters in this book had been published individually in journals over the proceeding years, so the contents of this book were probably not a surprise to many readers when the book was finally published. Reading it today, however, it is quite surprising to see what Nguyễn Phương had to say, particularly regarding the origins of the Vietnamese people.

While Nguyễn Phương recognized that people began living in the Red River Delta in distant antiquity, and while he acknowledged that the Trưng sisters had fought to protect their freedom, none of these people, he argued, were the ancestors of the Vietnamese.

The only thing they held in common with the Vietnamese, he contended, was that they had lived before the Vietnamese on the land which would eventually become Vietnam.

Who then were the Vietnamese?

After examining the views of traditional literati and of French scholars from the first half of the twentieth century, Nguyễn Phương argues that the Vietnamese are Chinese who emigrated into the region during the 1,000 years of Chinese rule (dân Việt Nam là người Trung Quốc di cư sang trong thời Bắc thuộc).

There are a lot of details to Nguyễn Phương’s argument which I don’t have time to discuss now, but I thought I’d put the relevant chapter from his book here, as it is not very well known, nor is it easily available.

I don’t agree with Nguyễn Phương’s argument. Those who say that the Vietnamese nation was formed in antiquity and survived through 1,000 years of Chinese rule constitute one extreme. Nguyễn Phương’s idea that the “Vietnamese” are “Chinese” who migrated into the area is the opposite extreme.

The reality was somewhere in between these two extremes. The Vietnamese nation was formed through the contact and interactions of different peoples. How and when exactly that happened, however, has yet to be clearly explained.


Tự Đức’s Dismissal of Sĩ Nhiếp

One of the stereotypes which the Nguyễn Dynasty has suffered from is that it was “overly Sinitic/Confucian,” and that this made them impractical to the extent that they could not rise to the challenge of the French. Their minds were off in the ivory towers of Confucian scholarship.

In reading the official history which was compiled in the second half of the nineteenth century, Imperially Commissioned Itemized Summaries of the Comprehensive Mirror of Việt History [Khâm Định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục], I’m always impressed at how rational a lot of the scholarship is. The compilers of that work threw a lot of doubt on various records from the past. In the process, one of the biggest critics of earlier scholarship was the emperor, Tự Đức. He had a lot of unique views about the past, and this is a topic which deserves study.

For instance, Sĩ Nhiếp/Shi Xie, the Han Dynasty administer who governed over the Red River Delta in the early third century C.E. was revered for centuries by Vietnamese literati for having supposedly introduced to the region writing and all of the moral teachings that come with it.

Hence, the fifteenth century historian, Ngô Sĩ Liên, made the following comments about Sĩ Nhiếp:

“Our kingdom became familiar with the Poetry and Documents,* performed rites and ritual music, and became a domain of manifest civility from the time of King Shi. Is it not the case that his meritorious accomplishments were not just bestowed on that age, but extended distantly to later generations? Is this not magnificent?”

[Nước ta thông thi thư, học lễ nhạc, làm một nước văn hiến, là bắt đầu từ Sĩ Vương, công đức ấy không những chỉ ở đương thời mà còn truyền mãi đời sau, há chẳng lớn sao?]

*The “Poetry and Documents” is a reference to the Classic of Poetry [Shijing] and the Venerated Documents [Shangshu], also known as the Classic of Documents [Shujing]. However, it can also be used more generally to refer to writing and their accompanying moral teachings.

Contrast that praise with Emperor Tự Đức’s assessment in the nineteenth century:

“Sĩ Nhiếp was just a Han governor. He adapted to the times and just sought what was in his own interest. He absolutely did not have great talent or long-range policies to pass on. There is nothing worth praising.”

[Sĩ Nhiếp chẳng qua là một thái thú nhà Hán, tùy thời nịnh hót, cầu sao cho mình được an toàn, chứ không có mưu lược tài cán gì giỏi cả, đến nỗi truyền được hai đời đã mất, có gì đáng khen!]