Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past

5. Going Backwards: Conclusion

Ben Kiernan begins his new Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present with the following sentence: “The mountains are like the bones of the earth. Water is its blood,” wrote a Vietnamese geographer in 1820.” (1)

That sentence is the perfect sentence to open this book, as it perfectly symbolizes how flawed the scholarship in the pages that follow is.

Continue reading “5. Going Backwards: Conclusion”

4. Going Backwards: Cherry Picking Outdated Information

In his Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present, Ben Kiernan argues that in the early history of Vietnam there were two important migrations of peoples into the Red River Delta.

To quote,

“By the time of the classical Chinese contact with northern Việt Nam, the early ethnolinguistic pattern there had been transformed by two external influences from the south and north, from mainland Southeast Asia and southeast China.

Continue reading “4. Going Backwards: Cherry Picking Outdated Information”

Revisiting Norman and Mei’s Austroasiatic-Speakers in Ancient South China

In 1976, linguists Jerry Norman and Tsu-Lin Mei published an influential article entitled “The Austroasiatics in Ancient South China: Some Lexical Evidence.” In this article, Norman and Mei offered linguistic evidence that they said could “show that the Austroasiatics inhabited the shores of the Middle Yangtze and parts of the southeast coast during the first millennium B.C.”

Continue reading “Revisiting Norman and Mei’s Austroasiatic-Speakers in Ancient South China”

3. Going Backwards: The Yue Migration Theory

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, French missionaries, military officials and scholars all asked questions about the Vietnamese that the Vietnamese had never asked themselves: Who are these people? Where do they come from? What race do they belong to? What language family does their language belong to? etc.

By that time Vietnamese had of course already compiled texts about the history of their land, but those texts did not directly answer these questions. Instead, they were concerned with tracing a political genealogy that linked various rulers and dynasties together.

Continue reading “3. Going Backwards: The Yue Migration Theory”

2. Going Backwards: Tai and Vietics

There are people in Khammouane Province in Laos who speak a language known as Saek (Sek). In the twentieth century, Western scholars struggled to identify what language family this language belongs to. The earliest scholars claimed that it was Mon-Khmer, but eventually French linguist André-Georges Haudricourt made a convincing case that it was a Tai language, and more specifically, a Northern Tai language.

Linguists believe that Tai languages emerged in the area of what is today Guangxi Province in China. Out of some proto-Tai language that existed some 2,000 years ago emerged Central Tai, Northern Tai and Southwestern Tai. Of these three, Southwestern Tai is the one that emerged the latest. Linguists now say that it emerged around the eighth or ninth centuries CE, and that its speakers started to migrate away from the “Tai homeland” at that time as well.

As the map below indicates, these three branches can be identified with different areas, and the place where the Saek language is spoken is in an area where one would expect to find Southwestern Tai speakers, not Northern Tai speakers.

Continue reading “2. Going Backwards: Tai and Vietics”

Who Were the Yue?

In her Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BC-50 CE, historian Erica Brindley opens the book with a chapter entitled “Who were the Yue”?

That may seem like an easy question to answer given that starting from the final centuries of the first millennium BCE one can find many references in Chinese sources to “Yue” 越/粵 peoples who lived to their south, peoples who were sometimes also collectively referred to as the “Bai-yue” 百越/百粵 or “Hundred Yue.” So surely it must be possible to go through those sources and get a sense of who those people were and to piece together some of their history.

In actuality, however, that is not the case, and in this chapter Brindley clearly documents how little we can actually determine with certainty about the Yue from early Chinese texts.

Continue reading “Who Were the Yue?”

1. Going Backwards: The Aquatic Culture Myth

In his 1983 work, The Birth of Vietnam, Keith Taylor argued that Vietnamese “mythical traditions. . . reveal a sea-oriented culture coming to terms with a continental environment. Civilization arrived with a culture hero from the sea. . .” (1)

The “culture hero” that Taylor was referring to here is Lạc Long Quân, a “mythical” figure that first appeared in the fifteenth century Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện 嶺南摭怪列傳 (Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes) and in abridged form in the fifteenth-century history, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư 大越史記全書 (The Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt).

Continue reading “1. Going Backwards: The Aquatic Culture Myth”

Going Backwards: A Series

Not all scholarship is equal. There are books and articles that get published that are flawed. Part of the job of a scholar is to gain an understanding of which scholarship is reliable and which scholarship isn’t.

When Keith Taylor researched and wrote his first book, The Birth of Vietnam, he came to realize that the ideas of French scholar Leonard Aurousseau were flawed. In 1923 Aurousseau had written an article that argued that there had been a southward migration of “Yue” peoples in the first millennium BCE from the area of what is today Zhejiang Province in China to the Red River Delta in Vietnam.

Continue reading “Going Backwards: A Series”

What Language(s) did the Ancient Yue Speak?

In the first millennium BC, “Chinese” writers recorded information about various peoples who lived to their south. These people were called by various names such as Ou, Luo, Western Ou, and Ouluo. At other times more generic terms were used like a term meaning “savages” – Manyi .

Then finally another common term that was used was “Yue” 越/粵, or more generally, the “Hundred Yue” (Baiyue 百越/百粵).

These terms are problematic because there is no evidence that the peoples that Chinese authors identified by these names actually referred to themselves by these names.

This then leads to an important question: What criteria did Chinese authors use to distinguish one group from another? Was it geography? Culture? Language? Ethnicity?

Continue reading “What Language(s) did the Ancient Yue Speak?”

Blog at

Up ↑

Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past

Fifty Viss

a collection of thoughts and writings on Burma

Colonizing Animals

A blog about beasts, Burma and British imperialism

mini myna

on knowing the past in Singapore


Albert Einstein — 'What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.'


About Vietnamese Cultural History and Scholarship

Digital Southeast Asia

Ideas for employing digital humanities approaches to the study of Southeast Asian history