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.
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