Le Minh Khai's SEAsian History Blog

Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past


Ben Kiernan

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”

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”

5. Going Backwards: Conclusion

[For an addendum to these opening comments, see this post.]

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 Going Backwards: Cherry Picking Outdated Information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”

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”

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”

“Rice from the Sky” . . .

In his new survey of Vietnamese history, Ben Kiernan attempts to include information on environmental history.

As part of that effort, he has a section on “Climate Change and Economic Growth in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” This section is based on his reading of an English translation that he had someone make based on the Vietnamese translation of the Việt sử lược 越史略 (Outline of Việt History), a fourteenth-century text that was written in classical Chinese.

In other words, Kiernan’s understanding of climate change and economic growth in Vietnam in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is based on a translation of a translation.

Let’s take a look at how that went.

Continue reading ““Rice from the Sky” . . .”

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