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Always rethinking the Southeast Asian past


Lương Kim Định

Interrogating Đào Duy Anh: Everything’s Bigger in Texas

Michelle/Natasha and Lê Minh Khải went to a meeting with an American intelligence official named Hank (a friend of Papa François) where they talked about the Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm Affair and historians in Saigon.

Kim Định and History that “Is”

The topic of the importance (or non-importance) of South Vietnamese philosopher Lương Kim Định has come up again and this has forced me to think more about this issue.

I have described Kim Định’s scholarship as “bold,” and have tried to define what I mean by that as follows:

“Bold” scholarship is scholarship that presents a new way of looking at something, and which cannot be immediately rejected. “Bad” scholarship is scholarship that can be immediately rejected because it puts forth ideas that scholars already know are not valid. Finally, “bold” scholarship can become “bad” scholarship if scholars can produce evidence to reject it, but that process of producing evidence to reject bold scholarship leads to more sophisticated ideas.

I have also argued that Kim Định’ scholarship should have become “bad” scholarship by now, but people have not rejected it in a convincing way, and as a result, historical scholarship in Vietnam has not been able to benefit from that process of producing evidence to reject bold scholarship.

Finally I’ve also said that this has not happened because people lack the breadth of knowledge that Kim Định had.

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Let’s look at some examples of the kind of knowledge that it would take to reject Kim Định’s ideas. To do that we need to remind ourselves of what Kim Định’s basic argument was.

Kim Định argued that in distant antiquity the ancestors of the Việt migrated into the area of China and that later the people whom we refer to as the “Chinese” migrated there as well. The Chinese were pastoralists and violent, and they pushed the Việt southward, and assimilated them as well, until eventually the only remaining Việt group out of what had originally been many related peoples (the “Hundred Việt/Yue”) were those in the Red River delta, that is, the ancestors of the Vietnamese in Vietnam today.

The other point that Kim Định made is that the Việt created many of the ideas that we find in texts like the Yijing (Classic of Changes), but that the Chinese later appropriated these ideas and claimed “authorship” over them. However, he argues that there is a lot of evidence of the ideas in the Yijing in Vietnamese culture, and that this can be seen through the importance of numerology, where numbers like 3 and 4 have deep and significant importance in Vietnamese culture.

Indeed, these concepts, Kim Định argues, form a kind of structure to Vietnamese society, similar to the ideas of structuralism that Claude Leví-Strauss was developing in the field of anthropology around the same time that Kim Định was producing his ideas.

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We can call Kim Định’s version of history an “IS” (LÀ) version of history. It is a form of history where history is seen to be true. It’s based on the idea that we can confidently say that something “is” (là) history.

Kim Định tells us, for instance, who the Việt “are” (người Việt “là”) what their history “is” (lịch sử của người Việt “là”) and what the Yijing “is” (Kinh Dịch “là”).

This remains the dominant form of history in Vietnam today, and this is another reason why his ideas have not been rejected, because they are flawed at a conceptual level, and in order to demonstrate those flaws, scholars have to go deeper than simply talking about what history “is.” They need to demonstrate how history is constructed.

This has been an essential part of the historical profession in “the West” ever since the emergence of postmodernism in the 1960s when historians increasingly came to view history as something that is constructed or created rather than simply “is.”

So instead of asking “What is the history of something?” historians in “the West” often ask questions like the following: Where does this information about the past come from? Why does this person think this way? What evidence does s/he base her/his ideas on? How is this person interpreting that evidence, and why is s/he interpreting it in that way? What can this tell us about the past, and what does it tell us about the time when this historian wrote this information?


Let’s now look at Kim Định’s ideas. He presents his ideas as if they “were” (là) historical truth, but where do his ideas come from?

If we look at the historical information that was recorded in Asia prior to the 20th century, we will not find evidence of an ancient Chinese migration into China or of the Chinese pushing a group of people’s known as “the Việt” southward.

So where did Kim Định get those ideas? From Western scholars like Albert Étienne Jean Baptiste Terrien de Lacouperie, Émmanuel-Édouard Chavannes and Leonard Aurousseau who in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries “assumed” that there must have been migrations in antiquity in Asia, and who looked for “evidence” to support these “assumptions” in ancient texts.

Did their “findings” stand the test of time? No, because later generations of scholars asked questions like: Why did this person make this argument? What evidence did he base his ideas on? Is that evidence valid?


How about this idea that there was a large group of related peoples called the “Hundred Việt/Yue” who were all eventually assimilated into the Chinese except for one group? Again, that is something that you will not find discussed in Asia until Western scholars in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries started to look for things like “races” and to try to determine which “races” were able to survive the Social Darwinian struggle between societies.

Here again the ideas that were produced at that time have all been overturned. Now we have studies that argue that ancient Chinese writers constructed an imagined “Other” – the Việt/Yue, and that this image was later appropriated by people like the ancestors of the Vietnamese to label themselves.


Finally there is the topic of the numerology of the Yijing. Much of what Kim Định thought about the Yijing likewise came from his reading of what Western scholars (Joseph Needham, Marcel Granet, Richard Wilhelm, etc.) had said about that text, and it would therefore be important to examine closely what their ideas were and how those ideas may have influenced Kim Định’s thinking.

At the same time, some of Kim Định’s understanding of the Yijing came from what he knew about the long history of employing the numerology of the Yijing in various ways in daily life in Vietnam.

This use of numerology in the Yijing has a history. It is not something that simply “is.” Instead, it is a tradition of ideas that were created/constructed at specific historical times for specific historical reasons.

One of the most important times was during the Song Dynasty period, when Neo-Confucian scholar Shao Yong came up with ideas about how numbers in the Yijing could be used to explain various phenomena in the world. If someone were to examine the history of numerological ideas in East Asia, my suspicion would be that s/he would find that Kim Định wrote about the Neo-Confucian (i.e., Shao Yong’s) version of Yijing numerology and projected that historically-constructed interpretation back into antiquity as an unchanging “truth.” The Yijing “is” (Kinh Dịch “là”). . .


My point here is that Kim Định’s ideas were based on a lot of concepts that he presented as “truth,” but which Western scholars have argued are “constructs,” and often very modern constructs.

Those arguments that Western scholars make, however, have largely been made in the decades since Kim Định published his writings.

Here then is my main point: Given how connected Kim Định was to the Western world of scholarship, and given how so many of the ideas that Kim Định’s work is based on have been discredited in the West in the years since he wrote his books, my argument is that if Vietnamese scholars had continued to be as connected to that scholarly world as Kim Định was and had sought to reject the ideas that Kim Định’s scholarship is based upon by asking the kinds of questions that scholars in “the West” started to ask from the 1960s onward, then the world of historical scholarship in Vietnam today would be much more sophisticated than it is (just as the world of historical scholarship in “the West” is much more sophisticated than it was in the 1960s), and Kim Định would be seen as a catalyst for that positive development.

Why do I say this about Kim Định and not about other scholars? Because, again, I find Kim Định’s scholarship to be “bold,” as it presents a new way of looking at something, and it cannot be immediately rejected.

One main reason why it cannot be immediately rejected is because it is based on a wide range of ideas (i.e., breadth of knowledge). Given that virtually every one of those ideas is flawed in one way or another, it takes a lot of work to challenge Kim Định’s argument as a whole as there are so many issues to address.

Nonetheless, the effort to point out the weakness in the many ideas that Kim Định put forth leads one to think about and find answers to a wide-range of fundamental questions about the past and how we understand it such as the following:

Can we find ethnic groups in antiquity? When was the Vietnamese nation formed? What is the history of Yijing numerology? How did the views of Westerners transform how Vietnamese thought in the 20th century? How does structural anthropology work? Do we have enough information to re-create the structure of an ancient society? Do our current ideas and biases distort what it is that we imagine in the structure of a past society? How do we know any of this? etc., etc.

These questions are all about how history is constructed, and they can lead us to an understanding of how Kim Định constructed history. That process, in turn, can lead to a more sophisticated understanding of the past.

That process, however, still hasn’t taken place in Vietnam.

Instead, history in Vietnam, as it was in Kim Định’s day, still “is.”

Lý Đông A, Lương Kim Định, Trần Ngọc Thêm and Terrien de Lacouperie’s Ancient Chinese Migration

As I’ve mentioned numerous times on this blog, there is an idea that is of central importance to Vietnamese ultra-nationalists, and that is that in antiquity the Chinese migrated into the area of what is today China from the northwest, and that when they did so, they found people already living there.

These people, according to Vietnamese ultra-nationalist writers like Lý Đông A (1940s), Lương Kim Định (1950s-1990s) and Trần Ngọc Thêm (1990s-present) were the ancestors of the Việt, and they were more civilized than the Chinese, as they were the ones who created the ideas that we find in works like the Yijing.

early history

I’ve long wondered where that idea came from, and now I realize that the main source is clearly the late-nineteenth-century writings of an Orientalist by the name of Albert Étienne Jean Baptiste Terrien de Lacouperie.

Terrien de Lacouperie was born in France in 1845, but his family was originally from England, and he published in both French and English.

He began his career as a merchant in Hong Kong where he also studied Chinese, but in 1879 he settled in London and became a member of the Royal Asiatic Society.


Terrien de Lacouperie’s main interest was the early history of China, and what he perceived as its connections to the Chaldean-Akkadian cultural world of ancient Mesopotamia.

In works like Early History of the Chinese Civilization (1880), The Languages of China Before the Chinese (1887), Western Origin of the Early Chinese Civilisation from 2,300 BC to 200 AD, or Chapters on the Elements Derived from the Old Civilisations of West Asia in the Formation of the Ancient Chinese Culture (1894), developed the idea that the Chinese descended from some tribes that migrated from the Middle East to China.


However, unlike Vietnamese ultra-nationalists who argue that these migrants were less sophisticated than the peoples who were already inhabiting the area of China, Terrien de Lacouperie felt that the Chinese migrants brought with them writing and ideas that they had already developed, and that this could be demonstrated by what he saw as similarities between Akkadian and Chinese writing, and similarities between the numerology in the Yijing with similar concepts in Chaldean-Akkandian culture.


So while there are differences in content between what Terrien de Lacouperie and Vietnamese ultra-nationalists have argued, the Vietnamese ultra-nationalist belief in an ancient Chinese migration is one which Terrien de Lacouperie established the framework for.

It is also a concept that did not enjoy much support at the time he published his ideas, and which soon fell completely out of favor.

However, these unorthodox and unprofessional ideas have lived on in Vietnamese ultra-nationalism, and I’m sure that Terrien de Lacouperie would be very pleased to know that at least some people in the world still believe him.

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.

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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.

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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.

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