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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.