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.
This is a meditation on the “Nam quốc sơn hà,” strangeness in history, Benedict Anderson, language learning, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” Soviet soldiers, Tạ Chí Đại Trường, and the questioning of the received/established knowledge of experts.
I was saddened to learn yesterday that South Vietnamese historian Tạ Chí Đại Trường has passed away. I never had the good fortune of meeting Tạ Chí Đại Trường, but in recent years we did have a kind of “meeting of minds,” and I’m forever grateful to him for that experience.
A few years ago I wrote an article that argued that the Hùng kings were a “medieval invented tradition.” I knew that such an article would be controversial to some people, and when I received the reports from anonymous readers, I opened them with apprehension.
The first report was short. It was positive, but offered some good advice on how to improve the piece. Then I opened the second report and found that it contained 15 pages of single-spaced text in Vietnamese.
I was shocked. Had I made someone so infuriated that s/he poured out 15 pages of denunciations of my ideas?
I scrolled to the end to read the conclusion first: “As was already stated at the beginning, we easily approve of the argument of Mr. X, and can only repeat it by different means.”
(Như đã phát biểu từ đầu, chúng tôi dễ dàng tán thành lập luận của ông X nên chỉ có thể lặp lại bằng cách khác thôi.)
I was relieved to read this, but as I then read through the comments, I quickly saw that there was great humility in that statement, because rather than “repeating” the argument that I had made, Tạ Chí Đại Trường expanded it tremendously as he examined the way that the story of the Hùng kings had been used for political purposes in the centuries after its first appearance in fifteenth-century texts.
The editors at that time of the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, where I had submitted that article, were likewise impressed by Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s comments and decided to translate them into English and to publish them in 2012.
As for Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s original comments in Vietnamese, they have sat on my hard drive for all of these years. At some point I did make an inquiry (through a mutual acquaintance) to see if Tạ Chí Đại Trường would approve of me making the comments available online. I was told that Tạ Chí Đại Trường did approve.
However, I never got around to it because the text was written in an older Vietnamese font and publishing the text online would have required converting the font and then cleaning up the text.
In addition, Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s original comments began with a long discussion about the date of the text where the story of the Hùng kings first emerged, as I had initially made a careless mistake in my manuscript and had put the wrong date. Given that I fixed that mistake in the manuscript, that section of Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s comments was omitted from the English-language version. Therefore to make the Vietnamese-language version match the English-language version would have required further editing.
As such, the need to convert and edit the text led me to procrastinate, but now that Tạ Chí Đại Trường has tragically passed away, I think that it is best simply to share what he wrote, unedited.
I have therefore made the original Vietnamese-language comments and the edited/published English-language version available on this Academia.edu page (under the section “papers”).
Rest in peace Tạ Chí Đại Trường, and thank you so much for sharing some of your time and knowledge with me.