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.
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.
UPDATE: If you cannot see the above video, either click where it says “Watch on YouTube” or click here.
This is an audiovisual version of the first part (see below) of my critique of Trần Ngọc Thêm’s Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture (Tìm về bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam), a textbook on Vietnamese culture that has been widely used in Vietnamese universities for the past 20 years.
In looking at all of the racialized/essentialist/Orientalist concepts that Trần Ngọc Thêm employs in his textbook, Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture (Tìm về bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam), in order to promote the idea of Việt supremacy, I started to wonder how far back in time we would have to go in order to find a work like this in “the West.”
While there were certainly many racialized/racist ideas that were expressed in writing during the first half of the twentieth century when much of the world was under the colonial rule of Euro-American nations, Trần Ngọc Thêm’s combined use of concepts from yin yang theory in the Yijing, to racialized explanations of culture, to ideas of environmental determinism, lead to think that we might have to go all of the way back to 1854 to a work like Types of Mankind to find a work that is comparable to Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture.
In that work, Josiah Clark Nott and George R. Gliddon built on the racial theories of Samuel George Morton to argue that human beings were so racially distinct from each other that they must have developed from multiple lineages.
In making this argument, and as the cover of the book indicates, Nott and Gliddon, like Trần Ngọc Thêm, made use of a similarly diverse range of source materials (race/geography/the Bible vs. race/environment/the Yijing) to make similarly essentialist conclusions.
While I was looking for a book that we could compare to Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture, in addition to Types of Mankind, I came across another interesting work, a book called Races of Mankind.
This book was written by Soviet anthropologist Mikhail Fedorovich Nesturkh and was published in English in 1963.
In it, Nesturkh presents a non-essentialist explanation of race. To quote, he states that “Soviet anthropology proceeds from the concept of races as biological subdivisions of mankind that have taken shape in the course of a lengthy and intricate evolution.” (8)
He goes on to say that “Races and racial differences are not something eternal, immutable and inherent in man.” (9)
In fact, to Nesturkh and other Soviet scholars, none of the categories that we use to organize human beings – race, nation, ethnicity – were eternal, immutable or inherent in mankind and he quotes Marx and Engels as saying that they “can and must be eliminated by historical development.” (9)
Nesturkh’s book contains a preface by Nikolai Nikolaevich Cheboksarov, the Soviet scholar whose ideas about race we saw Trần Ngọc Thêm distort in the first post of this series.
Writing in 1963, Cheboksarov noted the importance of Nesturkh’s challenge to the racist idea that there were different types of people who were eternally part of some inherent category of human being. To quote, he wrote the following:
“A correct conception of the races of mankind is of particularly great political and scientific importance today, in the period of the collapse of the colonial system and the unparalleled development of the struggle for national liberation by the dependent and colonial peoples. The ideologists of imperialism, in their effort to provide a basis for class, national and colonial oppression, have advanced the false ‘theory’ of the physical and mental inequality of races, of the existence of ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ races, of races that are capable and those that are incapable of independent social, economic and cultural development.” (5)
In other words, Cheboksarov believed that the colonized, and people in newly-independent countries, needed to free themselves from the idea that there were inherent differences between peoples so that they could transform themselves and their societies for the better.
At the same time, however, Cheboksarov realized that this would be very difficult, for as he noted, “Racism is closely bound up with reactionary nationalism and chauvinism” and that “nationalist prejudice and the survivals of former national discord constitute the sphere in which resistance to social progress may be the longest, fiercest, most stubborn, and most implacable.” (5-6)
If we cold bring Nikolai Nikolaevich Cheboksarov back to life and get him to read Trần Ngọc Thêm’s Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture, I am certain that he would shake his head and sigh at how stubbornly the author sticks to nationalism and chauvinism.
At the same time, if we could bring Josiah Clark Nott and George R. Gliddon back to life and get them to read Trần Ngọc Thêm’s book, while I’m certain that they would completely disagree with his argument for Việt supremacy, I don’t think that they would have any difficulty in understanding his use of racialized and essentialist binary categories, as well as his use of an ancient text to “prove” the existence of those categories in certain human populations.
So here we are in the twenty-first century, the age of globalization when Vietnam has “integrated” (hội nhập) into the world, and the official textbook at the university level in Vietnam for teaching students about their own society reads like a book that a nineteenth-century racist American could have written. . .
Sorry Thomas Friedman, but the world is not flat. In fact, it is nowhere close to being flat, as there are mountains that divide some countries from other, less reactionary parts of the world.
Having developed a racialized/essentialist argument that Eurasia is divided into two main racial/cultural groups that can be described through various binary categories – East/West, Southeast/Northwest, agricultural/nomadic, static/dynamic – Trần Ngọc Thêm then presents this view again from the perspective of yin yang (âm duong 陰陽) theory.
He says that following the law governing the relations between the elements of yin and yang, the hot (i.e., yang) natural environment of the Southeast gives rise to an agriculturally-based culture which is marked by the following yin characteristics: there is a desire to live securely in one place (sống thì muốn yên ổn ở một chỗ), as well as a preference to live in harmony with nature (với thiên nhiên thì ưa hòa hợp), and in terms of people and society this culture is flexible, fond of kindness, emphasizes the emotions, values civility, and is tolerant and compromising (với con người và xã hội thì mềm dẻo, hiếu hòa, nặng nề về tình cảm, trọng văn, bao dung, chín bỏ làm mười. . .).
As for the culture of the Northwest, it is the opposite of all of this. The cold (i.e., yin) natural environment of the Northwest gives rise to a nomadic-based culture which is marked by the following yang characteristics: there is a preference to move, and people easily change their place of habitation, their profession, and their family (sống thì ưa xê dịch, dễ dàng thay đổi nơi cư trú, nghề nghiệp, gia đình. . .); there is an ambition to conquer and dominate nature (với thiên nhiên thì có tham vọng chinh phục, chế ngự), and in terms of people and society this culture is rigid, it emphasizes reason/logic, has a preference for violence, likes to be victorious and is direct (với con người và xã hội thì cứng rắn, nặng về lý trí, ưa bạo lực, hiếu thắng, rạch ròi. . .).
Hmmm, it kind of looks like one group here are the “good guys” and the other group are the “bad guys,” doesn’t it?
Actually, according to Trần Ngọc Thêm this cultural division as seen through yin yang theory is more complex than this, because as we saw in the previous post, Trần Ngọc Thêm argues that at least part of the Chinese world has been influenced by nomadic/dynamic culture.
In discussing yin yang theory, Trần Ngọc Thêm makes this point again by arguing that Chinese culture is more dynamic whereas Vietnamese culture is more static (văn hóa Trung Hoa lại thiên về tính động, còn văn hóa Việt Nam thiên về tính tĩnh).
This is important for looking at Chinese and Vietnamese cultures from the perspective of yin yang theory because “static-ness” is yin, whereas “dynamism” is yang.
Therefore, although China and Vietnam are both in the Southeast, according to Trần Ngọc Thêm they are different because China has more yang due to the influence of nomadic/dynamic culture.
A such, Trần Ngọc Thêm argues that Chinese culture is really “yang within yin” (dương ở trong âm) while Vietnamese culture is “yin within yin” (âm ở trong âm), although he also argues that China as a whole is like a continuum that goes from more yang in the north to more yin in the south.
To tie all this together, it is clear from Trần Ngọc Thêm’s depictions that the yin culture of the Southeast represents a much nicer human culture than the yang culture of the Northwest (After all, how can anyone argue that a “rigid” and “violent” culture is preferable to a “flexible” and “compromising” one?), and given that Vietnamese culture is the “yin-est” of them all. . . we are again back to an argument for Việt supremacy.
But why look at all of this from the perspective of yin yang theory anyway?
Well that actually leads to another enormous topic that we don’t have the time or space to deal with here, but essentially Trần Ngọc Thêm does this because he is following in the footsteps of South Vietnamese Catholic philosopher Lương Kim Định who argued that the Yijing was created by the ancestors of the Việt.
Trần Ngọc Thêm is not quite as detailed in his explanation of this as Kim Định was (Kim Định came up with ideas about battles and migrations of people in the past, etc.). Instead, his idea is simply that some of the concepts that we find in the Yijing, such as the interplay between yin and yang, originally developed in “the South” and were later developed further by the Chinese (with their partially nomadic/dynamic/yang culture).
To give a sense of this, Trần Ngọc Thêm argues that while terms like yin and yang might seem abstract to us today, in the past they had a clear meaning.
In particular, Trần Ngọc Thêm says that while the terms âm and dương in Vietnamese today come from the Chinese terms yin and yang, in the distant past the Chinese adopted these terms from Southern languages where yang meant “heaven/sky” or “spirit” and yin meant “mother.”
He then gives examples from languages like Cham, Jarai and Indonesian to support his argument.
I will leave it to linguistics to take up that point, but this argument brings up yet another problem with Trần Ngọc Thêm’s ideas. If such basic elements of his proposed Southeastern culture are preserved among the Cham, Jarai and Indonesians, then why doesn’t the book focus on those peoples and show us this “true” Southeastern culture?
The answer is simple: because that would not demonstrate Việt supremacy, and this books is all about “documenting” Việt supremacy.
In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Edward Said documented how Western scholars and writers, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, produced knowledge about “the Orient” which, taken together (as a discourse), created a negative picture of that part of the world. Said argued further that this “knowledge” was also used to justify Western imperialism as an effort to “help” or “uplift” the East.
A key element of this body of Orientalist knowledge was the idea that the East and the West constituted a pair of opposites. In the nineteenth century, one of the most common ways of expressing the differences between this pair of opposites was to say that the East/Orient was “static” and the West/Occident was “dynamic.”
As for what explained this difference, multiple reasons were suggested (from politics to race), but what all of the explanations shared was the idea that “the East” and “the West” both had essential characteristics.
Although it was Westerners who came up with this idea of a static East and a dynamic West, in the early twentieth century Chinese reformers adopted these same essentialized categories as they debated over how to transform Chinese society.
The failure of the 1911 Revolution to create a stable republic led reformers to look more closely at Chinese society and to question why it was unable to transform.
At the same time, the horrific violence of World War I led to a sense, both in China and in Europe, that the West did not have all of the answers.
As such, Chinese intellectuals in the 1910s and 1920s put forth differing ideas as for which direction Chinese society should go (some felt it needed to Westernize, others felt it needed to blend East and West, etc.), but in their arguments they repeatedly made reference to this idea that the East was static and the West was dynamic.
Here is a summary of how Du Yaquan 杜亜泉, the editor of an influential journal called the Eastern Miscellany (東方雜誌), described the differences between the supposed static East and the dynamic West in an article that he published in 1916 entitled “Static Civilizations and Dynamic Civilizations” (靜的文明與動的文明):
“[Static] civilizations (靜的文明 jing de wenming) are best represented by Eastern – particularly Chinese – cultures, and are characterized by fairly homogenous populations that emphasize nature over human agency, family over interactions with strangers, and minimizing conflict rather than accepting it as an inevitable part of existence.
“The milieu for the [dynamic] civilization (動的文明 dong de wenming) is the city, with its vibrant and complex atmosphere; for the [static] civilization, it is the countryside, with a comfortable and self-satisfied atmosphere.
“Du [Yaquan] believes these differences stem from a variety of distinct geographic and historical conditions that gave rise either to conflict and pluralism (in the Western case) or to self-sufficiency and homogeneity (the Chinese case).
“Because Western society developed on waterways, seacoasts, and peninsulas, for example, it tended toward heterogeneity, externally oriented struggles, and individualism.”
[Leigh Jenco, “Culture as History: Envisioning Change Across and Beyond ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ Civilizations in the May Fourth Era,” Twentieth Century China vol. 38, no. 1 (2013): 41.]
From Du Yaquan’s adoption of Western Orientalist ideas in the early twentieth century, let us now move to the final decade of the twentieth century and look at Trần Ngọc Thêm’s Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture (Tìm về bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam).
We saw in the previous post that Trần Ngọc Thêm used these exact same terms, “static” (tĩnh = jing 靜) and “dynamic” (động = dong 動), in reference to two main cultural patterns that he argues emerged in antiquity and continued to influence peoples lives over the centuries even after their societies transformed.
In particular, Trần Ngọc Thêm argues that the area extending from northern Africa across Europe and eastward through Siberia, which he calls the “Northwest,” is a region which was inhabited from a very early time by nomads who valued the dynamic (trọng động), whereas the area extending from somewhere around the Yangzi river and Japan southward into mainland Southeast Asia, or what he calls the “Southeast,” is a region that was inhabited from a very early time by agriculturalists who valued the static (trọng tĩnh).
Here is how Trần Ngọc Thêm describes the differences between these two groups.
Agriculturalists depend on nature (phụ thuộc nhiều vào thiên nhiên). They stay in a set place (ở cố định một chỗ) with their house and their crops, and therefore they have a sense of respect (có ý thức tôn trọng) for their surroundings and do not dare to compete with nature (không dám ganh đua với thiên nhiên).
Living in harmony with nature, according to Trần Ngọc Thêm is the desire of the static-valuing agriculturalists of the East.
As for nomads, if they don’t feel that one place is convenient then they will easily leave it and go to another. As such, on a psychological level they look down on nature (coi thường thiên nhiên).
Therefore, according to Trần Ngọc Thêm the dynamic cultures of the West always possess the wish to conquer and control nature (chinh phục và chế ngự thiên nhiên).
What is clear from this description is that Trần Ngọc Thêm portrays agriculturalists in a more positive light, but he says that there are good and bad points about both.
He says, for instance, that while respecting nature and living at ease is good, this also makes people become timid and hesitant (rụt rè, e ngại). And while looking down on nature is bad, this attitude nonetheless encourages people to bravely face nature (dũng cảm đối mặt với thiên nhiên) and it encourages science to develop (khuyến khích khoa học phất triển), but then again it also leads to the destruction of the environment (nhưng có cái dở là hủy hoại môi trường).
According to Trần Ngọc Thêm, yet another distinction between the dynamic-valuing nomads and the static-valuing agriculturalists is that the dynamism of nomadic culture led to societal changes.
He notes, for instance, that societies in the West changed from being nomadic to engaging in trade to establishing industries.
More specifically, Trần Ngọc Thêm argues that as Western nomads wandered around they noticed that things had different values in different places. This gave them the idea to combine commerce with their nomadic lifestyle. As they got better at commerce, they had more goods, and that required settling down in a place where they could have a warehouse, and that ultimately created cities, and from those cities industry eventually emerged.
What should be clear here is that this Northwest/Southeast, nomad/agriculturalist, dynamic/static binary that Trần Ngọc Thêm discusses is essentially the same binary that Chinese intellectuals like Du Yaquan discussed in the early twentieth century.
That binary was in turn based on an Orientalist/essentialist/racist view of the world which saw the West in positive terms as dynamic, and the East in negative terms as static.
Du Yaquan believed in this depiction of the world and wished to improve China’s position by blending some of the elements of Eastern and Western culture.
Trần Ngọc Thêm likewise believes in this binary, but he also inverts it, as he ultimately portrays the East as superior in many ways to the West.
Sure, perhaps the people in the East are “timid” and “hesitant,” and economically it might not have always been as prosperous as the West, but certainly the “respect for nature” of the agriculturalists in the East is more admirable than the “destruction of the environment” which the “dynamism” of the “nomad-origin culture” is responsible for creating.
This is all incredibly problematic.
Inverting an essentialist/racist concept does not change concept from continuing to be essentialist/racist. So in other words, by using the concepts of “static” and “dynamic” to describe entire cultures, Trần Ngọc Thêm is employing nineteenth-century Orientalist/essentialist/racist ideas to educate people in the twenty first century.
The use of binary categories like these to describe entire societies was discredited in Anglo-European academia decades ago and is yet again another sign of how weak and out-of-touch with the world the scholarship in this book is.
However, to get back to the discussion of the ways in which Trần Ngọc Thêm’s ideas differ from those of people like Du Yaquan in the early twentieth century is that even though Trần Ngọc Thêm employs the same nineteenth-century Orientalist binary categories in his discussion as Du Yaquan did, whereas Du Yaquan saw China as the prime example of a static Eastern culture, it is clear that Trần Ngọc Thêm sees areas further to the south as the best example of the true static Eastern culture.
We can get a sense of this from a comment that Trần Ngọc Thêm makes about a theory that Chinese scholar Feng Youlan once came up with. Feng Youlan, echoing a point that Du Yaquan made above, once argued that the contrast between the West and the East can be seen as a contrast between maritime-oriented and continental-oriented societies (yes, that’s right, another essentialist binary category).
According to Feng Youlan, Western countries were maritime-oriented and this led to an emphasis on trade, whereas China had historically been continental-oriented.
Trần Ngọc Thêm, however, disagrees with this by stating that Vietnam has a long coastline but has historically not been good at trade, whereas China has both land and coasts and has a long history of trading.
The reason for this, according to Trần Ngọc Thêm, is that there is not an exact divide between the Northwest culture of valuing the dynamic and the Southeast culture of valuing the static. Instead, these values are spread across a spectrum that gradually changes from the dynamic to the static somewhere in the middle of China. . . so at least some people in China are “dynamic.”
If we were to map all of these ideas out, the map might look something like the map above.
While, according to Trần Ngọc Thêm (as we saw in the first post), the world is divided into two main races (a Western and an Eastern one), he argues that it is also divided between peoples who are influenced by the ancient cultures of agriculturalists (who are static) and nomads (who are dynamic).
As we started to see above, people who are static agriculturalists are presented in a positive light in Trần Ngọc Thêm’s book. We will see this even more clearly later.
And if you look at the map, the place where the true static agriculturalists live is centered right around the area where. . . the Việt live.
This is how the argument for Việt supremacy is created. You take nineteenth-century Orientalist/essentialist/racist ideas and invert them to make a certain population look good, and then. . . you declare that this is all reflected in the Yijing.
Having argued, by distorting the ideas of Soviet ethnologist Nikolai Nikolaevich Cheboksarov, that humankind was divided into two main racial groups in the early Paleolithic that then led to the emergence of two main cultures in the world, in the East and the West, Trần Ngọc Thêm then goes on to talk about how the natural world further shaped these two cultural traditions.
So from a racialized explanation of human society, we move on now to environmental determinism.
Trần Ngọc Thêm argues that the environment that the people in the East lived in was warm with lots of rain which created large rivers with prosperous deltas. The environment in the West, meanwhile, was cold and dry and was not suitable for the growth of vegetation. The only places where there was vegetation was in vast grasslands.
Such a depiction of environmental differences can make one wonder what “East” and what “West” Trần Ngọc Thêm is talking about. However, he explains clearly that he sees an environmental line dividing the East and the West running from Egypt toward the northeast and including Siberia, so that “the West” includes Africa, Europe, Central Asia and Siberia while “the East” includes India, southern China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Trần Ngọc Thêm argues therefore that it is more accurate to refer to this division as one between the “Northwest” and the “Southeast.”
This division Africa/Eurasia into two parts does not match the fundamental racial division that Trần Ngọc Thêm said humankind is divided between. That division placed Europe and Africa in the West and all of Asia, from Siberia southward in the East.
This, however, is where his ideas about environmental determinism blend with his racialization of human societies, and is a point that we will return to below.
First let us look at how Trần Ngọc Thêm characterizes the kinds of cultures that these two different environmental settings help create.
The environment in the Southeast was conducive for cultivation, and the cultivation economy (kinh tế trồng trọt) required that one lived a settled lifestyle (sống định cư). The people there had to wait for the harvest to ripen, and in the case of some trees, they had to wait for years for them to bear fruit.
The environment in the Northwest, on the other hand, was more suitable for animal husbandry (chăn nuôi). This created a different lifestyle, one where people lived as nomads (dân du mục) whose wealth took the form of domesticated animals (gia súc).
Domesticated animals eat grass, and unlike trees, they do not stay in one place. They do not wait for the grass to grow. They move on to look for more grass, and their owners follow them.
Nomads therefore live a shifting lifestyle (sống du cư) as they wander about (lang thang).
After delineating these two cultural traditions, Trần Ngọc Thêm then goes on to provide “evidence” for the nomadic essence of Northwestern culture.
He states, for instance, that the Bible mentions sheep 5,000 times. . . Yes, the Bible does mention sheep a lot, but in looking this up, it looks like it is more like 500 times, or perhaps less.
Trần Ngọc Thêm also cites a 1972 work by Bửu Dưỡng called the History of Humanity (Lịch sử nhân loại), which I would guess must be a translation of an earlier book that was written in either French or English, to argue that “in the past, Greeks just raised goats and sheep, very few people engaged in agriculture, most were concerned with shepherding and navigation.”
He then cites a 1990 Vietnamese translation of the first volume (published in 1935) in Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization series to note about ancient Greece that “in Homer’s days men and things were valued in terms of cattle: the armor of Diomedes was worth nine head of cattle, a skilful slave was worth four. The Romans used kindred words pecus and pecunia for cattle and money, and placed the image of an ox upon their early coins.” (pg. 16)
And then finally, Trần Ngọc Thêm also cites a Vietnamese translation of a work by Soviet scholar Fedor Polyanski to argue that people like Julius Caesar and Roman historian Tacitus had described Germanic tribes as migratory and valuing their domestic animals.
Trần Ngọc Thêm does not provide similar “evidence” for the agricultural lifestyle of people in the Southeast during this same period of early history.
Instead, he simply declares that it is clear that two types of culture emerged in tandem with these two different types of economies.
Agricultural culture was concerned with creating a stable and enduring lifestyle (một cuộc sống ổn định lâu dài) with no disturbances (không xáo trộn) and was a culture in which people valued the static (trọng tĩnh).
Nomadic culture was concerned with making sure that the group could periodically move as efficiently as possible and was a culture in which people valued the dynamic (trọng động).
Trần Ngọc Thêm then goes on to say that no matter at what stage of civilization cultures today might be at (agricultural, industrial or post-industrial), they cannot escape the two basic cultural forms of valuing the static or valuing the dynamic.
Trần Ngọc Thêm argues further that given that these two cultural forms emerge from two separate sources, we can call them the “agricultural origin” (gốc nông nghiệp) culture and the “nomadic origin” (gốc du mục) culture.
[Các nền văn hóa hiện đại dù đang thuộc giai đoạn văn minh nào (nông nghiệp, công nghiệp, hay thậm chí hậu công nghiệp) cũng đều không thoát ra ngoài hai loại hình cơ bản là TRỌNG TĨNH và TRỌNG ĐỘNG mà căn cứ theo nguồn gốc thì có thể gọi chúng là các loại hình văn hóa GỐC NÔNG NGHIỆP và GỐC DU MỤC.]
Finally, Trần Ngọc Thêm notes further that the classic examples of the type of culture that values the static can be found in the East, and the classic examples of the type of culture that values the dynamic can be found in the West.
It is interesting that Trần Ngọc Thêm argues that societies can be at different stages of civilization but cannot escape the deep imprint of an original culture, because this is exactly the opposite of what Will Durant argues in the 1935 book that Trần Ngọc Thêm cites.
Yes, Durant indeed says that “in Homer’s days men and things were valued in terms of cattle,” but he then says later in the same paragraph that “When metals were mined they slowly replaced other articles as standards of value.”
Durant also says in that same paragraph that “The advance from token goods to a metallic currency does not seem to have been made by primitive men; it was left for the historic civilizations to invent coinage and credit, and so, by further facilitating the exchange of surpluses, to increase again the wealth and comfort of man.”
In other words, Durant’s point in mentioning the importance of cattle during Homer’s time was to show that this practice changed over time. And what is more, he argued that such changes were universal. This was “the story of civilization” that he sought to tell.
If we take a step back and think about what this all means, we can see that the basic point that Trần Ngọc Thêm is making is that the environments that people lived in way back in antiquity, together with the economic practices that living in those environments facilitated, left an imprint on early human societies that is so deep that it has endured through time.
Let us now ask ourselves: Where does this idea come from? What other scholars think this way about human beings and human history? And how do those scholars document their ideas?
To be honest, I am unaware of any scholars who have made a point like this one in decades. If we were to go back to Nazi Germany or fascist Thailand in the 1930s I’m sure we could probably find some similar ideas, but certainly no anthropologist or historian in the 1990s when this book was first published thought that way.
Even Will Durant, a popular writer in the 1930s rather than an academic, did not think this way.
So there is a fundamental problem with the scholarship here. Trần Ngọc Thêm puts forth an idea that is undocumented and which no scholars at the time he wrote his book believed, and then he cites phrases from books that express the opposite ideas of his own in order to “support” his ideas. . .
This is not how scholarship is produced. To produce scholarship one has to first understand what other scholars have said and to know what the “state of the field” is or what the most up-to-date views and ideas are.
You can of course challenge the ideas of others. But in order to do that you have to first understand what the ideas of others are, and then of course you have to have the evidence to back up your ideas.
In this book, Trần Ngọc Thêm does not know the state of the field, he does not document his own ideas, and he does not understand the texts that he does cite.
In other words, in terms of scholarship, this book is an unmitigated disaster.
But let us put that aside and take another step back and think about this issue of the supposed contrast between agricultural and nomadic lifestyles. For us to talk about such a contrast, we first have to look at how and when people started to engage in agriculture.
That is of course a topic that has been debated extensively and continues to be debated. However, one aspect of that transition that has been widely accepted for decades (certainly it was common sense in the 1990s when Trần Ngọc Thêm was writing his book) is that there was not a clean and immediate change from hunting and gathering to engaging in agriculture.
Instead, hunters and gathers and nomads all engaged in agricultural practices (they would plant seeds in one place and then return to that area later in the year to harvest the crop), and settled agriculturalists hunted and herded animals.
Therefore, even if Trần Ngọc Thêm’s idea that the environment and economic lifestyle in antiquity left a deep cultural imprint on human societies were true, we still wouldn’t be able to talk about a dichotomy between agricultural and nomadic societies because there is no evidence that such a clear dichotomy ever existed in antiquity.
Nor could we make this distinction for the societies that Trần Ngọc Thêm provided “evidence” for – the world of the ancient Hebrews in the Bible, the world of the Greeks during the time of Homer, and the world of the Germanic tribes during the time of the Roman empire – as all of these peoples lived in societies with “mixed economies” that combined agriculture with hunting and herding.
As such, this idea that there is an ancient cultural dichotomy that has left a deep imprint is a double lie: no such dichotomy ever existed in antiquity and there is no evidence that a cultural imprint from antiquity can endure through time.
If I’m wrong about any of this, please point me to the scholars who have published peer-reviewed works that counter these ideas. I will be more than happy to read them.
In any case, Trần Ngọc Thêm takes this supposed dichotomy between agriculturalists and nomads much further, and we’ll continue the discussion in the next post.