Racism in Vietnamese Scholarship (Part 3)

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.

fyl ftn

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.

That is the topic that we will turn to next.