Racism in Vietnamese Scholarship (Part 2)

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.

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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.