In his Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present, Ben Kiernan argues that in the early history of Vietnam there were two important migrations of peoples into the Red River Delta.
“By the time of the classical Chinese contact with northern Việt Nam, the early ethnolinguistic pattern there had been transformed by two external influences from the south and north, from mainland Southeast Asia and southeast China.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, French missionaries, military officials and scholars all asked questions about the Vietnamese that the Vietnamese had never asked themselves: Who are these people? Where do they come from? What race do they belong to? What language family does their language belong to? etc.
By that time Vietnamese had of course already compiled texts about the history of their land, but those texts did not directly answer these questions. Instead, they were concerned with tracing a political genealogy that linked various rulers and dynasties together.
In her Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BC-50 CE, historian Erica Brindley opens the book with a chapter entitled “Who were the Yue”?
That may seem like an easy question to answer given that starting from the final centuries of the first millennium BCE one can find many references in Chinese sources to “Yue” 越/粵 peoples who lived to their south, peoples who were sometimes also collectively referred to as the “Bai-yue” 百越/百粵 or “Hundred Yue.” So surely it must be possible to go through those sources and get a sense of who those people were and to piece together some of their history.
In actuality, however, that is not the case, and in this chapter Brindley clearly documents how little we can actually determine with certainty about the Yue from early Chinese texts.
In the first millennium BC, “Chinese” writers recorded information about various peoples who lived to their south. These people were called by various names such as Ou, Luo, Western Ou, and Ouluo. At other times more generic terms were used like a term meaning “savages” – Manyi .
Then finally another common term that was used was “Yue” 越/粵, or more generally, the “Hundred Yue” (Baiyue 百越/百粵).
These terms are problematic because there is no evidence that the peoples that Chinese authors identified by these names actually referred to themselves by these names.
This then leads to an important question: What criteria did Chinese authors use to distinguish one group from another? Was it geography? Culture? Language? Ethnicity?
The above video is meant to introduce a new book – Erica Fox Brindley’s Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BCE-50 CE (Cambridge, 2015) – but it is also an audio-visual reflection on how scholarship and academic ideas change and develop over time.
As I see it, Ancient China and the Yue is the best study to date on the Yue/Việt, the earliest known inhabitants of the area of what is today southern China and northern Vietnam.
This books is good in that it synthesizes, and builds upon, existing scholarship, but it is also good in that, unlike some earlier scholarship, it tries to avoid supporting any agenda or politics, and merely endeavors to put forth a rational argument about the past.
That said, historians are always influenced to some extent by their times and their societies. And the general public can adopt and transform ideas from the academic world. Much of this can only be seen clearly once we can stand at a distance and look back at an earlier era.
This video is meant to be a reflection on these topics. It recalls how the field of Southeast Asian history in the US began in the post-World War II era with European scholars lecturing at American universities, and how the identity politics of the 1960s and 1970s both advanced and distorted scholarship on Southeast Asia.
And as for what came after that. . . well that’s hard to say, as we probably do not have enough distance to view it clearly yet, but it did lead to the solid study that we can enjoy today: Ancient China and the Yue.