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Imagining the Nation in Twentieth Century Vietnam

Liam C. Kelley Presented at the 4th Engaging With Vietnam: An Interdisciplinary Dialogue Conference in Honolulu, HI on 8 November 2012.


[slide] Earlier this week, the renowned historian Benedict Anderson gave a speech right here in this same room in which he talked about nationalism and human consciousness. He made the point that there have only been a few times in human history when peoples consciousness has changed so dramatically that they have become unable to comprehend how people who lived before them thought. One such time was when people converted to a world religion. Once people convert to Christianity, for instance, they no longer thought like their pre-Christian ancestors, nor can they even really comprehend how their ancestors had thought. Their consciousness had changed.

Benedict Anderson went on to talk about another way that human consciousness has changed, and that is through the adoption of all of the ideas that accompanied the rise of nationalism. Once it became common sense for people to view themselves as part of a nation, it became largely impossible for them to see the world in any other way, and they became incapable of understanding how their ancestors had thought.

This transformation in consciousness that came with the adoption of a nationalist mindset is a phenomenon that took place first in the West, and then was replicated in other parts of the world. In Vietnam, the transformation began in the early twentieth century, and

within about a generation it was complete, such that by the 1920s, many Vietnamese no longer thought like their ancestors had for centuries, nor could they even comprehend anymore, how their ancestors had thought.

[slide] What I would like to do today is to look at this moment in the early twentieth century when nationalist ideas were first expressed by Vietnamese intellectuals, and when consciousness changed. I strongly feel that if one does not understand what happened in the early twentieth century, then one cannot understand any period of Vietnamese history because the early twentieth century was a time when everything changed. Indeed, it was one of these rare moments when consciousness changed, and it eventually changed so thoroughly, that the people who have lived after that point have largely lost the ability to think like those who lived before it.

This transformation is particularly evident in historical writings from the period. In the early twentieth century, Vietnamese reformist intellectuals engaged with ideas from the outside world and then produced numerous works about history that constituted a radical change in the way that history was written. Prior to the twentieth century, Vietnamese historians had not written about Vietnam or the Vietnamese, but instead, they had written about monarchs. However, with the adoption of nationalist ideas from the West, along with ideas about race and evolution, this all changed.

[slide] We can see this change immediately in the vocabulary in the writings from the early twentieth century, as they are filled with such new terms as nation/nationality (dn

tc), fatherland (t quc), citizen (quc dn), civilized (vn minh), enlightened (khai ha), evolve (tin ha), patriotism (i quc tm), competition (cnh tranh), and race (chng tc). All of these were new concepts that were introduced from the West, and they all played a role in transforming the consciousness of Vietnamese.

This intellectual transformation that took place in Vietnam in the early twentieth century as people came to think in nationalist terms was a transformation that of course had taken place in the West not long before that time. So this change of consciousness is not something unique to Vietnam. It has happened virtually everywhere.

[slide] What is somewhat unique to Vietnam is the fact that this way of thinking is still largely upheld, whereas it has changed in other parts of the world. One could say that people like Benedict Anderson have helped academics in many countries of the world change their consciousness yet again as today among many people in the international community of scholars, it is common sense that nations are imagined communities and that they are very recently imagined communities.

Therefore, after discussing this intellectual transformation that took place in the early twentieth century, I will end this presentation by offering some reflections on the state of the historical profession in Vietnam today.

The Nation

[slide] To understand how ideas about certain aspects of Vietnamese history came to be viewed differently in the twentieth century by Vietnamese historians, ideally we need to first get a sense of what traditional historiography was like. For this presentation, however, there is not enough time to do that. Suffice it to say that histories written before the twentieth century were written as moral guides for monarchs and the officials who served them.

In the early twentieth century, however, Vietnamese scholars began to think about the past in new ways, after learning about how Westerners thought and wrote about history. At that point in time, historical writing in many countries in the West was focusing on the nation, rather than the monarch. What is more, historians in the West at the time were also influenced by ideas from evolutionary theory and Social Darwinism, and sought to present their nations as historically succeeding in the evolutionary progress of societies.

Reformist Vietnamese intellectuals at the turn of the twentieth century began to employ some of these ideas to re-conceptualize and re-write the history of their land.

These writings that first introduced these new ideas, and this new way of thinking, were mainly written in classical Chinese, as it was only in the 1920s that modern Vietnamese written in the Romanized script started to significantly replace the use of classical Chinese in the writing of history.

This linguistic change, from classical Chinese to modern Vietnamese, is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the nationalist mindset is still dominant in Vietnamese historiography, as the majority of historians in Vietnam simply cannot read these writings from the early twentieth century that reveal the emergence of nationalist thought.

In any case, out of all of the new ideas that were introduced in these works, the idea of the nation was undoubtedly the most important and influential. In the early twentieth century, Vietnamese writers made it clear that the concept of the nation was not a familiar one to many people in their land, and that getting people to understand this concept would take effort, and would have to be done through education. To quote Hong o Thnh, the compiler of a new history text in 1906:

When people reach the age of seven and enter primary schools, they should be made to learn the nations literature, and its history. The same should be true for women, for this is how we can get the word, nation [quc gia], imprinted in each persons brain. It must be made firm there so that it can not move; entwined so that it can not come loose. Thereupon they will view the nations territory as their own property, and will treat their countrymen as compatriots.1

Hong o Thnh, Vit s tn c ton bin [Complete Compilation of the New Testament of Vit History], (1906), A. 1507., t 1a-1b.

As for why this concept had been unknown, intellectuals in the early twentieth century blamed the civil service examination system (khoa c), as the curriculum for the exams did not include the history of their land, but only that of the North or the Northern kingdom, as the place that we today call China was commonly referred to by Vietnamese scholars at that time.

This created a skewed or unbalanced worldview. As Nguyn Dynasty official, Hong Cao Khi, described what those who over the centuries had studied for the civil service exams knew, he stated,

They knew about Han [Gao]zu and Tang [Taizong], but did not know that inh Tin Hong and L Thi T had served as sovereigns. They knew about Kongming [i.e., Zhuge Liang] and Di Renjie, but did not know that T Hin Thnh and Trn Quc Tun had served as officials. They knew about Mount Tais height and the Yellow Rivers depth, but did not know where the mountain artery for Mount Tn Vin came from, or where the Mekong River originated. This thus caused the people of our kingdom to follow the customs of other people. Be it caps, weddings, funerals or sacrifices, there was nothing which was not carried out in imitation of the Middle Kingdom.2

Hong Cao Khi, Vit s yu [Summary of Vit History], (1914), R. 173, inh a-b.

In other words, writers in the early twentieth century argued that by only learning about the North, people in the past had failed to learn about their own land, and as a result, they did not have a clear sense that they constituted a separate nation. Therefore, in order to get the idea of the nation imprinted in peoples brains, it was necessary for them to first learn the history of their nation, something which they could not do before that point.

The Race

So in the early twentieth century, there was a deliberate effort to separate in peoples minds the two places that we today refer to as Vietnam and China to get people to see their land as a nation. At the same time, there were attempts to get people to see themselves as part of a race, another new concept from the West.

When Vietnamese intellectuals in the early twentieth century began to write about race, the idea of a larger Yellow Race was already in circulation, and Vietnamese writers connected their own people to that category. One of the earliest was a scholar by the name of Ng Gip u who wrote about lineage-types (tc loi) in a 1911 history text entitled Summary of Vit History for Secondary Schools (Trung hc Vit s tot yu). There he argues that in distant antiquity the people in the region were all part of the Yellow Race/Lineage (Hong tc), but that they were formed into various groups, such as the Man, Liu, Thi and Cham. These are all terms which the ruling Vit elite in the nineteenth and early twentieth century used to refer to what we would today call minorities in their realm. At that time Ng Gip u wrote his history, these peoples

lived mainly in mountainous regions, and he argued that they had been historically driven into remote areas as migrants moved into the region from the north.

Here Ng Gip u provides a long list of historical episodes that make reference to people whom we would today refer to as Chinese having migrated into the area of what is today Vietnam. From convicts sent by the Qin Dynasty to garrison the region, to scholars that fled unrest at the end of the Han, to the officials, soldiers and people [who] all came from the North from the Jin through the Tang, to the various Ming loyalists who arrived when that dynasty fell to the Qing, Ng Gip u points to close to two millennia of migration southward of people whom he refers to as Hoa people (Hoa nhn), a term which today is often translated as Chinese. As Ng Gip u stated, The population of Hoa people living in the Southern Land (Nam th) expanded daily, and gradually filled to capacity, such that the original inhabitants - the Man, Liu, Thi and Cham - were forced into the hills.

From this description it looks like Ng Gip u was arguing that the Vietnamese were Hoa people, or what we would today call Chinese. However, at the end of this section of his book he states that In examining those who have the ability to demonstrate their greatness in the kingdom by means of literary matters and martial achievements, [9b] they are generally those of Hoa descent, (9a-9b) thereby suggesting that the elite were by blood different from the common people.

Other writers were more explicit. In an article entitled An Examination of Vit History (Vit s kho) that appeared in both classical Chinese and modern Vietnamese in 1918 in the journal Nam Phong, a scholar by the name of Dng B Trc, one of the main contributors to this famous and influential journal, discussed this same information about various people migrating southward over the centuries, and then concluded by stating that there is no doubt but that our countrys race was assimilated into the Han race ( ).

Competition and Martial Achievements

So as Vietnamese intellectuals in the early twentieth century attempted to understand their people in racial terms, they did so by seeing themselves as the same as the Hoa or Han, in other words, the same as the people who lived to their north. They did this in part because they had historical evidence of the movement of people southward, but also because the people to their north were powerful, and the racial ideas that Vietnamese intellectuals learned about in the early twentieth century were combined with ideas from Social Darwinism about the competition between societies or races. In such a world, it was essential to be strong, and as Vietnamese scholars looked back into their history, they saw strength in their destruction of a kingdom that was long a rival, the Kingdom of Champa.

For instance, a work entitled Tales of the Southern Kingdoms Great Events (Nam Quc giai s truyn) that was published by the ng Kinh Free School, a reformist school that

opened in 1907, has a section on Exterminating Champa (, Dit Chim Thnh) that praises the defeat of the Cham, the southern neighbors of the Vietnamese, in an eleventh-century battle by the monarch, L Thi Tng.

Then in an essay entitled Vit Nams Glorious History (Vit Nam quang vinh chi lch s ) published in 1922 in Nam Phong, a scholar by the name of L D found glory in Vietnams past in two ways. The first is that the land was never annexed by the Middle Kingdom, and the second was that the Vietnamese had destroyed the Kingdom of Champa and annexed it. L D notes that when Vit Nam was established in the first millennium BC, its territory was no bigger than that of a province in the Middle Kingdom. Nonetheless, Vit Nam was able to expand from its tiny land and to encompass the area of several kingdoms. Is that not the most glorious and remarkable of achievements? L D rhetorically asks.

L D then goes on to discuss some of the kingdoms that Vit Nam came to annex. He starts with Champa (Chim Thnh) and notes that the area of this kingdom was not small. He then mentions a few key moments in the gradual conquest and annexation of Champa over a roughly 500-year period from 1044 to 1691. L D then concludes this passage by declaring that The final day of the extermination of the kingdom of Champa is the day of commemoration for the completion of the martial achievements of Our Vit.

And while L D did not discuss here who the Vit were in racial terms, others connected their ability to expand southward with their racial core. Dng B Trc, in the


1918 essay mentioned above, made it clear that this southern expansion was possible because this was the work of what he referred to as our Han race (Hn tc ta) in the Vietnamese version, and the glorious Han race (ng ng Hn tc) in the classical Chinese version.

The 1920s-1940s

So after several centuries of writing history to record the moral strengths and weaknesses of monarchs, Vietnamese historians adopted radically new ideas in the early twentieth century. They began to focus on the nation instead of the monarch. They also sought to determine the race of the nation, and they sought to demonstrate that their race and nation would not be exterminated in the competition between races by glorifying their own extermination of the Cham, an act that was made possible in part because they were part of the great Han Race.

One issue that they did not discuss much about was antiquity. Pre-twentieth century Vietnamese histories


So today Vietnamese history is viewed not only in dramatically different terms from the time before the twentieth century, but it is also very differently from the way it was in the


early twentieth century when the nationalist transformation in consciousness first led historians to conceive of Vietnamese history in new ways.

That said, it is debatable whether the current way in which certain aspects of Vietnamese history is viewed can be considered an improvement in our knowledge of the past, or a distortion caused by political and emotional needs.

The antiquity of the Vietnamese nation has been proven by politics, not by scholarship.

The lack of recognition of Vietnamese aggression and destruction in their southward expansion is a politically determined perspective, not one based on historical evidence.

Finally, the historical relationship with that land to the north has been so politicized that it has become virtually impossible for anyone to say anything nuanced about the past.


The result of all of this is that a century of Vietnamese historical scholarship has resulted in the creation of intellectual boundaries that have largely been politically and emotionally determined. While it is completely understandable why this initially happened, now that Vietnamese wish to engage with the world, and the world wishes to engage with Vietnam, these politically and emotionally determined boundaries of knowledge hinder true engagement from taking place.


Here it is interesting to look back at the early twentieth century, Vietnamese intellectuals truly engaged with ideas from the outside world at that time. Today we may not like their ideas about race and their glorification of conquest, but those were cutting-edge ideas for the time, and those were international concepts. What is also interesting is that their evidence had historical validity to it.

Today ideas of race are not supported, but the politically-charged ideas about the relationship between the Vietnamese and the Chinese has great difficultly dealing with the fact that countless Chinese are part of the Vietnamese nation. Scholars in the early twentieth century did not have trouble with this. Their view of this situation may have been too simplistic, but they didnt avoid it.

Scholars in the early twentieth century also did not avoid the fact that the Vietnamese had historically conquered and destroyed the worlds of others. Their glorification of these episodes may have been excessive, but again, they did not avoid this history.

Finally, the issue of ancient history is yet another topic where scholars in the early twentieth century were likely closer to the truth.



In conclusion, I have to admit that when I listened to Benedict Anderson speak here a few days ago, I was bored, as I did not find that he had said much that was new. Nonetheless, the points he made about transformations in consciousness are ones that all these many years after he first discussed them in Imagined Communities have still not been examined considered when examining the past of people like the Vietnamese. However, the Vietnamese have gone through tremendous changes and their consciousness has changed as well.