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In this book I combine a chronological political narrative, expositions of inter- pretive themes, and discussions of geography, education, ideology, language,  literature, religion, society, government, economy, and warfare. Information surviving from pre-modern times is often very sparse, which is likely to disap- point the thirst of some readers for more knowledge than is available. I have  sought to avoid excessive speculation or large generalizations that lack plausible evidence. At the same time I have endeavored to rise above a tedious account of random events by charting a narrative to stimulate the imagination, making thought about the past possible. I have excluded a mass of detail and have aspired toward coherence sufficient to satisfy both those who prefer to think diachronically across time and those who prefer to think synchronically with  topics. An introductory survey, this book provides a point of entry into Vietnam- ese history and does not excavate the historiography from which my ideas have  emerged. It aspires to provide a sketch of the Vietnamese past using political, administrative, economic, and cultural information.

I have given much attention to simply sorting out a basic sequence of events because this has never yet been done with the detail and method enabled by surviving evidence and recent scholarship. Although many detailed studies exist in Vietnamese, and to some extent in Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and French, English-language writings have for the most part referred to the pre-modern past with vast clichés and to modern times with relatively narrowly focused narratives that follow lines of argument about interpretive themes fundamentally unrelated to the Vietnamese. I have endeavored to provide as much opportunity as possible for readers to enter the past and to see events from the perspective of those who lived them or who recorded them. If we imagine the past with the dynamism of possibility with which it was lived, we can glimpse it looking back at us with the eyes of aspiration that each human life and each generation have aimed at the future.

The Vietnamese past is full of personalities and events both obscure and famous, and often the obscure have had greater effect upon the direction of culture, society, and politics than have the famous. I have tried to move beyond the propaganda of memory and memorializing to display a thicker layer of information that has accumulated about people and events. My purpose in doing so is to evoke a sense of the past as alive in its own time.

Because much of what survives from the past concerns the vicissitudes of political authority, some readers may view this as a “kings and battles” approach, which I believe would be a superficial impression, for I have  endeavored to give serious attention to geographical contexts, language, litera- ture, education, ideology, religion, ethnic and social formations, institutional  developments, agrarian policies, trade, and commerce. Nevertheless, I have striven to sort out the political and military events because in the English language there has not yet been a sustained engagement with the history of Vietnamese efforts to structure authority and negotiate change.

Some readers will be disappointed by the lack of footnotes. The decision to avoid marking the text with notes was made out of consideration for the  intended audience and from an expectation that readers looking for documenta- tion can consult the bibliographic essays. I have done my best to stay close to the  sources. There were times when I was tempted by an interesting thought toward an interpretation that in the end had to be discarded because the evidence was insufficient to bear its weight. I have indicated places where the evidence is too problematic to sustain any definite assertion. I am sure to have made errors and can do no more than to trust that other scholars will find them.

In this book, I have taken a pragmatic approach to the great morass of toponyms that have accumulated from past to present. The maps are provided as references for reading the book and do not indicate names and jurisdictions in their historical specificity. Places in the book have been known by various names during the two  thousand years covered by historical records, and these names often covered differ- ent or overlapping territories at different times. Consequently, I have used a mix of  historical and modern names, noting when I am using a modern name anachronis- tically for the sake of clarity. As much as possible, my aim has been to facilitate a  narrative without digressions into the complexities and conundrums of historical geography, which require a separate study.

For example, the name Hanoi does not date before the nineteenth century. During the past millennium and a half, this place has been an administrative and dynastic center known by several names, the most prominent being Dai La, Thang Long, Dong Kinh, and Ke Cho. I have used these names in their historical  contexts while at times also using Hanoi when doing so solved rhetorical prob- lems, enhanced clarity, and seemed unobjectionable. In general, I have used  modern names when historical names would introduce contextual inaccuracies and excessive explanatory asides.

The maps do not indicate jurisdictional boundaries for provinces and districts because that would introduce two unnecessary problems. First of all, the maps do not show every toponym but only those that come into the narrative; since we cannot begin to draw some boundaries without ending up by drawing all of  them, we would need additional names that would clutter the maps with infor- mation of no use for the narrative. Also, since boundaries change and can be  known but approximately, the project of sorting them out for each historical era, along with all the complexities and conundrums arising when doing that, is a task for a different, more specialized, kind of book.

I have endeavored to provide enough dates to maintain a sense of diachronic orientation but without cluttering the narrative with unnecessary information. The tables contain reign dates for rulers, but these are not unproblematic, particularly when times of transition occur near the end or the beginning of years as counted according to different calendars and historiographical rules. Vietnamese texts follow the lunar calendar in which the twelfth lunar month overlaps with the first solar month of the calendar currently in general usage. Furthermore, Vietnamese historians assigned whole years to rulers so that the remainder of a year in which a ruler died was counted in the reign of the deceased ruler and the successor’s reign was considered to officially start only at the beginning of the next year. In some cases, sources provide different dates for the death of a ruler and the accession of the successor, or rulers were deposed so their death dates and the end of their reigns do not coincide, or the reigns of rival or coterminous rulers overlap, or there may be a gap between one ruler and another during times of dynastic turmoil or change. As a consequence of these considerations, readers will find a variety of dates in different books. Rather than drawing attention to these problems and analyzing them, I have followed a policy that privileges the solar calendar without the strictness and precision that a detailed study of dating problems deserves, seeking instead to provide dates that maximize the integrity and the readability of the narrative while remaining essentially faithful to a careful study of surviving sources.

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