Nguyen Phuc Khoat, the first southern king

01

Dec
2021

Vantage

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Vietnamese scholars have endeavored to project a sense of national identity back into the past as far as possible. In the modern period, it became common for Vietnamese to affirm a national history going back four thousand years to when archaeologists date artifacts that they have assembled and categorized under the name of Phung Nguyen Culture. Phung Nguyen is defined as a late stone and   early bronze culture that represents a level of archaeological uniformity in the Red River Plain that did not previously exist. Many Vietnamese scholars are inclined to draw a line of continuity in cultural, and even ethno-linguistic,  development from Phung Nguyen to modern Vietnam. This inclination, how- ever, makes an exuberant use of evidence.

The search for origins in the distant past is a common intellectual endeavor among peoples in nearly all times and places. For example, historians at royal courts in northern Vietnam during the thirteenth and the fifteenth centuries were concerned to affirm their status in reference to rampant northern empires, the Yuan and the Ming. They did this not only by culling references from classical Chinese texts about what they imagined to have been their ancestors in antiquity but also by constructing a “southern” history for themselves that is largely parallel with and a response to “northern” imperial history. The urge for connections with the past is a means of self-affirmation, not a scholarly endeavor.

What we can know about the past with some degree of confidence is a meager residue of what remains from an ongoing process of accumulation and attrition, of gain and loss, of putting together and tossing away, a process in which all generations participate. Human efforts to remain oriented amidst change can take forms between the extremes of denying change and of seeking change. Historians are not immune to the implications of such efforts, and they do not agree on the appropriate pose to assume toward change in wielding the rhetoric of their craft. I believe that the task of historical scholarship is to look at what survives from the past as coming from people with their own existence, not as evidence of people who attain significance primarily as precursors of people today. The Vietnamese past does not display an internal logic of development leading to the present. Rather, it reveals a series of experiments designed by successive generations as solutions to perennial problems of social and political organization. These experiments have failed, have reached an impasse, or have been overcome by the possibilities or the violence of larger contexts. None has been a final solution. Vietnamese history is a convenient name for what can be known about a certain aspect of the past. What makes it Vietnamese is that the events of which it is comprised took place in what we now call the country of Vietnam and that certain versions of it have been taught as a common memory to generations of  people who speak the Vietnamese language, thereby inducing a sense of owner- ship. I find interest in the Vietnamese past not because it is Vietnamese but  because it is about how human society has been organized and governed during many centuries on the edge of an empire.

Vietnamese history as we know it today could not exist without Chinese history. The manner in which Vietnamese history overlaps with and is A history of the Vietnamese distinguished from Chinese history presents a singular example of experience in organizing and governing human society within the orbit of Sinic civilization that can be compared with Korean history and Japanese history. Such a comparison is not the purpose of this book. The purpose of this book is to present a narrative of current scholarship on Vietnamese history that is accessible to students and general readers. But, this book is also written with an awareness of comparative possibilities within the academic jurisdiction of East Asia.

Vietnamese history can also be viewed in a Southeast Asian comparative context. The kingdom of Dai Viet that existed in Vietnam from the eleventh to  the fourteenth centuries was contemporary with other major kingdoms in main- land Southeast Asia at Angkor (Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand) and at Pagan  (Burma). Also, the southward expansion of the Burmese and Siamese peoples from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries is seemingly parallel with a  similar movement of Vietnamese peoples at the same time. However, the dispar- ity in surviving evidence, the great differences in culture and politics, and the  exceptional imperatives of the Sino-Vietnamese relationship are obstacles to meaningful comparisons.

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