Saturday, April 8, 2017

Ben Kiernan's "Việt Nam"

Ben Kiernan is the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History and Professor of International and Area Studies at Yale University, where he founded the Cambodian Genocide Program and the Genocide Studies Program. He is the author of numerous books including The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979 and Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur.

Kiernan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Việt Nam: A History from Earliest Times to the Present, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Việt Nam addresses two key issues in the book. First, it describes Vietnamese relations with imperial China to the north and with neighboring realms to the south, in what is now Southeast Asia. Second, it highlights the environmental differences that enlivened those relations, encouraging lucrative trade and aggressive conquests. The mid-first millennium saw imperial weakness in China, and tense relations between its then frontier provinces – Jiaozhi and Jiuzhen – that now constitute north Việt Nam, and their southern neighbors: Linyi – now central Việt Nam, and Funan – later part of Cambodia, now Việt Nam’s Mekong delta.

These early interactions with realms to the north and south did not necessarily produce a sense of Vietnamese distinctiveness. Even when they rebelled against China (three revolts are mentioned on p. 99), or when divisions within it led to greater autonomy, and for longer periods, many elite Vietnamese still identified with Chinese culture, especially Confucianism, or shared a common religion, Buddhism. Yet even as they repelled incursions from Linyi, people of Jiaozhi and Jiuzhen did not necessarily see it as ethnically alien, a “barbarian” kingdom, but as a political rival. Trade persisted, sometimes during warfare.

In 487 a Chinese historian described “a chain of great and small ships” plying the Vietnamese coast between China and tropical Southeast Asia. Jiaozhi and Jiuzhen, Linyi and Funan all flourished, sending north goods China valued: ivory, rhinoceros horn, sandalwood, gharu woods, and tortoiseshell.

Only later in Vietnamese history (99 pages later in the book) did ethnic distinctions polarize, partly under the influence of Neo-Confucian thought, which drew a sharp ideological line between “civilized” realms and “barbarians.” Decades of slow penetration of Neo-Confucianism among classically-educated officials of the independent kingdom of Đại Việt (Great Việt) peaked in the Lê dynasty, which emerged after defeating the Ming occupation of 1407-1428. A Đại Việt writer rejoiced (p. 198): “The soil is again the soil of the Southern kingdom. The people are again the people of the Việt race. Coats and skirts and customs are in agreement with those of the past. The moral and political order is re-established as of old.” The scholar Nguyễn Trãi wrote in his Dư địa chí (Geography) in 1435: “The people of our land should not adopt the languages or the clothing of the lands of the Wu [Ming], Champa, the Lao, Siam, or Chenla [Cambodia], since doing so will bring chaos to the customs of our land.” This conception of “race” (or “people”) was of course not a biological racism but a view of indigenous ethnicity based on place, history, and custom. A literate Vietnamese sense of identity was coming into being.
Learn more about Việt Nam at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 69 Test: Blood and Soil.

--Marshal Zeringue