Letting the Past Serve the Present - Some Contemporary Uses of Archaeology in Viet Nam

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Archaeology and history in Viet Nam

Viet Nam has a long tradition of scholarly concern with its own past, born out of 900 years of resistance to Chinese political domination. As early as the 11th century, the newly independent Ly dynasty encouraged the collection of antiquities such as ancient bronze drums to help legitimize the new state by establishing links with the pre-Han past. A well-established historiographic tradition developed from this time which emphasized indigenous dynasties and institutions. As Nguyen (1987: 42) made clear, 'the safeguarding of national independence' was the basic concern of Ly and Tran rulers (11th-14th centuries) and their chroniclers - the theme which rims through Vietnamese history to the present day. In contrast to this, Chinese and French historians have, as Taylor notes (1983: xvii), treated early historic Viet Nam within the framework of Chinese history - as a 'refractory province blessed with China's civilizing influence'. Nothing makes the relativism of our perceptions of the past clearer than a comparison of recent Chinese and Vietnamese understanding of this relationship (cf. Han Xiaorong 1998). But of course the histories of Viet Nam and China cannot be separated; much of 'Vietnamese' history depends on Chinese dynastic chronicles, and those written in what is today northern Viet Nam, were written until quite recently in Chinese characters and within the Chinese historiographic tradition. The sources so well brought together by Keith Taylor (1983: 349-59), e.g. the Shih chi, the Huai nan tzu, Li Tao-yuan's Shui ching chu and Liu Hsi's Shih ming are a product of this.

Colonialist archaeology

It can, I think, be accepted that the whole concept of prehistory was a European one and its development within Europe was profoundly influenced by the social, political and commercial links between Europe and the peoples of Asia, Africa and the Americas. In order to understand the way European prehistory has influenced and been influenced by the experience of investigation in non-Western countries, Trigger's (1984) distinction between what he calls

'nationalist, colonialist and imperialist archaeologies' provides a useful framework for this exercise and one I have utilized previously (Bray & Glover 1988; Glover 1993). Trigger (1984: 360-3) characterized colonialist archaeology as a distinct mode of archaeological thought in which archaeologists and ethnologists regarded the cultures of Africa, Asia and the Americas as a living museum of the past. The first generation of prehistorians working in Southeast Asia all adopted, to a greater or lesser extent, this dominant mode of thought and also contemporary European archaeological procedures: concentration on material form and typology for the recognition of culture groups and culture areas, and explanation of all change in the archaeological record as the result of the diffusion of techniques or the migration of peoples from one culture area to another - what we might call the Volkerwanderungen syndrome. This may have satisfied contemporary European perceptions of the structure of social processes, but it has meant little to a later generation of scholars in Southeast Asia. The paradigm, almost universally held in the heyday of European colonial rule in Asia and Africa, that societies do not change without external stimulation denigrated indigenous cultures, characterized them as uninventive and static and put them on a level with 'primitive' phases of European development, thus helping to justify the 'civilizing mission' of Europe in bringing backward native peoples up to the cultural level of the 20th century.

Thus, it was not until the late 19th century, with the arrival in Viet Nam of another predatory imperial power, France, that an alternative procedure for knowing the Vietnamese past became available - the discipline of archaeology - and a new dialectic with this past was established.

From the 1840s, France, following the example of Britain, was determined to acquire a colonial empire in the tropics in order to generate raw materials for her rapidly developing industries. …