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

By Glover, Ian C. | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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

Glover, Ian C., Antiquity

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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?