Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Historical Research in Vietnam: A Tentative Survey

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Historical Research in Vietnam: A Tentative Survey

Article excerpt

The communist take-over of South Vietnam in 1975 presents a certain resemblance to what happened two hundred years before, when the Trinh lords in the North overran the Nguyen's polity in the South by 1775, seizing the territories that had been separate from their control for over two centuries. The similitude of the two situations did seem highly symbolic to the Institute of Historical Studies in Hanoi, which on the pretext of publishing a complete collection of the eighteenth-century scholar Le Quy Don's works, reprinted a former translation of his "Miscellaneous chronicles of the government of the frontiers" as the first volume of this collection.(1) This work was originally composed in 1776, after its author had been ordered south, as a member of the Trinh lords' bureaucracy, to help restore civil government in the "recovered" areas, and facilitate their reincorporation into the north-centred political system. In its detailed description of the different aspects of southern administration, economy and society, it is tantamount to a survey of the affairs of what the author considered as an irrevocably defeated Vietnamese enemy government. This account of the southern regions at that very moment of national reunification seems also, to some extent, appropriate for the justification of the rightness of the ideology of a North Vietnam that has just then triumphed over its adversaries.(2)

The above instance is but one of the many evidences inferring that in Vietnam, history, in so far as it is a selective redemption of the past, is closely bound to politics. It has always been so in former times: for many centuries, the royal court maintained detailed records, and the sovereigns often consulted ancient texts for both policy guidance and policy justification.(3) But the need to legitimate the established power and to motivate the people appears now to be asserting itself more forcefully than ever. In a talk delivered at the University Paris VII in 1988, Van Tao, then director of the Institute of Historical Studies, declared: "We do not write history to make history, but to participate in the foundation of the new regime."(4) The Communist party exercises tight control indeed over the whole sector of historical research. Every historian, either working within the framework of the Committee of Social Sciences or of the universities, or belonging to the diverse local historical committees or other institutes depending directly on the army or the party, is answerable for his research to the political power. Furthermore, whatever study is undertaken will generally have to follow programmes launched by the government: each time a new ideological line is promulgated, chosen historical events are to be picked out to help prove its validity.

Such disposition actually goes back to a policy promulgated in 1943 by the party's central committee, titled "Theses on Vietnamese Culture",(5) which called for a new culture possessing exclusively nationalistic, scientific, and mass traits. To this end, a socialist culture was to be created, in which all cultural activity was to be measured according to the degree that it stimulated simultaneously a sense of patriotism, mass consciousness, and scientific objectivity. Thenceforth, the fundamentals of the Vietnamese Communist party's cultural and intellectual policy have been laid down for good. This implies especially that the products of the mind must be channelled into the service of the revolutionary line advocated by the party, which is the "just cause" (chinh nghia). Consequently, there is no such thing as "pure science" to be pursued above national or class interests. The investigation of the national past, in particular, must be conducted in a perspective involving, in an indissoluble manner, the specifically historical project and the immediate political objective, meaning for example the exaltation of the national cause, or the search in the past for either the deep roots or the justifications of today's social movements. …

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