Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Vietnam as a 'Domain of Manifest Civility' (Van Hien Chi Bang)

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Vietnam as a 'Domain of Manifest Civility' (Van Hien Chi Bang)

Article excerpt

One of the most profound and complex changes to take place in modern world history is certainly the transformation towards nationalist thought. Although by the mid-twentieth century it had become second nature for many people to view the world as a patchwork of separate nations, each demarcating the territory of a distinct people sharing a common language and culture, an astounding volume of scholarship from the past few decades has demonstrated how comparatively recent this vision of the world actually was. In addition, we are also much better informed today of how intellectually dramatic this transformation to nationalist thought often was for the educated elite in many parts of the world. (1)

In the case of Vietnamese history, the change to viewing the world as composed of separate but equal nations has not received the kind of scholarly attention that it deserves. (2) Indeed, so thoroughly did the Western academy adopt the modern Vietnamese nationalist view of the past in the 1960s, 1970s and even 1980s that we have yet to fully disengage from this conceptual framework. The view of Vietnamese history which gained currency at that time played down the difficulty of the transition to modern, nationalist thought in Vietnam by arguing for a distinct 'national' -- or at least 'protonationalistic' -- consciousness in the past which facilitated the process of change to modern modes of viewing the world. (3)

To be fair, the scholars who have argued for a Vietnamese national identity prior to the introduction in Asia of the Western idea of nationalism have not always entirely equated these two worldviews. Alexander Woodside, for instance, has written that this consciousness may have simply constituted some kind of 'intuition', but one which nonetheless 'reach[ed] through all social classes right down to the seemingly crustacean politics of the bamboo-walled villages, [meaning] that there was a special Vietnamese collective identity of some sort.' (4) Meanwhile, other scholars have argued that modern Vietnamese nationalism enjoys a more powerful and direct 'link with the past'. (5) The one point that these authors all share is their emphasis on the historical importance of foreign intrusions, especially those of a supposedly expansionist China, as a major element in the forging of this identity As one scholar more recently put it:

The long-term struggle for survival of the Vietnamese nation against tremendous odds (including conquest by foreigners and chronic internal discord) can best be explained by attributing to them a long entrenched proto-nationalism or national consciousness that later blossomed in their 20th century assertion of independence and resistance. (6)

Again, while the scholars who have written on this topic are not in agreement as to the exact form that this 'national consciousness' took, the implication of the existence of an earlier form of national identity, whatever its characteristics, is that it may have facilitated the adoption of modern, nationalist ideas in Vietnam. The late Ralph Smith noted that at least the Vietnamese already had the necessary vocabulary for thinking in such terms. Hence, of all of the problems with which they had to deal in the years spanning the turn of the twentieth century, the creation of a national identity was not necessarily the most vexing. (7)

If this is true, then the ease with which the Vietnamese came to view their land as a modern nation stands in stark contrast to the tumultuous intellectual journey that they had to traverse in thinking through virtually every other aspect of their society. (8) Was this in fact the case, though? Indeed, as Christopher Goscha has recently demonstrated, such a basic concept as the geographical shape that a post-colonial 'Vietnam' should take remained rather fluid throughout much of the first half of the twentieth century. (9) Such findings suggest that perhaps this fabled national consciousness did not slide so easily into its modern form. …

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