"Colonial" and "Postcolonial" Views of Vietnam's Pre-History
Le, Long S., SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia
In surveying its pre-history, Vietnamese ancestries--in terms of culture, language, and genotype--is firmly grounded in the Southeast Asian region (Glover and Bellwood 2004). Yet having such ancestries has not always been positive, at least before the mid-1960s. That is, scholars writing before the mid-1960s had regarded Southeast Asian civilization as having no roots--a prehistoric backwater stuck fast in the Stone Age (Heine-Geldren 1937; Karlgren 1942; Janse 1958; Chang 1964; Graham Clark 1961; Fisher 1964). These scholars, on the one hand, believe each civilization possessed its own genius. On the other hand, they believe the importance of studying Southeast Asian history is its "classical" period in which the region's transition to statehood was owed to Indian cultural and Chinese economic and political influences (Coedes 1968, pp. 252-53). In this view, Vietnam was fortunate. That because it was a meeting ground of both interior riverine and maritime trade links, Vietnam became a receiver or a loan culture of a unidirectional diffusion and migration from advanced civilizations. From such contact, state formations in what is now Vietnam were thought to have been established and flourished in the early Christian era, whereas the tribes in Southeast Asian prehistory did not know how to rule (Coedes 1966, p. 268; Coedes 1968, p. 403). So that areas of northern Vietnam were considered "Sinicized", "little China", or "the smaller dragon". Meanwhile, the early states in southern Vietnam, such as Champa and Funan, were depicted as Indianized states or colonies.
At best, historians writing before the mid-1960s like John Cady and Joseph Buttinger held that Southeast Asian civilizations were imported but evolved as individual adaptations. In some cases the modifications illustrate local genius of the more advanced culture of China or India and of which is precisely what makes them Indochinese and why the territory may properly be called Indochina (Cady 1964, p. 4; Buttinger 1958, p. 19). However, such a prevailing view essentially kept at bay postulations that civilizations in Vietnam could have been a makers of history able to emplace or replace foreign influences that would be considered integral to their cultural core across time and space. By implication, colonialist study on prehistory or colonialist archaeology wherever practiced serves "to denigrate native societies and peoples by trying to demonstrate that they had been static in prehistoric times and lacked the initiative to develop on their own", as argued by historian archaeologist Bruce Trigger (1984, p. 363). To what degree is this true of colonialist studies on Vietnam's prehistory by the Chinese, French, and the Americans?
To be sure, by the early 1980s, a new prehistory of northern Vietnam was becoming increasingly apparent. Northern Vietnam was shown to have cultivated rice by the late third or early second millennium BC, and its culture and identity began to converge into Vietnam's first prehistoric civilization (Bellwood, 1979, p. 96). The so-called Dong Son Culture starting about 800 BC represents a major technological achievement in which the proto-Viet race created more than 200 bronze kettledrums of Heger I type. Such a finding not only solidifies Vietnam's Bronze-Iron Age traditions but also suggests that the roots of the Dong Son Culture antedate any significant Chinese influence (Nguyen Khac Suet al., pp. 188 and 200). Meanwhile, Vietnam's pre-Dong Son cultures support internal evolution rather than a replacement of one culture by a new cultural group.
Yet it is also undeniable that new discoveries in Vietnam conducted by state-run research institutions have existing biases. For example, after 1954 a new independent but resource-poor North Vietnam put forward a nationalist archaeological campaign to counter a colonial view of Vietnam history. In fact, North Vietnam surveyed, recorded, excavated, and published more than all the other newly independent countries of the region put together (Clover and Bellwood 2004, p. …