Ancient Vietnam: History, Art and Archaeology

By Zakharov, Anton O. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2013 | Go to article overview

Ancient Vietnam: History, Art and Archaeology

Zakharov, Anton O., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Ancient Vietnam: History, art and archaeology


Bangkok: River Books, 2011. 428 pp. Illustrations, Maps.

doi: 10.1017/S0022463413000520

Vietnam is among the most attractive tourist destinations in the world and Vietnamese studies are an essential field of scholarship. Bangkok-based River Books and its publisher Narisa Chakrabongse have produced a highly valuable, well-illustrated colour guidebook about the ancient civilisations of Vietnam written by a renowned French historian and epigrapher, Anne-Valerie Schweyer from the Centre national de recherche scientifique (CNRS). The volume is enriched by Paisarn Piemettawat's beautiful colour illustrations.

As a guidebook, this monograph has its own beauty: limited texts with many brilliant images of Vietnamese art on every page; detailed sections which can be read separately, and simplified spelling of Vietnamese, Sanskrit and Cham names and terms. Readers who wish to broaden their knowledge of Vietnamese history and art will find this here.

Ancient Vietnam consists of four independent parts. The first deals with history; the second describes the religion, art and architecture of Champa--a common name of ancient kingdoms which flourished in Central Vietnam from the fifth to the fifteenth century CE. The third part describes religion, architecture and monuments of the 'Viet Land', i.e. the Red River Valley or Northern Vietnam. The fourth and final part gives a brief account of five principal museums in Vietnam.

For the convenience of readers the monograph contains a glossary of Sanskrit names and terms, a brief bibliography, an index and a reference list of Vietnamese, Sanskrit, and Cham spellings. It also includes many maps and plans of archaeological sites throughout, including maps of Vietnam (p. 9), of 'major trade routes between India and Southeast Asia between the 10th-15th centuries' (p. 10), of Champa (p. 58), of 'the main Viet sites around Hanoi' (p. 252), of Hanoi (p. 263), and many others.

Meanwhile, Schweyer offers a fresh look at Vietnam's history. While traditional scholarship has concentrated on the history of the Vietnamese as in The birth of Vietnam by Keith W. Taylor (University of California Press, 1983), or on the history of Champa as in George Maspero's Le royaume de Champa (Les Editions G. Van Oest, 1928), Schweyer incorporates Champa and its culture within the ancient history of Vietnam: a historical sketch begins with Champa and then gives parallel developments in Champa and in the Viet Land. Ancient Vietnam covers a long timespan from the first millennium BCE to the end of the fifteenth century CE when the Champa kingdom of Vijaya was conquered by the Dai Viet emperor Le Thanh Tong in 1471.

Schweyer synthesises contemporary historical research on Champa and describes its polities as trade-oriented and the Viet Land as agricultural. She believes Champa never was 'a centralised territory under the rule of a king' (p. 9). The Chams, an Austronesian group, adopted Indic, not Sinicised, cultural traits, including Sanskrit, because China 'had imperialistic desires incompatible with the independent spirit of the Chams' and 'the Chams saw in India, social and political structures to which they could relate; they were, thus, seduced by a script which could also be used to record their own language, something that was not possible using Chinese ideograms' (p. 13).

I wonder why and how the Chams could adopt an Indic writing due to their 'independent spirit'; this vague concept can hardly be verified by the available sources. How can this factor explain the adoption of Hinduism or Buddhism? I suppose the spread of a religious system, like Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, or Islam has required propagation of its main ideas by its exponents; therefore, the adoption of Indic religious systems in Champa and the Viet Land was possible due to the activities of many Buddhists or Hindus who propagated these systems; they could have been from India proper. …

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