This summer has been one on Vietnamese history: some for research and some for the sheer pleasure of knowledge.  Before turning to prepping for fall classes, I wish to have one more write-up about several articles read in the last two months.  The focus is Vietnamese history but away from the Vietnam War.  Below, I go over each article in chronological order of their topics.

  • Liam C. Kelley, “From Moral Exemplar to National Hero: The Transformations of Trần Hưng Đạo and the Emergence of Vietnamese Nationalism,” Modern Asia Studies 49:6 (November 2015): 1963-1993.
  • Keith W. Taylor, “Nguyễn Công Trứ at the Court of Minh Mạng,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 47:2 (June 2016): 255-280.
  • Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox, “French Imperialism and the Vietnamese Civil Service Examinations, 1862-1919,” Journal of American–East Asian Relations 21 (2014): 373-393.
  • Olga Dror, “Establishing Hồ Chí Minh’s Cult: Vietnamese Traditions and Their Transformations,” Journal of Asian Studies 75:2 (May 2016): 433-466.
  • Chung Van Hoang, “‘Following Uncle Hồ to Save the Nation’: Empowerment, Legitimacy, and Nationalistic Aspirations in a Vietnamese New Religious Movement,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 47:2 (June 2016): 234-254.

Click on the red bold sentences below for links.  Except for the last article, all are linked to the Academia pages of the respective authors.

First is Liam Kelley’s article on the constructions about the thirteenth-century General Trần Hưng Đạo.  The author told me that this article suffered a very long wait at the first journal to which it was submitted. He eventually submitted it to Modern Asia Studies, which published it last year.  Having reworked a paper on the construction of national heroes in the twentieth century, I found this article stimulating because it deals mostly with the subject prior to the twentieth century.  Kelley shows that before he became a national hero, Trần Hưng Đạo’s persona was fourfold to Vietnamese: moral exemplar, dynastic general, potent deity, and Confucian moralizer.

Kelley digs well into the historical records to discuss each of these aspects.  A starting point is the monograph, published in 2009, about the Trần Hưng Đạo cult in recent decades by the Vietnamese academic Phạm Quỳnh Hương.  As an anthropologist, Hương focuses on recent developments and, especially, the dominant view of the general as “national hero.”  As a historian, Kelly goes back centuries to uncover elite constructions of the general.  It carries the subtitle “Transformations of Trần Hưng Đạo and the Emergence of Vietnamese Nationalism.”  Note the plural form in “transformations.”

The article shows some fascinating details about this construction.  The first recorded history about the general, for instance, has nothing to do with his martial achievement, for which he is best remembered.  Rather, it has to do with the subject of premarital sex, in that the general was said to have slept with a palace princess whose marriage to someone else had been arranged by her father.  (As expected, he and the princess were married to each other soon after.)  Although this impropriety earned him some infamy, literati and historians from the fifteenth century onward emphasized his loyalty to the Trần Dynasty and elevated his status as a moral and exemplary human being.  In the eyes of Vietnamese literati and historians, his loyalty reflected also his filial piety – there was a direct connection between filial piety and dynastic loyalty.

Of course, Trần Hưng Đạo has been best known as a military leader, and Kelley discusses the construction of this aspect at length.  There are, he states, “two aspects of the praise” about this aspect “that deserve note.”

The first is that his capability as a general was never viewed in isolation of characteristics that the literati who wrote about him cherished, such as learning, loyalty, and filial piety. The second is that his greatness as a general was usually expressed by either comparing him to, or associating him with, famous generals from ‘Chinese’ history. 

“I place ‘Chinese’ in scare quotes here,” adds Kelley, “as [Vietnamese dynastic historians] did not make such a distinction.”  Readers of Kelley’s blog know well that in the last few years he has carried a campaign to demolish some of the ingrained thinking among contemporary Vietnamese historians regarding “Vietnameseness” as being apart from “Chineseness.” Although he doesn’t say it outright here, Kelley wants to impress upon readers that the lines between Vietnamese elite thought and that of their larger northern neighbors weren’t clear but rather blurry if not imperceptible.

Indeed, in the eighteenth century the Lê ordered the construction of a number of “martial temples” (Võ Miếu), and the central figure of honor was a Chinese general from antiquity.  On both sides of the temple were eighteen other figures, “all of whom we would today label as ‘Chinese’ generals.”  It was among these figures, said the Lê court, that Trần Hưng Đạo was to be honored.

Besides moral virtue and martial skills, the general was elevated also as a spirit and deity.  If reading scholarship could be “fun,” then for my money the section on “potent deity” is the most fun of the article.  After reading this section, I thought the construction of the general as deity analogous to the construction of popular saints in medieval, early modern, and even modern Christianity.  As is often the case, illness and cure are central to the elevation of the virtuous and accomplished to the saintly and godly.  From this “divine” aspect stemmed the last major construction prior to the twentieth century: Trần Hưng Đạo as a “Confucian moralizer.”  From the eighteenth century onward, but especially the late nineteenth century, literati employed Trần Hưng Đạo in the role of “spirit writer” (giáng bút) to promote ideas and values that they themselves held dear.

Kelley has another section on the general as “national hero” in the early twentieth century, but I shall stop here because it is more familiar terrain. My article draft quotes from this section, so be assured that I found it important.  But in my view, the greatest contribution of this article is that it historicizes quite well the perspectives on Trần Hưng Đạo.  Really, the article isn’t about Trần Hưng Đạo but about different views, uses, promotions, and constructions of him by, mostly, the Vietnamese elites.

One of numerous Trần Hưng Đạo shrines in and out of Vietnam ~ pc

Second is Keith Taylor’s article about the nineteenth-century mandarin and literati Nguyễn Công Trứ.  It is somewhat similar to Kelley’s in that it is ostensibly about a prominent nineteenth-century mandarin and literati – and yet in one important sense it isn’t.  Called “Nguyễn Công Trứ at the Court of Minh Mạng,” the article is as much about Minh Mạng, the second emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty, as it is about the mandarin Trứ – and possibly more about the ruler.  For sure, the most important conclusions drawn by Taylor have to do with emperor rather than mandarin.

A starting point for this article is the shift from the overwhelming Vietnamese scholarship on Nguyễn Công Trứ’s literary, musical, administrative, and military achievements.  Instead, Taylor looks at the relatively “modern” situation (my word, not his) in Vietnamese history at the time of Trứ’s prominence.  Early in the article, he states,

Trứ lived under the first dynastic regime to govern both the northern and southern realms of modern Vietnam. This introduced a regional dimension to Vietnamese government, a dimension that produced both creative engagement and resentful animosity; during his lifetime, Trứ experienced both of these tensions.

Put it another way, the Vietnamese state under the early Nguyễn was rather unwieldy.  Unified in name, it actually faced many local rebellions and uprisings, not to say many incidents of banditry that threatened the security of the state.  Yet it played to Nguyễn Công Trứ’s advantage.  He tried for a long time to become an official for the state: he was already in his early 40s when he finally passed the civil service examination.  But once in the doors, he rose rapidly thanks to opportunities to be field commander against several rebellions and subsequent success in helping to put them down.

In addition to security threats, the “regional dimension” remained problematic for unified Vietnam.  Since the Nguyễn lived in the south for a long time, their early court was dominated by southerners.  At the same time, northerners held a longer and stronger tradition of education, and Minh Mạng needed them to run the unified state.  As noted, Trứ wasn’t young by the time he became an official:  Taylor notes that he was about “ten years older than others in his cohort.”  But both age and regional origin played to his advantage and within a few years, he “had mastered the bureaucratic routine and repeatedly found ways to position himself for advancement.”

The north-south difference, though, remained a stubborn divide within the machinations of the court.  Riding upon his success over rural matters, Trứ presented an innovative initiative on land reclamation to king and court.  The article includes a long section on this episode that I won’t have time to go into.  But the gist of it is that Minh Mạng’s advisers, mostly southerners, were opposed to the initiative – and the emperor eventually sided with them.

There were other episodes of conflict among officials, and Taylor relates several throughout the article. In particular, Taylor discusses the conflict between Trứ and an official in the Ministry of Finance by the name of Hoàng Quýnh.  The latter had a checkered history in governance, but was protected partially by his status as a Huế-born native (i.e., southerner) whose grandfather had served in the Nguyễn’s pre-dynastic army.  Besides their origins, Trứ and Hoàng Quýnh were quite different in temperament and vision.  The conflict came to blows when Quýnh accused Trứ of a serious offense. The long and short of it is that both were demoted, albeit for different reasons.

The larger point is that

Minh Mạng tended to follow consensus among his officials unless it offended his sense of logic or threatened to derail an official or a policy that he supported.  Minh Mạng was keen to find and use talent from the northern provinces.  Most southerners were almost by definition loyal to his dynasty, but the northerners remained susceptible to lawlessness and rebellion.  Trứ was an asset that he did not want to lose, but he did not on that account accept every new idea that Trứ proposed. 

In other words, Minh Mạng tried very hard to maintain the best from the difficult north-south composition among his officials.  More importantly, the divide meant a good deal of competition and conflict.  A northerner like Trứ might want to push for innovative measures, but the southern advisers wished to maintain the status quo.

Taylor also stresses it was quite normal for an official to have experienced both promotions and demotions several times during his service.  The larger point about promotions and demotions has to do with, again, Minh Mạng.  In Taylor’s judgment,

Minh Mạng was very engaged in the details of government operations and he was a good judge of human talent and character… Without his steadying hand on the process [of promotions and demotions] we can imagine that this bureaucracy would easily have become the destructive arena of factionalism and intrigue that it later became with kings less able than he.
       Neither Thiệu Trị nor Tự Đức, the last kings before the French conquest, were capable for mastering the bureaucratic structure that Minh Mạng and his father had created.

In Taylor’s general history of the Vietnamese people, Nguyễn Công Trứ appears for nearly a full page but is without any relevancy to Minh Mạng.  Other than saying that Minh Mạng welcomed educated northerners to civil service, there is little about his generally skillful management of disputes among officials.  This article has added nuances to the standard view of Minh Mạng as a “centralizer,” and I surmise that the next edition of Taylor’s general history will include at least a couple of paragraph about the points on Minh Mạng made in this article.

Minh Mạng as ruler

The Nguyễn’s civil service examination figures only marginally in the Taylor article.  But it is central to the article by Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox.  The article is part of a special issue on the Great Game.  Or, more accurately, it was the “new Great Game” that was different from “the original Great Game” between the Russian and British Empires as well as – and somewhat confusingly – “The New Great Game” (upper-case on “new”) that involves China in recent times.  In other words, it was the Great Game among the European powers and the U.S. in Asia during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century.

In addition to the Gadkar-Wilcox article, I’ve read the introduction by Jon Thares Davidann but not yet the other three articles on, respectively, Japan; Central Asian Muslims and Koreans; and the Noulens Affair in East and Southeast Asia.  From the introduction, they sound very interesting because of the emphasis on the agency among the anti-imperialists.

This [native agency] helps redefine the Great Game away from competition among the imperial powers to a Game played between the powers and their subject peoples.  Because the essays in this issue focus in part on these subject peoples, this Great Game is also a story of important reformers and great reforms.  This is a Great Game of ideas as well as action.  Even when they failed, these reformers are important to understand because they mark the limits of reform.  When reform failed to create needed change, it sometimes gave way to revolution.  Thus, revolution and revolutionaries themselves became an important part of the new Great Game.

These words from the introduction to the special issue apply almost perfectly to the article on the Vietnamese.  It is intellectual history: “a Great Game of ideas as well as action.”  While no great reformers grace the pages of the article, it is about reform and reformers of sorts.  There were indeed limits to reform, and the result was to be revolution and revolutionaries in the twentieth century.

Another significance of this article, I think, is the subject matter itself.  Based on the Chinese civil service examination, the Vietnamese exam was a central feature of the Lê and the Nguyễn Dynasties. As far as I know, though, it has been little studied by historians other than Alexander Woodside, especially in his book on Vietnam and the Chinese model.  Indeed, it is somewhat curious that the article doesn’t cite this classic or Woodside’s shorter book on “lost modernities.”

I think one reason for the no-mention is that Gadkar-Wilcox’s concerns are quite different from Woodside’s.  This article deals with the second half of the nineteenth century rather than the first half, and it is about Vietnamese resistance to French imperialism instead of Vietnamese adaptation to the Chinese model.  In examining the examination, Gadkar-Wilcox shows that there was more to “the discourse of armed resistance” in the subsequent Vietnamese tradition. That is, there was also the discourse “of intellectual resistance,” including a shift from universalism to particularism.

The introduction to the special issue calls Gadkar-Wilcox’s approach “novel,” and there is indeed some novelty, starting with sources.  During my dissertation research, I came across one or two collections of examination essays and responses published in South Vietnam.  I didn’t bother going through them because they were not relevant to my research and because I couldn’t read the Nôm or Hán script.  Although I am not completely 100% sure, I think that excerpts of a few exam responses are included in some South Vietnamese volumes about Vietnamese literature.   In any event, I had a suspicion that no one else had looked at them for a very long time.

Well, now I happily know that Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox has utilized them for this article and a book project. He notes astutely that “intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th Century saw the examinations as popular literature,” and this article shows that he had begun digging into them.  To be precise, his sources come from the archives of Viện Hán Nôm in Hanoi, which has over 100 compilations of examination answers.  Some of them are kept by the National Library of Vietnam and have been digitized.   They sound like wonderful and significant sources, yet utterly under-utilized.  I am very glad that they have been used by at least one scholar writing in English today.

Another novel aspect about this article is the modification it makes about the nature of these exams and their responses.  A common and long-held assumption about the dynastic exam system – and, one should add, about education in Vietnam even to this day – is that it is consisted of rote memorization.  Gadkar-Wilcox acknowledges that “memorization and bureaucratization remained components” of the civil service exams.  But he demonstrates too that the exam responses “also produced a vibrant public sphere in which to discuss ideas for reform.”

For example, in three different exams – 1862, 1868, and 1877 – Tự Đức, the last truly independent Nguyễn ruler, “specifically asked candidates to evaluate what the Vietnamese should do in response to European aggression.”  As a matter of course, the exam takers were expected to reference traditional materials in their responses.  But – and this is a not inconsiderable but – “they were also encouraged to take some liberties in using personal knowledge and new sources to describe the nature of European nations.”

The article finds that there wasn’t a uniform approach among the responses: hence, the notion of “public sphere,” if limited.  It offers a couple of close-up examples – Nguyễn Hữu Lập and Vũ Nhự – to illustrate the shifting nature of thought during the 1860s and 1870s.  By the end of the 1870s, the exam responses and commentaries regarding “the nature of European nations” had shown that Vietnamese intellectuals and officials shifted from Confucian universalism to adopt a particularist mentality in their view of Western civilization.  It is not to say that they abandoned Confucianism wholesale: not at all.  But the technological advancement of France and other leading European nations forced them to seek for answers in a more narrowly historical context.  (Delightfully for me, the name of Suhl, the arms-manufacturing German town, appears in one of the quotations from primary sources.)

There is plenty more about this article, especially on the early twentieth century and the 1910 and 1919 examinations.  Notwithstanding occasional clinging to the past on the part of the Nguyễn court, Vietnamese intellectuals debated which particular values from the Confucian tradition to apply to Western ones.  It was a shift to what Gadkar-Wilcox calls “nativist particularity.”  The article ends with a detailed exposition of the reformer Nguyễn Bá Trác’s critique of the examination system, a critique that entailed advocacy for a form of “colonial republicanism” seen in a very different public sphere during the 1920s and 1930s.

Because the article covers a fairly long period, I wish it were longer in size and addressed a few other things.  I wish to know, for instance, if Social Darwinism exerted any discernible effects on these exam responses.  Or, since the Tonkin Free School is named in the context of nationalist thought, what was the relationship between these exams and the burgeoning scene of early nationalism?  On the other hand, the article has whetted one’s appetite for Gadkar-Wilcox’s new book in the future.  Whether my questions will be answered, I very much look forward to reading the book when it comes out.

1897 ~ Vietnamese checking the names of the scholars who had recently passed the provincial-level exam ~ pc wikipedia

Moving squarely into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the last two articles are about Hồ Chí Minh.  Or, more accurately, they are about the cult of Hồ Chí Minh.

Olga Dror’s article examines the carefully managed construction of Hồ’s image by the communists, including the leader himself. Regarding historiography, this article names all major works about Hồ and, more importantly, takes Pierre Brocheux’s fine biography of Hồ as both starting and divergent points.  On sources, it casts a wide net to include materials in Chinese, Russian, French, English, and, of course, Vietnamese.  On interpretation, the author exhibits her typically exemplary judiciousness.

The outcome, for this reader, is twofold.  On the one hand, the article confirms some of the long-held suspicions about Hồ’s role in his self-construction to the Vietnamese public.   On the other hand, it makes some terrific and original contribution – yes, “novel” is an apt description of this article – to scholarship about the communist leader.

Let me get straight to the latter point: the section called “The Invention of Birthdays” is probably the most original one from all history journal articles that I’ve read this year, on Vietnam or something else.  So fascinating is this section that I wish the author would expand it into a full article of its own some day.  Briefly, Dror argues that there was “an international aspect” to the creation of Hồ’s birthday as a national holiday.  She further demonstrates that it was rooted in Soviet practice dated to Lenin and Stalin.

Moreover, Hồ actively participated in the making of this holiday. “For Hồ,” concludes Dror,

the Vietnamese tradition of observing the date of death was transformed into a tradition of honoring a living person’s birthday… Hồ Chí Minh’s active participation in celebratory events related to his official birthday, such as publicly receiving congratulatory letters and greeting winners of competitions held to honor his birthday, shows that he was directly involved in the development of his cult.

If you don’t have time to read the entire article, at least read this section because it is, again, novel and fascinating.

There is also a shorter section about the depiction of Hồ as deserving recipient of the love and gifts from the Vietnamese people, including children.  Since Dror is finishing a book manuscript on raising children during the Vietnam War, in both the north and the south, we should hear more about children and Hồ.   It suffices to say for now that there was an intimate relationship between the celebration of Hồ’s birthday and the “economy of gifts” as promoted by the communist party.

Less novel but no less significant is the sections on Hồ’s purported “biography” or “vignettes” about his life.  (Dror’s use of the term “(auto)biography” is perfectly apt in this case.)  The article examines several editions of the biography, which was published in Vietnamese, French, and Chinese and under two names.  Knowledgeable people will correct me here, but I think this is the first time that the Chinese editions are examined in depth.  No less fascinating is Dror’s discussion of Trần Ngọc Danh, who was a real person in contrast to Hồ’s pen nam Trần Dân Tiên.

The most significant insight drawn from the discussion of these editions has to do with the political realities faced by Hồ and the Việt Minh.  Dror contextualizes the creation and promotion of the “vignettes” to the need for mass mobilization after the August Revolution.  She concludes,

While in many ways the formation of Hồ Chí Minh’s cult followed the Soviet blueprint, it was also different in some respects from the formation of both Lenin’s and Stalin’s cult… It was not like Lenin’s cult, which was rooted in the cult of the Party and upon his death firmly switched to him.  It was not like Stalin’s cult, because Stalin moved to its center while still alive to use it for the sake of his own power.  Hồ Chí Minh’s cult trajectory was the opposite-he developed his cult to mobilize the country to carry out Party and government decisions.  Gradually, the Party took over his cult, keeping [him] as its representation.

The last section of the article, indeed, is about the Party’s control of the cult since Hồ’s death in 1969.  It is necessarily brief due to the required length of the article but also because the topic is outside the scope of sources and argument.  In any event, I’d wager that thanks to its depth as well as the popularity of the subject matter, this article will be cited frequently in future scholarship about Hồ, and also the expanding scholarship about his cult.

A recent print of the “biography-vignettes” discussed at length in the article by Olga Dror ~ pc blogspot

For a taste of this scholarship, I invite you to read the article by Chung Van Hoang.  Currently a researcher at the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences in Hanoi, Chung Van Hoang has studied post-Renovation indigenous religious movements for graduate and dissertation work in Australia.  Early in the article, he lists no fewer than eight such religious groups, including the most popular group that is Đạo Ngọc Phật Hồ Chí Minh:  the Way of the Jade Buddha Hồ Chí Minh.  More succinctly, it is also called Đạo Bác Hồ: the Way of Uncle Hồ.

After a very interesting survey of scholarship in both Vietnamese and English, the article presents the author’s findings from reading and fieldwork, starting with the founder of a group associated to this movement.  Her name is Madame Xoan (no full name given), and she founded the group Đoàn Đồng Thiên Hòa Bình – the Peace Society of Heavenly Mediums – on New Year’s Day of 2001 (solar calendar).

A northerner of working-class background, Madame Xoan was born in 1948, had serious health problems in her mid-twenties, and began hearing voices sometimes after.  She quit her factory job and sold items for religious rituals at the local market for five years, then quit “trading to study the benediction of spirits at home.”  In 1989, or three years after the Communist Party approved the policy of Renovation, “the voice told her that she had been chosen by the Heavenly Palace to perform duties to save the nation.” She constructed a small shrine, and later upgraded it to a “temple.”

Though at first “shocked… when the Jade Buddha ordered her to promulgate a new religion for the Vietnamese,” Madame Xoan was also assured by the Buddha “that she would be safe.”  She began serving as a medium and writing many spirit texts, and drew a number of adherents and supporters.  In doctrine, they believe in “parallel worlds that influence human affairs”: the human world on the one hand and the world of spirits on the other hand.  Moreover, the world of spirits is broken into different four different realms – Buddha, Yin, earthly, and heavenly – with the heavenly realm governing the other three.  Residents in the earthly realm, however, have destroyed “the living environment” and “become too materialistic and forgetful of their true ancestors.”

To help regaining balance and harmony to these worlds is a most familiar figure to contemporary Vietnamese.

Because of his great success in self-perfection after his physical death, Hồ Chí Minh’s spirit was elected by the Heavenly Palace as the leader who would bring about a ‘revolution’ in the earthly realm. Ultimately, the revolution was to impose the Way of teh Jade Buddha.  The Jade Buddha would indicate clearly which spiritual objects (Vietnamese Buddhas, saints, immortals, national heroes, and deities) the Vietnamese must worship, and how to do this correctly.

There is more to the belief of this cult.  For instance, following the broader outlook above is a more specific notion about revolution and the Vietnamese nation: “the advent of the spirit of Hồ Chí Minh and his plan for a ‘spiritual revolution’ to save the nation from all past and present ‘foreign enemies’.”  Indeed, a core argument of the article has to do with nationalism.

Nationalism is evoked from a religious perspective and national salvation is seen to be responsive to both the spirits’ will and followers’ efforts.  Common concerns here are Vietnam’s position in the world, the self-representation of the Vietnamese, and the changes and sacrifices needed for the nation’s prosperity.  The Peace Society’s scriptures feature these themes, and promote a somewhat radical form of nationalism.

Later in the article, the author places this development in the longue durée of Vietnamese history:

The Peace Society’s scriptures implicitly suggest the continuity of nationalistic discourses which developed in Vietnam in the early twentieth century among some religions (mostly in the South) and Buddhist revival movements.  Despite variations… many new and indigenous religious groups shared a common feature during this period: they originated as patriotic anti-French movements.

Then back to the era of Renovation:

In the context of Renovation in Vietnam, nationalist discourses created and promoted by the Party-State have both developmental and cultural perspectives.  The Way of the Jade Buddha relies on these nationalistic discourses to inspire and mobilise its supporters. It seeks to reaffirm Vietnamese origins and identity and at the same time to appeal for action and even sacrifice to protect national sovereignty.  Specifically, it promulgates a directly anti-Chinese ideology (emphasis mine).

There you have it: regimes have come and gone since the early 1900s, but nationalism has persisted and continued to find ways, including through co-opting state ideology, to articulate itself more independently from the state.

Some of the spirit writings composed by Nguyễn Thị Điền (b. 1960), a leader of the Way of Jade Buddha HCM ~ pc

A few last thoughts

In the context of this write-up, we come full circle on nationalism.  The article by Liam Kelley ends with the construction of a long-revered dynastic general into a nationalist figure.  Here, we see an argument for the persistence of nationalism in postwar and post-Renovation Vietnam.  The target of early twentieth-century nationalism was the French colonialism   The target of early twenty-first-century nationalism was Chinese expansionism.

Indeed, a common theme among these five articles is the creation, action, and reaction to the modern Vietnamese nation.  Notwithstanding the many differences in topic, focus, and sources among these articles, I think that they address to one degree or another the complexity of the nation in the modern era.

I need to give more thought to the articles as a whole.  But my initial impressions is that they demonstrate clearly that there is no simple way to grasp the creation and growth (if that is the word) of this imagined community called “Vietnam.”  Keith Taylor’s article presents some of the challenges that Minh Mạng and, by extension, the early Nguyễn emperors, faced in governing a unified if fragile Vietnam.  Olga Dror’s article shows the limitations faced by HCM and the Communist Party in gaining and maintaining support.  In a different fashion, Chung Van Hoang’s article illustrates the uncertainties that Vietnamese experience in the post-Cold War and neoliberal world, in which “foreign threats” have taken on many economic, political, and cultural shades and meanings.

At the same time, these articles suggest a consistency of inventiveness among Vietnamese to seek solutions for big, sometimes massive, problems.  Some of the solutions, perhaps most, were quite limited due to great constraints imposed by times and circumstances.  But it is clear that they’ve never waited for saviors or outsiders, but actively tried to deal with shape their identity and destiny.  Here are the examples drawn from the articles:

  • The transformations of Trần Hưng Đạo from “classical” models to a modern and nationalist one
  • Minh Mạng’s practice of getting the best out of southerners and northerners.
  • Exam responses and writings reflecting reaction in the intellectual realm
  • The exploits by HCM and the communist party regarding his cult as a rallying point
  • In turn, the exploits of this cult and the channeling of nationalism by religious or millenarian groups

The question about “Vietnamese modernity” is too large and complex to approach here.  But these five articles suggest that for over two centuries now, the Vietnamese have exercised their agency consistently (if sometimes futilely), either in search of a new collective identity or in the maintenance of that identity.

They might have acted or overacted, or reacted or over-reacted.  But rarely, if ever, that they did not act.  It is not unreasonable, in fact, to say that there have been so much action and reaction among Vietnamese in the last two centuries.  So much that it is very difficult sometimes to make head or tail of their complicated modern history.