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Historical Research in Vietnam: A Tentative Survey

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 April 2011

Nguyên Thê Anh
École Pratique des Hautes Études, The Sorbonne


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. 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 Tightness of the ideology of a North Vietnam that has just then triumphed over its adversaries.

Copyright © The National University of Singapore 1995

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1 Le Quy Don toan tap. Tap 1: Phu Men tap luc [Complete works of Le Quy Ptn. Vol. I: Miscellaneous chronicles of the government of the frontiers] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1977). The collection stopped short, however, after the publication of Vol. II, Kien Van Tieu Luc [Notes on things seen and heard], 1977 and Vol. III, Dai Viet Thong Su [History of the great Viet], 1978.Google Scholar

2 A presentation of the production of historical research was also published in 1975 by the Institute of Historical Studies with Tong muc luc va sach dan Tap san VAN SU DIA va Tap chi NGHIEN CUU LICH SU, 1954–1973 [General tables of contents and indexes of the Review “Literary, Historical and Geographical Studies” and of the Journal “Historical Studies”]. More exultant in tone, however, are Tao's, Van article “Nhung thanh tuu nghien cuu cua Vien Su hoc Viet-nam trong nhung nam qua va phuong huong toi” [The results of the research of the Vietnamese Institute of Historical Studies in the past years and future trends], Nghien Cuu Lich Su 182 (1978): 319Google Scholar, and the report stated in Su hoc Viet-Nam tren duong phat trien [Vietnamese history on the way of development] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1981). Previously, with the exception of Ben, Phan Gia, La recherche historique en Réyublique démocratique du Viêt-Nam, 1953–1963 (Hanoi, 1965), few surveys on the conditions of historical research were in circulation.Google Scholar

3 Much more than its neighbours in Southeast Asia, Vietnam possesses a rich historiographical tradition. The mass of annals, chronicles and other historical writings bequeathed by the successive dynasties has been recently inventoried in Di san Han Nom Viet Nam thu muc de yeu — Catalogue des livres en Han Norn, ed. Nghia, Tran & François, Gros (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1993, 3 vols.)Google Scholar. Besides this catalogue, it would still be profitable to consult an older repertory, Giap, Tran Van, Tim hieu kho sach Han Nom. Nguon tu lieu van hoc su hoc Viet-Nam [Comprehension of the Han Nom corpus. Vietnamese literary and historical sources) (Hanoi: NXB Van-Hoa & NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 19841990, 2 vols.)Google Scholar. Since its foundation in 1959, the Institute of Historical Studies has settled down to the task of translating the most important records, beginning with such nineteenth-century collections as Kham Dinh Viet Su Thong Giam Cuong Muc [A mirror of Vietnamese history prepared by imperial order] (Hanoi: NXB Van Su Dia, 19571960, 4 vols.)Google Scholar, Dai Nam Thuc Luc [Veridical records of Dai Nam] (Hanoi: NXB Su-Hoc then NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 19621978, 38 vols.)Google Scholar, Dai Nam Nhat Thong Chi [Gazetteer of Dai Nam] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 19691971, 5 vols.)Google Scholar. The diverse initiatives within this field undertaken in South Vietnam before 1975 are less known, but more useful perhaps to researchers, in so far as the translations of ancient texts offered by the institutions belonging to the Ministries of Education and Culture in Saigon are as a rule accompanied with their reproduction. The pace of publication of ancient sources has recently increased: the different versions in modern Vietnamese of the oldest history of traditional Vietnam, Dai Viet Su Ky loan Thu [Complete history of the great Viet], are now superseded by a new edition under the editorship of Phan Huy Le (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1993, 4 vols.)Google Scholar; some former translations have been republished, for example Chu's, Phan HuyLich Trieu Hien Chuong Loai Chi [A reference book of the institutions of successive dynasties] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1992, 3 vols.)Google Scholar; some attention has been given to old legal codes, such as Quoc Trieu Hinh Luat [Penal laws of the Le dynasty] (Hanoi: NXB Phap-Ly, 1991)Google Scholar; most interestingly, the focus has been particularly on the translation of the documents of the Nguyen dynasty, with Dai Nam Liet Truyen [The compilation of biographies of Dai Nam] (Hue: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1993, 4 vols.)Google Scholar, and Kham Dinh Dai Nam Hoi Dien Su Le [Official compendium of institutions and usages of Dai Nam, compiled by imperial order] (Hue: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1993, 15 vols.)Google Scholar. Founded in 1979, the Han Nom Institute (Vien Nghien Cuu Han Nom) has joined in the task of preserving and translating old documents in classical Chinese (Han script) and in demotic script (Nom); see Nghien Cuu Han Nom [Han Nom studies] (Hanoi: Vien Nghien Cuu Han Nom, 1984) and Tap Chi Han Nom [Han Nom Journal], first issued in 1985.Google Scholar

4 Quoted by Tertrais, Hugues, “Un état des recherches sur l'histoire du Vietnam”, Vingtième Siècle (Paris), (Oct.-Dec. 1993), p. 98.Google Scholar

5 “De cuong ve van hoa Viet-Nam”, in Tai lieu tham khao lich su cach mang can dai Viet-Nam [Documents on the history of the contemporary Vietnamese revolution] (Hanoi: NXB Van Su Dia, 1957), vol. 10, pp. 9095.Google Scholar

6 Articles evaluating Phan Thanh Gian's role were published in different issues of Nghien Cuu Lich Su, 1963. They have been summarized by Osborne, Milton E., “Truong Vinh Ky and Phan Than Gian: The problem of a nationalist interpretation of 19th century Vietnamese history”, Journal of Asian Studies 30, 1 (Nov. 1970): 8193CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It is not unnecessary to add that appraising historical personages is a practice regularly performed in Nghien Cuu Lich Su, figures discussed in that manner include Duong Van Nga, Ho Quy Ly, Nguyen Cong Tru, Nguyen Truong To, Luu Vinh Phuc, Phan Chu Trinh ….

7 See for instance Nhung van de van hoa xa hoi thoi Nguyen [Social and cultural issues in the Nguyen era], ed. Mac, Duong and Le, Trung (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1992)Google Scholar, a collection of brief highly critical essays on the Nguyen rulers, blamed for not preventing the arrival of the French colonials, then for collaborating with them.

8 To cite but a few of these publications of historians of the former Republic of South Vietnam: Khoang, Phan, Viet Su: Xu Dang Trong (1558–1777). Cuoc Nam tien cua dan toe Viet-Nam [Vietnamese history: The Inner Country (1558–1777). The southward progress of the Vietnamese people] (Saigon: Khai Tri, 1970)Google Scholar; Anh, Nguyen The, Kinh te va xa hoi Viet-Nam duoi cac vua trieu Nguyen [Vietnamese economy and society under the Nguyen] (Saigon: 1st ed., Trinh Bay, 1968; 2nd ed., Lua Thieng, 1970)Google Scholar; Truong, Ta Chi Dai, Lich su noi chien o Viet-Nam tu 1771 den 1802 [History of the civil war in Viet-Nam from 1771 to 1802] (Saigon: Van Su Hoc, 1973)Google Scholar, vehemently criticized by Hanoi historians, because of its disagreement with their official interpretation (see Nghien Cuu Lich Su, 1976, nos. 2 & 3). South Vietnam historians are also to be credited with having taken the initiative in exploiting the Nguyen archival materials known under the generic term of Chau ban [Red Documents], See, Muc luc chau ban trieu Nguyen [Repertory of the Red Documents of the Nguyen dynasty] (Hue: Vien Dai-Hoc Hue, 19601962, 2 vols.)Google Scholar; Anh, Nguyen The, Phong trao chong thue mien Trung nam 1908 qua cac chau ban trieu Duy-Tan [The resistance movement against taxation in central Vietnam in 1908 through the red documents of the reign of Duy-Tan] (Saigon: BVHGD, 1973)Google Scholar; Phuong, Ha Mai, Hoat dong cua Bo Cong duoi doi vua TU-Duc qua cac chau ban nha Nguyen [The activity of the Board of Public Works through the Red Documents of the Nguyen] (Saigon: BVHGD, 1974).Google Scholar

9 “The building on a par with the protection of the country, this is the principle of preservation and development of our nation ” Su hoc Viet-Nam, p. 139.

10 Le Vietnam traditionnel. Quelques étapes historiques (Hanoi: Etudes vietnamiennes no. 21, n.d.), p. 170.

11 Hoi, Uy Ban Khoa Hoc Xa, Lich Su Viet-Nam [Committee of Social Sciences, History of Vietnam] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 19711985)Google Scholar. The first volume of this general history covers the period from the origins to the middle of the nineteenth century; published only fourteen years later, the second spans the following hundred years, down to 1945. It goes without saying that a genuine general history of Vietnam remains to be written. An academic history of Vietnam in eight volumes was planned many years ago, but only the first volume has seen the light: Le, Phan Huy, Vuong, Iran Quoc, Tan, Ha Van, Ninh, Luong, Lich Su Viet-Nam. T. I: Thai ky nguyen thuy den the ky X [History of Vietnam. I: From the origins to the tenth century] (Hanoi: NXB Dai-Hoc va Trung-Hoc chuyen nghiep, 1985)Google Scholar. Concerning chronologies, the stress is also upon the modern period: Bien nien lich su co trung dai Viet-Nam, tu dau den giua the ky XIX [Chronology of Vietnamese history, from the origins to the middle of the nineteenth century] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1987)Google Scholar; Quoc, Duong Kinh, Viet-Nam. Nhung su kien lich su, 1858–1945 [Vietnam. Historical facts, 1858–1945] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1982, 2 vols.)Google Scholar; Vien Su-Hoc, Viet-Nam. Nhung su kien 1945–1986 [Institute of Historical Studies, Vietnam. Facts and events, 1945–86] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 19751990, 2 vols.).Google Scholar

12 See Hung-vuong dung nuoc [The Hyng kings builders of the state] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 19701974, 4 vols.)Google Scholar. Other collective works have followed, for instance: Van Tan, Nguyen Van Linh, Le Van Lan, Nguyen Dong Chi, Hoang Hung, Thoi dai Hung vuong. Lich su, kinh te, chinh tri, van hoa, xa hoi [The era of the Hung kings. History, economy, politics, culture, society] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1976); Le Huy Ngo, Pham Du, Pham Huy Thong, Van Tao, Le Van Lan, Le Tuong, Hoang Xuan Chinh, Tran Quoc Vuong …, Cac vua Hung da co cong dung nuoc [The Hung kings’ merit in erecting the state] (Vinh-phu: So Van-Hoa Thong-Tin, 1985).

13 Bich, Nguyen Luong, Viet-Nam ba Ian danh Nguyen toan thang [Vietnam's three victorious wars against the Yuan] (Hanoi: NXB Quan-Doi Nhan-Dan, 1981)Google Scholar; Van hoc Viet-Nam tren nhung chang duong chong phong kien Trung-quoc xam hoc [Vietnamese literature on the stages of the resistance against invading feudal China] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1981)Google Scholar; Nguyen, Viet (ed.), Quan thuy trong lich su chong ngoai xam [The Navy in the history of defense against foreign invasion] (Hanoi: NXB Quan-Doi Nhan-Dan, 1983)Google Scholar; Thu tich co Viet-Nam noi ve chu nghia banh truong ba quyen Dai Han [Ancient Vietnamese documents on the hegemonic expansionism of the great Han] (Hanoi: NXB Thong-Tin Ly-Luan, 1985).Google Scholar

14 Nghien Cuu Lich Su, 240–41 (3–4) (1988).

15 Dung, Nguyen Anh, Chinh sach ngu binh u nong cac thoi Ly-Tran-Le so [The policy of remitting the army to agriculture under the Ly, Tran and first Le] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1981)Google Scholar; Tim hieu xa hoi thoi Ly-Tran [Understanding the society under the Ly and Tran] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1981).Google Scholar

16 Hoc, Vien Su, The ky X. Nhung van de lich su [The tenth century: Historical problems] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xd-Hoi, 1984)Google Scholar; Le, Phan Huy, “L'ivolution des formations socio-économiques dans l'histoire du Vietnam”, Sciences Sociales (Hanoi) 1, 2 (1986): 7994Google Scholar; Phiet, Nguyen Danh, Nha Dinh dep loan va dung nuoc [The Dinh dynasty quells revolts and founds the state] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1990).Google Scholar

17 Quynh, Truong Huu, Che do ruong dat o Viet-Nam, the ky XI-XVIII [Land regime in Vietnam, 11th-18th century] (Hanoi: 19821983, 2 vols.).Google Scholar

18 Ian, Ha Van & Tam, Pham Thi, Cuoc khang chien chong xam luoc Nguyen Mong the ky XIII [The resistance against the Yuan-Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1968)Google Scholar; Tan, Van, “Nhung nhan to dua den chien thang quan Nguyen hoi the ky XIII” [The factors explaining the victories over the Yuan armies in the thirteenth century], Nghien Cuu Lich Su 180 (1978): 514Google Scholar; Le, Phan Huy & Doan, Phan Dai, Khoi Nghia Lam Son, 1418–1427 [The Lam Son insurrection] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 3rd ed., 1977)Google Scholar. See Linh, Nguyen Xuan, “Panorama des mouvements paysans vietnamiens”, Histoire de I'Asie du Sud-Est. Révoltes, réjormes, révolutions (Lille: Presses Universitaires de Lille, 1981), pp. 83110Google Scholar, for a list of the different articles on peasant movements published in Nghien Cuu Lich Su.

19 Le village traditionnel (Hanoi: Etudes Vietnamiennes nos. 61 & 65, 19801981, 2 vols.)Google Scholar; Nong thon Viet-Nam trong lich su [The Vietnamese rural community throughout history] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 19771978, 2 vols.).Google Scholar

20 Lich su Viet-Nam, t. I, p. 368.

21 Among the most recent ones: Bich, Nguyen Luong & Phung, Pham Ngoc, Tim hieu thien tai quan su cua Nguyen Hue [Research on Nguyen Hue's military genius] (Hanoi: NXB Quan-Doi Nhan-Dan, 1966)Google Scholar; Tan, Van, Nguyen Hue, con nguoi va su nghiep [Nguyen Hue, the man and his work] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1967)Google Scholar; “Phong trao nong dan Tay-son”, special issue of Nghien Cuu Licn su 183 (Nov.-Dec. 1983); Chien thang Rach Gam Xoai Mut [The victory of Rach Gam-Xoai Mut] (Ban Tuyen Huan Tinh Uy Tien-Giang XB, 1984); Do Bang et al., Nguyen Hue Phu Xuan [Nguyen Hue in Phu-xuan] (Hue: NXB Thuan Hoa, 1986).

22 Le Vietnam traditionnel, p. 140.

23 Ibid., p. 141.

24 Quang, Nguyen Phan, Phong trao nong dan Viet-Nam nua dau the ky XIX [Peasant movements of the first half of the nineteenth century] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1986).Google Scholar

25 See Phuc, Vu Huy, Tim hieu che do ruong dat Viet-Nam nua dau the ky XIX [Research on the Vietnamese land system in the first half of the nineteenth century] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1979).Google Scholar

26 Un siècle de luttes nationales (1847–1945) (Hanoi: Etudes Vietnamiennes no. 24, n.d.).

27 Lich su Viet-Nam, vol. 2, pp. 43–54, 72–82.

28 Dinh Xuan Lam, “Face a l'agression française”, Les lettrés devant l'histoire (Hanoi: Etudes Vietnamiennes no. 56, 1979, pp. 147–76).

29 See Tran Van Giau, Su phat trien cua tu tuong Viet-Nam tu the ky XIX den Cach mang thang Tam. T. I: Hey thuc phong kien va su that bai cua no truoc cac nhiem vu lich su [The development of Vietnamese thought from the nineteenth century to the August Revolution. Vol. I: The feudal ideology and its failure in its historical mission] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1973).

30 Phan Boi Chau was however one of the few that would never accept to surrender. The numerous studies devoted to his action attest to the importance attributed to his role in the national movement (they are listed in particular in Shiraishi, Masaya, Vietnamese nationalism and its relations with Japan and Asia: Phan Boi Chau's ideas of revolution and the world [in Japanese]. Tokyo: Gan'nando Shoten, 1993, pp. 783816)Google Scholar. His writings, published in Hanoi these past three decades mostly by Chuong Thau, have been recently reissued by the latter in a complete collection of ten volumes, Phan Boi Chau loan tap (Hue: NXB Thuan-Hoa, 1990).

31 Hoc, Vien Su, Nong dan va nong thon Viet-Nam thoi can dai [Institute of Historical Studies, Vietnamese peasantry and rural society in the modern period] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, vol. I, 1990).Google Scholar

32 Hoa, Ngo Van and Quoc, Duong Kinh, Giai cap cong nhan Viet-Nam nhung nam truoc khi thanh lap Dang [Vietnam's laborious classes in the years preceding the foundation of the Party] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1978).Google Scholar

33 Tam Vu, “Chu nghia quoc te vo san, mot trong nhung dong luc tinh than cua each mang Viet-Nam tu sau chien tranh the gioi lan thu nhat den thang 8–1945” [Proletarian internationalism, one among the spiritual moving forces of the Vietnamese revolution from after World War I to August 1945], Nghien Cuu Lich Su 185 (3–4/1979): 9–21.

34 Bien, Cao Van, Giai cap cong nhan Viet-Nam thoi ky 1936–1939 [The Vietnamese working class of the period 1936–1939] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1979).Google Scholar

35 The arrival of the spirit of revolutionary change and what it wrought has been dealt with mainly by Giau, Tran Van. His Su phat trien cua tu tuong Viet-Nam tu the ky XIX den Cach mang thang Tam [The development of Vietnamese thought from the nineteenth century to the August Revolution], originally published in two volumes (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 19731975)Google Scholar, has become a trilogy: I. He y thuc phong kien va su that bai cua no truoc cac nhiem vu lich su [The feudal ideology and its failure in its historical mission]; II. He y thuc tu san va su bat luc cua no truoc cac nhiem vu lich su [The bourgeois ideology and its incapacity in facing its historical mission]; III. Thanh cong cua chu nghia Mac - Le-nin. Tu tuong Ho Chi Minh [Success of Marxism-Leninism. Ho Chi Minh's thoughts] (Ho Chi Minh City: NXB Thanh pho Ho Chi Minh, 1993). As for Ho Chi Minh, he continues to be adulated more than twenty years after his death, and still figures in a prominent place in Vietnam's ideological restructuration: a research programme on his thought has been launched in 1991 and has already given rise to a special issue of the Scientific Review of the University of Hanoi (Tap Chi Khoa Hoc, 3–4/1992) consecrated to his “strategy of solidarity”.

36 Un siècle de luttes nationales, pp. 94–95.

37 See Tran Huy Lieu et al., Tai lieu tham khao lich su cach mang can dai Viet-Nam [Research documents on the history of Vietnam's modern revolution] (Hanoi: NXB Van Su Dia, 1955–58, 12 vols.).

38 Su hoc Viet-Nam, pp. 139–66.

39 Cao Van Luong, Cong nhan mien Nam Viet-Nam trong cuic khang chien chong My cuu nuoc, 1954–1975 [The workers of South Vietnam in the resistance against the Americans to save the country] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1977); Cao Van Luong, “Tim hieu ve hop tac hoa nong nghiep o cac tinh Nam Bo” [Research on the collectivization of the southern provinces], Nghien Cuu Lich Su 210 (5–6/1983): 12–23; Cao Van Luong, Lich su cach mang mien Nam Viet-Nam. Giai doan 1954–1960 [History of the revolution in South Vietnam, 1954–1960] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1991).

40 Nghien Cuu Lich Su 258 (1991). See also Cao Van Luong et ai, Viet-Nam 1975–1990. Thanh tuu va kinh nghiem [Vietnam 1975–1990. Realizations and experiences] (Hanoi: NXB Su That, 1991).

41 Nghien Cuu Lich Su has published in its issue no. 262 (1992) an article on the land bank system in South Vietnam before 1975. The interest for maritime trade has been manifested in the organization, with the assistance of the Japanese Toyota Foundation, of two international conferences on the ancient commercial sites of Hoi-an (1990) and Pho-hien (1992). See Do thi co Hoi-an [The ancient commercial city of Hoi-an] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1991), or the English edition Ancient town of Hoi-an (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1991).

42 In some way, the Nguyen's action is being re-evaluated through studies on the Vietnamese expansion southwards — see for example Huynh Lua (ed.), Lich su khai pha vung dat Nam Bo [History of the cultivation of the Southern region] (NXB Thanh pho Ho Chi Minh, 1987) –, or through publications or republications of works on Southern culture, such as those of Son Nam.

43 There are some publications on Confucianism or Buddhism, such as Nguyen Tai Thu, Lich su Phat giao Viet-Nam [History of Vietnamese Buddhism] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa-Hoc Xa-Hoi, 1988), but they cannot be considered as thorough studies. Well-researched works on religions and beliefs are rare, save Truong, Ta Chi Dai, Than, nguoi va dat Viet [Spirits, man and Vietnamese land] (Westminster CA: Van Nghe, 1989), an exceptional book in different senses, as the author, belonging to no official circle, has written it in very difficult conditions. It would never have been published, had it not been sneaked abroad.Google Scholar

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