Connected History and shared History, a turn in historiography of Vietnam.

This article aims at outlining Vietnam historiography but it does not pretend to be an exhaustive overview. It only focuses on the Vietnamese studies in France. In 2013-2014, l’Année France-Vietnam (“France-Vietnam Year”) was celebrated in both countries under official sponsoring by the Foreign ministries and by cultural agencies such as AUPELF, EFEO, etc. Many academic conferences and art exhibitions were carried out during that ambitious criss-cross program for revisiting «Eighty-five years of French presence», mostly in Paris and Hanoi. Numerous publications between 2013 and 2015 have also revealed the wealth of interactions between the French and Vietnamese peoples during this period. Though «French presence» is an euphemism for military conquest and the political, economic and cultural subjection of the the three kingdoms of the peninsula, there was no hint of imperial nostalgia.

As a one-century period has elapsed, the consequences of historical events, be they beneficial or harmful, evident or concealed, can be studied and analysed with a more peaceful state of mind and, for historians, with a more objective interpretation. This notion of historical perspective, which steps back from the relations between the French and the Vietnamese peoples (and Indochinese people, in a broader perspective), is not using elapsed time but Bergson's duration where mixing and syncretism are at work. Eighty-five years of «French presence» were followed by twenty-nine years of war for independence worsened by civil strife intertwined with proxy war called Cold War. Then, how is it possible to manage peaceful encounters and dialogues?

The historical perspective does not cover an empty time period nor a parenthesis with an ellipsis, but a full time period which, in reunited Vietnam, started in 1986, when the Vietnamese government adopted a new policy called Đổi Mới (Renovation). This policy's major components were economic reforms – to abandon the so-called socialist economy -. But Đổi Mới's cultural and, thus, political dimensions were both barely noticed or badly understood, especially abroad, even though, in 1987, the Secretary General of the Communist Party, Nguyễn Văn Linh, called writers and artists to emancipate from dogma and tabous[1]. But the political discourse and , by the same token, historiography are still facing obstacles despite a period of freedom of expression between 1989 and 1991.

Generally speaking, the Đổi Mới is an opening to the outside world and Socialist Vietnam has adopted a multilateral diplomatic strategy brought about by the threat that is China's rise in power: joining ASEAN, joining the International Organisation of La Francophonie, etc.

So, Đổi Mới is the key condition for updating the development of the Vietnamese culture as well as Vietnam's economic growth. Historiography has benefited from this new deal, even though it still has to oppose ideological inertia: dogmas and forbidden issues, often justified by false pretence. However, in the last two decades, the official history, especially the one taught in school, has been subjected to examination, or even been corrected, by publications as well as by the Internet, where are writing bloggers both from Vietnam and from the diaspora. As far as Internet is now an usual communication instrument as well as studies are pursued abroad, researchers can go ahead working. Now, many Vietnamese go to foreign universities to study and make social sciences research while many foreign social scientists have free access to local archives and fields of demography, sociology, ethnology. In spite of obstacles, Vietnamese historians deal with sensitive matters, either directly or getting round.

The Xưa Và Nay (Past and Present) journal, published by the National Association of Vietnamese historians (NAHVN), has made some breaches in the wall of certainties and dogmas. First, the historical role of the Nguyễn dynasty, the last Vietnamese kings (19-20th centuries). They were accused to have called the French to take power against the Tây Sơn, and so, they put «the snake in the henhouse». The last Nguyễn (Khái Định and Bảo Đại) were French colonial power’s “puppets”. In 2014, the NAHVN organised a national colloquium which rose heated debates. Then, the case of Trương Vĩnh Ký, aka Petrus Ký, a catholic lettré who played a crucial role in the modernization and diffusion of Quốc ngử (the Latin transcription of Vietnamese writing). He was labelled «interpreter of the French Army» in a literary anthology published in French in Hanoï (1972). Since Đổi Mới, he has been the subject of two books (1993) and a colloquium. They are a recognition of his contribution to the Vietnamese modern culture as well asa political rehabilitation. It is also important to mention that numerous Vietnamese students, going to France to defend their PhD thesis, have thus been in a position to analyse their country's history without the hindrance of preconceptions.

Commemoration of the 169th birthday of lettré Trương Vĩnh Ký (cf. text), on December, 6th, 2006.
Petrus Ký high school, founded in1927 inSaigon,
was nationalised in 1975 and renamed Lê Hông Phong.
A private high school under the tutelage of the Ministry of National Education
and of Ho Chi Minh City's People's Committee, was openedin 1997
in Ho Chi Minh City and named afterTrương Vĩnh Ký.
It hosts2,900 students, from the primary to secondary school levels. (© 2006 / C. Davant)

As far as French research goes, Đổi Mới has facilitated the cultural relations between France and Vietnam even though francophonie steadily declines. It is not an exaggeration to say there was a renaissance of Vietnamese Studies (Vietnamologie in French). This was initiated and was made more dynamic when the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO – French School in the Far East) came back in Hanoï (1993) and opened another centre in Ho Chi Minh City in 2013. Since the 1990’s, the Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD – Institute of Research for Development) is also involved in the fields of demography, urbanism, agronomy (rural sociology) and economics. Both institutions are partners with the corresponding Vietnamese institutions. That cooperation has borne fruit through joint fieldworks, seminars and publications. Historian Philippe Papin participated to archeological excavations on Thắng Long site, Philippe Langlet’s scholarship on Annales impériales and early Buddhism in Vietnam was completed in close collaboration with the Hán Nôm Institute and its Buddhist scholars.

Now, let us focus on historiography, which took a turn since the 1990s. As thirty years of war and their memory become gradually more distant, historiography has changed paradigm. Previously, in France, historians dominantly exposed the dark side of colonial domination, except for the works of Ch. Fourniau and Philippe Deviller, respectively Vietnam. Domination coloniale et résistance nationale. 1858-1914 (Édit. Les Indes savantes, 2002 – Vietnam. Colonial domination and national resistance. 1858-1914) and Français et Annamites. Partenaires ou ennemis? 1856-1902. (Édit. Denoël, 1998 – French and Annamites. Partners or enemies? 1856-1902). Both are critical narratives and analyses of a complex reality and avoid reducing this reality to a series of clichés. Meanwhile, Vietnamese historians underscored the heroic resistance against the foreign domination and glorified the past.

The formal reception room of Trương Vĩnh Ký private high school.
The presence in this reception room of busts of both the lettréandHô Chi Minh ,
founding father and president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam,
is remarkable and an example ofĐổi Mớ. (© 2006 / C. Davant)

On both sides, this binary opposition - colonisers versus colonized - was a Manichean perspective. Since the 1990’s an alternative historiography has appeared which explores the complex transformations of Indochinese societies under the impact of economic and cultural modernisation, as limited as it was[2]. That new approach reveals the strategies of the local elites for resisting the colonial order and to subvert it without violence[3]. Therefore, observation, analyse and narration focus on reformist and evolutionary dialectics and not on uncompromising refusal and head-on clash[4].

In 1995, the Revue française d’Histoire d’Outre-Mer opened that way by publishing a five-article special issue titled “Indochine: domination et transactions” (Indochina: domination and transaction). Those “five contributions [dealing with politics, religion, education and medicine] have in common to not limit themselves to the pre-established and commonly accepted framework of an oppressive and destructive colonisation against which stands a unified and diehard resistance from the colonised population”. [5]

Sharing this point of view, historian Nguyễn Thế Anh and sociologists Trinh Văn Thảo and Nguyễn Phương Ngọc have underscored the crucial role of the reformist litterati and their movement (Phan Châu Trinh, Duy Tân, Minh Tân, Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục) prolonged by Hô Chi Minh’s syncretic melting of Confucianism and Marxism[6].

In october 2012, at Rendez vous de l’Histoire (Meeting with History) in Blois, inspired by Serge Gruzinski’s works on the mixing and circulation of cultures in Spanish America and in the Pacific world , D. Rolland, Đòan Câm Thi, C. Herbelin and N. André-Palloix were invited by P. Brocheux to join a roundtable on “intermixing in Indochina” on four topics: population, literature, architecture and fine arts.

Many works followed this initiative, ploughing the field of exchanges, inspirations and borrowings, resulting in opening a fruitful historiographical chapter on interactions and transculturation in Indochina, and in setting the conditions for the publication of a significant set of books since 2005:

  • Bousquet and N.Taylor, Le Viet Nam au féminin/Vietnam: Women’s Realities, Paris, 2005.
  • Nguyễn Phương Ngọc, À l’origine de l’anthropologie au Vietnam. Recherches sur les auteurs de la première moitié du XXe siècle (To the origins of anthropology in Vietnam. Research on the authors of the first half of the 20th century), PUP, 2012.
  • NPN and Trinh Văn Thảo (dir.), Les passeurs. Portrait de groupe d’intellectuels vietnamiens dans le siècle franco-vietnamien (1858-1954) (The ferrymen. Profile of a group of Vietnamese intellectuals during the French-Vietnamese century [1858-1954]) in Moussons n°24, PUP, 2014.
  • NPN and C.Flicker (dir.), Théâtres français et vietnamiens (un siècle d’échanges, 1900-2008), réceptions, adaptations, métissage (French and Vietnamese theatres [a century of exchanges 1900-2008], reception, adaptations, intermixing), PUP,2014.
  • Jammes, Les oracles du Cao Dai. Étude d’un mouvement religieux vietnamien et de ses réseaux (The oracles of the Cao Dai. Study of a Vietnamese religious movement and its networks), Les Indes savantes, 2014.
  • Herbelin, B.Wisniewski, F.Daleix, Arts du Vietnam. Nouvelles approchesapproaches (Arts from Vietnam. New approaches.), Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2015.

This list was crowned by the published proceedings of two conferences of L’Année France-Vietnam:

  • Le Vietnam, une histoire de transferts culturels (Vietnam, a history of cultural transfers), edited by Hoai Hung-Aubert Nguyen and M.Espagne, éditions Demopolis, 2015.
  • France-Vietnam - quatre siècles de relations (France-Vietnam – four centuries of interactions), edited by D.Barjot & J.Frémeaux, Mondes et Cultures, CR annuel des travaux de l’Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer, Paris.

A third book is underpress on the “Diplomatic, economic and cultural relations between France, Europe and Vietnam since 1954”, P. Journoud and H. Tertrais editors.

Pierre Brocheux,
Pierre Brocheux made research and taught on Southeast-Asian History,
principally on French Indochina and Vietnam (19th and 20th centuries).
He co-founded AFRASE (French Research Association on South-East Asia)
of which he was chairman in 1994-1997.
His main works published in English are:
The Mekong Delta Ecology, Economy and Revolution… (1995 and 2009);
Ho Chi Minh.A Biography…(2007);
Indochina. An ambiguous colonization. 1858-1954,
co-written with D.Hémery, UCP, 2009.
From 1989 to 2001, he was editor of Outre-Mers. Revue d'Histoire
formerlyRevue française d'Histoire d'Outre-Mer.

[1] Doan Câm Thi, Écrire le Vietnam contemporain. Guerre, corps, littérature, PUPS, 2010

[2]P. Brocheux and D.Hémery initiate it in An ambiguous colonization.1858-1954, University of California Press,2009.

[3] E.Poisson, Mandarins et subalternes au nord du Vietnam, une bureaucratie à l’épreuve (1820-1918). Maisonneuve et Larose, 2004.

[4] P.Brocheux focus that evolutionary trend in Histoire contemporaine du Vietnam. La nation résiliente, Fayard , 2012.

[5] tome 82, n°309, 4ème trimestre 1995, extract from “Introduction”.

[6] cf. Trinh Van Thao, Du Confucianisme au Communisme, L’Harmattan, 1997, Nguyen The Anh, Parcours d’un historien du Vietnam, recueil d’articles présentés par Philippe Papin, Les Indes savantes, 2015.

Image 0 (Connected History and shared History, a turn in historiography of Vietnam.)
Alexis Darbon
Retired professor of contemporary History at University Paris Diderot-Paris 7