From the Red River GRANT EVANS K.W. Taylor A HISTORY OF THE (...)

Dernier ajout : 4 février 2014.

From the Red River GRANT EVANS K.W. Taylor A HISTORY OF THE VIETNAMESE 696pp. Cambridge University Press. Paperback, £29.99 (US $44.99). 978 0 521 87586 8 Published : 29 January 2014

More than 30,000 books have been written about the Vietnam War, overshadowing by far coverage of the rest of Vietnam’s long history. However, Keith Taylor, an ex-soldier of that war, secured his reputation by writing about the thousand years preceding the first Vietnamese dynasty in the tenth century, one of the country’s least-known historical periods. Professor Taylor’s The Birth of Vietnam (1983), an erudite example of nationalist historiography, is now a classic.
Crude nationalist tracts are still churned out by Hanoi historians telling a heroic tale of the endless struggle by an ancient people against foreign invaders to create an independent
nation. But these days this view has little traction elsewhere. Taylor’s massive new book, running from ancient times to the present (he has the academic conceit to call it a “sketch”) is deliberately entitled A History of the Vietnamese, emphasizing the people rather than the nation. Taylor repudiates the perspective of his earlier book and sets out to write a history that rejects the idea of “some deep logic governing a presumed destiny of the Vietnamese people”.
The main weakness of the book, however, is that Taylor deliberately eschews any perspective whatsoever. As he writes : “To some extent what we see is ‘just one random thing after another’ ; but this in itself is important because it alerts us to the fallacy of putting faith in a rigid overarching narrative of the ‘Vietnamese people’ or ‘Vietnamese nation’”. One can’t help but see this as an over-reaction to his earlier views, as if the only options were to either write nationalist history or “one damn thing after another” history. Our choices are surely not so narrow.
Taylor justifies his approach by arguing that there is a need to sort out “a basic sequence of events because this has never been done with the detail and method enabled by surviving evidence and recent scholarship”. And indeed, he accomplishes this through his extraordinary mastery of the sources. All the same, he mostly fails in his endeavour to “rise above a tedious account of random events by charting a narrative to stimulate the imagination”. Readers will come away with only a hazy sense of Vietnamese culture and society, for instance.
But who are these Vietnamese ? The Birth of Vietnam described a primordial Vietnamese culture that predated the thousand years of incorporation into the Han Chinese Empire, and burst back to life in the tenth century. Taylor now argues, more persuasively, that the thousand years of incorporation into the northern empire made “the Vietnamese” of the tenth century completely different from those who came before. The migration of Han officials and settlers led to the rise of an Annamese Middle Chinese that merged with what linguists might call Proto-Viet-Muong, in a context of widespread bilingualism and biculturalism, to produce a new Vietnamese culture in the tenth century.
The real slog for most readers will be the chapters on the various dynasties in Vietnam up until the arrival of the French in the nineteenth century. Taylor is aware that “some readers may view this as a ‘kings and battles’ approach”, but his attempts to fill out the picture with religion or literature often seem an afterthought. One gets a very good feel for how lethal it was to be a member of the Vietnamese aristocracy in these times, but no strong argument about why this should be so.
Regionalism, he argues, played an important role in Vietnamese history, especially as the country expanded southwards from its cradle in the Red River Delta, finally overwhelming the Hinduized Cham kingdoms and pushing
back the Khmer Kingdom in the far south. Part of his purpose is to challenge ideas of a homogenous Vietnamese culture or an atavistic drive towards unity, but the argument about the impact of frontiers is not so different from elsewhere, including the Han Empire’s ever-expanding frontier. Somewhat lawless, unregimented individuals and associations seem to be the norm.
If there is an overall argument to this book, it is only given at the very end, where Taylor states that the Vietnamese can only be understood through their long association with Han civilization. He notes that “This occurred differently from the other peripheral members of this civilization : the Japanese and the Koreans”. It is a pity he did not attempt more systematic comparisons with these countries as it might have cured him of his fear of grand theory and given his reader a better idea of the peculiarities of Vietnamese history.
Taylor knows China well, but as in much writing on Vietnamese history, China’s history tends to be represented as static rather than evolving. Indeed, given all the rhetoric one finds in Vietnamese propaganda about repelling invaders “from the north” there is little consciousness of the fact that major Chinese dynasties, like the Yuan and the Qing, were non-Han dynasties. Some future historian will need to chart the mutual evolution of Chinese and Vietnamese culture and society.
The book changes pace with the arrival of the French in Vietnam, perhaps because of the availability of high-quality secondary literature. This Taylor synthesizes into a very readable account of the diverse responses of the Vietnamese to French colonialism. He is at pains to undermine the Communist monolithic narrative that buries this diversity in a story of their inexorable rise. But it is the contradictions of French colonialism that finally locked out a non-Communist modernizing alternative. Indeed, French recalcitrance at the Geneva Conference of 1954 bequeathed further problems to the regime that formed in the non-Communist south.
Not surprisingly perhaps, the last chapter that covers the Vietnam War and its aftermath is the most passionate. Taylor writes a strong and convincing defence of the southern President Ngo Dinh Diem, whose assassination in 1963 the US condoned because he was not pliant enough. That was, Taylor argues, a major and irreparable mistake.
In a final section, Taylor sees Vietnam having to deal with its re-entry into a Chinese-centred world. Despite the current dispute in the South China Sea he seems optimistic about the outcome.