Disjointed thoughts on Sources of Vietnamese Tradition

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On paper, Sources of Vietnamese Tradition  has a laudable goal: “[to] provide an essential guide to two thousand years of Vietnamese history and a comprehensive overview of the society and state of Vietnam. Strategic selections illuminate key figures, issues, and events while building a thematic portrait of the country’s developing territory, politics, culture, and relations with neighbors. The volume showcases Vietnam’s remarkable independence in the face of Chinese and other external pressures and respects the complexity of the Vietnamese experience both past and present”. The book’s hefty 600+-page contents promise a wealth of information and insight into Vietnamese society.

(warning: family-history bias)

Thing is… I guess they do provide that wealth of information, but due to a number of factors it ends up being a bit biased–first off, I appreciate the exclusion of any text they couldn’t find a primary (untranslated) source for, but that means that they spend most of the period of Chinese domination (roughly the first ten centuries, though it’s more complicated than that) presenting… the point of view of the Chinese on the Vietnamese, which is well and good but a tad worrisome. Also, the “famous” texts of Vietnamese literature (like The Tale of Kiều) end up excluded, on the basis that anyone interested in those can track them down; again, I understand why they did that, but that means you have to buy extra books if you want those texts. You also get  a very curious view of “tradition”, since the emphasis on existing transcribed texts with an attribution means any folk renditions or anything not from the (literate, scholarly) aristocracy is excluded; which produces a definitely skewed view of history, and ends up with a very different “feel” from what I know (which is handed down mostly from family). To be fair, it’s hardly specific to this book, but is a problem I have with the series of “Sources of Asian tradition” in general.

Due to the coverage, you have entire periods where things happen in a bit of a puzzling fashion, for instance Lê Lợi‘s rebellion and his relationship to Nguyễn Trãi; again, possible family bias showing there, but I felt you never really got a sense of either of those men and the turmoil of the court of Lê Lợi ‘s successors, and it’s a bit hard to imagine Vietnamese history and modern Vietnamese perception of that history (at least in that bit of a the diaspora I’m familiar with) without them. And, uh, do yourself a favour and go read someone else’s account of modern Vietnamese history (from the independence onwards), because I felt the book didn’t really capture the ins and outs of what was happening in Vietnam in that time period. Again, this might all be my personal feeling, and it is also because, to some extent, I was expecting from a book that size something fairly comprehensive, which, in all fairness to them, clearly is not what the authors were out to produce (and they make that clear at the onset, from the preface).

Would I recommend this book? Mostly, yes, because there are plenty of great texts here that you won’t find anywhere else, and I learn tons of things about Vietnam I didn’t know. However, if you’re just looking for an entry point into Vietnamese history and culture, I’d recommend with reservations.

 

2 comments

  1. Aliette, I’d never heard of The Tale of Kieu before. Thanks for bringing that to my attention. Are there any novels written by Vietnamese writers (classical or modern) that you would recommend?

  2. @Lim: I’ve read mostly classical stuff (folklore and fairytales; I really recommend Thích Nhất Hạnh’s “The Dragon Prince”, though it doesn’t get all the tales I loved when I was a child). I’m afraid I’m not really competent on modern writers, though Linh Dinh’s Night, Again is a good anthology of short stories written by Vietnamese authors, albeit one that’s starting to date a little…

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