Trần Ngọc Thêm and the Dire Condition of Vietnamese Scholarship

Liam Kelley

Nhatbook: Những chỗ nhấn mạnh là của Nhatbook. Về chủ đề này xin đọc thêm tại đây <link>Vì kiến văn có hạn nên chỉ xin mạn phép dẫn lại bài mà không bình luận gì thêm.

I was reading Trần Ngọc Thêm’s Tìm Về Bản Sắc Văn Hóa Việt Nam (TPHCM: Nhà Xuất Bản Tổng Hợp Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh, 2004). He has a section where he talks about the three stages in which he says the nationalities of Vietnam (các dân tộc Việt Nam) were formed. This what he says:

1) About 10,000 years ago, some Mongoloids from Tibet migrated into the Indochinese Peninsula where they mixed with “Melanésiens” to create “Indonésiens,” also known as “ancient Malays” (cổ Mã Lai). These Indonésiens then migrated out into the rest of Southeast Asia, which stretched from the Yangzi River in the north, to the Indonesian islands in the south, and from the Philippines in the East, to Assam in India in the west.

2) About 5,000 years ago, the Indonésiens living in the area of what is today southern China and the northern parts of the Indochinese peninsula, came into contact with Mongoloids from the north and formed a new group – the “Austro-asiatique” or “chủng Nam Á.”

3) Later these people broke up into groups which ancient Chinese texts refer to as the “Hundred Yue/Việt” (Bách Việt). Each group had its own language, and came to be known by names such as the following: Môn-Khmer, Việt-Mường, Tày-Thái, and Mèo-Dao.


First of all, the racial language which he uses here is very problematic, but I’ll put that aside and look at some other issues.

1) Indonesians and Malays are part of a larger group of peoples known as Austronesians. Scholars debate about where they originated. Many have long argued that the Austronesians originated in southeastern China and then migrated to Taiwan and then south to the Philippines before dispersing throughout Southeast Asia and into the Pacific. Others have argued for the emergence of Austronesians first in Southeast Asia. Either way, as far as I know, NO ONE argues that “Mongoloids from Tibet” have anything to do with the Austronesians.

Where did Trần Ngọc Thêm get this idea? He cites a 1976 work by Nguyễn Đình Khoa. Scholarship on human origins and linguistics changes constantly. What is more, Vietnamese scholarship in the 1970s was definitely not cutting edge. So why on earth would a scholar in 2004 rely on a Vietnamese work from 1976 on this topic?

2) “Austro-Asiatic” is a term which is most commonly used to refer to a group of languages which are today spoken from India to Vietnam, NOT southern China and the northern parts of the Indochinese peninsula. Further, no scholar that I am aware of argues that these languages and their speakers emerged in the area of southern China and northern Indochina either.

There are some scholars who examine genetics and try to connect the speakers of Austro-Asiatic languages. Here again, these people talk about the area stretching from India to Vietnam, NOT southern China and the northern parts of the Indochinese peninsula. For instance, this image below depicts the proposed spread of Austro-Asiatic speakers from India to Southeast Asia, and comes from a recent article in which some scholars examined genetic evidence.

[Source: Vikrant Kumar, et. al., “Asian and Non-Asian Origins of Mon-Khmer- and Mundari-Speaking Austro-Asiatic Populations of India,” American Journal of Human Biology 18 (2006): 467.]

3) Môn-Khmer, Tày-Thái, and Mèo-Dao are terms which refer to languages in different language families. Mon-Khmer languages are Austro-Asiatic languages, Tày-Thái are Tai languages, and Mèo-Dao are from the Hmong-Mien (a.k.a. Miao-Yao) language family. There is no linguist in the West who would argue that these separate language families developed from “Astro-Asiatic” (or from Austro-Asiatic people) in the past 5,000 years (or from any single group in the last 5,000 years).

Trần Ngọc Thêm’s ideas here demonstrate that he is completely out of touch with the scholarship on this topic. It’s the 21st century. Vietnam has been “open to the world” since 1986. There is no excuse for being this ignorant about a topic like this. There is also no excuse for publishing anything like this. That scholars can come up with ideas like these and get them published is a clear sign that the world of scholarship in Vietnam is in terrible shape. Why is this the case? Simply searching Google for “Austronesian origins” will make it clear right away that Mongoloids from Tibet are not part of the discussion. Can’t read English? Learn it.

That said, I think it is easy to see why Trần Ngọc Thêm wrote what he did. It’s nationalism. He wants to show that the nationalities of Vietnam (các dân tộc Việt Nam) come from the same source and were formed through a shared historical process. To do this requires that he ignore the scholarship of Western linguists from the past half century.

The purpose of scholarship is to enable readers to become more intelligent. Anyone who reads and believes what Trần Ngọc Thêm’s wrote here will, to the contrary, become more ignorant.


Nguồn: Le Minh Khai’s SEAsian History Blog


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