Event Report “A New History of Vietnam? Questions of Colonialism, Collaboration, and Periodization”

Vietnamese villagers during the Fall of Saigon I Images: AP

Christopher Goscha presented his newest book, “Vietnam: A New History,” in front of a learned audience on 26 October 2016. As an event sponsored by the Dr. David Chu program for Asia Pacific Studies, the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies and the Centre for the Study of France and the Francophone World (CEFMF), Professor Eric Jennings of CEFMF moderated Professor Goscha’s presentation and discussion. An Associate Professor of International Relations at the Université du Québec à Montréal’s Department of History, Professor Goscha explained that his desire for his book is to convince readers that Vietnam ought to be viewed through its own complexities and history, and not through the lens of European colonization and occupation of the country.

Professor Goscha started his presentation by stating that his idea to write his book was fueled by both an amazement at how experts are unable to reach a ceasefire over the Vietnam War until today as well as his strong feelings about the nature of the American empire and Western intervention in Indochina. For the former point, he likens the scenario to French and German historians carrying on the fight of the First World War after the Paris Peace Conference by constantly engaging and battling with each other through their own individual writings of history. As an academic, Professor Goscha felt that his book was an opportunity for him to contribute to the demobilization of a scholarly conflict which views Vietnam as a country still at war and move the scholarly discussion of Vietnam towards a ceasefire. In other words, he hopes to redirect the conversation regarding Vietnam to one that is less centered on the wars fought and more focused on the human aspect of Vietnam. He does so by including two “new” themes that historians of Vietnam tend to overlook: Vietnamese colonialism and collaboration. In addition to his discussion about these two themes, he revisited the question of periodizing Vietnam’s ‘modern history’ in terms of Vietnam’s colonial encounter with the French in 1858.

Following experience in teaching survey courses for two decades, Professor Goscha notes that he was inspired to write his new book in a way that reflected a world history perspective, one in which time and space is compared in a generalized, overarching manner. The second chapter of his book, for example, features a discussion of empires in world history. He traces Vietnam’s history in relation to the Chinese Empire and Roman Empire as Vietnam’s physical geography meant that it was frequently seen to be the crossroad of trade between these two empires. Up until 900 CE, there was no such thing as Vietnam as it was simply the Southernmost province of China. However, following Vietnam’s eventual independence, it built its own empire southwards with the establishment of protectorates and indirect control over non-Vietnamese people.

With Vietnam having been a colonial power of its own, Professor Goscha challenges the traditionally held view of Vietnam’s modernity being a linear narrative starting in 1858 with the French encounter, and with it the advent of capitalism, industrialization, secularization and scientific rationalism in Vietnam.  Followed by Ho Chi Minh eventually marching to final victory following the French defeat in 1954 as well as the the American defeat in 1975. Such an understanding of Vietnam is, in his opinion, a Eurocentric view of modernity. While he agrees with the fact that Western colonialism was a modernizing force for Vietnam, he is opposed to such a view as framing Vietnam’s history as pre-modern prior to the arrival of the French. By doing so, it leads to problems of teleology and orientalism. He likens such a view to historians who describe China and Egypt as “modern” following China’s defeat in the First Opium War in 1842 and Egypt’s fall to Napoleon and subsequent opening up to the West in 1798 respectively.

Professor Goscha challenges this traditionally held view by highlighting how Vietnam’s own version of the meritocratic, Confucian-styled examination and bureaucracy was used by French administrators in the crafting of colonial state policies. Professor Goscha argues that the French used such policies because of its modernity and because of how it was already a powerful and efficient mechanism of social control. He goes so far as to argue that had the French not used such policies, the French colonial moment would not have lasted as long as it did in Vietnam. Furthermore, Emperor Minh Mang was an amazing Vietnamese colonizer who ruled over Vietnam from 1820 to 1841 while colonizing Cambodia and parts of Laos before the arrival of the French. While there are depictions of this emperor as a tyrant, a closer examination of his administrative policies demonstrates that he contributed to state centralization, economic development, and ideological homogenization during his reign.

Through these two examples, Professor Goscha suggests that modernity is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Rather, modernity can exist in multiple forms, and in different time and spaces. Modernity can disappear as soon as it appears, as was the case with the death of Emperor Minh Mang. Above all, modernity can co-exist with the un-modern.

By noting the French use of pre-existing Vietnamese governing policies and a different outlook on Emperor Minh Mang, there should be no doubt that these two examples not only allow for a more diverse and interesting understanding of Vietnamese history, but also shed light on how power operated in Vietnam over time and space. Jane Burbank’s and Frederick Cooper’s Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference, a text that all third-year students in Contemporary Asian Studies read, was drawn on by Professor Goscha in his talk to justify his deliberate decision to include these two examples. Professor Goscha also notes that these two examples elucidate new configurations of a Vietnamese empire, which allows for such an empire to be comparable to the Russian empire, the American empire or even the French empire.

During the final ten minutes of his presentation, Professor Goscha quickly went over the theme of collaboration and resistance in the history of Vietnam. He argues that collaboration was an important theme when writing his book because it existed during the colonial period and the wartime period of Vietnamese history. He defines collaboration as “occupier driven” and “established through the conqueror’s threat or use of superior military force, changing the balance of power to force an impact on local choice, loyalty and social relationship”. Collaboration was never static, Professor Goscha posits, since it kept changing as the occupier’s strength increased or decreased and as the international situation changed. In the case of Vietnam, the local populace collaborated with the French occupiers in order to survive life threatening situations or sometimes to provide care for their families. Through collaboration, occupation allowed for old debates to resurface. During this time, the occupier gave marginalized groups an opportunity to advance their own political and social agendas.

Professor Goscha provides an example of such an incident where marginalized groups used collaboration to advance their own political and social agendas in the case of Phan Chu Trinh, Vietnam’s first democrat. As a former mandarin and staunch republican, Trinh advocated a policy of collaboration in 1911 because he was under the impression that he could use the French to push through a revolution of getting rid of the Vietnamese monarchy. Trinh thought that he could emulate Sun Yat-Sen in bringing down the Qing dynasty in 1911. As such, Trinh tapped onto republican ideas, took on the colonial state seriously, and pushed for the assimilation of Indochina into a French department just like how Algeria was a French department. Professor Goscha notes that Trinh collaborated with the French not because he was an anti-national, but rather because he saw that the French would be an effective mechanism against the monarchy. Despite Trinh’s efforts, he was later imprisoned, dampening any hopes of such a revolution from taking place. From this example, Trinh’s colonial alliance can be seen as naïve and riddled with contradictions.

Evidently, Professor Goscha has provided scholars of Vietnamese history with some new insight into commonly discussed themes of Vietnamese modernity and periodization, and often neglected themes of Vietnamese colonialism and collaboration through his new book, “Vietnam: A New History”. It is clear that his book brings out figures in Vietnamese history that are overlooked once too many, such as Emperor Minh Mang and Phan Chu Trinh. At a time when Southeast Asia is increasingly seen as a strategic place in world affairs, there is no doubt that Professor Goscha’s book is worth a read for anyone interested in the historical context and relationships between Vietnam and neighbouring countries. I, for one, cannot wait until the University of Toronto Libraries purchase a copy or two of his newest book.

Stanley Chia is a third year student studying International Relations and History. He currently serves as an event reporter and copy editor for the Southeast Asia section of Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies.

About Stanley Chia 5 Articles
Stanley Chia is a 2nd year student studying International Relations and History. He currently serves as event reporter and copy editor for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, Southeast Asia section.

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