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Posted by on Aug 23, 2009 in The Vietnam Project, Writing | 2 comments

Why Do This At All?

My interest in Champa was aroused by reading about the American War with Vietnam. As I read more and more history I came to think that Vietnam is most often viewed as being the object of other nations’ foreign policy. In this formulation Vietnam is the great, anti-colonial champion of the world. Histories stated that after a thousand years under the Chinese yolk Vietnam became an independent nation, valiantly defending itself against later Chinese incursions. Histories seemed to devote 10 or 20 pages to the period between 939 and the French conquest of the mid 19th century. But books by John K. Whitmore and Alexander Woodside revealed another side of Vietnam, that of a country with a foreign policy of expansion and conquest of its neighbors to the south and west, the Cham and the Khmers. And before this conquest was complete, of course, the Cham, Khmers and the Javanese were all contending with each other. So I became interested in four major events of Vietnam’s history, after independence from China (939 CE) and before the French Colonial period (ca. 1850s CE). They are:

  1. The brief re-conquest of Vietnam by China under the MIng and Vietnam’s successful rebellion in 1428, leading to the establishment of the Le Dynasty and a meritocratic, bureaucratic state rooted in Neo-Confucianist doctrine. This ideology existed often and mostly as an ideal, competing with the realities of land-based, aristocratic military rule.
  2. The Ha Tien, or Vietnamese March South. The Vietnamese government began the practice, which would continue into the late 20th century, of settling demobilized soldiers and criminals as well as outlaws and people looking to escape from the villages of the north on ‘frontier’ lands of the south. The Le dynasty became a shell, behind which two families contended for power, the Trinh and the Nguyen. The Cham retreated farther and farther south, losing one battle after another. Eventually there are two Vietnamese courts, one in Hanoi, controlled by the Trinh, and one in Hue, established by Nguyen Anh, who feigned madness to avoid being murdered by his uncle. In elicits punning (to be exploited later, and shamelessly) on Strategic Hamlets.
  3. The Tayson Rebellion of 1771, when the Tayson brothers rose up to defeat both the Trinh and the Nguyen. The rebellion lasted 30 years and ended in defeat for the Taysons, but many events and ideas of the time provide tantalizing glimpses of the future. The Taysons were commoners and nationalists and conceived of modernizing schemes. One of them was to make Chu Nom, the Vietnamese invented alphabet, based on Chinese characters, the national language. They also employed Chinese pirates to be their official navy, about which one of the most fascinating studies I have ever read was written, by Diane H. Murray, Pirates of the South China Sea.
  4. With the defeat of the Taysons begins the Nguyen Dynasty, based in Hue, which for the first time rules over not just a united Vietnam, but a Vietnam that includes the Mekong Delta. This area had before the Taysons been dominated by the Khmers and the Cham, though it was sparsely populated. (Li Tana has several books about the 18th and 19th centuries in the southern part of Vietnam). It’s at this point, in 1834, that Vietnam becomes a genuine colonial power in its own right, invading Cambodia and imposing upon it Vietnamese customs, using the same language of cultural superiority the Chinese (and later, the French) used of them. In 1851 the Cambodians overthrew the Vietnamese with French assistance. Had the French not intervened Cambodia most likely would have been divided between Thailand and Vietnam.


  1. Hi Jon
    I’m sitting in Hoi An by a pool after a hot morning at My Son thinking of things Vietnamese – including reading Michael Vickery! If you haven’t read it I strongly recommend a newish work by Geoge Dutton
    The Tay So’n Uprising: Society And Rebellion in Eighteenth-century Vietnam (Southeast Asia–Politics, Meaning, Memory) [Hardcover]

  2. Hi Mark. I wish I were there! Thank you for reading. I own George Dutton’s book and am looking forward to reading it. Also, Li Tana’s other work on Southern Vietnam. Have you read Pirates of the South China Sea? An amazing book with a lot of informartion about the Tayson brothers

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