Nous postons ci-dessous un extrait (préface) de l’hommage rendu par l’historien américain Keith W. Taylor (Cornell University) à son collègue Nguyên Thê Anh lors de la parution d’un volume collectif édité en 2008 aux Indes savantes. Publié avec l’autorisation de l’auteur qui tenait à rappeler l’importance du travail rigoureux et novateur ainsi que l’indépendance d’esprit de son ami décédé.
Nguyen The Anh’s contribution to contemporary scholarship on Vietnam has been to inspire and to sustain a stream of academic thought that is both modern and national. His ability to countenance cultural diversity and a multi-centered national historiography contrasts with the recycling of traditional oligarchic absolutism masquerading as revolutionary nationalism that has prioritized scholarship in Vietnam since 1975. He has made a legacy not only with distinguished careers in two countries and with the contents of his work, but also by the nurturing encouragement that he has given to students and colleagues, to which this volume is a tribute.
Nguyen The Anh’s scholarship covers a wide range of topics and reveals a fresh and lively mind that is not confined by any form of dogma. He pioneered the study of the Nguyen dynasty long before it became fashionable to do so. This was the only major Vietnamese dynasty not based in Hanoi; it was a “southern” dynasty that could not be accommodated in a Hanoi-centric historiography except as a type of disloyalty to the nation, and, thusly categorized, it was considered unworthy of study. By researching this dynasty, Nguyen The Anh did not simply indicate resistance to the romanticized xenophobic heroics of revolutionary nationalism, and he did not merely open intellectual space for other ways of conceptualizing a Vietnamese historiography, but he offered a positive content to this option, a Vietnam engaged with the outside world rather than reactive and embattled, a Vietnam that had the intellectual confidence to accept and work through the inevitable confusions of rapid change and negotiated reform rather than giving in to the revolutionary temptation to set everything right with great spams of violence. This is increasingly important as Vietnamese studies moves further into the post-revolutionary era and as Vietnamese search with increasing urgency for alternatives to a worn-out vision of their national past.
My own appreciation of Nguyen The Anh can be conveyed by three themes that I believe are exemplified in his life and work: he reveals the creative energy produced by cross-border encounters whether understood as intranational or international; eschewing the simplistic inevitabilities of revolutionary ideology, he reveals national modernity in the experience of those who, once the revolutionary storm has been endured, must still live with the vicissitudes of gradual reform and change; finally, he reveals how, in the diaspora, a positive historiographic vision of the Vietnamese nation is kept alive through efforts to authorize Vietnam’s place in the contemporary world with a Vietnamese past that does not continually recycle in new forms of dogmatism.
Within these three themes is a tension between two fundamentally different ways of imagining Vietnam’s entrance to the modern world; these ways are exemplified by the two men who have become emblematic of early twentieth-century Vietnamese thought: Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh. While Phan Boi Chau stood for revolutionary violence to resist French colonialism, Phan Chu Trinh advocated using the French to achieve reform and national renewal without violence. Those who chose to follow the path of violence has unsurprisingly prevailed; in doing so, they proposed a historiography that aims to justify the violence their ambitions have produced, and they propagated a national caricature of heroes constantly at war against foreign agression. What time has shown is that the wisdom of Phan Chu Trinh was deeper than that of Phan Boi Chau. Violence offers no shortcut to the future; on the contrary, it cuts a swath of human pain and fear that makes a mockery of the end to which it is thought to be a means.
The wisdom of Phan Chu Trinh is to openly encounter the alien with confidence that what is truly worth preserving, one’s own moral nature, cannot be destroyed without one’s own complicity. He understood the nation not as the fixed identity demanding obedience but as a project in motion inviting participation. In contrast, the career of Phan Boi Chau was propelled by a simple-minded determination to expel the foreigner in the name of a national identity that would in some natural way reassert itself once this was accomplished. The Vietnamese communists followed the path of Phan Boi Chau and we can now evaluate the results of that experiment as Vietnam continues to recover from decades of war and now struggles to enter the modern world on the path of Phan Chu Trinh.
The range of Nguyen The Anh’s scholarship is truly remarquable. He has writing many detailed studies of specific topics as well as broad studies that synthesize and analyze information from long periods of time. His work includes historical studies of geology, agriculture, and climatology; ideology and religion including Buddhism, Confucianism, popular religion and Marxism; commerce and trade; warfare; Sino-Vietnamese relations; relations between Vietnam and the West; East Asian and Southeast history; the history of the U.S.; the history of Vietnam generally; topics in Vietnamese history from the 15th through the 20th centuries, with particular emphasis on the Nguyen Dynastic and the French Colonial periods; and also studies of post-1945 Vietnamese history. This body of works engages all three themes mentioned above (border experiences, non-revolutionary nationalism, and a global view of the nation) with a large-minded confidence in being Vietnamese that can focus upon contact and change rather than identity and battle.
For example, in his work, borders are primarily places of encounter rather than demarcation. This theme to some extent can be understood as reflecting a “southern” rather than a “northern” Vietnamese perspective on borders. While the northern Vietnamese border has been fixed in one place for centuries, the southern border had expanded dramatically and has opened up contact with many other peoples and polities. A suspicion of “foreigners” and a defensive attitude toward borders is often taken as a “traditional Vietnamese perspective,” but, if so, it ignores the southern experience, which has successfully tested a sense of “being Vietnamese” amidst great cultural, linguistic, social, and economic diversity.
In the same vein lies a stream of thought about how the nation has entered what we call the modern world. While the dominant view has emphasized northern-oriented visions of national continuity going back thousands of years as the cornerstone of the modern nation, Nguyen The Anh understands the implications of a very simple fact: that the modern nation of Vietnam is gift of the south. It arose in the south, from Saigon, in the late eighteenth century, with the founders of the Nguyen dynasty, which created, for the first time ever, the Vietnam that we see on the map today. This Vietnam was put together by armies marching north, not south, from the so-called “frontier,” often disdained as a place of contamination, not from the “ancient heartland” celebrated by revolutionary enthusiasts.
Also, when southern viewpoints were disallowed expression in Vietnam, Nguyen The Anh has provided leadership for international scholarship that has remained free to explore the great complexity of Vietnamese culture and historical experience, moving far beyond the brave simplicities of revolutionaries. This is a great gift for Vietnam today as the post-revolutionary era offers opportunities for a more diverse climate of opinion.
Finally, I want to mention a fourth aspect of Nguyen The Anh’s legacy, which is of a different order, namely his reputation as an excellent historian who has rigorously studied texts and archival materials. He has been a mentor for many students who have learned how to be scholars from his example, and this will continue to have a positive effect upon the study of Vietnam in the future. Although his work arrives at theoretical implications, it grows from the discipline of scientific investigation rather than from prior ideological commitments.
For many scholars of Nguyen The Anh’s generation, living through the great upheavals caused by the decline of colonialism, the rise of revolutionary nationalism, and civil wars for control of the nation state, scholarship is a form of politics, a means to affirm a moral judgment against one’s political enemies, a sublimated form of resentment directed not only at what is understood as a dominating alien power of a rival national power, but also at once’s national self because of the nation’s inability to maintain the uncontaminated purity of its pre-colonial origins. Nguyen The Anh’s work has not succumbed to this simplistic reduction of scholarship to ideology. On the contrary, it has been a constant source of inspiration for scholarship that responds to an unfettered human curiosity about the past and a commitment to scientific methodological norms. This is no small achievement in the context of modern Vietnamese studies. […]
Keith W. Taylor, 2008.
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