Threatening Histories

Rethinking the Historiography of Colonial Viet Nam

Author: George Dutton


This article contributes to recent scholarship on modern Vietnamese historiography by examining the ways in which twentieth-century historians have manipulated their representations of collective actions during the French colonial period. Following studies by Patricia Pelley, Christoph Giebel, Peter Zinoman, and others, the author offers a critical reading of narrative accounts of the period between the late nineteenth century and the late 1930s. The article is inspired by Prasenjit Duara's work on modern Chinese historiography, in which he showed how early twentieth-century Chinese historians viewed their history through the simplifying lens of the nation-state. Here the author argues that most post–1954 communist historians in Viet Nam were influenced by similar impulses, leading them to construct a highly teleological account of this period, obscuring its true complexity. The author uses case studies of the representations of secret societies, ethnic minority groups, and new religious movements to demonstrate how this obscuring has worked, while suggesting alternate readings of the collective actions by these groups that place them outside of a convenient teleology leading directly to the triumph of the Communist Party. The author argues that the complex histories of these groups were a challenge to the Marxist dialectic and were thus regarded as a threat to the narrative. As such, modern historians had to reimagine or even erase these complexities for political purposes. The author concludes by suggesting that historians must continue to probe these types of collectivities as complex actors in a complicated historical landscape, rather than accepting them as part of a linear narrative.

Countries: Vietnam

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September 2013
© ILO Photo/Crozet M.