University of Wisconsin–Madison

Friday Forum: John D. Phan

“Nationalism and the Sinograph in Early 20th Century Tonkin”

Assistant Professor
East Asian Languages & Cultures
Columbia University

October 6, 2017
NOON-1:30 P.M.


The specter of nationalism has cast a long shadow over the study of Vietnamese history, literature, language, and culture.  Not only have nationalistic formations resulted in deeply anachronistic visions of the past, but reactions to the enormity of these effects have likewise led many scholars to overly cynical views of cultural, intellectual, or social identities in premodern times.  In this paper, I argue that a matrix of elite cultural identity was forged in early 15th century Vietnam, which bears distinctive similarities to what Benedict Anderson famously defined as the “imagined community” of the modern nation.  In particular, I suggest that an abstracted cultural fraternity was constructed among Đại Việt elites in the wake of a twenty-year occupation by Ming China, which was imagined in contradistinction to Ming cultural elites, with whom they otherwise shared virtually indistinguishable philosophical, religious, literary, and even linguistic practices. In other words, post-occupation Đại Việt was engaged in constructing a quasi-national identity. I argue that it was this incumbent, quasi-national sense of cultural identity that eventually clashed deeply with the Europeanized nationalism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.   The drive to fashion a Vietnamese nation-state, in other words, led to a rivalry of competing nationalisms, and ultimately, a rebranding of cultural identity—with specific attention paid to the realms of writing and language. In this analysis, I focus particularly on the great literary and historical projects of 15th century Đại Việt, in comparison with the specific debates over language and writing that obtained in early 20th century French Indochina.