Q. How Confucian is/was Vietnam? Woodside, Kelley, and Cooke

Woodside, Alexander. 1971. Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Alexander Woodside examines how Confucian institutions were adopted and adapted by 19th century Nguyen Vietnam. Woodside then catalogs and compares the institutions in Vietnam and China and documents the reasons why Vietnam does not exactly replicate Chinese and Confucian characteristics. The five chapters examine themes of acculturation, civil administration, court bureaucrats and provincial administration, and education and exams. Among the tremendous details of  bureaucratic, administrative, and educational comparisons between Vietnam and China, Woodside demonstrates how the local variants of Confucian systems in Vietnam. He concludes that these differences were due to the problem of scale and relative size of Vietnam to China (too many administrative units for too small a space), the cultural diversity and distance between bureaucrats and peasants, and the simplification and translation of Confucian bureaucracy as a coherent system. ( “VN regional differentiation 1)variety of environments, agriculture, and settlement 2)little cultural standardization at village level, varied village traditions 3) 16th-19th century N v. C S different political units 4) movement south and diff backgrounds” )Woodside characterizes these aspects into the abstract themes of 1) pattern saturation, 2) cultural parallelisms (such as dual monarchy of hoang de and vua), 3) environmental-institutional tensions, and 4) divergences in social structure and resources.

  • does not necessarily differentiate between China & Confucian
  • overemphasis on Ming Mang rule and sources and false representation of whole Nguyen dynasty
  • ambiguity in SEA features in VN – what are the underlying VN-ness?
  • mistaking bureaucratic texts for social reality and perpetuating Nguyen historical invention of Confucianism
Kelley, Liam C. 2006. “‘Confucianism’ in Vietnam: A State of the Field Essay.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1 (1-2): 314–70. doi:10.1525/vs.2006.1.1-2.314.
 Kelley pushes back against the study of Confucianism in Vietnam as a selection from the ‘Confucian repertoire’ of common tactics and techniques. Confucianism has been defined in Western terms rather than directly engaging with the literature, poetry, and governmental bodies of which it produces. Confucianism cannot be thought of as simply Sinification/Sinicization or as a measure of Vietnam as “little China” or autonomously Vietnamese/SEA. Rather, we need to understand philosophy and moral-cultural perspectives of Confucianism as a worldview with categories of people: Efflorescents” (Hoa, cultural more so than ethnic label) and “barbarians” (di) with amorphous borders.
Cooke, Nola. 1994. “Nineteenth-Century Vietnamese Confucianization in Historical Perspective: Evidence from the Palace Examinations (1463-1883).” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 25 (2): 270–312.
Cooke, Nola. 1997. “The Myth of the Restoration: Dang Trong Influences in the Spiritual Life of the Early Nguyen Dynasty.” In The Last Stand of Asian Autonomies, edited by Anthony Reid, 269–95. London: Macmillan.
Nola Cooke refutes the claims that the 19th century was not a continuity of the Le 16th century past nor a zenith of Neo-Confucianism in Vietnam. Rather, the Nguyen emperors were a product of Dang Trong— a decentralized, spiritually eclectic space more similar to Buddhist Ly/Tran than Sinicized Le state.

2 thoughts on “Q. How Confucian is/was Vietnam? Woodside, Kelley, and Cooke”

  1. reading old Vietnamese books from the Nguyen and Le periods is my hobby. I read A. Woodside’s book four or five times and it has remained a favorite book of mine, but now I am graduating to Le Quy Don and other books written in hanvan directly.
    Woodside notes that the best writer on the question of Sino-Vietnamese differences is Le Quy Don himself.
    Woodside tends to use the Minh-mang era as his centerpiece since it was the period of the strongest Neo-Confucian culture. But the paradox of Minh-Mang is that he was perhaps the most Vietnam-centric of rulers. He appropriated Chinese culture to place Vietnam at the center as Woodside has noted.
    The system of “vermillion books” or “memorials” that is direct report to the emperor from subordinate officials was copied from Qing China and this is something that Woodside notes. This is the Chau Ban Trieu Nguyen that has been designated a UNESCO world heritage status recently and conserved in Hanoi. Woodside is one of the few scholars in the US who has studied this comparatively and Chen Jinghe and Li Tana has also used this as a source. In Vietnam, Phan Huy Le has organized the materials but it is in fact a very rich source of information at the granular level for the Nguyen period. Woodside only had access to microfilms when he was writing in the 1960’s. It is now ready for further study.
    Although Vietnam is in Southeast Asia and as Woodside notes, it has a monsoon climate with a rainy and dry season (using the notes of Le Quy Don), Vietnam historically shared a literary unity with China, Korea, and Japan in using literary Chinese or hanvan. This is also something that Liam Kelley stresses.
    A friend who is a Vietnamese anthropologist notes that Vietnam can be both Southeast Asian and East Asian and incorporates both regions. What really fascinates me is the actual functioning of the Le and Nguyen political state. On the surface, the state borrows Ming and Qing institutions and literature, but beneath the veneer, the environment is subtropical and monsoon. As Woodside quotes Le Quy Don, the Vietnamese farmer could distinguish between 70 strains of rice. According to Kelley, Le Quy Don travelled quite a bit in Guangxi, Hunan, and Beijing. Confucianism and its texts come from the North China plains. Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi has a stronger southern element and Zhu Xi himself lived and taught in Fujian and Hunan. Southern China has always had a strong non-Confucian background such as the Chu.
    Woodside great strength is he introduces to Nguyen documents to the world and these documents. His new introduction, written in 1988 for the paperback edition, stresses the superficiality of a Hanvan set of institution on a farming population that worked in the monsoon climate.

    1. Thanks William for your thoughts on my post and the work of Woodside. I agree that the debate between Southeast Asian and East Asian characteristics in Vietnam is an interesting one in Vietnamese history. At the same time, I wonder if these debates about ‘Southeast v. East Asian-ness’ is always a productive one? The abstract concept of regional identity can be useful for comparative studies. Furthermore, there is also something interesting too in what Kelley and Woodside claims as strategic bureucratic and dynastic specific (Ming Mang, Le, Nguyen) interpretations of East Asia and Confucianism. At the same time, Keith Taylor’s push towards local, ‘surface orientations’ of Vietnamese history tied to local narratives can be an interesting counter-history to state initiated sense of culture and civilization.

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