Expressions of Borders and Place through the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship

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Below is a old paper I found when I was writing through ideas of place, nation, and pre/early modern Vietnamese history. From the work of Liam Kelley’s Beyond the Bronze Pillars, I question how understandings of place shape concepts of nation and boundary. I wrote this paper in a class with Professors John Whitmore and Victor Lieberman at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

For more on Vietnamese geography, and map-making, see

Expressions of Borders and Place through the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship

Throughout the late colonial period and increasingly afterwards, questions of the modern sovereign nation have permeated political debates and academic studies on Southeast Asia. More recent scholars such as Benedict Anderson and Victor Lieberman examine even further the global nuances and multifaceted processes that encompass the development of a theoretical political identity, characterized as an “imagined community” or “political ethnicity.”[1] In particular, Lieberman’s forthcoming book challenges the problematic circumscription of the relatively modern European concepts of ‘nation’ and instead considers early modern understandings of ‘political ethnicity’ in a study of synchronous political development in Eurasia.

While incredibly important, the debate on the foundational meanings of political communities is beyond the scope of this paper. Rather, this paper attempts to contribute a facet of political identity through a study on the sense of belonging to and perception of ‘place.’ Here I use a theoretical understanding of place as an intimate relationship between individual and geographical space: “For humans, both the effects of space on our behavior and our use of space are mediated by place.” [2] I highlight the experience and construct of place mediated through the movement away from one’s place of familiarity. Specifically this paper explores the travels of Vietnamese envoys to China in the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries and the poetry they composed along their journeys. The sources examined in this paper are based primarily on Liam Kelley’s book, Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship, where Kelley provides a historical framework and extensive translations of sixteenth to nineteenth century Vietnamese envoy poetry.[3]

Furthermore, this paper explores questions of national identity and cultural influence that reoccur in the historiographies of Southeast Asia and Vietnam. Described as “The Least Coherent Territory in the World” by global historian Victor Lieberman, Vietnam has been an academically contested terrain as scholars ascertain levels of internal and external influence that have shaped Vietnamese society, culture, and political structures. These arguments generally gravitate towards two poles that contextualize the sense of ‘Vietnamesenesss’ vis-à-vis China or within regional Southeast Asian characteristics. In my examination of Vietnamese envoy poetry to China, I also engage with this debate and consider how scholars of Vietnam such as O.W. Wolters, Keith Taylor, Alexander Woodside, John Whitmore, and Liam Kelley interpret Vietnamese identity in various historical contexts.

Western scholarship on Southeast Asia has applied various interpretations to understand how and through what influences Southeast Asian polities and cultures developed over time. For example, imperial Eurocentric schools of thought considered the sixteenth century as a watershed for Southeast Asia while revisionists such as J.C. van Leur sought to extrapolate a local history under the “thin, flaking glaze” of external Indic and Sinic characteristics.[4] Contemporary scholarship on the region continues to shift along the debated role of internal and external influences, but now with a more nuanced consideration of local agency and global phenomena such as climate change, extensive trade networks, and epidemiology. In many ways this paper continues the discussion on Southeast Asia’s internal-external influences. However, I also attempt to understand the larger question of the lived experiences and perspectives of historical actors on place, movement, and identity. How can we read and make sense of historical accounts by exceptional individuals of exceptional experiences? What do these sources reveal or conceal about Vietnamese society and cultural values? How can individual experiences, concepts, and imaginaries of place and culture translate to larger understandings of political identity or civilization?

This paper is divided into three sections. The first part explores broader themes of space, movement, and mapping with a focus on understanding early modern Vietnam beyond the categorical forces of nation. In the second section, I compare Liam Kelley and Alexander Woodside’s studies on Sino-Vietnamese practices in order to shed light on Vietnamese literati and bureaucratic culture.  The last section revisits the overarching question of place and travel in the formation of identities through Liam Kelly’s translations of Vietnamese envoy poetry.


Space, Nation, and Region in Vietnamese History

Keith Taylor suggests a history beyond nation and region in his influential and inherently simple article “Surface Orientations” published in 1998 in the Journal of Asian Studies. As one of the defining scholars of the field, Taylor provides experienced insight on the limitations of the ‘nation’ dominated discourse in Vietnamese studies as well as recent discursive trends of revisionism.

“If we can clear our minds of ‘Vietnameseness’ as the object of our knowledge and instead look carefully at what the peoples we call Vietnamese were doing at particular times and places, then we begin to see that beneath the veneers of shared fields of sounds and marks, or of however one may refer to mutually intelligible languages and writings, lay quite different kinds of peoples whose views of themselves and of others was significantly grounded in the particular times and terrains where they dwelled and in the material and cultural exchanges available in those times and terrains.”[5]


Taylor’s suggestion seems simple: scholars of Vietnam should essentially return to the foundational core of historical study rooted in people rather than dwell in the a priori academic or political language of nation, boundary, and category. Nonetheless Taylor’s call to action is a potentially transformative theoretical statement for studies on Vietnamese history. Rather than focus on the politicized nature of nationalist histories, Taylor proposes how understanding people ‘as oriented toward the surface of their times and places’ and could disperse the traces that shape knowledge production.[6]  Challenging Prasenjit Duara’s ‘bifurcation’ of history as a dialectic with the present, Taylor sheds light upon the potential essentialism that theorists might inadvertently reinforce in attempts to challenge the dominant national narratives.[7] Unlike other methodological critiques, Taylor provides concrete examples of how a lens of surface orientations could help to understand episodes of Vietnam’s past. Ultimately the most significant contribution of Taylor’s piece is the overarching evocation to contextualize Vietnamese history within the minds and perspectives of the historical actors, rather than stifled by contemporary constructs of nation and space.

In the multivolume series The History of Cartography edited by J.B. Harley and David Woodward, scholar of Vietnam John Whitmore provides one of the few, if only, examinations of historical Vietnamese maps in chapter twelve “Cartography in Vietnam.”[8] Reflecting on the limited availability for such a study in North America, Whitmore undertakes the difficult task of Vietnamese cartography; Whitmore analyzes the reproductions, rebound manuscripts, and notes on the original source collection of maps called the Hồng-đức bản đồ (Maps of the Hong-duc period, 1470-1497) published by the Viện Khảo-Cổ (Institute of Historical Research) in Saigon.[9]  Whitmore concludes that countrywide mapping did not appear until the Le dynasty (as in the collection of the Hong-duc period). By the nineteenth century Nguyen dynasty reunification of the north and south, there was a surge in map making.[10]

For this paper, I will focus primarily on the symbols, purposes, and theory behind Vietnamese cartography in order to provide a material understanding of my larger study on sense of place in Vietnamese envoy poetry. While Whitmore describes Vietnamese mapping techniques as essentially based of Chinese methods, he also explores the symbolic meanings underlying Vietnamese representations of geography. For example, Whitmore explains how the Vietnamese word for country non nước or “mountain and water” shape spatial representations where “the symbolic mountain and water form the landscape in which the integration of natural and supernatural is shown.”[11] Whitmore argues that these motifs embody the “magical representations of the universe,” similar to how structures of Angkor and Pagan reflected views of the moral cosmos.[12] In this explanation, Whitmore characterizes the multifaceted relationship between agent and space, often producing “non-realistic” maps. Thongchai Winichakul provides a theoretical framework for the study of ‘indigenous’ concepts of spatial realities, inherently marked ‘unrealistic’ when compared against standard geography and mapping techniques.[13] Winichakul provides insight into the ‘geo-body,’ a fluid and multilayered construct based on local, spatial relativity, and tributary networks or patron-client systems. Like a ‘solar polity’ space can be defined in relation to a comparative power and could diminish accordingly.[14] These relational understandings of power and space can be seen in how physical markers are identified to suit various purposes in the maps that Whitmore examines, such as ones demonstrating the Red River delta region and Hanoi or the itineraries to Champa.

 Whitmore notes a dramatic shift in forms of spatial representations in the fifteenth century Le dynasty under the introduction of more Sinic bureaucratic systems. While prior to the fifteenth century, geographic maps existed as the spiritual relation of geomantic power, the push for ‘legibility’ and bureaucracy also encouraged a more integrative documentation of the country down to the village level.[15] This bureaucratic system hinged upon the extensive record keeping of officials, who functioned as intermediaries between the court and the village. Thus these bureaucratic maps seem to be created for the revenue and administrative purposes to report on and spatially order the provinces.

In terms of the broader question of this paper, how did early maps conceptualize ‘Vietnamese’ space through borders or other distinctions between civilizations? From his study, Whitmore concludes that “Vietnamese mapping was internal, not external. The itineraries mainly led to the borders, north and south, and no farther.”[16] At the same time, in his discussion of pre-fifteenth century maps, Whitmore explains that the cosmological maps of spirit cults and geomancy also strove to understand the reaches of Vietnamese cultural territory. Whitmore describes these maps as circumscribed within the space between the Hundred Yue and from the Yangtzi river to the Champa border in the north and south, and the Chams, Tais, and Laos into the west. Furthermore, with the conquest of Champa and other wars into the northwestern and southwestern reaches of Vietnam, scholars have considered this period as evidence for how Đại Việt began to perceive itself as a “quốc” or realm of civilization in contrast to ‘barbarians’ to the west and south. This socio-cultural division parallels what Liam Kelley describes as the Confucian or Sinic derived notion of two main categories of people “Efflorescents” and “Barbarians.”[17] Kelley describes these nebulous designators in the following fashion: “Efflorescents could journey to Barbarian areas and work to transform local practices, and Barbarians could move into the Efflorescent realm and by learning the proper ritual practices, become Efflorescents themselves.”[18] In line with this civilizational perspective, the increasingly Confucian government of the late Le dynasty could have possibly perceived its western and southern neighbors in such a way, or even for Vietnamese as less “efflorescent” than the Middle Kingdom. Yet the question of Vietnamese cultural and geographic boundaries marked by bronze pillars or efflorescence remains to be explored.


Borders and Realms of Manifest Civility in Vietnamese Politics, Culture, and Society

These previous arguments demonstrate the potential of a fluid and interpretive understanding of space, especially as it is ‘orientated’ towards certain surfaces in time and place of the historical actors. In a similar way, Liam Kelly minimizes the interpretive construct of cultural and national borders and provides a more fluid understanding of cultural and social spaces in his study Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship.[19] He begins with the theoretical question of Vietnamese cultural identity and critiques current scholarship that diminishes Chinese influence and in his work overemphasizes Vietnam’s Southeast Asian regional identity. In his article on Confucianism, Kelley describes these works as problematic counter-histories to colonial perspectives; in other words, Kelley critiques the recent concerted effort to unearth a local and ‘internal’ Vietnamese identity beyond China as an overzealous although understandable answer to John Smail’s call of writing “autonomous histories.”[20] Instead, he provides another approach to understand culture and ideology as “domains of manifest civility.” Kelley explains that ‘manifest civility’ is founded on a loose understanding of the world and its unequal cultural divisions. Kelley derives this term from linguistic studies of Vietnamese and Chinese texts and argues that from the sixteenth to nineteenth century, Vietnamese literati perceived themselves as part of the Southern Kingdom and oriented around norms of “proper human behavior which earlier generations of scholars had delineated in their writings.”[21] In this way, classical Chinese writings represented socio-cultural codes that Kelley defines as intrinsic to political, cultural, social, and intellectual lives of the East Asian realm (that today loosely include contemporary China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam).

Furthermore Kelley attempts a neutral and ephemeral definition of early modern civilizations as well as emphasizes how realms of manifest civility such as the Northern and Southern Kingdoms (China and Vietnam) were considered unequal on various fronts.  Focusing on the poems of Vietnamese literati, Kelley notes how Vietnamese literati were conscious of the relative superiority of the Northern Kingdom in their practice and knowledge of codes towards the harmonious manifest civility. Kelley asserts again that this perceived difference between Chinese and Vietnamese realms was not associated to the distinctiveness of Vietnamese as a people, but “instead was one which they (Southern scholars) tried to overcome, for the goal was never to develop a domain of manifest civility that was different, but always to bring one’s domain into full accord with the ideal of this larger category.”[22] Kelley explained that the Vietnamese envoys did not perceive their poetry as foreign and Chinese, but explains simply that these forms of expression “was simply all that there was.”[23] Sweeping Vietnamese literati culture within a cohesive and metaphysical pursuit towards East Asian standards of conduct, Kelley differs from other scholars such as O.W. Wolters, Alexander Woodside, and Keith Taylor, (primarily in his earlier work, The Birth of Vietnam,) who emphasize Vietnam and its Southeast Asian characteristics more so than its Chinese facets.

In many ways, understanding realms of manifest civility could be useful to explore how certain political, cultural, and social structures became models or templates for other civilizations. A preeminent scholar of the cultures and history of ‘East Asian classical civilization,’ Alexander Woodside provides one of the first English language studies in 1971 of Vietnamese and Chinese socio-political structures. In Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, Woodside focuses on the administrative influences of Chinese structures upon Vietnamese governance and also delves into larger questions of Vietnamese acculturation to Sinic models.[24] Using extensive Nguyen dynasty chronicles, institutional manuals, court documents, and literature, Woodside infuses political theory and imperial ideology with nuances of historical perspectives on the Vietnamese government itself. Hence while Liam Kelley explores how Vietnamese literati engaged, negotiated, and modeled after certain Sinic cultural practices, Woodside focuses more on the influence of Chinese political and administrative structures on Vietnam and its broader culture and society.

Woodside divides his book into varying themes of nineteenth century Vietnamese government and society, the monarchy, civil administration, provincial administrators, education, and the relationship among the emperor, bureaucracy and the world outside Vietnam. The thematic question, ‘how Chinese is Vietnam?’ weaves throughout Woodside’s examination of Nguyen Vietnam. In essence Woodside claims a more defined border between Vietnamese and Sinic practices, explaining that Chinese structures were borrowed and reinterpreted by Vietnamese, “absorbing Chinese learning so completely that its Chinese origins became irrelevant.”[25]  On the court level, Woodside describes how “the two traditions coexisted without tension, behind a façade of Chinese classical symbols.”[26] Hence Woodside maintains the structural difference of Chinese and Vietnamese practices, but emphasizes that this difference was one not of nation, but of the “gravely treasured sense of cultural discrepancies between China and Vietnam.” [27]

Ultimately, Woodside challenges the narrative of the Southeast Asian cultural ‘importing’ and provides concrete examples in which “East Asian or ‘Sino-Vietnamese’ political conceptions could dominate but not monopolize a basic Vietnamese institution.”[28] In many ways this statement mirrors J.C. van Leur’s interpretation of the “thin, flaking glaze” of Indianization over Southeast Asian local practices. Woodside provides examples of the multifaceted nature of adopted Chinese practices in Vietnam and explains how the Vietnamese monarchy and examination system practiced a unique political theory. Although mirroring certain Beijing Qing imperial terms of reference, divine legitimacy, and elite prestige, the cultural rituals and codes of ‘manifest civility’ were not practiced in the same manner as in China. Woodside describes Chinese spectator accounts of Vietnamese rituals, noting how the Chinese officials critiqued and did not identify with what they considered to be Vietnamese subpar rituals and behavioral norms.

Woodside also demonstrates how Vietnamese definitions of power and legitimacy were both shaped by and diverged from Chinese perspectives.  In Woodside’s comparative study of Vietnamese and Chinese administration, he notes how the Chinese constructs of authority deeply shaped Vietnamese practices. For example, filial piety of the home and throne permeated throughout Vietnamese social and political structures; but in comparison to China, the religious origins of power in Vietnam were more significant.[29] On the other hand, Woodside also characterizes Vietnamese structures of power based on a ‘duality’ of Chinese and Vietnamese traditions. He describes in particular how a Vietnamese rulers’ legitimacy derived from models of popular spiritual folklore and great heroes through out history. Woodside examines popular Vietnamese hagiographies and concludes that Vietnamese society promoted three qualities of kingship:

“The ideal Vietnamese ruler, by their reckoning, should be able to resist the political domination of the Chinese court. He should be able to preserve the people’s livelihood and well-being. And he should be able to introduce and domesticate Chinese culture. He should be part rebel, part guardian of agricultural fertility, and part cultural innovator.” [30]


In this way, Woodside represents Vietnamese understandings of power and kingship as an amalgamation of Chinese and Vietnamese facets. Sinic-inspired cultural political theories, cultural references, and social hierarchies permeated throughout Vietnamese politics and society; but as Woodside has argued, these facets functioned as models and were applied and interpreted according to different purposes such as for indigenous social integration and symbolic legitimacy.[31]

Although Woodside’s study at times slips into the contemporary national markers of China and Vietnam or assumptions of tradition and culture, his study offers insightful comparisons of forms of government. Furthermore, Woodside’s later chapters on Vietnamese government demonstrate the tremendous imbalance for a comparison between China and Vietnam—two regions that differed immensely in geographic size, economy, and manpower. The strength in Woodside’s study is also the detailed analysis of Ming Mang and his attempt to institute Sinic structures to consolidate and formalize power. However, like Kelley’s book, Woodside often does not focus on political and social developments of the Vietnamese state over time, making it difficult to understand the rationale for shifting administrative strategies. Furthermore both their studies differ in their historical context and primary source work. Woodside’s study explores the nature of Vietnamese administrative structures in the first instances of the united Vietnamese state under the Nguyen dynasty (1802-1841). In comparison to previous and later periods, the first half of the nineteenth century Vietnam most actively attempted to mirror certain Chinese socio-political systems.[32] Thus for both studies, historical context and broader understandings of Vietnamese government could be useful to understand the reasoning behind Sinic-based strategies to consolidate authority and maintain.

Envoy Poetry as Expressions of Place and the Cultivation of Literati ‘Meaning’

With his extensive research and translations conducted at the Academia Sinica in Taiwan and the Han Nom Institute in Hanoi, Liam Kelley provides a unique and revelatory resource of envoy poetry.  The Vietnamese literati selected as envoys to China were the most educated, loyal administrators, exceptionally talented and erudite. Beyond the social and cultural prestige that surrounded the chosen few, the envoy literati would also embark upon the special and exciting journey to the Chinese imperial court. Kelley provides a riveting and insightful depiction of the literati’s physical and emotional passage. A rare opportunity during this time, the long distance trip was a life-changing event. From his own experiences as part of two different embassies, envoy Nguyen De (1761-1805) described potential, honor, and requirements of envoys:

“The only literatus who can expand his capacity to the greatest degree, have his prestige praised at court, and his name honored for all ages in other lands is the envoy…To achieve these skills one must read ten thousand scrolls of books, must travel across ten thousand leagues of land, must recognize ten thousand different kinds of people, and must understand ten thousand different matters…This is very difficult.”[33]


The embassy also embodied the experiential fulfillment of a scholar’s lifetime of learning the classical repertoire and where literati could become intellectually and culturally connected with the scholar community beyond their locality.

In his introduction Kelley explains his difficulty in trying to fully contextualize these archival sources in time, place, or oriented towards certain ‘surfaces’ of cultural and political meaning. Hence, while incredibly interesting and artfully translated, these sources can at times be ahistorical and difficult to place within the great dynastic, environmental, and political changes of early modern Đại Việt. Nevertheless, Kelley offers these translations for further research and also attempts to use these sources to arrive at an argument towards understanding the Sino-Vietnamese relationship. For example, in Kelley’s reading and translations, he notes the vast range of names used by envoys to characterize Vietnam (and similarly for China)—shifting when referencing one’s own domain to when compared with the Northern Kingdom. Kelley explains these varied names as fluid rather than rigid, national representations of the Sino-Vietnamese relationship. I also believe that the naming conventions iterated by traveling envoys could represent a relational understanding of their own connection with the region of origin and the region of destination. Addressing themes such as these, this section considers the experiences, reflections, and difficulties expressed in a selection of Vietnamese envoy poetry to better understand the multifaceted factors that shape a certain ideological and geographical place. Through this experiential and literary approach, I seek to connect theoretical and philosophical concepts of an imagined community or geo-body with individual constructs of place.

In discussing spatial relations, the field of geography offers crucial insight into how social norms and cultural values extend across geographic space. Of particular value in studying the literati and their journeys is the foundational understanding of how individuals form relationships and construct geographic markers of places. A geography professor emeritus at Barcelona universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), Angels Pascual-de-Sans poses an innovative method to understand the ‘personal temporality’ of place using the medical concept of idiotope (the relational determinates of antibodies) to symbolize the sense of belonging of people to places and places to people. In this way, the “interrelationship that people weave—individually and collectively—with places” provides insight into the complex experience of movement and processes of spatial perception.[34]

In many ways, the personal and artful composition of poetry could provide insight into the interrelationship between travelers and places.  In chapter two “Articulating the Purposive Mind,” Kelley explores the distinctive and significant role of poetry as a form of expression and “an authentic presentation of a historical experience.”[35] Poetry in Confucian literati culture was both an intellectual and metaphysical practice—writing poetry was not a description of the physical world, but a response and conversation with the terrestrial.

“The material world influenced the poet’s thoughts and feelings, and when these thoughts and feelings were uttered, they took the form of poetry.  Thus we can view the poetic process as constituting three distinct, but directly related parts.  There was 1) some external stimulus which 2) stirred thoughts that were 3) expressed in the form of poetry.”[36]


As Kelley demonstrates in the example of Nguyen Tong Khue (1692-1766), a high level administrator and esteemed poet, the scholar-literati strove for the cultivation of khi/qi, or ‘meaning’ and ‘energy’ of the universe. In an exchange with Chinese scholar Li Bancun, Li commended how Khue had achieved a high sense of khi through his literary self-cultivation and experiential learning or “journeying across the known world and viewing its famous sites.”[37] Through this conversation on intellectual endeavors, Kelley re-emphasizes his argument of ‘realms of manifest civility’ sense of universally defined codes for Northern and Southern Kingdoms to strives towards. Furthermore, I believe that Li’s reflection on Khue’s accomplishment as a learned scholar bears another significance in understanding various forms of early modern knowledge formation. Li emphasized the importance of writing and self-teaching, but also referenced another scholar Su Che (1039-1112) who described various methods of intellectual cultivation such as the philosopher Mencius (372-289 B.C.E.) and “the Honorable Grand Scribe” Sima Qian (145-86 B.C.E.) who had embarked on journeys, like Nguyen Tong Khue and Su Che himself. He explained that aside from extraordinary philosophers, ‘the scholar’ embodies an agent who is wholly shaped by the places and people he sees. Su Che himself claimed that “his efforts would not reach fruition” until he had met Han Qi, the defender-in-chief at the time.[38] Kelley does not dwell on Su Che’s remarks on knowledge formation, nor the fact that Su Che defineed his own identity and self-worth shaped by the physical experiences and encounters around the world.

Towards the end of the chapter, Kelley considers the preface of Nguyen Vinh (late eighteenth century) written for his uncle, Nguyen De, who participated in two embassies to the Northern Kingdom in 1789 and 1795. Kelley does not specify if Vinh directly participated in any of the embassies, and it is possible that almost all his understanding of the journey to the North derives from previous envoy poetry and descriptions of the celestial kingdom in his classical learning. Vinh described his own kingdom as old Nam Giao—a place whose cultural practices, governmental practices, and recording of classical texts occurred “north of Jing and Yang” and by the Song dynasty (960-1279), “when the Yellow River changed its course southward, the great talents all emerged in the South.”[39] In these lines Vinh retold one of the ‘origin stories’ of Vietnamese manifest civility, which in the words of Kelley, Vinh perceived as a spread southward of originally alien practices to the southern lands that had “not always followed the proper rites and practices that human beings should.”[40]  For this reason, Kelley argues that envoys “enjoyed their journey” on an intellectual and cultural level regardless of the difficulty of the travel and embassy itself. This overwhelmingly foreign and exceptional experience also was a means for Vietnamese scholars to “make up for lost time, for envoys can visit countless famous sites and take in all that has happened before the south became a domain of manifest civility.”[41]  Furthermore, I argue that the inherent contradiction between the difficulty and the intellectual excitement of such a journey also represented the personal struggles as travelers navigated the foreign landscape. In other words, as these poets traversed the geographic landscape, they also reconciled and physically encountered concepts and places only described in books and by hearsay.


Concluding Remarks and Further Research

This paper has only begun to explore the extensive translations provided in Liam Kelley’s book as well as the maps analyzed by John Whitmore.  Furthermore, as Kelley and Whitmore remark, studies on mapping and movement in early modern Vietnam remain incredibly limited and hold much potential for further research. This paper attempts to contribute an agent-based perspective into studies on political or imagined identities beyond nation. While I hoped that a closer theoretical and sociological study of Vietnamese envoys could provide insight into meanings of Vietnamese place, I must also recognize that these travelers were the privileged of Vietnamese society. Because of the rarity of this experience and the exceptional individuals who were chosen, Vietnamese envoy poetry must be considered within its social and intellectual context.  The metaphysical and intellectual connections that some of these scholars felt with Chinese civility could certainly not reflect all Vietnamese society at this time. As exceptional accounts of high literati, how useful then are these accounts to understand a Vietnamese historical reality, such as the ‘surface orientations’ of a particular time?

On a related topic, what was the purpose of these texts? If poetry is a medium of personal expression, how does the dissemination of such texts shape the poet’s emotional representation of the environment? Kelley describes how some of these poems ranged from one author, collaborations, or possibly rewritten years later by someone else. Furthermore, who then was the intended audience for these poems? Written in classical Chinese, these poems certainly mainly remained within the circle of other Vietnamese literati.  Kelley describes that certain verses continued to circulate within aspiring scholars and deeply influenced the literary structure and thematic representations of later generations of scholars. In many ways then, these perspectives could be seen as the promotion of a particular Vietnamese Confucian scholar tradition rather than reflect Vietnamese society as a whole.

Woodside’s depiction of the Vietnamese monarchy and government appears strikingly different from that of Liam Kelley’s through envoy poetry. Whereas Woodside considers the acculturation of Chinese formalities and structures into Vietnamese politics and society, he also describes the Vietnamese elite as faithfully adherent to “the Chinese allusions, classical and historical, momentous and trivial.”[42] Furthermore, in Woodside’s ‘comparative institutional study,’ what role did the village have? If bureaucratic legibility integrated the village into the administrative realm, how significant were these Confucian or Chinese models of power and legitimacy in the village level? In chapter three “The Borrowing Ideals of Court Bureaucrats and the Practical Problems of Provincial Administrators,” Woodside describes the tremendous gulf that separated the “relatively homogenous cultural world of the scholarly elite in Huế and Hanoi and the multifarious, heterogeneous cultural traditions and milieus of the thousand peasant villages,” but does not continue to examine further this critical socio-cultural distinction.[43]

For both studies, the question of exteriorality or otherness remains unanswered, but could provide significant insight into definitions of belonging, place, and participation in ‘realms of manifest civility’. Kelley and Woodside provide extensive and multifaceted interpretations of the cultural and political Sino-Vietnamese relationship, but do not discuss other external civilizations. For example, historically Vietnamese actively engaged in the complex networks of trade, diplomacy, and warfare within Southeast Asia amongst the Chams, Khmer, Tai, Lao, Burmese, as well as to China, India, Japan, and later with the European powers. A potential future project could examine two of the most notable pre-colonial Vietnamese travel documents to areas considered ‘outside’ Vietnam. The recent translation from classical Chinese to Vietnamese and French of Phan Huy Chu’s journey to Dutch Batavia and Singapore could provide unique perspectives on European civilizations during the Nguyen period. These questions could intersect with earlier discussions on realms of manifest civility and administration models. The English translation of the investigative report to the still independent Tonkin by Petrus Truong Vinh Ky, an administrator in French colonial ruled Cochinchina, could also further complicate studies on Vietnamese cultural practices in periods of ‘foreign’ rule.  Both works could also pose questions of Western realms of authority in comparison with East Asian classical civilizations. In summary, this paper raises more questions than it answers on the important and multifaceted topic of Vietnamese place and socio-cultural identity. Rather than slip away into a void of historical defeatism, I conclude with one of my favorite quotes on the craft of history by Keith Taylor. The past is truly a “…beautiful confusion, and it is beautiful precisely because it is confusion; when it stops confusing us, we can be sure that we have understood it as something dangerous.” [44]















Works Cited

Duara, Prasenjit. Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narrativesof Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.


Kelley, Liam C. Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship. Association for Asian Studies, 2005.


———. “‘Confucianism’ in Vietnam: A State of the Field Essay.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1, no. 1–2 (August 2006): 314–370.


Lieberman, Victor B. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c 800-1830. Studies in Comparative World History; Variation:           Studies in Comparative World History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.


———. “‘We Burmese Will Fly Overhead’: Political Ethnicity in Southeast Asia and Europe, C. 1450-1850.” University of Michigan, Book Proposal.


Pascual-de-Sans, Àngels. “Sense of Place and Migration Histories Idiotopy and Idiotope.” Area 36, no. 4 (December 1, 2004): 348–357.


Reynolds, Craig J. Seditious Histories: Contesting Thai and Southeast Asian Pasts. NUS Press, 2006.


Taylor, K. W. “Surface Orientations in Vietnam: Beyond Histories of Nation and Region.” The Journal of Asian Studies 57, no. 4 (November 1, 1998): 949–978. doi:10.2307/2659300.


Taylor, K. W., and John K. Whitmore, eds. Essays into Vietnamese Pasts. Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications, 1995.


Thongchai Winichakul. Siam Mapped: a History of the Geo-body of a Nation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.


Whitmore, John K. “Cartography in Vietnam.” In The History of Cartography, Volume 2, Book 2: Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Socieites, 2:478–508. The History of Cartography Series. Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1994.


———. “Paperwork:  The Rise of the New Literati and Ministerial Power and the Effort Toward Legibility in  Đại Việt.” In Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century, by Geoff Wade, 104–125, 104–125. Singapore: Singapore : NUS Press ; Aberdeen, Hong Kong : Hong Kong University Press, 2010.


Woodside, Alexander. 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, 1971.


[1] Victor B. Lieberman, “‘We Burmese Will Fly Overhead’: Political Ethnicity in Southeast Asia and Europe, C. 1450-1850” (University of Michigan, Book Proposal).

[2] The quote originates from Robert D. Sack, “Place, Power, and the Good,” in Adams, Hoelscher, and Till eds. Textures of Place: Exploring Humanist Geographies, (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 232-245), 232-2.My understanding of space and place comes largely from Yi-Fu Tuan Topofilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, (Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1974), Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, (Edward Arnold: London, 1977); Henri Lefebvre, La production de l’espace (Anthropos: Paris, 1974); E.C. Relph, Place and Placelessness, (Pion: London, 1976); Neil Smith, Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space, (Blackwell: Oxford, 1984); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1989).

[3] Liam C. Kelley, Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship (Association for Asian Studies, 2005).

[4] The full quote reads: “They did not bring any fundamental changes in any part of Indonesian social and political order. The sheen of the world religions and foreign cultural forms is a thin and flaking glaze; underneath it the whole of the old indigenous forms has continued to exist—with many sorts of gradations appearing, of course, according to the cultural level.” J.C. van Leur, Indonesian Trade and Society:  Essays in Asian Social and Economic History, (The Hague: W. Van Hoeve Publishers, 1967) as quoted in Craig J. Reynolds, Seditious Histories: Contesting Thai and Southeast Asian Pasts (NUS Press, 2006), 18.

[5] K. W. Taylor, “Surface Orientations in Vietnam: Beyond Histories of Nation and Region,” The Journal of Asian Studies 57, no. 4 (November 1, 1998): 949–978, doi:10.2307/2659300.

[6] Ibid. Here Taylor synthesizes Paul Riceour, Mary Hobson, and Tejaswini’s exploration of traces as affective material of the past and the historical translation and communication with the past. 952-3.

[7] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).

[8] John K. Whitmore, “Cartography in Vietnam,” in The History of Cartography, Volume 2, Book 2: Cartography in the Traditional East and Southeast Asian Socieites, vol. 2, 3 vols., The History of Cartography Series (Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 478–508.

[9] Whitmore explains that this collection includes a reproduction, an index of the names recorded on the maps, and an introductory study of the maps in Vietnamese and French by scholar Truong Buu Lam.

[10] Whitmore, “Cartography in Vietnam.” 479.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: a History of the Geo-body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994).

[14] Victor B. Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c 800-1830, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[15] John K. Whitmore, “Paperwork:  The Rise of the New Literati and Ministerial Power and the Effort Toward Legibility in Đại Việt,” in Southeast Asia in the Fifteenth Century, by Geoff Wade (Singapore: Singapore : NUS Press ; Aberdeen, Hong Kong : Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 104–125.

[16] Whitmore, “Cartography in Vietnam.” 507.

[17] Liam C. Kelley, “‘Confucianism’ in Vietnam: A State of the Field Essay,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1, no. 1–2 (August 2006): 314–370.

[18] Ibid., 316.

[19] Kelley, Beyond the Bronze Pillars.

[20] Kelley, “‘Confucianism’ in Vietnam: A State of the Field Essay.”

[21] Kelley, Beyond the Bronze Pillars. 30.

[22] Ibid., 31.

[23] Ibid., 3.

[24] Alexander Woodside, 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, 1971). 318.

[25] Ibid., 21.

[26] Ibid., 13.

[27] Ibid., 21.

[28] Ibid. 9.

[29] Ibid. 10-13.

[30] Ibid., 12.

[31] Ibid., 10. Woodside explains Chinese accounts and disdain of apparent Vietnamese lack of moral order between the emperor and his bureaucrats.

[32] Woodside demonstrates the tension and frustrations with Sinic based reforms through folk (Ho Xuan Huong and Cao Ba Quat) and literati literature critiques of Confucian expectations. Another way to understand the development of a Vietnamese political ethnicity could be to examine the Nguyen dynasty, contextualizing the Dang Trong (Southern Vietnam) Nguyen Lords up to unification in 1802 under Gia Long and through to the 1945 last Nguyen emperor. This region and early 19th century has been argued as one of the most formative periods of Vietnamese political identity, particularly as the Nguyen administration extended its rule throughout the ethnically diverse south and consolidating the northern Trinh/Le. Scholars Li Tana, Keith Taylor, Nola Cooke, Choi Byung Wook, Alexander Woodside, and recently Liam Kelly in his essay on Confucianism, have begun to consider the various ways in which the new dynasty exercised its power.

[33] Kelley, Beyond the Bronze Pillars., 64.

[34] Àngels Pascual-de-Sans, “Sense of Place and Migration Histories Idiotopy and Idiotope,” Area 36, no. 4 (December 1, 2004): 348–357., 356.

[35] Kelley, Beyond the Bronze Pillars. 39.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid., 43-47

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 60

[40] Ibid., 61

[41] Ibid., 61.

[42] Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century.13.

[43] Ibid., 234.

[44] Taylor, “Surface Orientations in Vietnam.”, 974. Taylor quotes his statement originally in the preface of K. W. Taylor and John K. Whitmore, eds., Essays into Vietnamese Pasts (Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications, 1995).

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