BOOK REVIEW Christopher Goscha’s Going Indochinese: Contesting Concepts of Space and Place in French Indochina


Goscha, Christopher E. Going Indochinese: Contesting Concepts of Space and Place in French Indochina. NIAS Classics Series,; No. 3. Copenhagen, Denmark,: NIAS Books, 2012.

Originally an essay (“Vietnam or Indochina”), Going Indochinese details the historical attempts to create ‘Indochina’ from the period of French conquest to Vietnamese Communist assertions regional socialist solidarity in the 1950s. Goscha makes two primary arguments: 1) at certain moments Vietnamese intellectuals and administrators thought of themselves in “Indochinese” terms; and 2) Cambodians and Laotians rejected the construct of Indochina due to the imbalanced “Franco-Vietnamese” hierarchy.

His first chapter closely examines how ‘Indochina’ was constructed based on the notion of Franco-Annamese collaboration, the labor of Vietnamese low level administrators and officiers, and the internal colonization/immigration of Laos and Cambodia in the first decades of the twentieth century. Goscha supports his claim that ‘Indochina’ was a functional concept and space with evidence from the colonial administration (and racial hierarchies of Vietnamese above Laos and Cambodia), maps, transportation networks, textbooks, and Vietnamese travel narratives. The second and third chapters consider how Vietnamese intellectuals and revolutionaries debated the identification of Annam with French Indochina. Goscha expands the category of colonial ‘nationalist’ to include (those who reflected on the political-cultural-spatial identity of ‘Annam’) such as pro-French intellectuals as Bui Quang Chieu (Constitutionalists), Pham Quynh, and Nguyen Van Vinh. Focusing on the 1930-1931 debate between Pham Quynh and Nguyen Van Vinh, Goscha illustrates the pervasiveness of the construct of ‘Indochina’ among Vietnamese, as well as the problematic exclusion of Laos and Cambodia within the discussion. Goscha argues that the functional identity of ‘Indochina’ also shaped Vietnamese revolutionary debates for an Indochinese communist revolution throughout the 1920s and 1930s. This manifested in heated debates by Ho Chi Minh, the VNQDD (regarding the usage of terms such as Vietnam or Indochina), as well as the organization of the Indochinese Communist Party and Indochinese Congress. The next chapter discusses Cambodian and Laotian perspectives on ‘Indochina’ and the inter-Asian (Vietnamese, Indian, Chinese) contacts facilitated by racist colonial administrative structures and commercial networks. Goscha explains how the French created a hierarchy of legal identities for ‘indigenous’ and Vietnamese immigration to Western Indochina exacerbated ethnic and nationalist tensions in the region. Through the example of the Vietnamese-Cambodian debate and local administrative authority in Laos of the 1930s, Goscha emphasizes the importance of the question of Indochinese colonial nationality, assimilation, and local authority for Vietnamese living in Laos and Cambodia.

Goscha’s last chapter on Vichy Indochina (1941-1945) demonstrates the last French attempts to reinstitute the construct of a three-monarch Indochina (Bao Dai of Annam, Sihanouk of Cambodia, and Sisavangvong of Laos) in patriotic cultural campaigns. During the same time, Communists also attempted to invoke the concept of Indochina as a unifying force against the French. On the eve of Indochina’s independence in August 1945, the communist-run nationalist front the Viet Minh advocated an independent ‘Vietnam’ while the Communist Party stuck to the concept of ‘Indochina’ even after the declaration of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. This confusing, interchangeable use of ‘Vietnam’ and ‘Indochina’ into the 1940s and 1950s reinforces Goscha’s claim of the important regional thinking of “Indochina” and that “Indochina was not dead in Vietnamese communist thinking.” Goscha argues that Vietnamese communists simultaneously created nationalist fronts of the Pathet Lao, Khmer Issarak, and Cambodian and Lao resistance governments as socialist allies in the postcolonial 1950s. He concludes that the Vietnamese communists were the closest in ‘going Indochinese’.

Historiography: Going Indochinese: Contesting Concepts of Space and Place in French Indochina responds to Benedict Anderson’s question as to why Dutch East Indies transformed into the postcolonial political entity of Indonesia while Indochina fragmented into the three nation states of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Influenced by Anderson’s question and concepts of ‘imagined community,’ Goscha explores the ways in which the bureaucracy, the map, textbooks, and roads contributed to a building of Indochina as a spatial reality. Overall, this is an important work that analyzes the pervasiveness of the geo-political construct of ‘Indochina’ throughout Vietnamese debates on nationalism, communism, and regional cultural coherence.

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