I always look for a fair and straightforward dialogue between Vietnamese and foreign scholarship on various historical topics, but in return, it always fails me because I have not seen such conversation at least since the 1960s. One upon a time, Dao Duy Anh, Tran Van Giap, Hoang Xuan Han, Tran Duc Thao… clearly reached the world standard of academic research and deserved a great deal of respect from their western counterparts. The glorious days were far away.
For a historical dialogue between Vietnamese and Western scholars, there are two important obstacles I think need to be adjusted.
First, Vietnamese scholars are likely not to stand on the same ground, theoretically and in term of methodology to “fight back”. As far as I concern among Vietnamese academic communities, there is very little afford to keep updated with new development of the world of academia abroad. So it seems that both are speaking in different languages.
Second, language barrier, since most historians today in Vietnam were trained in either Russia, East tern Europe or China, and to the rest, in Vietnam. English is obviously not their favorite language of expression. Few historical works thus have been produced in English. More importantly, historical trajectory of the 20th century causes serious damage to the way in which historian accesses to material of the past. In fact, most historians of premodern Vietnam are not unable to master literary Chinese which is essential to go through materials and make points of their arguments.
Therefore, instead of discussing other arguments and making the case evidently, they tend to take a detour which sometimes not necessarily concerns to their targeted academic works.
In 2015, prof. Keith Taylor was awarded the Phan Chau Trinh prize for his remarkable contribution to Vietnamese studies. At the same time, I find an article on “The People”, daily newspaper in Vietnam responds to the news, “In the Name of History to distort Vietnamese History”. This article seems interesting for me in the way in which the ‘foreign prof.” is portrayed and the kind of language used to criticize his research ideas.
The article starts, “recently, “a” Cultural Foundation in Vietnam awarded its 2015 prizes for several authors, including K. Taylor – an American historian. In the welcoming speech, the foundation’s representative said that, “Keith Taylor is among the most famous scholars of Vietnamese studies both in Vietnam and abroad”. He then “thanks Keith Taylor for the true love and extraordinary commitment to Vietnamese history, and Vietnam”. So who is Keith Taylor, how he researches Vietnamese history? This two-part article by Nguyen Dinh will reveal those questions”.
In the first part, this paper focuses on Taylor’s personal life events chronologically, and the aim is to make sense how and why the historian comes to Vietnamese history. The author selects some of the Taylor’s papers, especially, “How I Began to Teach about the Vietnam War”, and so on, but all are accessed though many websites of Vietnamese translation.
In short, it claims that the young Taylor had nothing to do with Vietnamese history.
“He chose to learn Vietnamese during the military training with the hope that the war will end before the two-year training finished. But the hope never came true because in 1970, he was sent to Vietnam…”
The article continues with the 1970-dissatisfied Taylor who was utterly discontented with the war, and the 1971-wounded Taylor who “was losing direction”.
The author suggests that continuing study on Vietnam, Taylor tried to find a new way of life and to break up with the miserable heritage of the past. Thus, Taylor utilizes the invented interpretation of Vietnamese history to act as counsel for the American tragic mistake, and to rescue himself from a guilty feeling that he has painfully lived with for a quarter of a century.
In another words, Taylor’s biographical events seems to be a perfect evidence to explain why he writes history in such way.