Writing on Vietnam

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Taylor’s bibliography and the audience for Vietnamese history?

Is there an audience for Vietnamese history? Who is it? How do we find out?

Searching for Tự Đức, finding Taylor

I’ve been meaning to put more posts together lately but have been swamped by grading and other duties. With the kids’ school closed (it’s been a year for god’s sake!) it has been very hard to find time to actually collect my thoughts and write.

Adding to those difficulties, I’ve been more and more drawn into the late 19th century to try and understand what the social forces were behind the literati reformers. This is less familiar territory for me, so I’ve been forced to cram readings of secondary scholarship to get a better grasp on the era. 

To fill out my post on Phạm Phú Thứ, I’ve started trying to dig up info needed to make a larger series of posts on Trần Tiễn Thành. These more interesting posts are coming soon, I promise! In any event, it became apparent to me that I really needed to get a better grasp of emperor Tự Đức’s reign, since that is when both Phạm Phú Thứ and Trần Tiễn Thành really performed their role on the world stage.

None of the 19th Century Nguyen emperors had it easy, but Tự Đức’s reign was pretty much Biblical. Not only did he have to face off with external challenges like pestilence, plague, flooding, famine, insurrection, and, who could forget, the god-damned French.

French posing on emperor Minh Mang’s tomb. Real cute guys.

He also suffered from severe internal problems: his ascension was the product of court infighting that alienated half the royal family, he was sickly and weak from a childhood bout with smallpox, which left him sterile. And, if some of the more salacious stories are to be believed, his wife was having sex with one of his regents! Yikes bro. 😬 

Much more on Tự Đức in future posts, because I feel like this tragic figure may have gotten a bad rap from later patriots. What I want to touch on here is Taylor’s elephantine 650 page book,  A History of the Vietnamese 

Taylor’s Citations.   

When I finally decided I needed a refresher course on Tự Đức, I turned to the stack of books I keep in the “on deck circle” beside my desk. 

Current batting line up. All hitters.

I’ll get more into Taylor’s discussion of Tự Đức’s reign in subsequent posts, but something really bothered me about the book this time around that I thought would make for a good short post. 

Taylor has used an unusual format for citations in this book. Instead of footnotes or endnotes, he composed “bibliographic essays” which list a group of sources under period headings and thematic subheadings. So, for example, the relevant references for the research on Tu Duc’s reign are grouped into two sections “Chapter 9 (early 19th Century)” and “Chapter 10 (late 19th Century)”. For Chapter 9, a dozen or so sources are listed, some of these, like Water Frontier are anthologies containing a dozen essays, while others are only tangentially relevant to the Tu Duc story, for example Zhukov’s (really fun) translation of the Kieu story, or the translated poems of Ho Xuan Huong. By process of elimination, I would make an educated guess that Philippe Langlet’s L’Ancienne Historiographie d’État au Vietnam is the main secondary source for Taylor’s analysis.

In the bibliographic essay for Chapter 10, we encounter similar problems, but this time with many more potentially relevant sources due no doubt to the much larger historiography of the French conquest. Sorting out the geneology

No primary sources are listed in the bibliographic essay for each chapter, instead they are listed in a separate “bibliographic essay” titled “Materials in Asian Languages”. These titles list Han and Nom documents, and don’t include colonial archival or periodical materials. We have to assume he consulted all the relevant dynastic histories and records compilations, but he doesn’t provide any citation for the intrepid researcher to double check, and, importantly, particular pieces of data and particular claims in the narrative are not indexed to specific collections of documents or other scholarly interpretations. 

The choice to write “bibliographic essays” instead of footnotes is explained on page 8.

Some readers will be disappointed by the lack of footnotes. The decision to avoid marking the text with notes was made out of consideration for the intended audience and from an expectation that readers looking for documentation can consult the bibliographic essays. I have done my best to stay close to the sources. There were times when I was tempted by an interesting thought toward an interpretation that in the end had to be discarded because the evidence was insufficient to bear its weight. I have indicated places where the evidence is too problematic to sustain any definite assertion. I am sure to have made errors and can do no more than to trust that other scholars will find them.

I have two thoughts about this. First, does this calculation accurately grasp the likely readership for the book? You can probably tell by the way I asked the question, I don’t think so. The book is something like a textbook to be sure. And it is written for a general audience. But does Vietnamese studies, particular precolonial Vietnamese history, actually have a general audience? This seems like a smart ass question, but I think it is actually a pretty serious one. Who reads these books? If we don’t actually have a general audience, then what use would it be to follow the scholarly conventions set down for, say, American, or Chinese history? Especially if we do truly believe that calibration to audience expectations is a valuable thing to do. 

For comparison, I have Eric Foner’s Give me Liberty: an American History. Vol 2, a textbook that was assigned at Berkeley for a course on US History from Reconstruction. Just like Taylor’s textbook, it has neither footnotes nor endnotes, instead having a lists of titles under a “suggested reading” section for each chapter. But unlike Taylor, it has plentiful photographs, glossy sections with tangential stories and important primary source pieces. It also has highlighted keywords, offset and defined in the margins, as well as timelines at the start of each chapter. I don’t list all this to imply that that Taylor is incapable of accomplishing these somewhat gimmicky features, I just think these features make it obvious that these two books serve very different purposes. 

I don’t have any market data on hand (anyone know where to find it?), but I would wager that unlike American history, Vietnamese History scholarship, including “text books”, are overwhelmingly read by other academics, and the most “general” audience we can hope for is probably college teachers looking to pen a lecture on Vietnamese history for a broader “Asian” or “Southeast Asian history” course. Even this group is probably quite small in absolute terms. The bulk of actual readers are probably other Vietnam specialists simply excited to see a new “big narrative” of Vietnamese history to help them summarize the dizzying flow of events into memorable chunks. Or, like me, people who keep these textbooks in their “batting lineup” as a reference. If this is the case, then the bibliographic essay really limits the usefulness of the book. Instead of indexing particular topics to particular texts and page ranges, whole chapters, some spanning hundreds of years, are pooled together with dozens of titles. When Taylor explains “that readers looking for documentation can consult the bibliographic essays”, he is basically saying “go to hell”, because it would be hell for a someone interested in, say, where Taylor got his data about the number of Chinese living Hải Phòng in 1870, to dig through the 40 titles listed alphabetically in the back matter of the book!  Are we to really believe that the perhaps 1% of readers who are not academics would be so offended by a footnote that this problem couldn’t be helped?  

This brings us to the second issue with the bibliographic essays: even if, for arguments sake, a general audience does exist, is it a worthwhile trade for a slightly more comfortable reading experience to be purchased by the lack of footnotes, even though this comes at the cost of making it much more difficult for other academics to evaluate the claims!

I have no reason to suspect that Taylor is lying when he says that he “tried his best to stay close to the sources”, and he is without a doubt one of– if not THE— most accomplished historians of ancient Vietnamese history writing in English today, but, after all, don’t we all try to stay close to the sources and aren’t the footnotes precisely the mechanism by which we make our research transparent so that scholars can more easily find errors? There is something freudian about admitting there may be errors, and inviting others to inspect for errors, while simultaneously slamming the window on everyone trying to take a peek inside. Something like the Wizard of Oz saying pay no mind to the man behind the curtain!

In the next series of posts on Tu Duc (hopefully starting to drop early next week if I can concentrate!) I’ll mention specific moments where this “bibliographic essay” has seriously undermined the utility of the book. Why did he do it? He obviously knows his stuff, so my guess is that it was just too tempting to avoid that extra step of work. 

What about you, dear readers? What do you think of Taylor’s “bibliographic essays”? 

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