Hoang Cao Khai – “Essentials of Viet History” (1)


Hoang Cao Khai 黃高啓 (1850-1933), styled Dong Minh 東明, pen-name “The Retired Old-man of Thai-xuyen” 泰川休叟 (not 泰軒, as is written across most Chinese language websites) is a controversial figure in Nguyen dynasty history. He was/is condemned by many for his supposed allegiance and submission to French imperialists usurping the authority of the imperial court. Nationalistic rhetoric which insists on labeling major historical figures as either “national heroes” or “traitors to the race” is harmful to scholarship and does injustice to former generations by either blowing people up out of proportion (on account of them being “heroes) and placing undue attention to every single sentence they may or may not have ever wrote, or ignoring and ostracizing others on account of their alleged betrayal of “the country” and “the race”. In addition to other writings, Hoang Cao Khai compiled a history of Vietnam entitled “Essentials of Viet History” 越史要 written in Classical Chinese and published in the Eighth Year of Duy-Tan 維新八年, 1914 (Duy-Tan,維新, meaning “modernization” was the era-name 年號 of emperor Nguyen Phuc Vinh San 阮福永珊; he was eventually dethroned and exiled by the French and was not given a temple-name after dying in Africa). The “Essentials of Viet History” occupies a unique place in Vietnamese histories. It was written “early” enough to still be written in Classical Chinese, but “late” enough so that the author would have been exposed to Western concepts and historical views brought in along with the French imperialists and their education system. The author brings up some very interesting and controversial views on Vietnamese history, cultural/racial relations to China, etc. Here is an example of an interesting passage having to do with Catholicism, excerpted from the third volume 越史要卷三:


“The founder of the teachings of the Lord-of-Heaven is called Jesus. Bethlehem, east of Turkey is the area in which he was born and matured. Jesus called himself the incarnate Lord-of-Heaven, ruler over all creation. The foundation of his teachings was simply that the entire world shared one divinity and that all of mankind was composed of a single vital force (ch’i). At that time, Roman officials often harshly banned [his teachings] but those who followed them daily increased in number. By the end of the Roman era, his teachings had been transmitted as far as the Turkish capital. During the fifth century, most of the various kingdoms of Europe exalted and believed [his teachings]. Having built an administrative center in the Roman capital, they elected one man, raising him to the status of “pope”, holding in his hands all affairs related to teaching. From the tenth century onward, should any of the kingdoms have significant affairs, they would all seek the instruction of the pope. In the case of royal succession, those who would be crowned by the pope regarded it as an honor. During this time, both government and religious authority belonged under the jurisdiction of the pope. During the sixteenth century, a German named Martin Luther and his disciple John Calvin proclaimed a new teaching in order to oppose the pope. At this point began the division of “Old” and “New” schools within the teachings of the Lord-of-Heaven. The two schools attacked each other; the number of the dead was countless. The pope would never regain the former level of expansion in Europe, hence he could not help but send merchant vessels to traverse the great seas, thinking to extend his authority and power to our Asia, though countless thousands of miles away…the southern arrival of the teachings of Jesus should be attributed to the Dutch, with the men of all other kingdoms following suit.”

What’s interesting is both Hoang Cao Khai’s breadth of understanding and, simultaneously, his short-comings. For example, it is certainly creative of him to attribute the arrival of European merchants in Asia to the loss of papal authority in Europe following the Protestant Reformation. Is is accurate to interpret European traders as agents of Rome seeking to expand papal authority to foreign lands? I think Hoang Cao Khai answers this question in this very passage. He attributes the spread of Catholicism in Vietnam to the Dutch, a group who at this time were predominantly Protestant and had practically no interest in missionary activity. That’s not mention, much of the merchant/missionary activity that would later occur in Vietnam was performed by different groups of people with very different goals – in other words, according to primary sources, many of the European merchants in Vietnam had little interest in spreading Catholicism or even with helping Catholic natives, unless directly related to matters of trade. Generalizations and imprecise interpretations/translations of terms/events related to Catholicism/Protestantism are also repeated here, as they are in other Classical Chinese texts from this period. Inaccuracy and imprecision in texts from this period are understandable. I think the main issue is that these texts themselves have largely fallen out of circulation, but many of the (inaccurate) views contained within them (such as those detailed above) occasionally slip through the cracks into modern intellectual circles. The edition I used was a Vietnamese translation containing reproductions of the original text from the 1914 edition published in 1971 in South Vietnam under the Second Republic. This translation was recently republished in communist Vietnam. I haven’t gotten my hands on the most recent edition yet, but having read a number of books which are simply republished editions of translations from the early or mid 1900s, I’m pretty sure all the editors did was reset the type and add a new foreword, etc. What would be more beneficial is if texts like “Essentials of Viet History” were reprinted, possibly with a new translation, and, more importantly, re-analyzed and re-annotated in order to shed new light on the text. Sadly, due to some controversial passages in historical annals like this work, I think this expansion of scholarship won’t be seen, or at least receive any wide circulation/attention in the Vietnamese community for some time. To be continued.


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