Cross-Currents e-Journal (No. 20)
Vietnam and China are currently engaged in a map war, with each country using ancient maps to buttress its claims to territorial sovereignty over some uninhabited islands in the South China Sea (in Chinese terminology), also known as the Eastern Sea (in Vietnamese). But what do maps in fact represent? What is meant by “territory”? How are territorial limits conceived? These questions were raised in a May 2015 workshop inspired by Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (1994), a groundbreaking book that traces the transformation of Thai geographical consciousness as a result of Siam’s encounter with Western powers in the nineteenth century. While many of Thongchai’s insights apply to the Vietnamese case, as the first of the three articles included in this special issue of Cross-Currents shows, some of the 2015 workshop participants’ conclusions departed from his, especially regarding the formation of a Vietnamese geographical consciousness before the colonial period.[i] This is true of the other two papers, which focus specifically on the construction of borders and the associated production of maps in the nineteenth century before French colonial conquest...
1 Thanks are due to the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Change in Gottingen, Germany, for its gracious hosting and generous funding of the conference, together with the Asia Center of Harvard University.
From a Reliant Land to a Kingdom in Asia: Premodern Geographic Knowledge and the Emergence of the Geo-Body in Late Imperial Vietnam
This article examines a change in how members of the educated elite in Vietnam viewed their kingdom’s place in the world. It argues that, prior to the twentieth century, Vietnamese scholars saw their kingdom as being connected to, or reliant on, the empire to its north, which we now refer to as “China.” In particular, Vietnamese literati believed that moral virtue from the North had spread southward over time and enabled the Southern Kingdom, as they sometimes called their land, to emerge. The flow of geomantic energy from north to south played a similar role. In 1908, however, a reformist scholar named Lương Trúc Đàm published a geography textbook, Geography of the Southern Kingdom (Nam Quốc địa dư), that disconnected the Southern Kingdom from any form of reliance on the North. In this work, Đàm also sought to nurture in his readers patriotic feelings toward the Southern Kingdom. In so doing, Đàm contributed to the creation of what historian Thongchai Winichakul has referred to as a “geo-body,” an identifiable and separate geographical entity for which students are taught to develop patriotic emotions.
Keywords: geography, Southeast Asia, Vietnam, geo-body, Lương Trúc Đàm
Contested Sovereignty: Local Politics and State Power in Territorial Conflicts on the Vietnam-China Border, 1650s-1880s
This article analyzes territorial disputes and political relationships at the border between China and Vietnam from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Predominant Western scholarship argues that, owing to the tributary relationship among states and polities, there was no territorial boundary in premodern Asia; furthermore, it suggests, the concept of the “geo-body” of a nation or sovereign state only arose with the transfer of new mapping technology from Europe. This article argues instead that the absence of lines of demarcation on Vietnamese and Chinese maps before the late nineteenth century does not connote a lack of consciousness of the existence of borders. The quest for autonomy throughout history by local communities living between China and Vietnam gave rise to border conflicts, which led to the intervention by and expansion of these two states, as well as negotiations and territorial division between them. The transformation of the China-Vietnam border from a premodern to a modern form thus did not depend solely on its cartographic representation; it also involved the power of the state to control space. Additionally, this article demonstrates that tensions over the border did not simply involve central governments but often resulted from a combination of local conflicts and the complicated relations between local actors and the state. The article suggests a new approach to exploring the history of state borders from the perspective of local people, in which the “in-between communities” are not seen as passive objects of border demarcation but are also a driving force in the establishment of a frontier. While the “in-between communities” discussed in this article were behind conflicts over land and its division into national territories, their manipulations of ethnic identity and transgressive mobility also helped blur the border between the two countries.
Keywords: China-Vietnam border, territorial disputes, geo-body, state-making, local power, cartography
This article addresses the challenging spatial organization of Nguyễn Vietnam: the binary relationship between civilizational expansion and the construction of a state boundary at the Khmer frontier. It examines the process whereby the Vietnamese moved southwest into the Khmer world and territorialized a contested terrain as part of a civilizational and imperial project. The process employed the state’s administrative infrastructure and cultural institutions to erase ethnic, political, and cultural diversity in the lower Mekong. This article argues that Vietnamese expansion was not simply an attempt to carry out the will of heaven and Confucian cultural responsibility; rather, it was a search for peripheral security and a response to regional competition. In fact, the seesawing between civilizational mission and territorial consolidation confused the Nguyễn bureaucracy with regard to Cambodia’s political and cultural status and affected Hue’s frontier management. As a result, the Vietnam-Cambodia boundary was the object of frequent shifts and negotiations. Only after facing Siamese invasion and experiencing fierce Khmer resistance did the Vietnamese court gradually replace its civilizational perspective with a more practical approach to border management, out of which emerged the modern borderline.
Keywords: Nguyễn dynasty, Vietnam-Cambodia boundary, history of cartography, lower Mekong