Introduction to "Mapping Vietnameseness"

Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Harvard University
Section of 1650 map of Vietnam by Alexandre de Rhodes, based on the 1490 Hồng Đức maps. Source: Vatican.

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.