Narratives of Southern Vietnamese History

Barrow Illustration 2

A review of Reconceptualizing Southern Vietnamese History from the 15th to 18th Centuries: Competition along the Coasts from Guangdong to Cambodia, by Brian A. Zottoli.

Scholars of Vietnamese and Southeast Asian history owe a considerable debt to Brian Zottoli. His dissertation, which outlines the changing ways in which imperial historians, intellectuals, and foreign travelers conceptualized southern Vietnamese history, troubles the waters of nationalist historiography. Zottoli’s work is a welcome addition to the field of Southeast Asian history, one that will also interest scholars of European colonialism, comparative imperialism, critical historiography and historiographical operations, archive studies, and the broader field of world history. In the following review, I offer a summary of the major points in Zottoli’s work as well as some explanation that might assist the non-specialist reader.

Zottoli begins with a statement about the role of imperial authority in the writing of the Vietnamese past. As he reminds us, this is a past in which contemporary historians find the “March to the South” (Nam Tiến) (p. 4). As other historians have argued, most recently Claudine Lyn Ang but also Keith W. Taylor, the “March to the South,” which refers to the gradual southerly expansion of Vietnamese-speakers into both Champa and the Khmer Empire and the attendant growth of the Vietnamese imperial realm after the seventeenth century, is largely a narrative device deployed by historians to describe a series of movements, settlements, conflicts, and wars that followed no clear master plan. To this chorus of reassessment, Zottoli adds his own voice, remarking that the notion of “a steadily expanding Vietnamese Empire first took a rough shape in the narrative choices made by the 19th century Nguyễn Dynasty Historical Office” (p. 1). While “the March to the South” developed much later as “a modern term” (p. 4), the authors of imperial history emplotted the logic of steady expansion into their official corpus. Zottoli reminds us that even recent studies by Richard van Glahn and Charles Wheeler, each imparting a vanguard role to ethnic Chinese merchants in southern Vietnam, heavily rely on Nguyễn imperial sources, unintentionally reflecting the narrative design of official histories. Historians in contemporary Vietnam, such as Đỗ Bang and Nguyễn Đắc Xuân, similarly depend on “dynastic chronicles” (p. 6), their respective contributions to economic history and the history of the Nguyễn imperial family notwithstanding.

“The standard narrative of Nguyễn supremacy,” Zottoli declares, is under “review” (p. 17). Over the next ten chapters, Zottoli guides his reader through this review. Although his work overflows with questions and empirical information, Zottli’s dissertation, in addition to forming the basis for what will be an excellent book or multi-volume study, ultimately enriches its reader, giving a sense of the richness to be found beneath the surface of political metaphor and below imperial constructions of the Vietnamese past.

Chapters 2-6 concern the wider world of the Gulf of Tonkin, the “Water Frontier” as recently termed by Li Tana and Nola Cooke. Zottoli examines contestations over territory, subjects, and resources from Qinzhou, historically located in China’s Guangdong province, to the central Vietnamese region of Quảng Nam, to Cambodia and the southern fringe of Vietnamese imperial territory during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Chapter 2, “Coastal and Highland Links from South China to Cambodia c. 1401-1520,” establishes a unique framework for the history of China and peninsular Southeast Asia. Relying on Ming and Nguyễn sources as well as a nineteenth-century travelog from Karl Gutzlaff, Zottoli rewrites the political history of the Mạc, a “regime” (p. 84) with ties to southern China. In contrast to later narratives that cast the Mạc as rebellious aberrations in the course of dynastic succession—narratives that, as Zottoli reminds us, emerge from a political imperial context—we find the Mạc connected to a littoral Southeast Asian world, including Champa and various kingdoms in present-day Laos (pp. 68-80). Zottoli gives us a major contribution to the study of the Mạc, adding to earlier work by John Whitmore and more recent work by Kathlene Baldanza. Although the epigraphy, using Sino-Vietnamese terms for Tai concepts, such as the muäng (pp. 82, 92-93) and the sudden appearance of an “Ai Lao Chieftan” (p. 79) might bear the traces of limited imperial source material, Zottoli has consolidated a series of empirical narratives into an informative summary of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Vietnamese history, which, as he demonstrates, can best be understood as part of a larger peninsular littoral world.

Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 continue the story of the Mạc into the seventeenth century. During this part of the dissertation, Zottoli increasingly incorporates European language sources into his study, in particular the writings of Mendes Pinto, Alexandre de Rhodes, and Gaspar Luis. During these chapters, Zottoli also introduces recent work by scholars in Vietnam, including Hoàng Anh Tuấn and Huỳnh Công Bá. While providing rich details about Cochinchina (Chapter 3: “Cochinchina under Mạc Rule”), the under-appreciated region of Quảng Nam (Chapter 4), and the history of Hải Dương (Chapter 5), Zottoli also explains the importance of Spanish accounts to Vietnamese history, as they provide balance to “dynastic texts written by Mạc enemies,” which, he reminds us, “are not credible sources on Cochinchina during Mạc rule” (p. 145). The involvement of the Mạc in a military intervention in Cambodia (pp. 173-176) and the later marital ties between the Mạc and the Cambodia leadership place the Mạc regime in the middle of Southeast Asian regional politics during the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Zottoli extracts the story of the Mạc from a variety of sources, producing a detailed retelling of this crucial period of Southeast Asian and Vietnamese history.

For this reader, chapters 7, 8, 9, and 10 collectively challenged another trope of the Vietnamese past. If Zottoli convinces readers that the expansion of the Vietnamese realm was a rather more complex range of events than often depicted in imperial sources, he may similarly revise our understanding of the wars of the seventeenth century between the Trịnh and Nguyễn. Rather than accepting the premise that these two clans of lords [vn. chúa] fought for the right rule in the name of the Lê Dynasty, Zottoli traces the ways in which Ming China (1368-1643) and events in Southeast Asia, including the competition between Ayutthaya (1351-1767) and Cochinchina for influence over Cambodia, shaped the conflict between the Nguyễn and Trịnh. Along the way, he introduces readers to the emerging interest of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) in the trading world of Cochinchina, even as the VOC enjoyed generally more favorable terms with the Trịnh Lords in Tonkin (p. 250). Zottoli draws on Jesuit maps, the writings of Alexandre de Rhodes, Vietnamese imperial sources, and the recent work of Hoàng Anh Tuấn to fashion an account of the turmoil of this period. Through Dutch sources, he also interrogates the existence of the 1653 defeat of Champa by the Nguyễn lords (pp. 258-261). Zottoli’s well-founded skepticism might persuade historians of mainland Southeast Asia, including Cham and Lao specialists, to make a serious revision of the political narrative of the seventeenth century.

Historians of Vietnam and Southeast Asia will have a particular interest in Zottoli’s account of Gia Định (Chapter 8), the role of Cambodia in the rise of Nguyễn Cochinchina (Chapter 9), and, as he calls it, “The Birth of Nguyễn Vietnam” (Chapter 10). The emergence of Gia Định as an independent kingdom in lower Cambodia, one that forged ties with Nguyễn Cochinchina, is a story that Zottoli tells through translations of Cambodian and Ayutthaya chronicles as well as Nguyễn historiography. As elsewhere in his dissertation, this broad appreciation for sources results in a detailed narrative that connects events, typically seen as teleological backstory to the nineteenth century Nguyễn Empire, to Southeast Asian and global forces. Readers learn about a Chan (vn. Thiện, jp. Zen) Buddhist faction, communities of Christians that played a significant role in local administration, and the involvement of Cochinchinese authorities in a war for control of Cambodia against Ayutthaya in the early eighteenth century. Throughout, Zottoli compares empirical evidence across texts, demonstrating the limitations of reliance on a single source for this period.

Chapter 9 also focuses on the possible revival of the Mạc regime, or at least the Mạc name, in Hà Tiên, a settlement formerly used by Portuguese merchants in the Mekong Delta (pp. 348-373). Zottoli’s treatment of Hà Tiên as a center of trade and conflict during the eighteenth century illustrates the deep involvement of Cochinchinese rulers, merchants, and Taksin, the founder of the Chakri Dynasty (est. 1782) who invaded Hà Tiên after defeating the Burmese army in Siam, in the history of the Mekong Delta.

In his brief chapter on the founding of the Nguyễn Dynasty (Chapter 10), Zottoli brings the main narrative of his study to a close. Building on George Dutton’s work on the Tây Sơn Uprising, Zottoli places the rebellion led by the three Tây Sơn brothers in the context of the wider Mekong region (pp. 380-386). The subsequent dominance of the Đông Sơn army in southern Vietnam and its support for Nguyễn Ánh, who would become the first emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty in 1802, was far from a preordained outcome. In fact, the prospects of Nguyễn Ánh’s victory over the Tây Sơn seemed, in the 1780s, quite dim. Having fled the Tây Sơn armies, he served in the Chakri army before escaping to islands off the Siamese coast. Nguyễn Ánh’s eventual victory over the Tây Sơn and subsequent rise to power at the end of the eighteenth century depended heavily on Minh Hương soldiers and armies of Chinese bandits. The role of Minh Hương, or people putatively loyal to the Ming Dynasty who left China after the Qing Empire (1644-1911) to settle in Cochinchina and elsewhere, was effectively scrubbed from later historical accounts, an act of exclusion that Zottoli attributes to the common goal, shared by Nguyễn texts and French texts, of valorizing Nguyễn Ánh and minimizing the role of Minh Hương support in his victory. After the establishment of the Nguyễn Dynasty, which ruled the entirety of imperial Vietnam from 1802, prominent Minh Hương officials served Nguyễn Ánh, now the Gia Long Emperor, at Court, including Trịnh Hoài Đức, who would make considerable intellectual contributions to the nineteenth century.

Zottoli concludes his dissertation with a discussion of the need to abandon the “March to the South” as an explanatory device, echoing the remarks of Keith W. Taylor. Referencing the work of Li Tana, Choi Byungwook, Victor Lieberman, and James Kong Chin, he convincingly states the case that the history of Cochinchina can only be told outside the confines of nationalist and imperial historiographical frames. Since the previous generation, historians of Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Vietnam have grappled with the issue of the nationalist paradigm and its limitations, as evinced by the work of Li Tana, Patricia Pelley, Christoph Giebel, and many others. Beneath the imagined community of nationalist Vietnam there lies the lively surface of the imperial past. As Zottoli shows throughout this thickly detailed, complex, and promising dissertation, the Vietnamese past before nationalism deserves critical attention by historians, who should exercise the same sophisticated skepticism towards imperial chronicles that others have towards the enduring nationalist mythologies of the twentieth century.

Bradley Camp Davis
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Eastern Connecticut State University

Primary Sources

Bùi Dương Lịch. Nghệ An Ký. Published in Vietnamese translation as Nguyễn Thị Thảo, trans. Nghệ An Ký. Hanoi: Nhà Xuất Bản Khoa Học Xã Hội, 1993.
Đại Việt Sử Kỳ Bản Kỷ Tục Biên [Later Period of the History of Great Việt]. Text fragment found in the personal library of Nguyễn Văn Huyên. Published in Vietnamese translation in: Hà Văn Tấn, ed. trans. Hoàng Văn Lâu and Ngô Thế Long. Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư, Bản In Nội Các Quan Bản, Mộc Bản Khắc Năm Chính Hòa Thứ 18 (1697) [Complete History of the Great Việt, Nội Các Quan Edition, Printed in the 18th year of the Chính Hòa Reign (1697)]. Vol. III. Hanoi: Nhà Xuất Bản Khoa Học Xã Hội, 2004. 302-351.
Dương Văn An. Ô Châu Cận Lục [Recent Record of Ô Châu]. Ms. A.263, Hán Nôm Institute, Hanoi. Published in Vietnamese translation as: Dương Văn An. Ô Châu Cận Lục. Trans. Trần Đại Vĩnh and Hoàng Văn Phúc. Huế: Nhà xuất bản Thuận Hóa, 2001.
Hồng Đức Bản Đồ. EFEO microfilm A.2499. Annotated edition published as: Bửu Cầm, et al. Hồng Đức Bản Đồ. Saigon: Bộ Quốc Gia Giáo Dục, 1962.
Mai Thị, Phủ Tập Quảng Nam Ký Sự [Records of Quảng Nam]. Manuscript held by the Lê family in Mộ Đức, Quảng Ngãi. Reproduced in Lê Hồng Long and Vũ Sông Trà, eds. Tư Liệu Thư Tịch Và Di Tích Về Nhân Vật Lịch Sử Bùi Tá Hán (1496 – 1568) [Documents and Relics Pertaining to the Historical Figure Bùi Tá Hán (1496 – 1568)]. Quảng Ngãi: Sở Văn Hóa Thông Tin Quảng Ngãi, 1996.
Vũ Thế Dinh. Hà Tiền Trấn Hiệp Trấn Mạc Thị Gia Phả. Ms. Published in Vietnamese translation as Nguyễn Khắc Thuần, trans., Mạc Thị Gia Phả. [Genealogy of the Mạc Family.] Hanoi: Nhà Xuất Bản Văn Hóa – Thông Tin, 2002.

Dissertation Information

University of Michigan. 2011. 434 pp. Advisor: Victor Lieberman.

Image by author from John Barrow’s Voyage to Cochinchina, in the Years 1792 and 1793.

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