Allegories of the Vietnamese Past

Allegories of the Vietnamese Past

Yale Southeast Asia Studies Monograph #61 (December 2011)

   In 1873, an official named Bùi Vien supposedly traveled to the United States and requested the assistance of President Ulysses S. Grant in repelling French aggression against Vietnam. Although this story is very unlikely to be true, it has been recounted in numerous historical and popular texts, and even by a United States President, Lyndon B. Johnson. Naturally one has to inquire why this fictitious encounter would have been fabricated and then popularized. A large part of the answer involves its use as a valuable allegory for Vietnamese relations with the United States in the twentieth century. Having abandoned Vietnam in the nineteenth century, some historians argued, the United States had a responsibility to it in the twentieth.

    In order to legitimate a particular ideal, such as the concept of a nation, various historians have embellished or even fabricated certain episodes in history to bolster a preferred vision of Vietnamese nationalism and to provide an ideological justification for their favored regime. Along with tales such as Bui Vien’s interaction with President Grant, author Wynn Wilcox considers the stories of a bishop who purportedly began colonizing Vietnam eighty years before that effort came to fruition; an emperor who so hated foreigners and Christians that he was willing to risk his country’s independence to persecute them; an empress who either passionately loved her husband, or killed him and married a rival king, depending on the party retelling the anecdote; a poet who used her words to join a revolutionary fight against feudalism; and a war of words that broke out between southern and northern Vietnamese over who had unified Vietnam in the past, and thus who would do so in the future. This study proposes that the interpretation of historical allegories can elucidate the ideologies of unification and identity more effectively than resorting to a simple empirical approach to the past.

Wynn Gadkar Wilcox is Associate Professor and Co-Chair of the Department of History and Non-Western Cultures at Western Connecticut State University. He is editor of Vietnam and the West: New Approaches.

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