Vietnam needs to embrace its history fully

By Vu Viet Tuan   June 28, 2018 | 07:25 pm PT
Vietnam needs to embrace its history fully
People travel in Saigon in a photo taken by French photographer François Sully in summer 1964.
Our history is riddled with ‘gaps’ of missing info, and we are to blame.

On Wednesday, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese students finished their social sciences module for the national high school graduation examination. History was one of the subjects.

But I am sure that once the exams are over, our students may never need to use any their knowledge of history anymore, unless they decide to pursue social science courses in college.

As I type out these words, I am reminded of Professor Phan Huy Le, arguably one of the best historians of this country, who passed away last week. As he left us forever, Le left us with a question that still has no answer: When will the ‘gaps’ in our history be filled?

For clarification, the ‘gaps’ represent certain events or information in our history that fail to reach mainstream consciousness due to various reasons, either because of censorship or simply a lack of coverage.

Right now, our own history is riddled with holes, with many classes and textbooks still lacking significant historical facts, because the education ministry is still at odds with historians over whether such events should be included in our students’ curricula, and if they are, how they should be included.

The first time I became aware of these ‘gaps’ was when I was still a college student majoring in journalism. During those years, I learnt about the Nhan Van – Giai Pham affair, a cultural-political movement in the late 1950s, in which artists and intellectuals called for freedom of speech, creativity and human rights, but was later squashed by the then administration.

I’ve also learnt about the story of Nguyen Huu Dang, a Vietnamese journalist who was just as revered as he was condemned, being the one who oversaw the reading of Vietnam’s Proclamation of Independence in 1945, and also the one who was denounced by the then administration for being a part of the Nhan Van – Giai Pham movement.

Knowledge of events and moments like these have never been included in our education system.

That was when I was awakened to how there were so many of these ‘gaps’, and that I must find out more about them. Today, the Nhan Van – Giai Pham movement is much more well-received than it used to be back in the days. But there are still so many historical events that, due to some intangible, indescribable fears, people still hesitate to talk about them in public.

In February last year, I sat for a presentation by Phan Huy Le during a conference at the Central Propaganda Department. His speech was long, but eloquent and unexpectedly captivating. Every word was worth hanging on to. It was the first time I saw our leading historians address the elephant in the room and publicly discuss the historical ‘gaps’ considered too ‘sensitive’ for the higher-ups.

At that presentation, Phan Huy Le stressed that history needs to be perceived fully, comprehensively and without bias. “Any culture and civilization that ever existed on our land is a part of our historical legacy,” he said.

That means our history needs to cover not just what happened in the north, but also the central and southern areas. That also means the stories of the 54 ethnic minorities in Vietnam all matter as a part of our collective history, not just those of the Kinh people, who make up 86 percent of our population.

But most importantly, it means that to really know and understand our history, we can no longer filter out things that we consider ‘unnecessary’ or ‘non-beneficial.’

Several such things came to my mind. Our ancient dynasties can, and should be viewed with a more objective lens. The many aspects of the now-defunct Republic of Vietnam could be scrutinized as case studies, scientific methods and all. The Nguyen Dynasty in the early 19th, which was traditionally portrayed as a ‘traitor’ in our history for ‘inviting’ the French to colonize Vietnam, could be seen in new light as a dynasty that has contributed greatly to our nation’s development.

Phan Huy Le’s speech received nods and applause from the audience, with many fellow historians agreeing that our historical ‘hidden side’ needs to be carefully addressed and analyzed.

I left the conference with a spring in my steps and sparks in my head, eager to write an article about the things that transpired in that room. To this day, that article was one of my best works in my career as a journalist.

But I never realized how Phan Huy Le’s speech has driven such a divisive wedge within the public.

The majority supported his opinion. Many texted me, thanking me for writing the article, for saying what has been weighing on their minds for so long.

But the fury that it ignited in the “opposition” camp was not to be underestimated. They targeted Le, my article and me, questioning several points raised in his speech, with arguments that went: If the Nguyen dynasty did contribute to our country’s development, why would it let the French invade us? Or if the Republic of Vietnam is recognized as a legitimate administration, wouldn’t that invalidate the Vietnamese people’s sacrifices during the Vietnam War? And so on and so forth.

And it got worse. Many switched to personal, ad hominem attacks on Phan Huy Le and me, calling us names. The verbal assaults lasted for days.

Then it hit me. To fill in the gaps in our history is already hard as it is, but to unravel the bias and preconceptions clouding the minds of many of our brethren is a million times harder, if not virtually impossible.

I beat myself up a hundred times for having written that article, fearing that the public backlash might have affected Le and his work. But he just smiled, told me to let it go and carry on with my work, because he didn’t regret giving that speech, because it was something that needed to be said.

But I knew he wasn’t fine at all. Through his students, I knew he was really saddened by what happened, but chose to remain calm, steel his resolve and pursue his path. For him, it was the right thing to do.

Phan Huy Le is no longer with us. It would be difficult to find someone to fill the void he left in our history research community. But certainly, his thoughts and opinions will continue to echo in the back of our minds, and one day, hopefully, they will help to fill in the gaps and gaping holes scattered across our own history.

We are not alone. Every nation has its glorious moments, and its shadows. To embrace our history means to embrace fully both our bright and dark sides.

As we all know, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

*Vu Viet Tuan is a Vietnamese journalist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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