Review – Vietnam Before 1800 (W. Duiker)

Review – Vietnam before 1800:

According to Professor William J. Duiker:

“After the tenth century, the Vietnamese state, known at the time as Dai Viet, or “Great Viet”, gained steadily in wealth and power. While the country did not possess abundant natural resources, the Vietnamese people, most of whom were rice farmers living in the fertile delta of the Red River, were hard-working and talented. As the population increased, pressure intensified to find new land for cultivation. Blocked to the north and west by forest-covered mountains, the Vietnamese naturally began to expand to the south along the coast of the South China Sea. During several centuries of intermittent conflict with neighboring state of Champa, located directly to to south along the central coast, the Vietnamese carried out their historic march to the south. The Cham, a trading people unrelated in ethnic origin and language to the Vietnamese, had had little contact with China, and had been more strongly influenced by Indian civilization. After the Muslim merchants became increasingly active in the regional spice trade in the fourteenth century, the Cham converted to Islam.

For several hundred years, the rivalry between Dai Viet and Champa continued without decisive advantage gained by either side. By the sixteenth century, however, Dai Viet had not only conquered Champa but it had also seized the vast Mekong River Delta from the kingdom of Angkor in Cambodia. By 1700, Vietnamese authority extended from the Chinese border in the north to the tip of the Camu peninsula on the Gulf of Siam.

Unfortunately for Vietnam, territorial expansion came with a price. Shaped like a giant letter S along the eastern rim of of the Southeast Asian mainland, the expanded Vietnamese state lacked the territorial cohesion that it had possessed when it was concentrated in the Red River Delta. Factionalism among princely families at court led to civil war in 1613 and the division of the kingdom into two separate warring states in the north and south. Vietnam would remain divided for nearly two centuries.

The southward march and consequent division of the country exerted a lasting impact on Vietnamese society. As Dai Viet expanded southward, thousands of Vietnamese peasants from densely populated villages in the Red River Delta migrated from their original villages and established new communities in virgin farmlands scattered throughout the spacious though marshy delta of the Mekong River in the south. Nourished by the ready availability of land as well as by the favorable climate, these migrants gradually developed a new frontier spirit far removed from the traditional ways practiced in their ancestral homelands in the north. Where northerners were conservative in their social attitudes, cautious in their economic behavior, and inclined to accept the primacy of the community over the interests of the individual, southerners tended to be more independent-minded, more entrepreneurial in spirit, and more fractious and individualistic in their social relations. And since growing rice came much easier in the south than up north, and since there was usually plenty to go around, the southerners’ lives were seen as somewhat “easier” than the hard-scrabble existence of northerners. This led over time to southerners being viewed as soft, even lazy. A cultural divide had opened up that was destined to have profound effects on the later course of Vietnamese history, and indeed has not healed to this day.

In the early nineteenth century, an energetic member of the ruling house in southern Vietnam successfully reunited the country under his rule and declared the founding of the Nguyen Dynasty. As a demonstration of unity he moved the imperial capital from Hanoi to Hue, on the central coast halfway between the Mekong and the Red River deltas. Such cosmetic actions, however, were not sufficient to heal the wounds that been opened during two centuries of civil strife, and tensions between the northern and southern provinces continued to plague the Nguyen court throughout the coming decades.

To make matters even more difficult, the new state (now called Vietnam or Southern Viet), simultaneously faced a new challenge from Abroad. European traders and missionaries had been active in Vietnam since the early seventeenth century, but the country lacked many of the spices that had generated profits in places like Indonesia. By 1700, when the Vietnamese court began to restrict foreign commercial and missionary activities, most European merchants had already abandoned the area, although French missionary interests continued to cater to the needs of the country’s many Christian converts. In the early nineteenth century however the needs of the Industrial Revolution provoked the capitalist states of the west to turn once again to Asia, this time in search of cheap raw materials and consumer markets for their manufactured goods. With the Dutch in firm control of the East Indies, and the British newly entrenched in Burma and on the Malay peninsula, the French turned to Vietnam as a toehold on the Southern Asian mainland and a base of possible future expansion into southern China.” – Excerpt from Sacred War: Nationalism and Revolution in a Divided Vietnam. By William J. Duiker. 1995. McGraw Hill. New York. Pg. 9-11

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