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Reviewed by:
  • Vietnam and the West: New approaches
  • Mark W. McLeod
Vietnam and the West: New approaches Edited by Wynn Wilcox. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2010.

This enticing but uneven collection presents "new approaches" to an old question; that of interactions between "Vietnam and the West." Editor Wynn Wilcox introduces the work and also contributes a chapter. As Wilcox explains, rather than conceiving interactions in terms of "Westernization" (Vietnamese responses to patterns defined as Western) or searching for the "autonomous" (quintessentially Vietnamese) in Vietnamese culture and history, the contributors "co-figure" the relationship, exploring how imported ideas and practices were rearticulated in indigenous ways in Vietnam, while also asking what roles this process played in defining conceptions of "Vietnamese" and "Western." Contributors also revise chronologies associated with "Vietnam and the West" relationships, first by expanding them to include exchanges from the sixteenth century to the present, and second by integrating periods that are often discussed discretely (the First Indochina War, the Second Indochina War, Post-War Vietnam, etc.). To convey the breadth of the contributions as well as their varying quality, I assess pieces from each of the book's 3 sections: Precolonial Encounters (to 1862); French and American Encounters (1862-1975); and Recent Encounters (1975-present).

In the first section, Brian Ostrowski's "The Rise of Christian Nôm Literature in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam: Fusing European content and local expression" argues that within Vietnam's early Christian communities, Nôm, the demotic "Southern" script, was a much more important written medium than Romanized quốc ngữ script, which is usually presumed by scholars to be the primary writing system among pre-colonial Vietnamese Christians. The chapter further indicates the skillful manner in which the Nôm texts attributed to the Jesuit priest Geronimo Maiorica (1589-1656) which were likely composed with the aid of Vietnamese Christian collaborators, customized their Christian message for a Vietnamese audience, responding, for example, to the pre-existing Vietnamese tendency towards the supernatural. At the same time, the Maiorica Nôm works were precocious localizers of Western concepts, worldviews, and genres, including but not limited to Christian ones. Why, then, are these contributions generally ignored in Vietnamese literary historical studies? The omission results partly from the fact that, until recently, the very existence of many of these works was unknown, and their translation and explication remain incomplete. There is also, Ostrowski suggests, prejudice among Vietnamese and Western scholars against Vietnamese Christian literature in any script as somehow "foreign," inauthentic, and undeserving of inclusion in Vietnam's national literature. This chapter should contribute to changing the situation on both counts by bringing a number of these works to general scholarly attention and arguing so persuasively for their inclusion.

Moving to the second section, Micheline Lessard's "More than Half the Sky: Vietnamese women and anti-French Political activism, 1858-1945" argues that previous studies have defined women's political activism too narrowly, usually to mean formal membership in a revolutionary party or military force. Instead, Lessard calls for a "new interpretative approach" with a wider understanding of what constitutes political activism in order to reveal that colonial-era Vietnamese women were much more politically active than previously recognized. Citing mostly French archival sources, she compiles a list of colonial-era female participation in armed struggles, labor strikes, student protests, and journalism. While the point is demonstrated beyond dispute, this approach is hardly a novel one, and its thorough application to the Vietnamese context would require extensive readings of Vietnamese sources—both primary and literary. For example, in a work that appeared in 1974, Ngô Vĩnh Long exploited French as well as Vietnamese primary sources to document Vietnamese women's activism during the colonial period, revealing the activities of female editors, writers, and readers of the reformist weekly magazine, Phụ Nữ Tân Văn (New Literature on Women).1 While Lessard's citations of French sources and English translations of them are impeccable, her Vietnamese-language references and English translations are riddled with errors. It would be pedantic to list the dozens of mistakes, but perusal of a single footnote will illustrate the problem's severity: on page 103, the title of...

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