The Origins of Ancient Vietnam by Nam C. Kim (review)
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The Origins of Ancient Vietnam. By Nam C. Kim. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015. xvii+ 354 pp.

Nam Kim is a careful and well-informed scholar. He has written a very carefully researched and highly informative book, one that elucidates the most recent findings on the origins of state formation in what is today northern Vietnam. The book also validates what many scholars have surmised from earlier evidence: that a politically sophisticated society, founded by an aristocratic elite, was already in place in what we today call the Bắc Bộ area well before its incorporation as one of the southernmost territories under the control of the Han Dynasty.

The primary evidence for this conclusion comes from the excavation of the major walled site at Cổ Loa, just northwest of the modern capital city of Hanoi. Kim has since 2005 conducted fieldwork focused on that site in collaboration with the Viện Khao Cổ (Vietnamese Institute of Archæology). But, before turning to that evidence, he finds that he must first survey and synthesize in considerable detail both the relevant general archaeological record for Southeast Asia as a whole, with emphasis on comparable walled sites. [End Page 411] He then explores state formation and warfare in the region to lay a foundation for the remainder of the text. He covers the emergence of social complexity resulting from the development of agriculture and metallurgy and from the increasing population density in the area adjacent to Cổ Loa, which appears to have been a crossroads for prehistoric economic exchange.

The non-specialist is struck by the considerable evidence presented for cultural continuity and in situ development from the Paleolithic to the Bronze Age, featuring increasing social complexity concomitant with the rise of and wide distribution of bronze artefacts, especially in the Đông Sơn era (≈ 600 bce to ≈ 200 ce). The area showed much greater population density than other parts of Mainland Southeast Asia. It should be noted that this density is reflected in the later figures presented for the Bắc Bộ region in the well-known work of Hans Bielenstein (1947) on the Han census of 2 ce, a work which does not appear in Nam Kim's bibliography but one whose findings correlate well with his own.

The author goes on to emphasize the interweaving of technological development, political consolidation and social stratification that lay at the roots of the eventual formation of the polity that began the construction of a major walled site in the period before significant pre-Han contact. That site was to become Cổ Loa, the major focus of his treatise.

The location itself is described in meticulous detail, and, without rehearsing the minutia thereof, suffice it to say that by its size alone it constitutes the most impressive site of its kind in Mainland Southeast Asia for the pre- and early Sinitic period.

Probably begun in the fifth century bce, Cổ Loa had two meandering concentric outer ramparts, the outermost some eight kilometres in length. Even today those outer walls still stand up to twelve metres in height and twenty-five metres at their base. The site also had an inner rectangular citadel-like structure, representing the removal of something like two million cubic metres of material. All of this is without parallel for its region and era. That it is evidence of a substantial local polity, pre-dating at its inception significant [End Page 412] influence from further north, is amply demonstrated by the recent work of both the Vietnamese archaeological team and the author himself. And that it points to early state formation cannot be doubted. As Lisa Lucero (2006, p. 281, cited on p. 202) points out and as Nam Kim notes,

Ancient tropical societies, such as the Maya, are often relegated to the unknown or mysterious or, worse yet, are seen as a result of outside influences because of the traditional bias in anthropology of largely focusing on civilizations in temperate areas.

This bias has obviously led to a well-deserved push back in the post-colonial era.

Indeed, political agendas and anachronistic labels have proven a constant threat to academic impartiality in Asian...