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  • Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship
  • C. Michele Thompson (bio)
Liam C. Kelley . Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship. Asian Interactions and Comparisons. Honolulu: Association for Asian Studies and University of Hawai'i Press, 2005. xiii, 267 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 0-8248-2847-x.

In Beyond the Bronze Pillars: Envoy Poetry and the Sino-Vietnamese Relationship, Liam C. Kelley provides a close examination of poems written by Vietnamese envoys to the Chinese court, focusing on the late sixteenth through the early nineteenth centuries. However, interesting as this work is for its presentation of the genre of envoy poetry and envoy poetry's place in what is usually referred to as the tribute system, this is not Kelley's main theme. Kelley uses the poems, and their authors, to boldly and bluntly reexamine the ever vexatious question-for scholars who work on pre-twentieth-century Vietnam-of the depth, breadth, and qualitative and quantitative impact of Chinese/Sinitic culture on Vietnamese culture.

Kelley begins by discussing the "possibly mythical" bronze pillars of Ma Yuan that perhaps at one time marked the border between Vietnam and China (pp. 5-9). He then notes that the ambiguity of the evidence for the existence and location of these pillars is symbolic of a corresponding ambiguity regarding cultural and intellectual boundaries between China and Vietnam. Kelley then moves into a discussion and critique of previous scholarship on this subject. Kelley demonstrates that early Western scholarship on Vietnam, primarily French, presented Vietnam as basically a "Little China" (p. 9). He then argues that Western scholarship on Vietnam after World War II was dominated by a desire to critique the 'Little China' theory and by "nationalist inventions of a Vietnamese past that were then emanating from Vietnam itself, both South and North" (p. 10). According to Kelley, this resulted in what can be called the 'not China' or the 'not Chinese' theory. Kelley clearly feels that scholars have gone too far in this direction and that the existence of polities and cultures known as China/Chinese and Vietnam/ Vietnamese has been essentialized and projected backward in time.

Kelley proceeds to charge that scholars have misrepresented certain documents considered to be part of a literature of resistance to domination, political and cultural, of Vietnam by China. He argues that these documents are instead connected to internal Vietnamese hostilities. Specifically, that Nguyễn Trãi's famous proclamation of victory over Ming forces the Bình Ngô Đại Cáo (Kelley translates this title as Great Announcement on Pacifying the Ngo/Wu) was directed at those Vietnamese "who had collaborated with the occupying Ming forces" rather than at the Chinese themselves. Kelley further argues that the Bình Ngô Đại Cáo was inspired by a poem in China's Shangshu (pp. 19-20). This is an interesting [End Page 427] and thought-provoking reinterpretation of the Bình Ngô Đại Cáo, and I would very much have liked to see further discussion of this point in terms of the poem itself-the language/terminology in it, and the intellectual and emotional context in which Nguyễn Trãi wrote it. After all, Nguyễn Trãi's father, Nguyễn Phi Khanh, had been forcibly taken to China some years previously, so there is reason to think that Nguyễn Trãi felt personal animosity toward the Ming.1

Kelley moves immediately into an argument that is inspired by "sympathy with modern Vietnamese nationalist views" that Western scholars have "tended to avoid"; the subject is Vietnam's many and varied internal struggles. He further charges that scholars have ignored poetry and pronouncements that welcomed Chinese (Kelley's specific example comes from the Qing dynasty) troops who were expected to assist one side or another in internecine warfare within Vietnam (pp. 20-21). Kelley offers a compelling argument: only when the texts left by those Vietnamese who wholeheartedly embraced the Chinese intellectual heritage and who affirmed the world order of the tribute system are fully examined by scholars and compared with the "literature of resistance" will any deep understanding of the Sino-Vietnamese cultural...


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