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Vietnam and China are currently engaged in a map war, with each country using ancient maps to buttress its claims to territorial sovereignty over some uninhabited islands in the South China Sea (in Chinese terminology), also known as the Eastern Sea (in Vietnamese). But what do maps in fact represent? What is meant by “territory”? How are territorial limits conceived? These questions were raised in a May 2015 workshop inspired by Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (1994), a groundbreaking book that traces the transformation of Thai geographical consciousness as a result of Siam’s encounter with Western powers in the nineteenth century. While many of Thongchai’s insights apply to the Vietnamese case, as the first of the three articles included in this special issue of Cross-Currents shows, some of the 2015 workshop participants’ conclusions departed from his, especially regarding the formation of a Vietnamese geographical consciousness before the colonial period.1 This is true of the other two papers, which focus specifically on the construction of borders and the associated production of maps in the nineteenth century before French colonial conquest.

The first known Vietnamese maps, collated between 1467 and 1490, are known collectively as the Hồng Đức maps. The original maps are no longer extant. The current maps date from the mid- to late seventeenth century and were most likely heavily revised and updated. A map drawn by the Jesuit priest Alexandre de Rhodes and published in 1650 by the Vatican (map 1) [End Page 453]

Map 1. 1650 map of Vietnam by Alexandre de Rhodes, based on the 1490 Hồng Đức maps. Source: Vatican.
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Map 1.

1650 map of Vietnam by Alexandre de Rhodes, based on the 1490 Hồng Đức maps.

Source: Vatican.

seems to have been based on one of the maps in the Hồng Đức collection, substituting Latin for Chinese characters but preserving the map’s orientation with north to the right. It also shows that, by 1650, Đại Việt had become divided into two realms, known to Westerners as Tonkin in the north and Cochinchina in the south. The latter did not yet incorporate the Mekong Delta, the region that would become French Cochinchina in the 1860s. Some of the maps that have survived since the seventeenth century were representations of routes—crucial for military campaigns—and administrative units. Other maps were topographical. The poetic term for the Vietnamese territory is “our mountains and rivers,” each mountain and each river having its own guardian deity. Maps therefore also had a cosmological purpose as representations of Vietnam’s sacred geography. Maps did contain lines of demarcation, but no distinction was made between lines dividing provinces within the empire and lines distinguishing the empire from a neighboring country. This could be taken to support the idea that Vietnameseness was [End Page 454] a cultural rather than a territorial construct. Yet disputes between China and Vietnam were not really about actual cultural characteristics, despite invocations of “civilization” versus “barbarism.” In northern Vietnam, the label of barbarian (man di) applied to non-ethnic Vietnamese, although the Vietnamese themselves had become barbarians (Ch. manyi) in Chinese eyes after they regained their independence from the Ming. In the Vietnamese south, the barbarian label was applied to Cambodians, while ethnic Vietnamese (kinh) were considered hoa, or civilized, whether they were literate or not (which was the overwhelming case).

In this special issue, Liam Kelley sets the scene by discussing premodern Vietnamese notions of their country’s geography. Contra historian Momoki Shiro, Kelley argues that premodern Vietnamese situated their country in relation to China, which they considered both a source of moral principles and geomantic power as well as the locus of their national origins through descent from Shennong, the “divine agriculturalist.” The ur-text in which the Vietnamese myth of origins is developed is the Complete Annals of Dai Viet (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư), which was commissioned by Emperor Lê Thánh Tông shortly after his victory over Champa in 1471 greatly expanded the size of his empire. This was the same emperor who commissioned the Hồng Đức maps of 1490, which showed the annexed land as part...


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