Conference on

"Nguyen Vietnam: 1558-1885"

Reading Room, G/F, Tang Chi Ngong Building, The University of Hong Kong

11-12 May, 2012


Theme of the Conference

The Nguyen dynasty has long been the subject of ideologically driven debates among Vietnamese historians. During wartime, for example, scholars inside and outside Vietnam used the dynasty to cast South Vietnam in clashing roles, from a counterrevolutionary feudalist regime blinded by Confucianist torpor to a dynamic force for openness, expansion and development cut short by French colonialism. The date 1802, which separates two different eras in the dynasty’s history, has served to reinforce these notions, and to fortify an ideal of national (and until recently revolutionary) development that does not always accord with the realities of society within Vietnam. By defining the Nguyen period as ranging from the period of lordship (1558-1802) to the imposition of protectorates in Annam and Tonkin by the French in 1885, the conference organizers seek to set aside both ideology and teleology and to consider long term processes that span the longstanding 1802 divide and thereby serve to transcend the old debates that have precluded fresh perspectives on early modern Vietnamese history. Similarly, we seek to advance new spatial paradigms that reconsider the people, processes and places that did not always conform to conventional ideas about the norms or boundaries of Vietnamese states and societies under Nguyen rule. In this spirit, we will challenge participants to re-imagine a new scholarship about this crucial period in Vietnamese history.

Our two meetings seek to build on new scholarship that draws from sources beyond the vernacular Vietnamese, including Nôm (Vietnam’s precolonial sinitic script), Chinese, French, English, Dutch, and Japanese. Many of these sources are archival and have only recently been made available; others derive from new efforts to combine thorough archival research with fieldwork. As a consequence, a period of early Vietnamese history once considered barren now enjoys a cumulative pool of potential data that is unprecedented in size, and derives from an expanded range of historical, ethnographic and archaeological sources that has only begun to grow. This has enabled a whole new scholarship on Nguyen Vietnam that has become international; it emanates from the United States, France, Japan, Korea, China, Australia and other countries, in addition to Vietnam. Given the pivotal role that this dynasty played in shaping the processes that defined the Vietnamese nation-state and its composite ethnic identities, any profitable (and much needed) reconsideration of colonial and modern Vietnamese history relies on such an exercise.

This is the first of two conferences. Here, we investigate the theme of “External Contacts.” This meeting will consider Vietnamese engagement beyond political, ethnic and other boundaries, through networks of exchange and trans-state regional formations, and whose processes were formed through coercion, commerce, and a variety of cultural and state practices.  The second conference, “Domestic Issues,” which will be hosted by the Asia Center of Harvard University in 2013, will focus on domestic Vietnamese issues in both north, center and south during the same period. While the complexities of Vietnamese history deny clean thematic divisions, we have decided to adopt this two-conference format to facilitate lively and productive dialogues about Vietnam at both micro- and macro-regional levels.


The organizers:

Bradley C. Davis, Gonzaga University

Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Harvard University

Charles Wheeler, Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences, HKU