AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 65

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Session 65: Confucianism in Action in Vietnam

Organizer: Liam C. Kelley, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

It is commonplace for scholars to note that Confucianism has played an important role in Vietnamese society for centuries, however there has been very little specific discussion of what exactly “Confucianism” refers to, and how it actually influenced ideas and lives. This panel will attempt to address this issue by examining Confucian ideas “in action” at two levels, the communal and the individual. In exploring various areas where Confucian ideas were put to use, the panelists will seek to clarify what exactly “Confucianism” was and how it influenced ideas and lives throughout Vietnamese history. More specifically, two of the papers in this panel will look at areas where we would expect to see Confucian ideas – in a Vietnamese commentary on the Classic of Documents and in essays from the civil service examinations – and will seek to clarify what exactly the Confucian ideas were, when translated into Vietnamese contexts, which were important for these endeavors. The other two papers will then examine areas where we might not expect to find Confucian ideas, namely, in debates about an historical novel, and in texts revealed by spirits in a cult dedicated to female deities. Taken together, the papers in this panel will seek to demonstrate that “Confucianism” is a complex repertoire of elements which certain Vietnamese employed in different contexts in diverse ways, and will thus contribute toward establishing a clearer and deeper understanding of the role of Confucianism in Vietnam’s past.

Le Quy Don’s Evaluations in the Thu Kinh Dien Nghia of Zhu Xi’s Interpretations of the Shujing (Classic of Documents)
Kim Son Nguyen, Vietnam National University, Viet Nam

Le Quy Don (1723-1784) was one of the most prominent scholars in Vietnamese history. In 1776 he completed a text called the Thu Kinh Dien Nghia (Interpretations and Discussions of the Classic of Documents). This work was based on Le Quy Don’s own understanding of the Shujing, or Classic of Documents, but it was also influenced by his exposure to the textual studies of Qing scholars which he had earlier encountered while journeying to Beijing as an envoy. The Thu Kinh Dien Nghia can thus be seen as Le Quy Don’s response to not only the concepts in the Shujing, but also to the ideas of his Chinese contemporaries and predecessors. Among these, the comments of the Song Dynasty Neo-Confucian philosopher, Zhu Xi, were ones which Le Quy Don dealt with in the most depth. The Thu Kinh Dien Nghia therefore provides fascinating insights into how a premodern Vietnamese scholar understood and evaluated the Neo-Confucian ideas of Zhu Xi. This paper will thus focus on this topic by explaining some of Zhu Xi’s ideas concerning the Shujing, and then by examining Le Quy Don’s evaluations of these ideas in his Thu Kinh Dien Nghia.

What was Confucian about the Civil Service Exams?: A Case Study of Nineteenth-Century Exam Essays
Hieu Minh Phung, Vietnam National University, Viet Nam

There was a civil service examination system in Vietnam in one form or another for roughly 1,000 years. These exams are often referred to as “Confucian” exams as scholars believe that they promoted Confucian ideas. However, very little work has been done to actually examine what was Confucian about the exams. What were the Confucian ideas that were actually addressed in the examinations? This is the topic which this paper will discuss. In particular, by examining examination essays, this paper will argue that enforcing certain interpretations of the Confucian classics, literary styles, and political and social values were important functions of nineteenth-century exams. We can see this in the way that only certain aspects of the Confucian classics which the Cheng-Zhu school emphasized were expected to be included in the exam essays, as well as in the literary techniques applied to stating and discussing Confucian ideas in the essays, and the Confucian-oriented political and social values which were upheld and transmitted by both examinees and examiners.

The Holy Mother Religion (Dao Mau) and the Encouragement of Confucian Values in the Early Twentieth Century
Liam C. Kelley, University of Hawaii, Manoa, USA

In recent years a local religion in Vietnam, often referred to as the “Holy Mother” religion (Dao Mau), has received a considerable deal of scholarly attention. Much of this work has been done by anthropologists who have sought to understand the role which this religion currently plays in Vietnam’s rapidly changing society, particularly for women, the majority of this religion’s followers. This association between this current understanding of this religion and its concern for the particular interests of women stands in contrast to its historical role as a medium for the transmission of what we could call the male-centered values of Confucian morality. In particular, in the early twentieth century adherents of the Holy Mother religion produced a vast quantity of revealed texts which unambiguously encouraged women to uphold the Confucian moral order. This paper will examine these documents from the early twentieth century and will discuss the Confucian values which the Holy Mother religion promoted at that time.

Confucian Values on Trial: Reading the Hoang Viet Xuan Thu in Various Cultural and Socio-Political Contexts
Nam Nguyen, Vietnam National University, USA

The Hoang Viet Xuan Thu (The August Viet Spring and Autumn [Annals]) is a Vietnamese premodern historical novel. Written in classical Chinese by an unknown Vietnamese author at an unknown date, the novel covers the years of the early fifteenth century. This was a turbulent period which began with the overthrow of the Tran Dynasty by the Ho. Ming Dynasty troops sent to put the Tran back in power instead sought to reincorporate the area into the Chinese empire. In 1427, however, the Vietnamese general, Le Loi, succeeded in defeating the Ming and establishing a new dynasty, the Le. Before he did so, however, there was a period when Le Loi collaborated with the Ming against the Ho. This issue engendered numerous debates, both within the novel and by subsequent generations of scholars, right up to the present. Further, all of these debates have been based on differing Confucian principles. In trying to differentiate between fact and fiction, this paper delves into these debates by examining the historical sources of this historical novel, and by analyzing the various ways in which this novel, and the debate of the early-20th-century Vietnamese scholars over Le Loi’s actions, have been read by Vietnamese and Chinese critics.