We are excited to announce a recent title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia, now in paperback from Cambridge University Press. The book’s author is Kathlene Baldanza, an Associate Professor of History and Asian Studies at the Pennsylvania State University who earned her PhD in from the University of Pennsylvania.
Studies of Sino-Viet relations have traditionally focused on Chinese aggression and Vietnamese resistance, or have assumed out-of-date ideas about Sinicization and the tributary system. They have limited themselves to national historical traditions, doing little to reach beyond the border. Ming China and Vietnam, by contrast, relies on sources and viewpoints from both sides of the border, for a truly transnational history of Sino-Viet relations. Kathlene Baldanza offers a detailed examination of geopolitical and cultural relations between Ming China (1368-1644) and Dai Viet, the state that would go on to become Vietnam. She highlights the internal debates and external alliances that characterized their diplomatic and military relations in the pre-modern period, showing especially that Vietnamese patronage of East Asian classical culture posed an ideological threat to Chinese states. Baldanza presents an analysis of seven linked biographies of Chinese and Vietnamese border-crossers whose lives illustrate the entangled histories of those countries.
“Kathlene Baldanza uses Vietnamese and Chinese materials from the thirteenth to eighteenth centuries to fundamentally change our understanding of the Sino-Vietnamese relationship. She shows that Chinese administrators understood how Vietnamese leaders contributed to the management of border security, and that Vietnamese leaders used relations with China to maximise both border security and leverage against domestic rivals. This book will reorient all future scholarship on the topic.”
– Keith Weller Taylor, Cornell University
We thank Professor Baldanza for taking the time to discuss her book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove her project.
How did you first become interested in Sino-Viet relations during the early modern period?
Although there are many historical connections between China and Vietnam, the number of people studying Sino-Viet relations in the pre-modern period is relatively small. I had a lot of questions that I couldn’t find the answers to in secondary research, so I set out to find the answers myself.
What are some of the ‘surprising alliances’ that you found had been forged between Ming China and Dai Viet?
Many of the examples in my book are individuals or groups who made wrenching choices during times of disruption. For example: Ho Nguyen Trung joined the Ming government after being an heir to the Dai Viet throne and watching his father be deposed and killed at Ming hands. Some Vietnamese who welcomed Ming occupation. Some Vietnamese joined the Mongols. Southern Song subjects fled to Vietnam to escape the Mongols. Ming officials like Jiang Yigui worked to smooth things out with the Mac in order to avoid war. Korean and Vietnamese officials who connected as strangers in the Chinese court through the shared language of poetry. The Southern Ming who looked to the Mac and Le for support against the Qing. Vietnamese and Chinese states that shared an interest in security in the borderlands. And on and on. If we drill down to the level of the individual, more than I was able to do in this book, we would find more examples, especially if we look at merchant communities and borderland communities who had a foot in each country.
Could you tell us a little bit about how border security influenced Chinese and Vietnamese power dynamics?
Border security was an important issue for the Ming and Qing courts, and yet the state apparatus was not strong enough to patrol the border. Coastal areas were plagued by pirates who could retreat across the border or to islands; inland, bandits could make raids and retreat to havens across the border. The Chinese government needed Vietnam’s cooperation to bring bandits to justice and help stabilize the border region. Therefore, it was in China’s interest to maintain good relations with Vietnam.
Could you tell us more about the role of Vietnamese elites in Sino-Viet relations during this time period?
Literacy was more widespread among the elite, so our historical sources tend to be written from their perspective. The Vietnamese government tended to send men who had scored well on the civil service examinations or who were otherwise recognized for their literary achievement on embassies to China. Those envoys often wrote journals or poems recording their travels, many of which are still available. Liam Kelley has studied this in depth. Just as Vietnamese scholars enjoyed engaging in brush talks with their Chinese and Korean counterparts, writing notes and poems to one other in their shared (written) language of classical Chinese. Judging by the records they’ve left behind, Chinese and Korean scholars seemed to have enjoyed these kinds of exchanges just as much.
How did this time period (the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries) shape Vietnamese national identity?
In this time period, the Vietnamese state was consolidating its control and expanding its borders. A close look at the evolving rhetoric in Vietnamese official writing shows an increasing invocation of markers of Southern difference, often related to the nature environment of Dai Viet.
Why did you decide to structure your book around seven biographies of border-crossers?
A challenge of writing about China and Vietnam is that there’s a powerful national meta-narrative that shapes historical writing about both places. In order to attempt to avoid projecting these viewpoints on the past, I tried to amplify the voices of historical actors themselves.
What kinds of sources and archives did you use when researching this book? What challenges did you encounter when finding historical materials?
I used as many sources as I could find, from official histories, to gazetteers, to biji. Because of how most scholars are trained, studies rarely look at both sides of the border. So there was much work to be done in just comparing Vietnamese and Chinese accounts of the same events. When I began my research, many of the digital tools and databases readily accessible now either did not yet exist or were not widely available. In the years since, the landscape of Chinese and Vietnamese historical research has been completely transformed. The work of gathering references can be accomplished much more quickly now, and scholars can use “big data” to pose all sorts of historical questions.
A challenge I faced was dealing with redundant and repetitive information. Chinese scholars wanted to cite the most authoritative texts, which meant that they went back to the earliest references they could find. Information from ancient texts were repeated over and over again, often without comment. I dealt with this by tracing out the genealogy of certain tropes and trying to demonstrate how scholars and officials used accumulated knowledge to filter their own observations.
Did any of your findings surprise you or challenge your initial assumptions about Sino-Viet relations?
I was surprised by the centrality of poetry. I ended up reading and translating a lot of poetry in the book, because there was simply no way to avoid it. Poetry was an integral part of the sources that I relied on. Poetry was used in diplomacy as we see in the case of Phung Khac Khoan. Mastery of poetic forms was necessary for social niceties and also deployed for persuasion. Le Tac used poetry to interpret history. It was used to praise and used to insult– It is even used in a pugnacious way, as in the (possibly spurious) poetry battle in the duckweed cycle I analyze in chapter five. At first, I was resistant to engaging with so much poetry, but I came to see how playful and expressive it could be, and what a powerful tool it was for self-fashioning and even political negotiation.
What is your next book project going to be about?
I am working on several projects at the moment. One project, on miasma, is an outgrowth of my research for Ming China and Vietnam. In the course of my research, I found that historical actors themselves considered the misty, damp, “miasmic” climate of the South and the illnesses caused by miasma to be a major concern. It affected Chinese perceptions of inhabitants of the South, the timing of military operations, and settlement patterns. Similarly, miasma was a major concern for Vietnamese states as they launched campaigns of expansions into the highlands. I therefore decided to put miasma front and center in my second book, exploring the exchange of medicine and medical techniques across the border, literary tropes of the miasmic barbarian, military campaigns Sino-Viet borderlands, and state formation in both Vietnam and China. In addition to this project, I am working on a translation of Cai Tinglan’s 1834 South Sea Miscellany and on several articles dealing with the history of the book in Vietnam. Finally, my colleagues Sixiang Wang, John Phan, and I are working on a long term project exploring Vietnamese and Korean connections in the early modern period.