Tran Dinh Huou’s Selected Works

Tran Dinh Huou's Selected Works (Trần Đình Hượu Tuyen Tap), 2 vols. Hanoi: Publishing House of Education, 2008, reprinted in 2009.

Reviewed by Trần Hải-Yến (Institute of Literature, Hanoi, Vietnam)

Along with Buddhism, Confucianism is an ideological system that has left a profound impact on pre-modern Vietnam’s spiritual life. However, unlike Buddhist thought, Confucian ideology was a factor in the formation of governmental institutions of Vietnam’s feudal system, which lasted from the 15th century until 1945, and continues to impact various aspects of the nation’s contemporary social life. The importance of studying Confucianism, therefore, has been stressed in social science research in Vietnam in recent years.

Although it is difficult to calculate the precise number of research works on this particular topic so far, it is certain that the name Tran Dinh Huou cannot be overlooked in any overview of research on Confucianism in Vietnam. A graduate of Moscow University with a diploma in Oriental Philosophy, upon his return to Vietnam Tran Dinh Huou was assigned as a professor in the Department of Philology, University of Hanoi (now College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vietnam National University, Hanoi), where he continued to work from 1963 until his retirement in 1993. Appreciating the influence of Confucianism on virtually all aspects of Vietnamese society, Tran Dinh Huou focused most of his work on this ideological system, with a main emphasis on Vietnam’s road “from tradition to modernity”.

His works were mostly published after Doi Moi (Reform) policies (launched by the Communist Party of Vietnam at the Sixth National Congress in 1986): Vietnamese Literature during the Transitional Period, 1900-1930 (completed in 1974, but published in 1988), From Tradition to Modernity (first published in 1994, reprinted with modifications in 1996), and Confucianism and Vietnamese Literature in Medieval and Modern Periods (1998), Lectures on Oriental Ideology (compiled from students’ notes and recording tapes, 2001). Aside from his first work on transitional literature, which was composed to be used in academic curricula, others are comprised of scattered articles over the years, yet “the guiding principle always remains consistent” [vol. 2, 10].

Recently, the Education Publishing House has selected from the aforementioned works to publish a collection under the title Tran Dinh Huou’s Selected Works (2 volumes), divided into two parts: “Problems in Philosophy and Historical Ideology” (vol. 1), and “Problems in Literary History” (vol. 2). This anthology is one of the most crucial reference works of “practical and scientific values”, used in classes for undergraduate and graduate students in Vietnam [“Publisher’s Prologue”, vol.1]. It was published in 2008 and quickly reprinted the following year.

Reflecting upon research on Confucianism in Vietnam, Tran Dinh Huou saw his articles as merely “words of warning”, “signaling, avoiding some misunderstandings which can be potentially misleading” [Vol.1, 51]. In that light, what exactly are his “warnings”?

While Tran Dinh Huou was reflecting upon Confucianism and the ideological system underpinning the “Chinese script cultural spheres” (漢字文化圈) in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, a way of thinking prevailed in Vietnam: whatever belonged to feudalism or was related to foreign aggression was bound to be negative, and thus must be eliminated, such as Confucianism. Tran Dinh Huou introduced a new perspective, considering Confucianism and its scholars as a historical phenomenon. He resolved to find the essence of Confucianism from Chinese classics, combined with understanding its penetration and alteration in Vietnam. He also proposed an emphasis on its functions and social institutions. According to Tran Dinh Huou, although Confucianism entered Vietnam rather early (during the period of domination by the Eastern Han), it was not fully appreciated until the nation’s independence was declared (Ly Dynasty, 11th century). The Confucianism accepted in Vietnam was that of the Song Dynasty, or Neo-Confucianism, which was used to construct society institutionally and educationally. Confucian education was of great importance for it was considered as the only way to select talented people for the government. Nonetheless, “despite the fact that Vietnamese Confucianism has a long history, it has not developed into textual studies (khào chứng考證) and classics research (kinh học經學)”, “Vietnamese Confucian scholars are more literati than thinkers” [vol.1, 126]. In brief, Confucianism in Vietnam was sponsored by the state over a long period of time (almost 10 centuries), and applied to almost all aspects of social life.

The second most important contribution of Tran Dinh Huou concerns the relationship between Confucianism and medieval - modern Vietnamese literature. He did not follow the commonly approved binary criteria of the time: feudalism or non-feudalism, patriotism or humanity, reality or non-reality. He instead sketched out a traditional period in which literature was “mostly composed by Confucian scholars with a Confucian conception of literature.” [vol. 2, 8]. He proposed three types of Confucian scholars in the composition of literature: socially engaged Confucians, secluded Confucians, and dilettante Confucians.

For the modern period, he focused on “turning points, transitional stages, and the manner in which new things are established” [vol.2, 9]. He suggested that this should be seen as “a process of transformation, mutual replacement/substitution so that sometimes one thing can be both A (traditional literature) and B (literature written according to European models, especially the French model, from the 17th to 19th centuries), yet sometimes it is neither A or B” [vol.2, 8]. After analyzing representative phenomena (Phan Boi Chau, Tan Da, writings of Dong Kinh nghia thuc or Tonkin Free School, and Progressive movement Duy Tan), he reiterated his argument on Vietnamese literature’s shift to modernism under Confucian influence.

The last “warning” pointed out by Tran Dinh Huou is “in [Vietnamese] tradition, I only speak of Confucianism. But in reality, it is not the only one.” [vol. 1, 50]. Future research should not be limited to further study on Confucianism, but needs to expand to “Buddhism, Lao-Zhuang thought, Daoism, and others”.

The study of Confucianism and medieval - modern Vietnamese literature by the late Professor Tran Dinh Huou is a landmark in social science research in Vietnam. Despite acknowledged limitations in the work, his instructions and forewarnings have served as important guidelines for later researchers, and the solid results of their research have confirmed the practicality of his scientific method.