Postcolonial Vietnam

New Histories of the National Past

Postcolonial Vietnam

Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society

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Book Pages: 344 Illustrations: Published: November 2002

Asian Studies > Southeast Asia, History > Asian History, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

New nations require new histories of their struggles for nationhood. Postcolonial Vietnam takes us back to the 1950s to see how official Vietnamese historians and others rethought what counted as history, what producing history entailed, and who should be included as participants and agents in the story. Beginning with government-appointed historians’ first publications in 1954 and following their efforts over the next thirty years, Patricia M. Pelley surveys this daunting process and, in doing so, opens a wide window on the historical forces and tensions that have gone into shaping the new nation of Vietnam.
Although she considers a variety of sources—government directives, census reports, statistics, poetry, civic festivities, ethnographies, and museum displays—Pelley focuses primarily on the work of official historians in Hanoi who argued about and tried to stabilize the meaning of topics ranging from prehistory to the Vietnam War. She looks at their strained and idiosyncratic attempts to plot the Vietnamese past according to Marxist and Stalinist paradigms and their ultimate abandonment of such models. She explores their struggle to redefine Vietnam in multiethnic terms and to normalize the idea of the family-state. Centering on the conversation that began in 1954 among historians in North Vietnam, her work identifies a threefold process of creating the new history: constituting historiographical issues, resolving problems of interpretation and narration, and conventionalizing various elements of the national narrative. As she tracks the processes that shaped the history of postcolonial Vietnam, Pelley dismantles numerous clichés of contemporary Vietnamese history and helps us to understand why and how its history-writing evolved.


"[A] comprehensive, thoughtful, and well-written survey of historical research and writing in the northern half of Vietnam since the departure of the French colonizers. . . . This book is indispensable for those who want to understand why Vietnam perceives the need to construct new accounts of the past in the process of nation-building, how difficult and involved a task history writing is in this situation, and what ramifications the new representations might have culturally, socially, and politically." — Ngo Vinh Long, American Historical Review

"[D]eserve[s] a wide readership not only among scholars in Vietnamese history, culture, and society, but also scholars of decolonization." — Mark W. McLeod , International History Review

"[W]ell-researched. . . . A useful case study for anyone interested in nationalism and colonialism in today’s world. . . . Recommended." — Q. E. Wang , Choice

"Americans have long regretted that prior to the 1960s they knew so little about Vietnam. Now they can read Patricia M. Pelley’s Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past and realize that so much of what they now know is false. . . . In reading through the fascinating details of this work, readers come away with a lucid sense of how recent so many of our ideas about the Vietnamese past actually are. . . . Postcolonial Vietnam is a must-read for any educated reader interested in the Vietnamese past." — Liam Kelley , History: Reviews of New Books

"Patricia M. Pelley's book is, first of all, a monument to a vast and unique labor. This gem of a book will appeal to a wide range of readers interested in learning more about the impact of global processes on local traditions, cultures, and real people's lives in the Philippines." — Kathleen M. Nadeau, Journal of Asian Studies

"Pelley's book is, overall, both an important contribution to our understanding of postcolonial Vietnamese historical debates, and a very useful study of the historiographical processes that produce national histories. . . . This book should serve to stimulate further explorations of modern Vietnamese historiographical debates . . . and may be a useful springboard to studies that might next engage similar issues among historians in the southern part of Vietnam." — George Dutton , Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

"Through her critical investigation of the homogenizing narratives of the Vietnamese past, Pelley clearly goes beyond the abundant narratives of the glorious defeat of foreign invaders. Her book contributes to an understanding of crucial aspects of the cultural history of the North Vietnamese state during the period of decolonization from the French and during the war against American 'neo-colonialism.' In so doing, the book is required reading for anyone interested in Vietnamese history. It will also appeal to people interested in perceptions of the past in Southeast Asia and in the cultural aspects of decolonization." — Søren Ivarsson , Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies

“A lively and well-written contribution to both southeast Asian and postcolonial studies, exploring the construction of myth and memory in an Asian society with unusually severe constraints on such activities, given its multiple colonial dependencies in modern times.” — Alexander Woodside, University of British Columbia

“A welcome, thoughtful, and insightful analysis of the politics of historical reconstruction among Vietnamese scholars that takes seriously the engaged debates and sustained labor that went into what Michel de Certeau termed ‘the historiographic operation‘ in postcolonial Vietnam. In attending to internal divisions that were not simply those of ‘north’ and ‘south,’ Pelley not only replaces a binary analytics with a more nuanced one: she does the hard work of showing how much political and cultural contest goes into historical production” — Ann Stoler, University of Michigan

“This wonderful and truly outstanding book presents little-known archival material in a most compelling fashion. Patricia M. Pelley has written an elegant and lucid book that will generate much scholarly discussion in the years to come, and in a number of disciplines. It will become mandatory reading for all those interested in Vietnam and Southeast Asian history.” — Panivong Norindr, author of Phantasmatic Indochina: French Colonial Ideology in Architecture, Film and Literature


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Patricia M. Pelley is Associate Professor of History at Texas Tech University.

Table of Contents Back to Top

A Note on Diacritics

Introduction: Postcolonial Visions

1. Constructing History

2. The Land of the Viet and Viet Nam

3. Chronotypes, Commemoration: A New Sense of Time


List of Abbreviations


Selected Bibliography

Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Co-winner, 2003 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians First Book Prize

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2966-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2984-8
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