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The Margin Contextualized: Nguyễn Từ Chi (1925-1995) and an Alternative Ethnography in the Socialist Vietnam

La marge contextualisée: Nguyễn Từ Chi (1925-1995) et une ethnographie alternative dans le Vietnam socialiste
Truong Huyen Chi


À l’aide d’archives et d’interviews avec des membres de sa famille, ses amis, ses collègues et ses étudiants, j’ai reconstruit une biographie de Nguyễn Từ Chi (1925-1995), un anthropologue éminent mais peut-être le plus controversé, qui a choisi d’être en marge de la vie académique de Hanoi au cours des trois décennies du « socialisme dogmatique » (1960-1990) tout en menant des travaux scientifiques de grande qualité. La vie de Từ Chi peut être vue bien au-delà d’une histoire singulière d’une personne excentrique, incapable de s’intégrer à la structure socialiste ou de quelqu’un qui s’auto-victimise. Quelles sont les conditions matérielles, sociales et politiques dans lesquelles l’anthropologue Từ Chi et ses contemporains ont vécu à partir de leurs choix ? Par conditions matérielles je veux dire les façons dont les universitaires gagnaient leur vie, comment la recherche a été commandée, comment leurs résultats ont été publiés et ainsi de suite ; par conditions sociales, les façons par lesquelles les chercheurs sont liés les uns aux autres dans la vie quotidienne et dans les arènes scientifiques, comment ils sont venus à s’identifier en termes de professeur-étudiant, maître-disciple, relations partisan-adversaire et ainsi de suite ; et enfin, par conditions politiques, les fondements idéologiques au sein desquels certains types de connaissances peuvent être et doivent être générés alors que d’autres non. L’objectif de ma recherche est d’explorer les conditions structurelles à l’intérieur desquelles et contre lesquelles l’anthropologue a mené sa vie de chercheur. Ce sont finalement les relations de pouvoir dans la production de connaissances (dans ce cas, des types spécifiques de connaissance à l’égard des groupes ethniques au Vietnam) et la subjectivité des intellectuels vietnamiens en marge et/ou au centre de ce régime socialiste que je souhaite découvrir.

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The author thanks Susan Bayly, Nguyen Hue Chi, Nguyen Duy Thieu, Pham Duc Duong, Pham Van Duong, Tran Duy, Bui Xuan Dinh, Dao The Duc, Nguyen Truong Giang, Dao Hung, Luu Hung, Tran Tuyet Lan, Le Hong Ly, Phan Ngoc, Pham Minh Phuc, Mai Thanh Son, Vo Thi Thuong, Dang Nghiem Van and family members of the late Nguyen Tu Chi for their generous support during the research. Thanks are extended to Nguyen Van Chinh, Chua Beng Huat, Nguyen Kim Hien, Nguyen Van Huy, Laurel Kendall, Nguyen Phuong Ngoc, Oscar Salemink, Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Trinh Van Thao, Cao Xuan Tu, Eric Thompson, Nhung T. Tran, and the participants at “20th Century Vietnamese Anthropology Contextualized: Debates and Contestations” Panel at the Annual Meetings of The Association of Asian Studies (Boston, March 2007) for their comments on the original and subsequent versions of this article. The research for and writing of this article is generously supported by the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Havard-Yenching Institute, and Asia Research Institute (National University of Singapore).

1In winter 2003, I accompanied Dr. Susan Bayly in a visit to a senior researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) as parts of her research on Hanoi intelligentsia. Susan was interested in the experience of our host’s late teacher, Nguyễn Từ Chi, as a French speaking intellectual who went to teach history in Guinee in early 1960s. After the interview, the host was very generous to show us an archive of his teacher as it was locked in an old wooden filing cabinet. As we were dusting through cascades of manuscripts, notes, photos, and sketches, a desire took form: I wanted this archive to be made accessible to researchers, and probably, available to the public.

2As I was trying to persuade the ISEAS to transfer this archive to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (VME), I promoted an idea of an exhibition on Nguyễn Từ Chi to commemorate 10 years of his death and celebrate his 80 years anniversary. At both the VME and the Association of Ethnologists, this suggestion of mine was met by a mixed if not contrast responses. As Từ Chi’s colleagues and students, friends and relatives were invited to discuss an exhibition plan, they were debating about his personal virtues, the scholarly values of his works, and ultimately an appropriateness of the exhibition itself.

3There were three broad arenas in which representations of Từ Chi were contested. Scholars argued whether or not he could be legitimately called an ethnographer in the first place. Although he was trained at the Division of Ethnology at the Faculty of History (1957-1960), he only spent more or less three years working at the Institute of Ethnology (1966-1969). For the most part of the remaining 35 years of his career, he worked as a full time editor for a journal and a part time translator. He published intermittently: except for few early articles, most of his writings were scattered in non-mainstream journals. Two collections of his works, one on the Muong and another anthology on the Viet and Central Highlanders, were published only after his death.

4Secondly, Từ Chi’s contemporaries failed to agree on whether he was a teacher and a good teacher. He had never held a teaching post in a university; he rarely gave public lectures; and he had no formal students who conducted graduate research under his supervision. Those who now thought of him as a teacher and spoke emphatically about his dedication in fact never addressed to him as “teacher” when he was alive. Yet, three years before retirement, Từ Chi was granted an associate professorship, which he, according to some of his disciples, accepted with reluctance tinged with an irony.

5Finally, there was a disagreement about Từ Chi’s virtues and personal characters. Some thought that he was not a serious person, i.e. he was too care-free and even nonchalant to be set as an exemplar scholar. Others, while acknowledging similar characters, argued that deep down he was not only kindhearted but also abstemious and visionary, in short, a truly humanistic scholar too rare to be found at the time.

6This paper does not seek to find a consensus or settle a truth from these controversies, nor does it focus on the process of engaging Vietnamese anthropologists of different generations and backgrounds in a reflective exercise of recalling the past thereby shaping and giving meanings to their present. Neither is it an attempt to construct a complete biography of Nguyễn Từ Chi in its most desirable entity, nor an experimental effort to construct a dual auto-biography, or collective auto-biographies, as a form of interlocking conversations. Instead, I would like to present some selective aspects in Từ Chi’s life and works that I hope would help shed lights on life and practice of anthropologists as well as that of Hanoi intellectuals at large during the three decades of socialism in Vietnam (1960-1980). By selective I mean I deliberately choose to group events and aspects not according to a single logic or framework—chronology, or work vs. life, mainstream vs. off stream, individual career vs. institutional context, community vs. society, etc.—but move back and forth in time and across different yet interlocking spaces and practical realms lived by Từ Chi and his contemporaries, drawing from as many as possible sources, ranging from published works and archives to commentaries and interviews.

7There are two points I want to make from this exercise. One is that the ways in which Từ Chi leads his life as an editor-cum-ethnographer, conducts fieldwork, and transfers knowledge to his associates, reveal something about anthropology in socialist Vietnam that researchers who are looking for a Vietnamese communist anthropology may overlook. Anthropological practice in socialist Vietnam is far more complex and differentiated than it is often represented (Evans 1985; 2005). Alongside, and of most importance in conversation with, a dominant and institutionalized anthropology practiced by state employed staffs, there exist alternative forms of anthropology led by scholars of different traditions, under different influences, driven by different interests, and aiming at different objectives. The alternative Từ Chi and eventually his students were able to pursue was possible not only thanks to a persistent intention of each individual involved, or their subjectivity, but also due to, and only given that, a collective engagement in carving out an alternative space for negotiation, institutionalization and legitimization. In short, it is my task here, by telling stories of Từ Chi and his counterparts, to convince readers of a formation of a social subjectivity.

8This links to the second point about life of socialist intellectuals in Hanoi. Alongside with, and inherently with reference to, a system of state institutes and organizations that were structured according to seniority, proximity to the communist party, censorship and self-censorship, a strong sense of mission and a no less genuine drive, there exist a loosely assembled congregation of seemingly fallen-out, isolated, inward-turning writers, artists, editors, translators, and so forth, who operated under the gaze yet more or less out of will of the state and the party. This galaxy of not so desirable to the regime elements constitutes a network of material and emotional support that disperse across the city of Hanoi. It is in the continuity of this network one visualizes an effective counter-hegemonic process and the work of habitus in making possible social transformation.

Ethnologists, Intellectuals, and Locating the Socialist Subjects of Anthropology

9The arguments put forth in this article are advanced from an intersection between the studies of Vietnamese anthropology and the studies of Vietnamese intellectuals. My observation is that while the former tends to reduced many complex relationships engaging Vietnamese anthropologists to a specific set of relationship, the latter tends to successfully restore the individual subject yet at the cost of the social. Both these problems will have to be overcome, I would suggest, if one wishes to visualize the working of practice in bringing about transformation.

10Scholars writing about Vietnamese anthropology or ethnology tend to look at ethnographic texts produced by state employed researchers from institutes locating at the center of the discipline practice and consequentially the effects of these texts (Endres 2001; Evans 2005; Keyes 1997; Koh 2002; Pelley 2002). Themes under discussion are predominantly those of central concerns of these researchers, that is, ethnic classification, writing the ethnic into the national history, or studying religions and beliefs as way of justifying socialist modernity, etc. (Pels & Salemink 1999: 7-9). While each of these studies is important on its own and some of their arguments are highly plausible, a centering effect they employ can, I would argue, be misleading. It prevents one from seeing a much more divergent social field of pre- and co-existing anthropological traditions and practices as well as many interwoven social relations engaging Vietnamese anthropologists. Reducing these intricate, overlapping and oftentimes contrasting relations to a triad of state-anthropologists-(ethnic) peoples relationship would obscure competing dynamics that could in turn serve as forces of change (cf. Evans 2005; Pels & Salemink 1999).

  • 1 In this article, I tentatively use ‘ethnologists’ for those who practice Soviet inspired ethnology (...)

11This article aims to restore this complexity by introducing life and works of Nguyễn Từ Chi, an anthropologist who lived his life and practiced his form of anthropology at the margins of an institutionalized discipline of ethnology.1 His life is presented here as an intervention for the study of history of Vietnamese anthropology: it helps questioning a notion of the professionalized anthropologist-ethnologist in the first place; this in turn leads to problematizing what is called communist anthropology and the givens it rests upon altogether. Instead of accepting an indigenous universe occupying ethnologists as it is defined by the authoritarian nature of the communist state and an applied orientation of the discipline as defaults, one can ask how these become preconditions in the first place (Pels & Salemink 1999; cf. Evans 2005). In a similar vein, in as much as one asks how peoples are made into ethnic minorities to become the subjects of the socialist state as well as its ethnology (Keyes 1997; Salemink 1999), one can ask how scholars of different traditions and orientations are made and made themselves into subjects of socialist anthropology in the first place (Foucault 1982). In this article I hope to address some of these problematiques not by looking at the internal working of the dominant practice, but instead discussing precisely the reverse, i.e., alternative—non-socialist, or more precisely, non-Marxist-Leninist—universe and orientations as lived and led by Từ Chi and his counterparts.

12In this attempt, I have found studies of Vietnamese intellectuals under socialism instructional. Covering a broad spectrum of subjects ranging from dissidents to revolutionary intellectuals, from writers and poets to painters, from socialist francophonie who travel internationally as professionals to artists producing for a global market, these studies more or less share a common project of restoring the subjects from an all encompassing subjectification as an effect of the totalitarian state (Bayly 2004; Kim 2002; McHale 2002; Pelley 2002; Taylor 2004). Despite, and precisely because of, the “overwhelming concentration of power of the Party and the extensive bureaucratization of all sectors of society,” as Kim Ninh convincingly shows, intellectuals are quite influential and “societal forces do find myriad ways to express discontent and resistance” (Kim 2002: 10). While sharing with the state a high modernist goal and expectation of the social progress, many of intellectuals operate in “vastly different horizons of understanding” (McHale 2002: 23-24). These horizons may include Confucianism, Buddhism, as well as “a variety of universalizing modernist themes and principles” (Bayly 2004: 324). Contrary to, and alongside with, the practice of ethnologists that is described as “symptomatic of an approach and an attitude,” that of internal colonialism (Evans 2005: 46-47), professional activities of Hanoi intellectuals are at once and the same time powerfully shaped by a strong sense of morality underlain by both material and moral claims of family and kin networks (Bayly 2004; Taylor 2004).

13Nevertheless, restoring a reflective person with an evident agency could, in the meantime, mean to recourse to the individual. A question then remains unanswered: How social transformation comes about through a realization of individual subjectivity and individualizing strategies. To this end, I would suggest that ‘the social’ as a category needs also to be problematized: how categories such as ‘intellectual,’ ‘petty bourgeois,’ ‘state cadres,’ ‘ethnologists,’ and so forth were formed and employed in selecting, grouping, and excluding members from a heterogeneous social-scape. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus helps one to see how this dividing practice in Hanoi during socialism is masked by both a naturalization process via means of socialist and non-socialist norms and values on the one hand, and its embodiment into peoples’ bodies and movements on the other (Bourdieu 1977). Following guide of practice theory, I hope to decode cultural forms in which Vietnamese anthropologists, and Hanoi intellectuals at large, lived their lives as the latter are embedded in the new forms of divisions, distinctions, and in inequalities of the socialist society that in turn need to be established in the first place (Ortner 1994). From ethnographic accounts of a recent past of Vietnamese anthropology presented in this article, I hope to visualize the linkage between various forms of practice of socialist intellectuals, from their daily routines to their politics of relations of power and knowledge, to the practice of resistance, both daily and in a more or less large scale. Precisely in this practice whereby Vietnamese anthropologists come to terms with socialist subjectification, I hope to visualize the work of habitus in the social reproduction and transformation.

14Just as practice takes place in everyday life, a challenging task of locating socialist subjects of anthropology requires one to take into serious consideration of the production of locality, both literarily and figuratively. A recent ‘spatial turn’ in social sciences is particularly beneficial in providing an effective way to deal with both metaphorical, or social and symbolic, space and physical landscape. The margin that is in relation with a center of, for instance, a knowledge production, can shift its both position and meanings as the knowledge (co)producer moves across a physical landscape (from the city to the field) as he transforms meanings of knowledge production (from professional to amateur). As Lefebvre insists, “Il y a toujours l’Autre, I believe there must always be an alternative space made out of differences and precisely where differences are made possible (Lefebvre 1991). In this article, I will look at the margins as this potential alternative space, visualized in the Hanoi scene and practiced amidst professionalized academic institutions where Từ Chi and his counterparts negotiate their livelihood, career, and self worth.

15Vietnamese anthropologists in this article are first to be thought of as intellectuals (Kim 2002); I then think of the latter not so much in terms of a specific class or group of people, defined by what they do, but more in terms of a social space of multiple relations (Verdery 1991: 428). The analytical framework that informs my interpretation of Từ Chi’s life and works consists of an overlapping of preterrain, ethnographic occasion, and ethnographic tradition (Pels & Salemink 1999: 12-15). By contextualization I mean I will move back and forth and across this sequence and inter-contextually: to juxtapose ethnographic texts produced by Từ Chi and his contemporaries in the discursive contexts of the field and in the society at large; and to project his life as text onto a canvas of everyday life of Hanoi intellectuals during more or less three decades of socialism. Writing a historiography of the present anthropology in Vietnam is a different task elsewhere; in this article, following a call for a historical imagination of ethnography, below I will present ethnographic accounts of a recent past of Vietnamese anthropology (Comaroff & Comaroff 1992). The first session that follows will provide an ethnographic occasion in which Từ Chi and his colleagues negotiated their distinct ethnographic traditions. The second part then takes on contrasting trends of professionalization of ethnography as these were masked in a naturalizing discourse of a seamlessness of difference. The last section reintroduces the complexity of Hanoi intellectual life and the (symbolic) density of Hanoi cityscape from which Từ Chi and his counterparts created an alternative space, from which, I would suggest, changes took form.

Subjects in the Making: Engaging Years

16Từ Chi came to formal anthropology training as an older student. While most of his mates in the second class (1957-1960) at the Faculty of History, Hanoi University, were at their early or mid 20s, Từ Chi was 32. By then he had gone through three major career undertakings: an editor-cum-illustrator for a newsletter titled News and Propagandas for the Central Region in his hometown of Hue (1945-1946), a principal communist ideologue of a regiment of the Salvation Army in Phu Yen province (1946-1950), and a translator-reporter at the Vietnam News Agency (1953-1957). Intermittently during these years, he was hospitalized as a mental patient in Nghe An (1950-1953) before being called on to serve as a secretary of a land reform brigade in Vinh Phuc (1953).

17An air of uncertainty was hanging above life of urbanites in late 1950s Hanoi. The mass movements of people both ways north-south according to the Geneva Accord had stopped. The land reform devastated the morale in the countryside, followed by a no less nerve wrenching reform in industrial and capitalist sectors in the city. A public criticism of the communist party, which later known as Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm, by a number of military intellectuals, scholars and artists just started, and soon did its counter attack (Comaroff & Comaroff 1992; Guldin 1994: 114; Vương Hoàng Tuyên 1999: 176-184). As second year students, Từ Chi and his classmates were probably too junior to attend the public self-criticism of some prominent professors such as Trần Đức Thảo and Nguyễn Mạnh Tường, but they certainly knew of their dismissal.

18After the Resistance War, the Faculty of History, as well as the University at large, was consolidated. Soviet visitors came as early as 1958, among whom were two ethnologists, Arutiunov and Mukhinov (Pelley 2002:78). In 1958, a Division of Ethnology was established, followed by a publication of a translated textbook from Russian. As the campaign against “revisionism” was launched in 1958, “bourgeois” ideologies were harshly criticized in every university lecture and classroom. Nevertheless, as very few books and textbooks were yet available in Vietnamese, Từ Chi and his French speaking friends was reading French texts housed at the National Library. Từ Chi was described as a diligent library goer who was combing through the French translation of James Frazer’s works, Le Totémisme (1898) and Le Cycle du rameau d’or (1935), and took detailed notes on separate pieces of paper, which he piled and wrapped in a sheet of newspaper and kept in his pocket.

19By the time Từ Chi returned after three years teaching in Guinee (1961-1964), Marxism-Leninism had taken a strong hold among historians and what Pelley called “ethnographic impulse” had gathered its pace (Đặng Nghiêm Vạn 1972; Mạc Đường 1964). Three broad themes occupied in the writings of historians-cum-ethnologists at the time were: to write the history of ethnic minorities into the national history; to identify each ethnic group according to a Stalinist definition and classify its material and social condition according to Marxist frame of evolution; to provide an account of customs and rituals and pinpoint backward and superstitious aspects to be eradicated (Endres 2001; Evans 2005; Keyes 1997; Koh 2002; Pelley 2002). The first Soviet inspired monographs were published in mid 1960s and early 1970s that set the standard ethnographic writing (Mạc Đường 1964).

20As Từ Chi embraced some of the dominant themes of the contemporary trend, his first article was on land tenure of the Muong (Nguyễn Từ Chi 1970: 89). It speaks directly to the ongoing debate on stages of development according to Marxist evolutionist scheme. Among some ethnic groups, for example, indicators for feudalism would be an existence of various forms of rent and the exploitative relation between the landlord and tenants. An assertion of exploitation of a feudal past, in turn, would be necessary and instructional for a social transformation envisioned for the uplands. Từ Chi was writing against these arguments, positing that for Muong small holders, apart from working on their own land, working on the village chief’s land was a form of collective duty paid to the worship of the common gods. Pinpointing to the mutual reciprocity between small holders, Từ Chi also argued against a suggestion of the existing of sharecropping and rent among the Muong.

21Từ Chi took on another salient theme: customs and beliefs. Two articles of a more or less similar topic, but with certain differences, were published consecutively in 1971 and 1972: one in Vietnamese, titled “The Realm of the Living and the Realm of the Dead”, in the Journal of Historical Research (1971), another in French and English, “Croquis Muong” (“A Muong Sketch”), published in Etudes Vietnamiennes (Vietnamese Studies) (Evans 1985). As I will show below, some interesting observations reveal from a closer reading of these two texts against the backdrop of the discipline as well as a particular situation of Từ Chi at the time.

22Many English speaking readers would perhaps come across Nguyễn Từ Chi’s name for the first time when reading Evans’ 1985 account Acknowledging at some point that Từ Chi’s writing was perhaps among the few that had some “‘structuralist’ echoes”, Evans provides a lengthy quote from “A Muong Sketch” published in English:

Muong society in the last twenty-five years can no longer believe in the existence of supernatural worlds. Many po mo are still living: they have become co-operative peasants, and sometimes are members of the management committees of their agricultural cooperatives. The funeral ritual has been voluntarily reduced from twelve nights to a single one, if only for the sake of hygiene. But whenever a Muong departs from this world, the whole hamlet... immediately come to present condolences and give assistance to the bereaved family, and also to hear the po mo. Not because they want to plunge for a moment into the wonderful dreams of the supernatural worlds which they know to be fictitious. But because the po mo’s liturgical songs are of the purest humanism, which meditation before the dead man’s remains will make more evident. (Evans 1985: 120.)

23Evans goes on to cast his doubt on both the reality thought to be presented by the author as well as the author’s own belief in what he writes:

And is the audience listening to the songs of the po mo thinking the pure humanist thoughts our author says they are? I doubt it very much. Indeed, I wonder how much Nguyễn Từ Chi really believes they are, after all he clearly finds “the wonderful dreams of the supernatural” seductive.

24Evans’ point of using this quote is to prove that the “Marxism atheism” and “hostility to peasant ‘superstition’” are ideological constraints that prevent Vietnamese anthropologists from studying shamanism and various forms of spiritualism of the minorities properly.

25Eighteen years later, in her study of the perception and portrayal of minorities in Vietnamese communist ethnology, Koh juxtaposes the same quote with other texts, this time in Vietnamese, to show the variations among ethnologists. Contrary to the more or less cynical tone of Evans, Koh offers a more tolerant reading, according to which Từ Chi’s writing puts a “positive spin on the survival of traditional customs” (Koh 2002: 88).

26Reading a complete Vietnamese version of the article in aid of archival and interview materials offers yet a striking exposure. The article addresses the campaign against superstition and to promote a New Life Way (Nếp sống mới) and the inculcation of a Marxist atheism that reached high points in north Vietnam in the mid 1960s. Sometime between 1964 and 1968, Từ Chi was requested by the local officials in Hoa Binh province where he was doing his fieldwork to identify which elements of the Muong customs to be eliminated. There remains in his archive a draft of a letter to be sent to a provincial leader responding to this request, summarizing Từ Chi’s research and recommendations. At the very beginning of Vietnamese version, Từ Chi clarified his position: “before deciding what to eliminate or maintain, clearly, the first task to be done is to understand what [these customs] consist of” (Nguyễn Từ Chi & Bạch Đình 1971: 10). He concluded by stating that his accounts would not be enough to recommend what to maintain and what to eliminate, asserting that beside negative and backward aspects, there existed positive ones such as the “healthy and age old sentiments of a people” (Nguyễn Từ Chi & Bạch Đình 1971: 43).

27However, Từ Chi’s objectives were well beyond just providing an answer to the above practical policy-concerned questions. Reading him with reference to writings of his contemporaries allows us to see more clearly his standpoint. The two following quotes, one from the first Russian trained ethnologist who returned to Hanoi in early 1960s, another one from Từ Chi, demonstrate where each of them come from:

[…] Another characteristic of the ethnic groups who belong to a period of dry field cultivation is the existence of many forms of animism. Besides customs of taboo and totemism of tribal society, there are aspects of fetishism and witchcraft as the traits of a late primitive society. In particular, among these ethnic groups, there are plenty of manifestations of taboos concerning agriculture. These taboos originate from a pre-agricultural culture which once strongly developed in the dry field cultivation period and remain in later cultures. (Mạc Đường 1964: 98-99.)

28This gentle attitude toward ghosts—a being whom people love amid fear—as gentle as toward the living and a care of the dead as tender as of the living, all of these psychological manifestations rise above distorted forms of magic and reveal a depth of the Muong soul: a synchronic sentiment that binds every member of the community, a compassionate feeling amongst people, and above death, a karma that tightly binds generations continuing on earth. (Nguyễn Từ Chi & Bạch Đình 1971: 29.)

  • 2 Not only having a conversation with the Marxist framework, Từ Chi also engaged another conversatio (...)

29In ethnographic writings concerning religions and beliefs in late 1960s early 1970s, while Marxist periodization and notions such as “illusion,” “delusion,” and “misapprehension” started gaining currency, Từ Chi spoke of “human sympathy,” “humanistic sentiments,” “compassionate ties,” and “sentimental bindings.” Dukhermian at core notwithstanding, Từ Chi’s writing effectively engaged a dialogue with his Marxist counterparts. His finely crafted, oftentimes dual-phrase, sentences, can be seen as one of the dialogic forms he employs. Writing sometimes against, sometimes around Marxist interpretation, Từ Chi had to a large extent been in conversation with it.2

  • 3 While Vietnamese ethnologists rarely cite Western references in their writing, Từ Chi was among fe (...)
  • 4 Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) is a Romanian-born historian of religion and fiction writer. Among his s (...)

30During these engaging years Từ Chi not only was seen carrying around Mauss’ Manuel d’Ethnographie,3 he discretely lent his friends copies of Mircea Eliade’s novels and books, items among the collection he and his wife shipped to Vietnam from Guinee.4 Some profoundly imaginative, some noxiously erotic, these and other readings available through mysterious flows of Western books to socialist Hanoi no doubt keep Từ Chi and his circuit in a universe that is far beyond what Evans calls “an indigenous universe” that is thought to be confined to exchanges amongst communists and entirely cut off from the “‘Imperialist West’” (Evans 2005: 46).

31Moreover, in the process of preparing the manuscript on the Muong cosmology, Từ Chi led himself into a trouble that later proved change his life. In 1968, his three day public presentation at the Institute of Ethnology in its evacuation site in Thai Nguyen province on Levi-Strauss and structuralism was deemed propaganda for a bourgeois theory. For this, he was called to the office of the Committee of Social Sciences and criticized by some high rank officials. A year later, he left the Institute. As I will return to this incident later, suffices here to say it makes enormous impacts on Từ Chi’s career. More or less immediately, his writing in general and especially his manuscript on Muong textile patterns were deemed bourgeois. It was held back for ten years until it finally came out in print in 1978. The incident partly explained why it took three years from 1967 to 1970 for his first article to be published.

  • 5 Nhan Van-Giai Pham affair was a movement demanding political freedom and democracy by intellectual (...)
  • 6 One of major ethnographies of Từ Chi, The Organizing Structure of the Traditional Viet Village (19 (...)

32The fact that “A Muong Sketch” came out in Vietnamese Studies also deserves more probe. This journal was initiated by a medical doctor and scholar Nguyen Khac Vien, who returned from France to Vietnam in early 1960s in support of the socialist Vietnam (Bousquet 1991). More a nationalist than a communist, Vien pushed through the journal of Vietnamese Studies in both French and English as a forum to present to the world works of Vietnamese scholars. It soon proved neither a democracy prone nor a party’s mouthpiece. Vien was able to carefully walk the fine line to offer support to some intellectuals directly or indirectly involved in the Nhan Van-Giai Pham.5 The support is, as it is most needed, in the monetary form through translation contracts or requests for essays and reviews. Precisely in this spirit Từ Chi’s writing, in the aftermath of his clash at the Institute, was accommodated to Vietnamese Studies.6 Taking Từ Chi’s articles published in this particular journal as more or less representative for, or simply a variant among the rest of, Vietnamese communist ethnology at the time, is perhaps misleading. In fact, as I have been trying to draw from multiple sources to show, Từ Chi’s writing is anything but communist or Marxist, yet by no means independent of it.

33Bringing back the ethnographic occasion by ‘thick reading’ is for me enlightening. It reveals a complex and divergent picture of Vietnamese ethnology in its early years in the making. I hope I have shown that, alongside with a Soviet informed ethnology that is increasingly institutionalized in the 1960s, there exist other forms of anthropology that continue to be practiced in spite of, and in conversation with, the dominant discourse. I will continue to show in the next sessions that alongside Soviet way of conducting fieldwork and writing ethnography, another ethnographical tradition persists and develops from the continuity of a different anthropological practice.

34By exercising an alternative reading of Từ Chi’s “A Muong Sketch,” I do not mean to pose a nativistic critique at earlier scholars of Vietnamese anthropology. To be fair, in his subsequent articles, Evans increasingly acknowledges variations among Vietnamese ethnologists and at points, their criticism of the state policies and strong plea of indigenous rights (Evans 1992). Nevertheless, the conclusion in his most recent writing of the issue concerned here remains consistent with the point he put forward in 1985: “this indigenous practicing of anthropology in Asia has, to date, been a form of colonial anthropology” (Evans 2005: 47, emphasis added).

35It is not because I speak and read Vietnamese as my mother tongue, have a privileged access to a rare personal archive, personally know many of the potential informants or have (quasi)familial connection with them prior to the research, all of which can be legitimately credited to my native status, that I am able to discern the heterogeneity and multivocality of Vietnamese anthropology, or anthropologies. The difference is, I believe, not a generic native vs. foreign dichotomy, but perhaps of the assumptions, or expectations, we each bring to the field and our way of locating anthropological subjects. Evans starts with two givens: first, Vietnamese communist anthropologists operate in an indigenous universe defined by the authoritarian nature of the communist state, and secondly, they are first and foremost political activists guided by Marxism-Leninism toppled by a progressivist nationalism (Evans 1985; 2005). While these propositions help explain why Vietnamese anthropologists are directly concerned with the state policies, taking them uncritically may prevent one to question how they become defaults in the first place. I hope I have shown above that during years of socialism, anthropologists and Hanoi intellectuals at large may have access to a universe that is different from indigenous and many of them can be driven by interests different from serving the state agenda.

36Moreover, Western critique of Vietnamese anthropology is occupied with the relationship between Vietnamese anthropologists and the state and that between them and the minorities. In Koh’s words, the key question is the extent to which Vietnamese ethnologists “represent the state (and its policies) versus the extent to which they represent the minorities and their interests” (Koh 2002: 148). On contrary, I hope to look for multiple ways in which Vietnamese, anthropologists and intellectuals, come to terms with their being subjects of the modern Vietnamese state. I want to go beyond the double bind state-anthropologists-peoples by looking at the relationship amongst anthropologists themselves and between them and their own non-anthropological communities. My question is how an anthropologist gives meanings to his practice—whether or not it is seen by him and his colleagues as professional—as well as his lived experience as these meanings are communicated and understood by his fellow people, be they his colleagues, students, friends, or kin relatives. An evident unease among the latter in attempting to locate Từ Chi requires one to free him from the triad relation defining Vietnamese professional ethnologists and return him to the overlapping yet distinct circuits of colleagues and friends in Hanoi. It is his continued interaction with the anthropological circuit and beyond after he left the Institute of Ethnology to which I now turn.

Competing Professionalizations

Nous sommes ratés”: the Serious vs. the Nonchalant

37Từ Chi’s trouble in 1968 is conjured starkly vivid in the narrative of a senior anthropologist I would call Vu:

When we were at an evacuated zone we did not have much to do but chatting over tea. The Institute director then suggested brother Từ Chi to talk about structuralism; he must know more about it from his years in Guinee. How bad an educator he was! While he was given one morning, his lecture lasted three days! Young researchers were so excited that they sat through; more and more people from other institutes gathered out of curiosity. The crowd caught the eyes of the higher-ups. When the director was questioned, he reported that it was Từ Chi who was presenting on a bourgeois theory. Từ Chi was so upset. He left.

38While very few of my informants attended this event in Thai Nguyen, elderly friends of Từ Chi certainly knew of it. Some who were among social scientists grouped this mishap with the followed condemnation of his first monograph as “bourgeois”, some who were his non-anthropologist friends linked it with his marriage to a divorcee of a French Nigerian soldier. Either way, a combination of foreign deemed bourgeois connections were thought to be Từ Chi’s misfortune. None of my informants mentioned of a public session of self-criticism (kiểm điểm) or any form of discipline (kỷ luật) Từ Chi had to undertake. Many of them used “to be called on” or “to be summoned” (bị gọi lên) to describe the day Từ Chi confronted his superiors. Except for an outline of his presentation on structuralism, I found no records or drafts of the event aftermath in Từ Chi’s archive.

39Certainly, Từ Chi was not among Vietnamese intellectuals from France, Japan, Thailand and else where who returned to the country throughout mid 1940s to mid 1960s, who had little or no prior experience of radicalization of the communist politics. Many of these returnees genuinely and somewhat naively embraced the dominant rhetoric and institutionalizing practice of private and public self-criticism, of which the then 22 year communist party member Từ Chi must have known by heart. Certainly, from his earlier student years that coincided the Nhan Van-Giai Pham, Từ Chi must know how harsh the criticism would be toward ‘bourgeois’ thoughts.

40Từ Chi was not forced to leave the Institute; it was his own choice. Friends run around to help arrange for him a decent job; and after one or two failed attempts, he ended up an editor at the Journal of Arts Study. It was here he remained until his retirement in 1987.

41While none of his younger associates described Từ Chi as pessimistic and disillusioned, some of his longtime friends commented that at points he grew distasteful. An image of Từ Chi’s disillusion is most evident in narratives of Vu and another prominent scholar, who knew Từ Chi since their school days Hue. The latter remembers:

Since he was let down he became distasteful (chán); he gave up and had no desire in life. As he did not have a want; he did not keep himself together. He did not even care about his look! He became not sober; he took it easy. He was too different; I was very serious.

42Vu is more emphatic:

This was where we differed. I was hit, too, quite badly. But the more they wanted to step on me, the harder I tried to rise above. I told him [Từ Chi] that we should work even harder to prove them our worth. He disregarded my plea, saying, bitterly, Nous sommes ratés.” His view was so wrong, I thought, he would waste himself. We debated so heatedly to the point it broke to a row; we became distant since.

43While the above quote is about Vu as much as Từ Chi, it does reveal something of an interpersonal contest of viewpoints, or of contrasting philosophies in the face of adversity. Their quarrel was witnessed by Từ Chi’s niece as it broke out at her apartment which Từ Chi took as his ‘daytime workplace.’ It was also recalled by some of his friends and his first cousin, a literature scholar. A legend goes that in one of the fieldtrips in 1970s, George Condominas tried to reconcile the two colleagues; his effort was yet at vein.

44To this day, most of those who consider themselves ‘serious scholars’ remain consistent that Từ Chi wasted himself and his career. For them, his career as an ethnographer ended at its height of the Muong monograph. For the rest of his life, according to this narrative of self-destruction, Từ Chi was only hanging around and doing miscellaneous jobs. In this thought to be personal retreat, he no longer produced scholarly works of fine quality he could have. It soon reveals, as I will continue to show below, that this narrative is not just simply about personal life styles, preference and dispositions. Instead, it is a powerful rhetoric of categorization, that that marks the professional from the amateur: the distinction is no longer personal, it is at once and the same time about social grouping and establishing a hierarchical order.

45It was in these years after the departure from the Institute of Ethnology that an image of a nonchalant Từ Chi took form. He dressed casually, oftentimes carelessly, having only the most frequent outfit of a Nung shirt and a pair of wrinkled pants, completed with a round-top hat made of leaves. Everywhere he went, he carried along a bamboo smoking pipe and a lunchbox that disposed a fishy smell. “If you were old enough to remember a bicycle tire pumping man at any street corner,” an informant told me, “that was how he looked.”

46As Từ Chi transformed himself into this “tire pumping man” look, his editorial job allowed him much more free time to practically hang around, and thus became all the more visible in Hanoi cityscape. We will later return to this body politics as an intervention in the Hanoi café habitus. For now it suffices to note that in the next fifteen years or more, Từ Chi’s articles continued to appear, though less on mainstream journals. He continued to write on the Muong, moved on to the Viet, and toward the end of his life, on the Central Highlanders. Durkheim and Mauss’ influence continued informing his writing, as eventually did British functionalism, and toward the end of his life, a tinge of American human ecology.

47While Từ Chi lost some colleagues, he kept some old friends and made some new. Life moved on in a way that no simplified summary could capture or that Từ Chi could himself envision. One thing remains more or less true is that he did hang around a lot, but in a surprisingly interesting way.

Fieldwork as a Hobby: Competing Professionalization

48Anthropology was not Từ Chi’s first choice. An artist friend who was enthusiastically working together with him on the propaganda newsletter in Hue recalled of his talent for quick sketches. While in Hue, Từ Chi had private drawing tutorials hoping to take exam to the École des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine, a hope that lingered until his early Hanoi days. This passion distracted him from returning directly to the Institute of Ethnology after Guinee, as he was giving a three year trial at the Institute of Fine Arts and Design (1963-1966). He pursued this interest in arts from the first monograph on Muong skirt patterns (1978) through later years when he wrote of the Banar decorative motifs (1985).

49Từ Chi started his first fieldwork among the Muong in 1964, as soon as he returned from Guinee. While it was not an assignment—as it was largely the case of staff members at the Division of Ethnology and eventually the Institute—no sufficient answer was given on why Từ Chi chose the Muong in the first place. Some said it was because the Muong lived nearby the Viet so that Từ Chi, at the age of forty-some and a weakened health, could easily commute by bicycle. Indeed that was how he reached the field sites, most often on his own, for the next ten or fifteen years of his field engagement.

50By mid 1960s, the Soviet model of practicing ethnology took hold in both university and the institute. In this process of disciplining socialist ethnology, a researcher would expect to be assigned as a member of a research team that is sent out to investigate an ethnic group or a constellation of the same language family groups. As soon as the report was compiled and published, researchers would be eager to move on to another group, or even better, hope to discover a group in danger of extinct. While the longest field trips of these teams lasted two months, ethnologists rarely returned to field sites for following up research. Except for natives who were recruited as ethnographers, none Viet researchers attempted to learn a local language.

51Từ Chi was perhaps the only ethnographer who set his mind for a long term if not lifetime commitment to the Muong by both seriously learning the language and returning to his field sites repeatedly over more or less a decade. He was a lone fieldworker who went to the field according to his will and drive, and since early 1970s onward, out of his own pocket.

52The editorial job at the Journal of Arts Studies was anything but time consuming. Usually, it took Từ Chi two or three months a year to edit an assigned number of articles for the section he was in charge and stayed in Hanoi more or less continuously so that authors could discuss with him. Once that was done, he was free to pack and leave for the country of Muong.

53He was, in fact, not as free to go at will as described. In North Vietnam during and after the war, a state employed staff would need an introduction letter to every where he would go. One can have a better sense of the frequency and geographical mobility of Từ Chi-the fieldworker from a compilation of letters of introduction remaining in his archive. Từ Chi was indeed very lucky to work in a more or less flexible organization which did not prevent him from leaving the workplace for his own business.

54In an article published two years before he died, Từ Chi wrote of his early field experience: “When I was just graduated from university, young and curious, I went to the Muong for five months every year, divided into two trips, one three months, another two months. It went like that for ten continuous years.” (Nguyễn Từ Chi 1993: 160.)

55The two sisters of Từ Chi’s wife recalled that their brother-in-law was absent sometimes for months:

My sister often asked me to stay overnight as her husband went to the Muong, again, and for long. He came back with two large baskets of bamboo shoots, you know, Hoa Binh was known for cheap and good bamboo shoots. My sister called us over to take some. There were plenty, she could have sold some to her neighbors. She complained it would take months to finish the load, plus, the whole room would smell terrible for weeks.

56These stories reveal not only the frequency and length of Từ Chi’s field trips, but also, probably, suplementary sources of income to his household budget. A friend recalled one year of food shortage, “brother Tu came back skinny, with his cheekbones pointed out and his eyes were deepened. He lamented how hungry people were; the host family was too poor that he gave them his staple coupons.” In the mean time, I have found amongst his papers a cash advancement slip that was certified of clearance. The salary and coupons from his job, aided by cash earned from irregular translation contracts and earning from more or less petty entrepreneurial ventures, constituted a pool of fund for Từ Chi’s fieldwork.

57These down on earth arrangements notwithstanding, Từ Chi always described his trips to his friends in the most delightful terms. For those friends who knew little about anthropology, “brother Tu went to the hill country, as he often said, to get some cool air. I don’t know why the weather in those years was, you’re surely too young to remember, extremely hot in summer and frozenly cold in winter. ‘Hanoi air is too stuffy for me,’ one day Tu came and announced, ‘I’m off for some cool air now.’ My wife and kids knew then that he would show up few months later with lots of stories to entertain.”

58No matter how playful and easy-going Từ Chi appeared to be and was remembered, the papers he left were the most convincing evidence of a professional ethnographer of a different kind. His jottings were transcribed diligently in a neat handwriting to full notes, then to passages of write-up with methodological and analytical reflections. Alongside this systematic organization of notes and write-ups that is kept separate from drafts and manuscripts are numerous kinship and genealogies in both charts and narratives, maps, land holding records, sketches of tools, architecture details, clothes, and people.

59It is noteworthy to remind that during these years Mauss’ Manuel d’Ethnographie was Từ Chi’s best company. As this manual was compiled of Mauss’ instructions at the Institut d’Ethnologie and only published posthumously (1947), it contributed to the professionalization among French ethnographers in inter- and post- Indochina war (Salemink 1999). Từ Chi was training himself following this tradition, disciplining his practice according to a set of criteria and standards distinct from that that applied to his Soviet inspired counterparts. Even when his scholarly seriousness is acknowledged, it is reduced to industrious virtues, detailed skills of note taking, and a neat handwriting. He was no doubt a skillful fieldworker, his contemporaries would agree, yet he was by no means a serious scholar. He must and could only be, out of necessity of a legitimizing process of the professionalized ethnology, an amateur.

60I hope thus far I have shown that the kind of anthropology Từ Chi practiced—the way he was conducting fieldwork—is very different from the kind of anthropology, or ethnology, institutionalized at the state institute and department. A model of a lone fieldworker with linguistic competence and long term local engagement that Từ Chi championed came closest to the professional model that was increasingly institutionalized in the West after the Second World War (Kuper 1973). Nevertheless, as far as his students can remember, Từ Chi never termed his fieldwork as Western, or French. In the context of competing professionalization of Soviet inspired model of ethnologists, and in the aftermath of Từ Chi’s clash with the Institute, his alternative practice of anthropology could only be, and to some extent was best to be, represented as ‘hanging-out’ to ‘do the miscellaneous’ led by a carefree amateur. In the very best, it can be described as masterful skills and diligence that was driven by a personal hobby or passion, anything but professionalism. The controversies presented as the prelude for this paper can be now read as a powerful discourse of classification that continues to mark the amateur from the professional in a hierarchical order: the difference has now been naturalized in a seamless logic embodied in a shared moral world.

61I have also tried to show how Từ Chi’s fieldwork is both constituting and constitutive of his livelihood. The physical requirements and temporal and spatial flexibility of the editorial job he was doing and the availability of supplementary sources of income he was willing to take made possible his fieldwork. Likewise, a call for the field, or in his words, a call for some cool air, required the practical arrangements of time, place, travel, absence and return necessary for the pursuit of his hobby. This mutual livelihood and fieldwork constitutiveness in turns, as we now shall see, informed the ways in which Từ Chi wrote his ethnographies.

Ethnography as Storytelling

62The first Soviet-informed ethnography written by a Russian-trained Vietnamese ethnographer was published in mid 1960s and set the standard thereafter (Mạc Đường 1964). Its table of content alone best shows a compartmentalization informed by a straightforward materialism: starting with a geographical, geological and botanical landscape, followed by a detailed description of material culture including sequentially mode of cultivation, housing, clothing, jewelry, transportation, then proceeded to spiritual culture of music and decorative arts, and finally, always ended with customs, religions and beliefs. Not so much different from Western ethnographic tradition of the first half of 20th century, the Soviet genre is marked by an authoritative narrative that authenticates an objective and timeless culture generalized for what is defined as an ethnic group. People of the concerned culture are always singular, that is, homogenized into a seamless collective. The author does not usually give specifications of locations and length of his fieldwork; he is absent from the text altogether. Save for few exceptions, the only individual names one find are of two sorts: those of landlords whose large holding and sharecropping or renting practice provide proofs of exploitation and those of exemplar cooperativers and local heroes whose deeds are credited as sacrifice for the nation.

63Từ Chi’s writing, since the very beginning as early as 1970, is anything but in line of the above noted. In his texts, Từ Chi assumes a role of story teller: he speaks to the readers both about himself and his interaction with the locals. An ethnographer is present and interacts, observes and takes notes, and is, at times, distracted and carried away. Reading Từ Chi, one learns about the ethnographer and his crafts in the field:

Turning pages of the field notes through the surveys we did from 1964 till now, we could not help being moved recalling ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ and comrades, whom we only met along the fieldwork journeys, who did not hesitate to spend time explaining us a difficult episode of the mo and add to our knowledge some particular features. (Nguyễn Từ Chi & Bạch Đình 1971: 11.)

64Từ Chi candidly reported an emotional moment in the mo recital during the funeral when he was so carried away that he “completely forgot the task of an ethnographer in the field to take note” (Nguyễn Từ Chi & Bạch Đình 1971: 46). He rarely used “I” in the text, but more often “we”, or the third person position as “a fieldworker,” “an inquirer,” “a student,” etc. Not only was Từ Chi comfortable about exposing himself as a fieldworker to his readers, he also articulated his views of the aim of doing research:

The point ultimately is not to reach a satisfaction by trying to speak up something very unique, something that has never been written about else where. The point is much more simple: from the materials ‘grasped’ in the field, i.e. from the events of the very passing by life, to try to go upstream to the past, hoping to shed light on a present situation, so that, based on that understanding, extract one or two comments that are perhaps ordinary but to some extent helpful for the present tasks. (Nguyễn Từ Chi 1975: 431.)

65A statement like this makes Từ Chi stand out amidst his colleagues who never bother clarify their agenda, since for them it must have been taken for granted that what they do is to produce true scientific knowledge. To be an ethnographer is perhaps for Từ Chi the best way to pursue his quest of thinking, borrowing his words, just for the sake of thinking:

An intellectual does not stop at his unconsciousness but looks out at life that surrounds him to question himself and look for answer. It is not necessary that he has to propose a recommendation for each change of life. He can raise a lot of questions, ponder over them again and again, yet may not reach a solution. Moreover, he can question just for the sake of questioning, as if it is the aim of life. Life settles in him through observations and wonders (Nguyễn Từ Chi 1991: 573-74).

66It is perhaps far fetching to suggest that Từ Chi was ahead of his time and far beyond his place in pioneering a self-reflective genre of ethnographic writing. His acknowledgement of Condominas’ monograph on the M’Nong Gar reveals the literary influence he might receive (Nguyễn Từ Chi 1972: 79). Indeed, his ethnographies do not reveal more about himself than his subjects and subject matters, nor his intellectual quest throws him off to a detached position. On the contrary, Từ Chi’s writing is imbued with, if carefully crafted, a deep concern for his anthropological subjects. He sees in the field a divergent crowd of people with animated faces instead of a sum of unrecognizable. People he meets in the field sometimes are portrayed wittingly amusing: a woman cooperative-sampan-paddler, or “a jot-stick selling lady who, through many reincarnations, transformes to a woman-comrade-cum-shopkeeper” (Nguyễn Từ Chi 1975: 401-02). Even if Từ Chi did not intend to mock at the way role, status, age, and gender were all at once reduced and flattened into that of comrades and cooperativers, one sees in many instances of his writing a resurrected vivid life of supposedly newly made socialist men and women, of whom prior- and non-socialist roles and memories were an indiscernible part.

67Not only making the native visible, Từ Chi was perhaps the first ethnographer in socialist Vietnam who championed their voices. As mentioned earlier, in the land tenure and landlord-tenant relation debate, he emphasized the need to see exploitation from local perspectives (Nguyễn Từ Chi & Bạch Đình 1971). Responding to a popular criticism of the Central Highlanders for destroying the forest during late 1980s and early 1990s, Từ Chi argued that it was important first of all “to understand what the highlanders think and feel about what is going on for their forest” and figure out “the place of forest in the mind of the highlanders.” “In their daily life,” Từ Chi wrote, “the highlanders do not destroy the forest, but on contrary, nurture it. It is not simply an economic response or experience. It has become their subconscious mind” (Nguyễn Từ Chi n.d.: 550).

68By early 1990s Từ Chi was not the only scholar who criticized the state policies and officials attitude toward the highlands (Evans 1992). Nevertheless, while some of his colleagues voiced this concern rather carefully, wrapped in a more or less state proved language, Từ Chi detailed examples of prejudices of Kinh officials toward the minorities and, moreover, addressed a critique toward native officials who internalized the dominant discourse. This article on “The Negative Aspects of Cultural Habits in the Central Highlands” (n.d.), a presentation at a conference. In contrast with the expectation suggested from the title, the negative aspects discussed in this essay are not of the Central Highlanders, but of Kinh settlers and cadres instead. Từ Chi’s deep and consistent concern for the native ways of understanding and practice throughout his career is in effect counter evident of his reported indifference.

69To walk me through confusions caused by two contrasting narratives—a prolonged self-destructive retreat vs. an engagement in disguise—one of Từ Chi’s students was assuring:

Từ Chi was best in pretending. In daily life he pretended he could not care less; yet only in the field did he reveal his real self: an earnest learner. On the surface he was easy going. Only those who were very close to him knew how abstemious and visionary he was; he was a truly humanistic scholar.

70If it is just to prove that there exists an alternative form of anthropology practiced in socialist Vietnam, I may leave the paper as that. I could claim that Từ Chi single handedly created a distinctive model of fieldwork and ethnographic writing and practiced it all alone, out of sight of his colleagues who by then became professional ethnologists and off the mainstream that by then was dominated by the Soviet model. But this is misleading, especially as Từ Chi lived his daily life in more or less the same space as his contemporaries did and interacted with them. It was in this social space of Hanoi intellectual life Từ Chi was shunned away, looked for, and been associated with; it was in the overlapping of different circuits of colleagues and friends Từ Chi communicated the meanings he made of his traveling, his writing, and his being. It was in this space they shared and created, subjectivity took a social form, habitus naturalizes, and the counter-hegemonic process realized its forces of change. It is this actual and representational space of Hanoi and the ways thereby Từ Chi and his company presented themselves in it to which I now turn.

Livelihood, Lifestyle, and Afterlife

Locating the Teacher

71Từ Chi and his wife owned a one room studio on a third floor of a French building in a street of Hanoi. As he bought this place from his saving in Guinee soon after he returned, Từ Chi chose the location with little reference to his or later his wife’s job. Their neighbors were not at the same time their co-workers, as most often the case for a state employed couple taking residence at state housing.

72Unlike his research colleagues who had a routine daily life, from early 1970s onward, Từ Chi’s life in Hanoi was far from regular. On certain days of the week he would go to the editorial office. On other days he would go to the library, or simply just arrive at his favorite niece’s studio downtown where he used as a daytime working place. Whichever the location was, rarely did he spend there all day. He instead took long breaks for tea in a street side stall outside of the library, or for coffee in his favorite café on Dien Bien Phu street. Everywhere he went he took his lunchbox and bamboo pipe with him, since, as he was reported to explain, “I wouldn’t know where I’d be next or if I return to fetch these belongings”.

73Contrary to an image of distasteful person who shunned himself away after his disgrace, this particular mode of spending time over space made Từ Chi all the more visible in Hanoi cityscape, and of a more importance, much more approachable.

In those days there were no telephone, and you didn’t book an appointment to see people. If you want to meet someone, you’d look for him. Từ Chi did not live in one of those collective housing complexes where you could just go next door and look for. And there was not a place where he would constantly be, either. So you would have to cycle across the city to look for him, and once you luckily find him, which surprisingly happened most of the case, the reward was that he kept you for hours of talk.

74Many of those who identified themselves as Từ Chi’s students confused his niece’s apartment as his own place, not only because he spent most of his day time there, but also because it was where he seemed most comfortable. His niece recalled, with tears in her eyes:

My aunt in law was, you know, quite clumsy. All she could cook were some kind of, say, watery mix of pickled vegetable and fish, and roasted peanuts; and she would pack this for her husband for lunch. It easily got smelly under the heat in those Hanoi days. I couldn’t bear seeing my uncle eating that near-rotten food. I told him, “let’s trade our food, uncle, you eat my lunch.” He happily did. In the kitchen corner behind his back, I trashed his.

I was single in those years; a teacher job was relatively reasonably paid. I kept my place neat and clean. Thanks to the shade of trees on the street, it was very cool in summer days. My uncle liked the apartment’s cleanliness and coolness; he loved that spot over there, under an extra wooden platform we had installed. He often said, “I like sitting here and write; it’s like being on a boat, breezy and quiet.”

75It was here most of conversations, sometimes heated debates, between Từ Chi and his anthropological folks occurred. It was also here young, curious, and motivated, graduates came to look for him for individual tutorials or instructional classes, or a series of long chats as they prefer to call it.

76Who were these young people and why they were looking for Từ Chi? In late 1970s and early 1980s, a Soviet framework became the only available teaching at the university. New Russian trained academics returned and took over the faculty. Russian as a language, through the increasing availability of books and compulsory instructional classes, gained its currency as an academic media. Russian or one of Eastern European languages became a prerequisite for a graduate study program abroad.

77Students at the Department of Ethnology are trained aiming at two major job prospectives: to work as local, mostly provincial, officials in charge of minority issues, or to enroll in state research institutes. For those who set to pursue an academic career, their future tasks would be carry on descriptive and analytical research that serves the grand project of ethnic classification and understanding socio-economic and cultural aspects of ethnic groups. University training was nothing more than instrumental. As Marxism-Leninism was the only, or the theory, there were no courses on anthropological theories or the history of anthropological thoughts. Apart from stories from the field told to jazz up the lectures, fieldwork methods were not offered. A small number of advanced students who early set a commitment to a career of a professional ethnographer grew dissatisfied with this training. They were looking for someone who could teach them how to do fieldwork, and perhaps of a more importance, to tell them something different. One of them recalled,

As I came from the countryside, I found professors at the university distant and unapproachable. But I loved to learn the ethnographer’s crafts, so I asked around who could tell me more about fieldwork methods. I was then introduced to Từ Chi. One day I cycled to his house in the morning and only found him in the late afternoon. Our conversation stretched to midnight. Since then I became his student.

78For more or less a decade, there was about a dozen of young and motivated advanced students, new graduates, and junior researchers, all of them were men, took initiative to come to Từ Chi. He would welcome each of them with an equal enthusiasm and generosity. Depending on the topic of interests of the newcomer, after several chats to help bringing out more focus, Từ Chi would take a book from a shelf and translate, sometimes a chapter, sometimes, depending on his aspiration, a couple of chapters, in one breath. He would often insert elaborate discussions while translating. The learner would take detailed notes, almost words by words. After a series of these individual tutorials, the learner would take off for a while, either to work on exams at the university or to complete an assignment at the institute, or to go to the field. Upon his return, a new circle of tutorials, this time adaptive to the field experience of the learner, or a draft manuscript of the author, would begin.

79Through these informal tutorials these young researchers—most of whom at the time were studying Russian or one of Eastern European languages aiming for a graduate study program abroad—had access to Western anthropology via Từ Chi’s collection of French and English books. Oftentimes he would speak of a seminal work out of his memory or he took example of peoples in Africa, Australia, and Oceana. Many among these students did not remember the name of the authors or the title of the books or even the name of the people and countries about which their teacher talked, but these stories brought their imagination to a horizon impossible in their classroom. They also learned a completely different way to do fieldwork, starting with an advice of a philosophy that directly contrasts with the message they received from their university teachers or institute higher-ups: “upon your arrival, open your senses, listen to your inner self as sensitively as you listen to the locals. They are your teachers.”

80All of these instructions were free; compensation was never an issue to discuss or to be raised at any point of the relation between Từ Chi and the learners. The latter marked their acknowledgement in many ways, ranging from inviting their teacher out for a bowl of noodle soup, or having a drink at home with him, to bringing gifts of foods of all kinds from their home village every time they had a chance. Yet, all of them emphasized that Từ Chi did not teach for money, he even did not think of their interaction as teaching. He often talked of it as exchange (trao doi) or simply, chatting (noi chuyen). “He enjoyed our long chatting enormously, later I figured out,”—a student said—“because he had no children and his wife would not care much about his stories, he simply enjoyed our company.”

81Although most of these researchers came to Từ Chi as individuals driven by their own motivation, some remained on their own, some eventually made a group. There was, however, another way in which these informal tutorials were institutionalized. Under the instruction of the visionary leader of the Committee of Social Sciences, Phạm Huy Thông, a division of Southeast Asian Studies was established as early as 1974, in preparation for the integration of the country and its academic community to the region as the war ends. The division, which eventually became an Institute, was interdisciplinary from its start: it recruited historians, archeologists, ethnographers, linguists, literary scholars, etc. In order to prepare its staffs for the upcoming research tasks, a series of instructional courses specialized in each field of inquiry was organized. Từ Chi was invited as the principal instructor for ethnology.

82From late 1970s through 1980s, Từ Chi was leading seminars at ISEAS on a regular basis. He went there to teach so often that his wife became confused it as his own workplace. The honoraria for these lectures were not monetarily significant, but the participants often gathered after class and took their teacher out for a drink or a meal. Researchers in this Institute formed a core group of students that gathered around Từ Chi in these years.

83An involvement in this research group gave Từ Chi new field research opportunities. From early 1980s as Từ Chi was aging, he no longer cycled to the Muong country. But he joined his student to their research sites, from as close as the Red River delta or the coast to as far as the Central Highlands. From these short field trips came the essays he wrote in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

  • 7 This needs to be verified with referene to Nguyen Van Chinh’s observation that citations in ethnog (...)

84The outcome of research done by individuals or in group under Từ Chi’s mentor came out as single authored monographs or collective edited volumes, oftentimes with a preface or introductory essay by Từ Chi. Other individual students from other institute also published their own articles or monographs, sometimes with or without acknowledgement. It should be noted that in the practice of academic writing in Vietnam during these years, except for the classical Marxist texts and some works by Russian translated to Vietnamese apparently required to be cited, scholars did not usually cite works or ideas from the West.7 Acknowledgement was not a self contained note in which the author would list names or organizations he wishes to thank; it was often in the form of a passing phrase, or a brief mentioning by way of introducing a topic.

85Yet, some would view the scholarly exchange between Từ Chi and his associates not in such idealistic terms. Criticism was pointed toward those researchers who were thought to take Từ Chi’s ideas and made them theirs. It can be as harsh as following:

They were good students, indeed, truly they were. They took their teacher out, fed him well and put him to drink. Poor my friend, he [Từ Chi] was too careless. Once he was in a good mood, elevated by the spirits, he told them everything he knew. He threw away his ideas like trash; he couldn’t care less. Some of them were smart to pick these up. A few months later, a brilliant article appeared that caught everyone’s attention. But everyone knew whose idea it was. If Từ Chi kept it to himself, he could be the greatest ethnographer. But his students made their careers out of him.

86The rumors can even turn to severe name calling and finger pointing:

Sometimes you can’t distinguish who’s the genius, who’s the clown. One of Từ Chi’s best friends, X, was, you should know, just a poor imitator of him. Something Từ Chi said last night over a drink would be repeated the next morning in a grand lecture hall in front of so many wide-eyed students. Even professor [sic] X’s talk was commented by Từ Chi, translated by Từ Chi into French and English, so that X could travel the world lecturing. Even the style of speaking and sense of humour were imitated, but if you knew them both, you could see that it was such a vulgar version of such a genuine charm […]. When Từ Chi died, it was said X did not stop crying for three days and nights.

87Apparently, the criticism was voiced and heard much earlier than the moment I started conducting this research. Some of those among the targets had tried to counter balance by adding footnotes of acknowledgement of their exchange with Từ Chi in subsequent editions of their publication and eagerly showed these fixes to me when I touched on the issue. But that alone could not clear the dispute among the circuit.

88Whether or not Từ Chi was conscious of this asymmetry and thought of it as abusive, whether or not he was even concerned of it at all, I have no way to know. How much of this dispute was exaggerated, I have no way to verify. It is indeed not my ultimate concern. In practice, I am able to trace a genealogy of Từ Chi’s influence both in conceptual terms and in the writing style through a large number of articles of his associates, distributed widely across journals of different fields, both mainstream and otherwise. Nevertheless, in the context of a moral economy of knowledge where shame and fame, decency and righteousness, master-disciple bondage and brotherhood, indebtedness and rivalry, and so forth, were powerfully constitutive of the symbolic universe shared by Vietnamese intellectuals, individual-based concept like plagiarism needs to be treated with special care.

89As I will return to discuss the reproduction of knowledge and transformation toward the end of the paper, suffices here to say that the narratives of the beneficiaries in this knowledge transfer were always moral: in their views, they did all they could to ensure that it was a fair exchange. While Từ Chi taught them selflessly, they learned from him earnestly, and remained wholeheartedly indebted of him throughout their careers. Every time and in anyway they could, they brought gifts to him, mostly in kind, such as food of all sorts. In the years of food privation, “taking him out for a meal on a regular basis” was seen, not so much as feeding him with an intention as termed in the opposing narrative, but “offering him a change of appetite from the dull cooking of his wife.” Those students who eventually went abroad for graduate studies in Soviet-bloc countries sent him letters and greeting cards, and of most importance, hot marketed items that could be sold for a good sum of cash. In a letter, one wrote, “I am sending you two electric fans, one is to cool the summer heat in your book-crowded corner, one is for some cash for you to have a drink as I could not be there to take you out.” This exchange, moreover, went beyond person-to-person basis. Từ Chi’s associates actively formed a social net around him, in their words, “to take care of him, entertain him, keep him company. The older he became, the more he appreciated our presence. He more than once said, ‘I am fortunate to have you guys as my friends.’”

90It is perhaps far fetching to suggest that Từ Chi threw away his ideas on purpose. Nor is it founded to posit that he ceased the opportunity of younger researchers’ coming to him as ways to disseminate his knowledge, skills, and philosophy, or in short, to diffuse his influence. In a more relaxing manner, as lightly as Từ Chi would prefer, I may propose this reading: in as much as the continued field research and publication is indicative of Từ Chi’s active engagement in Vietnamese anthropology, the formation of a network of his associates who carried on his influence is indicative of a social subjectivity of an alternative form of anthropological practice. Moreover, I have also shown that the way in which Từ Chi led his daily life, i.e., commuting from one site to another and making himself present and available across the scene of Hanoi academe, effectively created an alternative space where intervention were possible. This space was not outside of the two visible spaces consisting the urban life of an average academic, that of the formal and institutional in one’s workplace, and that of the private and informal in one’s home and neighborhood. The third space formed as Từ Chi was commuting along his daily route and followed by his students in effect opened up both ends, connected and transformed, and made the latter more responsive to dialogues and the transfer of knowledge not possible otherwise.

91The ethnographical folks, as Mrs. Tuat referred them, were not only one of social circuits Từ Chi was associated with. Overlapping in terms of participants, spaces, and activities notwithstanding, there was another more or less distinct group of Từ Chi’s friends: the café people. It is this cafescape of Hanoi life of the 1960s-1980s that is also indicative of a third space of an alternative that eventually contribute to change.

The café life of Hanoi

92When my key informants and I were making a list of interview contacts for the research leading to the exhibition, I realized that half of the list consisted of people outside of the anthropological circuit with which I am familiar. They are artists, writers, choreographers, journalists, natural scientists, teachers, army officials, and those who are hard to define by one category, those who can be called at once and the same time doing nothing and doing every thing. Puzzled by an extreme divergence of Từ Chi’s cohort, I confronted challenges of not only tracking his friends down but also to approach them and convince them to talk to me. Many of them rejected me upfront, either by shutting down the phone or giving long lectures of refusal that helped rocketing my cell phone bills. I eventually gathered that the rejection of me stemmed from an earlier rejection that my informants experienced, more or less around the same time and for a more or less similar reason to that that made Từ Chi left the Institute of Ethnology in late 1960s.

I thought you were from the Ministry of Culture; I would never see you if you were. I gave them the best painting of mine, my lifetime masterpiece, but they did not take it. They were fearful; they did not dare to hang my painting regardless of, you know, its obvious beauty, just because I was involved in the Nhan Van-Giai Pham. Oh well, I sold the piece to a Danish dirt cheap, almost like giving it away. And now you come and ask about Từ Chi, of whom the other portrait was among the only two serious ones I did in my entire life. Oh how I loved what I painted of my buddy Tu. I gave it away, too, ‘cause no one wanted it. Why do you want to talk with people and about things that are not wanted, girl?

93These ‘buddies’ of Từ Chi were more or less at his age. Many of them were Hanoians, some were his hometown fellowmen. They came from diverge family backgrounds ranging from middle class urbanite to royal-mandarin. They met Từ Chi at different places and times, from his childhood, to his young years in Hanoi working for the Vietnam News Agency, or some occasions of gathering of one kind or another. There were two common things they shared: one was that at some point in their life during the 1950s-1960s they ran into trouble at the workplace, some of them were deemed, again, petty bourgeois; and secondly, they had plenty of time to hang around and thus met very often.

Because I was a ‘petty bourgeoisie’ I was not put to use. I was hanging around not doing much. Because I was disciplined, no one wanted to see me or hosted me. Some like me would shun himself off for the rest of his life. But I didn’t. We met each other; only those who were alike could host themselves.

94Together they made a circle, and Từ Chi was seen as one of the most frequent members, partly because, they explained, he had no children to take care of, and partly because, in their words, “he was a wanderer by profession.” While some members in this cohort, those among the social scientists, journalists, translators and editors, were closer to Từ Chi’s field, others had little knowledge of Từ Chi’s expertise. For them, he was first and foremost a jovial wanderer and a superb story-teller, a faithful friend and a total human being.

95It is entirely misleading if the word café conjures a salon kind of life of modern urban artists and intellectuals in Paris or elsewhere at the turn of the 20th century, for two obvious reasons: first, the physical scene was much more humble, and secondly, these people met not out of leisure and pure concerns of literature and arts.

96The café on Dien Bien Phu street that Từ Chi frequented was simply a home-turn-shop; it was run by a lady known as a daughter of a famous pre-1945 Chinese Vietnamese writer of detective mysteries, of which Từ Chi and his friends were among teenager fans. There were a couple of low-rise wooden tables, some chairs, and the coffee was good; the hostess and her sister were friendly if not wittingly funny. Từ Chi often came in the morning, met some friends before they parted to work, and once they left, he would stay a little longer because it was up to him when to arrive at the library.

97But they did not necessarily met at a café. A front room of someone’s home at the end of an alley could be turned into an open terrace, where friends could gather as long as they could, oftentimes over tea, or when they could afford, rice vodka. They came and talked of the world news they heard from BBC. They came to exchange rare books, mostly in French, and records of classical music. Certainly they talked of arts, but also many other things, among which were laments of difficulties and grievances of their peculiar circumstances. They told of the adversities at workplace or shared a similar story of someone else they knew. As many of these families had a much less stable household economy than that based on state salary and coupons both spouses would receive, they were also talking of how to ease the burden of their wife.

98Từ Chi visited home of some of these friends on individual and frequent basis, as they remembered, just to tell stories. They loved his stories and they did not mind his staying for meal; indeed, they found ways to make very light of it.

In those years of hunger the best you can do was to avoid visiting people’s home close to mealtime. Từ Chi did not mind doing that; and thankfully, my wife did not mind that, either. Every late afternoon he came, as jovial as he was, and started his stories from the Muong country, my wife would rush to the street corner to get some pieces of tofu, hopefully still available. We never thought of him as a guest, he just came and stayed for dinner, as often as it was. My children loved when uncle Tu came, not only because they loved his stories, but also because surely on that day there must be something more on the dinner table. I too loved his visits: we had an excuse for a drink. Yet, through those years my wife never uttered a word of complaint.

99My elder daughter had a special affection for uncle Tu. She was at once and the same time pitiful of him and attracted to his charm. She often met him at the T-junction on his way to work and exchanged lunch with him, as his lunch was always barely edible. He had been suffering from serious skin infection (ghe): as soon as he sat down he started scratching himself like crazy, using a cap of a beer bottle (!). My daughter looked for ingredients and mixed a special medication cream for him; she was a pharmacist. One day he came by, she said, ‘Take out your shirt and give me your trousers, uncle Tu, I tell you.’ He was startled of her boldness [laugh]. ‘You’ve got to apply the medication here and now,’ she insisted. That how she adored him and took care of him.

100It would be absolutely unjust for my informants if I hint that Từ Chi was at their and their families’ merci. He certainly knew of their genuine generosity. He did not offer them much but himself, his charm and intellect, his humor and cynicism, his optimism and carefree-ness. The very fact that they rose above fears to come and visit each other and to gather in groups despite, and precisely because of, adversity was itself mutually encouraging and self-assuring. “It said something about our quality as human being,” one asserted, “it was nobility.” It was, I would add, empowering.

101I should emphasize again that this alternative space Từ Chi and his friends created was not an outer-space entirely separated from the workplace, or the public sphere under direct surveillance gaze. Since many of these friends eventually found a job, as Từ Chi did, somewhere at the margins of the state system, their work life remained more or less attached to it. Yet, it was precisely at the overlapping between contrasting spaces did the social subjectivity take form. In the complex interwoven social fabric of Hanoi life of 1960s-1980s, this relatively loose assemblage of seemingly fallen-out intellectuals effectively constituted a network, sporadic yet omnipresent, from which and to which one sought and offered support, material such as food deprivation relief, emotional such as distress and agony respite. It was through this daily sharing of common sufferings, struggling for livelihood, making sense of their being and self worth, a counter-hegemonic process came through.


102By the time Từ Chi died in December 1995 out of worsened health, Hanoi residents started to experience changes as the result from Đổi Mới. Although the material circumstance of Từ Chi’s family might have been improved significantly toward the end of his life, partly thanks to the saving from his lecturing trip to France in 1990, narratives of his life and ending remained in the requiem of hardship.

103During Từ Chi’s last months his students gathered and assumed a filial piety role. They took turn to drive him to an acupuncturist every other day, and when he was bedded, they divided in shifts to look after him. “None of his own kin,” recalled Từ Chi’s sister in law, “put their hands to clean him. His first cousin even made a face out of the stink. Only his students were genuine, they took care of him like their own father.” When asked, these students all thought of what they did for him then and thereafter as natural: “He had no children, he took us his. We owned him our career. It was not just obligation or duty, or simply family-like sentiments, or teacher-student bondage. It’s all of those, naturally.”

104Many of Từ Chi’s former colleagues, among whom those who grew distant from him, came to farewell, when Từ Chi could no longer talk. His café friends gathered the night of his departure: one or two emotionally charged poems and an amazing sketch of his portrait were dashed out of their immediate grief. It took another two years for the artist to complete the painting; since as the head of the portrait was near-perfectly done, the painter did not know what to do with the body. He explained to me his choice of Từ Chi’s posture in the painting:

I painted him with an open shirt as he always did open his heart to life. […] I painted my own hands and made them his. We were alike: walking in life with our hands hanging down. And I would leave, as my friend did, with empty hands.

105We should not, however, be misguided by the artist’s narrative of failure and defeat or by the spirit of veneration to sainthood after this worldly impermanence as conjured from the painting. Từ Chi was awarded an associate professorship in 1984, three years before he retired. In 2001, he was awarded Ho Chi Minh prize posthumously.


  • 8 Kim Ninh also notes a more or less quiet movement as early as 1990s in which literary works of the (...)

106As in an unequivocal case of dissident like that of Trần Đức Thảo or someone who placed himself at the margins of Hanoi art world like Bùi Xuân Phái, the Hồ Chí Minh prize can be seen as signifying a completion of a circle of suffering and redemption (McHale 2002; Taylor 2004). I would hope, however, to go beyond this interpretation. I tend to see this politics of stardom in postsocialist Vietnam not so much in terms of ‘settling the scores’ between the state and individuals, among whom mostly outstanding intellectuals, the former once condemned. Instead, I suggest placing it in the context of a social movement from below that involves groups of different people—colleagues, students, friends, and relatives—those who know or do not know these intellectuals in person but assume a mission of reclaiming justice.8 Some of them may join this endeavor as a way to repay their moral or intellectual debt; some simply take this as a vehicle for claiming their own identity; or both, as I myself am doing. Nora Taylor has convincingly argued for the case of Bùi Xuân Phái and his café artist counterparts, their veneration by younger artists can ultimately be seen as a call for non-revolutionary and non-socialist ideals of arts (Taylor 2004: 75). In the same vein, the ways in which Từ Chi’s associates were running around trying to arrange for him a burying spot at an A section in the city cemetery and the ways in which they compiled a nomination portfolio and lobbied for his Ho Chi Minh’s prize could be seen at once and the same time an acknowledgement of their moral debt and a claim for their own recognition. It was not a coincidence that Từ Chi’s portfolio was nominated not by the Association of Ethnologists—an official institution representing professional ethnologists—but instead by the Association of Folklore Culture. Members and leaders of the latter succeeded in affirming the public the significance of a distinct kind of, but no less professional, anthropologists, who may come from traditions and pursue interests that are different from the Soviet informed instrumentalism. Moving along the subjectification project, the categorizing discourse now turns its wheel: difference is now equally good if not outstandingly better.

107The caféscape of Hanoi life made alive by people like Bùi Xuân Phái, Từ Chi and their friends turn out, in the end, not as marginal as it appeared. We have no evidence to prove, however, that Từ Chi saw himself at the center of something else altogether. In the very least, as I have tried to show by contextualizing Từ Chi’s ethnographic texts and intercontextualizing his fieldwork and his daily life, that he was trying earnest to forge a different form of anthropology, influenced by mid-20 century French thoughts, writing style, and an alternative model of professionalized fieldwork. This tradition, moreover, did not die with him. On contrary, it continued to reproduce through a full circle of knowledge production that can be seen today in both publications and leadership. All of Từ Chi’s disciples have made their name in the anthropological circle; half of them now hold important positions in research institutes and ministerial offices. Từ Chi’s legacy gains currency to the extent that, inasmuch faux Phai produce replicates Pho Phai, some entrepreneur-minded individuals start faking association with Từ Chi. Fake or real, a social subjectivity has formed and continues to reproduce while taking on contemporary politics of the discipline.

108The alternative space carved out by Từ Chi and his counterparts has other implications. Under the gaze yet out of the will of the state, this space made differences possible. Từ Chi’s casual way of dressing, his random handling of space (through his commuting route and dispersing his presence across the city) and time (his rhythm of work, the frequency of his fieldwork, and the impulsiveness of his hanging-out) embodied this counterwork of subjectification, that that produced a socialist subject. Yet, even this does not secure an emancipation of an autonomous or independent subject altogether. On contrary, all of these body, spatial and temporal maneuverings were structured into an all the more powerful habitus that embraced him and his people, both friends and foes, which naturalized their differences, their personal identity and social classification. Paradoxically, it was precisely the same habitus from which transformation took form. It naturalized the ways in which Từ Chi’s friends responded to him: the ways they hosted him, fed him, kept him company, adjusted their own and their family life to accommodate him, took care of him in his deathbed, repaid their moral debt to him after he died, and so on. All of these deeds were taken so for granted precisely because Từ Chi and his counterparts lived in a moral world that was powerfully shaped by notions such as loyalty, filial piety, friendship, nobility, righteousness, and so forth. The alternative space that they maintained, I would suggest, nurtured and fortified their grouping, i.e. a formation of a class of urban intellectuals who shared experience, intentions and visions, from which forces of change may take shape and eventually take place. One can see the visibility of this network, hitherto dispersal across the city, at the inauguration ceremony of the Từ Chi – Life and Works exhibition at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in 2005. Another site where this social force was realized was a 2004 rehearsal turned performance of Kiều Loan, a poetic play written by Hoàng Cầm, a poet deemed reactionary in Nhan Van-Giai Pham and muted for half a century. Virtually everyone who involved some way or another in the incident or related to one and supported one attended the show: it was so crowded that walkways were filled with people standing solemnly for three hours of the performance. For the first time one saw a public surfacing of a underground Hanoi that had till then scattered in homes and cafes: through visualizing this collectivity, I would like to suggest, a counter-hegemonic process came through.

109Certainly Từ Chi did not waste his life as some of his colleagues thought, quoting his infamous “Nous sommes ratés. Neither perhaps he thought of himself as centering even when young graduates were looking for him and gathering around him. Nevertheless, the following quote from hooks is, I believe, apt to capture some of his intentionality, or in the very least, the effects of his agency that in turn reproduces in a present day social subjectivity:

It was this marginality that I was naming as a central location for the production of counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and the way one lives. As such, I was not speaking of a marginality one wishes to lose, to give up, but rather as a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist. It offers the possibility of radical perspectives from which to see and create, to imagine alternatives, new worlds (hooks 1990: 152).


An African Dream

110In Từ Chi’s archive I have found a large number of photographs he took while at Conakry: pictures of round top huts, housing interiors, women, children, cattle, and landscape. I have also come across a sizable collection of bibliography on Africa—East, West, and Central. Notes from these readings were sometimes scattered, sometimes neatly organized and compiled in a set or systems of sets. Maps were copied from books, marked with careful and detailed handwritings. All of these are indicative of a research project—historical and/or anthropological—of some place in Africa. In the correspondence with his father, pharmacist Nguyễn Kinh Chi, himself a co-author of Moi Kon tum (1937), Từ Chi must have articulated this intention in writing. His father wrote back with support, insisting that his son should focus on research while in Conakry, not being distracted by a Vietnamese woman who later became his wife. A colleague from the Institute of Ethnology sent Từ Chi a note of encouragement, speculating that his friend would be the first person who pioneered anthropology of Africa at the Institute.

111Từ Chi was believed to gather the materials on African history and cultures for what he hoped to be a Ph.D. research in Russia. For better or worse, this dream never came true. I have found no traits of Từ Chi’s attempt in learning Russian; indeed, there was a letter referring him to take German language courses sometime in late 1970s.

112The African materials then, by mid 1980s, were believed to be organized into a book manuscript, entrusted to one of Từ Chi’s most loyal students to oversee its publication. The manuscript disappeared. All remain was a collection of fairy tales and legends of Africa, for the translation of which Từ Chi did receive a sum of money.

113I have no way to retrieve the lost manuscript. Hoping that every legend holds some component of truth, I can only speculate that at some point, Từ Chi could perhaps project himself on a much broader canvas, aiming his vision at a horizon that was much different and far beyond that of his fellow country men and even his contemporaries in metropolitan places. It could have been, let a legend take flight, a cosmopolitan project (Kuper 1999: 53-57).

Fig.: From left t...Fig.: From left to right: Pham Duc Duong, Nguyen Tai Can, and Nguyen Tu Chi, circa 1984

Fig.: From left to right: Pham Duc Duong, Nguyen Tai Can, and Nguyen Tu Chi, circa 1984

Source: Courtesy of Pham Duc Duong’s personal archives.

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Note de fin

1 In this article, I tentatively use ‘ethnologists’ for those who practice Soviet inspired ethnology. However, I am aware of the distinction between ‘ethnographer’ and ‘ethnologist’ in the French tradition prior the Second World War (Salemink 1999: 305). Given inter-penetrability of various scholarly traditions, an attempt to draw a sharp line of distinction can be, I think, misleading.

2 Not only having a conversation with the Marxist framework, Từ Chi also engaged another conversation with French colonial ethnographic writing. It suffices here to mention his argument with Jeanne Cuisinier’s Les Muong (1948).

3 While Vietnamese ethnologists rarely cite Western references in their writing, Từ Chi was among few who acknowledge French sources. In an article published in 1975, for example, he refers to the “fait total” by Marcel Mauss (Nguyễn Từ Chi 1975).

4 Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) is a Romanian-born historian of religion and fiction writer. Among his scholarly works Từ Chi and their friends may have read Le Mythe de L’Eternal Retour (1949), and perhaps, some of his erotic novels, such as Isabel si Apele Diavolului (1930) and Domnisoara Christina (1936).

5 Nhan Van-Giai Pham affair was a movement demanding political freedom and democracy by intellectuals and artists in North Vietnam in the 1950s (see also Kim 2001).

6 One of major ethnographies of Từ Chi, The Organizing Structure of the Traditional Viet Village (1984), an earlier version of which first appeared in the Vietnamese Studies (no. 61, 1980), was also commissioned by Nguyen Khac Vien.

7 This needs to be verified with referene to Nguyen Van Chinh’s observation that citations in ethnographies by Vietnamese scholars are predominantly of French sources.

8 Kim Ninh also notes a more or less quiet movement as early as 1990s in which literary works of the 1930s and 1940s—once viewed as “decadent, petty bourgeois and even antirevolutionary”—were compiled and reprinted as an effort to reintroduce to the public the diversity of intellectual voices and ideas that “do not conform to the Party’s socialist nation narrative” (Kim 2002: 243).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig.: From left to right: Pham Duc Duong, Nguyen Tai Can, and Nguyen Tu Chi, circa 1984
Crédits Source: Courtesy of Pham Duc Duong’s personal archives.
Fichier image/png, 133k
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Truong Huyen Chi, « The Margin Contextualized: Nguyễn Từ Chi (1925-1995) and an Alternative Ethnography in the Socialist Vietnam »Moussons [En ligne], 24 | 2014, mis en ligne le 20 avril 2015, consulté le 06 juin 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Truong Huyen Chi

Truong Huyen Chi is an independent scholar based in Kathmandu, Nepal. She received a Ph.D. in Social/Cultural Anthropology from the University of Toronto (2001) and taught at the Vietnam National University and Vietnam’s Academy of Social Sciences. Her research interests include societies in transition, narrative and social memory, anthropology of children and childhood, and education for indigenous peoples-ethnic minorities in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.

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