Tạ Chí Đại Trường, the lucidity of a historian’s gaze

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Born in Nha Trang, Tạ Chí Đại Trường bears in his name the geographical marks of his birth place; His father, a Confucian scholar, had in fact wanted his name to be composed of the two toponyms of the province Khánh Hòa, Mount Đại Lãnh and the Trường Giang River. His childhood spent in a region particularly imbued with the historical memories of ‘nam tiến’ (the progression of the Vietnamese people towards the South) has in any case contributed to determining a vocation from which nothing could have ruled him out since he chose it.

Tạ Chí Đại Trường in the Temple of Literature, Hanoi

Being part of the very first students from the History department at the Faculty of Letters of Saigon, he stood out from the others with the originality of his thought. The dissertation he wrote in 1964 for obtaining the diploma of higher studies in history made known to the public the boldness of his conceptions and the breadth of his views: relying on an exhaustive use of old documents, he set out the ins and outs of a situation of civil war which actually began well before the 18th century and did not end until 1802. This study was crowned in 1970 by a first literary prize in the Republic of Việt Nam, before being published under the title History of the civil war in Việt Nam from 1771 to 1802. But it would also, after 1975, earn its author a whole series of harsh criticisms from the Marxist authors of Hanoi, who set themselves up as the sole holders of the truth, who gave up historical objectivity for ideologically oriented interpretation. This, however, does not prevent those censors from borrowing extensively, of course unacknowledged, from a work that they had constantly criticized. 

Having worked as a secondary school teacher, Tạ Chí Đại Trường, like many of his colleagues, was called to fulfill his national service by 1964. He spent the next ten years in the army, and towards the end of this period got promoted to Captain, a position which later brought a certain alleviation to his fate. During the time of military service, with an interest in numismatics, he still managed to conduct research on the monetary history of the 18th century. At the same time, he wrote a doctoral thesis on the colonial soldiers in Cochinchina (1862-1945). The thesis was not defended, though, due to the fall of Saigon that occured when he was putting the finishing touches to it. He had barely been returned to civilian life when the victory of the troops from North Vietnam imposed the communist regime on the South. His former rank of captain earned him at this time an interminable period of “re-education”, from 1975 to 1981. 

The physical and moral suffering did not, however, succeed in bringing him down; on the contrary, they allow him to refine his view of people and things, and the notes he took during his detention constitute a lucid testimony of a historian, without hatred or passion, on all the curse that implies the formula of Vae Victis. [the notes was published under the titled An extended part of the Republic of Vietnam] After his release, to make a living, Tạ Chí Ðại Trường found a job as a worker at the Ðồng Tháp paper factory cooperative (Saigon), then from 1987, as a proofreader in a printing press. From May 1991, he was unemployed, living on orders to translate western detective novels. To this “proletarianization” period corresponded, however, the most productive phase of his life because adversity had matured him extraordinarily, while encouraging him to courageously take the opposite view of the adventurous theses and hypotheses of the official school. This resulted in studies and articles offering completely new views on different aspects of the history of Việt Nam, which were known outside the country through devoted friends. The work entitled The gods, the man and the Vietnamese land, in particular, is an admirable synthesis of the history of mentalities which sheds light on the evolution of popular beliefs in Vietnamese society.

Tạ Chí Ðại Trường proposed to study the history of the formation of the southern principalities of the Nguyễn dynasty and to rectify the errors of interpretation which had not ceased to be uttered on the 17th and 18th centuries. He therefore still did not give up on perpetuating the ancient tradition of respectable historians, the one that leads to the refusal to bow to dominant power. [Unfortunately, he passed away in March 2016, leaving behind unfinished works, but also a priceless legacy of historical studies that we all respect]

Photo: Quach Hien

This article was originally written in French by professor-historian Nguyễn Thế Anh and published in Le Médecin du Vietnam (1993). It helped make Tạ Chí Đại Trường’s works known to readers in France and the United States. 

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