The Vietnamese academic warriors in territorial dispute with China

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The Vietnamese academic warriors in territorial dispute with China

Uncharted realms on some old European maps are decorated with mythic beasts. The Latin phrase hic sunt dracones – “here be dragons” – is known to appear only once, scholars say, on an extraordinary globe so old (1510) that it gives no clue to the existence of North America. That globe is now in possession of the New York Public Library.

The warning of dragons happens to appear off the southeast coast of Asia – the same vicinity where China is now accused of beastly behavior by Vietnam, the Philippines and others.

Emotions have run hot for weeks as Chinese and Vietnamese vessels jockey dangerously over Beijing’s installation of a massive exploration rig near the disputed Paracel Islands (Hoang Sa). On a quieter front, meanwhile, Vietnam’s scholars are poring over old maps and documents to cultivate international support and strengthen its case in hopes of a peaceful resolution to the dispute.

“I love all of them,” Professor Trinh Kha Manh of the Institute of Han-Nom Studies said through an interpreter when I asked which map is his favorite. He can’t pick one, he explained, because they collectively corroborate Vietnam’s dominion over Hoang Sa (Paracels) east of Da Nang and Truong Sa (Spratlys) hundreds of miles to the south.

Manh, 63, has answered his nation’s call some 45 years after he joined the army and was sent to Quang Nam Province to fight the Americans and their allies from the old Saigon regime. His service then was violently interrupted when shrapnel from a B-52 strike ripped through his body, which sent him home for recovery and indirectly put him on the scholarly path of Han-Nom studies.

Now Manh is something of an academic warrior, a key figure in a battalion of Vietnamese scholars who’ve pored over 3,000 pages of ancient maps, documents and writings and translated thousands of the old Vietnamese Sino characters into Vietnam’s contemporary phonetic script. The research, they say, demonstrates Vietnam’s maritime reach even in feudal times.  Manh served as editor of a 500-page book that highlights the work which was recently released by the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

In a sense, Manh is following in the wake of the southern Vietnamese sailors who in 1974 fought and died defending Hoang Sa from Chinese forces. Those sailors’ sacrifice were recently honored in requiem at sea before China moved in its industrial rig backed by a fleet of support vessels.

Map-making has come a long way since Vietnamese artists of the 16th and 17th centuries attempted to depict their culture’s domain. Unlike modern maps, with the top of the page as true north, the perspective of those times led artists to place the East Sea at the bottom of the page, with mountain ranges toward the top. The artwork, not remotely drawn to scale, also emphasizes the rivers that flow down the page from the foothills to the sea. Vietnamese Sino characters inside a circle at the bottom of one page signify that Hoang Sa is part of Vietnam.

Not until the 19th century is there a map that places due north at the top of the page and ambitiously sketches Vietnam’s long coastline – and this map designates Hoang Sa as part of Quang Ngai Province.

To the untrained eye, there is no difference between Vietnamese and Chinese Han characters. Manh and his colleague Nguyen To Lan, who recently returned from a year of study at Harvard University, explained that the distinction is how their placement reflects spoken Vietnamese grammar.  Manh’s dissertation focused on the Han characters etched in stone at the Temple of Literature – a legacy of the Chinese and Confucian influence of Vietnam.

Manh said he is confident that Vietnam’s scholarship regarding the islands would trump China’s. Both old Chinese maps and maps produced by foreign nations suggest that Hainan Island is the southernmost part of China.

China’s recent actions have cast Vietnam as a David against a Goliath. But maybe Christian imagery isn’t appropriate in a corner of the world with folklore that venerates the turtle and the dragon. These days it seems fitting that Vietnam, as depicted on modern maps, resembles nothing so much as a serpentine dragon, with its brain aptly situated in Hanoi –which, come to think of it, used to be called Thang Long, or “Rising Dragon."