Faculty Spotlight- Professor Nguyen Thi Dieu The View from Ho-Chi-Minh City, Hue, and Paris
By Kathleen Biddick, Associate Chair
The Center for Vietnamese Philosophy, Culture and Society, cooperative scholarly projects between Temple and Vietnamese universities and a Vietnamese language curriculum combine to position Temple University as a center for excellence for the study of Vietnamese culture and history.
Now that Nguyen Thi Dieu, professor of Vietnamese history, has returned from her year-long sabbatical supported by a fellowship awarded by the Gerda Henkel Stiftung (www.gerda-henkel-stiftugn.de), The History Newsletter wanted to learn about her archival research in Vietnamese and French archives. An essay, "A mythographical journey into modernity: the textual and symbolic transformations of the Hùng Kings Founding myths", based on her recent archival work, is forthcoming in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. We also wanted to catch Dieu before her invited trip to the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore, where she will be delivering a paper at their conference on Asia- Europe Encounters: Intellectual and Cultural Exchanges 1900-1950. Dieu's paper is titled “From French 14 Juillet to Vietnamese Monarchical Day: Ritual, Pageantry, and Power.”
Dieu sat down with me to discuss her own intellectual diaspora and how it has shaped her current project on the fabrication of myth in the production of Vietnamese national identity.
Q: Dieu, our undergraduates, many of whom come from complex immigrant diasporas, would be interested in hearing your story of diaspora that brought you from the banks of the Mekong River, to Paris, and finally to the history department at Temple where you have taught since 1992.
Dieu spent much of her childhood in a regional capital on the Mekong River, an abiding memory which shaped her doctoral project in Paris and her first book, The Mekong River and the Struggle for Indochina: Water, War, Peace. As a young girl, she moved to Saigon where her father worked as a civil servant. There she attended a French lyceum and acquired her fluency in French. As the American war in Vietnam ramped up, Dieu flew to Europe on a one-way ticket and enrolled at the Sorbonne and studied English and Japanese culture and civilization. She went on to finish a masters degree on the economic interventions of the United States and the Soviet Union in Latin America. As students in Paris radicalized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dieu began to pay more attention to the war in Vietnam as understood from Paris. She then decided to pursue her doctoral degree in Indochina Studies and finished her thesis on the Mekong River in 1986. In the late 1980s Dieu migrated to the United States, where she taught on the West Coast. In 1992, she took up her current position as professor of Vietnamese History at Temple University.
Q: The Gerda Henkel Stiftung whose mission is to support research in the humanities, especially history and archaeology, awarded you one of its prestigious fellowships in 2011. Please tell us about your recent work in French and Vietnamese archives.
Dieu's project on mythography and nationalism takes on one of the sacred paradigms of nationalism and modernity espoused by Benedict Anderson in his influential book, Imagined Communities. Anderson linked nationalism with modernity, especially with the dissemination of modern print technologies. This paradigm of nationalism, Dieu argues, does not fit the Vietnamese story. She is working with manuscripts from the 15th century that show how the mythical Hùng Kings' Cycle came to be integrated into official court histories and how this mythography was later mobilized for anti-colonial, anti-imperial purposes. In the 20th century both Communist and republican forces used the mythography to forge nationalist identities. Thus, the line between myth and history is a constructed one as Dieu looks through the nationalist mythography through Confucian, French, and anti-colonial lenses from the 15th – 21st centuries. To make her argument, Dieu has used French and Vietnamese archives in order to examine dynastic histories, recorded folklore legends, temple epigraphy and the colonial archives of the French.
Q: Dieu, you are one of the pedagogical pillars of the history department’s World History curriculum. If you could wave a magic wand across the curriculum, what would you wish for?
There is no question but that, with the emergence of numerous political, military, social, and cultural centers around the world, the United States is no longer a hegemonic power in any of these respects. It thus behooves us to recognize that we can no longer—if indeed we ever could!—understand the wider world by focusing our attention uniquely on Europe and the United States. I would thus encourage my colleagues to recognize these facts—unpleasant to some, perhaps, but inescapable and undeniable—and address the imbalances in our specializations so that the world beyond the West can be given its due. We are making a tenuous beginning by searching for an historian of China, but even if this search is successfully completed, the non-Western world will remain radically underrepresented in our department, and we must continue to initiate and enhance our coverage of it.