Researching Vietnamese History in the Digital Age

There was recently a debate in Vietnamese cyberspace between the author of a new book on early Vietnamese history, Tạ Đức, and a critic of that book, Trần Trọng Dương.

I haven’t read the book in question (Nguồn gốc người Việt – người Mường, The Origins of the Việt and the Mường), so I can’t comment on its contents, however the debate between Tạ Đức and Trần Trọng Dương has brought up some interesting points about conducting research in the digital age that I have thought about before.


Trần Trọng Dương has criticized Tạ Đức for using sources from the Internet. Apparently Tạ Đức himself stated in his book that around 50% of the sources that he used to research his book came from the web.

The reason why this bothers Trần Trọng Dương is, to quote, “Because information on the internet (such as Wikipedia) is a type of source-less information that can be put on the web by anyone, with no need to take academic responsibility for that information.”

[Bởi lẽ, thông tin trên mạng (như wikipedia) là kiểu thông tin không nguồn gốc, có thể do bất kỳ ai đưa lên mà không phải chịu trách nhiệm khoa học về những thông tin đó.]

Trần Trọng Dương notes further that an author can use his intelligence to check (kiểm soát bằng tri thức) that information. However, the fact that Tạ Đức apparently used information from a web page of a Chinese tourism company, suggests that the author did not always so.


Tạ Đức responded to this critique unapologetically by stating that the Internet is a fantastic resource. He listed various academic publications that he found on the web, and then he also defended his use of Wikipedia by stating that “. . . many Wikipedia pages, especially those in English, are essays that collect and spread serious information, that are presented in a condense manner and that clearly record the sources of their information.”

[. . . nhiều mục wikipedia, đặc biệt bằng tiếng Anh, là những bài viết tổng hợp và phổ biến thông tin nghiêm túc, được trình bày cô đọng và có ghi rõ nguồn gốc tư liệu.]

As an example of this, Tạ Đức points to a couple of the Wikipedia pages that he found valuable in conducting his research, one of this was on the Tanka or people.


I went to this web page and randomly checked a footnote, and this is what I found. There is a section called “Note on the Term” which says: “The term Tanka is now considered derogatory and no longer in common use.”

The source that is cited is the following: “Farewell to Peasant China: Rural Urbanization and Social Change in … – Page 75 Gregory Eliyu Guldin – 1997 “In Dongji hamlet, most villagers were originally shuishangren (boat people) [Also known in the West by the pejorative label, “Tanka” people. — Ed.] and settled on land only in the 1950s. Per-capita cultivated land averaged only 1 mu …”


This is a very strange source to cite in order to demonstrate that the term “Tanka” now has a pejorative meaning. I would expect to see cited a specific socio-linguistic study about the term.

Another important point to note is the “ – Ed.” in this citation. This means that the editor for this Wikipedia page put this information there. Whoever originally wrote this entry did not provide a citation for this statement. Someone who read this page later did.

How can we know that? By clicking on the “Talk” button on the top of the Wikipedia page.


When we do that, we find that someone noted that the author needs to provide evidence that the term is pejorative.



This person provided some sources to do this, and the editor used the first source listed. But are any of these sources authoritative studies of the use of the term “tanka”? No! They are all about other topics, but they make mention of the fact that the term is pejorative (hopefully by citing an authoritative study, but the person who put this information there did not indicate where those people got this information).

What is more, if you Google the sentences that are cited from these books you will find that they are all available online.

What this means is that whoever put that information there, did so simply after searching for the term “Tanka” and “pejorative” on the Internet. That person then found some academic studies that mention this, but none of those studies were actually about the topic of the word “Tanka.” Therefore, none of these sources are valid sources for demonstrating that the term “Tanka” has become pejorative.

So while I agree with Tạ Đức that the Internet is a wonderful resource, what is most important is that people know how to use the information on the Internet effectively. I think that Trần Trọng Dương has a sense of this, but it’s actually much more complex than Trần Trọng Dương perhaps realizes.

Wikipedia certainly can be helpful, but it is important to know how Wikipedia works and to examine it closely.


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