Imagined Ancestries of Vietnamese Communism

Ton Duc Thang and the Politics of History and Memory

Christoph Giebel

  • Published: 2004
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / Southeast Asia; Politics
  • Bibliographic information: 280 pp., 4 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: N / A In Asia, Aust Or N / Zealand
  • Series: Critical Dialogues in Southeast Asian Studies
  • Contents

Imagined Ancestries of Vietnamese Communisim illuminates the real and imagined lives of Ton Duc Thang (1888-1980), a celebrated revolutionary activist and Vietnamese communist icon, but it is much more than a conventional biography. This multifaceted study constitutes the first detailed re-evaluation of the official history of the Vietnamese Communist Party and is a critical analysis of the inner workings of Vietnamese historiography never before undertaken in its scope.

In prominence and public visibility second only to Ho Chi Minh, whom he succeeded in the presidency, Ton Duc Thang in fact lacked any real power. Author Christoph Giebel reconciles this seeming contradiction by showing that it was only Ton Duc Thang who could personify for the Party crucial legitimizing "ancestries": those that linked Vietnamese communism with the Russian October Revolution, highlighted proletarian internationalism among its ranks, and rooted the Party in Viet Nam's south. The study traces the decades-long, complex processes in which famous heroic episodes in Ton Duc Thang's life were manipulated or simply fabricated and-depending on prevailing historical and political necessities-utilized as propaganda by the Communist Party. Over time, narrative control over these tales switched hands, however, and since the late 1950s the stories came to be used in factional disputes by competing ideological and regional interests within the revolutionary camp.

Based on innovative archival research in Viet Nam and France and on analyses of biographical writings, propaganda, and museum representations, the study challenges core assumptions about the history of the Vietnamese Communist Part and sheds light on divisions within the revolutionary movement along regional, class, and ideological lines. Giebel uses the fictions and contested facts of Ton's life to demonstrate that history-writing and the constructions of memories and identities are always political acts.
Christoph Giebel is associate professor of international studies and history at the University of Washington.

"Giebel brilliantly shows the creation of nationalist myths, the invention of traditions, and the ways in which stories are formed and take on lives of their own. Using archival research in Hanoi, Saigon, Aix-en-Provence, Paris, Brest, and Toulon, as well as interviews with leading Vietnamese historians, party members, and the surviving family of Ton Duc Thang, Giebel writes an accessible story that takes the reader into the intricate processes of history-making in the constant struggle between history and memory."
-Laurie J. Sears, author of Shadows of Empire: Colonial Discourse and Javanese Tales

"Imagined Ancestries of Vietnamese Communism is pathbreaking in several ways. It is the only scholarly treatment in any language of the life and career of President Ton Duc Thang. It represents the first sustained foray into Vietnamese labor history. Finally, it is a thorough and virtually incontrovertible debunking of Ton's official history - a debunking that unfolds with the rigorous logical reasoning and narrative suspence of a good detective story."
-Peter Zinoman, author of The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862-1940

List of Abbreviations
A Note on Spelling and Translations

Part One Constructions
1. The Black Sea Mutiny in the Late Colonial Moment
2. The Black Sea Mutiny in the Revolutionary Moment
3. The Black Sea Mutiny in the Post-Recognition Moment

Part Two Contestations
4. Striking Images: Ba Son in the Post-Partition Moment
5. The Secret Labor Union in the Post-Unification Moment

Part Three Commemorations
6. Telling Life: Ton Duc Thang's Official Biography in the Poshumous Moment
7. Museum-Shrine: The Revolution's Guardian Spirit in the Post-Socialist Moment

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"Carefully researched and meticulously crafted."
-Graduate Journal of Asia-Pacific Studies

"This is an audacious and imaginative work from an author with a knack for close and relentless work with sources. It is a strikingly original achievement and an important contribution to Vietnam studies."
-The Journal of Asian Studies