A View From the Mountains: a Critical History of Lowlander- Highlander Relations in Vietnam

Oscar Salemink


In the summer of 1996, when I worked as programme officer for the Ford Foundation in Vietnam, I met with Dr Hoàng Xuân Tý, who wanted to discuss a project proposal about “indigenous technical knowledge” among upland minorities in Vietnam. A soil scientist working for the Forest Science Institute of Vietnam in Từ Liêm, Hanoi, Dr Tý explained why he had become interested in the concept of “indigenous knowledge”. Up until that point, (highland) ethnic minorities were generally seen as backward (lạc hậu), primitive (nguyên thủy) and steeped in superstitious beliefs (mê tín dị đoan), and their “slash-and-burn” agricultural practices (phá rừng làm rẫy) were regarded as the main cause of deforestation (Jamieson et al. 1998). From that perspective—widely shared by Vietnamese scientists, government officials and media—development consisted of bringing science, technology and the superior civilization of the lowlander Việt to the highlands. Dr Tý recalled his years fighting for his country, when he and his fellow soldiers could survive in the mountainous jungles only because local people taught them how to. After his studies in Hanoi he went back to the mountain areas and was involved in dozens of projects with the aim of lifting local ethnic groups out of their backwardness and poverty. But, Dr Tý insisted: “All of our beautiful science and technology projects failed, while local people were successful in what they did. The trees that we brought died within one year, but the trees that local people planted still stand. Their local knowledge is much better than our so-called scientific knowledge; it is time that we come to the Highlands to learn instead of to teach.” In the face of suspicion from scientists and other experts, the project was implemented with funding from the International Development Research Centre (Canada) and the Ford Foundation, and it resulted in a number of publications and other projects in “indigenous knowledge” in Vietnam (see Hoàng Xuân Tý and Lê Trọng Cúc 1998).

This anecdote serves to illustrate the complex and contradictory relationships between Highlands and Lowlands, between upland ethnic minorities and the majority Việt, through history. Much international colonial and postcolonial scholarship on highland ethnic minorities in Vietnam emphasizes a fundamental cultural difference between Kinh or Việt Lowlanders and minority Highlanders. According to this view, in precolonial times Highlanders were politically, culturally and economically largely autonomous and lived undisturbed lives until they were “pacified” by the colonial state. The fundamental divide, then, runs along ethnic and geographic (Highlands-Lowlands) lines. Eager to deny the cultural divide-and-rule implications of colonial scholarship, Vietnamese historiography and ethnology tend to emphasize perennial political solidarity and unity between lowland and upland ethnic groups within the frame of the Vietnamese nation, while acknowledging and celebrating cultural diversity. In this view, the state border is the most relevant dividing line. That said, efforts to stress national solidarity and other connections between ethnic groups are predicated on prior distinctions between Highlands and Lowlands, between ethnic minorities and ethnic majority, between ethnic(s) and nation.

However, the relations between Lowlander Việt—who affixed their ethnonym to the country’s name—and ethnic minority Highlanders within the national borders are in both discourses also classified along a temporal axis (of advanced and backward, civilized and primitive, centre and periphery), thus connoting a denial of coevalness to minorities (Fabian 1983). Remote areas are discursively conceived as the “natural” abode of ethnic minorities, despite a historical reality of travel, mobility, migration and resettlement, including migration of Việt people into upland areas. Although recent critical scholarship has tended to debunk cultural essentialism by looking at the role of the (post)colonial state in ethnic classification (Keyes 2002; Koh 2004; Pelley 1998, 2003; Salemink 2003a; Taylor 2001), the net effect of the action of the state—as a vehicle of the Việt-dominated nation—is to stress the essential difference between Lowlanders and Highlanders. In present-day “development-speak”, this notion of a cultural and geographic gulf to be bridged is brought out in expressions such as “remote areas” or vùng sâu, vùng xa and underlies much of the current thinking and policy regarding uplands and minorities, resembling a benevolent, postcolonial mission civilisatrice. In this chapter, however, I would like to zoom in on historical relations between Lowlanders and Highlanders in the literal sense, meaning the relations connecting rather than dividing ethnic groups, population groups and geographic areas. Assuming that formal ethnic identities were weak where local identities were strong in fluid situations, I shall argue that local identities were profiled as a result of religious, political, economic and cultural exchanges during the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial eras. I shall especially focus on the effects of these exchanges in terms of leadership. Contrary to the view that local or ethnic leadership closed off “ethnic boundaries”, I shall argue that local leadership was actually produced through economic, political and ritual exchanges, akin to Arjun Appadurai’s notion of the “production of locality” (1996) against the backdrop of constant change, transformations, threats—in brief: globalization avant la lettre. Only with the colonial and postcolonial eras did the governmentalization of exchanges and the territorialization of governance “produce” not just the “hard” ethnic boundaries through the classification processes that Charles Keyes (2002) speaks about, but also the impermeable borders that James Scott (1998) speaks of. By debunking both the nationalist historiography and culturalizing discourse in this manner, I hope to open up space for new, critical insights into assumptions concerning Lowlander-Highlander relations in the present age.

The main body of this chapter is devoted to the argument that the historical relations between lowland polities and various upland groups in precolonial times and at the time of the French conquest have been more substantial for the economic and political situation of these lowlands than is usually acknowledged. The second section is devoted to the lowland- upland dynamics and international maritime trade in Đàng Trong (southern Vietnam, seventeenth to eighteenth centuries) and Đàng Ngoài (Tonkin, seventeenth to eighteenth centuries), in which I argue that successful maritime trade in Đàng Trong was linked with riverine and overland trade with the mountainous hinterland. This insight about the mountains as a trade and contact zone leads me to draw an analogy with the South China Sea, which has often been seen as a bridging rather than dividing water—a sea of commerce (Reid 1988a, 1988b); as a cultural crossroads (Lombard 1990); as an Asian Mediterranean (Lombard 1998, Sutherland 2003); or as a porous border (Tagliacozzo 2007). The third section looks at the relations between Lowlands and Uplands during the nineteenth century under the Nguyễn Dynasty. In this section I argue that political and ritual leadership in the Highlands of what is now Vietnam was very much connected with the position of such leaders in long-distance trade networks. The fourth section zooms in on the Northern Highlands and the role of the Đèo lineage during the early and latter days of French rule and their interest in the opium trade. In the fifth section I offer some more general reflections on the nature of Highlander leadership in precolonial times, arguing for a realization that Highlander leadership was largely based on connections with the Lowlands; and that Lowland polities were also dependent on trade and alliances with highland leaders. Finally, I shall conclude that—akin to the “view from the sea” proposed by Li Tana, John Whitmore and Charles Wheeler—the historiography and ethnography of Vietnam require a “view from the mountains” in order to redress the nationalist and developmental notions about backwardness, remoteness and isolation produced by the modern state and eagerly supported by NGOs and other development donors.

Historical Trade relations between Tây nguyên (central highlands) and Đàng Trong (southern Vietnam)

Many authors insist that the Vietnamese Highlands, surrounded by “Indianized” and “Sinicized” states on all sides (Coedès 1948), constitute one “culture area”, contiguous with and similar to the uplands stretching to Northeast India, Bangladesh and Burma on the west; Yunnan on the north; and Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia on the south and east (Kirsch 1973; Wijeyewardene 1990; Michaud 2000b, 2007; Jonsson 2005). In order to move the focus away from area studies specialisms that tend to project present-day subcontinental boundaries into the past, Willem van Schendel (2002) gave this region a proper name—“Zomia”—in order to denote an area stretching across three subcontinents (South Asia, East Asia and Southeast Asia). James Scott (2009) recast this Zomia region as a zone of refuge from state impositions. Other authors were more modest in their geographical ambitions, just arguing against nationalist narratives in historiography and ethnography by speaking of “hill tribes society” (Kirsch 1973), the South-East Asian Massif (Michaud 2000b) or Montane Mainland Southeast Asia (MMSEA; see the series of international con- ferences taking place in Chiang Mai and elsewhere since the 1990s). While these authors convincingly debunk the nationalist narratives that lock up ethnic groups within national states by pointing at cross-border connections and commonalities, the emphasis on a common cross-border geographic and culture area has the unintended side effect of emphasizing difference and distance from lowland states and civilizations, thereby exoticizing Uplanders as ethnic “others” vis-à-vis Lowlanders.

In earlier work I showed that historical cultural differences between and among Lowlanders and Highlanders and misperceptions of Highlander culture do not mean that this difference is absolute, nor that Lowlanders and Highlanders are naturally antagonistic, as was and is often assumed by outsiders (Salemink 2003a). It does not mean that there was no contact or commerce, as trade has linked Highlands and Lowlands alike with international trade networks. Long-distance trade connected lowland and highland places and populations, with important political and cultural effects in both the Highlands and Lowlands. This is evident from the lists of (upland) forest products exported by lowland states—elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, beeswax, aloe, eaglewood and cinnamon—as recorded, for instance, in old reports and records of the Dutch East Indies about mainland Southeast Asia (Muller 1917, Buch 1929, Van Wuysthoff 1987). It is equally evident from the range of “imported” prestige items such as bronze gongs from Burma and jars from China, which played a critical role in denoting political and ritual prestige in upland areas all over mainland (Maitre 1912a; Bourotte 1955; Dournes 1970, 1977; Condominas 1980; Hickey 1982a) and insular Southeast Asia (Harrisson 1986, Li Zhi-Yan et al. 1993), but especially (sea)salt, a necessity for survival in the highlands (Salemink 2003a).

Despite the perception of perennial antagonism between Lowlanders, who were organized in states, and Highlanders, who remained marginal to lowland state centres, there has been a rich history of political contacts, especially between Cham and Central Highlanders (Po Dharma 1987). Until its defeat by the Vietnamese in 1471, Champa was a powerful “Indo- nesian” Hindu state on the coast of Central Vietnam, and it maintained well into the eighteenth century a reduced presence in the principalities of Panduranga (Phan Rang) and Kauthara, located in the present-day provinces of Ninh Thuận/Bình Thuận and Khánh Hòa. However, before its incorporation into the expanding Vietnamese state and later the French colonial empire, Champa consisted not only of the coastal Lowlands, but also parts of the Central Highlands area as well—what Jacques Dournes has called “Haut-Champa” (1970). Around the turn of the nineteenth century many ruins, statues and other vestiges of this Cham presence still existed in sites such as Kon Klor and Kodo/Bomong Yang (near Kontum); Yang Mum (near Ayun Pa, in present-day Gialai province); Yang Prong, north of Buôn Đôn in Dak Lak, close to the Cambodian border; and in the form of “treasures” of Cham princes among Churu and Roglai groups in present-day Lâm Đồng (Dournes 1970; Hickey 1982a: 91–107). Étienne Aymonier (1890), Adhémar Leclère (1904), Henri Maitre (1912a), Bernard Bourotte (1955), Jean Boulbet (1967) and Gerald Hickey (1982a) all recorded legends among Highlanders about the Cham and their overlordship. In a recent article Andrew Hardy (2009) draws attention to the “political economy of eaglewood” in Champa and Vietnam and the importance of trade between Highlands and Lowlands for the lowland polities. Two decades ago Po Dharma surmised that the Nguyễn lords and emperors kept an autonomous Cham polity alive in order to use the Cham cultural and trade networks for the extraction of precious forest products through trade (1987-I: 174; 1987-II: 64 ff., 181), and pointed to the interdependence and mutual influence—economic, political, military, ritualistic—of lowland Cham and (Roglai, Churu, Koho) Highlanders (1987-I: 181).

When the Việt replaced the Cham as overlords in the Lowlands (1832), they soon became the dominant population through a process of systematic colonization by the establishment of military colonies, đồn điền. However, they usually did not venture as deep into the Central Highlands as did the Cham, and hardly attempted to settle in the Highlands. When the first Europeans arrived in Asia, they were not very interested in the peoples living in the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia. Commerce and conversion being the main motivations for their ventures, the Europeans contacted the better-accessible lowland states, where the political forms of principalities and kingdoms and civilizations based on wet-rice cultivation in a way mirrored the European state of affairs. If the populations living in the mountainous areas bordering Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam (Cochinchina) and, still, Champa were mentioned at all, it was in passing only.3  When, for instance, the Portuguese Jesuit missionary Christoforo Borri in his “Cochin-China in Two Parts” spoke of “a ridge of mountains inhabited by the Kemois”, it was only in order to describe the borders of Cochinchina (Borri 1811: 773). Similarly, when the Dutch East India Company merchant Gerard van Wuysthoff reported on his voyage in 1641–42 to the kingdom of Lauwen (Laos), he mentioned a place called Phonongh, to the east of Sambor and Sambock on the Mekong River in Cambodia. Chinese merchants would venture there in order to acquire gold, elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns (Muller 1917: 157).4 Borri described the Highlanders as a “savage people, for though they are Cochin-Chinese, yet they in no way acknowledge or submit to the King, keeping in the fastnesses of the uncouth mountains, bordering on the kingdom of Lais [Laos]” (1811: 773). Van Wuysthoff, on the other hand, maintained that the Phonong were dominated by the Cambodians and the Cham (Muller 1917: 157). This difference of opinion may reflect the divergent goals of missionaries and traders: while the former tended to emphasize the Highlanders’ political autonomy from the courts in order to claim political space for missionary work, the latter would simply observe that they were part and parcel of the trade networks that connected the interior with the coastal ports.

Nevertheless, European observers were hardly interested in the moun- tain peoples of Indochina, for although the Highlands procured many of the trade items for the Asian commercial networks at the time, their produce was collected by the several courts and pedlars in the region, and shipped from ports in the Lowlands. Thus, until the middle of the nineteenth century, there were hardly any first-hand accounts by Europeans of the people inhabiting the mountainous parts of mainland Southeast Asia. Thus, Jérome Richard, in his “History of Tonquin”, could write in 1778 that “travellers have never penetrated into the interior of the country [of Champa]” (Richard 1811: 768); and John Crawfurd, relating of his embassy to the courts of Siam and Cochinchina in 1823, would mention the Moi in Cochinchina, “of whom little is known but their name, and that they are an uncivilized but inoffensive people” (Crawfurd 1967: 468).

At this point it is interesting to focus on the new historiography about the two Vietnamese polities of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that fought each other while formally recognizing the authority of the Lê emperors. The northern part, known as Đàng Ngoài or Đông Kinh (Tonkin), was dominated by the Trịnh lords.5  The southern part, known as Đàng Trong or Cochinchina, was ruled by the Nguyễn lords, and it gradually expanded southwards from the former Cham lands of Thuận Quảng into the Mekong Delta. Inspirations for the new historiography can be found in the synthesizing work by Anthony Reid (1988a, 1988b, 1999) and Heather Sutherland (2003, 2004), who look at Southeast Asia as a trading zone in which polities and economies are connected through maritime trade; in Victor Lieberman’s work (1993, 1997, 2003) on structural parallels in trade and state formation in (mainland) Southeast Asia and Europe, which looks at mutual connections between states; and in Eric Tagliacozzo’s (2002, 2004, 2007) and Willem van Schendel’s (2002) work on border areas as zones of contact, trade and smuggling. These scholars move away from the “statist” perspective adopted by nationalist historiographers or historians, who almost exclusively focus on one country. Instead, they emphasize how political centres can become centres in a wider field of contact. Rather than zooming in on the political centres, they bring the “margins” into starker relief to the point that these do not seem to be so marginal after all. In his article “Surface Orientations”, Keith Taylor (1998) argues for the recognition of the geographic, cultural and political diversity of historical Vietnam and interprets key events in Vietnam’s history in terms of regional competition. With these insights about political fragmentation, cultural diversity and trade as unifying factors at the back of our minds, recent work on the role of maritime trade in Vietnam’s history acquires new relevance for the argument in this chapter.

A thematic section in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37, 1 (2006) highlights the role of the sea and the coast in various episodes and various places in Vietnam’s history, in articles by Li Tana, John Whitmore and Charles Wheeler. In various ways, all three articles show how maritime trade influenced political and military balances. Whitmore (2006: 121) shows how by 1400 “the old core of Đại Việt in the mid- river zone became integrated with the downriver coastal zone, and the cultural forces of each merged”, underpinned economically by trade and culturally by the well-known myth of the “upland fairy” Âu Cơ and the water dragon Lạc Long Quân. Wheeler draws attention to the littoral character of Thuận Quảng beyond the lowland “bamboo pole” connecting two baskets (agricultural deltas). It was trade that sustained Đàng Trong against the odds when fighting a much more fertile and populous Đàng Ngoài. Wheeler (2006: 137) suggests that seaports such as Hội An connected the maritime trade—of European powers as well as other Asian lands—with the inlands through a river-based transportation system that linked downriver commercial centres with the uplands (see also Woodside 1995). In their contributions to the 1990 International Symposium on the Ancient Town of Hoi An, the Vietnamese historians Đỗ Bang (2006) and Phan Đại Doãn (2006) described how the maritime trade from Hội An was connected with riverine and eventually overland trade with the hinterland (read: the highlands), listing products such as sandalwood, eaglewood, cassia, ivory and gold, which were procured in the mountains.

In other words, many of the goods that were exported from centres such as Hội An were products of highland regions—usually forest products. In her contribution to the thematic section, Li Tana builds on her monograph Nguyễn Cochinchina (1998) in order to present “a view from the sea” that emphasizes trade between and within riverine polities consisting of a religious centre in the mountains, a political centre in the alluvial plain, and a port city, all linked by waterways (Li 2006: 99).6  Contrary to “the simple black-and-white story of nationalist historiography” (2006: 102), Li sketches “a different map of ethnicity” (2006: 100): Situated among the different peoples along the Sino-Viet border areas, the Việt must have experienced both intensive and extensive ethnic mixing. These relations and interactions cannot be summarized in the simplistic nationalist paradigm of “Việt” or “Han” versus mountain peoples, but must have resulted from a long process of intensive interpenetration and absorption, after which more solid and rigid identities took shape in the modern period.

In her earlier monograph, Li also paid attention to the exchange of goods taking place between Việt and uplanders (1998: 119–38), sometimes assuming the form of regular trade, sometimes assuming the form of tributes, tax collection or raids and piracy. The trade objects that Việt traders brought to the uplands included ceramics, metalware and fabrics, but also (sea)salt (a much-needed commodity for survival in the highlands), fish sauce and dried fish, while forest products (rattan, precious woods, wax, honey, cotton cloth), animals (oxen, buffaloes, horses, elephants), animal products (elephant tusks, rhino horns, hides) and spices (cassia and cardamom) were traded downstream. Much of the trade in forest products was taxed, constituting almost 50 per cent of the tax receipt for Đàng Trong in 1768 (Li 1998: 136). Another lively trade was the slave trade—usually associated with the slave markets in Phnom Penh and Bangkok, but according to Li equally important in Đàng Trong. Much of the forest produce was traded overseas, generating profits that could buy military hardware and technology for the struggle against the Trịnh lords of Đàng Ngoài. Thus, mutual dependence not only produced rituals among the Việt of Đàng Trong that referred to the various ethnic groups that made claims to particular places, but it also produced shared experiences that led Li to argue that the origins of the Tây Sơn rebellion up in the mountains near An Khê lay among a coalition of Việt, Cham, Bahnar and other groups who resisted the tax increases as a result of the failing trade in the second half of the eighteenth century.

In the meantime, the situation in Đàng Ngoài was vastly different. In his recent study Silk for Silver, about the trade between Đàng Ngoài and the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) between 1637 and 1700, Hoàng Anh Tuấn (2007) shows how the Trịnh tried to emulate the commercial successes of the Nguyễn in Cochinchina by inviting the then dominant trading power to open up trade lodges (“factories”) in Phố Hiến and Hanoi in the Red River Delta in order to acquire military hardware and know-how, and silver and copper in exchange for silk and ceramics. In contrast with Đàng Trong, then, the maritime trade with Đàng Ngoài did not involve highland products but commodities produced in the delta. For a few decades the VOC was Đàng Ngoài’s major trading partner, until the VOC factories closed down by the end of the seventeenth century. Trade was no longer profitable for the VOC, who turned to competing regions, but Đàng Ngoài had also become less hospitable to trade because of the attitude of the Trịnh lords who tended to close Đàng Ngoài off from international maritime trade. In conclusion I would suggest that it was the demise of trade—not just maritime trade but also inland trade via riverine and overland routes—in both Đàng Trong and Đàng Ngoài that weakened both Việt states to a point that they could surprisingly easily be overrun by a rebel army. In other words, it was maritime trade—and by implication the connections of the Lowland polities with the Highlands—that determined the fate of Lowland Vietnam.

The Nguyễn dynasty and the hinterland  of “annam”

Vietnam was reunited by the Tây Sơn rebellion (1771–1802), and once again it successfully pushed back a Chinese intervention. The Tây Sơn regime, however, was eventually defeated by a surviving member of the southern Nguyễn clan, Nguyễn Ánh. Nguyễn Ánh sought Siamese and French support against the Tây Sơn brothers, and he was successful because of his clever coalitions. After his final victory in 1802 he changed his name to Gia Long, crowned himself emperor and founded the Nguyễn Dynasty. His attempt to regularize and systematize his governance according to neo-Confucian doctrine was followed rigorously and rigidly by his successors Minh Mạng (1820–41), Thiệu Trị (1841–47) and Tự Đức (1848–83), who began to make attempts to “pacify” the highlands by incorporating them into the Vietnamese polity. One example of such “pacification” policies was the Sơn Phòng or “mountain defense” programme in Quảng Ngãi and Bình Định provinces, which was started in 1863 under Emperor Tự Đức by the mandarin Nguyễn Tấn. The latter recorded his strategy in 1871 under his title, le Tiễu-Phủ-Sứ (Officer in Charge of Pacification of Minorities), and published it in French as “Phủ man tạp lục, la pacification de la région des Moï” (1905). The Sơn Phòng—which continued an eighteenth century Vietnamese mountain pacification scheme—combined the establishment of a strong military presence in strategic locations with the political incorporation of local chiefs in the Vietnamese administration, with the establishment of trade monopolies, and with tax collection by c lại or thuộc lại (subordinate officials assisting higher-ranked mandarins in the execution of their tasks). Local chiefs were respected and often given a formal role in the administration of a territory as lower-rank mandarins. The state supervised, monopolized and taxed trade, including items that highland populations needed (salt) as well as highly lucrative highland forest products such as cassia (Nguyễn Xuân Linh 1973; le Tiễu-Phủ-Sứ 1905; Hickey 1982a: 182–4). After the establishment of their “protectorate” in Annam, the French started to dismantle the Sơn Phòng in 1898 (Brière 1904, Durand 1907). According to French sources, in the latter part of the nineteenth century the Sơn Phòng degenerated into a system of corruption and legalized swindling, creating unrest among highland populations (Aymonier 1885). But a more likely reason for the dismantling was the use that the fugitive king Hàm Nghi made of the Sơn Phòng infrastructure to hide and resist during the Cần Vương (Save the King) movement in the early years of French colonization. In years to come, any unrest among ethnic groups in the hinterland was conveniently attributed to the Việt các lại, who were depicted as unreliable and cruel swindlers.

Another example of incorporation was the tributary relationships that the Huế court established with various groups in border areas, mirroring its own tributary relationship with China’s suzerain authority. For instance, the Jarai Patao Apui (King of Fire) and Patao Ia (King of Water) offered triennial tribute to the courts of Phnom Penh and Huế. These two “kings” were powerful shamans with a religious and ritual status that was recognized by surrounding populations (Dournes 1977). As their authority was recognized by more distant Lowland courts, the Patao acquired a political importance there that they did not possess within their own societies. They are mentioned as two “kings” in various Vietnamese annals and manuscripts as the Hỏa Xá and Thủy Xá, rulers of the small “kingdom of fire” and “kingdom of water”, who exchanged gifts with the Nguyễn lords of southern Vietnam before the Tây Sơn Rebellion (1771–1802), which occasioned the reunification of the country (Lê Quý Đôn 1977). For our purpose it is interesting to note that around 1820, under the second Nguyễn emperor, Minh Mạng, “diplomatic relations” between the King of Water and the court of Vietnam were re-established with a tribute and gifts of elephant tusks, perfumed wood and other forest products. In 1831, a triennial tribute by the two Jarai “vassal kings” was institutionalized in Phủ Yên province, with the Emperor returning gifts of cloth and other valuable or ceremonial items. The exchange of gifts continued through the reigns of Thiệu Trị and Tự Đức, until the French took over the management of relations with Highlanders from the Court of Huế (Nghiêm Thẩm and Voth 1972; Dournes 1977: 109–22; Hickey 1982a: 121–89). This exchange of gifts institutionalized in the tribute not only had a political character—as the two Patao were given the title of mandarin—but carried an economic aspect as well, given the economic and ritual value of the objects for the receiver. In other words, the exchange shored up prestige within their own contexts for both the Emperor and the two Patao.

How the political relations between the Patao and the court in Huế worked out in practice became apparent in the attempts by Mgr. Cuénot, bishop of Qui-Nhơn in Annam, to establish a mission station in the Central Highlands, out of reach of the lowland mandarins, at a time when Christianity was persecuted. In 1841 he gave a short description of the Cham, the Rhadé and the Jarai, which focused on the Patao Apui (Master of Fire), who reportedly enjoyed unlimited prestige among the Jarai and entertained tributary and commercial relations with the Court of Annam in Huế. The Vietnamese traders, whose rights were acknowledged by both the Jarai Patao and the court, were thought to be the main obstacle for missionary activity among Highlanders (Cuénot 1841: 139–45). Cuénot’s analysis turned out to be correct, as the first attempt in 1842 to establish a mission station in Jarai territory failed when Vietnamese traders arrested the priests Duclos and Miche while their host, the Patao Apui, did not intervene. Those Highlanders who had let them pass, reportedly Êđê, were rebuked by the Vietnamese authorities. The missionaries were brought to Huế, where they were held in prison, accused of rebellion with the help of Laotian soldiers. Sentenced to death along with three other French priests, they were released in 1843 because of the military action of the French Navy. Duclos and Miche’s report reached Mgr. Cuénot, who published it in the Annales de la Propagation de la Foi (Duclos and Miche 1844). This example (there are many more) tells us that there were extensive economic, political and cultural contacts between Highlanders and the Vietnamese state in precolonial times, and that Việt officials and traders exerted a distinct level of authority in the Highlands.

When Annam (Trung Bộ) and Tonkin (Bắc Bộ) were turned into French protectorates in 1883, the Vietnamese administrative system had already been crumbling in many regions, first of all in those Highland areas where the court only had tenuous authority. This is clear from the reports based on a number of expeditions by military officers and others mounted from the colony of Cochinchina, beginning with the great expedition of the Commission d’Exploration du Mekong of 1866–68, headed by Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier (De Villemereuil 1883, Taboulet 1970, Valette 1969). From the 1880s until the killing of Henri Maître in 1914, a series of expeditions into the “hinterland moï” region were mounted from Saigon, under the leadership of military officers such as Lieutenant Septans, Lieutenant Amédée Gautier, Captains Cupet and De Malglaive (who were members of the famous Mission Pavie, which followed the Mekong upstream in search of a navigable route to southern China and managed to secure Laos as a French protectorate), and Henri Maître, or medical doctors such as Paul Néis, Jules Harmand and Alexandre Yersin.8

These explorers usually hired local guides who took the footpaths that were used for long-distance trade by both highland traders and Kinh pedlars, the thuộc lại or các lại. In many upland areas they found Kinh and/or Cham influence in the remains of a rudimentary administrative system or of the Sơn Phòng “mountain defense cum trade system”, e.g., among the Cau Maa, who used to pay tribute to the Emperor in Huế via the Cham but shifted allegiance to the colonial administration (Gautier 1882, 1884, 1902–3). These footpaths also led them to the most successful traders, who coupled economic success with political and ritual prestige. One example is the person known as Patao, whose fame as “king of the Cau Maa” had reached Saigon by way of các lại.9 Patao turned out to be a trader of Lao descent who had settled down and gained influence in the area, and who was interested in trade with the French (Néis 1880: 22, 28). This Patao dominated the surrounding area and sought French protection against villages under Vietnamese rule. Later explorers described the same person—alternatively known as Mesao—as a slave trader; the protection he sought against other villages turned out to be a scam to use French force against competitors as well as against relatives of slavery victims (Gautier 1882: 48–50; Cupet 1893; Yersin 1893; Pavie 1900, 1902; Maitre 1909: 56–61).

During the confused and effervescent times marked by the collapse of Vietnamese rule; the contraction of Cambodia; the incursions by Lao and Thai traders, slavers and soldiers; and the incursions by French missionaries and explorers, French observers noted the existence of influential traders who acquired high status by virtue of their economic success in the long-distance trade and their—related—military prowess, especially in the capture and trade of slaves and elephants. In my 2003 monograph on the Central Highlands of Vietnam I called such local leaders “big men”, who were often in-migrants from Laos or lowland Vietnam (Salemink 2003a). For instance, Gautier interacted with local leaders of Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese and mixed descent living with Highlanders but still maintaining a rudimentary Vietnamese administrative infrastructure that had been more elaborate in the past (Gautier 1882, 1884, 1935; Maitre 1912a: 463–4; Dubourg 1950). Usually, such “big men” were very influential in one or even several villages by virtue of their position in the trade networks that linked Uplands with Lowlands and Highlanders with Vietnamese, Laotian, Siamese and Chinese traders and polities. Their political and ritual status depended on their wealth, their military prowess, and their capacity for organizing feasts, which would ensure their ritual primacy within their village. Their status was not hereditary, and hence it was temporary—limited to one lifetime—and did not evolve into a formal ruling class, thus effectively creating the system of social oscillation and feasting that Thomas Kirsch described (Kirsch 1973, Hickey 1982b).

Thus, contrary to the French view of the Montagnards, the latter had not been “isolated” before European contact. Rather, it was the French themselves who isolated the Central Highlands in order to establish their own influence in the area. In this respect, it is significant that the French forbade the—very rapid—transmission of messages through fire or sound signals (drums), with the suppression of the n Phòng, thus effectively cutting off communication (Salemink 2003a). This had to do with the fact that a number of the “big men” had been the most outspoken opponents of French colonial penetration, as their political power was threatened or destroyed by the French. The same happened with their economic power as a consequence of French efforts at controlling the long-distance trade in the region (Maitre 1909: 161–2).

The career of Khun Jonob, aka Ma Krong, is illustrative in this regard. Of mixed Lao-Mnong descent, Ma Krong controlled the capture and trade of elephants in the region surrounding the local centre of Buôn Đôn (Bản Đôn), which is still a centre of elephant domestication. At the time of the Mission Pavie, Ma Krong served as an officer in the Siamese army, which penetrated east of the Mekong River into the Central Highlands, earning him the Siamese title (not name) of Khun Jonob. Ma Krong initially opposed French penetration, because of his Siamese connections. French colonial administrators such as Léopold Sabatier tended to suppress local “big men” as rival contenders for power and as obstacles to colonial rule, but Sabatier made an exception for Ma Krong, who became his ally as Sabatier eventually became Ma Krong’s son-in-law when Ma Krong’s daughter gave birth to their daughter H’Ni (Annie) in 1923. Sabatier used Ma Krong’s influence over the Mnong and Rhadé (Êđê) to improve the collection of head tax. This tax, together with the considerable tax levied on the elephant trade, enabled Sabatier to establish an administrative infrastructure in the highland province of Darlac, financially independent from the colonial centre. As the drawing and closing of the colonial border effectively diminished the international trade in elephants and other upland “products”, Ma Krong changed his career. In a twist of irony, as an ethnic Lao in-migrant in a Mnong village, he became the head of the (Êđê) customary law tribunal in Buôn Ma Thuột and thus became a French official, dependent on a salary for his income.

The northern uplands

In a recent article Emmanuel Poisson (2009) shows that in the northern part of Vietnam the Vietnamese emperors from the fifteenth century onwards were obliged to rely on local, ethnic minority chiefs because of the lack of suitable Kinh mandarins willing to live in the “unhealthy” mountains. Over time, these chiefs assumed hereditary positions within the bureaucratic hierarchy of the Việt state and later—in an ironic historical continuity—in the colonial state (Poisson 2004). After taking possession of the Red River Delta in the 1880s, French colonial officers tried to pacify the Highlands of Tonkin as well. These areas were in great turmoil because of invasions by Chinese bands such as the “Black Flags” and to a lesser extent by in-migration of Hmong settlers (McAleavy 1968; Culas 2000; Culas and Michaud 2004; Michaud 2000a, 2007). It is useful to take a closer look at the policy that Galliéni and Pennequin developed in the territoires militaires of Tonkin, a very heterogeneous area from an ethnic point of view. Their “oil spot method” (tâche d’huile)—presently a widely used tactic by the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan10 —combined military repression of the rebellion with the political and social organization of the region. First a fort would be constructed in a strategic site in the refractory region, from which the surrounding population would be militarily pacified. Then the infrastructure would be developed—roads, military posts and supervised markets would be constructed. When this area was entirely controlled, a neighbouring area would be pacified. Thus, this “structural pacification” would spread like an oil spot. The political leadership in the area would be more or less respected if the local leaders formally submitted to French authority. Local potentates would be left in power if they agreed to submit nominally and not bother the French. Colonel Pennequin defined the role of the French authorities as a restricted one, granting each race its autonomy and keeping a balance between the different interests of each race (De Lanessan 1895: 56–112; Galliéni 1941; Boudarel 1976: 137–40).

Let us take a closer look at two such local power wielders: Đề Thám (aka Hoàng Hoa Thám) and Ðèo Văn Trí. In Vietnam’s nationalist historiography Đề Thám was an anti-colonial hero who resisted and outwitted the French in his home base of Yên Thế (Bắc Giang province) until his assassination in 1913. This account fails to mention that for most of the time after the French conquest of lowland and upland Tonkin, Đề Thám had an agreement with the French that he would leave them alone if they left him alone. Đề Thám was a Vietnamese general who in 1883 heeded King Hàm Nghi’s call to “save the king” and resist the French. In 1894, and again in 1898, Đề Thám struck an agreement with the French, who ceded him an area that he could rule as a feudal lord. When he broke that agreement in 1908, the French army went after him in Yên Thế and finally killed him in 1913. Đề Thám may have been a patriot and an anti- colonial resistance leader, but he was also a feudal leader who ruled over an area of 22 villages populated by different ethnic groups. In other words, political mobilization did not follow ethnic boundaries, and political leadership was not linked to national affiliation but to feudal conceptions of vassalage,11  which sooner or later had to clash with modern colonial forms of statecraft.

The case of Ðèo Văn Trí is still more instructive. Ðèo Văn Trí was a Thái feudal lord who—in the words of Charles Fourniau —“extended his domination over a vast zone around Lai-châu largely flowing over into the traditional border between China and the empire of Annam” (Fourniau 1989: 87). It was, after all, a normal practice under the Nguyễn Dynasty that “marginal groups [were subjected] to tribute while the control by the mandarinal administration was exercised via the intermediary of customary chiefs” (Nguyễn Thế Anh 1989: 186). The prelude to Ðèo Văn Trí’s rise to power was the incursion of the “Black Flags”, remnants of the Taiping rebels in China who crossed into Tonkin in the 1860s and doubled as “pirates” and as mercenaries for the Vietnamese court in their dealings with refractory ethnic groups in the mountains (McAleavy 1968). This cemented Ðèo Văn Trí’s position as vassal ruler of Mường Lai (the Lai fief), with his seat in Lai Châu. After the French imposed their protectorate over the remainder of Vietnam (Annam and Tonkin) in 1883, the regents of the Huế Court revolted against them in 1885 but were defeated. The young Emperor Hàm Nghi sought refuge in Cam Lộ and other mountain districts in central Vietnam until he was betrayed by his bodyguard and exiled to Algeria in 1888. Regent Tôn Thất Thuyết went to Tonkin and sought refuge with Ðèo Văn Trí in Lai Châu, but after he tried to poison Ðèo Văn Trí he had to flee to China while the Lai Châu ruler shifted allegiance to the French. The French colonial regime continued the system that they had inherited from imperial Vietnam, and shored up the political power of Ðèo Văn Trí, who was left free to rule a vast, multi-ethnic area that included Lai Châu, Điện Biên Phủ and Phong Thổ.

Although beyond the direct control of the Vietnamese or French authorities, this area was not beyond trade—and a lucrative trade at that. Since the Chinese empire had legalized opium trade under British pressure, large portions of the “Golden Triangle” region had been planted with poppy (McCoy 1972: 64–5). This highly lucrative crop connected this part of the uplands of Tonkin with the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, with the Ðèo Văn Trí family reaping much of the profits. In his reinterpretation of the battle of Điện Biên Phủ (1954), John McAlister argues that the stakes were not just territory and population, but the profits of the opium trade (1967). The French defeat at Điện Biên Phủ in 1954 was tantamount to the toppling of the feudal grasp by Ðèo Văn Long—Ðèo Văn Trí’s son and successor—in a new form of politics that pitted ethnic groups rather than feudal masters against each other. In their respective articles on Thai/Tai feudalism, Georges Condominas (1976) and Jacques Lemoine (1997) analyze the development of rigid political hierarchies—based on surplus extraction of labour through taxation, corvée labour and exclusive usufruct rights for the Thái chiefs—also vis- à-vis other ethnic groups that were subjected to the overlordship of the Thái chiefs. After a new chief had been named, a delegation was sent to the Lowlands to seek approval from the Vietnamese court, which usually bestowed the chief the mandarinal title of chi châu (Lemoine 1997: 205–7; see also Ngô Đức Thọ, Nguyễn Văn Nguyên and Philippe Papin 2003). Within the châu or mường fief, the chief ’s paramount position as guardian of the land on behalf of the tutelary spirit of the land and as an intermediary with the spirits and (clan) ancestors was regularly buttressed in rituals and feasts. The hierarchical, quasi-feudal system of the Thái/Tai (Condominas 1976, Lemoine 1997) bore a resemblance with the hierarchical, autocratic gumsa pole of Kachin society as described by Sir Edmund Leach (1954), which inspired such lively debate about the political and economic characterization of upland societies and about the nature of ethnicity. The oscillation of Kachin society between hierarchical gumsa and more egalitarian gumlao poles had an equivalent in Thái society. The rise of the Ðèo family during the effervescence in the Northern Highlands at the time of the Black Flags and the extension of their power during the early decades of the French protectorate (read: colonial rule) could be seen as a swing to the gumsa pole, while the rise of the Việt Minh in the 1940s culminating in the French defeat in Điện Biên Phủ (1954) can be cautiously interpreted as a swing to the gumlao pole of a more egalitarian ideology. A. Thomas Kirsch (1973) extended Leach’s theory of social oscillation to what he called “hilltribe society” in upland Southeast Asia, linking it up with the notion that the authority of chiefs was accepted as legitimate through ritual feasts. In an article commenting on Leach and on Jonathan Friedman’s System, Structure and Contradiction in the Evolution of “Asiatic” Social Formations (1979)—but ignoring Kirsch—David Nugent (1982) drew attention to the economic underpinnings of such feasts in the long-distance trade that linked the economies of upland societies with lowland states and markets. The “oscillation” between gumsa and gumlao poles in upland society can then be reinterpreted as a political struggle over economic resources and their redistribution. It is precisely such a struggle that John McAlister (1967) describes in his analysis of the ethnic dynamics leading up to the battle of Điện Biên Phủ (see also Culas 2000). According to McAlister, it was the competition over opium, as a valuable commodity economically linking upland Vietnam with the Lowlands and the rest of the world, that financed not only the upland feudal class but part of the war effort on both French and Việt Minh sides—an analysis that was expanded chronologically as well as geographically by Alfred McCoy in The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (1972).

The lessons that I would like to draw from these brief vignettes are four-fold. First of all, in precolonial times ethnic identities did not naturally translate into political allegiances, and conflict did not necessarily follow ethnic lines. Second, the areas that were often portrayed as remote, uncouth, barbarous, etc., were in fact connected with the lowland courts and ports through numerous overland and riverine trade routes. Such connections were often vehicles for the exercise of political, ritual and sometimes religious authority. Third, where Li Tana, John Whitmore and Charles Wheeler propose to adopt a “view from the sea” when looking at Vietnam’s history, I suggest that it would be equally rewarding to adopt a view from the mountains. The comparison of the trade histories of Đàng Trong and Đàng Ngoài would suggest that maritime trade—and its relevance for the military and political success of these polities—can work well only if the seaport connects the maritime trade with a hinterland that must be largely upland. Finally, then, it may be interesting to speculate about the importance of such trade connections both with overseas lands and with the mountainous hinterland for the enduring viability of the lowland states. In the next section I would like to sketch a picture of political, military and ritual leadership in upland areas in connection with economic exchanges.

Reflections on highlander leadership

A common assumption on the part of outsiders regarding the political organization of the Central Highlands holds that the local populations are made up of clearly distinct tribes, distinguishable by their language, traditional costume, architecture, and—more in general— “manners and customs” (moeurs et coutumes, phong tục tạp quán) (Keyes 2002, Khổng Diễn 2002a, Salemink 2003a, Scott 1998). In precolonial times, such tribes usually lacked central institutions of political authority. It is often assumed that daily life among Central Highlanders was ruled almost absolutely by old men, be it in the guise of village chiefs, shamans or village elders. At the time of the early French explorations, however, explorers into the Central Highlands often complained about the absence of supra-village political organizations that could give them a key to this politically frag- mented society. In fact, political life in the Central Highlands was pretty much “decentralized”, if not fragmented, except in those places where a Vietnamese mandarinal administration still existed (Maitre 1912b).

However, there were supra-village institutions that did not have a political character. Some villages shared a common territory for shifting cultivation, requiring common ritual guardians of the land. Some religious institutions commanded respect in a wide area, such as the Jarai Patao, shamans who held a privileged position with regard to the elements of fire, water and wind. The word Patao (also P’tau or Pötao) is of Cham origin and is employed to designate politically and/or religiously superior persons, such as kings, princes and local leaders, but also influential priests or shamans. Other local leaders who rose to positions of affluence and influence adopted the title of Patao or Mesao. Commonly, the word was translated as “king”, hence the confusion among Western observers, who searched for kings with the habitual pomp and regalia but found minor chiefs or ritual leaders instead.

Most important, however, were the “big men” who rose to positions of prominence because of their descent, their military prowess, their economic success and their ritual prestige, which was associated with their (economic) capacity for feasting. Such big men often had many slaves, either captured or from households that were indebted. Captured slaves were mostly sold to the slave traders from Laos, Cambodia and as far as Thailand, while indebted slaves were added to their household and were practically indistinguishable from other household members. The big men usually were cunning in their dealings with outsiders, which gave them leverage over their fellow villagers, but they were never absolute masters—not even within their own village or family. During their early explorations, the French often dealt with such big men by either making allies or making enemies out of them.

The political and ritual position of the big men required enormous investments in the form of “feasting” (Kirsch 1973), the staging of ritual feasts during which buffalo and other livestock had to be sacrificed, other food consumed and rice wine drunk. Most of these resources had to be invested by the big man, who then enjoyed the ritual and political prestige associated with the feast. In other words, in order to be recognized as a big man one had to have access to considerable economic resources. In an economy that was mostly subsistence as far as staple and other everyday foodstuffs (except salt) were concerned, wealth did not come from internal exchange or appropriation of surplus, but from external trade. Such big men enjoyed high status because of the trade in forest products, livestock and—sometimes—slaves or opium. The forest products could include precious wood (eaglewood, scenting wood, hardwoods), rattan, wax, honey, spices such as cassia or cardamom, elephant tusks, rhino horns, etc. Their commercial acumen tended to be personal rather than hereditary, the reason why it was difficult to institutionalize such high status. One often saw that such individuals possessing an extraordinary trade network were recent in-migrants (often Lao or Việt) or people of mixed descent who came to live among a particular local community, for instance, Khun Jonob or Patao, “the king of the Cau Maa”.

In the Northern Highlands the example of the Ðèo Văn Trí lineage shows that the valley-based small-scale hydraulic societies of the Thái were more suited for hereditary, feudal systems of overlordship. This example also shows that this brand of feudalism was not an exclusively Thái affair, but that the overlordship extended over a territory where various “ethnic” groups lived side by side. Moreover, it had to be backed up by support from an outside military power (Lao, Chinese, Vietnamese, French). Most important, it had to be sustained economically by long- distance trade, in this case opium. In other words, local forms of political domination were related to the location of the area in the economic and political geography of the region, and the positioning of the elite in larger networks of economic and political influence. As Arjun Appadurai (1996) reinterprets the existing ethnographic record in terms of the production of localities through ritual, notions of belonging, and what he calls “neighbourhood” against the backdrop of continuous change, of flux and flow, so can we reinterpret the ethnographic and historical record of places such as Lai Châu or Điện Biên Phủ as particular forms of localization that are necessarily linked to the wider environment—Vietnam, Southeast Asia, the world.

In this context it is interesting to note that in the past, all over upland Southeast Asia wealth was not only linked to political and ritual status, but to the possession of particular objects as well. Such objects were usually believed to have ritual significance. Sometimes such objects were manufactured locally, but some kinds of objects were traded from afar. As an example I would like to mention the Chinese ceramic jars that one finds in upland societies all over Southeast Asia, and which had to be transported over great distances to reach their destinations. Early visitors to the Central Highlands of Vietnam or the uplands of Borneo or the Philippines often marvelled at the size, beauty and antiquity of such jars (Harrisson 1986, Li Zhi-Yan et al. 1993). Other precious objects were often made of metal, e.g., the sets of bronze drums—resembling gamelan—that one finds in upland Southeast Asia. In the area that Jean Michaud calls the Southeast Asian Massif (which includes the Central Highlands of present-day Vietnam and adjacent areas in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Burma and Yunnan) the bossed gong sets that used to be manufactured in Burma were the most prized ones. These objects, which had ritual qualities and could be used to indicate wealth and status locally, could be acquired only through long-distance trade. In other words, local discourses on wealth and political/ritual status and related practices were tied up with economic exchanges over long distances. In such a world, there were no remote, isolated places.

Conclusion: remote areas

Just like religion as a category emerged along with notions of the secular (Asad 2003), the notion of “primitives” appeared along with notions of civilization and evolution. “Backwardness” and “remoteness” are tropes that are used to shore up discourses of development, usually mingling spatial (centre-periphery) and temporal (modern-traditional) axes for denoting difference. In this chapter I have argued that Highlanders played an important role in the history of the Vietnamese Lowlands—a historical role that reached its apotheosis with the battles of Điện Biên Phủ (1954), An Khê (1954) and Buôn Ma Thuột (1975). The main body of this chapter was devoted to the argument that the historical relations between lowland polities and various uplands in precolonial times and at the time of the French conquest were more substantial for the economic and political situation of these Lowlands than is usually acknowledged. This had historical and cultural effects for the political and ritual leadership in the Highlands of what is now Vietnam, which was very much connected with the position of such leaders in long-distance trade networks.

Rather than postulating a radical difference and separation between Highlands and Lowlands, Highlanders and Lowlanders, it is instructive to look at the exchanges connecting the two cultural and geographic zones. In Vietnam as elsewhere, such physical and classificatory separations were in fact products of the modern colonial and postcolonial states. The French enacted policies of dismantling Vietnamese governmental structures in the Highlands, and zoned the land so as to keep populations apart. The consequences of such forms of governmentalization and territorialization are still with us today. In a recent issue of the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (2006), Li, Whitmore and Wheeler proposed a new vista on the history and historiography of Vietnam dubbed “a view from the sea”. I suggest that the historiography and ethnography of Vietnam also require a view from the mountains in order to redress the nationalist and developmental notions about backwardness, remoteness and isolation produced by the modern state and eagerly supported by NGOs and other development donors.


1.  Research for this paper was made possible by grants from WOTRO Science for Global Development of the Netherlands  Organization for Scientific Research. Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the workshop on Montane Choices and Outcomes: Contemporary Transformations of Vietnam’s Uplands, held in Hanoi on 4–6 Jan. 2007; and at the workshop on “Revisiting the ‘Frontier’ in the Southeast Asian Massif”, held in Singapore on 12–13 Dec. 2007. I would like to thank the discussants Janet Sturgeon and Craig Reynolds, as well as Peter Boomgaard, Thomas Sikor, Cao Xuân Tứ, and the organizers and participants of both conferences for their insightful feedback. A greatly truncated version of this chapter was published as “Trading Goods, Prestige and Power: A Revisionist History of Lowlander-Highlander Relations in Vietnam”, in Linking Destinies: Trade, Towns and Kin in Asian History, ed. Peter Boomgaard, Dick Kooiman and Henk Schulte Nordholt (Leiden: KITLV Press, 2008, pp. 51–69). The Vietnamese translation of an earlier version was published as “Một góc nhìn từ vùng cao: Phần lịch sử quan trọng về mối quan hệ giữa đồng bằng và miền núi ở Việt Nam”, in Thời kỳ mở cửa: Những chuyển đổi kinh tế: xã hội vùng cao Việt nam [Era of Opening Up: Socioeconomic Changes in Vietnam’s Uplands], ed. Thomas Sikor, Jenny Sowerwine, Jeff Romm and Nghiêm Phương Tuyến (Hanoi: Science and Technology Publishing House, 2008, pp. 11–36). Although I have benefited from comments, all mistakes are my sole responsibility.

2.  For comparative work on China, see Harrell (1995) and Gladney (2004).

3.  The official chronicler of the Société des Missions Étrangères, Adrien Launay, mentions an attempt by P. Vachet to baptize Montagnards inland of Faifo (present-day Hoi An), but fever forced him to go back to the plains (Launay 1894-I: 199). Jean-Dominique Lajoux (1977: 124) mentions an unpublished manuscript by the Portuguese Jesuit priest João Loureira, De nigris Moï et Champanensibus (1790), which is preserved in Lisbon. No published accounts, however, exist of these ventures.

4.  Van Wuysthoff probably referred here to the Phnong, as the Highlanders were generically known by the Khmer, bearing connotations of “slave” and “savage”. It is possible, but not necessary, that he was referring to the Mnong groups.

5.  For the purpose of this paper it would be interesting to elaborate on the presence of the Mạc pretenders in their Northern Mountains base of Cao Bằng, but this is not possible here due to space constraints.

6.  Li Tana was not the first scholar to propose looking at mainland Southeast Asian history from the vantage point of the sea; in 1999 Alain Forest’s introductory essay “L’Asie du Sud-Est continentale vue de la mer” appeared in Commerce et navigation en Asie du Sud-Est (XIV e–XIX e siècle) [Trade and Navigation in Southeast Asia (Fourteenth–Nineteenth Centuries)], ed. Nguyễn Thế Anh and Yoshiaki Ishizawa (Paris: l’Harmattan, pp. 7–29).

7.  This is also noted by Ursula Willenberg (1972) in her study of inter-ethnic economic relations in southern Vietnam (in German), based mostly on French sources.

8.  For a more in-depth account of these expeditions and references to documentary and published sources, see Hickey (1982a) and Salemink (2003a).

9.  This person is not related to the three Patao/P’tau of the Jarai, who entertained tributary relations with the courts of Cambodia and Vietnam. The word Patao is of Cham origin, employed to designate politically and/or religiously superior persons, such as kings, princes, local leaders, but also influential priests or shamans. The Patao referred to here used this “title” with the connotation of “king” in order to impress both his subjects and interested outsiders (see Yersin 1893).

10.  See Salemink (2008).

11.  The geographic situation of Đề Thám might be compared with the position of the Mạc throne pretenders in their struggle against the Lê Dynasty in the seventeenth century, as analyzed by Keith Taylor in his seminal article “Surface Orientations in Vietnam” (1998), in which he reinterprets parts of Vietnam’s history in the light of regional affiliations and competition. Both Đề Thám and the Mạc had strongholds in the Northern Mountains, in a “multi-ethnic” environment, and staked claims to political authority over the Red River Delta as well. In different parts of what is now Vietnam and in different historical eras, Lê Lợi and the Tây Sơn brothers started their successful campaigns against lowland rulers from multi-ethnic strongholds in mountainous areas.


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2 responses to “A View From the Mountains: a Critical History of Lowlander- Highlander Relations in Vietnam

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