Award-winning researcher Tran Quang Duc has begun teaching Han-Nom (ancient Vietnamese script) as a way to understand Vietnamese history and culture. Phuong Linh finds out why the class has become surprisingly popular.
Researcher Tran Quang Duc, 29, has been awarded the winner of the Good Books Prize 2014 in the new discoveries category for his first-hand research Ngan Nam Ao Mu (Thousand Years of Headgear and Clothing). The award aims to encourage quality writing and spread the reading habit in society.
Recently, Duc opened a class named Han Nom Vo Long (Ancient Han Chinese and Nom Vietnamese scripts for Beginners) for those who want to learn about Vietnamese language, culture and spirituality.
Inner Sanctum: Congratulations! Can you tell us about your prize-winning research?
My work makes the case that history is not just about war. It is about everything that happened in the past, such as how Vietnamese people ate, how they slept and what they wore. My first book focuses on clothing. It will be followed by research on the history of Vietnamese culinary traditions and transportation.
By researching traditional Vietnamese clothing, I also want to show that we should not be influenced by extreme nationalism. The impact of Chinese culture on Vietnamese culture has been and will continue to be a hot topic. People say this dress is Chinese style and we should never wear it. However, the rules governing fashion changed from dynasty to dynasty and Vietnamese and Chinese clothes differed frequently.
In addition, those pieces of our ancestor's daily lives would make history lessons more interesting and attract more participation. Our history is full of great achievements but it also has a dark side that people need to know.
Inner Sanctum: Your saying that history can be attractive seems to be true, as evidenced by the popularity of your Facebook account and your Han-Nom class for beginners.
Maybe the people who saw my content on Facebook realised how little they know about the history of Viet Nam and about our traditions. There are huge sources of knowledge and information but they do not know how to read the ancient script. Thanks to Facebook, it is a lot easier these days to connect those who have the same interests, so my Han-Nom class became widely known and many people registered to join.
Inner Sanctum: Your class is intended for beginners. Is there a long way to go to achieve the goal it sets - learning a lot about Viet Nam traditions and ancient culture through studies of ancient literary texts?
My class is for people who do not know even one character of ancient Vietnamese script.
A hundred years from now, if one wants to study Vietnamese history or culture, they will still have to learn Chinese Han and Vietnamese Nom ideographic scripts, although the language was never included in the school curricula in Viet Nam today. Normally, it takes a long time to learn to read ancient Vietnamese writing.
Learning to read and write this kind of script is particularly challenging as it consists of a thousand complex characters and each character represents both sound and meaning.
However, I got the chance to learn about Japanese, Chinese and Korean education systems and I know their ways of teaching ancient Chinese script. In addition, I also have my own way of learning.
Now I teach Vietnamese ancient script as a living language, not a dead one. This means that my students can write a whole sentence, even a whole paragraph or essay. My method of teaching also helps them study faster, for it is not like they are learning a foreign language. They are exploring Vietnamese culture.
Inner Sanctum: What if we consider your class from a pragmatic viewpoint? It is more useful to study a living language like English or French than a dead language.
The students are not attending my class because they want to make more money. It's because they want to know more about our ancestors and culture and they also want to be good at Vietnamese. For example, Vietnamese people keep saying tuan loc (Vietnamised Chinese-character for reindeer) without grasping the fact that loc means deer. Or we say ket thuc (the end/over/completion) without knowing that thuc means "wrap-up".
I am not teaching a foreign language, I am teaching Vietnamese culture and history. Knowing about those pieces of our ancestors' lives can make a real difference in our lives now.
Inner Sanctum: It is said that the youth need to think about the future. So why should we understand these things?
Because modern life is always rooted in the past. But how well do we know about the past? For example, Vietnamese people make the delicious troi and chay cakes for Tet Han Thuc (Cold Food Festival, which falls on the third day of the third lunar month) but if we do not read cultural studies, we believe that these have been traditional foods for thousands of years. However, by reading books, we can learn that in the Le Trung Hung dynasty, people ate banh cuon (rolled rice crepes) to celebrate this festival.
Inner Sanctum: So if we take a wider view of the past...
We can see deeper into the present. — VNS