Having studied economic administration in Germany alongside spending more than 20 years working for German administrative bodies and the office of the European Union in Belgium, Mathilde Tuyet Tran is also a renowned artist and historical researcher. She recently published a bilingual book (in French and Vietnamese) entitled Dau xua – Tan Man Lich Su Nha Nguyen (Ancient Mark – Fragmented History of the Nguyen dynasty), revealing little-known facts about the last feudal dynasty in Vietnamese history.
Inner Sanctum: You have stopped painting to focus on studying history. Why so?
I’ve been interested in art since a young age. At the age of 14, I participated in a small exhibition held at an art gallery by the Artists Association in Sai Gon. However, I eventually had to choose a branch of study and a main profession to support my children and myself financially. Art became a sideline activity. After dozens of years serving my family and the society however, I started to think that it was time I did something which was beneficial for both others and myself. So I returned to art, which has its own weak and strong points based on costs, time and effort. When I had painted my 45th picture, there was no more room in my house for another one.
I finally stopped drawing; realising few cared about my work in times of economic crisis. People were keener on large family pictures and less expensive copies of paintings.
On the other hand, I enjoyed being quiet and reading books. The more I read historical material, the more overwhelmed I became with important and attractive sources of historical information, which, unfortunately, have been little exploited. One of the largest concerns researchers face relates to finding a publishing house and earning a living writing historical books.
Inner Sanctum: Why did you choose to write about the Nguyen dynasty?
Even though Viet Nam has its own national language, codified based on the Roman alphabet by French and Portuguese missionaries such as Alexandre de Rhodes, Pigneau de Behaine, Jean-Louis Taberd, in the early 17th century, Vietnamese history was still recorded in Chinese, right up until the Nguyen dynasty (from 1802 to 1945). Prefectual, metropolitan and palace examinations to select court officials used to be held in Chinese too. It was not until the reign of King Thanh Thai (1889-1907) that the romanised Vietnamese script was officially taught at schools. Some official history books, written during former dynasties, have since been translated into modern Vietnamese by scholars.
The French began to take notes on geography and history of Viet Nam from the 17th century, along with their history. Therefore, current Vietnamese historical researchers have a source of reference in French, in addition to Vietnamese archives. I did want to study dynasties before the Nguyen, but was faced with a lack of sufficient resources in Vietnamese.
Inner Sanctum: Living in France, how did you gain access to and compile material for the book?
The study of history has many reliable sources of information, such as national libraries, archives, published historical books or live witnesses. If the researcher doesn’t know how to study, compare and contrast the information they have however, positive results can remain out of reach.
I do my research independently, out of reach of external influences. I’ve also been blessed with a sympathetic and supportive husband without whom I would not have been able to complete this book.
Inner Sanctum: Why do you think history is failing to lure the youth of Viet Nam?
It is really discouraging to learn history by heart. In fact, history is a very lively subject, occurring 24 hours a day, from dawn to dusk. Yesterday encompasses the history of today. None can avoid it. The awareness that we are standing inside our own history, not outside it or in its margins, makes history extremely relevant on a day-to-day basis.
Personally, I think that our historical books are written in dry and obsolete literary styles, often unable to convey the true meaning behind important events.
There are also Vietnamese books with twisting and complicated writing styles, which, to be honest, makes them hard to understand. Writers, in revising their work, need to bear their readers in mind.
When writing, thanks to my literary roots, I always try to stick to a straightforward, simple and coherent style to keep readers interested. Living in Europe for years, my writing has been influenced by German and French, so young readers might find it easy to read my stories. I would be delighted if they took an interest in my book.
Inner Sanctum: What should be done to bring history closer to everyone?
In France, there are many private associations aimed at preserving culture and history. They often organise small talks, sightseeing tours to historical sites or dinners where certain historical issues are discussed. Not all historical professors or researchers can assume that they know everything about history. For example, I’m going to attend a meeting on King Charlemagne (742-814) held by a private association to update myself on that particular part of history.
When I was a student, the faculties often held sightseeing tours, which I think is the best way to enliven the subject. Visiting Viet Nam, I enjoy touring historical relics and traditional trade villages. In early 2011, I visited Co Loa Citadel in the suburb of Ha Noi, Bat Trang ceramic village and Dong Ky carpentry village. On the other hand, many Vietnamese who have opportunities to visit France pay little attention to historical sites associated with Viet Nam.
At present, I can see a positive sign that many domestic magazines such as Nghien cuu va Phat Trien (Research and Development ) of Hue, Hon Viet (Vietnamese spirit) of the HCM City Writers’ Association and Outlook by Viet Nam News have been more expansive in providing readers with information. The interesting short stories in newspapers and magazines are often the best regular reminders of history.
If history remains a subject to be learnt by heart and then forgotten, it will gain little popularity. — VNS