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Historical Research and Data Processing on Ancient Vietnamese Inscriptions

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - VIETNAMICA (Historical Research and Data Processing on Ancient Vietnamese Inscriptions)

Reporting period: 2021-05-01 to 2022-10-31

In partnership with Sino-Vietnamese Institute and Vietnam National University, the project Vietnamica aims for a historical and linguistic study of 40,000 ancient paper stampings of Vietnamese inscriptions engraved on the surfaces of 25,000 steles erected between the 16th to 20th century.

More than three quarters of the inscriptions record donations (in money and plots of land) made by private individuals to their villages. In some cases, the inscription is a faithful copy of the donation contract. In other, it is an embellished version that highlights the generosity of the donors. But it always contains concrete elements about the sociology and economy of the rural donation: names and qualities of the donor, reason for the donation, financial value and future use of the goods offered.

What makes Vietnamese donation original is that more than half of the donors are appointed to an honorary religious rank: Hâu Thân ("follower of the divinity") or Hâu Phât ("follower of the Buddha"). The donation contracts stipulate that they will be prayed after the gods during village ceremonies and, above all, that the monks or the village authorities will organise the anniversary of their death in the future. The donors are semi-divinised.

These inscriptions allow us to better understand the political, economic, religious, social and cultural aspects of rural Vietnam from the 16th century. Besides the technical question of donation (Who gives? How much? What for?), the Vietnamica team is interested in the everyday lives within the villages, in culture and in popular religions that remain little understood. Special attention is paid to language: popular inscriptions are written in a mix of oral Vietnamese and academic Chinese, and thus creates a surprising language. In a word, the project records and analyzes the logographic processes that the Vietnamese once used to transcribe the language they spoke.

The PI focuses on the period from the origins to the end of the 17th century. His team is working on the following periods, so as to cover the whole history of the donation. The PI's team consists of 34 researchers, who are historians, computer scientists and cartographers.

Monographs are currently being written. They are chronological and geographical (e.g.: The donation in the province of Bac-Ninh in the 18th century), and thematic (e.g.: The donation and family lineages). All the researchers are working on the basis of a common research plan that will allow the comparison of results, particularly statistical results (value and motivation of donations, place of women, distribution in time and space, role of village authorities and monks, etc.). The programme has already published 4 monographs and three volumes of the Catalogue of Inscriptions (see: https://revues.vietnamica.online/publications/). The total number of publications is 13. In addition, there is an online library containing 1300 e-books in open access (https://vietnamica.online/bibliotheque-numerique

The establishment of the Vietnamica project received much coverage and publicity in the media and the academic world. There have been numerous requests to join the team. And there are many students who are now able to work on classical history, which would not have been possible without Vietnamica as a precedent. A website has made the project known to a wide audience (https://vietnamica.online ). Nevertheless, the most difficult task remains to raise awareness among the villagers to protect the steles, which is not easy (hence the preparation of a televised report and a public exhibition).
Concretely, the project is divided in five work packages: Historical Research, Computing, Meeting and Workshops, Translation, Publication. Historical Research and Computing are both divided into three tasks: the study of orality, work on the monograph on donation and writing of a synthesis on donation for the former; the website, the rubbings database and the cartography for the latter.

1. Historical Research. The work was slowed down by the Covid 19 epidemic, which prevented fieldwork. Nevertheless, researchers and students were able to work on the stelae stamps, so that their corpus of text could be properly analysed. See https://vietnamica.online/rapport/postdocs_and_students_all.htm

2. Computing. The rubbings database (20.980 images and 10.000 notices) is making good progress. All the rubbings have been digitized and described in the fields of the database. A classification image software is under development. Researchers are already able to treat texts in columns, which is a true challenge, and to start to program computers to recognize the Chinese or Vietnamese characters. This work is still in progress, as it will require time to perfect, but the protocols have been defined. Electronic mapping is another major challenge because old village place names, most of which have disappeared, must be linked to current or not too old maps. This is a crucial part of the work, which is currently being done.

3. Meeting and workshops. The program began in November 2019 with a wonderful kickoff meeting, on November 4-6, and November 11. Documentation on the various Vietnamica meetings can be found here: https://vietnamica.online/rapport/scientific_conferences_and_workshops.php

4. and 5. Translation and Publication. This activity within Vietnamica has been more successful than expected. The PI has completed its book on "The pious donation from its origins to the end of the 17th century". This work is based on more than 1600 steles. The 650-page manuscript will be published at the end of October 2022. A Vietnamese translation will be prepared for publication at the end of 2023. In addition, four monographs on the donation were published, as well as a special issue of the journal Han Nôm devoted to Vietnamica and eight other books. (https://revues.vietnamica.online/publications
In the initial project, the digital library was presented as a “possible expansion of the project.” However, due to the Covid epidemic which prevented field research, this work was done in the first two years. The books and the reviews (in French, dating back before 1940), were digitized and their titles translated from French to English and Vietnamese. This allowed the creation of a database that consists of 1300 works in electronic format and open-access, to be available on the online website.

The team created a computer program able to calculate the dimensions of the surface area occupied by writing for each stele. In fact, a large stele could have little writing, and a small stele could be covered in writing on all four sides, such that the physical dimensions are not sufficient to determine how much information is provided. Calculating the surface area of writing offers a more precise indicator.

The website has widened its scope. It will host the database of rubbings, the rubbings themselves, the inscriptions catalog, the online maps and the digital library. Furthermore, requests have been made to hold a larger documentation, which goes beyond the initial scope of epigraphy. This is an excellent sign that Vietnamica is establishing itself as an important project that meets a real need in the scientific community.
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