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Historical Research and Data Processing on Ancient Vietnamese Inscriptions

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - VIETNAMICA (Historical Research and Data Processing on Ancient Vietnamese Inscriptions)

Reporting period: 2019-11-01 to 2021-04-30

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.
The PI’s team consists of 33 researchers, 20 of whom are funded by the ERC, and who are working on different but interconnected modules. These are historians, computer scientists, and cartographers collaborating to process thousands of engraved inscriptions. The theme of donation, which is the historical core of the program, consists of more than 80% of the inscriptions. To study these donations is to study Vietnamese epigraphy more generally.

The main historical issue is to inquire into the political, economic, religious, social and cultural aspects of rural Vietnam from the 16th century. The team is interested in the everyday lives within the villages, in culture and in popular religions that remain little understood, precisely because we have not yet studied the epigraphic resources. Special attention is paid to language: popular inscriptions are not in Chinese but in Vietnamese, or rather, a mix of the two, oral Vietnamese disrupts written 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. Among all historical and linguistic topics, the results from the monographs are most impressive.

A second key issue is to contribute to the training of students and the modernization of classical knowledge. This goal is on track to be achieved. 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.

The publications (8 works) contribute also to the diffusion of knowledge to the larger public. The same applies to the online library (1300 e-books in open access). The most difficult task will be to raise awareness among the villagers to protect the steles. A televised report is in the works, but cannot yet be realized due to health restrictions.

The technology module has made the most progress. Researchers were able to treat texts in columns, which is a true challenge, and to start to program computers to recognize the characters. This work is still in progress, as it will require time to perfect, but the protocols have been defined. This cutting-edge research technology is of interest beyond the community of historians. Companies have also contacted Vietnamica to learn from its expertise in handling such documentation and processing but no commitments have yet been made.

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 first book will be published at the end of 2021. The other monographs are written by other researchers, postdoctorates, and students. The work has thus began since January 2020.

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. See

3. Meeting and workshops. The program began in November 2019 with a wonderful kickoff meeting, on November 4-6, and November 11. On the other hand, the one scheduled for May 2021 has been cancelled, due to an outburst of a variant in the virus. Documentation on the various Vietnamica meetings can be found here:

4. and 5. Translation and Publication. This activity within Vietnamica has been more successful than expected. This involved a deliberate choice since many researchers remained within the university and academic context in spite of the country’s closures. The program has published 8 works, which are listed below. Also notable is the creation of a new collection, Epigraphie Vietnamica in partnership with the Sino-Vietnamese Institute. Two volumes have already appeared, and the two following are currently in preparation. The PI is author of the three volumes of the Catalogue, with two colleagues from Vietnam. He supervised all other publications, and wrote the introduction to the two published volumes of Epigraphie Vietnamica.
It is important to start by pointing out something unexpected. In the initial project, the digital library was presented as a “possible expansion of the project.” It was not certain whether this would be possible, and not until the last phase of the program. But all things considered, it was indeed possible. Credit is due to the team in Europe, who made good use of the time that would have been spent at the research site. The books and the reviews (in French, dating back before 1940), were digitized and their titles translated from French to English. 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 initiated a very original computer program that has never before been done: 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. For now, with 4000 steles processed among 12000, we can already see that the small country donation steles, though small in size, contain just as much writing as the large mandarin steles.

The website has widened its scope. It will host the database of rubbings, the rubbings themselves, the inscriptions catalog, the online maps, the digital library, and a forum dedicated to reading the texts (exchange of information). It was certainly always intended to be a portal for all of Vietnamica’s research activities, and is on track of becoming so. But, quite unexpectedly, requests have been made to hold a larger documentation, which goes beyond the initial scope of the program in the strict sense. 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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Communication for the launching of the new collection