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> From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-rev...@lists.h-net.org>
> Date: June 30, 2020 at 8:56:25 PM EDT
> To: h-rev...@lists.h-net.org
> Cc: H-Net Staff <revh...@mail.h-net.org>
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-Asia]:  Gadkar-Wilcox on Tran, 'Familial Properties: 
> Gender, State, and Society in Early Modern Vietnam, 1463-1778'
> Reply-To: h-rev...@lists.h-net.org
> Nhung Tuyet Tran.  Familial Properties: Gender, State, and Society in 
> Early Modern Vietnam, 1463-1778.  Honolulu  University of Hawaii 
> Press, 2018.  280 pp.  $68.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-7482-7.
> Reviewed by Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox (Western Connecticut State University)
> Published on H-Asia (June, 2020)
> Commissioned by Bradley C. Davis
> In _Familial Properties, _Nhung Tuyet Tran presents us with the story 
> of gender relations in early modern Vietnam during the Lê, Mạc, 
> and Trịnh/Nguyễn periods (1428-1789). Tran is particularly 
> interested in revising the notion that Vietnamese laws afforded women 
> greater status than other East Asian societies. In her book, Tran 
> tries to recover the agency of local women through an examination of 
> marriage customs, lineage, and inheritance. She argues, most 
> centrally, that the state attempted to impose neo-Confucian orthodoxy 
> through law in order to protect individual patrilines and maintain 
> political order. Therefore, law codes in early modern Vietnam were 
> not egalitarian, and women were able to claim rights in spite of, 
> rather than because of, the dictates of Vietnamese property law. This 
> view significantly revises the standard view of women's property 
> rights, found in the work of scholars such as Tạ Văn Tài and 
> Insun Yu, who have argued that the Lê code was a manifestation and 
> expression of primordial tendencies in Vietnamese culture toward 
> women's equality.  
> Tran demonstrates these claims through an examination of dynastic 
> histories, legal sources such as the Lê Code and the Mạc era 
> compilation of judicial precedents, which she translates as the _Book 
> of Good Government_, and lexical sources such as the Chỉ Nam 
> dictionary. She uses these sources to establish and articulate a 
> "gender system" that she says the state was attempting to produce and 
> impose. She then examines popular folklore, stele inscriptions, and 
> reports from foreign and indigenous witnesses to demonstrate how 
> women--who were increasingly responsible for the economic functioning 
> of local communities in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries due 
> to men's being conscripted for war or forced to do _corvée 
> _labor--used informal mechanisms in their communities to secure their 
> own property and ensure their spirits and those of their ancestors 
> would continue to be venerated after their deaths. It is this 
> fascinating investigation into local practices, through the use of 
> diverse sources in a number of different languages, that is the most 
> valuable part of this book. 
> After a brief introduction that lays out her arguments and provides a 
> basic framework for the political events of the sixteenth through 
> eighteenth centuries, Tran proceeds to a description of the "gender 
> system" in chapter 1. This chapter recounts the morality manuals that 
> described how women could make themselves dutiful, industrious, 
> chaste, and subservient, as well as the historical circumstances 
> under which, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women were 
> often forced to face "the triple burden of agricultural labor, 
> household maintenance, and marketing alone" (p. 36). In chapter 2, 
> Tran focuses on marriage, explaining the function of marriage in 
> sustaining the patriline. Two particularly interesting elements of 
> this chapter are its description of uxorilocal marriage customs, in 
> which a marriage is carried on for a trial period, and its analysis 
> of all-female Catholic religious houses as a means to avoid marriage. 
> Chapter 3 focuses on sexual activity and the maintenance of social 
> order. Tran points out that the overarching concern of laws about sex 
> was the maintenance of a clear patriline. Because of this, the 
> infidelity of married women was subject to strict punishment, while 
> in general unfaithful men were treated more leniently. 
> Chapter 4 is perhaps the most significant of the book, as it presents 
> the cornerstone of Tran's arguments on property rights and 
> inheritance. Challenging the notion that "daughters enjoyed the same 
> rights as sons in the inheritance of property" under the Lê code (p. 
> 136), she demonstrates that the situation was in fact far less clear. 
> In both _de jure _and _de facto _senses, women inherited property 
> under exceptional rather than normal circumstances, and usually they 
> did so through their own efforts, in spite of rather than because of 
> the law. As Tran's view of property rights is this book's most 
> notable deviation from prevailing interpretations, it has generated 
> the most controversy, with Insun Yu, Sun Laichen, and Miyazawa 
> Chihiro all arguing that Tran reads some sources incorrectly or 
> neglects additional sources that would at least qualify her view if 
> not contradict it outright.[1] As someone not specifically familiar 
> with the primary sources being debated, I do not feel qualified to 
> evaluate this debate--though I do agree with Insun Yu that Tran seems 
> to translate certain terms (such as those specified in the five 
> relationships) as specifically referring to men when they could be 
> seen as gender-neutral. What is clear is that the debate over women's 
> legal and economic power in early modern Vietnam is an important one 
> that touches on some of the most significant discussions in 
> Vietnamese historiography, such as the relative influence of Chinese 
> and Southeast Asian culture on Vietnam. Tran's book has spurred this 
> important debate, and for that she should be given a great deal of 
> credit. 
> Inheritance was significant to ensure not only the patriline and thus 
> the stability of the state, but also that one would be remembered and 
> venerated by future generations. In chapter 5, Tran uses hundreds of 
> local stele inscriptions to show that women without male heirs often 
> donated money to local communities in exchange for an assurance that 
> their spirits, or those of their parents and ancestors, would be 
> honored and recognized on local holidays. In this way, women could 
> circumvent existing laws to make sure that the duties of carrying on 
> ancestral rights were still performed. This suggests that these laws 
> were fungible at the local level, and that particular women had the 
> necessary agency in the village to carry out these agreements that 
> would secure their futures. In chapter 6 and her brief conclusion, 
> Tran returns to the major themes of the book, examining the role of 
> women in modern and contemporary historiography and her revision of 
> those views, and articulating some limitations of her study, such as 
> the relative lack of sources from the south and the perils of 
> attempting to read agency and motive into women's acts of donating to 
> the village community. 
> While it is an important study, Tran's book is not without some 
> shortcomings. For example, there seems to be a contradiction between 
> her initial definition of Confucianism and the way she actually 
> describes Confucianism in practice. In her introduction, Tran defines 
> Confucianism not as "a delineated set of values" but rather as "a 
> constantly changing system signifying beliefs and practices that 
> educated Vietnamese convinced themselves that they were maintaining, 
> even as they shaped it to fit the needs of their time" (p. 5). She 
> goes on to say that what was most important in building a stable 
> early modern state was the implementation of neo-Confucian ideology, 
> which she identifies in the Vietnamese context almost exclusively 
> with Zhu Xi. She then concentrates on an interpretation of Vietnamese 
> neo-Confucianism focused on "morality texts" that "teach the 
> population how to behave" (p. 5).  
> This view is problematic for two reasons. First, Alexander Woodside 
> has convincingly shown that despite paying lip service to Zhu Xi, in 
> practice regimes were much more ideologically devoted to the 
> classical texts than the neo-Confucian commentaries, and much more 
> concerned with the practical application of policy than with morality 
> texts.[2] Second, references to Confucianism in this book seem to 
> describe a "gender system" of laws and morals that are very much 
> static and one-dimensional, in opposition to her original, much more 
> flexible definition. Tran tells us repeatedly that the "neo-Confucian 
> morality of the state" (p. 27) exists for the purpose of 
> "establishing order under heaven" through "regulating the family 
> system" (p. 52), and that there is "a clear link between the state, 
> social order, and the maintenance of the family system" (p. 54). She 
> also conflates classical Confucianism and neo-Confucianism, arguing 
> in a somewhat odd passage that "the neo-Confucius [_sic_] philosopher 
> Mencius" articulates the family system in a way that "echoes the 
> central features of neo-Confucian thought" (p. 55). I would not deny 
> that both Mencius and Zhu Xi discuss the maintenance of proper 
> relationships within the family, but Tran's use of these ideas in 
> practice seems to oversimplify the role of Confucian thought in 
> Vietnam. There is a difference between Ngô Sĩ Liên's adherence to 
> the Mencian conception of "the way of the King" at the beginning of 
> Tran's "early modern" time period, and Lê Quý Đôn's extensive 
> comments on Zhu Xi's metaphysics at the end of that time period.[3] 
> Tran's relatively simplistic narrative of the state's efforts to 
> impose a family system to protect patrilines significantly underplays 
> the complexity and historical contingency of Vietnamese notions of 
> Confucianism in the early modern period, and contradicts her earlier 
> (correct) acknowledgement that Confucianism refers to a malleable set 
> of practices that cannot be easily defined outside of the particular 
> contexts of their implementation. 
> Similarly, Tran's book presents an overly static view of how the 
> state makes and enforces laws, a view that is insufficiently 
> sensitive to the different political circumstances of the Lê, Mạc, 
> Trịnh, and Nguyễn states. Though to her credit Tran does make 
> occasional reference to the war between the Mạc and Lê forces 
> (1533-92), to the fifty-year war between the Trịnh and Nguyễn 
> clans (1627-72), to the introduction of Christianity, to the 
> militarism of early Nguyễn governance, and to the economic 
> privations of the eighteenth century, there are portions of the book 
> in which the details of time period, regime, and region seem to fade. 
> For example, in the discussion of "the exchange of women's bodies," 
> Tran states that "state law permitted parents to sell their children 
> into servitude," without specifying either in the text or in a 
> footnote which regime's state law, or which specific law, did so (p. 
> 111). In the following pages, Tran jumps from an official annal's 
> account of the fate of Lê Sát's wives and concubines in 1437 to 
> English Captain William Dampier's 1688 account of women being offered 
> to foreigners for temporary marriages to a 1714 judicial manual's 
> advice on punishing the sale of women. While the variety of source 
> material that Tran uses is to be appreciated, it would have been 
> beneficial for her to attend more closely to the fact that the 
> political circumstances and conditions of production of these texts, 
> and therefore the motivations for their accounts, are very different. 
> That being said, Tran's book is a significant accomplishment. It is 
> one of a very small set of studies examining gender relations in 
> precolonial Vietnam, and that is a major contribution in itself. 
> Moreover, this book has already spurred a productive debate about the 
> extent of women's property rights and women's equality and autonomy 
> in Vietnam. This debate, which touches on many of the issues most 
> critical in Vietnamese historiography, is worth having. Because 
> Tran's book is the catalyst for that debate, it is therefore 
> indispensable reading for those with an interest in law and gender in 
> early modern Vietnamese history. 
> Notes   
> [1]. Insun Yu, "The Equal Division of Inheritance Among Sons and 
> Daughters in Lê Society: A Revisit," _VNU Journal of Social Sciences 
> and Humanities _5, no. 5 (2019): 531-38; Miyazawa Chihiro, 
> "Re-Thinking Vietnamese Women's Property Rights and the Role of 
> Ancestor Worship in Pre-Modern Society: Beyond Dichotomies of 
> Equality versus Non-Equality and Bilateral and Non-Bilateral," in 
> _Weaving Women's Spheres in Vietnam: The Agency of Women in Family, 
> Religion, and Community_,_ _ed. Atsufumi Kato and Kristen W. Endres 
> (Leiden: Brill, 2016): 57-80; Miyazawa Chihiro, review of _Familial 
> Properties_ by Nhung Tuyet Tran, _Southeast Asian Studies_ 8, no. 3 
> (December 2019): 448-53; and Sun Laichen, review of _Familial 
> Properties_ by Nhung Tuyet Tran, _Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues 
> in Southeast Asia_ 34, no. 33 (November 2019): 622-27.  
> [2]. Alexander Woodside, "Classical Primordialism and the Historical 
> Agendas of Vietnamese Confucianism," in _Rethinking Confucianism: 
> Past and Present in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam_, ed. Benjamin 
> Elman et al. (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian Pacific Monograph Series, 
> 2002), 116-43. 
> [3]. O. W. Wolters, "What Else May Ngo Si Lien Mean? A Matter of 
> Distinctions in the Fifteenth Century," in _Sojourners and Settlers: 
> Histories of Southeast Asia and the_ Chinese,_ _ed. Anthony Reid 
> (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001), 95-96; and Yueh-hui 
> Lin, "Lê Quý Đôn's Theory of Li-qi," _Asian Studies_ 8, no. 2 
> (2020): 51-77. 
> Citation: Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox. Review of Tran, Nhung Tuyet, _Familial 
> Properties: Gender, State, and Society in Early Modern Vietnam, 
> 1463-1778_. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54870
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons 
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States 
> License.
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