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From Ionia to Vietnam

From Ionia to Vietnam

It is true, as some of the sources for the PPP story said, that in the

1960s, as I recall from my own impressions, the term yuon was used "to refer

to Vietnamese without negative connotations". Yuon was also then the common

term for Vietnam in central Thailand, where its use now seems to be declining.

Farther north in Thailand, yuon had a quite different meaning. It meant the Thai

peoples of the far north of Thailand, the area of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chiang

Saen, etc., ancient Lanna, where the colloquial term for Vietnamese was keo, as in

Laos.

There was once a consensus among historians of Southeast Asia that yuon in the sense

of Vietnamese derived from Sanskrit yavana, defined in the most authoritative Sanskrit-English

dictionary (Monier Monier-Williams, p 848), as "Ionian, Greek [barbarians?],

later also Mohammedan, European, and any foreigner or barbarian". This, remember,

was usage in India from ancient times, and in itself has no significance for yavana

or yuon in Southeast Asia.

In the traditional history of ancient India the yavana were believed to inhabit the

far northwest, now Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they were neighbors of the kamboja,

whose homeland is defined in a current Sanskrit-French dictionary (Stchoupak, Nitti,

Renou) as the region of Kabul, at one time perhaps occupied by the armies of Alexander

the Great, the source of the apparent derivation of yavana from Ionian/Greek. Were

the kamboja also barbarians? Whatever the reaction to that, it is certain that there

was never any ancient connection between the kamboja of northwestern India and the

kambuja/Kampuchea of Cambodia, although in later writing, both Southeast Asian and

European, confusion of the two concepts occurred.

At some time in the Angkor period, probably under the influence of Sanskrit literature,

some classical Indian toponyms were adopted in Southeast Asia, and thus we can see

in a few Sanskrit inscriptions from Angkor and Champa that the name yavana was used

for the territory of what was then Vietnam, today northernmost Vietnam. This may

have been due to an adaptation of Indian semi-mythical geography according to which

the yavana were distant frontier people, as the Vietnamese were for the Cham and

Khmer.

In northern Thailand the etymological situation was similar, but different, with

the Indian element coming via Buddhism and Pali, in which the Indian version of Ionian

was yonaka, identified explicitly in northern Thai literature as yuon, although there,

as noted above, yuon and yonaka did not mean Vietnam, but the northern Thai. In that

ancient Indian tradition the yonaka were also close neighbors of the kamboja, and

in some old literature of Buddhist Burma and Thailand the entire structure was adopted,

with kamboja applied to central Burma or central Thailand, depending on the orientation

of the writer, with yonaka to the north. It was in this situation that the terms

kamboja and kambuja came to be confused.

As for the Buddhist Institute Dictionary, popularly called the dictionary of the

Venerable Chuon Nath, it defines yuon simply as inhabitants of Vietnam, says nothing

about yavana, but includes yona, or yonaka, in the classical Indian sense, as a name

for 'Western Laos', which is what the French called northern Thailand, and also notes

that the original yonaka country was Greece. No connection is made in that context

between yonaka and yuon as a name for Vietnamese, nor is 'barbarian' given as the

meaning of any of these terms. This dictionary also correctly distinguishes the kamboja

of ancient India from kambuja.

'Barbarian' creeps in in the Cambodian-English Dictionary of Robert Headley, which

is a translation of the Chuon Nath dictionary with a few additions. Among those we

see in the entry on yuon, p787, the same ethnic definitions as given by Chuon Nath

plus, in parentheses, "(poss. rel. to S. yavana, 'foreigner, barbarian')".

Headley, working in a reactionary American environment (The Catholic University of

America, Washington DC) in the 1970s, apparently decided to adopt a late and minor

usage of yavana to favor the Cambodian chauvinist usage of yuon. Headley also, in

contrast to Chuon Nath, erroneously assimilates kamboja to kambuja, and omits all

reference to yona/yonaka.

A careful look at Monier-Williams, however, suggests that this derogatory use of

yavana in India came about after the Indians had contact with modern Europeans. Moreover,

among scholars now yuon < yavana is considered only one possible derivation, but

there is not space here for a full discussion.

In the time of Chuon Nath, none of these terms was derogatory. Yuon began to take

on such a meaning in some of the speeches of high-ranking personalities in the late

1960s, increasingly with the overtly racist rhetoric of Lon Nol during his pogroms

against Vietnamese and the 1970-75 war, and solidified in that sense during 'Khmer

Rouge' Democratic Kampuchea. Such silliness as, "it is a word created by the

CPP when the Vietnamese arrived in Cambodia in 1979" should be ignored.

Such changes of nuance in ethnic terms is seen in many languages. For instance, there

was a time when it was considered quite normal in the United States to say 'nigger'.

By the 1940s and 1950s (perhaps even earlier, but I am restricting my remarks on

this to times I can remember), that old word was generally recognized as demeaning,

and the politically correct term was 'negro', while 'black', which later became popular

as 'negro' went out of fashion, would have been considered rude. Now, judging from

the press, 'Afro-American' is the most acceptable designation for persons of that

ancestry.

Certainly anyone using 'nigger' now would intend it as a deliberate insult, and no

argument that it was once, in the distant past, in common use would be tolerated.

The same is true for yuon in Cambodia, whatever its neutral connotation in the past.

Although it would be an excess of political correctness to try to change the name

of a soup, and probably some Cambodians in distant rural areas do not even know of

the yuon-Vietnamese controversy, in politically sophisticated circles it has become

a derogatory designation, and those politicians and intellectuals who insist on using

it must be denounced as pandering to, even encouraging, ethnic prejudice, hatred,

and violence.

- Michael Vickery - Phnom Penh

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