Many decades ago, explained Thuy Linh Nguyen, associate professor of History at Mount Saint Mary College, the coal mines of Vietnam were home to a unique history that survives today as a collection of anonymous poems.
In her recent presentation, "Learning History through Oral Tradition: The Stories of Vietnamese Coal Miners," Nguyen noted that during the French colonial period (1858-1954), Vietnam became one of the world's leading coal exporters. As a result, tens of thousands of Vietnamese people worked for French coal mining companies.
Life was not easy for these miners, who generally had little time for anything but their work.
"As a historian, we often rely on primary sources and written documents to reconstruct the past," said Nguyen. "Many underrepresented groups have no means nor the time to document their daily existence, and the Vietnamese coal miners were one of those groups. Most of them were illiterate and so busy with work, they had no time to think about how to sit down and write about their life. There was no such luxury for these miners."
But thankfully, their stories were not lost to time, Nguyen said: These miners recorded their tales in the Vietnamese poetic form Lục Bát, using their own coded language to avoid the detection of the French management.
The little-known oral tradition of the workers, called Ca Dao Thợ Mỏ, is a rich collection of poems written by anonymous miners. These poems described the miners' living and working conditions at colonial coal mines, their bondage, their humor, and resilience, as well as the dark sides of debt spiral, opium addiction, gambling, racism, and capitalist exploitation.
The poems were short with rhyming elements, so they "were very easy to memorize and circulate," Nguyen explained, helping these stories to survive for generations.
"This oral tradition elevates the voices of the workers while highlighting the importance of using mixed sources in writing the history of marginalized and underrepresented groups in history," Nguyen said.
The presentation was part of Nguyen's current book project on the history of coal mining in French colonial Vietnam, funded by the Frederick Burkhardt residential fellowship of the American Council of Learned Societies.
Nguyen has published a book on the history of childbirth and modernity in French colonial Vietnam titled Childbirth, Maternity, and Medical Pluralism in French Colonial Vietnam, 1880-1945, and she has written several articles on the social, medical, and environmental history of the country.
Originally from Vietnam, Nguyen completed her doctoral studies on Asian history at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests are modern Vietnam, East Asian transnationalism, and the history of European imperialism.
The talk was part of the Mount's Investigating Research on Campus (iROC) series, which is taking place virtually this semester and is open to the public. The series provides a forum for Mount faculty, staff, and students to showcase their research endeavors with the college and local communities. Presentations include research proposals, initial data collection, and completed research projects.