Dr Kathryn Dyt was awarded the 2018 John Legge Prize for best thesis in Asian Studies, here she tells us about her work.
Can you tell us a bit about your thesis. What’s the problem it explores and what did you find?
My thesis, The Nguyen Weather-world: Environment, Emotion and Governance in Nineteenth-Century Vietnam, is an environmental study of the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam from 1802 to 1883, prior to French colonial rule. It explores how the Nguyen court organised itself in relation to the powerful, agentive and emotional ‘weather-world’ within which it was immersed. What I found is that the systems of governance at the Nguyen court have been approached from social and cultural perspectives, but ecological issues have been overlooked. Through situating the court within its environment, I was able to offer new perspectives on the nature of royal authority and power. The thesis shows how the environment related to the political structures of the court – for example, the ability to measure, divine and respond to climactic events was linked to court hierarchies. Nguyen emperors, I argue, consolidated their positions through displays of their superior weather knowledge and emotional interaction with the natural world.
How did you first become interested in this topic?
It was really through working on the material from the period. When I began to sift through the weighty tomes of the Nguyen court chronicles, I was surprised by the court’s copious documentation of a wide range of meteorological phenomena – not only ‘unusual’ and dramatic events such as storms, floods and droughts, but also a continuum of weather cycles and subtle seasonal changes in the natural world. This begged the question: What drove the Nguyen court to implement such a rigorous system of environmental information gathering? Previous histories of the period have tended to dismiss the court’s environmental reporting as unimportant, but I argue it provides compelling evidence that the environment was central to how the Nguyen understood, experienced and governed the world they were part of.
What was the most challenging aspect of doing this research?
Working with source material in different parts of the world in three different languages – Vietnamese, Chinese and French – was a real challenge. I had to conduct research in a number of different archives in Vietnam and France. The language of the Veritable Records (a major primary source for this period) is archaic and, at times, opaque and difficult to interpret, so I had to spend a lot of time reading and re-reading passages.
Do you have a favourite anecdote, moment or insight from doing your research?
When I was living in Vietnam for my fieldwork, I travelled to Nghe An province in north-central Vietnam to interview people about their perceptions and understandings of the environment. I really enjoyed hearing people’s stories about rocks, streams and lakes in their areas. For example, one person showed me a lake and explained that it contained a bounty of buried treasure. He said you could ask the lake for anything you needed – such as an extra dinner tray or a bicycle – and it would bring it to the surface. It was also interesting to hear how ideas about people’s relationship to the natural world has changed. In one interview, when an elderly woman was explaining that the recent severe droughts in the area were a punishment from Heaven, her grandson interrupted her saying the droughts were due to global warming, not Heaven.
What are your hopes for the influence of your work?
There is surprisingly little historical research on the nineteenth-century Nguyen dynasty. I hope that my research will inspire more interest in this period, and encourage scholars working in other fields and periods to think about the interconnections between the environment and power.
Is there a particular scholar(s) whose work you admire or shaped your academic trajectory?
My work has been influenced by the anthropologist Tim Ingold’s phenomenological writing on the environment and weather.
The ecological approach to Vietnamese history I pursued has also been inspired by the growing field of environmental history, and recent anthropological studies that offer new ways of thinking about human-nature interaction by scholars like William Cronon, Joachim Radkau, Julie Cruikshank and Eduardo Kohn.
What are you working on now?
I’ll be taking up a 2-year postdoc at the Institute of Historical Research at the School of Advanced Study, University of London in October 2019. During the postdoc, I will be working on publishing my PhD research as a book and I also plan to start a new project focusing on animal populations and imperial rule in nineteenth-century Vietnam.