The Nguyen Weather-World: Environment, Emotion and Governance in Nineteenth-Century Vietnam


Kathryn Dyt

PhD defended at: 

Australian National University


The Nguyen Weather-World: Environment, Emotion and Governance in Nineteenth-Century Vietnam is an in-depth environmental history of the Nguyen dynasty in Vietnam from 1802 to 1883, prior to French colonial rule. It transforms our understanding of Vietnamese history by approaching governance, royal authority and power at the Nguyen court from an ecological perspective. Drawing on previously unexamined sources in Vietnamese, Chinese and French, the study illuminates how the Vietnamese court organised itself in relation to the powerful, agentive and emotional ‘weather-world’ (Ingold, 2006, 2011) within which it was immersed. While previous work on nineteenth-century Vietnam has often faulted the Nguyen court for its rigidity, for struggling to meet the challenges of its time, this study considers how Nguyen dynastic rule was in fact highly responsive to its setting and sensitive to the environment. It demonstrates the remarkable extent to which systems of governance and court hierarchies were linked to the surrounding weather-world, a world inhabited by ecological actors such as rain, wind, land and skies.
Moving beyond previous histories that position the Nguyen dynasty in relation to its failed interactions with the West, this study asks the question: how did the Vietnamese court understand and experience the world? This new approach to Vietnamese history shows that Nguyen emperors were not static, inert individuals, cut off from the world and therefore vulnerable to French conquest, but were intensely engaged with their environment and its cosmological and spiritual dimensions. Situated in a land that was perceived to be alive and responsive to human incantations, prayers and pleas, the thesis demonstrates how emperors consolidated their authority through displays of their superior weather knowledge and reciprocal emotional resonance with the natural world. Taking a phenomenological approach, the thesis thus explores power and hierarchy at the Nguyen court as qualities that emerged in response to, and were deeply rooted in, environmental concerns. It argues that the weather was an abiding preoccupation of the political elite whose perceived efficacy in measuring, divining and responding to climactic events was an important means through which authority was obtained. The thesis addresses diverse forms of court engagement with the environment, including the observation of astronomical and meteorological phenomena, divination practices, rainmaking rituals, movement through the kingdom, and the writing of environmental histories and imperial poetry.
The thesis makes a unique contribution to understandings of pre-colonial Vietnam and the nature of power and statecraft more broadly. It offers a sustained argument for understanding Nguyen governance as an ecological project based on an affective epistemology of the weather-world. In the current political milieu, where environmental concerns are a pressing issue of our age, this ecologically sensitive consideration of governance and power is both timely and important.