10 June 2004

Changing Names: Cambodia, Vietnam


"Cambodia" is the English-language rendering of a Sanskrit word usually transliterated as "Kambuja" and pronounced "Kampuchea" in modern Khmer. The word, which means "born of Kambu," a mythical, semidivine forebear, was part of the name Kambujadesa (Cambodia-land), which the empire of Angkor, centered in what is now northwestern Cambodia, gave itself after the tenth century C.E. The nomenclature remained in use after the abandonment of Angkor in the sixteenth century.

Under the French colonial protectorate (1863-1954) the kingdom's name came to be written "Cambodge" in French but was still written and pronounced in Khmer as "Kampuchea." The transliteration "Kampuchea" reappeared briefly in documents written in French in March 1945, when Cambodia was told to declare independence by Japanese forces occupying the region, and it renamed itself the Kingdom of Kampuchea. By November 1945, when the French returned to power, the kingdom's name in French had reverted to Cambodge (Cambodia for English speakers).

In 1970, following a coup against Norodom Sihanouk, the country named itself the Khmer Republic. When the Republican regime was defeated by local communists five years later, the Marxist-Leninist government that took power called the country Democratic Kampuchea. A Vietnamese invasion in December 1978 drove this regime from power and the newly established, pro-Vietnamese government came to office under the name of the People's Republic of Kampuchea. When the Vietnamese withdrew their forces in 1989, the ruling party remained in power, but its leaders renounced Marxism-Leninism and renamed their country the State of Cambodia. This name lasted until 1993, when Sihanouk, who had abdicated the throne in 1955, became king for a second time, and the country restored its pre-1970 name, the Kingdom of Cambodia.

The word "Khmer" refers to the major ethnic group in Cambodia, comprising perhaps 90 percent of the population, and also to the language spoken throughout the country. The etymology of the word is obscure, but it has been in use to describe the inhabitants of the region for over a thousand years. In general the terms "Khmer" and "Cambodian" are interchangeable, and in conversation most Cambodians refer to their country as sruk Khmer (Khmer-land).


"Vietnam" is a relatively recent name for the kingdom of the "Viet" people. ("Viet" is cognate with the Chinese "Yue," a generic term for ethnic groups in what is now southern China and beyond.) Its official use began only in the nineteenth century. From the eleventh century to 1800, Vietnamese rulers usually called their country as a whole the "Great Viet" (Dai Viet) domain.

Of the other premodern names for the country, "Annam" is probably the most familiar. This Chinese colonial term emerged in the late seventh century, when the Tang empire named its colony in northern Vietnam the "Pacified South" (Chinese: Annan) protectorate. Vietnam stopped being a Chinese colony in the tenth century, but the Chinese continued to refer to their now independent southern neighbor as "Annam" until the end of the 1800s, rather as if the British were to continue to call Zimbabwe "Rhodesia" for the next nine centuries. Many Westerners picked up on this locution and referred to the country as "Annam" (and its people as "Annamites" or "Annamese"), although Vietnamese generally did not appreciate this terminology. The nomenclature was further confused when the French, in dividing Vietnam administratively into three parts, called the middle one (centered on Hue and Danang) "Annam," as distinct from "Tonkin" to the north and "Cochinchina" to the south.

In the early 1800s the new Nguyen dynasty tried to secure international (i.e., Chinese) recognition of a new name for the country: "Nam Viet." But to the rulers of China the term (Nan Yue in Chinese) conjured up memories of an ancient state of that name, founded by a dissident Chinese general, which had existed in modern Guangdong and Guangxi between 203 and 111 B.C.E. Chinese rulers feared that their acceptance of the term "Nam Viet" might signal approval of resurrected Vietnamese claims to south China. They therefore reversed the components of the proposed new name to detoxify it politically, and thus "Viet Nam" (Vietnam) came into existence. Nineteenth-century Vietnamese rulers, not liking it, privately preferred to refer to their country as the "Great South" (Dai Nam).
SOURCE: The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History, edited by Norman G. Owen (U. Hawai‘i Press, 2005)

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