What’s in a Yuon?

BY KENNETH T SO AND SOPHAL EAR
Nov 02, 2010

Barbarians, hill tribes, outsiders, yuon... Why have racist names existed across Southeast Asia for years?

Someone once said, “To understand others, you must first understand yourself.” We believe that understanding the Khmer language alone and living in Cambodia is necessary but not sufficient to truly open up the Khmer soul to non-Khmers.

Khmerness is speaking the language, understanding Khmer idioms, appreciating Khmer jokes and their nuances, and enjoying Khmer music and poetry. It is a feeling that resonates with Khmer people living in Cambodia. Being Khmer should not be synonymous with Pol Pot. The actions that Pol Pot committed are complete anathema to the Khmer soul. A Khmer is someone who is proud of the civilisation that Angkor has left as its legacy.

The Khmer have lived under threat of extinction (perhaps even saved by French colonialism), and who have witnessed the disappearance of Khmer territory to their powerful neighbours, Vietnam and Thailand. This is the context within which we write.

As Ronnie Yimsut has elaborated in a 2005 online essay:

“These [invader] perceptions about Vietnam are also quite valid, historically speaking. The so-called Kampuchea Krom (area in … southern Vietnam including Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong delta region), and the former ‘Kingdom of Champa’ (area in northern Vietnam) are two historical examples of successful Vietnamese annexation and expansionism.”

Pol Kang wrote in a 2004 article:

“During the period 1813-15, Vietnamese perpetrated the infamous massacre known to every Khmer as prayat kompup te ong. It involved the most barbarous torture technique, in which the Khmer were buried alive up to their neck. Their heads were used as the stands for a wood stove to boil water for the Vietnamese masters.”

 

Yuon – racist?

Let us consider only the issue of language and the word used by Cambodians for the people of Vietnam: yuon. This remains a bone of contention because many non-Khmer have argued that the word is fundamentally racist in common parlance.

The word yuon may have come from the word yueh, what the Mandarin Chinese call Vietnam, yueh nam. The word nam means south in Chinese. Yueh indicates the name of the people of that region. Therefore, yueh means Viet or Vietnamese in Chinese, and yueh nam means the yueh people of the south. In this case, south means south of China. South Vietnam pronounces it yeaknam.

Chou Ta-Kuan (Zhou Daguan), the celebrated Chinese ambassador to Cambodia in the 13th century, indicated in his report that there was already a large population of Chinese settling in Cambodia at that time. He said that the Chinese preferred life in the Khmer Empire because it was easier than in China. There were a lot of Chinese men marrying the native Cambodian women. The word yuon may have derived from the Chinese word yueh to indicate the Vietnamese.

 

178 Chinese-Cambodian kids (Photo by pablo72 on Flickr)

 

George Coedes, an expert on Southeast Asia, found evidence of the word yuon inscribed in Khmer on a stele dating to the time of the Khmer King Suryavarman I (1002-1050). Adhémar Leclère, a colonial French governor of Cambodia who lived there 25 years, used the word yuon throughout his book Histoire du Cambodge depuis le 1er siècle de notre ère (Librairie Paul Geuthner, 1914: 99, 413, 432, 434, 435, and 469).

While yuon has been equated with the word “savage” by David Roberts in a 2002 article for the Washington Times, in fact, the word savage in Cambodian translates to pourk prey or phnong (which unfortunately also refers to an ethnic hill tribe minority living in Cambodia). Cambodians call Vietnamese yuon the same way they call Indian khleung, Burmese phoumea, French barang and Chinese chen. These are all xenonyms and Khmer transliterations.

When the Vietnamese sometimes call Khmer people ngoi mien (when they should use ngoi campuchia), this is inaccurate because the word mien is the name for a minority group that is not ethnically Khmer. According to the Mien Network, “The Mien are a sub-group of the Yao in China, and they originated from Southwest China. According to 1995 population figures published by the Tribal Research Institute of Chiang Mai, there are over 40,000 Mien living in 173 villages in Northern Thailand. Larger numbers are found in Laos (85,000) and Vietnam (474,000), with the majority still in China. According to the 1990 census, there are about 2.1 million Yao living in China.”

 

“Vietnam” just sounds awkward

Thus, it would be like saying of an Englishman that he is Basque. The geography is completely off, but the possible connotation may be of a nation without a state. In the late 17th century, the Vietnamese court of Hue changed the names of the Cambodian princesses Ang Mei, Ang Pen, Ang Peou and Ang Snguon to the Vietnamese-sounding names of Ngoc-van, Ngoc-bien, Ngoc-tu, and Ngoc-nguyen, respectively. Phnom Penh is also known in Vietnamese as Nam Vang. Indeed, our venerated Phnom Penh noodles are otherwise advertised in Vietnamese as heu tiev nam vang.

Moreover, while we call Chao Doc and Saigon (what is now HCMC) Mot Chrouk and Prey Nokor, respectively, this is the equivalent phenomenon in use when it comes to the word yuon, that of a xenonym in current use.

We surmise that confusion over the word yuon arises from the fact that the word Vietnam(ese) exists. The misunderstanding is that for Khmer people to opt for using the word yuon instead of the word Vietnam(ese) gives non-Khmer the impression that we are racists. To say this would be the equivalent of saying that anyone who uses the word Cambodian instead of Khmer is racist. When we speak in Khmer, it is very awkward and does not sound right to the ear to use the word Vietnam, and even less so Vietnamese.