George Dutton, an associate professor of Southeast Asian studies, credits his lifelong interest in that region of the world to his parents — antiwar activists in the Vietnam War era.
"My earliest memories as a child were protesting the war," recalled Dutton, an authority on the rich history and culture of Vietnam.
Years later, as an undergraduate at Brown University, Dutton took part in a study-abroad program at the National University of Singapore. That year, he traveled through Southeast Asia, visiting Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Burma by bus, bicycle, airplane, train and oxcart. At one point, he even hitched a ride from Malaysia to Thailand on a passing yacht.
"That was my first chance to explore the area, and I fell in love with the place," said Dutton. "At an emotional level, Southeast Asia is a fascinating place. There’s such enormous diversity of people, culture, religious practices, tradition. It’s a place where you can study human society in so many forms."
After graduation, he was hired by the nonprofit Asia Resource Center in Washington, D.C., which was developing and running smoking-cessation programs in Vietnam. As part of that internship, he made his first trip to Vietnam as a leader of an American tour group in 1990, a period when tourism was quite limited.
Dutton went on to earn a master’s degree in international relations from Yale University and a Ph.D. from the University of Washington, where he specialized in Vietnamese and Chinese history. Dutton says that he chose to study early modern Vietnamese history, in part, because "few choose to study Vietnamese history; it is an unexplored terrain. It is exciting as a field, yet daunting in the size and task of its research possibilities."
Dutton’s passion for Southeast Asia led him to UCLA in 2001, keen to support the growth and development of the university’s Center for Southeast Asia Studies and the Southeast Asian Studies Interdepartmental Degree Program (IDP). Still very much in its infancy, the IDP was the first of its kind in Southern California. In 2004, Dutton was named chair of the program, a position he held until 2010. Southeast Asian studies at UCLA features a particularly strong language program, said Dutton, citing consistently high enrollment figures for Thai, Vietnamese, Tagalog and Indonesian classes. "For most of those languages, we have the highest enrollment of any language programs in the United States."
Dutton currently serves as vice chair of the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, a position he accepted in 2009, and he recently became chair of the Southeast Asia Council for the Association for Asian Studies, an international organization.
In the classroom, Dutton teaches courses on Vietnamese history and aspects of Southeast Asia. Among these is "Religion and Society in Southeast Asian," which covers folk-religious practices, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, spirit worship, Islam and Hinduism, all of which, said Dutton, have unique manifestations in Southeast Asia.
His research, with a focus on Vietnamese intellectual and social history, precolonial Vietnamese literature and 18th-through-20th-century Vietnamese historiography, has appeared in the academic publications Xua va Nay, South East Asia Research, the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies and the Journal of Vietnamese Studies, among others.
In 2006, Dutton released his first book, "The Tay Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam" (University of Hawaii Press.) His latest book, "Sources of Vietnamese Tradition," is a co-edited volume that translates primary texts exploring the multifaceted history, culture, politics and society of Vietnam. Scheduled for release this June, the book is the latest title in the highly respected "Introduction to Asian Civilizations" series published by Columbia University Press.
Currently on his agenda is research on 18th-century Vietnamese priest Philiphe Binh, whose life story so intrigues Dutton that he is currently writing a book about him. In 1796, Binh left his home in Northern Vietnam and headed to Lisbon, determined to convince the king of Portugal — who held papally granted authority to appoint bishops to Asia — to assign a bishop to serve Binh’s Vietnamese community.
"Binh never succeeded," said Dutton, adding that the priest spent the rest of his life in Portugal, where he died in 1833 at the age of 74. Binh was in Portugal during the Napoleonic invasion, which forced the Portuguese king to flee to Brazil. Still driven by his dedication to his community in Vietnam, Binh attempted to follow the king by boat. He was forced to turn back, but remained undeterred; later, he bought a ticket to Brazil to continue his appeals, but was unable to travel at the last minute.
"He nearly became the first Vietnamese to travel to the new world," said Dutton.
For the past several years, Dutton has been sifting through countless documents, searching for words written by or about Binh. Fortunately, the priest left a vast collection of writings, including 35 notebooks containing letters, journals and other materials, which are archived at the Vatican.
"We know whom he liked, whom he hated and what he liked to eat," said Dutton. "He writes extensively about his life in Portugal, his observations about Portuguese life and his experiences with Portuguese bureaucracy as he went about his mission.
"He’s probably the first Vietnamese person about whom one can write a full-fledged biography, one in which you get a sense of what made him tick as a person," said Dutton. "There are obviously many significant historical figures in Vietnam before him, but very few of them left a sense of who they were as individuals."