Late Demise of Classical Chinese in Vietnam

From A Story of Vietnam, by Truong Buu Lam (Outskirts, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2744-2761:

The cultural changes of the period under study [1900-1925] are dominated by one phenomenon: the replacement of classical Chinese by quoc ngu [国語 national language] as the official national writing system of Vietnam. The French, already from the beginning of their administration of Vietnam, had encouraged the use of that script to replace the Chinese characters. In their view, that was the most effective way to wean the Vietnamese from China’s multi-millenary cultural influence. Little did they anticipate that the Vietnamese were going to use the quoc ngu to mobilize the country against them.

It was, however, only toward the beginning of the 1920s that the Vietnamese warmed up to it and used it readily in their every day activities. In the early years of the twentieth century, Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh still wrote all their works in classical Chinese. Even in 1924, in Paris, Phan Chau Trinh composed his many letters asking the French minister of Colonies to allow him to go home in the purest style of classical Chinese. The Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc [東京義塾 Eastern Capital Free School, named for Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Tokyo Gijuku (later Keio)] published their classic material in Chinese. The proclamation of the Thai Nguyen mutiny was written in Chinese. Classical Chinese survived at least to the middle of the century for two reasons. The last Confucian examinations were held only in 1918 in Hue, and the royal court of Annam will continue to use Chinese in its official documents until 1945, naturally with a great deal of translations into quoc ngu and French, for, to my knowledge, the last Vietnamese emperor had an exclusively French education.

Although sponsored by the French Security Services, the magazine Nam Phong [南風 South Wind] contributed in an important measure to the vernacularization and to the enrichment of the national script. To some extent, Nam Phong did almost exactly what the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc dreamt of doing a decade earlier. It translated a vast variety of books or articles in philosophy, in natural and human sciences written mostly in French into quoc ngu. Thus, it introduced foreign cultures and sciences to the Vietnamese people while encouraging them to use a medium which is scientific and rich enough to express their ideas. From the 1920s, newspapers, publishing houses mushroomed and put out an impressive number of books in literature, poetry, sociology, political, social, and natural sciences, all written in the national script. A definite break with the Chinese or nom tradition has been imperceptibly effected and new generations will only deal with the alphabetical writing system.

Here are some examples of Vietnamese renditions of Classical Chinese.

Tien hoc le, hau hoc van
(先学理後学文 xian xue li, hou xue wen)
‘First learn rites, then learn culture’

Thien Tu Van (千字文) ‘Thousand Character Classic
Tam Tu Kinh (三字经) ‘Three Character Classic

Four Books and Five Classics (of Confucius)
Đại Học (大學 Dà Xué) Great Learning
Trung Dung (中庸 Zhōng Yóng) Doctrine of the Mean
Luận Ngữ (論語 Lùn Yǔ) Analects
Mạnh Tử (孟子 Mèng Zǐ) Mencius

Kinh Thi (詩經 Shī Jīng) Classic of Poetry
Kinh Thư (書經 Shū Jīng) Classic of History
Kinh Lễ (禮記 Lǐ Jì) Book of Rites
Kinh Dịch (易經 Yì Jīng) Classic of Changes
Xuân Thu (春秋 Chūnqiū) Spring and Autumn Annals


Filed under China, democracy, education, France, language, literature, nationalism, Vietnam

6 responses to “Late Demise of Classical Chinese in Vietnam

  1. Actually, I have a book in my possession called 三千字 (Tam Thiên Tự), which doesn’t seem to be famous at all. It is a very large list of words, in no order that I can make sense of, with the Chinese character on the left (Nguoc Ngu reading underneath) and the Chu Nom character on the right (Nguoc Ngu reading underneath). Sometimes the Chu Nom character is identical to the Chinese character, usually where Vietnamese uses the same word as Chinese (e.g., 團 Đoan 團 đoan). Just thought you might be interested :)

    • I found and bought 五千字 (Ngũ Thiên Tự) in an unlikely secondary school bookstore. It has a long (186 pp.) text to memorize that matches Chu Han (with initial cap) and Chu Nom (all lowercase) characters and readings, plus two glossaries in Vietnamese alphabetical order of all Chu Han characters (pp. 188-277, listing both old and simplified characters) and all Chu Nom characters (pp. 278-359), and finally a listing of all Chu Nom characters by stroke count. I bought an extra one for a student who was majoring in both Chinese and English, who didn’t think such a book existed in Vietnam. It’s published by Nha Sach Quang Minh.

  2. Thank you Joel. I just happened to write an article recently on the evolution of Vietnamese writing system ( I learn more from your post. Thanks.

    • Paul, here’s a question: Has the Vietnamese language, as spoken today, really existed for ‘millenia’. Or is it like English and many other languages, a more recent version of that emerged over the millenia? I realize that the present government has declared a national holiday for the Hung Kings, much like the Republic of Korea dates itself from the legendary founder Dangun, but national holidays do not history make.

      What is the historical starting point for the existence of a “Vietnamese” language that can be traced to the present day?. And, what other languages spoken by ethnic groups in Vietnam and Southern China show an affinity to modern Vietnamese. Are any of them Khmu? (Sic)

      • Vietnamese is related to Mon, Khmer, Khmu, and other Austro-Asiatic languages scattered across SE Asia. It has certainly changed a lot over thousands of years, as any language tradition does. For instance, at some point Vietnamese acquired tonal distinctions somewhat similar to those in Chinese (and perhaps influenced by Chinese). Other Austro-Asiatic languages have all sorts of exotic sound systems, but none are tonal in the same way.

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