Category Archives: Vietnam

How the South Saved the North in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4187-4227:

The Vietnamese combatants in the Vietnam-American War were not fighting because they hated ‘northerners’ or ‘southerners’. Both sides were heirs to nationalist movements which stressed their attachment to national unity. Their divisions were over ideology, the role of the state in society, religion and many other political issues.

In this long view of Vietnamese history, the 21 years between the division of the country into capitalist and communist in 1954 and its reunification under communism in 1975 seem less important than what went before and after. But those 21 years meant there was continuity in the south between the freewheeling capitalism of French Cochinchina and that of the ‘American’ Republic of Viet Nam (RVN), which was never truly suppressed after reunification before economic reforms began in socialist Vietnam in 1979. Capitalism is a relatively recent introduction in the north but it has been southern Vietnam’s default position for almost all of the past 150 years.

When the communist People’s Army crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in April 1975, it seemed, in the minds of the northern leadership, to confirm Hanoi’s superiority: militarily, ideologically and historically. The north had beaten the Americans. Triumphalism reigned. Hanoi sent another army to the south, an army of northern bureaucrats which tried to remould it into an image of the north without regard to its very different economic situation. But bureaucratic ideology met its match: capitalism was never truly eradicated. More humiliatingly for the ideologues, in those parts of the country where socialism prevailed, hardship endured. Gradually they had to face up to the reality that Hanoi communism couldn’t solve all the country’s problems. Hubris would soon be humbled.

Even now, the extent to which Hanoi’s rule was saved by the south is unacknowledged in public discourse: the ‘Official History’ of Hanoi’s supremacy endures. But if it hadn’t been for that legacy of southern entrepreneurialism, Vietnam might have collapsed. Despite Hanoi’s draconian campaigns in favour of collectivisation and against ‘comprador capitalists’ (mainly ethnic Chinese), old trading arrangements survived. In 1979, when the failure of Hanoi’s policies had become obvious, southern leaders, such as the then Party boss of Ho Chi Minh City, Vo Van Kiet, authorised ‘pragmatic’ steps to make ends meet. The city authorities bought rice from farmers at market prices and allowed those Chinese entrepreneurs who hadn’t fled the country to make contact with traders in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan to keep imports and exports flowing. Such fence-breaking broke the rules imposed by Hanoi, but kept the economy alive.

When, eventually, the failure to make state socialism pay the bills forced Hanoi to open up the economy, the south was ready to take full advantage. The first foreign investors to arrive were the trading contacts of the Chinese community. They found the south more conducive to business: less rule-bound, less ideological. In addition the south had the benefit of roads and ports paid for during the war years by American taxpayers. Between 1990 and 1994, 60 per cent of all foreign direct investment went to Ho Chi Minh City and three of its neighbouring provinces: Binh Duong, Dong Nai and the ‘oil province’ of Ba Ria-Vung Tau. These advantages for the southern provinces were multiplied by a curious arrangement, initially begun as an incentive to encourage economic growth.

The Vietnamese government allowed (and still allows now) provinces to retain any revenue they earn above a set target. In the north, most provinces tried to boost their income by developing the state sector. But leaders from those four southern provinces – more open-minded, less suspicious of foreigners – looked abroad for investment. It worked. Labour-intensive industries such as textiles, garments and food processing flocked in and the taxes and tariffs they paid made their host provinces rich. The surplus (after deductions for kickbacks and patronage) was reinvested in better infrastructure and services, which encouraged other investors to locate there, creating a virtuous circle of growth. Southern leaders, who had been largely excluded from the pinnacles of power since reunification, knew they were unlikely to make it to the top of national politics. Instead, they concentrated on keeping their own constituents happy, untroubled by the need to break national rules to keep the income flowing.

While some in Hanoi disapproved, they couldn’t stop the fence-breaking because the country needed the cash. In the 1980s provinces had depended upon the central government for the allocation of subsidies from the Soviet Union. By the early 1990s the central government was dependent upon the surplus being generated in the south. The quid pro quo was a strong policy of redistribution. Southern surplus still funds government spending across the country, lifting the standard of living in northern and central areas closer to the national average and helping to preserve national unity and the Party’s hold on power.



Filed under economics, nationalism, U.S., Vietnam, war

Vintage Year for Vietnamese Dissidents: 2006

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2486-2519:

2006 was a unique opportunity for Vietnamese dissidents. The country was in the final stages of joining the World Trade Organisation. Negotiations with individual WTO members were followed by drawn-out multilateral talks and then an equally drawn-out process in the US Congress to award Vietnam Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) status, an adjunct to WTO membership. In addition, Vietnam held the rotating chair of APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation group, during 2006, and was due to host its annual summit in November. Twenty-one leaders had been invited, including the presidents of the USA, Russia and China and the prime ministers of Australia and Japan. Vietnam was also seeking a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. All of this meant the Communist Party was vulnerable to criticism from abroad and therefore less able to crack down on dissent with its usual efficiency.

There was another factor too. By 2006, broadband had fully penetrated Vietnam; internet shops were available on most city streets. Through the net, dissidents managed to surmount the physical barriers the state had erected around them and bridge the gaps of physical distance, of ideology and – at least as important – of ego, which, until then, had kept them divided. Services originally intended to allow teenagers to flirt with each other provided invigorating links with Vietnamese exiles in the United States and elsewhere. Websites such as PalTalk host chat rooms in which hundreds of people can type messages to each other and simultaneously listen to an audiostream or watch video. In effect, each chat room is an interactive radio ‘narrowcast’. Narrowcasters can give out information, make speeches, discuss developments and take questions and comment from the other participants. Suddenly dissidents in Vietnam had access to a new world of ideas and to a reservoir of supporters. Until then many people had been reluctant to trust each other, never knowing who was an informer; but a few overseas activists acted as ‘brokers’ – in effect vetting the dissidents who contacted them and putting them in touch with one another. They also began to provide cash.

With the cost of living so cheap in Vietnam, relatively small amounts of money raised abroad could go a long way. Supporters groups sprang up in Australia (Bloc 1–7–06), the US (Bloc 1–9–06) and the UK (Bloc 10–12–06) and sent in money for dissidents’ living expenses and equipment. With hundreds of thousands of overseas Vietnamese remitting money to relatives each month it was easy to disguise the transfers. They weren’t particularly clandestine; most went via Western Union. Once inside Vietnam, the money was moved by couriers to where it was needed. When police stopped the car of one dissident, Nguyen Phuong Anh, on 15 December 2006, they confiscated 4.5 million Vietnamese dong, the equivalent of about $300, about six months’ wages for the average worker. He told them he had planned to buy clothes for needy paper boys. The money was crucial. It paid for computers, dozens of mobile phones, and hundreds of SIM cards to enable the dissidents to stay in touch even as the security services tried to disconnect them.

But useful as the internet was to the dissidents as an organising and discussion tool, it was much less effective as a proselytising force. The national firewall prevents the casual web-surfer accessing dissident websites and intercepts unwelcome emails. That didn’t stop one middle-aged Ho Chi Minh City-based activist, though. At night, after his family had gone to bed, he would trawl Vietnamese discussion sites and blogs harvesting the email addresses of anyone making critical comments. Then, with his harvest complete, he would send out two or three hundred emails with details of dissidents’ activities. He would tell them about strikes and how to form trade unions and about lobbying activities in the United States. But he couldn’t send all the messages from one email address because he feared the security services would soon track him down. So instead, he laboriously maintained dozens of different accounts and sent just a few messages from each one. It worked, and he managed to stay below the police’s radar. But even this very direct mailing had limited success; the phantom spammer estimated his response rate was less than 1 per cent. So even with all these technological innovations the number of active dissidents remained small.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, blogging, democracy, economics, migration, publishing, U.K., U.S., Vietnam

Changing Role of Media in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Locs. 2931-2947, 3019-3044:

Right from the beginning of doi moi, Party leaders wanted the media to act as an agent of reform. The Politburo knew that hundreds of thousands of people had grievances about corruption and mismanagement by local officials and that it didn’t have the capacity to address them all. So, in effect, it delegated some of the power of inspection and exposure to the media. A new Press Law, formally approved in 1990, specifically gave journalists the right to gather their own information and made it an offence to obstruct their work. Simultaneously the end of Soviet aid meant the end of subsidies. Newspapers and magazines had to actively sell their product – and therefore offer something readers actually wanted to buy. Just as in every country with a freer press, editors discovered that the best thing for selling papers was crime. And who better to publish crime stories than a newspaper owned by the police themselves? Readers of Cong An Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Police) are treated to a diet of sex and murder – with reportage straight from the horse’s mouth. The editorial line of the paper both terrifies the audience and reassures it that the police are on hand to catch the bad guys and keep the streets safe. It’s a successful mix, making it easily one of the country’s biggest selling papers.

The once near-monopolistic Nhan Dan, on the other hand, is kept afloat by the obligation placed upon every Party and government office to buy a copy. If it were left to survive on its street sales it would have gone bust long ago – it’s almost impossible to find in newspaper kiosks. The people don’t want to buy ‘The People’. Nhan Dan is not alone. Quan Doi Nhan Dan (the army newspaper) and Hanoi Moi – published by the Hanoi City Communist Party branch – are also kept going by compulsory purchase arrangements. Instead consumers have turned to papers which have built a reputation for uncovering corruption, exposing malpractice and widening the boundaries of what it’s acceptable to print.

The search for profit usually tops almost all other considerations – including, from time to time, ideological instructions. It’s sometimes a major battle for the Party to keep control. The local TV networks in Hanoi, and particularly in Ho Chi Minh City, now make so much money from advertising that they don’t need state subsidies – and if they don’t need the money why should they take the state’s instructions? The answer so far is that Party discipline has been stronger than the lure of cash but such divided loyalties are becoming more and more difficult to manage. So much so that the Prime Minister was forced to issue his December 2006 directive ordering tighter control over the press, in which he said Vietnam would never allow privately owned media.

But one media outlet is already almost entirely privately owned. The hugely popular online site,, started life as a project of FPT, the Corporation for Financing and Promoting Technology, wholly owned by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Under its highly entrepreneurial management (led by Dr Truong Gia Binh, former son-in-law of General Giap: see Chapter 1) FPT has grown from its original 13 employees into an employer of several thousand, with a series of IT outsourcing contracts for companies in Japan and Europe. It is also one of Vietnam’s largest internet service providers and telecoms companies. In 2001 it set up its own online news site – and just like VietNamNet-TV it did so without a government licence. Initially was classified as an ‘internet content provider’, meaning that it could only publish material that had already been published elsewhere. By selecting the stories which the site’s editors thought would most interest readers and by focusing on information rather than ideological comment it rapidly reached a huge audience. Its business plan required it to reach 200,000 users within a year and a half. It achieved this within four months. But by the end of its first year in business it had already made profits from advertising of $70,000. It was the only unsubsidised website in the country. After more than a year of lobbying, eventually received its licence from the Ministry of Culture. It was surprisingly easy. At the time it seemed to the leadership of that the Ministry didn’t really see the point of an online newspaper or understand its potential significance.

As it has evolved, the parent company of, FPT, has grown far away from its roots. Just 8 per cent of its stock is still owned by the state, around 80 per cent by its employees and foreign investors (including the venture capital arm of the US chip-maker Intel), with the remainder held by investment houses based in Vietnam. Thus one of the most important Vietnamese news outlets is almost wholly owned by private interests in contradiction of government policy. Its survival rests less on the law than on the balance of relationships between the company’s patrons and potentially hostile forces in other parts of the Party and government. FPT has become one of Vietnam’s biggest companies and its connections run deep into the Party leadership and into the boardrooms of some of the biggest global corporations. It has no shortage of allies to call upon if it’s ever put in a difficult position. For the time being, its most controversial subsidiary, exists in a curious legal limbo.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, economics, publishing, Vietnam

Methods of Social Control in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1550-88:

Since the 1990s, the ‘Cultured Families’ [gia đình văn hóa < 家庭 Ch. jiating, Jp. katei ‘family’ + 文化 Ch. wenhua, Jp. bunka ‘culture’] campaign has become more prominent, mainly because of the failure of a more heavy-handed system. From the earliest days of communist Vietnam, the cornerstone of social control was a system of household registration called the ho khau [= hộ khẩu 户口 < Ch. hukou, like Jp. 户籍 koseki]. It still exists. Every person has to be registered in a specific place at birth. If they want to move, they need the consent of the authorities both where they’re registered and where they want to go. Borrowed from China, the system was initially intended to control anti-communist resistance. Over subsequent decades, even though the central state lacked the resources to ensure it was fully implemented everywhere, it became the basis for economic planning, the provision of social services and the distribution of food and goods.

As the economy liberalised, however, it became easier for people to evade the system. The distribution of state-supplied jobs, food and housing had once been largely dependent on holding a valid ho khau, but as more goods and services became available on the open market, its power was reduced. Villagers left their villages without permission, unregistered housing sprang up in the cities and illegal traders tramped the streets. Daily life could, to a larger extent, bypass the authorities. (Hence the need to augment the ho khau with the ‘Cultured Families’ campaign.) The ho khau survives, however, because it continues to be a useful tool for the state: it reduces migration, provides useful economic data and, above all, helps the police to keep tabs on people. It’s another lever in the official tool kit. Anyone without a valid ho khau is permanently at the authorities’ mercy. Unregistered households have to build a life’s worth of corrupt relationships simply to keep living and working in a particular place. If they misbehave, life can get very difficult.

The consequence for the unregistered can be severe. If an unregistered couple wants to get married, register the birth of their child or even be buried in the cemetery they will find it difficult, sometimes even impossible. They could return to the place where their official ho khau was registered, but if they have been absent for more than six months, they may find that their name has been removed from the register. As a result they will be officially beyond the law. Often the only way to survive is through bribery – paying local officials either to grant them a ho khau or to turn a blind eye whenever they need to do something which requires it. Their births won’t be registered or their marriages licensed, their housing will be illegal and their living conditions precarious. They’re not included in population statistics, poverty calculations or social services provision. More than a quarter of the babies born in 2000 weren’t registered. In just one year that implies 250,000 undocumented children. As a result, the government was forced to adjust the rules to fit reality. New laws and regulations were introduced from 2004 allowing children to be registered where they are born, not where their parents’ ho khau was issued. But local authorities are reluctant to regularise so many new inhabitants whom they would then be obliged to take care of. Consequently communities are growing up across Vietnam, perhaps a few million people in all, who do not officially exist.

In spite of this, and other, clear evidence of the failure of the ho khau system, there’s no sign of it being abandoned. In part, this is because it continues to perform its original function, allowing surveillance of the population. In addition to its more general roles in controlling movement and guiding economic planning, the ho khau is the basis of the Public Security Ministry’s system of political records, known as the ly lich [< 履歴 Ch. lüli, Jp. rireki, as in rirekisho ‘curriculum vitae’]. The ly lich has a long history. In its original incarnation, in the 1950s, individuals were obliged to write their life histories for the police. Those who had worked for the French, been members of non-communist political parties or were part of the landlord class, or whose parents or grandparents did so, could then be kept out of important positions or pushed down the queue for goods and services.

Today the legacies of those old ly lich continue to blight the lives of descendants, particularly among former officials of the old Saigon regime and their children. And new ly lich are still being written. The essay format continues to be used for most people applying for jobs in the public sector and for anyone wanting to join the Communist Party. But the police also compile their own ly lich on those they consider subversive or worth watching – journalists, foreigners, those who have contact with journalists and foreigners, and so on. It may no longer be a universal requirement and it’s no longer such a public procedure but it continues to exist in the processes of the Ministry of Public Security. From secret police files and residency permits to neighbourhood wardens and cultured family campaigns, Vietnam has built a low-tech but effective system of near-total surveillance.


Filed under education, family, migration, philosophy, Vietnam

Punitive Social Work in Vietnam

From: Vietnam: Rising Dragon, by Bill Hayton (Yale U. Press, 2010), Kindle Loc. 1379-1432:

The official response to public prostitution, public drug use and public vagrancy is the same: first of all try to persuade the offender to change their uncivilised lifestyle and then, if they fail to reform, remove them from the city. Control of what the authorities still call ‘social evil’ falls, not to the police, but to the local People’s Committee. Party cadres will visit uncivilised households, Women’s Union activists will try to persuade prostitutes to give up their trade and local neighbourhood wardens will try to organise neighbours to fight antisocial behaviour. But if they fail then the People’s Committee – not the court – will order detention. The campaign to promote civilised living has co-opted the old ways of dealing with social problems: exclusion and re-education.

From political dissidents in the 1950s, to army officers from the defeated south in the 1970s, to prostitutes and drug users now, the Party has long treated ‘deviants’ on the premise that it can change their minds and make them ‘better’ citizens. Re-education is an unsettling combination of liberalism and totalitarianism. On the one hand the regime believes that most of those with unacceptable behaviour can be ‘reformed’, but on the other it has a very rigid definition of acceptable behaviour. In practice, re-education has been far from liberal. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of former southern soldiers, officials and dissidents died from abuse and neglect in re-education camps after the war and these days the centres set up to reform cases of ‘social evil’ more often harm their inmates than help them.

Male drug users are sent to ‘06 centres’. Female sex workers, who may also be drug users, are sent to ‘05 centres’ and street children to social protection centres. These are usually in remote places and although they are managed by the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MoLISA) rather than the Ministry of Public Security, in practice they are run like prisons. There are more than 80 state-run 06 centres in the country, each holding around a thousand inmates. There are few, if any, trained drugs counsellors or social workers in the centres; staff are simply allocated to work there by the Ministry. Inmates are all treated the same; little attempt is made to understand individuals or why they might have become involved with drugs or sex work. Re-education isn’t exactly stimulating. Half the day is spent memorising Party positions and the laws on crime, and chanting slogans such as: ‘The whole nation condemns social evil’. The rest is spent performing manual labour. The inmates wear blue striped pyjamas, conditions are hard and they are frequently beaten.

Unsurprisingly, the centres usually fail. They keep people off the streets for two or three years but then return them to the same neighbourhood and the same social problems, and the result is almost always the same. They’re then likely to be picked up again and sent away for another spell in the camp. While the centres may give the authorities the impression that they’re in control of the problem, in many ways they’ve made it worse. Surveys suggest that 60 per cent of the inmates of 06 centres are now HIV-positive. Though the authorities deny it, intravenous drug use is rampant and there is plenty of unsafe sex between inmates. Given that neither problem is supposed to exist, MoLISA refuses to provide them with clean needles or condoms. Maintaining the Party line has failed to change inmates’ behaviour. Instead it’s just increased the prevalence of HIV.

Party experts and government officials are struggling to find new ideas for ways to cope with the problems of the new society they are building. The top of the hierarchy clings to the utopian idea that socialism can solve everything. Theoreticians still argue over the legacies of social thinkers like Karl Marx, Max Weber and Émile Durkheim and their implications for solving the country’s problems. The lower levels try to cope using whatever resources are to hand. Social work – once abolished on the grounds that it was unnecessary under socialism – is being encouraged again. Religious groups, including the Catholic Church, are being allowed to provide social care; ‘empathy groups’ of families of people with HIV are being allowed to organise autonomously of the Party; and international experts from the UN and other agencies are being invited to advise on new strategies. Western-trained practitioners are turning local NGOs into agencies to try to treat the problems directly.

The problems are tying the Party’s ideologues up in ideological knots. For decades they argued that social evils were the result of foreign and capitalist influence, starting under the French and continuing under the Americans. Trying to explain why they have surged now, under Party leadership, has pitted theorists who hold the line that socialism has the answers against practitioners who work on the assumption that it hasn’t. It seems unlikely that the old line can be held for much longer but it still has powerful supporters. They don’t understand the new world they have created – they still announce strategies calling for a 90 per cent reduction in crime, for example – and for the time being it’s easier to fall back on traditional ideas than seek out new ones. Other arguments are familiar from other countries. Why should money be spent on those who’ve abused the Party, state and nation’s generosity when loyal citizens get by with less? Many people, addicts’ families included, see the re-education camps as a good solution to the problem. Families have been known to imprison their own children at home or bribe the army to send them to bases on remote islands to prevent them using drugs – why should they be opposed to sending them away to an 06 centre?

Similar dilemmas exist over street children. There are few sights which offend urbanites – Vietnamese and foreign – more than seeing children living on the street. Compared with most cities in Asia, the number of visible street children in Vietnam is relatively small, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The authorities in the two big cities take dramatically contrasting approaches. Hanoi tends to be more hard line, regularly rounding up apparently vagrant children. In Ho Chi Minh City they are more tolerant. In Hanoi shoe-shine boys have learnt not to carry the tools of their trade openly. Instead they buy a school uniform and carry the brushes and polish in a rucksack so that the police don’t spot them. They also take less visible jobs, working in the markets rather than selling postcards in the tourist areas. In Ho Chi Minh City, tolerance has allowed well-organised trafficking rings to flourish. They ‘rent’ children from poor families, particularly in the centre of the country, promising to take care of their accommodation and employment. They tell the families the children will be trained and well looked after but the kids are usually put to work as cheap labour; selling flowers, cutting cloth and working in restaurants or as domestic servants. Sixteen-hour days, minimal wages and Dickensian accommodation are the norm.

Leave a comment

Filed under democracy, disease, drugs, economics, education, Vietnam

Vietnamese Disciples of Fukuzawa Yukichi

From A Story of Vietnam, by Truong Buu Lam (Outskirts, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2512-2567:

Phan Chau (or Chu) Trinh (1872-1926), like Phan Boi Chau, had his eyes fixed on independence for his country. Unlike Phan Boi Chau, he was a doctorate (tien si [Ch. 進士 jinshi]) degree holder and had made a short stint of two years in the mandarinate before engaging in a life of a political activist. He went to Japan with Phan Boi Chau, but came back with a completely opposite program of action. He seriously opposed any use of violence in the struggle for independence, and vehemently rejected any interference or assistance, military or otherwise, from any foreign country. He advocated a republican regime in which the people can exert influence over the conduct of public affairs. He promoted a slow but secure march toward independence and civilization, even if need be, under the leadership and guidance of the protecting power that is France.

In 1906, he wrote an open letter to the Governor General of Indochina in which he vented out his frustration in a scathing accusation of the indigenous mandarins who took refuge under the wings of the colonial authorities to abuse with impunity the common people of Vietnam. (An English translation of this document can be found in Colonialism Experienced, Ann Arbor, 2000, p. 125-140.)

In 1907, with a group of Confucian scholars such as Luong Van Can, Nguyen Quyen, Dao Nguyen Pho, Duong Ba Trac, Le Dai and Hoang Tang Bi, he helped create a new type of school modeled after the Keio Gi[j]uku University which was established in Tokyo by a Japanese educator and reformist, Fukuzawa Yukichi. The Vietnamese school was called Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc [東京義塾] (Japanese: Tokyo Gi[j]uku; English: The Eastern Capital Free School). Its existence was sanctioned by a decree of the French colonial government dated March 1907 and its demise was imposed by another decree dated December of the same year.

The school’s life was indeed short, but its influence on the people reached beyond any calculation. It was the first experiment in mass education. Thousands of students of all ages flocked to the school in the evening hours to listen for free to scholars talking frequently about the humanities: morality, human rights; occasionally about the social sciences: economics, political regimes. They taught national history; resuscitated famous personalities of the world; they discussed about the relative advantage of modernization versus westernization; they tried to inculcate into the young minds the virtue of patriotism, loyalty, propriety. Some teachers even introduced to their students rudiments of science and technology. Within a couple of months, branch schools were established in many other cities.

In addition, the teachers adapted dozens of old proverbs and sayings to contemporary situations; they composed songs in verse encouraging their students to learn the quoc ngu, not to hesitate to go abroad to study, to read newspapers everyday, to have their hair cut short, not to smoke opium nor to drink alcohol, not to gamble, not to succumb to female charms.

Such was the success of the school that the French authorities felt threatened and so they decided to shut it down in December of the same year that it opened. The ideal of non violence that had been ardently promoted by Phan Chau Trinh was put to a serious test and it failed.

For this reason, he wanted to experiment with something else. In 1908, in the province of Quang Nam, the people complained that their taxes were too high and the days they had to work without pay for the government too numerous. They took their protest to the provincial capital city in a relatively orderly demonstration. Rapidly, the movement spread to neighboring provinces. The repression came swift, harsh and not too orderly. Many scholars were implicated in the movement. The French executed Tran Quy Cap (1870-1908) a tien si degree holder (1904) and a member of the mandarinate. The monarchical tribunal sent Huynh Thuc Khang (1876-1947), Phan Chau Trinh and Ngo Duc Ke (1878-1929), all three tien si as well, to the infamous penitentiary on the island of Poulo Condore (Con Non or Con Son). Fortunately for Phan Chau Trinh, his resourceful friends alerted the Society for Human Rights which persuaded the government to commute his sentence to exile in France to start in 1911.

While living in exile, Phan Chau Trinh became the patriotic icon around which the Vietnamese community in France rallied itself. During the first world war, he was incarcerated at the Sante Prison, suspected of contacting the Germans for help to liberate his country. He must be innocent of this charge given his revulsion toward violence and his distaste for foreign intervention.

During his stay in France, Phan Chau Trinh wrote several books, among which the best known was a collection of poems he composed during his incarceration at the Sante Prison. Two books of his have been published and confiscated several times right after they were put on the shelves; consequently, they were known only by their titles. One was a Song to Awake the Soul of the Nation (Tinh Quoc Hon Ca [醒国魂歌 Ch. Xingguohunge?]), and the other was a long “epic” poem of 3620 verses written in nom in the style of six and eight syllables. Entitled Giai Nhan Ky Ngo Dien Ca (The Marvelous Encounter of Wonderful People, In Verses) it relates the adventures of a group of friends, belonging to all nationalities, bound together by the virtues of loyalty and friendship, even tinted with some romance. This epic poem was, in fact, an adaptation in verses of a book entitled Jia Ren Qi Yu [佳人奇遇] (Giai Nhan Ky Ngo) that Liang Qichao himself translated from a Japanese work [佳人の奇遇 Kajin no Kigū Strange Encounters with Beautiful Women by Shiba Shirō].

Phan Chau Trinh’s many requests to the Ministry of Colonies for his repatriation were finally granted in 1925. Back in Saigon, he gave a number of public talks on the subjects of monarchy and democracy, virtue and morals in the East and the West.

Leave a comment

Filed under education, France, Japan, language, nationalism, Vietnam

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