Social Darwinism had a very big influence on many places in Asia in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This was a time when many peoples were threatened by conquest and colonization from Western powers. They sought to learn what it is that made the West so powerful, and in the process came to learn about one of the most influential concepts at that time in the West, Social Darwinism.

Vietnam was no exception to this rule, but this is a topic which has not yet received much scholarly attention. There are sources which reveal the presence of Social Darwinist ideas in Vietnam, however most of them are in unpublished sources in classical Chinese. By the time of the publishing boom in the Romanized script of the 1920s and 1930s, it seems that the influence of Social Darwinism had passed. However, it is definitely present in texts which were written by Vietnamese in classical Chinese in the first two decades of the twentieth century.

One such text is the Improved National History of Đại Việt 大越國史改良 [Đại Việt quốc sử cải lương]. This work was written by Nguyễn Đình Tuân 阮廷詢. Nguyễn Đình Tuân was a scholar-official who interacted with reformers in the early twentieth century, and from the contents of this history, it is clear that he adopted some of their ideas. I need to do some research to figure out when exactly he wrote this work, but it was probably in the 1910s, or perhaps earlier, around the time of that the reformist school, the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục, was operating in 1908.

The Improved National History of Đại Việt covers Vietnamese history from the BC period all the way up to the twentieth century. Historical information is interspersed with Nguyễn Đình Tuân’ own comments. It is from these comments that we see evidence of Social Darwinist ideas. Take for instance the following comments, “On the topic of [how] the raising of an army by the Trưng shows the level of the evolution of our kingdom’s/nation’s people.” This is about how the Trưng sisters rebellion was both a sign of evolution and good for evolution, because it was competition, and as “Western philosophers say . . . the more you compete the more you evolve.”

To quote,

“For several thousand years, Our South’s Hùng and Lạc did not have any wars. It was only with [King] An Dương’s annihilation of Văn Lang that competition began. But as for competition within the kingdom, such competition is insignificant. Later, Zhao Tuo, as a man of the Qin, annexed Thục. Han Wu[di], as a Han emperor, annihilated Zhao. Monarch Trưng was just the daughter of a Lạc general, but this maiden raised troops and resisted the Han court’s commissioned official. The more battles there were, the more intense they became. This was the first competition with outsiders, and such competition was significant. Western philosophers say that the more you compete the more you evolve. Indeed, from this here you can see the level of our people’s evolution.”