I was reading a history textbook from 1911 called the Essence of Việt History for Middle Schools (Trung học Việt sử toát yếu). It is a work which made a conscious effort to be new. Influenced by Western nationalist ideas, this work clearly focused on national history in an effort to educate a national citizenry. These were new ideas at the time.

In the preface to this text I came across a statement which I have found in other texts from this period. In particular, this text notes the need “to imprint (ấn) the word ‘nation’ (quốc gia) in [people’s] brains (não cân).”

Vietnamese scholars have written endlessly about how the Vietnamese nation has existed for thousands of years, and how Vietnamese have had a distinct sense of their own identity for just as long, etc. If that is the case, then what were these people in the early twentieth century talking about?

What texts like this one show is that prior to the twentieth century Vietnamese did not have an understanding of what a nation was, and did not conceive of their land as a nation. Yes, there was some kind of cultural cohesion which loosely tied together a “Việt world,” but this was not visible to most of the people who lived in that world. A farmer in Bắc Ninh, for instance, had no sense that he was part of the same “nation” as a farmer in the Mekong delta. Indeed, he probably didn’t even know that there was such a place as the Mekong delta.

This is what reformers in the early twentieth century wanted to change. They learned through reading the “new writings” by people like Liang Qichao, that Western countries unified their populations by educating them to become “citizens” (quốc dân) of a “nation” (quốc gia). Before this happened, in places like “France” and “Germany” there had been no nations. Instead, those areas had also been loosely tied together cultural spheres.

“Nation,” “imprint,” and “brains” are all part of the new vocabulary which started to circulate in East Asia as the Japanese created new terms in order to translate Western texts. Alongside this new vocabulary came new ideas. The nation was one such idea. It was a very new concept to Vietnam, and Vietnamese reformers worked very hard to try to get people to understand it.

From our vantage point some one hundred years later, we can see that this effort succeeded. In fact, it has been such a success, that very few people realize that this transformation ever took place.