I just came across this article by Hoa Bằng from 1943 on “National History Nowadays” (“Quốc sử ngày nay” in Tri Tân, #97, 27 May 1943). It’s interesting to read this article in light of the ideas that were expressed in the early twentieth century about the need to study “Southern” history, ideas which I posted about recently.

In the early twentieth century, as Vietnamese reformers became acquainted with the Western concept of nationalism, they started to urge people to study the history of “the South,” as opposed to that of “the North,” or China, which had been the primary subject of study for the educated elite in Vietnam for centuries by that point.

In this article, Hoa Bằng cites some comments which Hoàng Đạo Thành wrote in the early twentieth century in which he lamented how prior to that point scholars had only studied the (Chinese) classics. Hoa Bằng then notes that before the civil service examination system was reformed in 1909, the questions asked of students were all about “Northern” (i.e., “Chinese”) history, and he provides some examples of this.

Hoa Bằng then goes on to say that “forty years ago, our people (người mình), especially the young examination candidates, were this indifferent to the history of Vietnam!”

He then criticizes the ideas of the reformers of that period and says that they knew about Alexander the Great’s victories and the birthday of Charlemagne, but they didn’t know about the victory at the Bạch Đằng River or on what day Quang Trung defeated a Chinese army of 20,000 troops.

Now in the 1940s, however, Hoa Bằng states that people have realized what a calamity it is to be severed from one’s roots, and as a result, people, especially the youth, were turning to the nation’s history.

While he doesn’t say anything about this, it is probably not a coincidence that this sudden interest in the nation’s past on the part of the youth was taking place at the exact same moment that the Vichy government was promoting nationalism among youth as a way to deflect their attention away from Japan’s call for Asian unity against the West.

In any case, Hoa Bằng then goes on to quote a recent speech which mentioned the Trưng sisters. The speech is extremely nationalistic and states that were it not for the Trưng sisters, then the numinous potency (cái khí thiêng) of the Hồng Lạc might have been destroyed forever under the oppressive rule of the Chinese. That said, the true import of the Trưng sisters, the speaker argued, was larger than their accomplishment at that one point in time, for they set a righteous model for generations to follow.

Having quoted a portion of this speech, Hoa Bằng commended the youth of his day for their admiration for the nation’s history. He then concluded his article by noting that the progress of a nationality (cuộc tiến hóa của một dân tộc) is not something which is brought about by a few individual heroes. Instead, he cites German historian, Karl Gotthard Lamprecht (1856-1915) to say that the force of historical progress comes from society as a whole. (This is the first time I’ve every seen anyone cite Lamprecht. He was an eccentric historian who had some influence, but I don’t think he was someone who people were citing decades after his death.)

This is an interesting article. If you read the writings of reformers in the early twentieth century, their argumentative style is very similar to Hoa Bằng’s. The reformers would say that people knew about Chinese historical people and events, but did not know about Vietnamese historical people and events. Now Hoa Bằng’s criticism was that in the early twentieth century educated Vietnamese came to learn about French historical people and events, but they still didn’t know anything about Vietnamese historical people and events.

The other difference is that the reformers tried to promote the idea of heroes. They believed that for people to start thinking in nationalist terms, they needed national heroes. Now in the 1940s, Hoa Bằng argued that national heroes were not enough. Everyone needed to be involved for the nation to be strong, and as a result, everyone needed to know the nation’s history.

In other words, if the reformers in the early twentieth century were the first to start promoting the idea of the nation, Hoa Bằng sought here in this article in the 1940s to expand the scope of the nation.

Finally, the other point which this article makes clear is that not only was the concept of the nation new to the Vietnamese, but it also took a long time for it to take hold. Forty years after reformers had first introduced this idea, people like Hoa Bằng were still struggling to get people to adhere to it.