One of the stereotypes which the Nguyễn Dynasty has suffered from is that it was “overly Sinitic/Confucian,” and that this made them impractical to the extent that they could not rise to the challenge of the French. Their minds were off in the ivory towers of Confucian scholarship.
In reading the official history which was compiled in the second half of the nineteenth century, Imperially Commissioned Itemized Summaries of the Comprehensive Mirror of Việt History [Khâm Định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục], I’m always impressed at how rational a lot of the scholarship is. The compilers of that work threw a lot of doubt on various records from the past. In the process, one of the biggest critics of earlier scholarship was the emperor, Tự Đức. He had a lot of unique views about the past, and this is a topic which deserves study.
For instance, Sĩ Nhiếp/Shi Xie, the Han Dynasty administer who governed over the Red River Delta in the early third century C.E. was revered for centuries by Vietnamese literati for having supposedly introduced to the region writing and all of the moral teachings that come with it.
Hence, the fifteenth century historian, Ngô Sĩ Liên, made the following comments about Sĩ Nhiếp:
“Our kingdom became familiar with the Poetry and Documents,* performed rites and ritual music, and became a domain of manifest civility from the time of King Shi. Is it not the case that his meritorious accomplishments were not just bestowed on that age, but extended distantly to later generations? Is this not magnificent?”
[Nước ta thông thi thư, học lễ nhạc, làm một nước văn hiến, là bắt đầu từ Sĩ Vương, công đức ấy không những chỉ ở đương thời mà còn truyền mãi đời sau, há chẳng lớn sao?]
*The “Poetry and Documents” is a reference to the Classic of Poetry [Shijing] and the Venerated Documents [Shangshu], also known as the Classic of Documents [Shujing]. However, it can also be used more generally to refer to writing and their accompanying moral teachings.
Contrast that praise with Emperor Tự Đức’s assessment in the nineteenth century:
“Sĩ Nhiếp was just a Han governor. He adapted to the times and just sought what was in his own interest. He absolutely did not have great talent or long-range policies to pass on. There is nothing worth praising.”
[Sĩ Nhiếp chẳng qua là một thái thú nhà Hán, tùy thời nịnh hót, cầu sao cho mình được an toàn, chứ không có mưu lược tài cán gì giỏi cả, đến nỗi truyền được hai đời đã mất, có gì đáng khen!]