Hồ Chí Minh Said What???

There are many books in English about Vietnam that claim that in 1946 Hồ Chí Minh stated that “I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life (or some versions have “for a thousand years”).”

(“Thà ngửi chút phân Pháp trong vài năm còn hơn phải ăn phân Tàu trong ngàn năm tới.”)

According to Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History (New York: Viking Press, 1983), the context in which Hồ Chí Minh said these words was in a meeting with members of his government, after he had agreed to let the French return. More specifically, after negotiating with Jean Sainteny, Hồ Chí Minh agreed to let Vietnam become a Free State in the French Union, and to let French troops be stationed there (I think the agreement was that they were to be there for 5 years).

Karnow has a longer quote which is as follows:

“You fools! Don’t you realize what it means if the Chinese remain? Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.” (153)

In other words, according to Karnow, Hồ Chí Minh made this statement to justify his decision to allow the French to return.

But where did Karnow get this extended quote? He doesn’t indicate a source. The earliest source I have been able to find for this quote is the 1952 work by Paul Mus, Viêt-Nam: Sociologie d’une Guerre (Paris, Éditions du Seuil), in which Mus claims to have heard from “a good source” that Hồ Chí Minh said the final sentence – “Plutôt flairer un peu la crotte des Français que manger toute notre vie celle des Chinois.” – not the extended paragraph that Karnow later provided.

Who was Paul Mus and what was the context in which he noted this quote? Paul Mus was a French scholar, and after WW II he played an important role in attempting to gain the return of Vietnam for the French. In other words, Mus was deeply invested in the colonial enterprise.

In talking about the period of 1946, Mus argues that when Hồ Chí Minh looked at the situation around him, he felt that the French were not that bad.

A great deal of evidence can be presented to put forth a counter argument about the tenor of the times. At the end of the war, some Vietnamese started a significant campaign to educate the world about the negative side of French colonial rule.

Tracts like this one from 1945 which presented the “crimes” of the French page after page were distributed to representatives of foreign governments, such as the US, which during the war had expressed a great deal of opposition to allowing the French to retain their colonies.

By 1952 when Paul Mus published his book, accounts of torture and atrocities committed by French forces in the First Indochina War had also emerged. So in the 1940s and into the 1950s there was a strong anti-French discourse.

Meanwhile, from 1949 onward Hồ Chí Minh received considerable assistance from the Peoples Republic of China (an odd thing to do for someone who, according to Mus, was so nervous about China).

I therefore find it very suspect to see Mus claiming that in 1946 Hồ Chí Minh would make some statement indicating that he was more amenable to the French than the Chinese. That statement simply does not fit that historical context.

It does, however, fit nicely with the agendas of Paul Mus and Stanley Karnow. Mus was attempting to demonstrate that French rule was not that bad, and that even Hồ Chí Minh could admit as much, albeit with some reluctance.

For Karnow, writing in the aftermath of the American War and from an anti-war position that was sympathetic to the nationalist narrative that the North produced during the war, the quote likewise made sense. It told him that the Americans never should have gotten involved in Vietnam because the Vietnamese had been fighting off foreigners for thousands of years. . .

What Karnow did not realize, is that the nationalist narrative he agreed with, only dated to about 1965, when Vietnamese intellectuals in North Vietnam started to write about Vietnam’s supposed “history of resistance to Chinese aggression.”

Kosal Path points this out in his “Hà Nôi’s Responses to Beijing’s Renewed Enthusiasm to Aid North Vietnam, 1970-1972,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 6.3 (2011): 101-139.

If you go back to the 1950s, you find, as I’ve discussed here, the Chinese presented as historic “fighting friends” of the Vietnamese.

Prior to that you can find some occasional references in the first half of the twentieth century about fighting the Chinese, but nothing as coherent and dominant as the narrative that appeared in the 1960s in North Vietnam.

By now, however, the “fact” that “the Vietnamese” have been “resisting Chinese aggression” for thousands of years has become unquestioned “truth.” And as a result, an absurd quote can be attributed to Hồ Chí Minh, and can get expanded (in the case of Karnow’s quote) and published numerous times without anyone questioning it.

Seriously, does anyone think that Hồ Chí Minh would have referred to anyone as “you fools!”??? Does that fit any assessment that has ever been made of how that man spoke to others? The Karnow quote is a great example of how far from reality the discussion about Vietnam had become by the end of the American War.

And yet it is that perspective that became “enshrined” as the “official narrative” of those years in books like Karnow’s.

Lien-Hang Nguyen recently published a piece in the New York Times on “Exploding the Myths About Vietnam.” The myths she was referring to were ones popularized by people like Karnow. And while she discusses in her article more significant matters than quotes like this one, this quote is nonetheless yet another of the myths about Vietnam that needs to be exploded.

25 thoughts on “Hồ Chí Minh Said What???

  1. While I have no evidence of Ho Chi Minh’s copyright of the quote you mentioned, nor problem with your being unsure about its origin, I beg to differ on the way you put forward your doubt.
    You made a point saying that before the 60s, the anti-China discourse wasn’t dominant in communist Vietnam. But the absence of that narrative doesn’t mean Ho Chi Minh could not resort to that argument when he had to convince his cadres on the necessity of a compromise with the French over Vietnam’s independence agenda. Quite the contrary, as it seems to me. By the way, we all know that in Ho’s mind at that time, China peril was not seen in Mao Zedong and his soldiers, but nationalist Chang Kaichek looting armies. Making them depart from Vietnam was an outcome that the ordinary people acclaimed very much, according to corroborating witness.
    As to your question about Ho’s improbable referring anyone to “fools”, I think you don’t get the whole meaning and nuances of this word in Vietnamese. If the original sentence was like “các chú dại lắm”, it fit perfectly with the power relation between Hồ and his younger lieutenants, especially in consideration of Hồ’s upper hand in diplomatic matter within ICP and Việt Minh leadership.
    Last but not least, Karnow’s book dated much later that Paul Mus’s account of Ho’s quote. But Karnow showed a more elaborate sentence, which gave context that made sense a lot to his quote. What we don’t know is where they sourced their works. However, both of them agreed on the essential. So I have no reason to not believe Ho said that one day of 1945

    1. Thanks for the comment!!
      What you say is fine, but we also have to take into account that the context through which we know about this comment – in French, for a French audience, written by someone who wanted to convince more powerful people in France that the solution to “the Indochinese situation” was by negotiating with HCM, not by fighting him. That quote makes HCM look like someone who the French should have on their side.

      Here’s a quote from a review of a book on Mus that was published a few years ago:

      “Finally, Part IV, “Paul Mus et la décolonisation,” brings the story of this rare intellectual into the post French colonial period, with particular attention
      paid to Mus’ humanist tendencies and his deep understanding of Vietnamese nationalism. Daniel Hémery, a leading historian of modern Vietnam and
      maître de conférence honoraire at l’Université Paris VII-Denis Diderot, depicts Paul Mus as a knowledgeable advocate for peaceful resolutions and mutual understanding (pp. 243-245). For Hémery, Mus’ avoidance of paternalistic language and his evident respect for the aims of Vietnamese nationalism made the scholar a unique, temperate voice within the French camp after 1945 (p. 243). Daniel Varga, a doctoral graduate of l’Université de Provence, presents a compelling picture of Mus’ failed efforts to persuade the French government to take advantage of the post-DRV situation and secure a peaceful solution. His essay contrasts Mus’ diplomatic approach with that of Léon Pignon, the Haut-Commissaire in Indochina who endorsed the abdicated Bao Dai Emperor in October 1948 (p. 258). Prior to 1948, according to Mus, peace between France and an independent Vietnam seemed possible (p. 247). Varga demonstrates the disregard of the French government for Mus’ position with an episode that occurred between Mus and de Gaulle. In reply to Paul Mus’ suggestions that France seek negotiations with the Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh, de Gaulle flatly replied: “Monsieur le professeur, nous gagnerons parce que nous sommes les plus forts” [Mr. professor, we will win because we are the strongest] (p. 252). The tragedy of la situation indochinoise would continue despite Mus’ advice. ”

      Also – another reason why I find this comment to be false is because the situation on the ground appears to have been different from what people say. What HCM appears to have feared at that time is not an occupying Chinese army, but the loyalty of the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam at that time. I wrote about this once before, but since then I’ve come across more accounts like these. My sense is that there was uncertainty at the time about what the Chinese in Vietnam would do in a post-colonial world. Would they want to be part of a Vietnamese country? Would they want to leave? Would their leaving cause diplomatic problems?
      If there were any fears in HCM’s mind about Chinese, I think that they were more along these lines.

      And this is related as well:

    2. _ Tchang kai shek ‘s soldiers were a plague for Vietnam for many months .
      But unwillingly their presence had a good side , they blockes french colonial return to North Vietnam during that time , giving Vietnamese time to consolidate their forces .
      _ the anti chinese frame of vietnamese minds were never a reality , neither at that moment nor in the past . Actually , Vietnamese rulers in the past never hesitated to call upon their northern neighbors to play arbiter in their disputes . More recently , Ching rulers according to their duties as suzerains went to war to help Vietnam against the first French colonial encroachments .
      At that time 1946 , Vietminh communists or Vietnam Quôc dân dang ( VN Kuomin tang ) had close relations with their chinese counterparts as one can read in :Chiang Kai-Shek, De Gaulle contre Hô Chi-Minh: Viêt-nam 1945-1946 Par Hua Lin

      1. Thanks for the comment. This brings up another part of the picture. The bigger problem for HCM was not that “the Chinese” were going to stay, but that they were pressuring his government to work together with non-Communist nationalist groups.

        Also, if I remember correctly, Chiang Kai-shek let the French return to northern Vietnam, but to do so the French had to give up their concessions (territory) in China.

        Therefore, what was dangerous about “the Chinese” was not that they had some “timeless” desire to control Vietnam, but that they wanted to ensure that 1) they got back what the French had taken from them and 2) that the post-war government in Vietnam not be Communist.

      2. Actually China was killing 3 birds with one stone.

        Chiang had been trying to consolidate central government control in China by getting rid of the warlords. He managed to defeat the great majority of them in the Northern Expedition in 1927 and during World War 2 with Japan when he effectively decapitated the Sichuan warlord’s power. Only a few warlords remained in Yunnan and other parts of China.

        The troops that Chiang Kai-shek used to occupy north Vietnam were also not regular Chinese central government army troops, which is why they had terrible discipline and wrecked havoc.

        They were soldiers of the Yunnan warlord Long Yun. Chiang ordered Long Yun to send 100,000 of his troops into Northern Vietnam to accept surrenders from the Japanese. After they marched into Vietnam, Chiang orchestrated a coup in Yunnan and unseated Long Yun from power and established full central government control of Yunnan province.

        And then Chiang forced the French to concede that they would give up their concessions in China in exchange for withdrawing from Vietnam.

        And meanwhile Chiang was busy helping the anti-communist VNQDD (Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng) to get into positions of power in north Vietnam.

        Chiang’s government had supported VNQDD in anti-French colonialist activities in the 1930s and allowed them to operate from China. The French were getting very angry about this and also France and China were disputing the Spratly and Paracel islands at that time.

      3. Thanks for the comments! I wasn’t aware of the issue with Long Yun, but yes, that makes a lot of sense, and it adds further strength to the argument I’ve been trying to make (or at least the sense I have) which is that there was never a chance that “the Chinese” were going to stay in Vietnam. Chiang Kai-shek couldn’t have cared less about Vietnam.

  2. It ‘s MIND BOGGLING but it is axiomatic for the 90 million Vietnamese that the Vietnamese people were formerly dominated by the ” Chinese ” during 1000 years and afterwards the same ” Chinese ” spent all their time watching Vietnam and waiting for the first opportunity to pounce and re-occupy Vietnam . This is shared even by present Vietnamese leaders , it’s taught in Vietnamese schools ‘ history courses . They ‘re quite ignorant of ” Chinese ” history ; they didn’t know that “China ” broke up many times and the ” Chinese ” had other worries than watching and coveting Vietnam , during the thousand years after Vietnam’ s independance
    They are traumatized by that sham history and blinded by anti Chinese bias Each time , there is some quarrel with “China ” , they roll their eyes , filled with hatred . They strike their chests , vowing to take revenge of the 1000 year – domination .
    I have a conspiracy theory that the sham history was concocted by the the french colonialists or Catholics to drive a wedge between both people , they succeded trmendously .
    Another hunch , the sham history is actually that of the Vn Catholics , they’re the Vietnamese who were under ” chinese ” yoke and the hated ” chinese ” who ruled over them are actually the Nguyên rulers who persecuted them .
    How and when would it be possible to un- wash the brain of today’s Vietnamese from that hoax ?

  3. Leaving aside the stridency in RiroRiro’s comment, it can be said that what he or she contends about Sino-Vietnamese relations is very similar to claims Keith Taylor has recently made on this subject.

    See in particular Keith Taylor, The Vietnamese Civil War of 1955-1975 in Historical Perspective, in: A. Wiest and M. J. Doidge, TRIUMPH REVISITED: HISTORIANS BATTLE FOR THE VIETNAM WAR (New York: Routledge, 2010), 21-22.



    1. Yes, it is good that Keith Taylor has written this.
      As for Catholic conspiracies. . . the idea of thinking about ideas that emerged in the Catholic community that then influenced the larger society is one that I think is worth pursuing. However, my own research to date suggests to me that the “resistance to foreign aggression” is not a Catholic creation. While there are elements of it that go back in time to the early twentieth century, I see its modern roots taking hold in the Vichy period (WW II), starting to sprout (just a little) under Tran Trong Kim’s rule, and then growing a bit in the 1950s (the South criticized the North at that time for NOT resisting China), but really starting to take form in the late 1960s after the Cultural Revolution began in China (when North Vietnam started to “resist” the ideological craziness coming from China at that time), and then with the 1979 border war it reached maturity.

    2. Pell mell :
      _ K. Taylor , who asserted in his famous book ” Birth of vietnam ” that VN and Chinese were different ethnically and culturally , seems to disavow this view in his latest book ” History of the Vietnamese ” :”Who and what we call Vietnamese did not exist prior to the centuries during which Vietnamese ancestors lived as inhabitants of Chinese dynastic empires. Every aspect of Vietnamese culture appeared as a result of being in that empire and from the existence of a large Chinese speaking population that developed over several generations and that eventually melted into the local population when the imperial connection was severed.”
      _ Vietnamese social traditions ( hôn = marriage , quan = clothing , tang = funerals , tê’ = rites ) seem to be a copy and paste of Chinese ones .
      The nomenclature of family relationships ( parents- children , aunts uncles – nephews , nieces , …) is identically elaborate
      More than half of VN everyday vocabulary is from chinese origin and ” chinese ” words are more sophisticated .
      _ Nguyên emperors had a ” sinocentric ” view of their subjects . In a census , they listed them as ” Han people ” in contrast to other ethnies generically called Di = barbarians
      _ the first Ming emperor seemed not to possess an imerialistic mind , he was not interested in reincorporate Vietnam
      In his ‘Ancestral Injunction’, he advises his successors as follows: “The overseas foreign countries like Annan [Vietnam], Champa, Korea, Siam, Liuqiu [Ryukyu Islands], [the countries of the] Western Oceans [South India] and Eastern Oceans [Japan], and the various small countries of the southern Man [barbarians] are separated from us by mountains and seas and far away in a corner. Their lands would not produce enough for us to maintain them; their peoples would not usefully serve us if incorporated [into the empire]. If they were so unrealistic as to disturb our borders, it would be unfortunate for them. If they gave us no trouble and we moved troops to fight them unnecessarily, it would be unfortunate for us. I am concerned that future generations might abuse China’s wealth and power and covet the military glories of the moment to send armies into the field without reason and cause a loss of life. May they be sharply reminded that this is forbidden.”

      1. Yes, the only thing I would add is that there was not a single “Chinese view.” Each time there were problems with Annan/An Nam during the Ming, there was a debate at the court. There were some who considered Annan/An Nam to be “civilized” and part of the empire, and there were others who considered it to be a land of barbarians, and better off left alone.

      2. Given the enormous asymmetry between China and Vietnam in so many domains, it does not take much to affirm that the former’s influence on the latter has been pervasive. Far more intriguing is the question as to how and why the Vietnamese, in spite of this overwhelming dominance, have managed to maintain themselves as a relatively independent and distinctly different nation while many others have been incorporated into the vast polity that is commonly called China. (It should be noted, though, that today Vietnam’s independence vis-à-vis China is increasingly threatened by its own ruling elite (who are ironically enough Hồ Chí Minh’s political descendants.))

  4. I wonder why people always express surprise/pride about this, and not about this:

    Given the enormous asymmetry between America and Canada in so many domains, it does not take much to affirm that the former’s influence on the latter has been pervasive. Far more intriguing is the question as to how and why the Canadians, in spite of this overwhelming dominance, have managed to maintain themselves as a relatively independent and distinctly different nation while many others have been incorporated into the vast polity that is commonly called America.


      1. You take it for a given that ” China ” has always been a stable , monolithic entity whose “obsession ” was getting Vietnam back under its yoke
        You should inform yourself that after the fall of Tang empire , ” China ” broke up in many warring kingdoms for 130 years . The main worry of Song ” China ” afterwards during 300 years was fighting back northern barbarians among them the Mongols . After the Mongols , the Ming empire closes in on itself ( apart of its short 20-year occupation of Vietnam )
        When the Manchou Chings took over ” China ” , Vietnam was in the midst of a century long debilitating civil war . Why did’nt they seize the opportunity te conquer VN ? They spent their energies expanding to the west .
        You should know that apart of Vietnam ” China ” has a dozen of vassals tributaries , that Vietnam occupied itself mostly with its Nam tiên ( march to the south ) and China and vietnam did not spend their long existence in eye – to – eye confrontation , that Vietnam was not the center of China’s attention , that during the two Vietnam wars , communist China lended a precious friendly hand to Vietnam ‘s struggles
        It seels whatever is said you can’t un – wash your brain of anti – chinese bias
        So back to the discussion , HCM certainly did’nt express the anti chinese words attibuted to him

      2. Saigon Buffalo, reference your: “Far more intriguing is the question as to how and why the Vietnamese, in spite of this overwhelming dominance, have managed to maintain themselves as a relatively independent and distinctly different nation while many others have been incorporated into the vast polity that is commonly called China.”

        Part of that lies in the fact that pre-1802 Vietnam was locked in a series of wars between two Vietnamese states, who had never heard the term Vietnam or Vietnamese, Part of it lies in the various upheavals n China, among them the Qing overthrow of the Ming, followed by 40 year of war to complete the conquest in the south, whose final years pushed to Minh Huong Chinese into Kampuchea Krom (the Mekong and Bien Hoa) and Ha Tien which spurred Nguyen Phuc interest in both the Mekong and Cambodian politics, particularly as concerned Thaksin Siam. Simply put, China didn’t need to occupy Dang Ngoai or Dang Troi. The legal representative of both (the Le Dynasty) was already a vassal, and Nguyen Phuc armies had proven themselves capably of handling ‘barbarians,” At least up until the Taiping rebellion. The Nguyen dynasty certain exploited the Black Flags in the Tonkin highlands, and I believe it is telling that only after their defeat did the Chinese Imperial Army show up to challenge the French.

        Anyway, I enjoyed the reference to Keith Taylor, whose history of the Vietnamese is one of the most engaging and memorable histories of Vietnam I have read.

  5. Stay calm. Saigon Buffalo has commented a lot on this blog and I strongly suspect that s/he agrees that HCM did not express the anti-Chinese words attributed to him.

    What I think Saigon Buffalo was doing in the comment above was poking fun at the contradictions between reality and the discourse about “thousands of years of resistance against foreign [particularly Chinese] aggression.”

    Ultimately, I think every country has the same problem to some degree – there is an “official/popular” discourse about the country (i.e., America upholds freedom and democracy) and then there is 1) the reality that contradicts the official/common discourse, 2) the ways in which the official/common discourse is used by different peoples for different political purposes, 3) the way that the official/common discourse pushes politicians to do things that really don’t make sense, and 4) the fact that reality is often much more complex than all of the above points combined.

    What I think is good is being able to analyze how all this stuff happens, and to be able to talk and write about that. Does doing so make anything better? I’d like to think so. but. . .

  6. I happened in a Chinese report on the 1943 Cairo conference .
    Tchang kai Shek conferred with Roosevelt and Churchill . According to the report , Tchang among ohers matters was interested with Korea’s fate , The report says , no mention whatsoever of Vietnam or Indochina was done
    I read an article from C. Goscha about the VN scholar and translator Nguyên van Vinh . It says that despite French colonialist rule and the favored place conferred upon French culture , the mass of cultural VN was still Chinese- oriented and VN scholars and intellectuals imported and read all kinds of Chinese writings and publications .

    1. Riroriro, that is contradicted somewhat by Chapter 5, Cultural Transformations, of Brocheux and Hemery’s Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization 1858-1954. Obviously there were still many Vietnamese who could read and write Chinese in 1945. I knew a few myself in the 1960s, generally Sino-Vietnamese. But the very fact that HCM adopted the Quoc Ngu, something his father would have opposed, speaks for itself. In essence, Ho cut the strongest link China had to VIetnam.

      The French had as important a cultural impact upon modern Vietnam as China had on an earlier Vietnam. And like things “Chinese”, the Vietnamese adopted the one that favored them,and cast aside the ones that didn’t.

  7. @Shaun Darragh : neither HCM nor the Vietnamese people adopted willingly the latin transcription ( misnamed quốc ngữ , ” national script ” ),it was imposed upon them at the start of the 20th century . When HCM took power in 1946 , he had much more urgent tasks among which the alphabetization of the population , so he had to make do with the current tool . Vietnam normally should return to Han characters whether totally or in some proportions but other problems are more pressing .
    [ The French had an important cultural impact upon Vietnam ] of course , after 4 generations , as with the Chinese the overlords ‘ way of life , thinking , mores , attire …. seeped down under on the conquered : for instance , the white color was for Chinese the symbol of old age , of mourning ; nowadays , brides get married in white , french symbol of virgin purity . So ,it’s preposterous that some Vietnamee still forcefully spout the myth that their predecessors somehow kept their culture different from the Chinese ‘s .

  8. Hello. I am a regular reader of your blog, and I’m just leaving a note to tell you that I have translated/introduced the content of this blog-post via my own blog. Egloos is a Korean blogging platform (similar to wordpress) and I’ve found that Korean bloggers interested in Vietnamese history were discussing the Stanley Karnow quotes.
    So, I thought it would be a good idea to introduce your viewpoint and counter-arguments as well. I hope I am not being too rude by notifying you after I’ve done so.
    I really like your content and wish to introduce more of your posts into Korean! I think it will help widen the understanding on the larger East Asian history.

  9. I believe Uncle Ho said this but in a different place and time. Imagine the Carlton Hotel at the turn of the 20th century. Nguyen Ai Quoc was in the kitchen of the Carlton Hotel ready to sit down to dinner after a long day of cooking and scrubbing dishes. A Chinese busboy asked Ho if he wants to eat fried rice or some leftover French bread. This was the reply: “….As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.” He always had the best reply that man.

    1. Brilliant!! Absolutely brilliant!!! This totally makes sense. After all, the fried rice at the Carlton was indeed notoriously awful.

      Wikipedia reports that,

      “At the height of the fame of the Carlton, [co-owner César] Ritz was preparing to mark the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 with much-publicised and elaborate festivities when the king suddenly fell ill, and the coronation was postponed indefinitely. The shock caused Ritz to suffer a severe nervous breakdown and sent him into retirement, leaving [co-owner Auguste] Escoffier as the figurehead at the Carlton.”

      The important detail that Wikipedia leaves out here is that King Edward VII actually fell ill from eating the fried rice at the Carlton in a test run of the coronation banquet. Working at the hotel in 1913, Ho Chi Minh must have either heard this story, or had simply determined through observation that the fried rice was horrific.

      Thank you for solving this historical mystery!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s