In the late nineteenth century the Qing Dynasty official, Zhang Zhidong, coined a phrase that became very famous – “Chinese learning for substance and Western learning for function” (中學為體,西學為用 Zhongxue weiti, Xixue weiyong).

Zhang knew that the Qing Dynasty needed to modernize by adopting technologies that had been developed in the West, but he did not want to adopt Western ideas or cultural practices. The problem of course was that it was impossible to do this, and starting with the New Culture Movement in the 1910s, young Chinese rejected Zhang’s call and began to embrace Western learning for both “substance” and “function.”

Recently I’ve been listening to certain Vietnamese talk about plans to “internationalize” academic programs in Vietnamese universities. All kinds of plans are being considered, such as creating 1-1 MA programs where students would do the first year in Vietnam and a second year at a university overseas.

What I find interesting about these plans is that I sense that the people conceiving them have a similar idea about knowledge as Zhang Zhidong did in the late nineteenth century. That is to say, they think that Vietnamese students need some things from the West (such as English language skills and some knowledge of academic theories), but they are confident that much of the knowledge that they have produced over the past half century in Vietnam (particularly ideas about the Vietnamese nation) is solid enough to maintain.

The problem here is that much of the work that has been produced in the West over the past half century that Vietnamese are not familiar with (such as the thousands of writings on topics like identity and nationalism) will undermine much of the knowledge that has been produced in Vietnam in that same period, and which is valued so dearly by the powers that be.

Therefore, true “internationalization” will transform the current body of “national” knowledge in Vietnam. However, I do not get the sense that people who are promoting “internationalization” realize this, nor do I think that they would be willing to accept this.

Instead, they seem to be hoping for something like “Vietnamese learning for the nation and Western learning for internationalization” – a concept that is just as contradictory and impossible to implement as Zhang Zhidong’s “Chinese learning for substance and Western learning for function.”