Looking through some of the newspapers that the National Library of Vietnam has digitized, I came across a weekly newspaper called Sông Hương (Perfume River). In its first issue, published on August 1st 1936, it had an essay by someone named Hoài-Thanh entitled “The Problem of Our Country’s Scholarship is Just a Problem of Mindset and Morals” (Vấn đề học thuật nước ta chỉ là một vấn đề tâm lý và luân lý).

What follows are some excerpts.

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“There is perhaps no country on the face of the earth where the people who call themselves scholars are as indifferent to scholarship as in our country. We still have a reputation for being dedicated to scholarship, but we are actually just dedicated to gain and glory. When engaging in scholarship does not bring us gain and glory then there are very few people who wish to engage in it anymore. There are very few people who are fond of engaging in scholarship for the sake of scholarship.”

[Dễ thường thế giới không có nước nào mà những người tự nhận là học giả lại lạnh lung với việc học giả như ỏ nước mình. Người mình vẫn được tiếng là hiếu học nhưng đúng ra chỉ là hiếu lợi và hiếu danh. Khi sự học không đưa đến cho mình lợi và danh thì ít ai còn thèm màng đến nó nữa. Í tai biết ham học vì sự học.]

“Famous scholars like Henri Poincaré, Fr. Houssay and G. Milhaud all recognize that science only has one purpose, to search for the truth, and that it should not have any other purpose.”

[Những học giả trứ danh như Henri Poincaré, như Fr. Houssay, như G. Milhaud đều công nhận rằng khoa học chỉ có một mục đích là tìm sự thật và không nên có mục đích gì khác.]

“That we peoples of Asia have not made much progress in terms science and scholarship is perhaps in part because we are so obsessed with the benefits that we see immediately before us.”

[Các dân tộc Á-đông ta ít tiến về phương diện khoa-học và học thuật có lẽ một phần cũng vì chúng ta quá ham mê theo những cái lợi trước mắt.]

“So if we want our country to have a scholarship in the future, first and foremost we must change this mindset and resolutely follow a new set of morals.”

[Vậy ta muốn nước ta sau này cũng có một nền học thuật, trước hết cần phải đổi hẳn cái tâm lý ấy đi và quả quyết theo một nền luân lý mói.]

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In reading this essay I immediately thought of the Filipino intellectual José Rizal. In his novel, Noli Me Tangere, there is a scene in which the main character returns to the Philippines from Europe and finds that he can’t look at his home the same way he used to because in the back of his head he has images of Europe that constantly lead him to make comparisons.

Rizal, who wrote his novel in Spanish, called this phenomenon “el demonio de las comparaciones,” an expression that Benedict Anderson translated as “the spectre of comparisons.”

spectre

A “spectre” is like a ghost. It is something that can be partially visible, and it can haunt a person.

Several decades after José Rizal wrote about this phenomenon, it is clear that the spectre of comparisons was haunting Hoài-Thanh, the author of this essay in Sông Hương. For Hoài-Thanh, it was impossible to see “our country’s scholarship” without also seeing “that country’s scholarship.”

To be fair, the spectre of comparisons had long existed in Vietnam. Prior to the twentieth century, Vietnamese scholars compared their land with the big empire to their north, and found things to worry about. However, a change began around the time that José Rizal wrote his novel in the 1890s, where the spectre of “the North” was replaced by the spectre of “the West.”

This is the spectre that was haunting Hoài-Thanh in 1936.