When I first started to learn about Vietnamese history, I was taught a certain “narrative” about the Vietnamese past. That narrative argued that in the early twentieth century Phan Bội Châu led students to Japan to study “modern” subjects in what is known as the “Đông Du (or ‘travel to the East’) Movement.”

This project did not last long, as the French put pressure on the Japanese to expel the Vietnamese students from the country, but some of them reportedly returned to Hanoi where they were involved with a short-lived school called the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục, often translated into English as the “Đông Kinh Free School.”

This school is praised in the narrative of Vietnamese history that I learned as a place where modern subjects, like those which students in the Đông Du Movement had learned in Japan, were taught, and it was particularly praised for promoting the use of the Romanized script for writing Vietnamese, known as quốc ngữ.

Taken together, the Đông Du Movement and the Đông Kinh Free School are represented in the narrative of Vietnamese history that I first learned as critical steps towards transforming Vietnam from a “traditional” to a “modern” society, and as critical early steps in the anti-colonial movement.

Phan Boi Chau

I was recently at a conference where a Korean scholar presented a fascinating paper on “what actually happened in Japan” during the period of the Đông Du Movement. What this scholar found in his examination of Japanese writings was that the Đông Du Movement was very poorly organized, many of the students were very young (even elementary school age), some of them failed to get admitted to schools, they fought with each other, they didn’t interact with Japanese, and they didn’t learn much of anything at all.

This scholar’s conclusion was thus that the Đông Du Movement was essentially a failure (if the goal was to learn “modern” knowledge), as most of the students appear to have learned very little during their time in Japan.


With all of this as background, I found it interesting today to find among the Hán Nôm materials that the National Library of Vietnam has digitized a text in Hán called the Ấu học phổ thông thuyết ước (幼學普通說約). This was a textbook for children that was compiled by scholar and Nguyễn Dynasty official Phạm Quang Sán (范光璨) in 1908 (The National Library record has “維新戊申 1888.” That is not correct. “維新戊申” was 1908.).

This text is a Hán translation of a quốc ngữ text called the Ấu học quốc ngữ tân thư. Why was a quốc ngữ text translated into Hán in 1908, the year that the modernizing Đông Kinh Free School closed?

Phạm Quang Sán wrote some introductory comments to this text in which he stated that although a new age of scholarship had dawned, many people were still following old ways. Phạm Quang Sán stated that this was probably due to the fact that people had functioned within the world of Hán texts for 1,000 years, and that the teachings from that world of texts were “imprinted in citizen’s brains” (ấn ư quốc dân chi não trung 印於國民之腦中).

Many people still did not know quốc ngữ and this lack of understanding was, according to Phạm Quang Sán, an obstacle to progress.

What is interesting, however, is that rather than force people to “modernize” by learning quốc ngữ, Phạm Quang Sán created this Hán version of the Ấu học quốc ngữ tân thư so that the many people who did not know quôc ngữ could get access to the ideas in this text.

Westeern ideas

So what exactly was the Ấu học quốc ngữ tân thư? I’m not sure, but searching for it in the National Library of Vietnam’s catalog I see that it was published by a French publishing house, the Imprimerie d’Extrême-Orient.

In looking at Phạm Quang Sán’s Hán version of this text, it is clear that it introduced many new ideas from the West. The above page, for instance, talks about the three stages of evolution that peoples pass through – savagery, semi-enlightenment and civilization – and the four major religions of the world – Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

These were radically new ideas. And they were being introduced in this book not by a “revolutionary” like Phan Bội Châu, but by a member of “the establishment.”


This is where the narrative that I first learned about Vietnamese history fails to explain the past. There were massive changes that began to take place in the early twentieth century in Vietnam. Those changes, however, were not brought about by Phan Bội Châu, the Đông Du Movement or the Đông Kinh Free School. Instead, they were brought about (through Hán) by modernizing Nguyễn Dynasty officials. That is a story which, as far as I know, has never been told, and one which the existing narrative does not include.

This of course does not mean that someone like Phan Bội Châu was not an important or heroic figure. He most certainly was both. But he did not change the worldview of the Vietnamese. That process was brought about by other people, people who have yet to be fully recognized for their achievements.