Scholars in the English-speaking world really did not start to research and write about Vietnamese history until the 1960s-1970s. At that time Vietnam had already become independent from French colonial control, so scholars understandably sought to understand how this had happened.

We can see this in the early work of someone like David Marr who’s Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 and Tradition on Trial, 1920-1925 document the people and events that contributed to circumstances that eventually enabled Vietnam to become independent (although his later Vietnam, 1945 offers a more complex picture).

While all of these works, and the works of many other scholars on the same period are extremely valuable, they all tend to leave out one important voice – the voice of Vietnamese “officialdom.”

Phong Hoa

I remember years ago seeing “political cartoons” in journals like Phong Hóa in the 1930s that criticized Nguyễn Dynasty officials, and I was surprised to see this, because it showed me that 1) Nguyên Dynasty officials were still important at that time and 2) that I knew nothing about this, because they are not discussed in detail in the writings of people like Marr or anyone else (that I am aware of) who has written on twentieth century Vietnamese history.

So if the editors of Phong Hóa did not like Nguyễn Dynasty officials, why was that the case? What is it that Nguyễn Dynasty officials were doing/saying at that time?? I have no idea.

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Recently, however, I came across a newspaper called the Thanh-Nghê-Tịnh News (Thanh-Nghê-Tịnh Tân-Văn) that first started to be published in 1930. This newspaper clearly reflects the view of Nguyễn Dynasty officials who were working under French “protection.”

In that paper, I found a long document from a Nguyễn Dynasty official which made the following comments:

“The country of Great France has recently offered a lot of quality knowledge to our Southern Land [Nam Thổ]. It is evident to everyone that this has led the young people who pursue New Learning to have a true sense of patriotism, and they sincerely seek the guidance of Great France so that the people of the nation can get on the road to civilization and progress.

Great nations have great writers, great politicians, great examiners [cách trí gia 格致家, I think this term is meant to refer to “scientists”], and great military men who are world-famous. If the country of Đại Nam can follow in Great France’s footsteps there will still be no harm to its reputation.”

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The Thanh-Nghê-Tịnh News was published in both Vietnamese and Hán. The above document was originally written in Hán and then translated into Vietnamese.

What this shows is that as late as 1930 there were Nguyễn Dynasty officials who still felt more comfortable writing in Hán than in Vietnamese.

It also shows that there are voices in the Vietnamese past that historians have not looked at and discussed.

Modern Vietnamese history is not all about “resistance.” There were many Vietnamese who “collaborated,” and before 1945, those Vietnamese probably had a more profound influence on Vietnamese society than those who resisted (and were arrested).

So to understand Vietnamese society in the twentieth century, we need to listen to the voices of people who spoke through media like the Thanh-Nghê-Tịnh News.

These are voices that scholars (both in and outside Vietnam) have not listened to yet.

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