I’ve said many times before that the most important period for understanding all of Vietnamese history is the one period that has been studied the least – the early twentieth century. At that time the Vietnamese worldview changed so radically and so completely that today very few Vietnamese realize how differently they think from their ancestors.
One way of gaining an understanding of the changes that took place at that time is by looking at language. When the journal Nam Phong started to be published in the late 1910s, it included a supplement that defined new words that had recently entered the Vietnamese language.
These words were created by using classical Chinese terms (and many of them were created by Japanese reformers in the 19th century) to translate terms in Western languages that did not have counterparts in East Asian languages.
The editors of the journal explained that some of the words might seem strange, but that after they had been used a few times they would become natural, just as words such as “civilization” (văn minh 文明) and “society” (xã hội 社會) had seemed strange a mere ten years before.
It is interesting to look at these lists of words. On the one hand, it is easy to see that some of these terms were new, like “nhân-quyền-tuyên-ngôn” for “Declaration of the Rights of Man [and of the Citizen]” (Déclaration des droits de l’homme [et du citoyen]). On the other hand, other terms seem so natural today that it is hard to imagine that they were new concepts a mere 100 years ago, such as “phong trào” for “a movement.”
How many books and articles, for instance, have been written by now about the late-eighteenth-century “Tây Sơn movement” (phong trào [nông dân] Tây Sơn)? But if the concept of a “movement” (phong trào) didn’t exist at that time, was it really a movement?
Does this term which was developed in a Western context really describe the Vietnamese context in the late eighteenth century? How do we know? Has anyone asked that question? Or have people just uncritically used modern Western terms to talk about the premodern Vietnamese past?
In looking at zdic.net, it’s clear that the term “phong trào/fengchao” was used in the past, mainly in poetry, but it meant something very different from “a movement.” In particular, it was a term that carried negative connotations and was used by the ruling elite to refer to “political unrest.”
That’s very different from “a movement.” The concept of “a movement” did not exist prior to the 20th century in East Asia. It is a Western concept that was introduced into East Asian languages.
Another such word is “đồng hóa” for “assimilation.” I have read countless times in the writings of Vietnamese authors over the past 50 years of how “the Chinese” have always tried to “assimilate” (đồng hóa) “the Vietnamese.” Well if the term for this phenomenon did not exist until it was introduced from a Western language in the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth centuries into East Asian languages, then how do we know that this is what “the Chinese” tried to do?
“Assimilation” is used in various contexts in Western languages, but when it is used by Vietnamese authors to talk about Chinese intentions, it refers to “cultural assimilation.” That is a meaning which seems to have appeared in Western languages very late. Looking at the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest meanings of “assimilation” are more philosophical, linguistic or medical.
In conducting a Google ngram search for the two terms “cultural assimilation,” we see that those two terms together only started to be used extensively in the 20th century.
Meanwhile, the definition of the Chinese term “tonghua” indicates that this term came to be used during the Qing Dynasty period (very late) to mean that people had “together received the same moral teachings.” Is that the same as “cultural assimilation”?
My point here is to say that the Westernization of Vietnamese thought was so thorough in the early twentieth century that it has completely disconnected (many) historians from the Vietnamese past, such that today the Vietnamese past is represented in Western terms. We read about “movements” and attempts to “assimilate,” etc., but those are all Western concepts that were introduced in the early 20th century.
To represent Vietnamese history in a “Vietnamese” way it should be “de-Westernized.” The way to start doing this is by looking at those lists of new words that Nam Phong compiled in the early twentieth century and to start thinking about how those concepts changed the Vietnamese worldview.