I recently read a fascinating article by Nguyễn Nam about a Vietnamese journal that I had never heard of before, the Du học báo 遊學報 (Bulletin Bimensuel de la Société d’Encouragement aux Études Occidentales). This was a journal that was published in the late 1920s and early 1930s by an organization called the An Nam như Tây du học bảo trợ hội 安南如西遊學保助會 (Société d’encouragement aux études occidentales), or more literally, “the society for the support of Annamese [students] going to the West to study.”
The An Nam như Tây du học bảo trợ hội was established by the Nguyễn Dynasty court in 1926, during the first year of Emperor Bảo Đại’s reign. It offered scholarships to students so that they could study in France.
While only 37 or so students were supported by this scholarship, many of them became prominent figures in intellectual or cultural worlds after they returned, such as the following: Phạm Đình Ái, Nguyễn Xiển, Hoàng Xuân Hãn, Tạ Quang Bửu, Nguyễn Tường Tam (a.k.a. Nhất Linh), Ngụy Như Kontum, Phan Nhuận, Thái Can, Lê Viết Hường, and Hoàng Xuân Nhị.
As Nguyễn Nam explains in his article, the hope of the court was that these students would bring back technological knowledge from France that would help modernize the kingdom, but that they would stay away from radical ideas that challenged the political status quo.
This overall message was repeatedly made explicit in the journal, the Du học báo, as virtually every issue contained at least one article that promoted traditional Confucian values, such as the importance of loyalty to the monarch for officials, and filial piety for sons.
Nguyễn Nam’s article is entitled “A Local History of Vietnamese Sinology in Early Twentieth Century Annam—the Case of the Bulletin Du học báo 遊學報 and was included in a special issue of the journal East Asia: An International Quarterly on “Understanding China from Southeast Asia.”
His main purpose in this article is to demonstrate how the essays about Confucian morality in the Du học báo are part of a larger intellectual transformation that took place in East Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In particular, the “challenge” of the West led Japanese, Chinese, Koreans and Vietnamese to question their own societies and the ideas that they were based upon.
While some people concluded from this process of self-questioning that everything “old” needed to be discarded and everything “new” (i.e., Western) needed to be adopted, others argued that there was still a place for Confucian morality. In making this argument for the continued importance of Confucian values, however, scholars put forth new arguments by engaging in a kind of discussion about Confucian values and (their understanding of) Western ideas.
This “discussion” took a specific form. As Nguyễn Nam notes, “although starting their discussion with new Western philosophical or moral concepts, Vietnamese Confucian scholars always concluded by discussing preexisting Confucian values, thereby showing their compatibility and adjustability with Western thought and consequently preventing any radical changes that might challenge the status quo of society.” (pg. 148)
Nguyễn Nam’s article is very important. Much of what has been written to date about the history of Vietnam in the early twentieth century focuses on the people who were trying to bring about change, particularly radical change. There has therefore been a great deal written about revolutionaries, but very little has been written about the more conservative members of society.
While the more radical members of society brought about faster political changes, many of the values that the more conservative members of society promoted in the past continue to exert a strong influence in the present. This is something that has long confused people because it is difficult to see how “traditional” ideas could have endured through times of revolutionary change.
In this respect, the articles about morality in the Du học báo serve as a kind of “missing link.” They give us a sense of how “traditional” morals continued to be upheld (albeit in this “modernized” discussion with Western ideas) and promoted after the “traditional” world of the civil service examination system came to an end. What is more, it is obvious that there are clear connections between the “traditional” world that we see in the Du học báo and certain organizations that existed in the South in the 1950s and 1960s as well.
That said, just as the scholars who wrote for the Du học báo in the late 1920s and 1930s did so in a “modern” way by comparing and contrasting Western and Confucian ideas, the conservative scholars of South Vietnam were also very “modern” in that they engaged in a later stage of this modern discourse about Confucian morality, something that by the 1950s came to be referred to as “New Confucianism,” and which united members of the conservative elite from Hong Kong to Taiwan to Singapore, Hue and Saigon.
I’ve heard that someone is researching that topic at the moment. It will be wonderful to have that world of “modern conservatism” revealed to us as well.