Trần Trọng Kim, Hu Shi (Hồ Thích) and the Yijing

I’ve long wondered why the Yijing (the Classic/Book of Changes) is so important for ultra-nationalist ideas in Vietnam. Extreme nationalists in Vietnam today regard the Yijing and its ideas as “Việt” and see it as central to Việt culture.

If, however, you look for evidence for this view prior to the twentieth century, you won’t find any. Yes, prior to the twentieth century there were people in the area that we now call Vietnam who knew about the Yijing. There were editions of it published there. There were people who used it for divination, etc.

However, it was not seen as being of core importance. So how did it become more important?

While I don’t have the complete answer to this question, I now at least can identify one development that was important for this transformation. And to understand this development, we need to look at the work of a Chinese intellectual by the name of Hu Shi 胡適.

Hu Shih 1960

Hu Shi was one of the most important and influential Chinese intellectuals of the twentieth century. The Wikipedia page about him makes this clear.

For the purposes of our discussion here, however, we need to look at the dissertation that he wrote as a student at Columbia University in the 1910s entitled “The Development of the Logical Method in Ancient China.”

This dissertation was not simply a study of philosophy. Instead, we can also see it as Hu Shi’s attempt to “save” China. At the time he researched and wrote this work, Chinese society was struggling to adapt to a world which now included a powerful alien culture (“Western culture”) that seemed to be radically different from the culture of traditional China.

Hu Shi cover

What is more, that alien culture was gradually extending its dominance into the Chinese world.

Something had to be done, and Hu Shi’s solution was to demonstrate through his dissertation that there actually wasn’t a big difference between Chinese and the Western culture. Instead, some of the attributes that supposedly defined the West, like logical thought, could be found in Chinese culture, and more specifically, in its ancient intellectual tradition.

The problem, according to Hu Shi, was that later intellectual developments (namely the development of Neo-Confucian ideas during the Song-Ming Dynasty period) led Chinese thought into a less-logical direction.

Therefore, Hu Shi sought to push Neo-Confucian ideas to the side and shine a light on the logical ideas that could be found in ancient Chinese thought so that modern Chinese could have the confidence and strength to deal with “the threat of the West.”

HS text1

What is an example of logical thought in ancient China? Well, Hu Shi pointed to texts like the Yijing. Here is what he said:

“It has been said that the Platonic logic originated as a reaction against the Heraclitean doctrine of change; that, impressed by the all-pervasiveness of change, Plato sought and found stability in the changeless “ideas” [or Forms]. It is significant that the book which, in my opinion, contains most of the basic doctrines of the Confucian logic is known as the Yi, or Book of Change[s].” (pg. 28)

“That the great complexity of change can be symbolically represented by a set of figures which in turn can further be reduced to the elemental line (-), is a fact which seems to have deeply impressed Confucius in the same way as numbers impressed the Pythagoreans and Platonists. Herein is found a perfect system by means of which all change in the universe can be brought under our examination and understanding.” (pg. 32).

HS text2

In other words, the Yijing was important to Hu Shi because it showed that you could find in Chinese antiquity some of the same ideas that existed at that time in the West, and which were seen to have laid the foundation for the West’s culture.

China was therefore not inferior to the West. Thus, there was hope for the future.

Tran Trong Kim


Now let us move forward in time about a decade to the year 1929 when Vietnamese intellectual Trần Trọng Kim published the first volume of his two-volume work, Confucianism (Nho giáo).

Like Hu Shi, Trần Trọng Kim felt that Confucianism had gone off track. In the case of Vietnam, Trần Trọng Kim argued that the civil service examination had been particularly harmful in diverting people’s attention towards learning how to write beautiful but superficial writings in order to pass the exams rather than focusing on the ideas of the Confucian tradition.

Also like Hu Shi, Trần Trọng Kim pointed to parallels between ancient Greek thought and ideas in the Yijing.

TTK text

Trần Trọng Kim notes, for instance, that around the same time that Confucius was active, in the Greek world there were people like Heraclitus who argued that the all things in the world are in a constant state of change, and Parmenides who held that what people perceive are illusions and that the world is a single unified substance, and Pythagoras who used arithmetic to establish the theory of Pantheism (the idea God and the laws of the universe are the same) and argued that there is a mathematical logic to the unity of the world, and Socrates whose philosophy of life emphasized human affairs rather than higher powers.

He then states that, “Based on [the principles] of Yijing studies, Confucianism uses broken and solid lines to reveal the changes of the law of nature, and uses even and odd numbers to calculate the evolving destiny of the world, which is similar to the arithmetic of the Pythagoreans.

“However, there is one slight difference, and that is that Confucianism holds that although Heaven produces the myriad things, each living object has the freedom to act on its own, and in accordance with the law of nature, after it dies, it seems that its spirit maintains its unique character and continues to circulate and transform, and does not completely meld with the Universe (Đại toàn thể) as living things do according to the Pantheists in the West.”

Nho giao

Hu Shi and Trần Trọng Kim both demonstrated that the Yijing had ideas that were similar to ideas of certain ancient Greek philosophers for the same reason. They were both living in a time when their own cultural tradition was under threat, and they both sought to deal with this situation by showing their readers that their own cultural tradition was not as weak as people actually feared.

As it turns out, the Yijing was the text that they both found they could use to make this argument (Hu Shi also talks about the Laozi, but that’s another story).

Later in the twentieth century, South Vietnamese philosopher Lương Kim Định also turned to the Yijing for similar reasons. And at the end of the twentieth century the Yijing became central to an ultra-nationalist textbook that Trần Ngọc Thêm wrote.

Each of these individuals, from Hu Shi to Trần Ngọc Thêm, wrote under the shadow of a fear of the West’s power and influence, and a fear of their own culture’s inability to adequately adapt to a Westernizing world.

They also all turned to the same text for help, the Yijing, as this was the one text that they felt could show that “their culture” was equivalent to the West’s.

The irony of course is that the need to say that one’s culture is not inferior is already an indication that a writer fears that it is. . . but again, that is yet another story.


7 thoughts on “Trần Trọng Kim, Hu Shi (Hồ Thích) and the Yijing

  1. I wonder is it a coincidence or not? I also see the similar ultra-nationalist ideas in South Korea, for example some South Korean extreme nationalists claim that Koreans invented Yijing, Hanja (Chinese letters)…

    Quite a few people in China know about that ideas in South Korea but almost none knows about those in Vietnam.

    China considers her map like a rooster without beak and legs. If we combine the maps of Korean peninsular and Vietnam to that of China then we will have an intact ROOSTER.

  2. The excerpts from TTKim ‘s book are from the introduction , the book is a one of my bedside ones .
    I don’t know much of Hu shi ‘s writings , but about TTKIm , he acknowledges that at that time , confucean culture was moribund . He tries to convince Vn people not to throw the baby away with the water , he said that the confucean culture is in-built , ingrained in their bone and marrow , that it’s adapted to their nature . The other main point of the introduction is that both western and confucean cultures are the faces of the same coin , the same music but with different vibrations or the same wine but different bottles .
    As the Yiking chapter ” hệ từ hạ 繫辭下” said :
    Thiên hạ hà tư hà lự 天 下 何 思 何 慮

    Thiên hạ đồng qui nhi thù đồ 天 下 同 歸 而 殊 途

    Nhất trí, nhi bách lự 一 致 而 百 慮

    Thiên hạ hà tư hà lự ! 天 下 何 思 何 慮

  3. There is another well-known detail related to the Classic of Changes and TTKim worth mentioning: After becoming Prime Minister of the government which briefly ruled VN in 1945, TTK adopted as its national flag a flag derived from that ancient book: Cờ quẻ Ly … Wikipedia: Theo Kinh Dịch, trong Hậu Thiên Bát Quái của vua Văn Vương, Quẻ Ly chính ứng với phía Nam của đồ hình, tạo thành trục Bắc – Nam là Khảm – Ly. Việc học giả Trần Trọng Kim chọn Quẻ Ly làm quốc kỳ, còn mang một ý nghĩa khác là quốc kỳ của nước phương Nam.

    1. _ quẻ ( or quái 卦 ) Ly 離 is one of the eight trigrams ( Ba Gua 八卦) .
      In 1945 , it was said , choosing quẻ Ly as VN flag was inauspicious for 2 reasons : the trigram ☲ has a broken line in the middle and the Han character 離 means separation .
      _ the South Korean flag is very much inspired from the Yi king ;
      in the middle is the Tai chi symbol ( yin – yang intertwined ) and around the tai chi are 4 trigrams .
      The Koreans have a long history of fierce resistance to Chinese invasions , they even replaced the Han characters by their own Hangeul phonetics but the south Koreans are presently the most zealot confucean followers ; they have private schools where Confucean doctrine is still taught , they have much respect for elders , their family and social intercourse is much Confucean , one must bow to someone else even though he’s just one year older than you . Every year , there’s a big official ceremony paying respect to Confucius
      In China the government in 1984 sent a delegation to Korea to relearn the and re enact the rituals .
      _ I like much the Taiwan flag
      and its motto : 青天白日滿地紅 Thanh Thiên, Bạch Nhật, và Mãn Địa Hồng

      1. “In 1945 , it was said , choosing quẻ Ly as VN flag was inauspicious.” That’s an interesting point. It would be nice to see some evidence of that. In particular, I wonder if that ideas was thought of before or after August 1945, or 1954, etc.

    2. Yea, and I think when I’ve come across this (mentioned in English-language writings), it has been put forth as an example of how “old-fashioned” and “out of touch” TTK was, and therefore, how unacceptable as a leader for a nation that needed to become independent and modernize. However, if you look at him in the larger context of 20th-century East Asian intellectual change, yes TTK was conservative, but he was still a modernizer, and as the South Korean flag indicates, some of the places where conservative modernizers prevailed ended up turning out ok.

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