There at it again. For the past few days Vietnamese cyberspace has been filled with articles and discussions about whether Chinese characters (chữ Hán) should be taught in schools in Vietnam.

I think the article that got the current debate started was one that called for teaching Chinese characters in order to “preserve the clarity of Vietnamese” (Cần dạy chữ Hán để giữ sự trong sáng của tiếng Việt), and this provoked somewhat of a backlash from some people who see this idea as some kind of effort to make Vietnam more “Chinese.”

Essentially the argument of the initial article was similar to arguments in Europe or North America when people say “We need to teach Latin in schools in order to preserve the clarity of French/English, etc.”

And indeed, such efforts to teach Latin to help literacy do exist, and they aren’t seen as being problematic.

However, in Vietnam the situation is different, because it strikes at the core problem that Vietnamese intellectuals have struggled with for the past century – how do you create a modern culturally-unique nation from a premodern universal culture that was centered in a country that you now try to define your modern national identity in opposition to?

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This struggle is easy to see, as Vietnamese intellectuals have left a long trail of evidence of their thoughts.

Essentially what happened is that in the early twentieth century Vietnamese intellectuals became aware of the fact that Westerners viewed the world very differently than they did. In the West, it became common in the nineteenth century to view each country as a separate nation, with its own distinct language and culture.

This was a radically different way of viewing the world than the one that educated Vietnamese had upheld for centuries by that point. Prior to the twentieth century, Vietnamese intellectuals prided themselves for being “civil” (văn hiến), which meant such things as being able to read and write in classical Chinese, composing poetry like the great poets Li Bai and Du Fu, wearing Ming Dynasty era robes, etc.

None of these cultural practices made educated Vietnamese distinct, but being distinct was not the point. The point was to be “civil” (văn hiến), and educated Vietnamese believed that this was a universal condition, not a national characteristic.

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Why did they change? Because Westerners began to conquer, colonize and dominate Asia. This was a clear sign that the world of “civility” was not as powerful as the world of “nations.”

So Vietnamese intellectuals started to look for a way to create a nation out of their world of civility.

In the early twentieth century we thus see Hoàng Đạo Thành calling on fellow Vietnamese in his Đại Việt sử tân ước toàn biên to study the nation’s history in order to “imprint” the concept of the nation in their brains (something that they hadn’t been doing prior to that point because Vietnamese history had not been an essential part of the civil service exam curriculum).

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In the late 1920s and early 1930s there was a debate over “national learning” (quốc học). This concept of national learning had emerged earlier in the twentieth century in China were intellectuals tried to create a history of Chinese ideas in order to show that they had a intellectual tradition of their own just like Western nations claimed for themselves.

What was the Vietnamese intellectual tradition that constituted “national learning”? According to intellectuals like Phan Khôi and Phạm Quỳnh there was no such intellectual tradition in Vietnam, as scholars in the past had only studied “Chinese” (Tàu) learning.

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Ironically, in debating about national learning at that time, intellectuals like Phan Khôi and Phạm Quỳnh were still following the ideas of Chinese intellectuals as this entire concept of national learning had already been debated there.

However, Chinese intellectuals were able to envision a history of national learning for themselves, but Vietnamese intellectuals were unable to do so, because in looking to the past, all they could see now was “Chinese-ness” where a generation before, their fathers had seen “civility.”

In other words, once “civility” (văn hiến) became something like “Chinese culture” (văn hóa nước Tàu), then the past became a “problem” for Vietnamese intellectuals.

However, the concept of the nation demands that there be a past for the nation, and the longer that past the better.

So Vietnamese intellectuals in the twentieth century had to find a way to deal with the long history of civility/Chinese culture in the Vietnamese past and to somehow make it “Vietnamese.”

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In the 1940s and 1950s there was a big debate over whether writings in classical Chinese that were written by Vietnamese authors should be considered “Vietnamese literature” or not.

In 1956 North Vietnamese scholar Văn Tân summarized this debate and sought to conclude it by declaring that before a Vietnamese writing system had fully developed, educated Vietnamese had used classical Chinese to record their thoughts and feelings, and that therefore, writings in classical Chinese by Vietnamese authors should be considered as part of the national literature of Vietnam (văn học dân tộc Việt Nam).

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This article was meant to “resolve” the “problem” of the existence of writings in classical Chinese in the Vietnamese past. It did so by declaring that those writings were “Vietnamese.”

However, did the people who composed those writings think that way? When they said that their writings were proof that they were “civil” (văn hiến) was that the same as saying that they were “Vietnamese”?

This “problem” of the premodern past has haunted modern Vietnamese intellectuals for the past 100 years. They can’t find a way to deal with all of that “Chinese-ness” in the “Vietnamese” past, as well as in the Vietnamese language.

The real “problem,” however, is that modern Vietnamese intellectuals can’t accept the fact that their ancestors thought differently than they do, that they didn’t see the world as culturally divided between “Vietnam” and “China.”

Instead, they demand that their ancestors be the same as them.

Their writings have to be “Vietnamese.”

Their language has to be “Vietnamese.”

Their culture has to be “Vietnamese.”

“But,” the ancestors would say, if they could talk, “we’re civil (văn hiến)!”