The civil service examination was of course an extremely important institution in Vietnamese history, but it is a topic that has yet to be researched in depth. Indeed, trying to understand how that institution worked is a daunting task, and it is understandable that not many scholars have tried to take on this difficult topic.
Recently I took a look at some documents that were produced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that contain questions from the exams and “ideal answers.” Known as Selected Essays from the Palace Exam [Hội đình văn tuyển 會庭文選], these texts were meant to serve as study guides for future exam takers.
In looking at the Selected Essays from the Palace Exam from 1910, I found that there was a very interesting question and “ideal response” concerning language and writing. By 1910 there were reformist scholars in Vietnam who were encouraging people to learn the Romanized script for transcribing the Vietnamese language – quốc ngữ. The question and “ideal answer” from this exam did not support the use of quốc ngữ, nor did it support the continued use of classical Chinese. Instead, it called for the creation of a Mandarin language (quan thoại 官話) for Vietnam.
Here is the question:
“When did our kingdom’s writing first emerge? King Sĩ [Nhiếp, in the third century CE] taught the people, and Chinese characters flourished. When he first started teaching, I wonder how he led our people onto the road of understanding. Can this be known? The old characters based on the kingdom’s sounds were adopted following people’s preferences, and are not perfect. People of this generation use 25 letters, which are not different from fanqie [a way to use Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Chinese characters]. However, when scholars wield the brush and write, their dialects are different. To get the sounds of north and south to be mutually intelligible, is there a way to do this?”
This is a fascinating question. Essentially it is asking “how do we teach a people a new language”? Quốc ngữ was not deemed acceptable for this, because like fanqie, it simply represented sounds, and the problem was that there was no unified “sound” of Vietnamese, but instead, people in different parts of the country spoke different dialects. So how could one get Vietnamese to speak in a mutually intelligible way?
The “ideal response” to this question was that a kind of “Mandarin language” needed to be created. It appears that the person who wrote this response felt that Chinese characters would be used for this language, but that they would be linked to selected Vietnamese pronunciations and words.
Here is the answer essay in its entirety. I should note that in answering the question, the respondent was required to repeat much of the exact wording from the question, but to transform it as well. Hopefully that will be evident in the way that I have translated the answer to the question.
“Each kingdom has its own writing. Before [people in] our kingdom studied Chinese characters there must have already been writing. If you look among the upriver Lao barbarians, writing can still be seen, but the records are incomplete, and it is difficult to attribute [that writing] to a given age.
“It is from the time that King Sĩ taught our people with the [Classic of] Documents and the [Classic of] Poetry that Chinese characters flourished. At first there must have been one or two people who understand both the sounds of Chinese and the local language so that information could be transmitted, or so that events could be explained or objects identified, just like the people who presently study French are able to lead our people onto the path of understanding, so this can be known.
“The old characters based on the kingdom’s sounds were adopted from Chinese writing following people’s preferences and were put to use, such as placing [the character for] ‘heaven’ [thiên 天] above [the character for] ‘above’ [thượng 上] to create [the character for] ‘heaven’ [trời 𡗶] and placing [the character for] ‘king’ [vương 王] above [the character for] ‘cloth’ [bố 布] to create [the character for] ‘king’ [vua 𤤰]. This is not perfect.
“People of this generation use 25 letters. These were originally Western characters. They are not at all different from fanqie.
“However, when scholars wield the brush and write, the spoken languages of the imperial capital and the two guards* are mutually unintelligible, and Saigon and Bắc Kỳ have their own dialects. If officials do not regulate [the language], then there is no way [to get the sounds of north and south to be mutually intelligible].”
[*Quảng Nam and Quảng Nghĩa were known as the Southern Guard (Nam Trực 南直), and Quảng Bình and Quảng Trị were the Northern Guard (Bắc Trực 北直), that is, areas that stood guard to the north and south of the imperial capital of Huế.].
“The kingdom that the Qing established is many times larger than ours, each province has its own separate dialect, and the spoken languages of the north, south, east and west are different. But with the establishment of a Mandarin language [guanhua 官話, literally “the language of the officials”], and all of the people in the kingdom following it, there is no longer a worry of misunderstanding each other [there are classical allusions here about misunderstanding words].
“We should sincerely emulate and carry out this [practice]: establish a Mandarin language; compile a dictionary by choosing the sounds that are proper and elegant and eliminating the sounds that are coarse and vulgar; provide a sound for whatever item or object is lacking one; get all of the people in the kingdom to study and recite [the terms in the dictionary]. And when [scholars] wield the brush and write, they must use these characters, and that way the sounds of the south and north will become mutually intelligible.”