I’ve long had a problem with the general narrative about the history of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Vietnam. Over and over you read in books that the Nguyễn Dynasty failed to deal with the French, and as a result of this, the “old world” of traditional Vietnam, and classical Chinese, died and the “new world” of reformers and revolutionaries like Phan Bội Châu took over, and that led to the Tonkin Free School in 1907 where vernacular Vietnamese written in quốc ngữ was promoted, etc. and. . . that’s the end of the story, as that road all leads to 1945.

What’s wrong with this narrative? First of all, Phan Bội Châu spent very little time in Vietnam in the early twentieth century, and his writings were not published at that time, so how could he have been influential?

Second, all of those people from the “old world” who were educated in classical Chinese and who studied for the civil service exam (which continued to be held until 1919) didn’t just “disappear.” They were the educated elite in Vietnam at that time. They must have played an important role. What was that role and why haven’t historians written about it?

To take the second part of that question first, the reason why historians have not written about this is because these members of the educated elite in early-twentieth-century Vietnam continued to write in classical Chinese, a language which most historians of modern Vietnam cannot read, and as a result, the historical records that this group of people left behind have been largely left unread.

As for the role of the “traditionally-educated” elite in early-twentieth-century Vietnam, I would argue that it was members of this group of people who were the true revolutionaries of modern Vietnam, because they were the ones who changed the way Vietnamese think. While people like Phan Bội Châu were living in exile, members of this group of people were hard at work transforming Vietnamese society.

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A great example of this is a man by the name of Phạm Quang Sán. Born in 1874, Phạm Quang Sán passed the provincial exam in 1900 and then went on to serve as an official for the Nguyễn Dynasty in various capacities and various places in northern Vietnam over the next couple of decades.

At some point in the early twentieth century, Phạm Quang Sán also learned a lot about the West, and about Western knowledge. What is more, he sought to share that knowledge with literate Vietnamese by publishing small books that introduced new ideas.

In 1908 Phạm Quang Sán published a book called the General Discussion of Elementary Learning (幼學普通說約 Ấu học phổ thông thuyết ước).

He explained the purpose of this book as follows:

今當學界一新之日,而民間講習,猶多株守舊套。蓋以我國千餘年來,漢文傳習久已,印於國民之腦中,而國語新學汗漫難通,進化之阻力,實根於此。

“At present in this new age of scholarship, teaching among the people still follows the stale old ways. This is because in our kingdom for more than a thousand years now Chinese characters have been passed down and are imprinted in people’s brains, so it is difficult for the spread of quốc ngữ new scholarship to break through. The force obstructing progress has its roots in this.”

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In other words, what Phạm Quang Sán was saying was that although there were new ideas that were being promoted through the use of a new script, quốc ngữ, many people couldn’t read that script, and were continuing to study classical Chinese.

So what did Phạm Quang Sán do? He translated a book that was originally written in quốc ngữ – the New Writings in Quốc Ngữ on Elementary Learning (Ấu học quốc ngữ tân thư 幼學國語新書) – into classical Chinese and added his own comments so that people who did not know how to read quốc ngữ could learn the new ideas in that text.

And what kind of ideas were in that text? Well, new ideas about things like nationalism. After talking about the “five (Confucian) relationships” (father-son, king-officials, husband-wife, older brother-younger brother, friend-friend), for instance, the text goes on to say that “the clan and the society are all our compatriots who unite together to love the country/nation/kingdom.”

(親族社會,皆吾同胞,合群愛國。)

That’s modern nationalism, and nothing like that was expressed in Vietnam prior to the twentieth century. Now these concepts are as “imprinted in people’s brains” as Chinese characters were at the time that Phạm Quang Sán published his text.

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A year later, in 1909, a few other Nguyễn Dynasty officials compiled another work in classical Chinese called the New Writings in Classical Chinese on Elementary Learning (Ấu học hán tự tân thư 幼學漢字新書).

What this shows is that while the familiar narrative of modern Vietnamese history talks about the emergence of reformers who started to use quốc ngữ, there were members of the Nguyễn Dynasty who translated those new texts into classical Chinese, as that was still the language of the literate elite at that time.

What is more, these Nguyễn Dynasty officials, like Phạm Quang Sán, all did this while “national heroes” like Phan Bội Châu were far away from Vietnam and essentially doing nothing that could effectively help change Vietnamese society at that time.

So when it comes to revolutionaries, who was truly revolutionary? Phan Bội Châu spent most of his “revolutionary” life outside of Vietnam and out of touch with Vietnamese society. Phạm Quang Sán, on the other hand, worked hard to introduce nationalist ideas into Vietnam.

Meanwhile those Nguyễn Dynasty officials who were “on the ground” in Vietnam, like Phạm Quang Sán, and who made the effort to transform educated Vietnamese in the most effect way at that time – through classical Chinese – why don’t we consider those people revolutionaries?

How many of the people who learned about “loving the nation” by reading Phạm Quang Sán’s published General Discussion of Elementary Learning ever read any of the unpublished writings of Phan Bội Châu?