In the previous post I introduced a book that Nguyễn Dynasty official and reformist scholar Phạm Quang Sán published in 1909 that sought to introduce students studying for the civil service exams to new ideas.

While many of the questions and answers in that book covered topics that were very new, there were also some questions and answers in that work that as least ostensibly sought to follow traditional ideas and patterns.

The civil service exams at that time contained questions that were based on the (Confucian) classics, and the Classic of Changes (Yijing) was usually tested first. In a previous post I discussed the question concerning the Classic of Changes in the 1910 palace exam, and the model answer that was published for that question that same year.

That question and answer were extremely conservative, as they rejected both Western knowledge and the ideas of reformist scholars in Asia like Liang Qichao, and claimed instead that all knowledge in the world could ultimately be found in the Classic of Changes (or could be created from the Classic of Changes).


In his 1909 A New Selection of Policy Studies (Sách học tân tuyển 策學新選), Phạm Quang Sán included a question about the Classic of Changes that went as follows:


“What is the essence of the Changes? Some say that each trigram has its time, and each line has its time. How can this be known? What time is the current time? With European administrative customs and scholarly arts, how should reform be carried out so as to accord with the idea of keeping with the times?”

In answering his own question Phạm Quang Sán cited a line by Song Dynasty Neo-Confucian scholar Cheng Yi that “the Changes is change, change that is in keeping with the times and that follows the Way.” (易,變易也,隨時變易以從道也。)

And what kind of changes did Phạm Quang Sán believe were in keeping with the times of his day? Among others, he felt that “more than a thousand years of despotic rule should be changed to a republican form of government.” (千餘年之專制獨裁,當易之為共和之政體。)


Again, while this question ostensibly followed a “traditional” pattern by asking about ideas in the Classic of Changes, it ultimately moved in a radically new direction.

Perhaps this is why the 1910 exam was so conservative. The period from 1907-1909 was a tumultuous one in Vietnam, as reformers sought to introduce new ideas and new forms of education, and as peasants protested against harsh taxation.

We usually think of the French as the people who would have wanted to suppress these trends, but the 1910 palace exam suggests that at least some individuals among the Nguyễn Dynasty elite also sought to hold back change.

Ultimately, however they were all unsuccessful, because when the final civil service exam was held in 1919, Emperor Khải Định asked about the very same issues that reformist scholar and Nguyễn Dynasty official Phạm Quang Sán had brought up a decade earlier.

However, Emperor Khải Định did this without making any reference to the Classic of Changes or any other (Confucian) classic. Somehow by 1919, even to the emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty, the (Confucian) classics had become irrelevant.


Here is how Emperor Khải Định’s question began:


“The various countries around the globe are always talking about civilization. What book does this term, “civilization,” come from? Its meaning covers everything from [the proper] human relations, to national administration, to the morals of an age, to people’s customs.

“In looking at the Orient, in China [from the age of] Tang [Yao] and Yu [Shun] up to [the time of] the Manchu Qing, and from our Đinh Dynasty up to the Later Lê, every abdication, war, rise and fall, division and unification can be investigated. With regards to changes and developments over time, all of this is nothing more than the work of destiny.

“[However] in examining the controlling of disorder in China over so many ages, is that not a single civilization? When people say that imperial absolutism casts a shadow over the people, is that just a false claim? And does this mean that thousands of years of imperial policies in the Orient were out of time with civilization?”


In this question (and the question is actually much longer than this – this is just the opening passage), Emperor Khải Định pondered about the long history of absolute rule in Asia, and as a (theoretically) absolute monarch, he was wondering if/how such an institution could continue to exist in an age of “civilization.” What is more, he goes on later in his question to ask whether it would be appropriate to establish a constitution.

A decade after Phạm Quang Sán first made a bold attempt to raise such issues, the emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty embraced the same ideas.

As such, if we look at 1) Phạm Quang Sán’s radical effort in 1909 to transform the ideas of the people taking the civil service exams, 2) the extremely conservative exam questions and answers in 1910, and 3) Emperor Khải Định’s completely “modern” question in 1919, I think it becomes obvious that a major transformation took place between 1909 and 1919 among the “traditional” elite of Vietnam.

The people at the conservative heart of Vietnam modernized. And they did this themselves, without the aid of revolutionaries or French schools.

Why hasn’t this story ever been told before?