In reading writings from the world of the Nguyễn Dynasty in early twentieth century Vietnam the one thing that becomes clear is that there was a lot of information available about the West at that time. So the traditional elite were not ignorant about other parts of the world.
However, there were members of the traditional elite who were reluctant to change, even though they knew about Europe and America and the developments that had taken place there in recent years.
The 1910 palace exam essay on the Yijing is a clear example of the viewpoint of people who did not want to change, as it dismissed all Western learning and reformist writings as containing nothing that was not already recorded in the (Confucian) classics.
So for reformist Nguyễn Dynasty officials like Phạm Quang Sán, the challenge was how to find a way to convince conservative members of the traditional elite that they should adopt change.
He has a question and answer in his A New Selection of Policy Studies (Sách học tân tuyển 策學新選) where he sought to do this by first agreeing with the conservative elite that the classics were the font of all knowledge. He likewise agreed with the conservative elite that Western learning has its roots in the classics. However, he then argued that Westerners had developed the original ideas in the classics, while people in Asia had failed to do that, and this is what explained the different levels of development between Asia and the West.
Phạm Quang Sán called on people to “restore ancient ways” (phục cổ 復古), by which he did not mean to go back to the classics and use those texts as guides for how to live in the present, but instead, he wanted people to follow the development of the concepts that first appeared in the classics all the way to their present Western maifestations, as only then, Phạm Quang Sán argued, would people in Asia be able to complete with the Occident for supremacy (可與泰西爭勝) in a Social Darwinist world of competition.
Here is how Phạm Quang Sán phrased his question:
“[In] the various Occidental countries, the science of electricity, mechanics, chemistry, minerology, optics, acoustics as well as astronomy, geography, arithmetic and the study of machinery have all achieved the ultimate [level of development]. Can the origins [of these fields of study] be investigated? There are those who say that China is the progenitor of Western learning. What evidence is there for that? Viewing [conditions] from the present, in what way [are we] inferior by comparison? What can those who are determined [to promote] new learning do?”
Phạm Quang Sán therefore asked the four questions that we can rephrase as follows: Can the origins of Western learning be traced? Is China the progenitor of Western learning? In what way is Asia inferior to the West by comparison? What can scholars who are determined to promote new learning (which is the same as Western learning) do about the current state of affairs?
In his answer, Phạm Quang Sán demonstrated that the origins of Western learning definitely could be traced. Here, for instance, is what he had to say about the study of electricity:
“Since the eighteenth century, culture in the Occident has progressed rapidly. Every day a new principle emerges, as if they have each achieved the ultimate. However, when there are results of scholarship then there must be origins of scholarship. As for this new learning, one must trace back its distant origins.
“To take a look at the whole story, American [Benjamin] Franklin experimented with the principle of dry electricity and Italian Galileo [Ferraris] (?) established the theory of wet electricity. An Englishman created electric lights. An American created the telegraph. The uses of the science of electricity are obvious. And in tracing its origins, they begin with Thales’ rubbing together amber [to create static electricity] in Greece [in the 6th century BC].
After tracing the origins of various fields of Western learning, Phạm Quang Sán then turns to the second question: Is China the progenitor of Western learning?
Here, like the author of the essay on the Yijing in the 1910 exam, Phạm Quang Sán points out that one can find evidence in ancient Chinese texts of all of the fields of Western learning.
To take the field of the study of electricity, for instance, Phạm Quang Sán sites the sixth century BC text the Guan Yinzi (關尹子) which says (actually, Phạm Quang Sán condenses a passage in that text) that “[when] stones are hit, fire omits light. Thunder and lightning are brought forth by causal qi, and can be produced. Is this not the beginning of the study of electricity?”
Phạm Quang Sán then goes on to state that:
“All of the learning that Westerners say is unique, all comes from ancient Chinese texts. The idea that East Asia is the progenitor of Western learning can therefore be proven. Occidental learning all has its source in Asia, and Asia thus is the fatherland that gave birth to civilization.”
Moving on to the third question – In what way is Asia inferior to the West? – Phạm Quang Sán argues that Asia has become inferior to the West because although Asia is the place where all knowledge was created, the West went on to develop that knowledge.
This is how he explains this:
“However, [people in Asia] stuck to the same ways. They were unable to push [knowledge forward] and exhaust its subtitles. They created a foundation of creation, but did not have the spirit of endeavoring to advance. So other people became civilized while we were still semi-civilized, and other people crossed [the globe] while we still stood at a standstill. Being inferior by comparison is probably because Europeans obtained a line [of knowledge transmission] and Asian lost that [line of knowledge] transmission.”
This then leads to the fourth and final question – What can scholars who are determined to promote new/Western learning do about the current state of affairs? And this is how Phạm Quang Sán responds to that question:
“Those who are determined must view scholarship as an urgent matter. The present day is a day of scholarly competition. Knowledge is struggling with knowledge, and brains are contending with brains. If one does not compete, one will not be able to have the means to survive.
“That which Westerners call ‘new learning’ is truly our Asian long-held national essence. There is no need to call it by the fancy name of ‘Western learning.’ Let us just call it “restoring ancient ways.”
This is an absolutely fascinating document. Phạm Quang Sán’s knowledge of the West and of Western learning was incredibly thorough and deep, and he clearly wanted his compatriots to embrace that knowledge and to learn it.
However, for that to happen, he had to convince his conservative colleagues that it was ok to do this, and to do that, he tried to find a way that 1) showed that Western learning ultimately originated in China and that 2) there was a need for Vietnamese to learn about the knowledge that Westerners produced because Westerners had expanded upon the ideas in ancient East Asian texts whereas people in East Asia had not done this.
Again, what this shows is that it is not the case that the Nguyễn Dynasty elite in the early twentieth century did not know about the West. They knew a lot.
Instead, the “problem” was that there was a need to convince the more conservative members of the elite that it was ok to accept the knowledge that they had already been exposed to. And that is what Phạm Quang Sán tried to do.