Phạm Quang Sán was a fascinating individual. In 1908 he translated into classical Chinese reformist ideas that were originally written in Vietnamese so that people who only new classical Chinese could learn about them – the General Discussion of Elementary Learning (幼學普通說約 Ấu học phổ thông thuyết ước). In 1909 he wrote a reformist version of examination questions and answers so that students studying for the civil service exams could be exposed to Western learning – A New Selection of Policy Studies (Sách học tân tuyển 策學新選).
And in 1911 he published a bilingual (Chinese and Vietnamese) science textbook called the General Reader (普通讀本 Phổ thông độc bản).
This book had two main sections. One was devoted to the skys/heavens and the other to the earth. These are both topics that were covered in earlier books for children, such as in Phạm Phục Trai’s 范复齋 1853 Explication of the Essentials for Enlightening Children (啓童説約 Khải đồng thuyết ước). However, Phạm Quang Sán discussed these topics in ways that reflected his exposure to Western science.
He began his section on the earth, for instance, by stating that “the earth is round like a ball and therefore it is called the globe [地球/địa cầu literally means ‘earthen ball’]” (地圓如球故曰地球 Đất tròn như quả cầu, cho nên gọi là địa cầu).
One of the pieces of evidence that he provides for this is the fact that people can travel all the way around the earth (人能繞行地球 ta đi quanh hết quả đất dược).
In his 1853 work, Phạm Phục Trai did not say that the earth was round, he did not call it an “earthen ball,” and he probably did not know that people could circumnavigate the globe, and he would not have known what the term “地球/địa cầu” referred to.
So although a statement like “the earth is round like a ball and therefore it is called the globe” might seem simple and insignificant, it actually is a sign of a major transformation in the Vietnamese worldview that was taking place at that time.
And this book is filled with a great deal more information like this, including the final section which contains a detailed discussion about volcanoes.
“It is extremely hot in the middle of the earth, like boiling water. Because of its expansive force, stones are pushed through the earth’s crust and sent out [of the inside of the earth] where they form volcanoes. At the top of volcanoes are hollow openings, and below it looks like a bowl and is called the crater. The stone material that is ejected is called lava. It is probably that the hot stone liquid in the earth is ejected out and gradually forms into stone after it sinks into water.
“Volcanoes that have erupted since a long time ago are called live volcanoes. Those that erupted since a long time ago but have now ceased are called dormant volcanoes. Those that have never erupted since a long time ago are called dead volcanoes.
“In the entire world there are somewhere around 200 volcanoes. The western part of the Americas has the most. They are not only on land. They are often found in the oceans and seas too.
“The earth also has hot springs. The reason for them is the same as [that for] volcanoes.”
The children who studied this text in school starting in 1911 gained knowledge that their parents had never been exposed to when they were young.
The children in 1910s Vietnam were learning about a new world, a world that made sense not by learning what earlier generations of Vietnamese had studied, but by learning new forms of knowledge, such as the fact that the earth is round, that people can travel all the way around it, and that there are somewhere around 200 volcanoes on the globe.
Once children started learning about these things, traditional Vietnamese knowledge’s days were numbered.