On the 29th of May in 1906, Emperor Thành Thái issued regulations to reform the education curriculum for students in schools that were meant to prepare them for the civil service exams. These reforms addressed three levels of teaching (introductory, elementary and middle), and the reforms of the highest level called for three separate tracks to be established: a classical Chinese track, a vernacular Vietnamese (using the Latin script) track, and a French track (mainly to learn how to translate).

The classical Chinese track to some extent maintained the tradition of the civil service exams that had been held for centuries in that students were taught to master how to use information in the (Confucian) classics. At the same time, however, students were also asked to study about Southern (i.e., “Vietnamese”) history. Prior to the twentieth century this had not been part of the civil service exam curriculum.

Finally, students were asked to study about “the administration of An Nam,” which appears to have been an innovation that was meant to offer more focused preparation for eventual government service than had previously been the case when the curriculum was based on the classics and Northern (i.e., “Chinese”) histories.

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Here is how the curriculum for the classical Chinese track is described:

教以倫理以文章與南史並安南政治。其教倫常文章,則本乎五經,並諸有名之北書。其教南文與安南政治,則從南史正文,南國歷代名臣著作,與六部例律總要(即六部憲草)。

It will “. . . teach about ethics, literary composition and Southern history, as well as the administration of An Nam. The teaching of ethics and literary composition, it should be based on the Five Classics as well as the various famous Northern books. The teaching of Southern writings and the administration of An Nam should follow the official documents for Southern history, prominent writings by famous officials from successive dynasties, and the general summaries of the statutes and precedents from the Six Boards (that is the laws and draft [laws] of the Six Boards).”

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While students who studied in classical Chinese were therefore expected to learn about their own land’s history and administration, the people who studied in vernacular Vietnamese were exposed to the larger world. They were supposed to study about the histories and geography of various countries and to learn about various fields of science.

The term “science” (科學 khoa học) was not used in this text. Instead, it employed a term (格致 cách trí) that scholars in China who taught about Western learning had started to use to use refer to the natural sciences.

This term was adapted from a phrase in the Greater Learning (大學 Đại học) where there is a line that states that one must “investigate things until one obtains knowledge” (格物致知 cách vật trí tri; truy cứu tới cùng cái lí của sự vật).

Here I will translate cách trí 格致 as “investigative knowledge,” that is, knowledge that has been produced after investigating something. That is admittedly a clumsy expression, but it is meant to point out that this was a time of change when Western Learning was still new to people in East Asia and when the terms for various Western phenomena or concepts had yet to take the form that they do now.

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Here is how the curriculum for the vernacular Vietnamese track is described:

熟讀列國史記,地輿,並格致,其教列國史記法,則重在諸國交涉,事物,並歷代創國紀律,而教地輿法,則在產物貿易,其教格致法則教以精微(即差分算法,開放算法,以自代數算法根本),博物(重學,熱學,見學,聞學,機器,諸機器要領式,諸化學,獨器要領,這等皆百工所用),與動植(即禽獸,昆蟲,草木,金器均用上層分類說約,人身腑臟,五官是何作用。切用醫方說約)。

It states that students must “. . . become well-versed in the histories of the various countries [of the world], their geography, and their investigative knowledge. The teaching about the histories of various countries should emphasize their relations [with other countries], affairs, and the regulations concerning the establishment of their countries in the past. The teaching about geography [should focus on] the products of the land and trade. The teaching of investigative knowledge should teach about the profound and subtle (精微 tinh vi), the various objects (博物 bác vật), and living things and plants (動植 động thực).”

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After mentioning each of these three categories this document lists the various fields of (Western) investigative knowledge that fall into each respective category. Some of these terms are difficult to translate because they are terms that were only used in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries when people in East Asia were first promoting Western Learning.

So, for instance, the profound and subtle (精微 tinh vi) category contained three forms of mathematics, but I’m not sure how to translate a couple of them: 差分算法 sai phân toán pháp (?), 開放算法 khai phóng toán pháp, and algebra (代數算法 đại số toán pháp).

As for the category of the various objects, that included the following fields: mechanics (重學 trọng học), thermotics (熱學 nhiệt học), optics (見學 kiến học), acoustics (聞學 văn học), machinery (機器 cơ khí), chemistry (化學 hóa học) and 獨器 độc học (?).

Finally, the fields of scholarship that related to the category of living things and plants were as follows: animals (禽獸 cầm thú), insects (昆蟲 côn trùng), vegetation (草木 thảo mộc), the Periodic Table of the Elements (金器均用上層分類說約 kim khí quân dụng thượng tằng phân loại thuyết ước), human organs (人身腑臟 nhân thân phủ tạng), etc.

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So in 1906, a year before the Tonkin Free School (東京義塾 Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục) opened its doors, the Nguyễn Dynasty created an educational track that consisted of teaching Western Learning in vernacular Vietnamese using the Latin script.

Once again we see that the Nguyễn Dynasty was at the forefront of change in early-twentieth-century Vietnam.