One of the (many) problems with the way that modern Vietnamese history has been written about (both by historians inside and outside of Vietnam) is that there is virtually no recognition of any Chinese intellectual influence on Vietnam in the 1920s and 1930s when in fact there was significant influence.

Everyone recognizes that the traditional Vietnamese elite were deeply influenced by the ideas of their counterparts in imperial China. Everyone also recognizes that early-twentieth-century reformers like Phan Bội Châu were influenced by the ideas of late-Qing reformers like Liang Qichao.

But then after that. . . there is virtually no mention of any kind of intellectual connection between members of the Vietnamese elite and their counterparts in the Republic of China (ROC).

Then later, in the 1940s, with the writings of Trường Chinh, such as his Theses on Vietnamese Culture (Đè cương về văn hóa Việt Nam) and his Marxism and Vietnamese Culture (Chủ nghĩa Mác và văn hóa Việt Nam), we once again see the influence of Chinese ideas, in this case, Maoist ideas.

So what happened in the 1920s and 1930s?

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In fact, in the 1920s and 1930s there were still many Vietnamese intellectuals who found it easier to read Chinese than French, and they read a lot of the works that were published in China at that time. What is more, this was a time of incredible intellectual change in China when intellectuals questioned the past and employed ideas that they had learned from the West in order to rethink and rewrite about their society.

Vietnamese intellectuals read Chinese writings from this period and were influenced by them, and this influence is easy to see if one looks at the works that were published in China and Vietnam during these years.

Take for instance Đào Duy Anh’s An Historical Outline of Vietnamese Culture (Việt Nam văn hóa sử cương). In his preface to this 1938 work, Đào Duy Anh cites as the inspiration for the framework of his book a work by a French author (Félix Sartiaux’s La civilisation) that was published in the same year.

In his preface Đào Duy Anh cites Sartiaux’s definition of culture as saying that “from the aspect of movement, culture is the continuous development and advancement of social influences on technology, the economy, ideas, the arts, and social structure. Although those influences are connected, they are also separate. From the perspective of stasis, culture is the condition of progress of those influences in a given time period, and all of the characteristics that those influences exert on human societies.”

(Văn hóa về phương diện động, là cuộc phát triển tiến bộ mà không ngừng của những tác dụng xã hội về kỹ thuật, kinh tế, tư tưởng, nghệ thuật, xã hội tổ chức, những tác dụng ấy tuy liên lạc mà vẫn riêng nhau. Về phương diện tĩnh thì văn hóa là trạng thái tiến bộ của những tác dụng ấy ở một thời gian nhất định, và tất cả các tính chất mà những tác dụng ấy bày ra ở các xã hội loài người.)

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Đào Duy Anh then says that based on Sartiaux’s theory of culture, he is presenting his ideas in his book under three categories: economic life (kinh-tế sinh-hoạt), social life (xã-hội sinh-hoạt) and intellectual life (trí-thức sinh-hoạt). In the book, the section on social life is actually called “social and political life” (xã-hội và chính-trị sinh hoạt).

While there is some connection between these three categories and Sartiaux’s definition of culture, the more obvious way to follow Sartiaux’s ideas would be to look at culture from the two aspects of movement and stasis, as he did in his definition.

Something therefore doesn’t make sense here, and that is because Đào Duy Anh’s book was not based on the ideas of Félix Sartiaux but on those of someone else – Yang Dongchun 楊東蓴, an early Chinese Marxist and an historian.

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In 1931 Yang Dongchun published a book called A General Outline of the Cultural History of China (Benguo wenhuashi dagang 本國文化史大綱). That book was divided into three sections: economic life (jingji shenghuo 經濟生活), social and political life (shehui zhengzhi shenghuo 社會政治生活), and intellectual life (zhihui shenghuo 智慧生活).

If one then looks at the content of these three sections one can find many more similarities between Yang Dongchun’s book and Đào Duy Anh’s.

One clear example of this is the opening passages of both books. Both of these books begin with sections called “What is Culture?” Here is how Yang Dongchun began that section in his book:

“The average scholar often has a certain bias in that he sees culture as referring to scholarly ideas and believes that culture is something lofty and special. If that was truly the case then the domain of culture would have to be narrow and confined, and it would seem that savage peoples should not have culture. However, what facts tell us is the exact opposite.

“First, scholarly ideas are of course part of the domain of culture, but are not economic life, political life, social life and social mores, etc. also part of the domain of culture?

“The noun ‘culture’ is a general term that simply represents every aspect of the lives of human beings. Therefore, culture is life.”

(普通學者每每有一種偏見,以爲文化就是指學術思想而言,並且認爲文化是崇高而特殊的東西。果真如此,則文化的領域未免過於狹隘,而所謂野蠻民族似乎不應有文化。但是,事實所告訴我們的,卻與此正相反對。第一,學術思想,固然是屬於文化領域以内的東西,而經濟生活,政治生活,社會生活以及社會風尚等等,又何不屬於文化領域以内的東西呢?文化這個名詞,不過是代表人類各方面的生活之總稱。所以文化就是生活。)

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Let us now look at how Đào Duy Anh began the same section in his book:

“People often claim that culture refers to the scholarly ideas of human beings. From that perspective, culture is by nature something lofty and special. In fact, that is not how it is.

“Scholarly ideas are of course within the sphere of culture, but are not all of the activities [sinh hoạt 生活, in Yang Dongchun’s text I translate this as “life”] relating to economics, politics, society and even common customs within the sphere of culture too?

“The word ‘culture’ simply refers to all of the means of life of human beings, and therefore we can say: Culture is life.”

(Người ta thường cho rằng văn hóa là chỉ những học thuật tư tưởng của loài người, nhân thế mà xem văn hóa vốn có tính chất cao thượng đặc biệt. Thực ra không phải như vậy. Học thuật tư tưởng cố nhiên là ở trong phạm vi của văn hóa nhưng phàm sự sinh hoạt về kinh tế, về chính trị, về xã hội cùng hết thảy các phong tục tập quán tầm thường lại không phải là ở trong phạm vi văn hóa hay sao? Hai tiếng văn hóa chẳng qua là chỉ chung tất cả cát phương diện sinh hoạt của loài người cho nen ta có thể nói rằng: Văn hóa tức là sinh hoạt.)

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I think it should be obvious that it is not a coincidence that Đào Duy Anh’s book shares the same structure as Yang Dongchun’s. Clearly Đào Duy Anh modeled his 1938 An Historical Outline of Vietnamese Culture after Yang Dongchun’s 1931 A General Outline of the Cultural History of China and not after Félix Sartiaux’s 1938 La Civilisation.

So why did Đào Duy Anh claim that he was inspired by Sartiaux? My guess would be that it was because it was more fashionable at that time in Vietnam, and considered to be more modern, to be knowledgeable about French scholarship.

However, Chinese intellectuals also read Western scholarship and transformed the way that they thought and wrote about their society, and for many prominent Vietnamese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s (from Đào Duy Anh to Phan Khôi to Trần Trọng Kim), that scholarship was easily accessible to them as they could read Chinese.

As such, Vietnamese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s continued to be influenced by the ideas of their counterparts in China, just as generations of scholars in imperial Vietnam and a generation of reformers in the early twentieth century had, and just as the Vietnamese Communists would starting in the 1940s.

For some reason, however, this period when the ideas of intellectuals from the Republic of China were read and adopted by Vietnamese intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s has been overlooked by historians. It shouldn’t be though, as intellectuals like Đào Duy Anh played critical roles in transforming the way that Vietnamese think, and many of his ideas were indebted to scholarship from the Republic of China.