In his 1938 work, An Historical Outline of Vietnamese Culture (Việt Nam văn hóa sử cương), Vietnamese historian Đào Duy Anh tried to do something that no Vietnamese scholar had ever attempted to do before. He tried to write a history of Vietnamese society.
This was very difficult, because as he noted in his book, the historical records that Vietnamese had written up to that point had dealt primarily with dynastic politics. They did not talk about “the people” (nhân dân), and therefore it was difficult to write about Vietnamese society in the past.
Who were the Vietnamese people? Where did they come from? What was their race? What were the characteristics of the Vietnamese people/race?
These were all questions that Vietnamese scholars had never asked themselves prior to the French colonial period. However, those were precisely the questions that French missionaries, administrators, military officials and scholars asked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as they tried to understand the peoples in their colonial empire.
And once French authors had asked those questions and had written about what they had discovered, scholarship in Vietnam changed forever.
Why was that the case? Because Vietnamese scholars read what the French wrote about Vietnam, and as colonized subjects, they read what the French wrote with certain assumptions in their minds.
While they might have resented French colonization and the loss of sovereignty, Vietnamese scholars in the first half of the twentieth century had a strong sense that the French in particular, and Westerners in general, were more technologically advanced than they were and that the technological achievements of the West were directly related to the way Westerners thought.
So when French authors wrote about Vietnam, Vietnamese scholars wanted to know what they had to say, and I would argue that they read French writings with a (perhaps at times unconscious) sense that the points that French authors made were more significant than the points that Vietnamese could make because of the way the French thought.
Further, the fact that the French wrote about things that Vietnamese had never written or thought about, was likewise a sign to Vietnamese scholars of the uniqueness of the French way of thinking, a way of thinking that had led to the superior development of their society, their ability to colonize foreign lands, etc.
As such, I would argue that French writings were read by Vietnamese scholars in the first half of the twentieth century with a sense of respect and curiosity but also with a feeling of inferiority. This combination of sentiments in turn led Vietnamese scholars to believe and to repeat statements that French authors had made about certain Vietnamese intellectual faults.
We can see this in Đào Duy Anh’s An Historical Outline of Vietnamese Culture. In that book there is a section on “the Vietnamese” (Người Việt-Nam) that discusses all of the above-mentioned issues: where the Vietnamese are from, what race they belong to, and what their physical and intellectual characteristics are.
Given that these were issues that Vietnamese scholars had not discussed prior to the arrival of the French, it is perhaps not surprising to see that Đào Duy Anh relied heavily on the works of French authors in order to discuss these issues.
To explain where the Vietnamese come from, for instance, Đào Duy Anh relied on a study by Leonard Aurousseau, and to explain such things as the physical and intellectual characteristics of the Vietnamese he made use of Colonel E. Diguet’s 1906 Les Annamites: société, coutumes, religions.
Regarding Vietnamese intelligence, Diguet states that,
“The Annamite enjoys a subtle mind and a lively imagination; however of all his intellectual qualities it is his memory that is the most developed, thanks to the study of Chinese characters that he and his ancestors have practiced since high antiquity. It is evident that this amassing of a multitude of different signs, each of which represents an idea, requires a prodigious effort on the part of this faculty.”
He then adds that Vietnamese education is limited to literary studies, and most of the Chinese and Vietnamese literary works that they study are works of imagination. Diguet therefore argues that while Vietnamese develop the intellectual faculties of memory and imagination, these are intellectual skills that are not helpful in the fields of science and industry.
Further, Diguet also states that the Vietnamese intellectual faculty of imagination has its limits. To quote, he states that,
“In the domain of art, where the imagination is master sovereign, the Annamites do not fail to show a keen sense of fantasy. But it must be admitted that, with only some rare exceptions, all their industrial or artistic processes have been borrowed from China, which once again was their inspiration.”
In other words, while the Vietnamese have a well-developed imagination, they only imagine following ideas and practices that they have learned from China, and therefore their imagination is of a lesser quality than that of the Chinese.
Let us now look at what Đao Duy Anh had to say about the Vietnamese mind.
“In terms of their intellectual nature, Vietnamese are generally smart, but up to now there have rarely been people with exceptional intelligence. Their power of memory is the most developed, and they have more of an artistic mind than a scientific mind, and are better at intuition than at logic.
“Most people are fond of studying, but they like flowery literature more than practical studies, they like clichés and formalities more than action-oriented thinking. The development of their imaginative minds is often retarded by their practical minds and that is why there are not many Vietnamese who are dreamers, and their judgements appear to be practical.”
[Về tính chất tinh thần thì người Việt Nam đại khái thông minh, nhưng xưa nay thấy ít người có trí tuệ lỗi lạc phi thường. Sức ký ức thì phát đạt lắm, mà giàu trí nghệ thuật hơn trí khoa học, mà giàu trực giác hơn luận lý.
Phần nhiều người có tính ham học, song thích văn chương phù hoa hơn là thực học, thích thành sáo và hình thức hơn là tư tưởng hoạt động. Não tưởng tượng thường bị não thực  tiến hòa hoãn bớt cho nên dân tộc Việt Nam ít người mộng tưởng, mà phán đoán thường có vẻ thiết thực lắm.]
This is just one small example of others that can be found in Đào Duy Anh’s An Historical Outline of Vietnamese Culture. The point, however, is that we can see that Đào Duy Anh essentially accepted negative depictions of the Vietnamese that had been made by a French writer.
Why did he do that? First of all, writing about Vietnamese intellectual characteristics, as well as the larger study of the history of Vietnamese society that this topic was a part of, were all topics that Vietnamese had not written about before the colonial period.
So Đào Duy Anh was attempting to do something new. And why did he choose to write about these topics? Because this is what French writers wrote about, and he believed that in terms of their intellectual abilities, the French were superior to the Vietnamese.
The French had developed their society in ways that the Vietnamese had not, and their ability to establish a colonial empire in Vietnam was a clear sign of that as it required a way of thinking that, Đào Duy Anh believed, the Vietnamese did not possess.
Therefore, it made sense to learn how the French saw and wrote about the world and to emulate it. And when in doing so Đào Duy Anh saw how the French identified certain Vietnamese intellectual weaknesses, that made sense to him too.
After all, how could one explain French colonization if Vietnamese were not inferior to the French? Đào Duy Anh clearly believed that Vietnamese were inferior. They were not good at the things that made the French great, like practical studies and action-oriented thinking.
And they paid too much attention to unpractical affairs, like studying literature.
That said, none of the intellectual characteristics that the Vietnamese possessed were unchangeable, and Đào Duy Anh made it clear in his book that he felt Vietnamese society would change dramatically through its contact with the French.
While that indeed did happen, this idea of a dichotomy between a more logical France and a more literary Vietnam that French writers like Diguet claimed, and which Đào Duy Anh repeated, continues to this day to be upheld in the writings of cultural theorists like Trần Ngọc Thêm.
Only today the literary or poetic preferences of the Vietnamese are a virtue rather than a sign of inferiority, because this lack of logic is placed in contrast to an overly-logical West that is supposedly exploitative and dominating.
Still, it’s the same dichotomy between a rational West and a less-rational East. That is, it’s the same colonial French way of conceptualizing the world.