I used to teach a course on modern Vietnamese history (19th and 20th centuries), but I stopped teaching it a few years ago because I got really bored with it.

I got bored of the general narrative of Vietnamese history that I was presenting to students. The way I was teaching Vietnamese history is the way that I suspect a lot of people in North America teach it (or have taught it), and that is to see a pretty sudden decline of “traditional” Vietnam and the gradual emergence of a modern Vietnam.

Topics covered in the first half of the course included ones such as the following:

1) “Traditional” Vietnam and the Nguyen Dynasty;

2) The French conquest and the Cần Vương movement (with the failure of the Cần Vương movement symbolizing the end of traditional ways);

3) The first generation of revolutionaries, Phan Bội Châu and Phan Chu Trinh, people who had one foot in the traditional world and one foot in the modern world, having been exposed to Western ideas through Japanese and Chinese writings (and their failure to bring about change signifying the need for a completely modern generation);

4) The emergence of a modern generation of Vietnamese who knew French and wrote the Vietnamese vernacular using the Romanized script (quốc ngữ), who embraced individualism, and who started to form secret political organizations to resist French colonial rule.

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We can think of this general narrative of modern Vietnamese history as a “revolutionary” history. It is a narrative that is designed to explain where the August Revolution of 1945 came from and why there were decades of war after that.

From our perspective in the present, this narrative can help us understand how the world we live in today was created, and there is merit in that.

However, when you look at historical materials from say the 1910s or 1920s or 1930s, it’s difficult to see signs of the future that would eventually emerge. Instead, you see signs everywhere of a world that the revolutionary history of modern Vietnam doesn’t teach about.

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Take, for instance, the young and very modern intellectuals who formed a group in Hanoi in the 1930s known as the Tự Lực Văn Đoàn (Self-Strength Literary Group). This group of intellectuals sought to promote the modernization (which for them basically meant Westernization) of Vietnam through their writings which they published in a couple of journals Phong Hóa (Mores) and Ngày Nay (These Days).

In the revolutionary narrative of modern Vietnamese history, these intellectuals “fit” in that they represent the modern generation that was needed to transform Vietnam, but because they were very bourgeois in their outlook and lifestyle, they could not inspire the peasants to action.

Therefore, like Phan Bội Châu and Phan Chu Trinh, in the revolutionary narrative of modern Vietnamese history the members of the Self-Strength Literary Group represent a stage in the development of revolution. The big story comes later.

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This is what I used to teach students. However, whenever I read the journal, Mores, I was always surprised to come across references to Nguyễn Dynasty officials. The members of the Self-Strength Literary Group regularly ridiculed Nguyễn Dynasty officials, and that seemed odd to me.

In the revolutionary narrative of modern Vietnamese history, the Nguyễn Dynasty quickly loses its importance once the French conquer Vietnam. However, that the members of the Self-Strength Literary Group felt the need to criticize Nguyễn Dynasty officials and their policies in the 1930s demonstrates that the dynasty was still very much a part of people’s lives (and it definitely was!).

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The more I came across information like this, the more I felt that what I was teaching students was different from what I actually understood. However, I couldn’t find a way to “rethink” modern Vietnamese history. So I stopped teaching the course.

Now, however, I might have to start teaching it again because Christopher Goscha has brilliantly “rethought” modern Vietnamese history in his new book, Vietnam: A New History (outside of the US it is called The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam).

For the period of history that I’ve been discussing here, rather than telling a story of the gradual emergence of “true revolutionaries,” Goscha demonstrates that the most important trend in the first few decades of the twentieth century was the effort to try to create a form of “colonial republicanism.”

Essentially what Goscha demonstrates is that there were many prominent Vietnamese who tried to work with the French in order to transform and modernize Vietnam. These men didn’t seek independence, as they felt that Vietnam was not ready to compete in the modern world yet. What they tried to do was to get the French to create some form of “colonial republic” first.

Phan Chu Trinh tried to do this. Nguyễn Dynasty emperors tried as well. Phan Bội Châu wrote an essay promoting it. Bùi Quang Chiêu and the Constitutionalists in Cochinchina tried. The “Revendications du peuple annamite” (“The Demands of the Annamese People”) that Nguyễn Ái Quốc tried to present to the world leaders at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 was an effort to do this. And many different people tried to get the French to transform Vietnam during the Popular Front period in the 1930s.

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All of these people, Goscha also demonstrates, ended up disappointed. Despite these many efforts to push the French to transform their ideals into reality, the French never allowed a “colonial republic” of any form to emerge, and this opened the door for revolution.

Because that is what ended up happening, the revolutionary narrative of modern Vietnamese history dismisses all of these efforts as insignificant, or depicts them in ways that fit the revolutionary narrative: Phan Chu Trinh was a patriot but he was misguided in thinking that he could work with the French. Nguyễn Dynasty emperors were puppets. Phan Bội Châu never should have written that essay encouraging Franco-Vietnamese collaboration. The Constitutionalists were insignificant. Nguyễn Ái Quốc’s document was the start of a revolutionary struggle for independence, etc.

However, if we stand in the shoes of people who lived in the 1910s or 1920s or 1930s we can see that they believed (or at least hoped) that there was a non-revolutionary way out of colonialism. So they pushed the French to create some form of colonial republic.

In hindsight we can also see that such a view was usually right. As a means to bring an end to colonial rule, colonial republicanism worked more often than it failed. It worked in India, Burma, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Cambodia, Laos, and one could argue that it was working in South Vietnam in the 1950s as well.

To be fair, there were other factors in some of these places that contributed to the end of colonial rule, however these places did not require a revolution to bring an end to colonialism. That is why it is important to take seriously the people who tried to transform Vietnam through non-revolutionary means.

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Christopher Goscha takes these people and their efforts very seriously. And in so doing he “rethinks” modern Vietnamese history in ways that now make it possible for me to teach a course on modern Vietnamese history again, as his book brings what we know about modern Vietnam together in a way that makes much better sense than the revolutionary narrative of modern Vietnamese history.

The story of the first three decades of the twentieth century is not the story of “the rise of nationalism and communism,” as I taught students for years. It is the story of “the failure of colonial republicanism” (the title of Chapter 5 in Goscha’s book).