In his 1971 work, Vietnam and the Chinese Model, historian Alexander Woodside sought to demonstrate that there was a discernable distinction between a (Southeast Asian) “Vietnam” and a “Chinese model” of elite cultural ideas and practices that the Nguyễn Dynasty sought to impose in the nineteenth century.
In making this argument, Woodside indicates that without a deliberate effort to force Vietnamese to follow the Chinese model they would not do so. We see this with the issue of Nôm, or the demotic script that was used to record the Vietnamese language.
For example, Woodside argued that there was a return to the use of Nôm in the chaotic years of the Tây Sơn Rebellion in the late eighteenth century when it was difficult to impose the “Chinese model” and that Nôm continued to be used in the early years of the Nguyễn Dynasty under Emperor Gia Long.
To quote, Woodside states that.
“. . . nôm was at the height of its popularity in the very early nineteenth century. Gia-long encouraged it, out of necessity if not out of desire. A law of 1814 stipulated that when a secretariat (thư tả ty) was created for the regional government of the north its fifty members must be drawn from underlings who were particularly ‘skilled at writing Southern and Northern character styles.’ It was a sign of the times that ‘Southern’ (nôm) preceded ‘Northern’ (Chinese).” (54)
In other words, what Woodside was saying here was that while Gia Long might have preferred that everyone follow the “Chinese model” and write in classical Chinese, in the years following the Tây Sơn Rebellion Nôm “was at the height of its popularity.” The emperor therefore had to adapt to this reality.
He did so by ordering that people skilled at writing both “Southern and Northern character styles” (i.e., Nôm and Chinese) be employed in an office that was established in 1814. Finally, the fact that the “Southern” style was mentioned first was a sign to Woodside that this Southeast Asian essence was rising up and pushing aside the “Chinese model” that members of the Sinicized elite had sought to impose on it.
Let us now look at this historical event more closely.
In the early years of the Nguyễn Dynasty, the kingdom was divided into three sections. The court was based in the center, at Huế, while the north and south were under military rule. The northern part of the kingdom was referred to as the “Northern Citadel” (Bắc Thành 北城), a reference to the citadel of Hanoi that was that region’s political center.
As Woodside notes, Emperor Gia Long approved the establishment of an office there in 1814. Woodside called this office a “secretariat” (Thư tả ty 書寫司), but in this post here I will refer to it as a “copiers office” to more clearly reflect its function, which was to serve as an office for scribes to make copies of documents.
The information about the establishment of the copiers office in the Northern Citadel comes from the Khâm định Đại Nam hội điển sự lệ (欽定大南會典事例), a collection of administrative documents and regulations.
There is a Vietnamese translation of this text, and this passage is translated differently from the way that Woodside understood it. The translators of that text translated that passage as follows:
“In the 13th year [of Gia Long’s reign] (1814), a memorial was approved that allowed the Northern Citadel to examine people who write well and are skilled at the forms of characters, and to choose 50 people from the North and the South to establish a Copiers Office.”
[Năm thứ 13, (1814) theo lời tâu chuẩn cho Bắc Thành xét thực người viết tốt, tự thể tinh khéo trong Nam ngoài Bắc lấy 50 tên, lập làm ty Thư tả.]
Then in a footnote the translators state that this passage can be understood in two ways:
1) that 50 people were chosen who were good at writing both Southern characters (i.e., Nôm) and Northern characters (i.e., Chinese); or
2) that 50 people from the North and the South (of Vietnam) who were good at writing characters were chosen.
[1. viết giỏi chữ Nam (chữ Nôm) và chữ Bắc (chữ Hán)/2. Người viết giỏi ở trong Nam ngoài Bắc, kiểu chữ đẹp]
Woodside understood this passage to mean that the scribes had to know Nôm and Chinese, whereas the translators of this passage believed that it was saying that scribes were recruited from both the southern and northern regions of the kingdom.
I would argue that both of these interpretations are incorrect, and to understand this we need to look at the larger context.
A year before a copiers office was established in the Northern Citadel, another copiers office was established at the capital in Huế.
The record for the establishment of that copiers office says that “It was ordered that 50 people be selected who were good at writing and adept to establish a Copiers Office.”
[揀選善書精工者工五十名立為書寫司; Chỉ truyền: chọn tuyển người viết tốt tinh khéo, lấy 50 viên tập làm ty Thư tả.]
In other words, there was no mention of any “south/southern” or “north/northern” in this record.
I would then translate the record for the establishment of the copiers office in the Northern Citadel as follows:
“In the 13th year [of Gia Long’s reign] (1814), a memorial was approved that allowed the Northern Citadel to examine people who write well and are adept at southern and northern character forms, and to choose 50 people to establish a Copiers Office.”
The key here is that these individuals in the copiers office in the Northern Citadel had to be “adept at southern and northern character forms.” What did that mean?
It did not mean that they needed to know Nôm, because 1) Nôm was usually referred to at this time as “sound” (âm 音) or “spoken language” (ngữ 語) not as a form of writing (văn 文) that had “characters” (tự 字), and 2) the north was the center of classical learning in Vietnam, so why would there be a need to have scribes there who knew Nôm but not in other places?
This reference to “southern and northern character forms” (nam bắc tự thể 南北字體) has to be a reference to different ways of writing Chinese characters.
For centuries prior to the early nineteenth century, the Red River Delta had been politically separated from areas to its south. During those centuries, it must be the case that writing styles diverged, and that when in the early nineteenth century the Nguyễn came to rule over a realm that stretched from the Mekong Delta to the Red River Delta, they found that the way they wrote Chinese characters was different from the way that their counterparts in the Northern Citadel did (This is not surprising given that many Chinese had migrated to Nguyễn territory over the previous two centuries and had probably influenced cultural practices like writing styles.).
Hence the need for copiers at the Northern Citadel to be adept at both forms of writing, as they would have had to copy orders from Huế (in the “southern” style) so that they could be sent to the various provinces in the north (in the “northern” style).
Further, it is undoubtedly because of the existence of these two different ways of writing Chinese characters that in 1820 Emperor Minh Mạng ordered that everyone in the realm write following the style of characters in the Kangxi Dictionary (see this earlier post).
This issue of establishing a copiers office in Hanoi does indeed point to an important distinction, but it is not the distinction between Nôm and classical Chinese as Woodside believed.
Instead, it points to a distinction between two elite communities that both participated in what we can think of as a universal Sinitic culture.
One of these elite communities was based in the south of what is today Vietnam, and the other in the north. The members of both of these communities wrote in classical Chinese, but in the early nineteenth century they wrote in different styles.
The people in the south believed that their way of writing Chinese characters was superior, but during Emperor Gia Long’s reign they allowed both styles to co-exist. Emperor Minh Mạng wanted to bring unity to the realm, and unifying the writing style by having everyone write following the style of characters in the Kangxi Dictionary was one of the ways he sought to do that.