In English-language writings on Vietnamese history, the Nguyễn Dynasty has long been depicted as resistant to reform. In this depiction, people like Emperor Tự Đức are said to have been so absorbed in the world of Confucian tradition that they did not recognize the need to change.
My suspicion is that this view of the past was probably first developed by French authors during the colonial period as a way to justify their rule, and it later fit the needs of twentieth-century Vietnamese nationalists as well, and has become part of the nationalist narrative of Vietnamese history.
In terms of English-language scholarship, I think that this view has persisted simply because there has been so little work done in English on the Nguyễn Dynasty, because when one looks at the historical record, it is clear that the depiction of the Nguyễn Dynasty as resistant to reform definitely needs to be revisited.
Take, for instance, the following example. In 1879 Emperor Tự Đức ordered some of his officials to fix the calendar. The reason why this was necessary was because the lunar calendar that the Nguyễn Dynasty employed has 11 fewer days per year than the solar calendar. To keep the calendar accurate so as to know when to plant crops, it is necessary to add an extra month, an intercalary month (閏月), about every three years.
This is what needed to be done in 1879, and Emperor Tự Đức ordered his officials to make the proper adjustments.
However, in doing so he also ordered that certain Western books be consulted as well and that these books be printed and distributed widely for officials and scholars to learn from.
What books did Emperor Tự Đức refer to? Henry Wheaton’s Elements of International Law (Vạn quốc công pháp 萬國公法), Benjamin Hobson’s Treatise on Natural Philosophy (Bác vật tân biên 博物新編), Daniel Jerome Macgowan’s The Navigator’s Golden Needle (Hàng hải kim châm 航海金針), and Warington Wilkinson Smyth’s A Treatise on Coal and Coal Mining (Khai môi yếu pháp 開煤要法).
These books were about much more than calendrical calculations, and Emperor Tự Đức clearly understood that.
Two years later, in 1881, he ordered that these same books be printed and distributed to academies across the kingdom.
While these books may not be familiar to many of us today, in the nineteenth century these were some of the most influential works for members of the reformist elite across East Asia, from the members of the Self-Strengthening Movement in China to the men behind the Meiji-era reforms in Japan.
Henry Wheaton’s Elements of International Law was particularly important. First published in 1836, it was translated into classical Chinese in 1864, after the Second Opium War, and was of critical importance in transforming the worldview of the Chinese elite at that time; from viewing their land as the one and only “Central Kingdom,” to understanding that it was merely one of many “sovereign nations” on the globe. (See Lydia H. Liu’s The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making for a sophisticated discussion of that transformation.)
The Chinese translation of Wheaton’s Elements of International Law was republished in Japan in 1865, a year after it was first published in China. While I have not been able to determine when it was first published in Vietnam, the other three books above appear to have first been published in 1877, so it is possible that Wheaton’s text was also published at that time.
This would put the introduction of such new ideas in Vietnam about a decade later than in China and Japan, but that is still more than two decades earlier than the time most historians believe Western ideas about such topics as international law and sovereignty were first introduced to the Vietnamese elite through the writings of reformers such as Phan Bội Châu and Phan Châu Trinh.
The Nguyễn Dynasty was clearly not resistant to change. To the contrary, by ordering that Wheaton’s Elements of International Law be distributed to academies in 1881, Emperor Tự Đức was clearly seeking to keep pace with the changes taking place in East Asia at that time.