Emperor Đồng Khánh’s First State Letter (Quốc Thư 國書)

The period from 1883-1885 was a dramatic time in Vietnamese history. The troubles began with the passing of Nguyễn Dynasty Emperor Tự Đức, an emperor who had ruled for over 35 years.

In the two years that followed, four emperors would rise and fall before Emperor Đồng Khánh ascended the throne and ruled or for four years, a comparatively long reign in those troubled times.

Emperor Đồng Khánh thus brought some stability to the Nguyễn Dynasty, but the conditions in which he ruled were different from those of his predecessors.

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Ngô Đình Khả’s Rise to the Top Through the Quốc Học

I have been trying to figure out the chronology of events that led to the establishment in 1896 of the Quốc học, a school in the Nguyễn Dynasty capital of Huế that was dedicated to teaching French to the children of the royal family and Nguyễn Dynasty officials.

From what I have been able to determine so far, it was French governor-general Paul Armand Rousseau’s idea. Rousseau then consulted with the French resident-superior in Huế, Ernest Albert Brière, who in turn discussed the matter with members of the Nguyễn Dynasty Privy Council (Viện Cơ mật 機密院).

In bringing up this matter, Rousseau and Brière indicated that they had someone in mind to serve as the director of the Quôc học, a man by the name of Ngô Đình Khả.

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Emperor Thành Thái’s Edict to Establish the Quốc học in 1896

In 1896, the Nguyễn Dynasty established a school at the royal capital in Huế for teaching French.

Known in Vietnamese as the Quốc học, its original name in classical Chinese was Quốc học trường 國學場, meaning the “national learning school,” and it was referred to in French as the “Collège national.” (And yes, it is significant that “national learning” at this time meant learning French. . .)

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A Confucian/Anti-French Critique of the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục

I recently came across a fascinating text from the early twentieth century that contains a critique of the Dông Kinh Nghĩa Thục. The Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục (東京義塾, Tonkin Free School) is a school that was set up in Hanoi in 1907 where “modern” (Western) subjects where taught, and where students were encouraged to learn to read and write in Vietnamese using the Romanized script (quốc ngữ) rather than classical Chinese (Hán).

This school was shut down by the French colonial authorities a year later. The usual explanation for this is that the French accused some of the leaders of the school for being involved in tax protests that broke out at that time in central Vietnam.

In the modern (nationalist) history of Vietnam, the brief existence of this school is regarded as an important moment in the nationalist struggle against French colonial rule when Vietnamese sought to take steps to modernize their society, but ultimately were stopped by the French).

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Reading Khải Định – The Last Vietnamese Emperor

One major “blind spot” that exists in our understanding of modern Vietnamese history concerns what happened at the Nguyễn Dynasty court in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

For most of the nineteenth century, historians can consult compilations based on Nguyễn Dynasty court records that are known as “veritable records” (thực lục 實錄), but no such collections were made for the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Court documents from that period, however, do still exist.

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The Idea for a Mandarin Language in Early-20th-Century Vietnam

The civil service examination was of course an extremely important institution in Vietnamese history, but it is a topic that has yet to be researched in depth. Indeed, trying to understand how that institution worked is a daunting task, and it is understandable that not many scholars have tried to take on this difficult topic.

Recently I took a look at some documents that were produced in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that contain questions from the exams and “ideal answers.” Known as Selected Essays from the Palace Exam [Hội đình văn tuyển 會庭文選], these texts were meant to serve as study guides for future exam takers.

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The Origins of Patriotic Education in Vietnam

Following the ideas of the previous two blog entries below, one of the main elements of the dominant paradigm of Vietnamese history is that Vietnamese have always felt patriotic towards their nation.

Contrary to this assertion, we can clearly document the emergence of the concept of patriotism (ái quốc in Hán, but commonly expressed now as lòng yêu nước in tiếng Việt) in Vietnam to the early twentieth century. We can see its emergence at that time in, among other places, a new style of textbook that was published which clearly promoted this concept, and which clearly indicated that it was new.

One example of such works is the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư (改良蒙學國史教科書). I’m not sure about the exact publication date for this work, but it should be around 1912 or so. Its argument about the need for a new mindset is similar to what can be found in works like the Việt sử yếu (越史要) from 1914.

What is the new mentality that these works encouraged? They argued that “Vietnamese” (Note that in the passage below the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư does not use this term. I’m just using it here for the sake of simplicity.) did not have a sense of patriotism because they had never really thought about their own land. Instead, they had just focused on learning about that big place to the north.

This was one of the most important intellectual changes that took place at that time. After centuries of living in a world in which educated Vietnamese valued certain knowledge as universal (what we would today call “Chinese” knowledge), in the early twentieth century educated Vietnamese moved away from that way of viewing the world and started to emphasize the need to know about their own land.

Why did this happen? It is because Vietnamese intellectuals at that time came to learn of the concept of the nation, and that in the West people did not emphasize some universal form of knowledge as they did, but valued instead information about their own individual countries.

This was a new concept, as were many terms associated with it such as:

“nation” – It is often difficult to detect when this concept is being used in this transition period, because the term for “kingdom” (quốc 國) was used to indicate this new concept as well. So when intellectuals in the early twentieth century talked about “quốc sử” (國史), it is difficult to know if they meant “national history” or “the history of the kingdom.”

“nationality” (dân tộc 民族) – This was a new concept. It was created by Japanese reformers in the second half of the nineteenth century, and then entered the Chinese language.

“fatherland” (tổ quốc 祖國) – Another new concept at the time which was probably created in Japan as well.

“citizen” (quốc dân 國民) – Also created in Japan to translate a concept that did not exist in languages like Japanese and Chinese.

With all of this in mind, let’s look at the opening part of the preface to the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư:

“In a realm there are three things of importance. The first is history. A nation’s/kingdom’s history records the [times of] strength and weakness of a nation’s/kingdom’s nationality [dân tộc], and the speed of their evolution. Studies in the Occident [old word for the West – 泰西] place first importance on national history. All of the male and female students in each school are first taught their own nation’s history, and then the histories of foreign countries. Children practice it, and when they get bigger they become adept at it.

Trong cõi có ba điều quan trọng, một trong số đó là sử. Quốc sử là cái dùng để ghi lại sự mạnh yếu của dân tộc và sự nhanh chậm trong tiến hóa của nó. Sự học của Thái Tây trọng hơn hết là quốc sử. Hễ trong trường học, học sinh nữ hay nam đều trước hết dạy cho lịch sử bản quốc, sau đó [học] đến lịch sử nước ngoài. Lúc đồng ấu học tập thứ ấy, lớn lên sẽ tinh thông thứ ấy.

“Reading the history of the [times of] strength and prosperity of one’s fatherland, one becomes happy. Reading the history of the [times of] decline and weakness of one’s fatherland, one becomes sad. These citizens will then gain a strong sense of patriotism. Everyone will exert their utmost to move the fatherland toward strength and prosperity, and to raise their fatherland’s reputation. The history of a nation truly has the most intimate of relations with its citizens.

Đọc lịch sử [khi] tổ quốc cường thịnh thì vui sướng mà kính nể. Đọc lịch sử [khi] tổ quốc suy vi thì xót xa mà buồn thương. [Như thế] nên những quốc dân [đọc sử ấy] được làm giàu có [thêm] lòng yêu nước; [mà] người người sẽ hết sức gắng gỏi để thúc đẩy tổ quốc đến cường thịnh và làm danh dự tổ quốc được vẻ vang. Quốc sử đối với quốc dân thực có quan hệ mật thiết nhất.

“Studies in our kingdom/nation just stick to using rotten Chinese [It’s very interesting that the author uses 支那 Chi Na. This was a derogatory term used by the Japanese at the time (Shina in Japanese).] writings. As for this nation’s [writings], they know nothing, as if they were in a fog. Even if you ask high-class students which nation/kingdom they live in, they cannot answer. Oh! The people of this nation/kingdom are not clear about the matters of this nation/kingdom, [like] Ji Tan forgetting his ancestors [A reference to a person in the Zuozhuan], and almost don’t even know the origin of their own bloodline [This is another new concept.]. Therefore the spirit of patriotism is shallow and weak, causing the fatherland’s future to daily descend into the realm of decline and oblivion.”

Sở học của nước ta rặt chỉ theo nước China mà mô phỏng lối văn hủ lậu, thứ đó (=lối văn hủ lậu) đối với bản quốc vì thế thực là mông lung, [người học học nó thì] như sa vào chốn sương mù. [Điều đó khiến cho] đến mức học sinh cao đẳng trong xã hội lớp trên mà [khi] hỏi rằng thân này ở nước nào cũng không thể đối đáp được. Ôi! Với việc quốc nhân mình không biết rõ quốc sự mình, [khác gì] [chuyện] “Tịch Đàm vong tổ” (Tịch Đàm quên tổ tiên của mình)? Cơ hồ không biết huyết thống thân ta từ đâu mà ra, cho nên lòng yêu nước đã nông cạn lại mỏng bạc, mà khiến cho tiền đồ tổ quốc ngày càng hãm vào vực suy nhược chìm vong.


What I have translated as “patriotism” here is “ái quốc tâm” (愛國心) or “ái quốc chi tâm” (愛國之心). While you can find the term “ái quốc” used prior to this point, it did not carry the same sense as the term “patriotism.” What was valued prior to the twentieth century was loyalty (trung 忠) to a monarch. “Ái quốc” thus indicated more of a connection to the monarch, the royal enterprise, and the monarch’s kingdom than a connection with “the citizens” and the land, which patriotism emphasizes.

For people to have a sense of “patriotism,” they had to think of their land as a “nation” with “citizens” and a “national history” about this “fatherland” that the “nationality” needed to know so that they could feel a sense of “patriotism.”

The curriculum that scholars studied before the twentieth century emphasized very different points. People needed to learn the classics in order to develop the morality that they would need to govern well and to maintain their loyalty to the monarch.

Further, those classics were universal. It was thus impossible to have a modern/Western sense of patriotism when one’s education focused on material that came from someplace else.

The Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư demonstrates that intellectuals in the early twentieth century were coming to this realization, and were attempting to dramatically change the way that people in their land viewed the world they lived in.

A century later we can see that they definitely succeeded. Today many people are unaware that this transition ever took place. As a result, the dominant paradigm that declares that the Vietnamese have always had a sense of patriotism toward their nation gets repeated over and over.

Dương Bá Trác on the Origins of the Vietnamese Race

Scientists have long noted that there is no biological basis for race. Races of human beings do not actually exist. They are social constructs. People create different categories of human beings that they call “races.”

This way of viewing the world is one that emerged in the West, and was adopted by people in Asia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As people there did so, they had to adapt their understanding of the world and the past to this new way of viewing the world.

One such person who did this in Vietnam was the scholar and reformer Dương Bá Trác. One of the founders of the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục, Dương Bá Trạc was imprisoned when that school was shut down by the French. Eventually he was pardoned, and when the journal Nam Phong was established, Dương Bá Trác wrote for it.

One article that he wrote was entitled “An Examination of Việt History” (Việt sử khảo) and it appeared in Vietnamese and classical Chinese in the same issue (Deptember 1918). In this essay Dương Bá Trác discusses the origins of the Vietnamese race.

Dương Bá Trác says that there was an original Giao Chỉ race in the Red River Delta. Then a new race formed when members of the Han race arrived as first the Qin and then the Han Dynasty extended its control across the region. These men intermarried with local women, and eventually the old Giao Chỉ race was largely absorbed, which in turn created the Vietnamese race.

The author points to the well-known historical figures, Lý Bôn (a.k.a. Lý Bí) and Hồ Quý Ly, as examples of this phenomenon, as both men were descended from ancestors who had migrated into the region from areas in what are today China.

Although at one point Dương Bá Trác says that the mixing of the Han and Giao Chỉ races created the Vietnamese race, later in the essay he indicates that this was more of a process of assimilation of the Giao Chỉ race by the Han race.

In the Vietnamese version of this essay, the author states that “one can see that the current Vietnamese race is largely of Han stock” (thì biết giống người Việt-Nam bây giờ phần nhiều là Hán-tộc), while in the classical Chinese section the same sentence is “there is no doubt but that our country’s race was assimilated into the Han race” (則我國種同化於漢族可無疑矣).

The author then goes on to relate with pride the achievements of the Han race, and in the process he seamlessly moves from discussing what we would today call Chinese history to Vietnamese history.

Referring to “our Han race” (Hán-tộc ta) in the Vietnamese version, and “the glorious Han race” (堂堂漢族) in the classical Chinese version, Dương Bá Trác says that the fact that it was able to expand southward through history, driving away other peoples along the way, until it finally reached what Dương Bá Trác refers to as “our country” (nước ta) in the Vietnamese version and “this land” (斯土) in the classical Chinese text, is evidence of the civilized character and competitive power of the race.

Further, it is this power of the Han race, Dương Bá Trác tells us, which enabled it to bring Champa (Chiêm-thành) under its control, occupy Cambodia (Chân-lạp), pacify the various savages, bring into submission all of the older races and become the lord of “this piece of land” (cái miếng đất này) or “this land” (斯土).

Viet su khao

Hoàng Cao Khải’s Social Darwinist Ideas

The Nguyễn Dynasty official, Hoàng Cao Khải, is usually regarded today as a traitor for having assisted the French in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in their conquest and rule of Vietnam.

While his political decisions can certainly be criticized, Hoàng Cao Khải does perhaps deserve some credit as a modernizer. In his writings he definitely revealed that he was someone who had adopted new ideas from the West, and was thus part of a new generation of intellectuals who began to change the way that Vietnamese think.

I was looking at a work he published in 1910 called the Mirror of Southern History (Gương sử Nam). He has a passage in that work where he talks about colonialism.

Basically what he says in this passage is that all countries that establish colonies expend people and resources in the process. Therefore, it is necessary after they establish the colony to tax the people in the colony and recruit them to serve as soldiers.

Nonetheless, colonizers fear that people will not submit to them. So they try to gain the people’s support by telling them that they should feel gratitude and by employing transformative moral teachings (giáo hóa).

According to Hoàng Cao Khải, this is the norm. In contrast, it has never been the case, he states, that a county has established a colony and then sought to exterminate the people there.

Hoàng Cao Khải then employs Social Darwinist ideas and states that it is a natural principle in the world that those who are better gain, and those who are inferior lose (loài hơn thì được, loài kém thì thua) .

When one is inferior, he continues, one has to rely on one who is better in order to develop (khai hóa). And he says further that paying taxes and serving as soldiers is the duty (phận sự) of those who are inferior.

Hoàng Cao Khải then ends by stating that if those who are inferior do not realize that this is their duty (bản phận), but instead resist (chống lại) those who are better, then given the imbalance in strength between the two, those who are inferior will likely be exterminated.


Reading these comments by Hoàng Cao Khải, I have to say that I have no fondness for him as a human being or for the role that he played in history. What I do find interesting, however, is simply the fact that he used Social Darwinist ideas to make his point.

“Those who are better gain, and those who are inferior lose” is clearly a Vietnamese version of the phrase that had been used by Chinese reformers who had adopted a Social Darwinist view of the world that “the superior triumph and the inferior are defeated” (優勝劣敗).

The use of this expression (and the ideas behind it) demonstrates that by 1910 such Social Darwinist ideas were part of the way in which educated Vietnamese viewed the world. While this is something which it is easy to assume must have been the case given the importance of Social Darwinist ideas among reformers in East Asia at the time, I’ve never seen a study which clearly documents the emergence of these ideas in Vietnam.

The Mirror of Southern History was translated into Hán as the Mirror of Việt History (越史鏡). It is very interesting to compare the two texts. The information is essentially the same, but I find the Hán text to have a much stronger and more emotional tone to it, as it adds certain expressions which the Vietnamese original does not have.

A Việt View of Savages and Aborigines

I posted a while ago (here) about a geographical text which was produced in the late nineteenth or (more likely) the early twentieth century which was unique in that it talked about the various “races” (nhân chủng) in Vietnam.

The idea of “race” (chủng) is a concept which was unknown to Vietnamese prior to their contact with Western ideas. This text appears to me to be an early effort to employ this concept.

However, the way it is employed is very interesting. The text talks about the various “nhân chủng” in the country, but it is unclear what, if any, criteria it uses for categorizing people. What is more, the information provided about peoples is extremely derogatory.

The text divides the various savages and aborigines according to the three sections (kỳ) of the country, which is another sign that this text was written during the colonial period. I’m providing below a translation of some of the peoples in Bắc Kỳ. I’ll try to translate more later.

Races of Man [i.e., “savages”] and Thổ [i.e., “aborigines”] from the Three Regions [三畿人蠻土人種]

There are 12 tribes of Thổ people [土人] who live in the mountain forests: the Hoàng, Ma, Hà, Ấu (?), Triệu, Điêu/Đeo, Trùng, Mao, Xích, Mạn, Nảy and Điếu. It is traditionally told that they have an immortal dog as their founding ancestor and that they emerged during the time of the Hùng kings.

Among the Nùng people [儂人], those who live on the mountain tops are the Môi tribe. Those who live half on the mountains and half in the forests are the Nương tribe. Those who live deep in the mountains and always wear white robes and turbans are the Na tribe.

Man people [蠻人]

The men are treacherous and overbearing. The women use white [cloth] for their clothing.

Mạnh people [猛人]

Their temperaments are evil. They can curse people. The women completely use white for their clothing. They live in the mountain caves of Bảo Lạc

Dao people [猺人]

By nature they are very treacherous. They can harm people with poisonous plants and sheep ??? (?). They live in the mountain grottoes of Bắc Cạn.

Mường people [亻/芒人]

The men like to murder people and eat their livers and gall bladders. They can trick people and take their belongings. They live in the grottoes of Thủy Vĩ.

Mọi people [/每人]

For their clothing they entirely use black material with red on the edges. They live in the valleys and grottoes of Phân Mao Ridge in Lạng Sơn.

Bề people [佊人]

They use multi-colored cloth for their clothing. [Residing] deep in the mountains, they eat raw food, and are not afraid of evil things. They live on Thiên Môn Ridge and Mount Lão Quân.