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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Gia Long’s De-Localization of Hanoi’s Văn Miếu

When the Nguyễn Dynasty came to power in 1802, there was a Confucian Temple (Văn Miếu 文廟) in Long Hồ hamlet, outside the imperial citadel. In 1807, Emperor Gia Long ordered that a new Confucian Temple be constructed in the nearby An Ninh hamlet.

That same year, Emperor Gia Long also ordered that a shrine dedicated to the father of Confucius (Khải Thánh từ 啓聖祠) be constructed.

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Chen Jinghe’s Notes on the Gia Định thành thông chí

Not long after the French obtained control over the area around Saigon, Louis Gabriel Galderic Aubaret published a French “translation” of an early-nineteenth-century gazetteer of the region, Trịnh Hoài Đức’s Gia Định thành thông chí.

I have “translation” in scare quotes because it wasn’t a word-for-word translation, it contained errors, and it was not complete.

In the 1950s, Chen Jinghe published a section of the Gia Định thành thông chí that Aubaret had not included in his translation, the section on citadels. Chen also included numerous footnotes of his own.

Not long after this piece was published, a Vietnamese translation was published in the journal Đại Học.

While the Gia Định thành thông chí is available in Vietnamese translation today, what is valuable about Chen Jinghe’s article is the information that he included in his footnotes.

People who study the history of the Mekong Delta might find some of the information he provided helpful. Since these materials are not easy to find, I’m providing them here for anyone interested.





Vietnamese Métis in 1863 Paris

In 1862, the Nguyễn Dynasty granted the French some land in the Mekong Delta, after it had been occupied by French and Spanish forces.

A year later the Nguyễn court sent the official, Phan Thanh Giản, to Paris to try to negotiate the return of that land. While Phan Thanh Giản was in Paris, he was photographed, probably making him one of the first Vietnamese to be photographed.

I was recently browsing through the wonderful digital collection that the Bibliothèque nationale de France has created, when I came across a work which has pictures of the other members of this embassy.

Much to my surprise, I found a picture of this woman here.

The citation accompanying this pictures is as follows: “Ambassade Cochinchinoise à Paris. 1863. Marie Vannier, 40 ans, née à Hué de Seu-Dong cochinchinoise, et de Mr Vannier, officier de la Marine Française, chevalier de la Légion d’honneur et grand Mandarin du roi d’Annam Gia Long.”

Gia Long had a group of Europeans who worked for him, and one of them, Mr. Vannier, apparently married a Vietnamese woman, Seu-Dong, and together they had a daughter, Marie.

They also had a son by the name of Michel: “1863. Michel Vannier, 51 ans, né à Hué de Sam-Diam cochinchinoise, et de Mr. Vannier, officier de la Marine Française, chevalier de la Légion d’honneur et grand Mandarin du roi d’Annam Gia-Long.”

Accompanying these two was then an elderly woman by the name of “Sam-Diam” who is described as a daughter of a Mandarin and “Vve” of Mr. Vannier. What does “Vve” stand for? If this was Mr. Vannier’s wife, then why is the mother of his children referred to as “Seu-Dong”? I’m confused (or my knowledge of French is too poor).

“Sam-Diam, 75 ans, Cochinchinoise née à Hué, fille de Mandarin et Vve de Mr. Vannier, ancien officier de la Marine Française, chevalier de la Légion d’honneur et grand Mandarin du roi Gia-Long; face.”

In any case, it is fascinating to see these métis, or mixed-blood, offspring participating on this diplomatic mission, but it also makes perfect sense. Such “cultural intermediaries” were essential.

Another form of “cultural intermediary” were Vietnamese Catholics, and some of these people also appear to have been part of this mission, such as Pédrô-Diếu an “Annamite” from Tonkin.

To view the complete set of pictures, and to see the source information, click on the link below:


The Differing Customs of the Qing People

I was reading the Khâm Định Việt Sử Thông Giám Cương Mục and found some interesting entries in the year 1663. In the seventh lunar month of that year the court announced certain “doctrinal tenets” [教條, giáo điều] to the people of the kingdom.

What were these doctrinal tenets? They were that officials must be loyal, sons must be filial, brothers must live in harmony, husbands and wives must love and respect each other, and friends must interact with trust, etc.

In other words, these doctrinal tenets were basic Confucian moral ideas, and the court wanted these ideas to be made known to the people.

Then in the tenth lunar month the court issued a ban on the “false way [左道, tả đạo] of the Catholics.” This passage indicated that “Holland barbarians” [花郎夷, Hoa Lang di] had earlier come and seduced ignorant people into believing this “alien teaching” [異道, di đạo], and that previously an order banning it had been issued, but people had continued to follow it.

Finally, in between these two passages is one which I find interesting. It is as follows:

“In the eighth lunar month [the court] ordered that Qing people [Thanh nhân] who have come to reside be distinguished.

At that time many Qing people had come to settle among the people, leading customs to become mixed. The managing official [not sure how to translate 承司] of each area was thereupon ordered to inspect the area under his jurisdiction and if there were visitors [客人, khách nhân] from the Qing kingdom residing in the area, they were to handle the matter as they saw fit in order to separate the differing customs [殊俗, thù tục].”

The Vietnamese translation of this passage that I have renders “differing customs” as “customs of a foreign country” [phong tục nước ngoài]. However, “thù tục” doesn’t necessarily have that connotation. Within a kingdom there could be “thù tục,” and that is how the term appears to have been used in Chinese writings.

The more important issue, however, is what were these “differing customs” and why was the court nervous about them “mixing” with local customs? Clearly something “bad” was happening, as the term for “mixing” here does have negative connotations of making things “confused.”

It would be easy to say that they were “Chinese” customs which did not fit with “Vietnamese” ones. But one month before the court expressed its concern about this mixing of the customs of the Qing people with those of local people, it urged those same local people to be loyal to the monarch, filial to their parents. . . that is, to follow the same Confucian teachings that “Qing people” did.

Further, not long after the court ordered its local officials to separate Qing people from local people, it banned everyone from following the “alien teaching” of the “Holland barbarians.”

So in the seventeenth-century Catholicism was “alien,” whereas Confucian ideas like filial piety were not. What then were these “differing customs” of the “Qing people”? And what was the problem with them?

Was it that they were “customs of a foreign country” [phong tục nước ngoài]? That doesn’t seem to make sense here.


Tháng 7, mùa thu. Ban bố rõ giáo điều cho trong nước.

Đại lược giáo điều nói: Làm bầy tôi phải hết lòng trung với vua; làm con phải giữ đạo hiếu; anh em hòa thuận với nhau; vợ chồng kính yêu lẫn nhau; bè bạn giữ lòng tin thực. . .

Tháng 8. Hạ lệnh: phân biệt đối xử với những người nhà Thanh đến trú ngụ.

Bấy giờ người nhà Thanh phần nhiều đến trú ngụ ở dân gian, làm cho phong tục hỗn độn. Triều đình bèn hạ lệnh cho ty Thừa chính các xứ xét trong hạt mình, nếu có khách trú ngụ là người nhà Thanh thì phải tùy tiện đối xử, để phân biệt phong tục nước ngoài.

Tháng 10, mùa đông. Nhắc rõ lệnh cấm người theo tả đạo Gia tô.

Trước đây, có người Tây Dương gọi là Hoa lang di, vào ở trong nước ta đem đạo dị đoan [actually, the Hán text has “di đạo”] của Gia tô lừa dối dụ dỗ làm ngu muội dân chúng, những người quê mùa nông nổi phần nhiều tin mộ đạo ấy, họ lập tòa giảng nghe giảng đạo, sự mê hoặc đắm đuối mỗi ngày càng sâu rộng. Trước đã hạ lệnh đuổi người truyền đạo ấy đi, nhưng còn bọn tiểu nhân thấm sâu vào tập tục ấy chưa thay đổi được, nên đến nay lại hạ lệnh cấm.