The words that we use have a tremendous influence on how we see and understand the world, and this is particularly the case with the names of nations. As soon as we say or think of names like Thailand, Russia or Argentina, some kind of image of a nation appears in our brains.
What do we do if we want to talk about something before a modern nation was formed? We can use the name of whatever polity existed at the time. So for the fifteenth century we can talk about “Ayutthaya” instead of “Thailand.”
But when we do this, we are still thinking in terms of polities, and when we think of polities, I think that aspects of the modern nation (like clear borders and government administrations, etc.) again start to enter our minds.
So to avoid this we can use geographical terms. We can talk about the Chao Phraya River basin, for instance. Or we can talk about the mountainous periphery of the Red River Delta.
All of this can help, but there is one term that seems to constantly provide problems, and which is very difficult to find a solution for. And that is the “C word”. . . China!
Here again, we can talk about geographical areas, such as the Yellow River valley, the Yangzi Delta, etc., but what do you do when you want to talk about the cultural practices that were shared across various geographical regions?
I was reminded of this today when I was reading Lương Trúc Đàm’s 1908 Treatise on the Geography of the Southern Kingdom (Nam quốc địa dư chí 南國地輿誌), a wonderful example of an early effort by a reformer in what was left of the Nguyễn empire to re-conceptualize how the place where he lived should be known.
It contains a section on “education” (giáo dục 教育). The concept of education was new to people like Lương Trúc Đàm. It was a concept that ultimately originated in Europe and North America, but at the turn of the twentieth century, intellectuals in places like Huế and the Red River Delta most likely accessed information about this concept from reading the works of reformers from the Qing empire, who in turn had read and written about the works of reformers in places like Tokyo, who in turn had read the works of writers from Europe and North America. . .
There were of course scholars in the Qing empire who had read, translated and written about writings from Europe and North America. And there were probably some intellectuals in places like Huế and the Red River Delta at the turn of the twentieth century who had made similarly direct access, but the content and style of Lương Trúc Đàm’s text is similar to the work of reformers from the Qing empire at that time, like Liang Qichao, and my guess would be that it is from the writings of such individuals that Lương Trúc Đàm got his ideas.
Indeed, in the section on education, Lương Trúc Đàm mentions two “places” where knowledge comes from – Trung and Tây 中西. Today many people would probably translate Tây as “the West/Western” and Trung as “China/Chinese,” but these English terms do not signify comparable entities, and I think that the way in which Lương Trúc Đàm used the term “Trung Tây” does indicate two entities that were equivalent.
Today “China” is a country, but “the West” is not. However, the place that we call “China” was historically a lot like the place we refer to as “the West.” That is to say, it was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and multi-cultural region of the globe where one could find a high culture that members of the elite across that vast region shared to varying degrees.
So rather than see a division between “Western” knowledge and “Chinese” knowledge, I think it would be more appropriate to translate “Trung” more literally as “Central.”
It is as arbitrary to think of one part of the globe as “the Center” as it is to think of another part of the globe as “the West.” At the same time, both of these concepts have their origins in each of these respective areas. Finally, they are equally vague, and yet they both point to something (difficult to clearly define) that was shared by some people across these regions.
In any case, here is a translation of that section of Lương Trúc Đàm’s text. It is interesting because he starts out talking about “hướng lai” 向來. This can mean “in the past” or “in the past and continuing in the present.” Later, he contrasts “hướng lai” with the present. However, many of the things that he said about “hướng lai,” such as the holding of the civil service exams, were still the case in 1908.
So this passage is about the “past and the present” of the educational system, but when Lương Trúc Đàm talks about the present, he is really only talking about the small number of reform schools that had been set up at that time, particularly the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục.
Here is what Lương Trúc Đàm wrote:
As for the method of education in our kingdom/country in the past [hướng lai 向來], in the capital there were chancellors and directors of studies who taught students studying at the Directorate of Education who had passed the prefectural or provincial exams or who were inheritance students. Outside of the capital there were educational commissioners who taught the children of scholars from various places in the provinces who were engaged in studies.
In the towns and villages there were also many private schools where students studied under a master.
The Ministry of Rites controlled the administration of the kingdom’s schools and the examination system. Every three years it held the provincial and metropolitan exams, respectively, and the scholars that [the court] obtained were put to use both inside and outside [the court].
As for what was taught, there was nothing other than writing [văn chương 文章] and no thoughts about anything other than the civil service examination. In investigating matters, none of the topics such as chemistry, acoustics, optics, mechanics, electricity, mineral gas studies [petroleum?? khoáng khí học 礦氣學], astronomy, geography, machinery and drawing were discussed at all.
There was education in name, but it did not completely exist in reality. To call it a country without education would not have been an exaggeration.
Recently, given that [the existing] textbooks are flawed, [people have] resolved to make improvements and have drafted texts, set up schools, assembled together Central and Western [Trung Tây 中西] studies from the past and present and translated them into the national language, and divided [all of this] into the levels of advanced, elementary and intermediate.
Teachers start with the national language at the introductory level, while Hán and European writing are specialized topics. The basis for universal education has therefore been established, and we are marching toward the age of civilization.