Rethinking the History of Early-Twentieth-Century Vietnam

When the final palace exam was held in Huế in 1919, there were questions in both classical Chinese and modern Vietnamese (using the Latin script, chữ quốc ngữ). One of the questions in Vietnamese asked the following:

“Our country has been one of literary civility for thousands of years. Should we now follow the Occident and establish a National Academy to translate books? Discuss this.”

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The Quốc Tử Giám and the Transformation of Traditional Learning in 1910s Vietnam

In 1909, reformist Nguyễn Dynasty scholar Phạm Quang Sán offered an example of a theoretical civil service exam question and answer that sought to demonstrate that the origins of Western learning lay in Asia, and that people in Asia now needed to learn Western learning so that they could reap the results of the seeds of knowledge that they had originally sown. Further, by doing so Phạm Quang Sán argued that Asians would then be able to compete with Westerners on a more intellectually equal level.

A year later, in 1910, there was an actual question on the palace exam that addressed this issue of the value of Western knowledge, as well as the value of reformist writings that people like Phạm Quang Sán produced. The model answer that was published that year dismissed the value of both Western and reformist learning by arguing that ultimately all knowledge can be found in the (Confucian) classics.

It is therefore clear that there were differing views at that time among the traditional elite about Western learning. However, it is also clear that by the end of the 1910s that same elite had largely come to accept Western learning.

How did that happen?

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Phạm Quang Sán’s Social Darwinist Call to Restore Ancient Ways

In reading writings from the world of the Nguyễn Dynasty in early twentieth century Vietnam the one thing that becomes clear is that there was a lot of information available about the West at that time. So the traditional elite were not ignorant about other parts of the world.

However, there were members of the traditional elite who were reluctant to change, even though they knew about Europe and America and the developments that had taken place there in recent years.

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A 1910 Vietnamese Defense of the Yijing

The arrival in East Asia in the nineteenth century of people in steamships from the industrializing West was a shock to the educated elite there, and they struggled to understand why it was that there were people in the world who had created technologies that were so different, and so much more powerful and advanced, than anything in East Asia at the time.

Many scholars looked into the ancient texts that they studied in an effort to pass the civil service exams and declared that there was nothing about Western technology that did not already exist (or which the potential to emerge did not exist) in ancient texts.

The Classic of Changes (Yijing 易經) was particularly important for these efforts, as it declared that in antiquity the sages had “fashioned implements” (zhiqi 制器) by “regarding the images” (shangxiang 尚象) of the 64 hexagrams in that work.

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