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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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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The Untold Story of the Self-Modernization of Vietnam’s Traditional Elite

In the previous post I introduced a book that Nguyễn Dynasty official and reformist scholar Phạm Quang Sán published in 1909 that sought to introduce students studying for the civil service exams to new ideas.

While many of the questions and answers in that book covered topics that were very new, there were also some questions and answers in that work that as least ostensibly sought to follow traditional ideas and patterns.

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Phạm Quang Sán’s Attempt to Revolutionize the Civil Service Exams (Khoa Cử)

In 1909, a year after he had published a textbook that was aimed at modernizing elementary education, Nguyễn Dynasty official and reformist scholar Phạm Quang Sán published another small book that was targeted at more advanced students, namely students who were studying for the civil service exams (khoa cử).

Entitled A New Selection of Policy Studies (Sách học tân tuyển 策學新選), this book purported to present model examples of the types of questions that one could expect to be asked in the exams, as well as model examples of how one should answer those questions.

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