The True Vietnamese Revolutionaries

I’ve long had a problem with the general narrative about the history of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century Vietnam. Over and over you read in books that the Nguyễn Dynasty failed to deal with the French, and as a result of this, the “old world” of traditional Vietnam, and classical Chinese, died and the “new world” of reformers and revolutionaries like Phan Bội Châu took over, and that led to the Tonkin Free School in 1907 where vernacular Vietnamese written in quốc ngữ was promoted, etc. and. . . that’s the end of the story, as that road all leads to 1945.

What’s wrong with this narrative? First of all, Phan Bội Châu spent very little time in Vietnam in the early twentieth century, and his writings were not published at that time, so how could he have been influential?

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Phan Bội Châu, the Later Trần and the Ngô

I love the early twentieth century, as that is when the Vietnamese worldview started to change dramatically, and the documents from that period make that perfectly clear.

I’ve been writing about a fifteenth-century document known as the “Great Pronouncement on Pacifying the Ngô” (Bình Ngô đại cáo), and of course the question of what the term “Ngô” refers to has come up.

The limited evidence from the fifteenth-century makes it difficult to determine what exactly that term meant at that time, but early twentieth century writings make it very clear what the term meant at that time.

A case in point is an historical novel that Vietnamese revolutionary Phan Bội Châu wrote in classical Chinese in the early twentieth century called The Lost History of the Later Trần (後陳逸史 Hậu Trần dật sử).

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