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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Emperor Thành Thái’s 1906 Promotion of Western Learning

On the 29th of May in 1906, Emperor Thành Thái issued regulations to reform the education curriculum for students in schools that were meant to prepare them for the civil service exams. These reforms addressed three levels of teaching (introductory, elementary and middle), and the reforms of the highest level called for three separate tracks to be established: a classical Chinese track, a vernacular Vietnamese (using the Latin script) track, and a French track (mainly to learn how to translate).

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Emperor Thành Thái’s Educational Revolution

Read any book on modern Vietnamese history, and it will glorify a reformist school that enjoyed a brief existence in Hanoi in 1907 – the Tonkin Free School (Đông Kinh nghĩa thục 東京義塾). This school is credited with being the first to teach about “modern” (i.e., Western) subjects, and to promote the use of the vernacular language, as transcribed in a Romanized script (chữ quốc ngữ), instead of classical Chinese.

Meanwhile, none of the authors of any of those books will cite the Addendum to the Imperial Commissioned Collected Statues and Regulations of the Great South (Đại Nam hội điển sự lệ tục biên 欽定大南會典事例續編), a compilation of Nguyễn Dynasty edicts and orders.

However, that text demonstrates that the Nguyễn Dynasty was just as eager to bring about the kind of linguistic and intellectual reforms that the Tonkin Free School was.

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