Radicalization of the Viet Minh




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In 1651, Alexandre de Rhodes, already mentioned in connection with Trinh Trang’s 1627 expedition against the south, published a Vietnamese–Portuguese– Latin dictionary in Rome. It is the first dictionary to use a Romanized transcription of the Vietnamese language. Because of this, Alexandre de Rhodes is commonly thought to have invented the Vietnamese alphabet, but in fact it was initially devised by Portuguese and subsequently adopted by the Jesuits as an aid for language learning. Alexandre de Rhodes, from Avignon in France, was one of the early Jesuit missionaries to work among the Vietnamese. After spending a year and a half in the south for language study, in 1627 he entered the north, where he remained for three years before being expelled. After spending a decade in Macau, he returned to the south for five years (1640–1645) and then departed, arriving in Rome in 1649.  Alexandre de Rhodes introduced knowledge of northern Vietnam to Euro- peans with his 1651 account of the “Kingdom of Tonkin,” published in Italian in  1650, in French in 1651, and in Latin in 1652. Accounts of the north by other Jesuits followed shortly. Joseph Tissanier (1618–1688), who resided in the north during the years 1658–1663, published an account in French in 1663. In the same year, Giovanni Filippo de Marini (1608–1677), who served in the north during 1647–1658, published an account in Italian, of which a translation into French was published in 1666. An account of the south by Christoforo Borri  (1583–1632), who lived in Binh Dinh Province from 1618 to 1622, was pub- lished in Italian in 1631 and within two years had been translated into Latin,  French, English, Dutch, and German. Alexandre de Rhodes wrote an account of the mission in the south published in French in 1652. Behind these accounts were the experiences of dozens of Jesuits who lived in the two Vietnamese realms during the first half of the seventeenth century. The beginning of Christianity among Vietnamese is commonly associated with the missionaries who wrote accounts in European languages, and especially with Alexandre de Rhodes because of his dictionary and also because of his Latin– Vietnamese catechism published at Rome in 1658. However, the man who probably had the greatest long-term impact on early Vietnamese Christianity has not been much remembered outside of Vietnam. Geronimo Maiorica (1589– 1656), originally from Naples, spent four years, 1619–1623, in Goa before proceeding to Macau. After a brief time in Makassar in 1624, he arrived in southern Vietnam about the same time as Alexandre de Rhodes and spent four years in language study before returning to Macau in 1628–1630. After a failed attempt to establish a mission in Champa, he went to Dong Kinh in 1631. In 1632 he went to Nghe An and spent the next eighteen years in the area of the modern city of Vinh, relatively distant from Dong Kinh and the vicissitudes of court politics. There he nurtured one of the most successful of the early Christian  missions, which by 1634 numbered twenty-six churches and over 4,000 Chris- tians. By 1647, he reported fifty-three churches with Christians from over  seventy villages. When he departed Nghe An in 1650, he estimated that there were approximately 40,000 Christians in the province. From Nghe An he went to Dong Kinh, where he resided until his death, serving as head of the mission in the north. The Christian community that he served in Nghe An has remained to this day. A common misperception created by Alexandre de Rhodes’ dictionary is that Christian missionaries used alphabetic writing in their proselytizing work. The  alphabet was used by the Jesuits to study Vietnamese and by Vietnamese catech- ists to study Latin, and also both Europeans and Vietnamese wrote some alpha- betic works for the education of new missionaries or for personal reasons.  However, the writings for use in the daily life of the Christian communities were in Nom, and Geronimo Maiorica, during his years in Nghe An, produced a large literature in Nom about saints’ lives, the sacraments, biblical stories about Jesus, practical morality, liturgical aids to worship, and devotional exercises. These have been used through generations of Vietnamese Christians into contemporary times. The use of Nom by Christians is one aspect of the development of Nom in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that has received little attention by modern scholars. But, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, dictionaries  compiled by Christians, Vu Van Kinh and Father Tran Van Kiem, have pion- eered the development of modern Nom studies. These scholars included texts  attributed to Maiorica among the source materials for their dictionaries. The relative success of Christian proselytizing among Vietnamese, with a Jesuit estimate of 250,000 Christians in the north alone by 1655, was part of a more general religious ferment at this time, which was also expressed in the flourishing of Buddhism, Daoism, and spirit cults. Buddhists published many Nom texts at temples in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries containing stories about  Buddhas and bodhisattvas, translations of sutras, and instructions for perform- ing rituals. King Le Duy Ky and the royal family patronized Buddhist temples,  large numbers of which were built, rebuilt, or repaired in the seventeenth  century. This was also the time when spirit pantheons appeared or were elabor- ated with hierarchies of spirits to be called on by mediums during séances. In  response, a Buddhist sect known as the “School of the Inner Religion” special- ized in subordinating popular spirits to the Buddha’s authority. Daoists likewise  wrote texts claiming popular spirits for their tradition. The pantheon of the “holy mothers” appeared contemporaneous with veneration of Mary the “holy mother” of Jesus by Christians. It was a time of lively religious activity that was  either stimulated by the appearance of Christianity or, at least, in which Chris- tians participated.  One the Jesuits’ assets that recommended them to Vietnamese rulers was the mathematical and astronomical learning that some of them possessed and that enabled them to predict eclipses and to keep calendars more accurately than local specialists. Foreknowledge of eclipses and an accurate keeping of calendars were an important demonstration of a ruler’s competence to govern, and European ability in this area of expertise was appreciated. In 1627, Trinh Trang was especially pleased with the gift of a clock from Alexandre de Rhodes. Jesuits also gained favor because of their medical knowledge and were often summoned by rulers to attend to the sick in their palaces. European missionaries and Vietnamese Christians suffered periodic episodes of  persecution led by local authorities or leaders of other religious traditions. Never- theless, they mostly enjoyed the forbearance, if not the favor, of rulers during these  years because they were viewed as a means of eliciting the assistance of European powers in the continuing struggle between north and south. In the south, relations with the Portuguese and Macau were firmly established by the time war broke out in the 1620s. Southerners quickly mastered Portuguese expertise in gunnery, both in manufacture and in use, including the skill of firing cannon on ships at sea. The Trinh turned to the enemy of the Portuguese, the Dutch.

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