Formation of the Second Republic of Vietnam



Franco-Vietnamese Colonial Relations

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Intellectuals respond to the colonial regime By the turn of the century, many educated Vietnamese were endeavoring to think their way through the events of the French conquest, aiming to arrive at some vision of a future for themselves or for their country. Not all Vietnamese were concerned with ideas about a Vietnamese country. The uneducated and probably most of the educated, though it is impossible to estimate with any certainty how many, were chiefly concerned with the welfare of themselves and their families,  and they had no definite sense of identification with a nation in the twentieth- century sense. Prior ideas about a Vietnamese country had been almost entirely  focused upon the monarchy and upon the mandarinate as an extension of it, which became decreasingly plausible as French rule stabilized. In Cochinchina, the process of colonial transformation was already into a second generation of Vietnamese for whom the Nguyen monarchy at Hue had no concrete presence in their lives. The traditional mandarinate did not exist for  them and educational opportunities pointed toward reading and writing alpha- betically in the French and Vietnamese languages. Classical studies and character  writing survived for a time in private schools, but soon faded away. Early twentieth-century responses to French rule in Cochinchina emerged with urban journalism, covert support of a monarch in exile, and rural millenarian movements. In Annam and Tonkin, the mandarinate continued to exist, presided over by a king and staffed by men educated in character writing, and whose educational and career aspirations were defined by the civil service examination system. Although fewer and fewer men showed interest in the examinations and they  were abolished after 1919, and although the greatest challenge to French coloni- alism would come with a later generation of people educated in French and  Vietnamese, the ferment of ideas among the last generation to be educated in Literary Chinese characters demonstrated a deep intellectual engagement with the colonial situation arising from the Confucian curriculum that emphasized a commitment to public affairs. Estimates of the number of men who entered the triennial examinations fall from around six thousand in the late nineteenth century to four thousand at the turn of the century to not many more than one thousand by the 1910s. Regional exam graduates staffed most mandarinal positions in the protectorates of Annam and Tonkin. During the eleven examinations held under French supervision, from 1889 to 1919, 83 doctorates and 107 junior doctorates were awarded. The impact of Paul Doumer’s governorship is apparent in an analysis of these 190 men. Doumer detached the mandarins in Tonkin from the Hue court and put them under direct French supervision. Thereafter, the number of degrees awarded to people from Tonkin fell dramatically. In the five exams from 1889 to 1901, 34.2 percent of the higher degrees were awarded to men from Tonkin. However, only 12.9 percent of the higher degrees in the six subsequent exams were awarded to men from Tonkin. On the other hand, while men from the northern provinces of Annam (Thanh Hoa, Nghe An, and Ha Tinh, commonly referred to as Thanh-Nghe-Tinh) received 15.3 percent of the higher degrees through 1901, they received 53.8 percent of those awarded thereafter. The three provinces in the plains adjacent to Hue (Quang Binh, Quang Tri, and Thua Thien) increased their collective percentage more modestly, from 18 percent to 24.7 percent. In the provinces south of Hue, the number of higher graduates declined from 14.4 percent to 8.6 percent, a decline even sharper if calculated with the turn point at 1908 when uprisings broke out there. The region that became pre-eminent in classical studies during the early years of French rule, the provinces of Nghe An and Ha Tinh, commonly referred to as Nghe-Tinh, produced people who responded to French rule with a degree of  intellectual engagement and political activism that put them, in numbers dispro- portionate to other regions, at the forefront of national leadership when the  colonial regime failed at mid century. From 1889 to 1919, 30 percent of all higher degrees in the country were awarded to men from Nghe-Tinh; calculating from 1904 to 1919, it was 40 percent. This region, in the plains of the Ca River, was already famous as a cradle of scholars. It was known for chronic poverty, which was widely presumed to have driven its young men to study in order to improve their prospects. During the French era, it was an overflowing reservoir of young men eager to see the world and susceptible to radical ideas about ending the colonial regime. Nghe-Tinh was the center of anti-Christian agitation in the 1870s and 1880s and of the most persistent resistance to the French conquest into the 1890s. In the 1900s, many Nghe-Tinh people went into exile to Japan and China in search of a way to expel the French. During the First World War, men from Thanh-Nghe-Tinh made up over half of all Vietnamese that volunteered to go to France as soldiers or workers, with most of these being from Nghe-Tinh.  In the 1920s, Nghe-Tinh youth were a significant element among the Vietnam- ese who went to southern China to join anti-French groups associated with the  Chinese communists and nationalists. More than a few Vietnamese communist leaders came from Nghe-Tinh, including Ho Chi Minh, and one of the three Vietnamese groups claiming to be a communist party in 1929–1930 was based there. The Nghe-Tinh soviet uprising in 1930–1931 was the largest episode of violent resistance to French rule during the first four decades of the twentieth century. The communist-led resistance to the French in the late 1940s and early 1950s was strongly supported by the populations of Thanh-Nghe-Tinh, and the government established in northern Vietnam after the departure of the French in 1954 included many people from these provinces. One aspect of Thanh-Nghe-Tinh that was distinctive under French rule is that it was the least “supervised” of all Vietnamese regions. Making up “northern Annam,” this region did not experience the degree of direct French rule that prevailed in Tonkin and, to an even greater extent, in Cochinchina. But neither did it experience the degree of royal authority that prevailed in southern Annam, for only in the nineteenth century had it become part of the Nguyen dynastic realm, and even then it never displayed a sense of connection or of loyalty to the Nguyen monarchy such as existed in the other coastal provinces that were governed by the protectorate regime at Hue. Thanh-Nghe-Tinh was in a relative backwater where the administrative energies radiating from Hanoi and Hue were not fully present. At the same time, many educated men of the region learned to combine their alienation from the protectorate regime with a sense of patriotic attachment to an idealized nation. A fashionable current of thought among the Tonkin mandarins who worked in close proximity with the center of French authority at Hanoi was an interest in the “new learning” about the modern world that was flooding in from France. This interest remained vague and unfocused, however, because there seemed to be no way to incorporate it into the prevailing ideology and careerism of the mandarinate. A minor trend in Tonkin reacted against the “new learning” by proposing religion as the foundation of a strong future Vietnamese country. Kieu  Oanh Mau (1854–1912), despite his checkered career in the Tonkin mandarin- ate, wrote and published books about Buddhism and popular religious cults. He  claimed a spiritual heritage as the most potent Vietnamese asset amidst the tumults of the modern world. The French considered him harmless and allowed him to publish. In general, mandarinal officials throughout Annam and Tonkin tended to become timeservers, primarily interested in maintaining the social position of their families. Ironically, this class of people had never been as powerful as it became under French rule. Unlike earlier generations of officials, who were often in delicate situations, having to mediate between volatile local interests and a distant, distracted, or weak central authority, twentieth-century magistrates were backed by the considerable coercive powers of an alert and modern colonial  regime. Consequently, they espoused the Confucian social values of their educa- tion with unprecedented vehemence and effect. As time passed and the classical  curriculum that was the ostensible source of their moral authority withered away, they were increasingly viewed by the younger generation as hypocritical guardians of a tradition that they had betrayed. This contradiction between assertions of authority based on tradition being enforced by a modern colonial regime became apparent earliest in southern Annam, where the Nguyen Phuc family had ruled for over three centuries and where mandarinal officials were connected and committed to the royal court at Hue to a relatively greater degree than were officials in Tonkin or northern Annam. The royal court, however, was in various phases of disarray during the reign of Thanh Thai. He became king at the age of 10 in 1889 and grew to manhood leaving a trail of scandals that some nationalist historians have endeavored to portray as acts of resistance to French rule. A son of Duc Duc, who had been killed by the regents after only three days as king in 1883, Thanh Thai was intelligent, wary, and prone to licentious habits that often turned violent. His interest in being “modern” as displayed in cutting his hair, wearing Western suits, and driving cars made him acceptable to the French for several years. However, in 1906, a new French “high resident” in Hue began to take exception to Thanh Thai’s behavior, and demonstrations of antagonism between the two men escalated. In early 1907, Thanh Thai publicly expressed a hope that Japan  would expel the French from his country, and the French intercepted correspond- ence between him and anti-French exiles in China. He was promptly deposed,  removed to confinement in the southern coastal resort town of Vung Tau, and replaced by his 8-year-old son. The reign name assigned to the small new monarch, Duy Tan, is striking evidence that hopes for change were exceedingly widespread among Vietnamese at that time. Duy Tan, a classical expression, literally “to be attached to the new,” is generally translated as “reformation,” but in Vietnamese can also be glossed as doi moi, “to change to the new,” which as the name for a recent government policy has been translated as “renovation.” In 1907, apparently unbeknownst to the French, Duy Tan also happened to be the name of a secret organization dedicated to the expulsion of the French that already had followers in all of the Vietnamese territories. The leading figure in this organization was a regional exam graduate of 1900 from Nghe An named Phan Boi Chau (1867–1940). By 1904, when he and a group of disaffected men from northern and southern Annam established the Duy Tan Society, he had already found a prince of the royal family willing to serve as an anti-French pretender to the throne. This was Cuong De (1882–1951), a fourth-generation descendent of Prince Canh, the eldest son of Gia Long who had died as crown prince. In 1907, when Thanh Thai expressed his hope for help from Japan, both Phan Boi Chau and Cuong De were in Tokyo with the same hope. In the early 1900s, Phan Boi Chau and other educated Vietnamese concerned about the colonial situation were reading the writings of the Chinese reformers Kang Youwei (1858–1927) and Liang Qichao (1873–1929). In addition to elaborating ideas about constitutional monarchy and democracy, these men conveyed to readers of Literary Chinese descriptions of the Meiji reforms in Japan and the thought of European political and social philosophers. Liang Qichao, living in exile in Tokyo, was especially active as a translator of European writers and as a pioneer for using journalism for political propaganda. Phan Boi Chau met Liang Qichao in Tokyo and obtained from him advice as well as introductions to Japanese politicians, which for a few years made it plausible for anti-colonial Vietnamese to look hopefully to Japan. Japan’s prestige as an Asian power was unsurpassed as a result of its defeats in war of first China and then Russia. Liang Qichao and his Japanese contacts advised Phan Boi Chau to send Vietnamese students to Japan as a first step. By 1907, over one hundred Vietnamese boys had arrived in Japan to receive a modern education. More than half of these aspiring students came from Cochinchina and most of the expenses of this educational program came from landowners there. These men were wealthy and therefore able to finance Phan Boi Chau’s activities. They were also dissatisfied with the French regime, both for its racism toward them and for how it facilitated the dominance of Chinese entrepreneurs in the local economy. Furthermore, feelings of loyalty to Cuong De were easily aroused among them because of local memories of Cuong De’s ancestor Prince Canh, who had governed at Saigon until his death. Furthermore, Cochinchina tended to be alienated from the line of Minh Mang, which, after slandering the southern hero Le Van Duyet, had abandoned the far south to the French. During the next four decades, Cuong De’s most faithful adherents were in Cochinchina. On the other hand, the most active partisans of Phan Boi Chau’s program to forcibly expel the French were largely from his home region of northern Annam. The activities of the Duy Tan Society were but the most adventurous aspect of a great ferment among educated Vietnamese inspired by Chinese authors and translators and by Japanese success in modernizing. Phan Boi Chau’s emphasis upon seeking foreign assistance to overthrow the French was not shared by men who believed that the Vietnamese should rely upon themselves to supersede the colonial situation by learning from it. Prominent among these were three men from Quang Nam. Tran Quy Cap (1870–1908) and Huynh Thuc Khang (1876–1947) had both received doctoral degrees in the examination of 1904, but rather than pursuing a career in officialdom, they joined Phan Chu Trinh (1872–1926), recipient of a junior doctoral degree in 1901, and set themselves against the mandarinal regime, regarding it as an obstacle to the progress of their country. In 1905, these three men traveled through southern Annam,  speaking against what they viewed as an outmoded educational and adminis- trative system. As men who had passed the examinations at the highest level,  their words carried weight. But this also earned them the hatred of men who inhabited the protectorate regime. In 1906, Phan Chu Trinh went to Japan to see for himself the country in which Phan Boi Chau was placing his trust, but he returned to Vietnam with visions of  making modern education available in his homeland rather than sending stu- dents to study abroad. He wrote a letter to Governor General Paul Beau vainly  appealing for the French to discard the examination system, the monarchy, and the mandarinal structure of administration and instead to institute reforms to modernize the country. In 1907, Phan Chu Trinh and like-minded men promoted the opening of schools, inspired by the writings and the example of Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835– 1901), whose efforts to make modern education available to all Japanese had led to the founding of Keio University. These schools promoted literacy in the Vietnamese alphabet and spread information about history, literature, science, and hygiene. The best-known of these schools was the one established in Hanoi, the Tonkin Public School (Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc). For several months in late 1907 and early 1908, until closed down by the French, it bustled with classes,  public lectures, publications, theatrical productions, and campaigns to “modern- ize,” which could mean something as simple as cutting one’s hair, a violation of  the Confucian code of filial piety, or as complex as organizing business ventures, thereby entering the dangerous realm of the colonial economy. Similar schools were also set up in southern Annam, particularly in Quang Nam, the home province of Phan Chu Trinh and other prominent reformists. There was an overlap of people involved in this educational movement from both those of Phan Chu Trinh’s reformist persuasion and those more inclined toward Phan Boi Chau’s advocacy of an armed uprising against the French. The more radical edge of these activities provoked the French to shut the Hanoi school, but not before a momentum of public awareness and conspiratorial schemes produced an outbreak of disorders in 1908 that led to a shift in the rhetoric of French colonial policy and in Vietnamese responses to it.

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