Law and language in Cochinchina

01

Dec
2021

Law and language in Cochinchina

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The French naval authorities in Cochinchina were perplexed most of all by efforts to administer justice. The pre-French legal system had been administered by magistrates with a relatively high level of educational achievement in the system of examinations used by the Hue court to staff officialdom. These men were not only conversant with the law code published by the founder of the dynasty in 1812 but also with the edicts, sub-statutes, and precedents that had developed around it and that made it practicable. With the arrival of the French, these men departed for the north. No one remained in French Cochinchina with the knowledge and experience necessary to apply the law. The naval officers in Saigon initially decided to translate the Vietnamese law code into French, imagining that this would allow them to practice law in the manner to which the people were accustomed. An officer named Louis Gabriel Galderec Aubaret (1825–1894) was one of the first Frenchmen in Saigon to gain fluency in Vietnamese and the ability to read Chinese characters. His perception of the great gulf separating Vietnamese and French culture led him to believe that  any effort by Frenchmen to govern Vietnamese was doomed to fail. Conse- quently, he had assisted Phan Thanh Gian on his trip to Paris in 1863 and helped  to draft the treaty, never ratified, that provided for returning the hinterland of Saigon to the Vietnamese. He completed a translation of the law code in 1865, but, for one thing, the associated edicts and statutes were missing and, for another thing, unlike French law that specified all conceivable cases in some detail, this code was oriented toward general principles to be applied as deemed appropriate in individual cases by judges with years of local experience. The application of Vietnamese law depended more upon the discretion of magistrates than upon the letter of the law. French administrators could make little sense of Aubaret’s translation. The alternative was to simply apply French law, but Philastre, who terminated the Garnier affair in 1873, believed that rulers should learn the culture of the people they governed rather than vice versa. He argued the need for a more detailed translation of the Vietnamese law code and accordingly received authorization to produce it. Completed in 1875, Philastre’s translation was erudite, meticulous,  and included sub-statutes as well as Ming and Qing commentaries. Unfortu- nately, it would have taken a scholar to make use of it, and it proved to be no  more practicable than Aubaret’s translation had been. Meanwhile, the admirals experimented for two decades with various measures for administering justice until French law was extended to Cochinchina after the appointment of its first civilian governor in 1879. Men like Aubaret and Philastre were disturbed by how young French officers with no Vietnamese language ability or knowledge of Vietnamese culture were governing Cochinchina through a cadre of Vietnamese translators of very uneven quality. One of their like-minded colleagues, Jean Baptiste Eliacin Luro (1837– 1877), obtained authorization to open a school for trainees to give new arrivals from France an introduction to Cochinchinese administration. He designed a curriculum that included Vietnamese language, Chinese characters, and introductions to Vietnamese culture, society, and government. The school oper- ated from 1874 to 1878. Most Frenchmen considered the workload to be  excessive, and the school was closed after Luro’s death from illness. Aubaret, Philastre, and Luro were the most prominent of the naval officers serving in the first generation of French administration in Cochinchina who learned to respect Vietnamese culture. Men with similar views were an influential, and occasionally dominant, minority in subsequent generations of colonial administration in Indochina. Some Vietnamese translators were poorly educated or more interested in personal advancement than in government service. Yet, there were many other Vietnamese, both Christians and non-Christians, who accepted French rule as the way for their country to enter the new global realm of advanced technology.  They served not only as translators but also as journalists, scholars, adminis- trators, and soldiers. One of the most famous of these was Petrus Truong Vinh  Ky (1837–1898), a Christian from Ben Tre in Vinh Long Province who studied both Chinese and Latin in his youth. He attended mission schools in Phnom Penh (1848–1851) and Penang (1851–1858), learning French and training to be a priest. The death of his mother brought him back to Vietnam just as the French invasion was beginning. In 1860 he sought refuge with the French in Saigon from anti-Christian activists. He married the following year, and in 1862 he was teaching in a school for translators. In 1863 he accompanied Phan Thanh Gian to France as an interpreter and took the opportunity to also visit Spain, Portugal, and Italy. He became a tireless advocate of Quoc Ngu, the Vietnamese alphabet. He was involved in beginning the publication of the first Quoc Ngu newspaper in 1865, Gia Dinh Bao, and within a few years was serving as its editor. He headed the school for translators in the late 1860s and in 1871 became the principal of a school for teachers. He taught Vietnamese and Chinese in Luro’s school for trainees in the mid 1870s and served French administrators in various capacities during the 1870s and 1880s. His greatest contribution, however, was in the development of Quoc Ngu from a relatively rudimentary tool for transcription into a means for writing the contemporary spoken vernacular. He translated many works from Chinese and Vietnamese character writing (Han and Nom) into Quoc Ngu. He believed that Vietnamese could fully express their experience of the world in vernacular writing; he wrote and published many works in Quoc Ngu, not only about history, literature, and morality but also about grammar and pedagogy. Paulus Huynh Tinh Cua (1834–1907) was another man who contributed to the development of Quoc Ngu. He was from Ba Ria, on the coast east of Saigon. He joined French service in 1861 and, like Truong Vinh Ky, went to France with Phan Thanh Gian and was an editor of Gia Dinh Bao. He was a prolific writer and produced a large body of articles and essays in the vernacular. Truong Vinh Ky and Huynh Tinh Cua were but the two most prominent among a large number of Vietnamese in Saigon who were dedicated to vernacular writing and whose works became the basis for the great awakening that occurred in the early twentieth century of Vietnamese thought about the modern world. The naval officers who governed Cochinchina in the 1860s and 1870s were determined to eradicate the use of character writing, which they considered to represent all the backward attachments to China that impeded their aim of bringing progress to the Vietnamese. Although they were unable to completely dispense with character writing for many years because of the degree to which it was ingrained in the minds of educated Vietnamese, they strove to educate a new generation of students in the Vietnamese alphabet and in French. In the 1860s  there were false starts, including an unsuccessful program to send teenage Viet- namese boys to Catholic schools in France. In the 1870s, a system of provincial  primary schools in Quoc Ngu and in French was established with a secondary  school at Saigon in French. Educational policy provoked prolonged controver- sies over language, with some arguing that only French should be allowed and  that Quoc Ngu should be discouraged because it was a potential language of resistance to French. Others argued that you could not eradicate the vernacular language and that Quoc Ngu should be used as an alphabetic step for students into French. Behind this difference of opinion lay a larger theoretical issue in the minds of French colonialists, commonly referred to as a choice between assimilation, turning Vietnam into an Asiatic France, and association, nurturing a version of Vietnamese culture that could be associated with the French endeavor to bring Vietnam into the modern world. In the jargon of the time, the French called this task a “civilizing mission.” However, they did not understand this in the way of more recent generations as expressing the idea that the Vietnamese were not civilized. Most French administrators who accumulated years of experience among the Vietnamese and who learned to speak Vietnamese had no doubt but that the Vietnamese were already a civilized people with their own history,  literature, philosophies, religions, and patterns for organizing families, commu- nities, and government. What the “civilizing mission” meant for them was to  teach the Vietnamese how to enjoy the benefits of up-to-date technology, medical  science, modern industrial and agricultural production, communications, trans- portation, and the liberation of individual creativity from the stifling hand of  dead tradition. This idealistic task was often corrupted by arrogance, racism, and greed, but French colonial rule cannot be judged as more virulent and corrupt than the regimes that had governed the Vietnamese in earlier ages. It was based, as all regimes in the past had been, upon the power to coerce and the corruptions of human nature. But it was also based upon the ideal of helping the Vietnamese to overcome the backwardness that had enabled the French invaders to prevail. The rhetoric of assimilation and association went through several phases of debate and understanding in French colonial thought, but would not have any discernible significance for Vietnamese until the second decade of the twentieth century when the French began to take into account the Vietnamese response to the colonial relationship. The contradiction between assimilation and association continued to the very end of the French efforts to maintain their ascendancy over the Vietnamese. This was also the contradiction found in French politics and government in France between the urge to enforce centralized uniformity and the appreciation for distinctive characteristics of regional identities. In general, Cochinchina in the 1860s and 1870s enjoyed relative peace and security. Although French administration was in a process of adaptation to local conditions, it nevertheless provided a measure of calm and prosperity in great contrast to the disturbed conditions in the Red River plain. The export of rice from Cochinchina rose from around 50,000 tons annually in the early 1860s to 320,000 tons annually by 1877. Land grants designed to increase rice production led to the growth of the landlord class but at the same time provided employment for peasants. Cochinchina became the only part of Vietnam to be ruled as a direct  colony subject to French law. Its economy was organized toward the inter- national seaport of Saigon-Cholon where entrepreneurial ambitions and a  cosmopolitan urban culture grew. The quarter-century of subordination to  Hue, from the suppression of Le Van Khoi to the French invasion, was anomal- ous in the history of Saigon. Life in southern Vietnam under the French resonated  with the earlier era of power and prosperity in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries under Nguyen Phuc Anh/Gia Long and Le Van Duyet. Southern Vietnamese were part of the wider world while Vietnamese in the north suffered the effects of isolation, poverty, insecurity, and governmental breakdown.

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