Retrospective

01

Dec
2021

New cultural patterns

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Vietnamese history in the 1930s is much more than the story of communist activists, and not all members of the new generation were absorbed by politics. The events just narrated above were peripheral to fundamental changes taking place in scholarship, literature, society, and religion. The last decade without war  until the 1990s, this was the most dynamic and creative era for the new gener- ation in the full enthusiasm of youth.  Educated Vietnamese born after the turn of the twentieth century learned about the attributes of what was perceived as “modern” civilization as displayed by the major world powers and eagerly elaborated versions of this that became the basis for contemporary Vietnamese culture. Inevitably, the French were in varying degrees participants in this endeavor. Some Frenchmen and Eurasians with French citizenship assisted Vietnamese anti-colonialists and revolutionaries by providing legal cover for publishing and organizing activities. Others, on the precarious “ethical edge” of colonial life and thought, dedicated themselves to scholarship, education, medicine, and the arts with the willing collaboration of many Vietnamese. Established at Hanoi in 1900, the French School of the Far East (École Française d’Extrême-Orient) was the center of French academic study of Asia. Many prominent members of the pioneering generation of French sinology spent periods of research and writing in Hanoi and worked on Vietnamese historical materials using up-to-date methods. They laid the basis for what became, in the independent Vietnam of recent decades, the academic fields of anthropology, ethnology, archaeology, art, geography, history, linguistics, music, philology, religion, and sociology. French people not directly associated with the School also produced important scholarship, most famously the Catholic priest Léopold Michel Cadière (1869–1955), who spent most of his life in Annam and published important studies on Vietnamese history and religion. By the 1930s, young Vietnamese scholars who would have a lasting impact on academic work in Vietnam were beginning to emerge in the French School of the Far East. Two of the most prominent of these were Tran Van Giap (1902–1973) and Nguyen Van Huyen (1908–1975). After a period of study at the Sorbonne in Paris, Tran Van Giap collected and catalogued Han and Nom texts. His efforts made possible the establishment of the Institute of Han-Nom Studies, which is today the principal archive of character texts in Vietnam. Nguyen Van Huyen researched and wrote on many topics but had a strong and lasting influence on the study of anthropology, popular religion, and sociology. Another scholar whose academic writings have stood the test of time relatively well was Hoang  Xuan Han (1900–1996). He was not affiliated with the School, but after study- ing at the Sorbonne in the early 1930s he returned to Indochina and published on  history. A slightly different case but with a more immediate effect on thought in his  time was Tran Trong Kim (1883–1953). His career was in the French educa- tional service, and his interests were oriented toward pedagogy. In the 1920s he  published a history of Vietnam based on traditional historical materials that was subsequently used for decades as a classroom textbook. He also wrote a study of Confucianism that was published in several printings during the 1930s and 1940s. This book attempted to use philosophical ideas current in France to support Confucian family ethics. It became a bible for conservatives when the generation gap opened in the 1930s and during the Vichy regime of the early 1940s. A significant effect of French ideas about language and ethnicity was the study of upland non-Vietnamese peoples and the categorization of them into various  ethnic groups. This procedure would later assume great importance in an inde- pendent Vietnam when these peoples were organized as “ethnic minorities” and  policies for integrating them into the state were developed. It was at this time that the peoples inhabiting the midlands of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An were classified as a Muong ethnic group separate from the Vietnamese. The Frenchman who has been best remembered in post-colonial Vietnam is Alexandre Émile Jean Yersin (1863–1943), a Swiss-born medical doctor who went to Asia in the early 1890s with the Pasteur Institute. In 1894, at the Pasteur Institute in Hong Kong, he and his Japanese collaborator Shibasaburo Kitasato discovered the bacillus for bubonic plague. In 1895 he went to Nha Trang in Annam and established a laboratory for manufacturing plague serum. He became the first director of the medical school established in Hanoi in 1902, propagated the use of quinine against malaria, and experimented with rubber trees. He spent much of his life in Nha Trang where he was highly esteemed by the local people. Another Frenchman who left a good reputation in Vietnam is Victor Tardieu (1870–1937). In 1925, he established the Indochina School of Fine Arts (École des Beaux-Arts d’Indochine) in Hanoi and, until his death, dedicated himself to training a new generation of Vietnamese artists. He disagreed with the prevailing French opinion that traditional Vietnamese arts could not rise above artisanship to become “fine art.” He taught European painting techniques to his students but also encouraged them to develop their local traditions to produce what could be recognized as modern fine art. Two of his students had a lasting influence on Vietnamese art. Nguyen Phan Chanh (1892–1984) experimented in creating new  effects with paint on silk, and Nguyen Gia Tri (1906–1993) applied abstraction- ism to traditional lacquer painting.  French music, opera, and theater exerted a strong influence upon the Vietnam- ese, especially in Saigon. A new form of opera called cai luong adapted French  theatrical and musical influences to traditional forms of opera, including a mix of spoken and sung dialogue, and sometimes featured non-traditional instruments such as guitar, violin, and saxophone. French popular music found a receptive audience, especially among young Vietnamese, and Vietnamese songs began to appear that followed French styles of lyricism and melody, which were more  rhythmic than traditional pentatonic music. The European spoken theater, with- out music or singing, was also adopted in Saigon (called kich noi).  Movie theaters made an appearance in Vietnamese cities during the 1920s. A small Vietnamese film industry began with silent films and was eventually producing sound films by the late 1930s. Most of the screen fare, however, came from France and Hollywood. The films of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Vietnamese newspapers began  to carry cartoon strips that were sometimes modeled on popular movie charac- ters and themes.  The arena of greatest contention between the old and the new in the 1930s was literature and journalism. A great rush of passion against the Confucian tradition  of parents subordinating youth by arranged marriages blew open the gener- ational gap and marked the beginning of what has become known as modern  Vietnamese literature. Traditional Vietnamese literature was almost exclusively poetic. Consequently, the first significant shift in literary expression occurred in poetry. The two most popular poets in the early French period, both from Tonkin, could do little more than express vexation at the contradiction between their classical education and the colonial situation. Nguyen Khuyen (1835–1909) received his doctoral degree in 1871 and thereafter served in officialdom until the crisis of 1885 when he retired and wrote poems expressing his refusal to accept office under the French protectorate. Tran Te Xuong (1870–1907), a famous failure in the higher levels of the examination system in the 1890s and 1900s, wrote with self-deprecating humor about the sense of uselessness he felt  after investing many years studying an outmoded curriculum and being depend- ent upon his wife to support his family. Tan Da (1888–1939; real name: Nguyen  Khac Hieu) is often viewed as a “transitional” poet who used metaphors to express his disgust toward French rule but also displayed a certain daring  playfulness with language that pushed beyond prevailing conventions and sug- gested the influence of French poetry. In the 1930s, poets adapted the forms and  spirit of twentieth-century French poetry to their own language. They turned  away from oblique expressions of the well-worn colonial conundrum and experi- mented with free-verse forms to explore more personal and romantic expressions  of freedom from social conventions. Phan Khoi (1887–1959) had participated in the reformist movement led by Phan Chu Trinh in the 1900s. He was imprisoned for three years as a result of the 1908 disturbances and subsequently pursued a career as an editor and writer. In 1932 he published a poem entitled “Old Love,” which criticized the practice of arranged marriage. This poem inspired what came to be called the New Poetry Movement, from which emerged the major poets of the twentieth century: The Lu (1907–1989), Luu Trong Lu (1912–1991), Ngo Xuan Dieu (1916–1985), Cu Huy Can (1919–2005), and Che Lan Vien (1920–1989). Although in the 1940s these men dramatically changed the content of their work to serve politics, in the 1930s they ventilated exuberant emotions of love, sadness, longing, and a full range of personal feelings that violated traditional poetic conventions and offended prevailing norms of expression. In 1933, a circle of writers that included The Lu formed the Self-Strengthening Literary Group (Tu Luc Van Doan), led by Nguyen Tuong Tam (1905–1963; pen name: Nhat Linh). Nguyen Tuong Tam had received a high-school diploma in 1923, worked as a government clerk, briefly enrolled in the Hanoi medical school, then shifted to Tardieu’s School of Fine Arts before going to France where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in science. By 1932, he was working on the staff of a Saigon literary journal called Mores. The Literary Group included Tran Khanh Giu (1896–1947; pen name: Khai Hung) and two of Nguyen Tuong Tam’s brothers: Nguyen Tuong Long (1907–1947; pen name: Hoang Dao) and Nguyen Tuong Vinh (1910–1942; pen name: Thach Lam). Novels published by these men aroused controversy with their depictions of traditional Confucian family practices as unjust, cruel, and destructive of decent human feelings. Other writers opposed this kind of writing, viewing it as stories about people in upper-class families who could afford the luxury of romantic confusions and generational combat. Ngo Tat To (1894–1954) and Nguyen Cong Hoan (1903– 1977) published novels with more “realistic” depictions of human suffering and social injustice. Perhaps the most popular writer to depict the raw side of colonial life was Vu Trong Phung (1912–1939). He combined investigative journalism and literature in a distinctive form of reportage that was clever, amusing, and instructive. The publication of newspapers, journals, magazines, books, and pamphlets thrived in the 1930s as literacy in alphabetic Vietnamese spread. There were publications specializing in nearly every area of interest from fiction to various branches of science, economics, agriculture, medicine, hygiene, history, folklore, philosophy, and religion. Developing the written vernacular to write about totally new topics and in a form accessible to people of all classes produced major changes in vocabulary and syntax. The idea of a grammatical sentence and  of coherent paragraphs introduced new structures of thought, logic, and argu- mentation to readers. The spread of alphabetic literacy was the most decisive  event in the history of French Indochina. Vietnamese created their own sphere of print culture from which the French were excluded. French security officers learned to monitor and understand the activities of communists, but the world of Buddhist and Cao Dai temples, secret societies, popular cults, peripatetic healers, and belief in messianic millenarianism was much more difficult to penetrate, particularly in Cochinchina where all of these phenomena existed in a potent and unstable mixture.  Most French administrators preferred to see Confucianism, rather than Bud- dhism, as the primary element in traditional Vietnamese culture because of its  emphasis on hierarchy and social order. Buddhist monks tended to be involved in anti-colonial movements or to do little more than sit in their temples. Buddhists existed in an anarchic constellation of competing local and regional sects, often in conflation with popular spirit cults. The arcane and contentious world of doctrine inhabited by the most erudite monks was totally disconnected from the lives of lay people, of whom very few displayed any serious interest in the religion. For the most part, people calling themselves Buddhist subscribed to the Pure Land School that required little more than occasionally reciting a short prayer calling on the Amitabha Buddha for “good luck.” For all of these reasons, Buddhism was in decline in the early twentieth century as Roman Catholicism, Confucianism, and even Cao Daism gained strength and coherence under the colonial regime. Beginning in the 1920s, the influence of the Chinese monk Tai Xu (1890– 1947) began to be felt in Vietnam. He had supported Sun Yatsen and the Chinese Revolution of 1911 and thereafter established an association for Buddhists that promoted political activism. Although he represented a minority view among Chinese monks, his ideas spread widely among young Buddhists in eastern Asia. His advocacy of monks being involved in public affairs inspired a Cochinchinese monk named Vien Chieu (1898–1974), who in 1925 and 1926 participated in the campaign to grant amnesty to Phan Boi Chau and in the demonstrations provoked by Phan Chu Trinh’s death. By then, Vien Chieu was already actively promoting a renovation of Buddhism under lay leadership and establishing his influence in urban temples experiencing prosperity from the developing colonial economy. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Buddhist publications proliferated and a public debate in print ensued between Vien Chieu with others of his persuasion and the majority of monks who believed that Buddhism should not be mixed with politics. This debate revealed a new trend in southern Vietnamese Buddhism that would emerge as a major political movement in the 1960s.  Vien Chieu argued that Buddhism was atheist and that there was no immor- tality of the human soul. This point of view is perfectly plausible according to  prominent philosophical traditions in Buddhism. However, it was controversial among monks because it denied fundamental assumptions that sustained popular forms of Mahayana Buddhism, particularly Pure Land, which believed in a Buddhist deity able to save one’s soul for the Pure Land paradise. Vien Chieu rejected the Pure Land and the concept of an afterlife in general, which was also a plausible, if unpopular, position for a text-based monk to take against what was widely viewed by educated monks as a Buddhist version of popular religious cults. What was most controversial, however, was Vien Chieu’s affirmation of the material world as “real,” thereby rejecting the basic Buddhist doctrine that the material world is but an illusion. He equated the idea of an illusory world with a passive reluctance to improve the material existence of human beings and, thus, a rejection of political involvement to improve the “real world,” to which he was committed. Although Vien Chieu is commonly regarded as the most prominent figure in a Vietnamese “Buddhist revival,” in the late 1930s he and many other monks left Buddhism to join the communists. His ideas nevertheless remained influential, particularly among younger monks. Furthermore, in rural Cochinchinese temples, his influence mingled easily with the popular millenarianism that was sustained by economic distress and lay waiting to be activated by a charismatic leader. The “action committees” in rural Cochinchina organized by Struggle Group activists in 1936 did not cease to exist after the French banned the congress movement, of which they were ostensibly a first step. In varying degrees they continued to exist as unifying cooperative networks for pre-existing local mutual-aid organizations for youth, laborers, and women. These networks were susceptible to the influence of the Indochinese Communist Party. At this time the Cao Dai religion was also expanding its influence. Many Cao Dai leaders nurtured a loyalty to Cuong De, still living in Japanese exile. Consequently, after  1937, when Japan invaded China, they welcomed the prospect of Japan sweep- ing away the French. Their anticipation of an imminent French defeat spread  through parts of rural Cochinchina where French administration had been in decline throughout the 1930s. The decline of the colonial regime and its lapse into a defensive posture during the 1930s came from the failure of the French to establish a relationship with the Vietnamese that showed any plausible prospect of moving beyond the colonial relationship of master and subordinate. During the first four decades of the twentieth century, educated Vietnamese put a large measure of intellectual energy into engaging the modern world and planning for the future of their country. The French, however, were mentally inert and could not relax from their policeman’s pose. They made no serious response to the ferment that their rule stimulated among the Vietnamese. This unimaginative attitude would remain fundamentally unchanged through fifteen years of war and political upheaval.

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