© Brill, Leiden, 2004
Also available online—www.brill.nl
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 1.
‘THE MODERN BARBARIAN’:
NGUYEN VAN VINH AND THE COMPLEXITY OF
COLONIAL MODERNITY IN VIETNAM
CHRISTOPHER E. GOSCHA
Abstract. This article studies the life and socio-cultural works of Nguyen Van
Vinh in order to understand better the complexity of ‘colonial modernity’
in Vietnam. Vinh saw in an alliance with colonial France the chance to
modernise Vietnam in Western ways. Thanks to his translations and his
essays on Vietnamese society and culture, he helped open the way to a
larger cultural revolution in the 1930s. It was a way of dealing with the
humiliation of colonial domination and a way of putting Vietnam back
on a civilisational par with the rest of the ‘modern’ world. At the same
time, Nguyen Van Vinh served as a powerful propaganda tool for the
colonial state in its attempts to cut off Vietnam from her Asian context
and ally her closely with colonial France through the Vietnamese language.
Indeed, Nguyen Van Vinh provides a revealing example of the colonial
origins of the Francophonie policy in Vietnam that began long before French
French ignorance of the Annamese is certainly great; that of the
Annamese about us is tremendous, fabulous, unimaginable. […] The
Annamese, the Annamese people, the Annamese masses are com-
pletely and absolutely ignorant of us. The immense majority under-
stand nothing about us. […] From the outset, I was lucky to make
friends with several eminent Annamese, notably with M. Nguyen Van
Vinh, the greatest Annamese writer of our time. It was he who led me,
little by little, to fathom the gulf that separates us from the Annamese.
And we asked ourselves by which means would we manage to bridge
this total incomprehension.
E. Vayrac, 1937
The news of Nguyen Van Vinh’s death in the mountains of Laos on 2
May 1936 seems to have caught everyone by surprise in Hanoi.
My thanks to the following for their kind comments and assistance: David Marr,
William and Claire Duiker, Gilles de Gantès, Emmanuelle Affidi, Peter and Cam
Zinoman, Pierre Brocheux, Daniel Hémery, Andrew Hardy and especially Agathe
Larcher-Goscha (who suggested the title).
Delegation of Tchépone, No. 147, ‘Au sujet du décès du journaliste Nguyen Van Vinh
survenu à Keng Sep (Muong Tchépone)’ (On the death of the journalist Nguyen Van
Vinh in Keng Sep), 5 May 1936, Archives of the Résident Supérieur du Tonkin,
Nouveau Fonds (hereafter cited RST/NF), dossier (hereafter cited as d.) 6884, Centre
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 2.
well known that the founder of the Annam Nouveau (New Annam)
1931 and one of colonial Vietnam’s greatest journalists and translators
of Western literature had come up against some very serious financial
troubles. Since 1 March, he had been forced to give up the direction
of his newspaper in order to find a way to repay the debts he had
amassed since the depression of 1929. What his reading public did
not know was that he owed 40,000 piastres to a French associate
named de Montpezat. The police had even been authorised to arrest
Vinh. Desperate, the latter agreed to write for one of this family’s
newspapers in exchange for a reprieve. He got it. And in March,
he left the Annam Nouveau. He sold his belongings, bid farewell to
his wife and family, and headed for Laos to prospect for silver and
gold with his longtime friend, A. Clémenti.
Indefatigably curious and
always with something to say, Vinh kept wiring back his reportages
on Lao society and culture to his readers in the Annam Nouveau.
Everyone expected him to bounce back; he always had. But ironically,
the man who had advocated so passionately all his life the need to
apply Western science and medicine to Vietnam died of dysentery,
still searching for gold and no doubt a little something else.
one of his literary heroes, Alexander Dumas, Nguyen Van Vinh died
Nguyen Van Vinh and the Complexity of Colonial Modernity in Vietnam
Nguyen Van Vinh was a character. He was one of those individuals
to whom one is either immediately attracted, seduced by his sharp
wit, profound intelligence and incredible self-confidence; or put off by
his biting satire, arrogance, or his less than flattering views of women
des Archives d’Outre-Mer (hereafter cited as CAOM). His death was announced in
the Annam Nouveau on 7 May 1936: ‘La mort de M. Nguyen-Van-Vinh’ (The death of Mr
Nguyen Van Vinh), Annam Nouveau (hereafter cited as AN), 7 May 1931.
‘Annam’ and ‘Annamese’ were widely used during the colonial period for
‘Vietnam’ and ‘Vietnamese’.
Service de la Sûreté du Tonkin, No. 2164/S, ‘Nguyen Van Vinh et l’Annam
nouveau’ (Nguyen Van Vinh and the Annam nouveau), 28 February 1936, signed by
Arnoux, RST/NF, d. 4357, CAOM. A. Clémenti was the director and founder of the
newspaper L’Argus indochinois. It is not sure that this Montpezat is the same one as the
famous Catholic entrepreneur, Henri de Monpezat. My thanks to Gilles de Gantès
for pointing this out.
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Un mois avec des chercheurs d’or: la maison laotienne’ (One month
with gold prospectors: the Laotian House), AN (15 March 1936).
For more on the cause of death of Nguyen Van Vinh, see: ‘Au sujet du décès du
journaliste Nguyen Van Vinh’.
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 3.
and their potential role in society.
To say that he was sure of himself
would be a euphemism. He liked to go up against commonly held
ideas and take up lost causes. Journalism and translation, however,
were his passions. The paper was a forum for debate, an exchange of
ideas, and a means by which he believed he could attack the social,
cultural and political problems of his time. Translation was a tool
with which he could influence Vietnamese thinking and share his
love for literature. The range of his interests was, indeed, remarkable.
On one page, he could defend the direct French administration of
Indochina, while on another he could lend his ardent support to the
peasants against mandarin exploitation, or defend a poor rickshaw
driver against the violence of a French colon. On one day, he could
sketch a fascinating portrait of rural culture in Vietnam, and on
the following day publish an essay of the highest quality on French
literature or the technical intricacies of translating Vietnamese chef
Nguyen Van Vinh was not alone, of course. There were others
interested in similar cultural and social questions. Pham Quynh cer-
tainly comes to mind. Both men had similar backgrounds and were
fierce competitors on the cultural and political scene until Nguyen
Van Vinh passed away in 1936.
However, if much has been written
about Pham Quynh, it is strange that such an eminent and contro-
versial figure as Nguyen Van Vinh should have slipped through the
cracks of contemporary historiography and research. Of course, for
post-1954 Vietnamese nationalist historiography, his life posed some
After all, he had ‘collaborated’ closely with the
French colonial powers, advocated ‘direct’ French rule of Vietnam
(and Indochina) and promoted French civilization and their ‘enlight-
ened’ rule. Nor did it help his post-1945 nationalist standing that he
had frequented colonial social circles or ridiculed, mercilessly, out-
dated Vietnamese customs and behavior which he found embar-
rassing and uncivilised. But most costly of all, I think was a highly
See for example Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘La femme au pays d’Annam’ (Women in the
country of Annam), AN (15 May 1931).
See Nguyen Van Vinh’s comments on Rabelais, Michelet and Victor Hugo, as
published by Nguyen Van To in the Bulletin de la Société d’Enseignement Mutuel, Nos. 1–2
(1936), cited by ‘D’, ‘Nguyen Van Vinh’, Sud-Est, No. 16 (August 1950), pp. 28–29.
It was rumoured that Pham Quynh was not among the 3,000 who attended
Nguyen Van Vinh’s funeral. Police de l’Indochine, Service de la Sûreté au Tonkin,
Hanoi, ‘Note confidentiel no. 5049’, 9 May 1936, d. 6884, RSTNF, CAOM.
There is no entry for Nguyen Van Vinh in the Anthologie de la littérature vietnamienne
(Anthology of Vietnamese Literature), Vol. 3 (Hanoi: Editions en Langues Etrangères,
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 4.
charged debate in 1932 with the scholar-patriot Huynh Thuc Khang,
during which Nguyen Van Vinh ripped apart on the front-page of
the Annam Nouveau Khang’s mentor and one of Vietnam’s greatest
nationalist heroes, Phan Boi Chau. Nguyen Van Vinh wrote him off
in 1932 as a failed revolutionary and a pitiful collaborator.
nist nationalist historiography has had a hard time forgetting this.
Harder to explain is Nguyen Van Vinh’s glaring absence in French
studies of Vietnamese literature, culture and colonialism. If Pham
Quynh looms large in French-language studies of Vietnam, other
than Maurice Durand’s excellent Introduction à la littérature vietnamienne,
one searches in vain for Nguyen Van Vinh.
Even authors pushing
the francophonie project in their publications have, surprisingly, over-
looked Nguyen Van Vinh. This negligence is difficult to explain, for
Vinh had latched on to the ideas of promoting the French language
and culture as Vietnamese sites for discovering Western ‘modernity’
and ‘culture’ long before the French Ministry of the Francophonie
picked up on it as a way to hang on to Empire after World War II.
Slightly better treatment of Vinh exists in English, though it remains
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Phan-Boi-Chau: le révolutionnaire repenti’ (The repentant rev-
olutionary), AN (24 April 1932, 28 April 1932 and 22 May 1932). My thanks to
Agathe Larcher-Goscha for bringing this article and debate to my attention. For
more on this debate and Phan Boi Chau’s association with the French after WWI,
see: Agathe Larcher-Goscha, ‘La légitimation française en Indochine: mythes et réalités de la
collaboration franco-vietnamienne et du réformisme colonial (1905–1945)’ (French legitimation
in Indochina: myths and realities of Franco-Vietnamese collaboration and colonial
reformism [1905–1945]) (Paris: doctoral thesis, Université de Paris VII, 2000).
Maurice Durand and Nguyen Tran-Huan, Introduction à la littérature vietnamienne
(Introduction to Vietnamese Literature) (Paris: G.-P. Maisonneuve et Larose, no date).
Nguyen Van Ky does mention him in his history of modernisation in Vietnam during
the colonial period: La société vietnamienne face à la modernité (Vietnamese Society and
Modernity) (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1995).
Nguyen Van Vinh does not appear in the recent work of Bernard Hue, Lit-
tératures de la péninsule indochinoise (Literatures of the Indochinese Peninsula) (Paris:
Karthala, 1999), published in collaboration with La Collection Universités Franco-
phones, which aims to promote the emergence ‘of a place of expression for the
French language and scientific community’, complete with a preface by a fervent
advocate of francophonie, Richard Féray. Nguyen Van Vinh is also absent in Thanh
Tâm Langlet and Thu Trang Gaspard’s article, ‘Les auteurs vietnamiens de langue française:
un exemple d’échange culturel’ (Vietnamese authors writing in French: an example of
cultural exchange), Etudes vietnamiennes, Vol. 2, No. 128 (1998), pp. 90–107. There is
nothing about Nguyen Van Vinh in ‘Le Vietnam et la francophonie’ (Vietnam and franco-
phonie) by Nguyen Khac Vien, nor in ‘La culture française au Vietnam’ (French culture
in Vietnam) by Cu Huy Can, both published in a special French edition of the his-
torical magazine Xua va nay (Then and Now), no. 45, (November 1997), pp. ii–iv and
viii–x respectively. For a more problematic approach to Franco-Vietnamese cultural
relations, see Nguyen Van Ky, La société vietnamienne face à la modernité.
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 5.
largely limited to his views on women and journalism.
To my knowl-
edge, no in-depth study of his work and life exists in any Western
Significantly, the first serious studies of Nguyen Van Vinh and his
work were written after 1954 in the southern Republic of Vietnam.
The best example is a special edition on Nguyen Van Vinh published
in 1970 by the literary review Van Hoc.
Besides this publication,
southern literary critics, Pham The Ngu and Kiem Dat, took Nguyen
Van Vinh seriously in the 1960s.
That said, there does seem to be
renewed interest in Nguyen Van Vinh in Vietnam today, although
it is not clear whether it is related to a Franco-Vietnamese political
promotion of the French language or a deeper interest in the man’s
little-studied political, social and cultural ideas.
Perhaps it is a little
Yet the fact that there is not much interest in and little written
about Nguyen Van Vinh is not a reason in itself for undertaking
this essay. So why write about him? Admittedly, there is an intrisic
attraction in the idea of resurrecting this controversial poor player,
who strutted and fretted his hour so vigorously on the lively cultural
stage of colonial Vietnam before disappearing for good into the
mountains of Laos. While Nguyen Van Vinh’s political ideas were
indeed contested, I think that there was more to the man than
just colonial collaboration. Through his translations, his journalism,
theatre and his refinement of the Vietnamese language, quoc ngu,
he acted as one of the leading Vietnamese brokers between the
French culture introduced via the colonial project and the Vietnamese
Neil Jamieson, Alexander Woodside and Hue Tam Ho Tai take a closer look
at Nguyen Van Vinh’s work. See: Neil Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1993), pp. 65–80 and Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism
and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992),
pp. 29–30, 48, 51, 77 and 110. Alexander Woodside, Community and Revolution in Modern
Vietnam (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976) gives us a very subtle analysis of his socio-
Emmanuelle Affidi is writing a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Paris VII,
in which she will discuss in detail Nguyen Van Vinh’s life and works.
Van Hoc (Saigon), No. 111 (September 1970).
Kiem Dat, Luan de Pham-Quynh va Nguyen-Van-Vinh (On Pham Quynh and
Nguyen Van Vinh) (Saigon: Nha Xuat Ban Tre, 1958) and Pham The Ngu, Viet Nam
van hoc su (A History of Vietnamese Literature) (Saigon?: Nam At Ti, 1965; reprinted
by Co So Xuat Ban Dai Nam, no date).
See the commentary in Xua va nay on Nguyen Van Vinh’s article devoted to
French and Vietnamese linguistics, reprinted in No. 45 (November 1997), pp. 15–16
(in Vietnamese), pp. v–vi (in French), and ‘Nhat bao’ (The Daily), Xua va nay, No. 3
(1995), p. 18.
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 6.
civilisation which it implicitly tried to transform and which responded
in kind. With a foot firmly planted in both cultural worlds, Nguyen
Van Vinh used quoc ngu, the printing press, the newspaper and the act
of translating to channel Western culture and modernising ideas into
Vietnamese society in unprecedented and wider ways than in earlier
times. Although he would never have admitted it at the time, he
helped pave the way for a larger cultural revolution in Vietnam in the
1930s, and one which, to some extent, has resumed in Vietnam since
the reformist policy of doi moi softened the Vietnamese Communist
Party’s tight hold on cultural expression. This is one reason, I think,
for studying this man’s life and works.
Nguyen Van Vinh is of interest too precisely because he saw Viet-
namese modernisation occurring in alliance with colonial France.
Some will object that he betrayed Vietnam by collaborating so closely
with the French colonial project, while others might seek to resur-
rect him today as an authentic ‘francophone’ precursor or a forgot-
ten ‘non-communist’ nationalist moderniser. It is true that Nguyen
Van Vinh was no anti-colonialist revolutionary nationalist. His ties
to French colonialism are and were clear. He was one of their main
spokesmen and allies. And he was not the only one. However, rather
than writing him off as a nationalist misfit, it might be more useful
to consider why he conceived of Vietnam’s overall modernisation in
terms of an alliance with the French colonial project in Indochina.
The problem with anti-colonialist approaches is that they tend to tell
us little about who these individuals really were, what they wanted
to do at the time, how they went about doing it or whether they
succeeded or not. This is another reason for taking him seriously.
This might help us to shed some new light on a larger group of
Vietnamese who saw Vietnam’s modernisation or eventual political
liberation in terms of a contract with the French. I am thinking of
Phan Chu Trinh, Tran Trong Kim, Bui Quang Chieu, Pham Quynh,
Huynh Thuc Khang, and others (including the future Ho Chi Minh
at the outset).
Governor-General Albert Sarraut raised their hopes
after World War I by holding out the promise of an Indochinese char-
ter, political evolution towards self-government or even independence.
On the importance of this matter, see: Larcher-Goscha, ‘La légitimation française
In 1911, Ho Chi Minh applied unsuccessfully to the Ecole Coloniale. But the
historical context needs to be kept in mind: 1910 was not 1945, or even 1925. Daniel
Hémery, ‘Jeunesse d’un colonise, genèse d’un exil. Ho Chi Minh jusqu’en 1911’ (The youth of a
colonised, the genesis of an exile: Ho Chi Minh to 1911), Approches Asie, No. 11 (1992),
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 7.
We now know that this would only be achieved at a devastating cost
to Vietnam and its people; however, no one knew this in the early
Although communism and national independence were and re-
main fundamental historical questions, they were not the only subjects
of debate at the time, nor were they the only perspectives for the
future. Culture, religion, technology, the economy and social equality
were equally important avenues of activism.
This article represents
a modest and admittedly preliminary attempt to take another look
at Nguyen Van Vinh and his attempts to modernise Vietnam in
collaboration with the French. Because of space limitations, I will
concentrate on his socio-cultural activities and what they might tell us
about the complexity of the intersection of two different civilizations
and cultures in a time of colonisation.
Nguyen Van Vinh
Nguyen Van Vinh was born in the village of Phuong Duc in the
northern province of Ha Dong on 15 June 1882.
we know little about his parents or family life. According to Neil
Jamieson, he ‘came from a humble peasant family’.
several times, including with a French woman. One of his sons,
Nguyen Giang, became a famous journalist and translator in the
1930s and 1940s; another, Nguyen Nhuoc Phap, was a well-known
poet. What is sure is that from an early age Vinh was fascinated by
the press and determined to be a part of its development in Vietnam.
By the age of ten, he had already acquired a good knowledge of
the French language. He perfected it at the Collège des Interprètes, from
which he was graduated at the age of fourteen. He then entered into
See especially David Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945 (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1981) and Shawn McHale, Print and Power: Confucianism,
Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam (Honolulu: University of
Hawaii Press, 2003).
I have examined Nguyen Van Vinh’s heated debate with Pham Quynh on
the structures of French colonial rule and the political boundaries of Vietnamese
and Indochinese nationalism in my Vietnam or Indochina? Contesting Concepts of Space
in Vietnamese Nationalism, 1887–1954 (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies,
1995), pp. 46–62. Admittedly, much remains to be done. Emmanuelle Affidi will
analyse this question in much greater detail in her forthcoming Ph.D. dissertation.
Vu Bang, ‘Tuong nho mot buc thay: Quan-Thanh Nguyen Van Vinh’ (Recalling a letter:
Nguyen Van Vinh), Van Hoc (Saigon), No. 111 (September 1970), p. 12. According to
the lunar calendar, he was born on 30 April in the 35th year of the reign of Tu Duc.
Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, p. 65.
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 8.
the Indochinese bureaucracy as a secretary. He worked in the colonial
offices of Lao Cai, Kien An, Bac Ninh, and finally in the tribunal of
Hanoi in 1904. While serving in these posts, especially in Kien An
near the port of Haiphong, Vinh was able to meet foreigners and even
began to study Chinese and some English. He had already begun to
study Chinese characters and the basics of Vietnamese demotic script
(chu nom). According to an old friend, Vinh was obsessed by languages
and reading. It is also possible that he came into contact during this
early time with French printers working for the colonial bureaucracy.
In early 1906, for reasons which are still not clear, he resigned from
the colonial bureaucracy and returned to his family, his childhood
friends, and above all to his books.
However, he did not remain idle for long. His curiosity was such
that he was soon taking part in small intellectual groups like the ‘Tri
Tri School’. Impressed by this young man’s mastery of their language
and knowledge of their culture, and no doubt keen on keeping this
budding talent on their side, the French sent him to Marseille in
1906 as part of the Vietnamese delegation to the Colonial Exposition.
It was during this time that Nguyen Van Vinh, 24 four years old,
discovered French theatre, the modern printing press, the newspaper
and their potential firepower on the cultural front. At the colonial
exposition and elsewhere, he chatted enthusiastically with Western
journalists about the importance of the modern newspaper and the
In a letter home to his good friend Pham Duy Ton,
Vinh shared the excitement of seeing El Cid on stage. He explained
the impact that seeing this play live on stage had had on him, insisting
that it was vastly more effective than just reading it. It was also during
his trip to France that he decided once and for all that he would have
to play a leading role in the modernisation of Vietnamese culture and
The young Nguyen Van Vinh must have been very sure of
his calling, for on his return to Vietnam in 1907 he threw himself into
creating a printing house and a Western-style press.
Vu Bang, ‘Tuong nho mot buc thay’, pp. 12–14, based on Nguyen Van Vinh’s diary.
‘Discours de M. Pham Huy Luc, Président de la Chambre des Représentants du Peuple du
Tonkin’ (Speech by M. Pham Huy Luc, President of the House of Representatives of
the People of Tonkin), AN (11 May 1936), and ‘Biographie’ (Biography), AN (7 May
‘Tho cua ong Vinh viet tu Mac-Xay gui cho o. Pham Duy Ton’ (Letter from Vinh to
Pham Duy Ton written from Marseille), in Ky niem 90 nam ong Nguyen Van Vinh dich Kim
Van Kieu (The 90th Anniversary of Nguyen Van Vinh’s Translation of the Kim Van
Kieu) (1997), and Vu Bang, ‘Tuong nho mot buc thay’, pp. 16–20, on his 1906 voyage to
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 9.
Figure 1: Pham Duy Ton, Pham Quynh and Nguyen Van Vinh, delegates to the
Colonial Exhibition of 1922 in Marseille; source: http://nguyentl.free.fr.
Again, he was not alone in his desire to modernise Vietnam in
association with the French. A group of Vietnamese intellectuals
gathered around the famous scholar-patriot, Phan Chu Trinh, to
create the ‘Tonkin Free School’, better known as the Dong Kinh
Nghia Thuc. Its goal was to promote a renovation of Vietnamese
society and culture along Western lines. Nguyen Van Vinh and Pham
Duy Ton were both members of this early group of intellectuals, who
saw Vietnam’s modernisation in terms of an alliance with the French.
At the top of their list was the importance of developing quoc ngu over
Chinese characters, learning French and diffusing Western notions
of science, sports, hygiene, education, and commerce and industry
to the population at large. Unsurprisingly, Nguyen Van Vinh taught
French to more Sino-Vietnamese-oriented intellectuals. Revealingly,
the bible of the group was the Book of Civilisation and Modern Studies (Van
minh tan hoc sach). In 1907, Phan Chu Trinh sent a reform package to
the colonial government asking for educational reforms, instruction
in French, agricultural development projects, and the Westernisation
of traditional Vietnamese dress. Attracted by Republican ideas, Phan
Chu Trinh began attacks on the impediments to progress represented
by the Vietnamese monarchy and its mandarins, who would do their
best a year later to make sure he never returned from the colonial
prison of Poulo Condor, where he had been imprisoned following the
outbreak of revolts in Vietnam.
‘Traduction d’une lettre en caractères chinois adressée le 15 juillet 1922 à Khai Dinh par
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 10.
Nguyen Van Vinh would make these ideas the cornerstone of his
political ideas for the rest of his life. It is not exactly clear why Vinh
developed such an early hatred for the mandarins. It may be linked to
his humble origins, the worsening misery of the Vietnamese peasantry
he witnessed as a civil servant in the north, or perhaps his desire to
advance more quickly through a Westernised bureaucracy with which
he was more familiar. Like Phan Chu Trinh, Nguyen Van Vinh was
also attracted early on in his life to French Republican ideas. In 1906
or 1907, he joined the Hanoi section of the League of Human Rights
(Ligue des droits de l’homme). Formed in Hanoi in 1903, the League
was designed to promote Republican ideals in the colonies, to check
the abuses of colonialism, and, not without serious contradictions, to
make known such new ideas as ‘individual rights and liberties’, ‘citi-
zenship’, and ‘egalitarianism’ When the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc was
shut down by the French in 1908 and Phan Chu Trinh arrested on
suspicion of his role in peasant uprisings that same year, Nguyen
Van Vinh militated within the League in order to obtain his libera-
tion from Poulo Condor. It was also within the League that Nguyen
Van Vinh worked with such liberal thinkers as Félicien Challaye,
Louis Caput, Marc Casati, and Francis de Pressensé among others.
He would also form a close intellectual and personal friendship with
the militant republican and long-time resident in Vietnam, Ernest
All of these Frenchmen tried to focus the French govern-
ment’s attention on its colonial duties. However, as Daniel Hémery
has pointed out, it was less a question of promoting ‘anti-colonialism’
than backing dynamic ‘colonial reforms’ under the watchful eye of the
French. The ‘Leaguers’ accepted French colonialism in Indochina as
a fait accompli, but not its excesses. While it is true that the League
itself would sometimes have a hard time accepting Vietnamese as
full members, one of the very rare Vietnamese to join was none
other than Nguyen Van Vinh. This young intellectual was undoubt-
le lettré annamite Phan Chau Trinh’ (Translation of a letter in Chinese characters sent
on 15 July 1922 to Khai Dinh by the Annamite scholar Phan Chau Trinh), pp. 1,
15, 16, 21, d. Phan Chu Trinh, c. 371, file grouping Service de Protection du Corps
Expéditionnaire, CAOM. According to Jamieson, it was Nguyen Van Vinh who filled
out the necessary papers to open the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc; Jamieson, Understanding
Vietnam, p. 67.
Ernest Babut ran the Dai Viet tan bao, the unofficial journal of the Dong Kinh
Nghia Thuc. Phan Chu Trinh published some of his first articles in Chinese in this
journal. There is a French translation of one of these articles reflecting Phan Chu
Trinh’s ideas on the need to adapt Western science and culture in Vietnam, entitled
‘Réflexions sur le temps présent’ (Reflections on present times), Pionnier Indo-Chinois, No. 10
(29 December 1907), pp. 104–105.
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 11.
edly influenced by the discussion and the ideas running through the
League in the early 1900s. One of the major ideas of the League
in Indochina was to promote ‘a Republican idea of colonial action’,
one which would administer the colonies with ‘enlightened control’.
Nguyen Van Vinh would promote such ideas in the political pro-
gramme he defended in the early 1930s.
Nguyen Van Vinh also joined the anti-clerical and pro-Republican
freemasons in Indochina.
He did so, once he had returned to Viet-
nam, sometime in the 1920s as a member of the Human Rights order
of the ‘Confucius’ lodge (Tam Diem Khong Tu).
Upon Vinh’s death,
the Confucius lodge organized a funeral ceremony in Nguyen Van
Vinh’s honour. Three thousand people were in attendance. Nguyen
Van Vinh was not the only Vietnamese to join the Freemasons. He
joined Pham Huy Luc (1928), Pham Quynh (1925), Bui Quang Chieu,
Le Thuoc, Duong Van Giao and a number of others from the Viet-
namese elite. While some of the French Masons in Indochina balked
at admitting Vietnamese in light of their ‘lack of evolution’, the open-
ing of Freemasonry doors to Vietnamese elites in the 1920s led to new
intellectual exchanges and reflections on the development of Viet-
nam and its place within the colonial project.
In 1925, the Ligue des
droits de l’homme adopted a report penned by Pham Quynh, which,
according to Jacques Dalloz, had supported the very anti-colonialist
ideas of one of its main leaders, Félicien Challaye.
Nguyen Van Vinh
‘Discours de M. Delmas, Président de la Ligue des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen
Section de Hanoi’ (Speech of Mr Delmas, President of the League of Human Rights
and of the Citizens’ Section of Hanoi), AN (11 May 1936) and Daniel Hémery,
‘L’Indochine, les droits humains entre colonisateurs et colonisés: la Ligue des Droits de l’Homme’
(Indochina, human rights between the colonisers and the colonised: the League
of Human Rights), Revue française d’histoire d’outre-mer (French Review of Overseas
History), Vol. 88, Nos 330–331 (2001), pp. 223–239.
Although we do not know for sure if Nguyen Van Vinh was a member of the
Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière (SFIO, French Section of the Workers’
International)—I do not believe so—he certainly knew its leaders, like Louis Caput.
Hoang Minh Giam, future Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Democratic Republic of
Vietnam, was a member of the SFIO and collaborated on Vinh’s Annam nouveau.
It was apparently also called the ‘Mixed International lodge’, which was the
Vietnamese section of the larger Grand Orient lodge with an office in Hanoi.
Thien Tuong, ‘Duong Thieu Thanh tu Hanoi den Bale Nguyen Van Vinh’ (From Hanoi
to Paris, Nguyen Van Vinh), Van Hoc (Saigon), No. 111 (September 1970), p. 37, and
D, ‘Nguyen-van-Vinh’, p. 27.
Jacques Dalloz, ‘Les Vietnamiens dans la franc-maçonnerie coloniale’ (The Vietnamese
in colonial Freemasonry), Revue française d’histoire d’outre-mer (French Review of Over-
seas History), Vol. 85, No. 320 (1998), pp. 103–118; his ‘La SFIO d’Indochine, 1945–1954’
(The SFIO in Indochina), Approches-Asie, No. 14 (1997), pp. 57–72; ‘Discours de M. Jan-
vier, Fondateur de la Loge “Confucius”’ (Speech by Mr Janvier, founder of the ‘Confucius’
Lodge), AN (11 May 1936).
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could not have been immune to the ideas and animated debates circu-
lating within these Republican organisations, especially those hostile
to the monarchy.
In spite of his time-consuming cultural and literary activities, Nguy-
en Van Vinh still found time for politics. At the age of 25, he started
his political career as a municipal council member. He was a member
of the Grand Council of Economic and Financial Interests (Grand
Conseil des Intérêts Economiques et Financiers). In 1913, he was
elected to the Advisory House of Tonkin (Chambre Consultative du
Tonkin), which dispatched him to the Colonial Exposition in Mar-
seilles in 1922. Once in France, Nguyen Van Vinh probably contacted
Phan Chu Trinh. Given their previous collaboration, Albert Sarraut’s
promise of political liberalisation, and the disdain they held for the
monarchy and its mandarins, it seems likely that Nguyen Van Vinh
sought advice from Phan Chu Trinh on the future tack of non-violent
Vietnamese reformism. Both probably agreed on the need to do away
with the antiquated monarchy. After all, it was in 1922 that Phan Chu
Trinh, in a vitriolic letter to King Khai Dinh, lambasted the Viet-
namese monarchy, accusing it of being ‘despotic’ and opposed to the
very political, social and cultural innovations that would save Viet-
nam from its perilous situation.
Phan Chu Trinh’s ideas were exactly
what Nguyen Van Vinh wanted to hear. But he would take them
much further in the political programme he would promote through
the creation of the Annam nouveau in 1931.
The ‘Cultural Revolution’ of Nguyen Van Vinh
The Printing House
Since 1907, emboldened by his ‘discovery’ in Europe of the modern
printing press, the newspaper and the potential of the fine arts for
social change, Nguyen Van Vinh focused his attention on promoting a
social and cultural revolution of ‘traditional’ Vietnamese society. The
printing press, translations, newspapers, theatre and film would be
his preferred arms. Nguyen Van Vinh learned the art of printing on
the job, apparently without any previous training. His long friendship
with Ernest Babut and especially the famous printer and associate
of the Vietnamese press, F.H. Schneider, taught him the basics of
‘Traduction d’une lettre en caractères chinois adressée à Khai Dinh par le lettré annamite Phan
See my Vietnam or Indochina? pp. 46–62.
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printing, publishing, and advertising. Around 1910, he and Schneider
opened a small publishing house called the Bibliothèque Franco-
annamite de Vulgarisation (Pho Thong Giao Khoa Thu Xa). The
principal idea was to publish and distribute translations and new ideas
in quoc ngu for an expanding Vietnamese readership. In the 1920s, he
teamed up with another Frenchman, E. Vayrac, to create an even
more sophisticated publication series entitled La Pensée de l’occident. In
addition to government subsidies, Nguyen Van Vinh dug into his own
pocket to invest in modern printing equipment, paper and chemicals
imported from Europe. During his 1922 trip to France, for example,
he stole away from the exotic Colonial Exposition—which in his eyes
froze Vietnamese into the very tradition he despised—in order to
purchase new equipment for his printing press. He went all the way
to Germany to find what he wanted.
Thanks to his printing knowledge and connections, Nguyen Van Vinh
was strategically well positioned to launch one of his major cultural
battles: the translation of major Western literary works. Vinh was
among the first (after Truong Vinh Ky and Huynh Tinh Cua) to
recognise the modern potential of translations to create a bridge
between ‘East and West’, and to change the way people thought
by introducing new ideas and forms into Vietnam. The translation
of the Western novel was one such example. He published several
remarkable translations of key works of French literature, notably
Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, Les femmes savantes, L’Avare, and Le
malade imaginaire; Victor Hugo’s Les misérables; La Fontaine’s Les fables;
and Alexandre Dumas’ Les trois mousquetaires among many others. He
also translated a number of English works (from the French), such as
Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
Many of his first translations were
published by Vayrac and La pensée de l’occident.
As we shall see, Nguyen Van Vinh undertook these translations
in order to make French culture better known to the Vietnamese.
Armée du Rhin (Army of the Rhine), ‘Au sujet du journaliste et imprimeur Nguyen
Van Vinh’ (On the journalist and printer Nguyen Van Vinh), 10 August 1922, d. 1382,
archives repatriated from Russia, Service Historique de l’Armée de Terre, Vincennes,
Recent scholarship in France has suggested that Molière may not have written
all the works that bear his name. See for example, Dominique Labbé, Corneille
dans l’ombre de Molière: Histoire d’une découverte (Corneille in the Shadow of Molière:
The History of a Discovery) (Paris: Les Impressions Nouvelles, Collection ‘Bâtons
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But there was more to it than cultural politics. The art of trans-
lating literature from one language to another, the idea of crossing
massive cultural divides to make one thought system intelligible to
another in his or her native language, must be one of the most impor-
tant intersections and signposts for studying cultural transfers in the
world. Of course, translators existed in pre-colonial Vietnam. They
had mainly been in charge of dealing with a variety of European and
Asian traders or involved in domesticating Chinese Confucian clas-
sics. However, French colonisation linked Vietnam to a larger literary
world, not just a French one, but one which could channel English,
American and other literatures into Vietnam via French translations
themselves (for example, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels). Suddenly, a whole
new literary world appeared on the Vietnamese horizon. However,
without translators, this exciting universe of new ideas, personages,
and adventures would remain incomprehensible.
Of course, younger generations of Vietnamese would be increas-
ingly at ease in French, and would prefer reading these works in the
original language. However, even today circumstantial evidence sug-
gests that they prefer reading many of Nguyen Van Vinh’s quoc ngu
translations, for he successfully tailored the French characters and
mentalities to their Vietnamese cultural equivalents. If this is true,
then this is no small cultural feat. It seems quite possible that even
young ‘Westernised’ Vietnamese got their first taste of Dumas’ The
Three Musketeers and Hugo’s Les misérables through Nguyen Van Vinh,
and only later via the original French version. Moreover, in spite of
increased French language instruction in colonial schools, a vast quoc
ngu reading public continued to develop during the entire colonial
period. Reaching the Vietnamese ‘masses’ meant reaching them in
quoc ngu as much as in French.
However, Nguyen Van Vinh’s translations are important for other
reasons. If Nhat Linh chose the modern Western novel as his favourite
literary weapon for attacking out-dated customs and promoting new
ideas more effectively and widely, Nguyen Van Vinh was carefully
selecting his French plays and novels for translation with an eye on
the socio-political messages he wanted to transmit to his Vietnamese
readers. If carefully and effectively translated, Nguyen Van Vinh
sought to domesticate these French stories and their modern notions
of satire, comedy and intrigue as ways of promoting his own cultural
programme in Vietnam. In a way, he was taking the author’s irony
and making it his own. And this built upon a deep Vietnamese tradi-
tion for political satire. For example, there is no denying that Nguyen
Van Vinh despised the mandarin system and had little respect for
the Vietnamese monarchy. It is no accident, I think, that Vinh chose
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to translate La Fontaine’s Les Fables (1668). La Fontaine used animals
in his fables in order to criticise seventeenth century French society,
the court’s sycophants, and the King in particular. Like Molière, La
Fontaine considered the court to be infested with parasites and impos-
tors, who only worsened the plight of the people they were supposed
to rule benevolently. He used comedy and satire, hidden in the form
of an animal society, to poke fun at the ineffectiveness and corrup-
tion of the French monarchy and its obsequious courtesans. Though
Vinh could not attack French colonialism in this way, he certainly
had no qualms about using satire and irony against the Vietnamese
monarchy. And given the French desire to avoid having Nguyen Van
Vinh translate eighteenth century political philosophers (as he did
with Rousseau, as we shall see below), they had little choice but to
look the other way, at least until the early 1930s, when he took veiled
stabs at the Vietnamese monarchy.
Several other works translated by Nguyen Van Vinh also carry this
anti-monarchical theme. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels certainly
comes to mind. So does Fénelon’s Les aventures de Télémaque. The latter
was banned by Louis XIV after its publication in 1699, considered
to be a satire of the court. Fénelon had written a few years earlier
a ‘Letter to Louis XIV’, in which he spoke bluntly of the misery of
the French peasantry and the need for ‘liberal reforms’. Nguyen Van
Vinh was taking similar action in Vietnam against what he saw as the
rapacious mandarins of Annam and Tonkin. It is hard to believe that
Fénelon’s reflections in Télémaque on good government and ‘natural
rights’ for all in society are not linked to the Republican ideas Nguyen
Van Vinh encountered in the Human Rights League and among the
Freemasons.And Nguyen Van Vinh’s translation of Victor Hugo’s Les
misérables reveals his keen interest in social questions, which we see
again in Vinh’s realist and moving writings on the Vietnamese village
and the misery that pervaded it.
Of course, by translating these works into Vietnamese, Nguyen Van
Vinh also made a major contribution to the development of Viet-
namese literature. New genres of comedy, tragedy, satire, etc., were
introduced into an already extremely rich Vietnamese cultural her-
itage. Nguyen Van Vinh’s translations of Molière, especially Le malade
imaginaire and Le bourgeois gentilhomme, were particularly important in
the development of modern Vietnamese satire and theatre. For exam-
ple, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, first performed on stage in France in 1670,
satirised the newly rich shopkeeper, M. Jourdain, whose only concern
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Le froid’ (The cold), AN, 25 January 1934.
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is to climb the social ladder as high as possible. To this end, he is
ready to pay out large sums of money and to act in ridiculous ways
in order to learn civilised manners, gallantry and all those things he
needs to break into a class and a level of civilisation which have been
out of his social reach. As Alexander Woodside has brilliantly shown,
Nguyen Van Vinh transformed a French bourgeois gentleman into
an equally ridiculous Vietnamese mandarin, who could not decide
whether or not to wear his tunic to future social occasions. As Wood-
Perhaps the theatrical spectacle of a floundering bourgeois nobleman
(or his Vietnamese mandarin alter ego) attempting to learn more cos-
mopolitan ways tallied with anxieties and ambitions common to many
Vietnamese intellectuals at that time. At least it may have satisfied their
common intuition that even the antics of Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain
might provide clues about how to acquire, or how not to acquire more
‘modern’— a perhaps more effective—reflexes of behavior.
However, Nguyen Van Vinh did not limit his translations to the
French. He was no assimilationist. Already in 1907, together with
Phan Ke Binh, he had published a quoc ngu translation of the Chinese
classic Tam quoc (The Three Kingdoms) and Nguyen Du’s magisterial
Kim van kieu apparently from its original demotic script, chu nom.
Vinh continually revised and improved upon the latter throughout
the years. The seventh edition of 1923 would have a print run of
Thus, not only did Vinh help bring French culture
to Vietnam, but he also made intelligible one of Vietnam’s great
national classics to a population that had, by an irony of history, been
cut off from it by the romanisation of the Vietnamese writing script.
This was largely due to Nguyen Van Vinh’s emphasis on refining
and promoting quoc ngu and his belief in the power of modern,
methodological translations (he was a French trained interpreter). He
no doubt realised the effectiveness of transmitting the Kim van kieu in
quoc ngu rather than through oral tradition. It is also significant that he
did not translate this cultural masterpiece into French first.
This translation of Kim van kieu served Nguyen Van Vinh well when
it came to diffusing it visually, apparently as Vietnam’s first story film.
This occurred in Hanoi in 1924, thanks to Paul Thierry and his stu-
dio, Indochine Films et Cinémas. It was later shown elsewhere in
Nguyen Van Vinh was also among the first to introduce
Woodside, Community and Revolution, p. 86.
Nguyen Van Vinh (transl.), Kim Van Kieu (Hanoi: Hieu Ich-Ky, 1923).
Quoc Anh, ‘Nguoi Viet Nam dau tien co vu cho dien anh’ (The first Vietnamese to
turn a film), Tuoi Tre Chu Nhat (31 December 1995).
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Western-style theatre to Vietnam in 1920, when he directed his trans-
lation of Molière’s Le malade imaginaire. This Vietnamese adaptation of
Molière was performed in Hanoi, and it was apparently a great suc-
cess. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Western style theatre, literature
and cinematography would continue to grow. But this younger gener-
ation would go further than Nguyen Van Vinh. Rather than borrow-
ing and customising the French theatre or novel to Vietnamese reali-
ties via translation or adaptations, young militants such as Vu Trong
Phung and Nhat Linh staged their own plays in Hanoi (Vu Trong
Phung’s Khong mot tieng vang/Not a sound) and attack the Vietnamese
mandarinate through their own novels and leitmotifs (Nhat Linh’s
Doan tuyet/Rupture), though often borrowing heavily from the Western
model. Strangely, Nguyen Van Vinh never recognised the achieve-
ments of his young inheritors. He saw himself as the only intermedi-
ary capable of negotiating the Western and Vietnamese traditions.
Nguyen Van Vinh, Quoc Ngu and the Vietnamese Public
The development of the quoc ngu newspaper was the other way by
which Nguyen Van Vinh counted on implementing his socio-cultural
programme. He was not the first to recognise the importance of the
vernacular script developed by Portuguese and French Jesuits. Pétrus
Vinh Ky, a Catholic, had gone far in popularizing quoc ngu at the
end of the nineteenth century. The Gia dinh bao had already served
as Vietnam’s first newspaper in quoc ngu and Chinese characters. Yet
Nguyen Van Vinh would take these advances even further at the
beginning of the twentieth. As he wrote on the cover of his translation
of Kim van kieu, the future of Vietnam depended on the use of quoc ngu.
His journalist career certainly bore this out. In 1907, Nguyen Van
Vinh joined the Dang co yung bao, a reformist paper countenanced by
the French. Vinh directed the quoc ngu section. During this time, he
joined forces with the director of the paper, his old friend F.H. Schnei-
der, in order to establish the foundation for a wider diffusion of his
quoc ngu translations and essays on modernisation. Vinh had already
worked for Schneider in 1910 on the famous southern newspaper, Luc
tinh tan van, as well as two short-lived French language journals: Notre
journal (1908–1909) and Notre revue (1910), both edited by Schneider.
Around 1911, Vinh and Schneider travelled together to the North in
search of new experiences and work. With the support of the colonial
For more on this, see: McHale, Print and Power.
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government, they launched the famous Dong duong tap chi (Indochi-
nese Review, 1913–1916) in a double bid to head off the violent anti-
colonialism that was on the rise at the time and to promote the socio-
cultural development of Vietnam in collaboration with the French. All
of these early papers, however, were severely censured by the French
colonial government. During World War I, Vinh joined Schneider
to run northern Vietnam’s first daily, the Trung ban tan van (North-
ern Central Modern News) (1912–1942?). After World War I, he also
joined another famous scholar, Tran Trong Kim, to publish an edu-
cational and scientific review for youth, which would run well into the
At the outset, Nguyen Van Vinh hoped to reach a growing Viet-
namese reading public in order to promote his main ideas. By 1917,
there were an estimated 75,000 Vietnamese school students, and by
1921 the total number of students was estimated at around 150,000.
By 1931, Nguyen Van Vinh considered that the Vietnamese reading
public numbered around 10,000 people (apparently just for Tonkin).
In the Indochinese Review, Nguyen Van Vinh penned hundreds of arti-
cles on Western hygiene, medicine, sports, literature and current
events. I have not yet been able to carry out a systematic survey of
Nguyen Van Vinh’s articles in the Indochinese Review and the Trung bac
tan van. However, judging from a close reading of the Annam nouveau,
conceived by Nguyen Van Vinh as a blueprint for creating a ‘New
Annam’, one of the interesting things about the man is the wide range
of his essays and their depth. Like other reform-minded colleagues,
he wrote at length on educational and political reform, as well as the
need to develop Vietnamese commerce and society. However, Nguyen
Van Vinh also had a curiosity for social questions, which led him to
write some fascinating studies on popular Vietnamese art, astrology,
gambling, cooking, law, birth certificates, nationality, entrepreneurs
and so on.
It would thus be wrong to think that Vinh was merely an elitist
who was only concerned with reading and translating Molière from
Jamieson, Understanding Vietnam, p. 80.
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘La presse indigène libre’ (The indigenous free press), AN (20
See, for example, Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Art populaire’ (Popular art), AN (1 January
1934), ‘Géomancie’ (Geomancy), AN (28 July 1932), ‘Jeux permis et jeux interdits’ (Permis-
sible and forbidden games), AN (12 May 1935), ‘Les bonnes choses d’Annam’ (The good
things of Annam), AN (28 July 1932), ‘Etat civil’ (Birth certificate), AN (1 January 1933),
‘La tuberculose’ (Tuberculosis), AN (4 June 1933), ‘La question du nuoc-mam vue du Tonkin’
(The question of Nuoc-mam as seen from Tonkin), AN (28 September 1933), among
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the original French. One of the less well-known sides of this man is his
deep interest in social questions, marginal groups, and above all in the
countryside and the plight of the peasantry. Vinh’s very early interest
in the ‘peasant question’ undoubtedly came from his poor, rural
background and the nine years he spent in the countryside as a low-
level colonial bureaucrat. Few other Western-educated Vietnamese
intellectuals had Nguyen Van Vinh’s rural background or hands-on
knowledge of peasant affairs and their misery. It may have been
further stimulated by the novels he translated on the misery of the
seventeenth century French peasantry or their exploitation by the
Recipients of particular scorn from Vinh in these articles were the
mandarins, whom he considered to be exploiting the peasants and
against whom he saw the French doing little.
Vinh set upon them
with a vengeance, particularly in the more censure-free pages of the
Part of his idea was to try to provoke the French into
doing something, or at least try to inform and to move the French-
reading Vietnamese urbanites, who constituted the only elite capable
of intervening on behalf of the peasants in his view. Vinh dedicated
himself to finding modern solutions to these perennial problems. He
consulted with experts such as Pierre Gourou on ways of improving
the plight of the peasants.
He wrote essays on how to use modern
science and Vietnamese ingenuity in order to bring clean, running
water to the countryside.
One of the most interesting social solu-
tions that Nguyen Van Vinh suggested was the development of local
industries, such as tobacco and silk. He also put forward plans for
developing lending associations and taxes to help fund rural devel-
opment projects, such as electrification and the extension of drinking
water beyond the cities.
While these questions cannot be studied in
detail here, it is clear from scores of articles that Nguyen Van Vinh
was very concerned about social and rural problems, as well as trying
to find solutions to them. As he wrote in a famous article in 1934: ‘If
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Misère et colonisation’ (Misery and colonisation), AN (23
The Trung Bac Tan Van was censored much more than Annam Nouveau.
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Les industries villageoise’ (Village industries), AN (28 January
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘La question d’eau potable dans nos villages’ (The problem of
drinking water in our villages), AN (2 July 1933) and ‘L’eau dans le village’ (Water in
the village), AN (13 August 1933).
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Le financement des entreprises d’intérêt rural’ (Financing rural
businesses), AN (24 August 1933) and ‘Projet de création d’un établissement de crédit foncier
privilégié’ (Project to create an establishment for favourable land lending), AN (9
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I take it upon myself to treat all of these questions on the village, and
this in a paper targeting almost exclusively urbanites, it is because
the village is the key to progress in this country which is essentially
Any definitive judgment of Nguyen Van Vinh will have
to take into account his detailed studies of Vietnamese villages, their
problems and possible reforms.
For communist nationalists like Vo
Nguyen Giap and Truong Chinh were not the only Vietnamese con-
cerned about ‘The Peasant Problem’, the title of a famous essay they
published in the 1930s.
The press was important to Nguyen Van Vinh for another reason.
It was not enough to write in quoc ngu. Like Pham Quynh and oth-
ers, he wanted to systematise and modernise it completely, so that
it would be able to express Vietnamese scientific, economic, literary
and cultural ideas with unprecedented precision. Again, this subject
is a vast one that merits a separate study. Suffice it to say that Vinh
wrote extensively in Vietnamese and French on the need to unify and
systematise Vietnamese orthography and grammar, so as to augment
its effectiveness, clarity and impact. He promoted a standardisation of
quoc ngu for teaching Vietnamese in schools. He wanted clear and con-
cise etymologies for all words, especially those coming from Chinese.
He wrote at length on Vietnamese phonetics, transliterations, adapta-
tions, and translations from French and Chinese. He even published
his (re)translations, step-by-step, of the Kim van kieu, explaining in a
public forum to both French and Vietnamese readers the complexity
of the enterprise and its cultural importance. Some of his most fasci-
nating reflections on quoc ngu and its linguistic functioning are to be
fond in the Annam nouveau. Through this newspaper, he tried to make
quoc ngu known not just to the Vietnamese, but also to the French. He
was even an early advocate of teaching Vietnamese to the French. He
believed that any educational progress between peoples must go in
both directions. It was first on his list for bringing together the French
and the Vietnamese, despite the racial and colonial chasm that effec-
tively divided them in practice.
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Le village et la cité’ (The village and the city), AN (25 March
See especially: Martin Grossheim, Nordvietnamesische Dorfgemeinschaften: Kontinuität
und Wandel (North Vietnamese Village Associations: Continuity and Change) (Ham-
burg: Mitteilungen des Instituts für Asienkunde, No. 282, 1997), especially Chapters 2
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘L’orthographe du quoc-ngu’ (The spelling of quoc-ngu), AN (25
September 1932, 29 September 1932).
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Les noms annamites’ (Annamese names), AN (21 April 1931, 25
April 1931, 28 April 1931).
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Nguyen Van Vinh and the Problem
of ‘Civilisation’ in a Time of Domination
More recent discussions of Nguyen Van Vinh cite with derision his
famous article, ‘Making Fun of Everything’ and Vinh’s attacks on
what he saw as the shortcomings of Vietnamese culture, such as cus-
toms related to childbearing, betel chewing, corruption, superstitions,
etc. Confronted by the West via colonialism, Vinh was determined to
regenerate Vietnam by attacking what he saw as its social vices and
out-dated manners and dress. While it might be argued that this was
very much a Western approach, it was nevertheless designed with a
cultural programme if not a nationalist goal in mind: to show that
Vietnam was just as civilised as other nations, including the coloniser.
Between 1913 and 1915, Vinh wrote dozens of articles and essays
about the need to changeVietnamese society in order to make it more
‘civilised’ (van minh). Indeed, one of his greatest preoccupations during
his career was to put Vietnam back onto the map of ‘civilised’ nations.
Troubled by the implications of Social Darwinism, Nguyen Van Vinh
saw a regeneration of Vietnam in the careful adaptation of Western
modernisation to Vietnamese society via the French colonial project.
To take but one example, he considered modes of dress to be an
important indicator of a country’s level of civilisation. In an essay
entitled, ‘A Question of Dress’, Vinh states at the outset how he sees
this apparently superficial socio-cultural transformation as one of the
keys to establishing parity with the West and other ‘modernising’
countries across the globe:
Like the Turks, the Siamese adopted European dress except for one
detail. The Turks kept the fez, the Siamese kept the sampot. Both
have just abandoned these last vestiges of their traditional costume.
They want to affirm in this way that their nations are completely
Europeanised and that from now on they intend to resemble, from
the outside, all the peoples of European civilisation. […] In Asia, the
Japanese adopted European dress after having organised themselves in
a European fashion. The Chinese did the same, and after them the
Siamese. In so doing, all of them have succumbed to the mystique
of the influence of outward appearances on inner transformations.
Backward peoples have always thought, upon their first encounter with
European civilisation, or at least with European organisation, that they
had to adopt exterior manners in order to affirm their desire to equal
the European in the eyes of the world and in their own eyes.
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Question de costume’ (The question of dress), AN (3 November
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Turning to Vietnam, Vinh regretted the slow transition to Western
styled clothing. He admitted that a certain standardisation was occur-
ring thanks to the dress code required of bureaucrats and soldiers.
He saw in the adoption of Western clothes and styles an increase in
civilisational status for Vietnam, closer to that of the Europeans and
further from what he saw as backward Vietnamese practices and cus-
toms. However, changes in dress had to go hand-in-hand with shifts
in ways of thinking. Vinh deplored social misfits who dressed in West-
ern garb, but who were more interested in social acceptance by the
French than in the modernisation of thought that should accompany
this sartorial change. In this context, one can better understand why
Nguyen Van Vinh was so keen to transform Molière’s M. Jourdain
into a status-seeking, ridiculously dressed mandarin. Like Phan Chu
Trinh, Nguyen Van Vinh also attacked what he saw as out-dated feu-
dal rituals (the lay
in particular) of the mandarins and their king. For
Vinh, civilised Vietnam had to follow the examples of independent
Thailand, Turkey, China and Japan. Like Vietnamese cadres slipping
into slick Western suits today, the same ones dressing up ‘hill-tribes’
in colourful garb for foreign tourists,
Vinh regretted terribly that for-
eigners continued to see Vietnamese dressed in tunics and traditional
garb, observing them like museum pieces from the past (‘spectacles amu-
sants pour les Européens’, as he wrote).
Westernisation was ineluctable,
even a good thing he argued, in order to demonstrate the develop-
ment and advanced nature of the nation and its place in a wider
There are thus profound reasons behind the changes adopted by the
Turks, the Egyptians, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Siamese, in both
the details and in the whole of their traditional dress. It is a step
towards the unity of man in the manifestations of his collective life,
to the chagrin of fans of the picturesque and of local colour.
However, clothing was not enough. Nguyen Van Vinh wanted to
show the French that the Vietnamese could be just as civilised as them
in the fine arts. His desire to stage Molière’s Le malade imaginaire with
Vietnamese actors in the early 1920s was specifically conceived, at
least in part, to show the French that the Vietnamese were entirely
capable of understanding and interpreting this complex piece of
Western culture. As an internal French police report even conceded:
A type of low bow with joined hands.
Similar to the Euro-Americans who liked to dress their ‘Indians’ in traditional
garb for photo opportunities, world fairs and museum objects.
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Question de costume’.
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Question de costume’.
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 23.
Vinh’s version of Molière’s work had the ‘aim of showing the French
population in Annam that the inhabitants of this country know just
as well as [the French] how to appreciate the works of Molière and
other famous [Western] writers’.
Culture was a weapon for erasing
the humiliation of colonial domination.
Nguyen Van Vinh had similar ideas in mind in putting Kim van kieu
on the big screen. As he wrote in the Trung bac tan van, this film showed
the French and the world that the Vietnamese were not a ‘savage
race’ (going moi ro). This film would allow the Vietnamese ‘to let the
world know’ that the Vietnamese were also ‘a part of humanity’, and
not a primitive or backward people. Interestingly, he added that the
film was one of the newest, fastest and effective ways to get Vietnam’s
Of course, Nguyen Van Vinh, like many others across Asia, Europe
and elsewhere, was buying into the Western definition of ‘civility’,
‘civilisation’ and ‘manners’.
And for those who focus on the ‘pre-
colonial’ period or on the uniqueness of Vietnamese tradition, culture
or identity, Nguyen Van Vinh’s westernising programme might seem
strange, superficial, or even annoying. All the same, I still think that
Vinh should be taken seriously, for he was not alone in his thinking.
Indeed, one should not forget that similar ideas linking ‘civilisation’,
‘Westernisation’, ‘modernisation’ and ‘nationalism’ could be found in
Japan, Thailand, China, and even in the United States.
tion of Western culture, manners and dress modes in Meiji-era Japan
provides revealing comparisons (as does the West’s borrowing from
Asia for centuries). For young Meiji nationalists, adopting Western
methods was seen as a way of establishing civilisational parity with
the Western powers themselves.
The cultural policy of the ‘New
Life’ programme in Republican China also comes to mind. In South-
east Asia, one need only think of the ‘cultural mandates’ adopted by
Pibul Songkram at the end of the 1930s, which called on the Thais to
wear western clothing, greet each other with a friendly ‘hello’ (sawat-
Armée du Rhin, ‘Au sujet du journaliste et imprimeur Nguyen Van Vinh’, p. 1.
Nguyen Van Vinh, Trung Bac Tan Van, cited in Quoc Anh, ‘Nguoi Viet Nam dau
tien co vu cho dien anh’.
On the process of civilisation and culture, see the classic work of Norbert
Elias, Civilisation des mœurs (Civilisation of Manners) (Paris, Calmann-Lévy, 1999), 2nd
Harvey Levenstein, Seductive Journey: American Tourists in France from Jefferson to the
Jazz Age, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 3–84.
See the excellent study of Lionel Babicz, Le Japon face à la Corée à l’époque Meiji
(Japan and its Relations with Korea during the Meiji Era) (Paris, Maisonneuve &
Larose, 2002), Chapters 4–7.
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 24.
dii), or kiss their wives goodbye on the cheek before going off to work.
For Pibul, these were all signs of ‘civilisation’ (siwilai). In fact, some
of the literary, artistic and manner changes that we find in colonial
Vietnam are remarkably similar to those occurring in Thailand and
no doubt Meiji Japan.
The Westernisation of a country did not nec-
essarily require direct European colonial intervention
—even if, fas-
cinatingly, Meiji-era Japan behaved exactly like the European colo-
nial powers when they were in Korea, delivering a remarkably simi-
lar mission civilisatrice.
Thus what Nguyen Van Vinh was doing with
discourses on ‘progress’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘modernity’ was not just a
Franco-Vietnamese or francophonie affair.
The complex intersections
that occurred in colonial Vietnam were therefore part of a larger his-
torical process of global interactions accelerated during the colonial
period, but which, it should never be forgotten, had long existed in
Asia before the ‘arrival’ of the West.
It is in this context of van minh,
I think, that one should also judge Nguyen Van Vinh’s attacks on tra-
ditional society and culture, as well has his proto-nationalist desire to
establish civilisational equality with the coloniser and the rest of the
‘modern world’. His desire to wear Western clothes, a colonial hat,
For more on the question of civilisation in Thailand, see the excellent article
by Thongchai Winichakul, ‘The quest for “Siwilai”: a geographical discourse of civ-
ilizational thinking in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Siam’, The Journal
of Asian Studies, Vol. 59, No. 3 (2000), pp. 528–549, as well as Annette Hamilton’s
article in Craig J. Reynolds (ed.), National Identity and Its Defenders, Thailand, 1939–
1989 (Clayton: Monash University, 1991). Most studies (especially those in French)
put the French colonisation of Indochina in a problematical and geographical vac-
uum, cut off from Asia, and anchored in a schematically ‘francophone’ framework,
too often isolated from comparisons of a larger scope. Two excellent exceptions:
the multidisciplinary study of Denys Lombard (ed.), Rêver l’Asie: Exotisme et littéra-
ture coloniale (Dreaming of Asia: Exoticism and Colonial Literature) (Paris: EHESS,
1993) and Claudine Salmon (ed.), Récits de voyage des Asiatiques: genres, mentalités, concep-
tion de l’espace (Asian Travelogues: Genres, Mentalities, Conceptions of Space) (Paris:
I will treat the subject of French and Vietnamese perceptions of non-colonial
modernisation in Thailand and Japan elsewhere.
Gi-Wook Shin and Michael Robinson (eds), Colonial Modernity in Korea (Cam-
bridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
Like Siam at the time, Vietnam could have developed without the direct
colonisation of France, or else under the aegis of another European power. France
was never destined to colonise Vietnam. For more about Thailand, see the excellent
article by Thongchai Winichakul, ‘The quest for “Siwilai”’, pp. 528–549.
A type of modernising globalisation that even France has not escaped in
the face of other ‘imperialisms’ or ‘mondialisations’. See: Hubert Védrine and
Dominique Moïsi, Les cartes de la France à l’heure de la mondialisation (France in an Age
of Globalisation) (Paris: Fayard, 2000; English translation, Washington: Brookings
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 25.
or to speak French with his Vietnamese friends may have been more
than showing off or a symbolic desire to be French instead of Viet-
Interestingly, many Vietnamese, not least of all Nguyen Van Vinh
and Pham Quynh, took the French discourse on civilization which
had so troubled them, linked it to a pre-existing Vietnamese sense
of regional cultural superiority, and came up with their own dis-
course of civilisational superiority in relation to the Lao, the Khmer
and other colonised ethnic groups sharing Indochina with them.
For constructing a discourse on civilisation also meant having favor-
able comparisons to lesser developed peoples.
While France justified
her domination over Vietnam by the superiority of Western civili-
sation and modernity, Nguyen Van Vinh and others defended their
French-favoured position in colonial Indochina by arguing that they
were more ‘modern’, ‘advanced’ and ‘progressive’ than the other
Indochinese members. This gave the Vietnamese a privileged place
within the Franco-Vietnamese development of colonial Indochina
and allowed them to say that they were superior to those much
In response to a Khmer nationalist’s opposition to
Vietnamese immigration to Cambodia, the Annam nouveau responded
that the Vietnamese had come to Cambodia for the same Darwinist
reasons that the Europeans had gone into Asia and the Japanese into
Manchuria in 1931: ‘Unless the Cambodians want to remain isolated
like savages in central Africa, it is in their interest to receive with open
arms all the messengers of civilisation [meaning the Vietnamese].
Such does not seem to be the way of thinking of several of them
This complex idea of civilisation clearly cut in
A very pertinent analysis of this complex question of civilisation was done by
Norbert Elias, Civilisation des mœurs. That said, it would be interesting to know what
Vietnamese, Chinese, Koreans and other Asians sent to the European fronts of WWI
thought of this butchery. Clearly, Elias’ view of a progressive amelioration of Western
civilisation had regressed barbarically. See: Stéphane Audoin-Rouzeau and Annette
Becker, 14–18: retrouver la guerre (Paris: Gallimard, 2000), pp. 44–50. Nguyen Van Vinh
was in France during WWI, interpreting for Vietnamese soldiers. I do not know if
this contradiction struck him. It does not seem so.
Thongchai Winichakul, ‘The quest for “Siwilai”’, pp. 528–549. Alexander
Woodside, again, has some illuminating thoughts on earlier periods of Vietnamese
history. Alexander Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese Model (Cambridge, Mass., Har-
vard University Press, 1988), p. 235.
For Pham Quynh and Nguyen Van Vinh’s thinking on this matter, see: Goscha,
Vietnam or Indochina?
Hy Tong, ‘Que se passe-t-il au Cambodge?’ (What is happening in Cambodia?), AN
(20 August 1933); and also Goscha, Vietnam or Indochina?
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 26.
many directions. And how the French colonial discourse hooked up
with more ancient Vietnamese notions of civilising missions is one of
its more interesting offshoots. The other, of course, was the modernist
communist ideology young Vietnamese spread in their revolutionary
missions in Laos and Cambodia, and this well into the 1950s.
hierarchic Western conceptualising of civilisation might seem absurd
in this day of ‘Asian values’ and ‘clash of civilisations’. However, it was
a real concern for many at the time and a complex cultural process
that merits much greater attention, even today.
Interestingly, just as unfortunate misunderstandings between Viet-
namese and the Khmer weakened the Vietnamese civilising discourse
in western Indochina, so too did ‘Franco-Annamese collaboration’
suffer from colonial encounters pointing up the inherent inequality
between the coloniser and colonised, civilised or not. One such inci-
dent (it was not the first one for Nguyen Van Vinh) came to the
fore in 1933, when a fight broke out between Vietnamese and French
movie-goers in the Cinéma Majestic. Nguyen Van Vinh lamented this
painful incident in print, arguing implicitly that it stemmed from a
form of colonial racism. He asked everyone to consider all sides of
the issue before pinning the blame on the Vietnamese simply because
they were Vietnamese. He asked the French to abandon their colonial
superiority, which was at the root of this sort of humiliating problem.
But what really hurt Nguyen Van Vinh was that shortly after the pub-
lication of his article, he received an official warning from the colonial
government accusing him of being ‘anti-French’ in his writings on this
Vinh could not understand such an unfair label: ‘By golly,
it is a handy term, and clever is he who will come and give us a defini-
tion of the word anti-French’. He finished by saying that ‘the day when
all the French living here will accept that all malice be punished, from
wherever it comes, even from a Frenchman; that the Annamese are
also human beings; that they must react individually to unjust aggres-
sions; and that in so doing they will have all good Frenchmen with
them, then on that day Franco-Vietnamese collaboration will cease to
be a meaningless term’.
Colonial ‘civilisation’ thus had serious con-
For more on this subject, see my ‘Vietnam and the world outside: the case
of Vietnamese Communist advisors in Laos (1948–1962)’, South East Asia Research, in
press. Communist Vietnamese modernisers were well aware of the civilising discourse
of Nguyen Van Vinh regarding Western Indochina. See: Van Kien Dang, Vol. II (Party
Documents) (Hanoi: Nha Xuat Ban Su That, 1977), pp. 476–477.
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Autour d’un incident pénible’ (On a painful incident), AN (15
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Antifrançais’ (Anti-French), AN (27 August 1933).
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Rapprochement’ (Reconciliation), AN (6 July 1933).
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 27.
tradictions, precisely because the French and the Vietnamese were
not equal. And Nguyen Van Vinh knew it.
Nevertheless, Vinh’s conviction that the modernisation of Vietnam
could only happen via an alliance with the French corresponded
with the official colonial credo. And this concordance facilitated
French efforts to ‘associate’ Vietnamese like him to the French colo-
nial project in Indochina, especially since the French were not the
only ones who wanted to gain the confidence of the Vietnamese.
Nguyen Van Vinh and the Colonial Roots of French Francophonie
French civilisation was not the only choice available to the Viet-
namese during the colonial period. And French colonial administra-
tors of the time were perfectly aware of this.
Indeed, the desire of the
French to accelerate this cultural influence in Vietnam after World
War I stemmed from the fear that their culture and ideas were not
reaching enough Vietnamese elites and certainly not the masses. In
fact, they worried that other cultures, both the Chinese and Anglo-
German ones, could exert potentially greater influence over the Viet-
namese. And the French decision to bet on Nguyen Van Vinh is the
best proof of this.
Governor-General Albert Sarraut (mandates: 1911–1913, 1917–1919)
and his director of political affairs, Louis Marty, were determined to
prevent German propaganda and Chinese influence from reaching
the Vietnamese elite via Chinese translations and Chinese cultural
bonds that continued to link Vietnam to the outside world in spite of
the French colonial state. Sarraut informed the Ministry of Colonies
that Asians in general and Vietnamese in particular still knew lit-
tle about France: ‘English being the only European language that
is widely used in the Far East’, he wrote, ‘editors of Chinese books
in Shanghai and other ports can only find good translators for this
language among their compatriots’. By extension, the Chinese trans-
lations that continued to make their way into Vietnam did not spread
information about France, but rather about other European coun-
tries, the British and the Germans.
Sarraut was shocked to learn that much of what the Vietnamese
knew about the world and Europe still came from non-French publi-
cations, like Kang Youwei’s (K’ang-Yeou-Wei) multi-volume account
of his voyage to Europe. To support his argument, Sarraut cited a
See: McHale, Print and Power, Chapter 1.
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 28.
report from the Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient penned by Noël
Péri in 1911 on the exams taken by the mandarins. This report
revealed that the French were not the ‘masters of public opinion’. Péri
and others explained that Chinese publications still loomed large on
the shelves of local mandarin libraries in upper Vietnam. More wor-
rying, ‘the works of K’ang-Yeou-Wei continued to be in great demand
and circulated throughout the colony, despite the prohibitions that
had imposed a ban on all Chinese pamphlets, whatever they be’.
The translation into Chinese of scores of German works only rein-
forced these fears during World War I.
This was the context within which Sarraut and a remarkable
team of Vietnamese specialists recruited francophone intellectuals like
Pham Quynh, Bui Quang Chieu, and Nguyen Van Vinh to promote
French works in Indochina and weaken foreign influences on this
Vietnamese ‘public opinion’ still operating outside of French colo-
nial control. Sarraut’s team placed these Vietnamese at the head
of major government-backed newspapers, such as the Nam phong for
Pham Quynh, La tribune indigène for Bui Quang Chieu and Dong duong
tap chi and then the Trung bac tan van for Nguyen Van Vinh. Sarraut
relied in particular on Marty and Schneider to implement a ‘method-
ical plan’ to sever Vietnam from its Asian context and to block non-
French influences from reaching Vietnamese elites. Instead they were
to favour the promotion of French cultural projects in Indochina. The
French wanted to make French culture, literature, modernisation, and
civilisation known to the Vietnamese, and, most importantly, in Viet-
namese. Sarraut’s team needed quickly to fill in the gap of ‘incompre-
hension’ that separated these two peoples, as Vayrac’s opening cita-
tion to this article pointed up.
Even after the war, the importance of making modern France
known in Asia and in Vietnam remained a colonial priority. Marty
reminded Sarraut in March 1919 that, ‘in modern Chinese literature,
books inspired by post eighteenth century French works, or transla-
tions of them, are extremely rare. In contrast, the Far East is over-
flowing with books on all subjects translated from English or from
German.’ Marty hailed Sarraut’s decision to ‘create and develop in
collaboration with M. Schneider, French propaganda organs written
in the national Annamese language and which have immediately won
over public favour. These are the organs which need to be maintained
while simultaneously completing the organisation of our propaganda
‘Le Gouverneur-Général de l’Indochine à M. le Ministre des Colonies’ (The Governor
General of Indochina to the Minister of Colonies), 15 September 1917, Collection
Indochine, Gouverneur Général de l’Indochine, 65409, CAOM.
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 29.
institutions’. For Marty, these propaganda institutions had to func-
tion ‘in an independent manner in appearance, but under the very
close control of the Government of the Colony and its local admin-
istrations’. It was imperative, he said, that they ‘inform and instruct’.
In short, they were designed above all to make France known to the
Vietnamese and in their language, as well as French modernity and
culture and the importance of the mère patrie in the world. What was
needed was an official propaganda outlet for the colonised:
Our subjects and protégés need to have at their disposal an infor-
mational paper, one which can inform them precisely, with explica-
tive commentaries that satisfy their legitimate curiosity, without any
unwholesome or tendentious insinuations, about the overall situation
of the country as well as external affairs. It is also necessary that the
government be able to bring about, through intelligent advertising,
the preparation of a number of administrative measures and reforms
that will be even better accepted [by the Vietnamese masses] in that
they will have been well explained and better understood. This organ
[…] must have an essentially educative role. It must allow the indige-
nous [Vietnamese] to understand the utility and the intensity of the
immense labour that is being done for their own good. They must also
learn to always know better France, her generous ideas, the works of
her thinkers and philosophers. It must in a word contribute to bringing
them to realize very clearly that the protecting Nation [France] is not
taking them for a ride. If it is sufficiently developed, it must work to
create imperceptibly a genuine public spirit.
The colonial state needed Nguyen Van Vinh. Vayrac, a censor of the
press in Tonkin, had recruited Nguyen Van Vinh for this project and
was one of his close friends. In 1937, he explained the basis of this
French propaganda and the role of Nguyen Van Vinh in it in an
internal report entitled: ‘The efforts undertaken in Tonkin over the
previous twenty-five years to furnish good reading to the Annamese’.
If we can believe Vayrac, well before World War I, Nguyen Van
Vinh had actually been more interested in translating the works of
eighteenth century French political thinkers than the comedies of
Molière and the satires of the preceding century. Vayrac did not hide
the fact that Vinh had first ‘translated those French philosophers who
paved the way for the Revolution. We came to believe that he had
made six or seven successive translations of the Contrat social, which
circulated in secret’. Vayrac did his best ‘in conversations to persuade
[Nguyen Van Vinh] that these were not the works he should translate
‘L. Marty à M. Gouverneur Général de l’Indochine’ (L. Marty to the Governor
General of Indochina), 3 March 1919, Collection Indochine, Gouverneur Général
de l’Indochine, d. 65407, CAOM. See also: Agathe Larcher-Goscha, ‘La légitimation
française en Indochine’, Vol. I, pp. 122–131.
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 30.
first, for the Annamese, in their present state of evolution, could not
gain any benefit from them’. Vayrac claimed to have ‘taken years
to convince M. Vinh that he should start with books which were
universally admired and translated into all languages, like the Fables of
La Fontaine and Perrault’s Contes’.
It is clear that Nguyen Van Vinh
did not choose all the Western works he translated. It is clear, too,
that the French did not want the revolutionary side of their national
literature and cultural patrimony to be distributed in Vietnamese for
fear of the challenges it could pose to their colonial rule. The major
cultural works of the seventeenth century were apparently much more
appropriate for the colonised. There were thus limits on which parts
of French francophone literature could be broadcast in the colonies in
a time of colonisation.
Vayrac explained that Vinh had already founded and run several
periodicals in quoc ngu and in Chinese characters; that he had briefly
run the Imprimerie tonkinoise; and that he had even been determined
to publish a newspaper in quoc ngu, without colonial authorization,
‘in order to get himself arrested and cause a scandal’. It was at
this point that Vayrac stepped in and managed to convince Vinh
to move one step closer to him and to the colonial government,
which recognised that ‘there was a force to be used [in Nguyen Van
Vinh], but in an orderly and legal way’. This overture to Nguyen Van
Vinh coincided with Sarraut’s desire to put an end to foreign cultural
and political influences in Vietnamese minds by promoting French
culture and civilisation via the Vietnamese language itself. Nguyen
Van Vinh was their man for upper Vietnam. Since Sarraut’s first
mandate, Schneider and Vinh had already worked together to run
the Dong Duong Tap Chi, and then moved on to the Trung Bac Tan Van.
Vayrac stated clearly that, ‘M. Vinh had finally found his calling. He
would become the translator of the great works of French literature’.
Working under Sarraut since the Governor General’s first mandate,
Schneider had promoted French propaganda (that was the word)
through the use of quoc ngu. After World War I, this program would
continue in French and in Vietnamese in order to reach the massive
non-French-speaking Vietnamese readership. Louis Marty took over
from Schneider after the war.
‘Rapport au sujet des efforts faits au Tonkin depuis vingt-cinq ans environ pour fournir de
bonnes lectures aux Annamites’ (Report on the efforts undertaken in Tonkin over the
previous twenty-five years to provide good reading for the Annamese), 17 February
1937, signed E. Vayrac, Chef du Bureau des Publications Indigènes, RSTF/NF, d.
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 31.
Indeed, the role given to Nguyen Van Vinh in the promotion of
French culture in Vietnamese was primarily due to the French fear of
seeing ‘Asian opinion’ grow to their detriment in Vietnam, especially
if it was manipulated by other Western powers (like the Germans
during the World War I). There is thus a political side to Nguyen Van
Vinh’s cultural and literary career that cannot be ignored. Looking
back on this period in 1931, Nguyen Van Vinh explained that his
role had been to contribute to the development of a Vietnamese
public sphere, since it was true that ‘Chinese language newspapers,
if not dealing specifically with Annamese issues, still engendered an
Asian opinion with regard to the European imperialist powers’.
Moreover, well after World War I, Chinese characters continued to
occupy an important place among Vietnamese intellectuals, writers
and even readers. Until the end of the 1920s, for example, the French
used Nguyen Van Vinh to ‘fight against the invasion of Chinese
novels’ by creating for him the translation and publishing collection,
Lectures Tonkinoises. In 1927 and 1928, Résident Supérieur René Robin
founded the Almanach annamite and the collection of translations La
pensée de l’occident already mentioned with exactly the same idea in
mind. Robin put Vinh at the head of both collections and each
was financed by the colonial state. However, severing the link with
the Chinese-influenced world was not going to be an easy task.
Into the 1930s, according to Vayrac, many Vietnamese continued to
read Chinese almanacs printed in Guangzhou or Shanghai. They
were, Vayrac claimed, published in the ‘hundreds of thousands and
undoubtedly millions of copies’. A large number of these Chinese
almanacs sold in Indochina for as little as ten or twelve cents. Vayrac
explained in his report that ‘only the administration [could] finance
an affair that appear[ed] in such disastrous conditions’. The French
administration bought and distributed most of Nguyen Van Vinh’s
almanacs in the course of this politico-cultural war, while La pensée
de l’occident published 65,000 volumes of translations, and 1,800,000
short pamphlet translations, of which one million were distributed
free thanks to the colonial state.
The pre-existing Asian context underpinning Vietnamese civili-
ation would not disappear overnight. Unable to make themselves
understood by the Vietnamese ‘masses’, colonial administrators had
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘La presse indigène libre’, AN (20 April, 1931).
From the ‘Rapport au sujet des efforts faits au Tonkin’ pp. 9–11. ‘In all, La Pensée de
l’Occident published 1,800,000 pamphlets of excellent translations, of which 1,000,000
were distributed free of charge, and 65,000 volumes.’ These numbers seem wildly
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 32.
to redouble their efforts to promote French culture and progress. In
other words, colonial Westernisation had its limits, as Denys Lombard
has correctly pointed out, even for the French in Indochina.
why knowledge of France, its language and the transmission of its
works in eastern Indochina had to be carried out as much in French
as in Vietnamese. And this is what made both translation and Nguyen
Van Vinh such powerful tools for diffusing colonial propaganda and
Vayrac, who knew the situation from the inside, conceded
as much, as we saw in the introductory citation to this article. And
this is why he felt even greater sadness upon learning of the death
of his close friend, Nguyen Van Vinh. One cannot deny the effects
of French culture and language in Vietnam during the colonial era,
especially in the cities and among the youth who were much more
versed in French by the 1930s. However, one cannot claim either that
the French language and culture immediately took hold in colonial
Vietnam by displacing pre-existing forms, for it did not.
decision to develop a colonial francophonie project emerged precisely
because Vietnamese knowledge of the French, their culture, and their
oeuvres was not sufficiently developed and broadcast, and because the
French were not the only ones competing for Vietnamese hearts and
minds. French colonisers (like their British and Japanese counterparts
elsewhere) badly needed ‘Nguyen Van Vinhs’ to ‘bridge this total
incomprehension’ between two different peoples, to counter compet-
ing influences to the French colonial presence, and to anchor French
colonisation and civilisation in a foreign soil, one with a foundation
in Asia and not in the West. Colonial modernity was complex; nor
was its success a foregone conclusion. And culture was also a weapon.
Nguyen Van Vinh knew this, too.
Denys Lombard, Le carrefour javanais, I: les limites de l’occidentalisation (The Javanese
Crossroads, I: The Limits of Westernisation), introduction.
Paradoxically, Vinh perhaps did more to spread French culture in Vietnam
during the colonial era than later francophone Vietnamese writers would do during
the period of decolonisation. The fact that he introduced French language and
culture into Vietnam in the Vietnamese language and not in French is perhaps
why Nguyen Van Vinh, even to this day, does not appear in the histories of French
‘francophonie’, which were more concerned with works in the French language. The
case of Nguyen Van Vinh suggests that the dissemination of French culture and
language in Vietnam came through other means than, justement, the French language
Even less so in Laos and Cambodia, where we find relatively little French
influence and little interest in this modernity of which Nguyen Van Vinh and so
many other Vietnamese dreamt.
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 33.
It seems, however, that Nguyen Van Vinh was caught somewhere
between the past and the present towards the end of his life, not
knowing exactly which path to take in the end. The fact that he
was financially destitute did not make things easier. Vinh still believed
in Western modernisation and in the concomitant development of
a new Vietnamese civilisation. Indeed, he provides us with a good
example of someone who conceived of the modernisation of Viet-
nam in colonial terms, and illustrates the difficulties that arise with
such a position. In the early 1930s, when Chiang Kai-shek turned
to ‘traditional’ Confucian cultural politics in opposition to the hyper-
Westernisation then in fashion in urban China, Nguyen Van Vinh
responded in an essay that it would indeed be necessary to renovate
and develop a new and modern form of Confucianism in Vietnam, a
sort of state ideology, but one which would be closely linked to ‘sci-
entific progress’. Confucianism, Vinh stressed, would make a great
contribution to Asian peoples because it contained the merit of allow-
ing ‘extraordinary stability’.
He would never have said that twenty
years earlier, but then again the Indochinese colony had just been
rocked by nationalist revolts in 1930 and 1931 and a large fraction of
increasingly Westernised Vietnamese youths were defecting to more
radical politics—nationalism and communism being the most impor-
Ironically, French colonial administrators who felt deeply Viet-
namese after decades in Vietnam would try to push tradition and
authenticity long before they were forced to under Vichy. Shaken
by the nationalist rebellions of 1930 and worried by what he saw as
a young generation of ‘uprooted’ Westernised Vietnamese (déracinés),
Pierre Pasquier turned towards the past, towards the Annam d’autrefois
(Annam of yesteryear), when he began to bring back Confucianism
and the monarchy, whose power and authority the French had them-
selves undermined. This occurred as young Vietnamese, under the
impetus of Nguyen Van Vinh and others, were demanding new polit-
ical institutions, more Western in style, to create a Nouveau Annam and
a real national culture. One should not be surprised to find that Vinh
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Mouvement de la nouvelle vie en Chine’ (The New Life movement
in China), AN (11 October 1934).
christopher e. goscha
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 34.
and others were enthusiastic supporters of the Siamese revolution
of 1932 and the fall of the absolute monarchy there in favour of a
This tension between ‘modernisation’ and ‘Westernisation’ on the
one hand and the need to rethink ‘tradition’ and ‘authenticity’ on the
other was not unique to Vietnam. The difference is that in the con-
text of French colonial domination, of censorship and surveillance,
Vietnamese intellectuals did not have the real chance to ‘nationalize’
these borrowings from the West, like their Japanese or Thai neighbors
could. The Vietnamese did not run their own country independently,
since the French had claimed that role for themselves. Nguyen Van
Vinh could not become an independent minister of culture in Viet-
nam like the famous Vichit Vathakan in Thailand. There could be no
Japanese kokugaku let alone kokutai in colonial Vietnam, because such
nationalist policies, even in cultural forms, would have inevitably been
tagged as anti-français.
The ‘nationalising’ of Western modernity in
Vietnam similar to that in Japan or in Thailand could not fully take
place until colonial control had been relaxed or overthrown. Nguyen
Van Vinh seems to have grasped this conundrum towards the end of
But by the early 1930s, for all of his self-assurance and zeal, Nguyen
Van Vinh did not know really which way to turn. Broke and sidelined
by the French with the resurrection of the monarchy, Nguyen Van
Vinh was tired and perhaps increasingly bitter. Let us end this study
of a complex character placed within a complex colonial situation by
giving him the last word. Perhaps he will be better able to reveal to
us the nature of the dilemma of colonial modernity. In 1934, he wrote
to the reformist scholar Huynh Thuc Khang of his predicament. He
used the third person to reflect on his personal odyssey:
It is the gulf separating the real scholar that I am but who no longer
believes in the ideas and the methods of the past from that of the
modern barbarian I believe myself to be. The product of a mixed and
incomplete education, I tried to find something real in this same past,
one which I certainly do not know as well as M. Huynh Thuc Khang.
The [latter] appeared nonetheless to me as an unsuspecting source of
life and light. We crossed paths on the same road and each of us claims
‘La leçon de la révolution siamoise’ (The lesson of the Siamese revolution), AN (3 July
One has to applaud the new Alliance Française in Hanoi for organising in the
summer of 2003 and to a packed house a reading of one of Nguyen Huy Thiep’s
latest novels—in Vietnamese and French and with Nguyen Huy Thiep centre-stage.
Nguyen Van Vinh dreamed of such a day.
‘the modern barbarian’
EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 35.
to be on the right path precisely because it is not yet known. But since,
after all, we are both going in search of the truth, it is not imperative
that we have to take the same road.
Institut d’Asie Orientale, Lyon
Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Une réponse de M. Huynh-Thuc-Khang’ (A response to Mr
Huynh Thuc Khang), AN (22 May 1934). My thanks to Agathe Larcher-Goscha for
sharing this document with me.