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© Brill, Leiden, 2004


Also available online—www.brill.nl

EJEAS 3.1. Proef 1. 9-4-2004:14.51, page 1.






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.


It was


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

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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’.

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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

serious problems.


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,


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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.

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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

of both.

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-

cultural project.


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.

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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

en Indochine’.


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),

pp. 82–157.

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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

twentieth century.

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’.


He married

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.

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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

printing press.


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


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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

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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.

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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

Chau Trinh’.


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

rompus’, 2003).

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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-

side writes:

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

30,000 copies.


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

April 1931).


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

many others.

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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

monarchical system.

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

Annam nouveau.


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

February 1933).


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

November 1933).

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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

and 3.


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

civilised order:

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’.

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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

message heard.


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.


The adapta-

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.

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christopher e. goscha

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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:

EFEO/EHESS, 1996).


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

Institution, 2003).

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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

needed ‘others’.


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

[the Cambodians]’.


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?

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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

June 1933).


Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Antifrançais’ (Anti-French), AN (27 August 1933).


Nguyen Van Vinh, ‘Rapprochement’ (Reconciliation), AN (6 July 1933).

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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.

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christopher e. goscha

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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.

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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.

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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.

05219, CAOM.

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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


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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.


This is

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.


The French

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.

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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).

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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

‘salutary democracy’.


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

his life.

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.

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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.