The Making of Postcolonial Vietnam, 1919-1950
By MARK PHILIP BRADLEY
The United States
In the winter and spring of 1919, as the Paris Peace Conference deliberated over the postwar peace settlement for Europe, members of the Vietnamese expatriate association known as the Groupe des Patriotes Annamites often gathered in a small Parisian apartment in the thirteenth arrondissement. Inspired by the Wilsonian rhetoric of self-determination, the focus of their meetings was to draft a proposal for the gradual emancipation of Vietnam from French colonial rule to present to the leaders of the Great Powers in Paris. The final document, titled "Revendications du Peuple Annamite," set forth an eight-point program that included calls for a general amnesty for political prisoners, equality of legal rights between French and Vietnamese, freedom of the press, the right to form political associations, and permanent Vietnamese representation in the French parliament.
Although the drafting of the proposal had been a collective effort that included the participation of Phan Chu Trinh, among the most famous and influential of Vietnamese anticolonial leaders, the "Revendications" bore the signature of a relative unknown, Nguyen Ai Quoc, or Nguyen the Patriot. Shortly before the deliberations in Paris came to a close, the Groupe des Patriotes Annamites submitted its "Revendications" to the heads of various national delegations, including President Woodrow Wilson, asking that their proposals be added to the conference agenda. Their request was ignored.
Some twenty-five years later, Nguyen Ai Quoc, who reemerged on the Vietnamese political stage as Ho Chi Minh, would again pursue American support, this time as the leader of the communist-led Viet Minh movement that sought independence from the French during World War II. The passage of a quarter-century, however, fundamentally transformed the nature and aims of Vietnamese anticolonialism. The refusal of the Paris conference to consider the relatively modest demands of the Groupe des Patriotes Annamites marked the eclipse of a generation of scholar-gentry patriots, such as Phan Chu Trinh, who had embraced Social Darwinism and new currents of neo-Confucian thought to apprehend the humiliation of French conquest and chart a path of indigenous societal reform and anticolonial resistance. In their place arose a younger generation of anticolonial activists in the 1920s who conceived a more radical critique of Vietnamese society and French colonialism. By the 1930s, Marxist-Leninist internationalism had become the driving force in Vietnamese anticolonialism.
Just as the spirit of Wilsonianism hovered over the drafting of the "Revendications" by the Groupe des Patriotes Annamites in 1919, the United States occupied a persistent though often elliptical role in the transformation and radicalization of Vietnamese anticolonial thought and politics. Although Ho Chi Minh visited New York City in 1912, rarely, if ever, did most Vietnamese political elites encounter America or Americans directly. Reflecting the importance of East Asia and Europe as the primary source of foreign influence on Vietnam under French colonial rule, Vietnamese perceptions of the United States were refracted through Chinese, Japanese, French, and Russian commentaries on American history and society. Viewed at such a distance, an imagined America came to represent the shifting currents and tensions in Vietnamese anticolonial thought. As Ho Chi Minh and the leaders of the Viet Minh embarked on their path to power and Vietnamese independence in the 1940s, the legacies of the anticolonial political discourse under French colonial rule, and the place of America in it, would frame their vision of national liberation and the nature of their diplomacy with the United States.
Between Neo-Confucianism and Social Darwinism
Vietnamese images of the United States first emerged through the Reform Movement, which dominated anticolonialism in Vietnam during the early decades of the twentieth century. Members of the generation of elites that led the Reform Movement were born in the 1860s and early 1870s into scholar-gentry families often from north and north-central Vietnam. Like their fathers and grandfathers before them, they had studied Chinese classical texts in preparation for the imperial examinations that would enable them to enter government service and symbolically mark their right to rule as virtuous Confucian "superior men" (quantu). The examination system, reflecting centuries of cultural borrowing from the Chinese, inculcated Confucian values into the political culture of Vietnamese elites and served as the foundation of the administrative structure through which the Nguyen emperors had ruled Vietnam since 1802. Prizing stability over change and viewing the wider non-Confucian world beyond East Asia with suspicion and derision, it was a profoundly conservative political and social order that proved unable to withstand the French colonial challenge in the late nineteenth century.
Members of the reform generation, who came of age in the 1880s at the time of the French conquest of northern Vietnam, watched as the slow French enervation of Vietnamese political, economic, and social life undermined the neo-Confucian premises that had shaped their view of the world. For these young men, the failure of scholar-gentry resistance to French conquest, like the Aid the King (Can Vuong) Movement in which many of their fathers had played a leading role, demonstrated that Confucian principles alone provided an inadequate response to French rule and heightened the urgency of reversing what they termed "the loss of country" or "national extinction" (mat nuoc; vong quoc). As the author of one reform poem asked of the situation Vietnam faced under the onslaught of French colonialism,
Why is the roof over the Western universe the broad lands and skies,
While we cower and confine ourselves to a cranny in our house?
Why can they run straight, leap far,
While we shrink back and cling to each other?
Why do they rule the world,
While we bow our heads as slaves?
To explain Vietnam's predicament and formulate a new vision for the reconstruction and transformation of Vietnamese society, the reform generation increasingly looked outside their own tradition. For the first time, the European and American historical experience became a major part of Vietnamese political discourse. Reformers were captivated by the philosophical writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Montesquieu; the nation-building efforts of Peter the Great, Giuseppe Garibaldi, and Otto von Bismarck; and the inventiveness of James Watt. Americans, including figures such as George Washington, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Edison, were also widely celebrated as deserving emulation by the Vietnamese. Among the most compelling Western thinkers for the Reform Movement was Herbert Spencer. To Vietnamese reformers, Social Darwinism offered a powerful explanation for the weaknesses in traditional society that had led to Vietnam's domination by the French. It also pointed to the strengths of the West that offered a potential path for Vietnam's future.
Significantly, Social Darwinism, or what reformers more broadly termed the "European wind and American rain" (gio Au mua My), entered Vietnam indirectly. Unable to read European or American texts themselves, Vietnamese reformers encountered Western thought and experiences in the writings of Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and K'ang Yu-wei, the leading intellectual advocates of self-strengthening reforms in China, and through what they came to know about the reform of Japanese society under the Meiji restoration. Discussions of the West in works by Chinese self-strengtheners in particular were a revelation to Vietnamese reformers whose training in the Chinese classics was bounded by the conservative curriculum of the Nguyen imperial examinations that favored the study of Sung neo-Confucianism and ignored contemporary intellectual innovations in the Sinic tradition.
But viewed within the interpretative veil of Chinese and Japanese informants, the revolutionary new currents of Western thought that animated the discourse of reform in early twentieth-century Vietnam were refracted through the persisting neo-Confucian sensibilities of the East Asian classical world. While the reformers in Vietnam were remarkably open to European and American ideas, they continued to see themselves as Confucian superior men and mediated Western thought through Confucian norms and values. As one reform text argued, "Among these European winds and American rains, who knows but what there may be men who on behalf of their country will sweep away the fog, lift up the clouds, and create a radiant and expansive horizon for us all." By emulating the achievements of the West, the leaders of the Reform Movement believed they could transcend French colonialism and regain their rightful place as the leaders of a newly strengthened Vietnam. Poised between neo-Confucianism and Social Darwinism, the articulation of this reformist vision would produce the earliest enduring Vietnamese images of America.
The Reform Movement was launched in 1904 with the publication of an anonymous tract titled The Civilization of New Learning [Van Minh Tan Hoc Sach]. Infused with the Social Darwinian themes that had characterized the writings of Chinese reformers, the manifesto offered a wide-ranging critique of Vietnamese society and a prescription for the future. It argued that Vietnamese civilization was "static" (tinh) and Western civilization was "dynamic" (dong). Using Spencerian rhetoric, the manifesto suggested that ceaseless change produced a strong civil society: "The more ideas, the more competition; the more competition, the more ideas." Appreciation for the importance of Darwinian intellectual competition in Europe and America, it continued, produced innovations in political thought, education, commerce, and industry. In Vietnam, by contrast, the rigid adherence to classical Chinese learning and suspicion of foreign ideas had foreclosed dynamic change.
Despite this grim Spencerian critique of traditional society, Vietnamese reformers were not without hope for the future. Because Chinese interpretations of Spencer's thought downplayed its relentless determinism in favor of a more optimistic votuntarism, Social Darwinism as it was received by the Vietnamese also presented a path to national revival. Much of The Civilization of New Learning was devoted to outlining a program of Vietnamese self-strengthening patterned on Western models that included plans for educational reform and the development of indigenous industry and commerce. Sharing the neo-Confucian perspective of Chinese interpreters of Social Darwinism, the manifesto insisted these projects were to be led by and directed to Vietnamese elites, arguing one could not "open up" the intellects of the masses until elite attitudes had been changed.
The critique of Vietnamese society and reform proposals contained in The Civilization of New Learning, aimed at bringing the dynamism of the West to Vietnam, would underlie much of the Reform Movement's activities. An Eastern Study (Dong Du) movement brought Vietnamese students to Japan, where they not only came in closer contact with the works of Chinese reformers such as Liang Ch'i-ch'ao, who was living in Yokohama, but also with the ideas of Japanese thinkers who had guided the country's rapid economic modernization and bid for Great Power status under the Meiji restoration. In Vietnam itself, reformers organized the Dong Kinh Free School (Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc) and the publication of a newspaper, Old Lantern Miscellany [Dang Co Tung Bao], which served as critical forums for the introduction of new currents of thought. They also worked to establish indigenous commercial enterprises and agricultural societies to reverse the traditional scholar-gentry disdain for commerce and to emulate what reformers perceived as the sources of Western wealth and power. Reinforcing their optimism that these projects could successfully bring about the transformation of Vietnamese society was the Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. As the Asia ballad [A-te-a] that was popularized by the Dong Kinh Free School suggested, the Japanese experience confirmed that Asian peoples could match and even exceed the achievements of the West.
Within the broader consensus of the need to reform Vietnamese society along Western lines, substantial differences existed on the ultimate aims of the Reform Movement, illustrated by the careers of the two leading reformers, Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh. Like others in the movement's leadership, both men were classically educated sons of scholar-gentry families who embraced reform after the failure of the Aid the King Movement. Phan Boi Chau, born in 1867 in Nghe An province in north central Vietnam, passed the regional imperial examination with the highest honors in 1900. Phan Chu Trinh, born in 1872 in Quang Nam province, passed both the regional and metropolitan imperial exams by 1900. Coming to reformist ideas through the medium of Chinese writers and short sojourns in Japan after 1900, both men played critical roles in establishing the Vietnamese movement for reform. Phan Boi Chau organized the Eastern Study Movement in Japan, and his writings were among the most important and influential reform works, forming the basis for much of the curriculum at the Dong Kinh Free School. Phan Chu Trinh, second only to Phan Boi Chau in the Reform Movement, became a widely read essayist, a particularly influential figure in the Dong Kinh Free School, and a strong advocate of scholar-gentry involvement in commerce and industry. But while Phan Boi Chau saw reform as part of a larger effort to organize effective anticolonial opposition against the French, Phan Chu Trinh believed political change should come to Vietnam only after a long process of social and cultural transformation.
Phan Boi Chau's calls for reform in Vietnam were accompanied by sustained efforts at political organization, including the development of the Reformation Society (Duy Tan Hoi) and the League for the Restoration of Vietnam (Viet-Nam Quang Phuc Hoi). The Reformation Society, active in the first decade of the twentieth century, aimed at Vietnamese independence under a constitutional monarch. The league, inspired by the Chinese revolution of 1911, sought to put into place a democratic republic. Little came of these ambitious goals, but both organizations reflected Phan Boi Chau's willingness to use political violence to bring about anticolonial ends. Members of the Reformation Society were instrumental in the wave of anticolonial demonstrations that erupted in 1908, including tax protests in central Vietnam and a plot to poison the food of the French colonial garrison in Hanoi. The league, too, was involved in a series of terrorist incidents that eventually brought Phan Boi Chau's imprisonment in 1914.
For Phan Chu Trinh, a lifelong opponent of violence whose father had been assassinated when Phan Chu Trinh was in his late teens, the educational and cultural projects of the Reform Movement were ends in themselves. Phan Chu Trinh uncompromisingly opposed the old order in Vietnam. In his best-known work, a letter to French governor general Paul Beau in 1906 seeking French support for institutional reform in Vietnam, Phan Chu Trinh was intensely critical of French colonial rule. But he reserved his harshest scorn for the traditional mandarinate whose obscurantism and petty jealousies, he believed, had prevented the emergence of reforms necessary for the transformation of Vietnam into a dynamic society. Because the indigenous barriers to reform were so great and the gap between Vietnam and the West was so vast, Phan Chu Trinh argued, independence could only follow an extended period of internal reform. Despite Phan's gradualist tone and repeated denouncements of anticolonial violence, French colonial officials found his vision of reform radical enough that he was sentenced to life imprisonment on the penal island of Con Son in the wake of the anticolonial protests of 1908, a sentence later commuted to fourteen years of exile in Paris. In the prison poetry he composed on Con Son and in essays written from Paris, he continued to criticize the traditional elite and call for the social and cultural transformation of Vietnamese society.
Although important differences divided them, both Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh shared and advanced the Social Darwinist critique that informed the Reform Movement. In their writings and those of other Vietnamese reformers, the European wind and American rain, filtered through the East Asian cultural prism, was essential to the discourse of reform. For Vietnamese reformers, as for the Chinese and Japanese reform movements, Europe was without question the dominant influence in shaping their broader agenda. American models were often undifferentiated from those of the other Western powers that, with the United States, provided reformers with an essential rhetorical trope for Vietnam's failure to keep pace with the world struggle for national survival and served as an idealized representation of the salutary benefits of Darwinian competition that awaited Vietnam under the reformist vision. Reflecting the Vietnamese reform generation's embrace of the meanings Chinese and Japanese reformers ascribed to Social Darwinism, a poem written for the Dong Kinh Free School sharply delineated the Vietnamese and Western experiences and warned of the need to shift Vietnamese sensibilities:
Our country from a very old time
Always diligently and uninterruptedly followed Chinese learning.
Aping old-fashioned and narrow-minded skills,
We are paralyzed in a state of near-exhaustion.
What do we know from the outside? From America? From Europe?
Similarly, American and European models infused prescriptions for the future offered by the reform generation in Vietnam. Chastising the traditional elite for "following the old ways" and blocking the development of modern industry in Vietnam, The Civilization of New Learning asked, "Has anyone shown the skill or the talent ... of a Watt or an Edison?" The "talents of men like these," it argued, "truly merit awe." In using the word "talent" to describe Edison and Watt, the manifesto not only reflected the popular Vietnamese belief that talent (tai) could allow individuals to exert control over their destiny (mang) but revealed the Reform Movement's insistence that Western thought and experience was a more reliable and powerful weapon than the traditional repertoire of talents Vietnamese had used to shape their future. America and Europe were also an inspiration for the publication of the Old Lantern Miscellany in Hanoi. Pointing in wonder to the fact that "the United States had more than 14,150 newspapers" and noting the vitality of the European press, The Civilization of New Learning advocated the immediate establishment of a Vietnamese newspaper to provide information about foreign innovations and local news so that the competition of ideas that had stimulated the rise of American and European power could be replicated in Vietnam.
The place of the United States in the exhortative essays and poetry of Vietnamese reformers, however, did depart from contemporary discursive practices elsewhere in East Asia. Significantly, the unwavering praise lavished on the United States in the writings of the Vietnamese reform generation far exceeded that of Chinese and Japanese reformers. While respectful of American power and political culture, leading reformers in China such as Liang Ch'i-ch'ao came to be wary of the United States, unsure of how its imperialist aspirations in the Pacific might affect China, and critical of the deleterious role big business played in American life. In Japan, too, appreciation for American models was tempered by the threat the United States posed to its own imperialist ambitions. For Vietnamese reformers, the European wind carried some of these ambivalent connotations as French colonial power threatened Vietnam's survival while European models offered a path to national reform. But Vietnamese depictions of the American rain raised none of the qualms that troubled many Chinese and Japanese reformers.
If the Social Darwinian sensibilities of reformers in China and Japan shaped the purposes to which Vietnamese writers put their images of the United States, the images themselves more closely resembled the admiring portrait of America and its political leaders that emerged in the first sustained Chinese writings on the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Constructed in the wake of the Opium War, images of a powerful but benign America underlay Chinese hopes at mid-century that the United States might serve as a counterweight to the continuing European demands for expanded diplomatic and commercial intercourse. The terms the Vietnamese reform generation employed to refer to the United States and the meanings they conveyed were borrowed from Chinese usage that became common in this period. Vietnamese reform authors used "Beautiful" (My; Chinese Mei-kuo) to mean "America" or "Americans" and "Flowery Flag" (Hoa Ky; Chinese Hua-ch'i-kuo) for "the United States" to reflect their admiration of American models.
These earlier Chinese images of the United States also presaged the celebration of America's benign wealth and power by the Vietnamese reform generation. In a poem titled "Telling the Stories of the Five Continents" ["Ke Chuyen Nam Chau"], written by Phan Boi Chau in 1905 to introduce Vietnamese youth to developments in Europe, America, and Japan, Phan Boi Chau began his flattering description of the United States by drawing attention to American wealth, one of the critical factors mid-nineteenth-century Chinese had ascribed to American dynamism and power:
Now we come to America [My] or the United States [Hoa Ky], Where business is carried on in every profession And there is great wealth on one hundred sides.
The Asia ballad popularized by the Dong Kinh Free School after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 lauded American efforts to broker the peace between Japan and Russia as evidence of U.S. beneficent power:
Luckily the United States was willing to negotiate And skillfully brought peace to raise the Japanese siege. If not, the court at St. Petersburg might not exist today!
The most sustained representations of American experiences by the Vietnamese reformers, utopian narratives of the life of George Washington and the American revolution, borrowed from admiring mid-nineteenth-century Chinese images as well. But the didactic purposes they were meant to serve also reflected both the strong influence of the more recent Chinese embrace of Social Darwinism and indigenous forces such as the enduring elitism of the Vietnamese reform generation and the differences of approach that divided its leaders. In his 1905 poem "Telling the Stories of the Five Continents," Phan Boi Chau offered a paean to the exemplary life of George Washington:
To develop the mind who do Americans rely upon? They all rely upon [George] Washington; Everyone relies upon the genius of Washington. They tell the story of the time when as a young man he enlisted [in the British army], At a time when the country felt humiliated by the British presence. He intended to quell this unpleasant situation By uniting all the soldiers. For eight years he acted as he pleased; Then he was able to fight and defeat the British. Venerate Washington who served as commander-in-chief; Follow the example of Washington who served as commander-in-chief.
Phan Boi Chau's evident admiration for Washington closely follows the portrait of Washington in Hsü Chi-yü's 1848 treatise on world geography, the first widely disseminated Chinese text to devote substantial attention to the United States and Washington. Hsü's treatise was known among classically educated Vietnamese elites. Phan Boi Chau may have encountered its depiction of George Washington directly or through the writings of reformers such as Liang Ch'i-ch'ao and K'ang Yu-wei, whose own representations of Washington were based on it. As members of the Vietnamese reform generation relied almost exclusively on these Chinese writings for their knowledge of figures such as Washington, the central place of Hsü's account in shaping both contemporary Chinese and Vietnamese views of the United States is particularly important. Presaging the language of Phan Boi Chau's poetic narrative, Hsü's sustained account of the pivotal role he believed Washington played in overthrowing British colonial rule and establishing the American state concluded by asking, "Can he not be called a hero? Of all the famous Westerners of ancient and modern times, can Washington be placed in any position but the first?"
Ironically, Americans themselves may have also indirectly contributed to Phan Boi Chau's approving rendition of Washington's life. In preparing his account of Washington's accomplishments, Hsü relied on works in Chinese written by American missionaries that were intended to introduce the United States in an idiom the authors believed readily comprehensible to their intended Chinese readership. As the leading scholar of Hsü's work argues, much of Hsü's account of Washington, including the Confucian biographical mode in which he placed Washington's accomplishments and the praise he showered upon him, are directly lifted from these American-authored texts.
But for Phan Boi Chau, who was organizing anticolonial resistance through the Reformation Society at the time, the experiences of Washington's career and the shared colonial heritage of the United States and Vietnam also offered very specific weapons for anticolonial political agitation in Vietnam. Phan Boi Chau's narrative concentrates on Washington's decision to become a soldier in the British army to acquire the skills necessary to undertake a successful military campaign against British colonialists. The intended lesson Phan Boi Chau offered to his readers was that Vietnamese revolutionaries should emulate Washington's efforts by infiltrating the French colonial militia and winning over to the anticolonial cause the Vietnamese serving the French. Another poem written at the same time for the Dong Kinh Free School, titled "Advice for Fellow Sisters," urged Vietnamese women "to be worthy of marriage" to young Vietnamese who emulated heroes like George Washington.
The United States also played a hortatory role in the tracts that marked Phan Boi Chau's establishment of the League for the Restoration of Vietnam in 1912. In a manifesto that was distributed throughout Vietnam, the now familiar reformist image of America was put to use to support the league's aim of independence:
While we have servilely imitated the Chinese, The people of America and the people of Europe have been their own masters. Knowing the power of these nations Lets us know that the strength of the people can transform our country.
Another proclamation took the image of the European wind and American rain to underlie its call for the establishment of an army to fight against the French.
Perhaps the most sustained and revealing reformist depiction of America emerged in Phan Chu Trinh's Rare Encounters with Beautiful Personages [Giai Nhan Ky Ngo], a poetic adaptation of a Japanese novel from the 1880s completed during Phan's exile in Paris, intended to introduce Vietnamese readers to the revolutionary histories of Europe, the United States, and Japan. How Phan Chu Trinh came to adapt this work reveals the processes through which Japanese and Chinese reformist thought influenced the form and content of the Vietnamese discourse on reform. Phan's verse rendition of this work is itself based on a translation of the original Japanese novel by Liang Ch'i-ch'ao that appeared in 1898. In deciding to recast the novel as poetry rather than the prose of the Japanese original and the Chinese translation, Phan Chu Trinh followed a tradition by which Vietnamese authors had translated Chinese literature into a Vietnamese cultural milieu using the six-eight couplet form that was the most common and popular style of indigenous poetry. While the work was first published, though quickly banned by the French, in Hanoi in 1926, Phan Chu Trinh and other members of the reform generation first encountered and began to discuss Liang's Chinese translation as early as 1904.
Phan Chu Trinh's epic poem opens with the visit of a "young and virtuous" Japanese scholar to Philadelphia. Because his country has met with "unfortunate hardships," the scholar's teacher sent him to America to study the "noble and distinguished" origins of the American revolution. As the young scholar gazes up at the Liberty Bell and reads the text of the Declaration of Independence, he encounters two women "activists," one Spanish and the other Irish, who explain the American struggle for independence in heroic terms:
In the old days, when Americans gathered together, They initiated liberty here, in group discussions; Heroes left their imprint on the rivers and mountains of their homeland. It was truly the year 1774; The Americans anxiously east their eyes north and south. There was the De-Thuy [Delaware] River and over there the Tao-Khe [Erie?] Lake. The state House drafted proclamations in those rooms. From that point freedom was increasingly emblazoned on the hearts of the people; Far and near the clouds clustered and bees drifted down from the skies, Righteous assistance, aiding the ancestors, women and men with one heart. Old Mothers forgot their hardships; Shedding tears, they counseled their sons to win victory on the battlefield. Think of the love of the soldier's wife, Attached to her husband who might die in the path of battle. But if defeated his spirit will not be vanquished nor discouraged. Freedom is won by renowned heroes; Hundreds of brave youth met tens of thousands of British soldiers. Seven bloody years passed but the struggle for freedom was never put aside. Boston was destroyed into cinders; New York, filled with smoke, was routed; Philadelphia became a cloud of ashes. Washington endured a period of bitterness. Remnants of his army deployed themselves at Erie; The weather was brutally cold, Snow fell for many miles, the route was freezing. As the remnants of Washington's army moved forward there were no food supplies; Gathering enough vegetables and grasses along the way was difficult. Meanwhile the leaders discussed A bold pledge to begin a truly courageous battle; At midnight, the order to move out was transmitted. Rolling up his flags, holding his [mandarin's] badge of office in his teeth, Washington crossed the Delaware, Destroying the English in a terrible battle. From that point on his military prestige echoed like thunder on all four sides; The more you think about hundreds of officers enduring hardship and poverty, The more you sympathize with them. With decaying shoes and torn sandals they wandered about, Soaked by frost, treading upon snow, drops of blood falling on the road. Alas! How exhausting and deplorable life could be! Feeling many passions: love of life, hatred of death and sorrow, Why did they renounce their bodies? Concerned with repaying the debt of their nation, they thought little of themselves! When you think about it your heart is inflamed and aroused. How commendable are the Americans, who truly are a civilized race; That was why they opposed the oppressive English, Improved their schools, developed industry and commerce, And built a rich and powerful country. Everywhere on the four horizons the words peace and security were radiant.
Phan Chu Trinh's rendering of the American revolution in part reflects his differences with Phan Boi Chau over the ultimate aims of the Reform Movement. Unlike Phan Boi Chau's use of American models as a call to immediate anticolonial action against the French, Phan Chu Trinh's more deliberate depiction of the sacrifices and hard-won victory of American revolutionaries aimed to evoke the rewards that awaited unwavering disciples of the arduous and protracted process of reform. In Phan Chu Trinh's account, military victory over the British was inseparable from the Americans' development of educational and commercial skills that allowed them to "build a rich and powerful country." By Social Darwinian criteria, the Americans were a "civilized race" and a "commendable" model for the Vietnamese reformers.
But the imagery and narrative structure of Phan Chu Trinh's poem also captured the place of America in the persisting neo-Confucian boundaries that framed the Social Darwinist vision for Vietnamese reform. Confucian imagery familiar to the classically educated elite Vietnamese audience for whom Phan Chu Trinh intended the poem abounds in his depiction of the American revolution. To some extent, the similes and metaphors derived from traditional Chinese verse that Phan scattered throughout the work—"clouds clustered," "bees drifted," and "military prestige echoed like thunder on all four sides"—functioned as rhetorical signposts to guide readers through the potentially unfamiliar American historical terrain. Similarly, reference to the plight of the wives of U. S. soldiers would have heightened sympathy for the American cause and suggested historical parallels with American experiences for Vietnamese readers as it recalled the themes of the well-known eighteenth-century Vietnamese poem The Song of the Soldier's Wife [Chinh Phu Ngam].
Most substantively, Phan Chu Trinh's use of Confucian imagery betrayed the enduring elitism that infused reform thought. Like George Washington, in whose teeth he places a mandarin's badge of office for the commander's fateful trip across the Delaware, the leaders of the American revolution in Phan's poem displayed all of the virtues that Vietnamese elites commonly ascribed to Confucian superior men: righteousness, self-sacrifice, courage, and devotion to their country. His emphasis on the role of properly cultivated heroes in the American struggle reflected the broader reformist sentiment that politics and social change remained an elite domain. Given his disdain for the contemporary practices of much of the Vietnamese elite, Phan Chu Trinh's idealized portrait of American patriots as virtuous Confucian heroes offered a model for what a reformed and revitalized elite could accomplish in Vietnam.
Perhaps most important, the voluntarism and progressive character of the narrative structure through which Phan Chu Trinh ordered the American experience illustrate the influence of Chinese reformers on the Vietnamese reform generation in tempering the implicit determinism of the reform generation's Social Darwinist critique within a neo-Gonfucian framework readily understandable by the classically educated Vietnamese elite. There was a substantial voluntarist thrust to Phan Chu Trinh's rendering of the almost overwhelming odds Americans overcame to prevail against the British. Employing a measure of poetic license, Phan pitted "tens of thousands" of British soldiers against only "hundreds" of American patriots who faced every obstacle to success: cold, hunger, poverty, and destruction of their homes and families. Yet through force of will, he suggested, their "spirit" remained unvanquished, and the Americans attained their goals. This optimistic portrayal of American revolutionary perseverance was undoubtedly intended to urge his Vietnamese audience to adopt Western voluntarist models to surmount the barriers that traditional society and French colonialism posed to the process of reform in Vietnam.
Phan Chu Trinh's faith in the boundless capacity of human will was rooted in his reading of the subtle but transformative shifts in neo-Confucian thought that emerged in the works of the Chinese reformers. In the neo-Confucian tradition, perseverance, or will, usually referred to sustained efforts to improve moral character for the purpose of realizing Confucian moral ideals. But for the Chinese reformers who encountered European and American thought in the late nineteenth century, willpower took on a Western-inspired emphasis of an enterprising and adventurist spirit relentlessly working to master the world. This recasting of the transcendent power of human will allowed Chinese reformers and, later, their Vietnamese counterparts to look past the deterministic and impersonal sociohistorical forces fundamental to Western conceptions of Social Darwinism and formulate a voluntarist Darwinian prescription for social evolution.
The carefully constructed narrative progression that Phan Boi Chau adopted to present his account of America also reflects the importance of Chinese reform authors in shaping the neo-Confucian dimension of the reform generation's Social Darwinist vision and the place of the United States in it. In Phan Chu Trinh's narrative, the American struggle for independence begins not with impersonal Darwinian forces of power, economics, or culture but through the appearance of properly cultivated individual heroes such as George Washington. Nor did Phan Chu Trinh end his story with the Spencerian competitive quest for wealth and power but, rather, in a peaceful Confucian utopian universe. At one level, Phan Chu Trinh's narrative order self-consciously mirrored the path to self-cultivation and social harmony outlined in The Great Learning [Dai Hoc; Chinese Ta-hsüch], one of the four books that made up the neo-Confucian canon and formed the basis of the Vietnamese imperial examinations. By juxtaposing a central passage from The Great Learning with the narrative progression of Phan Chu Trinh's poem, it is possible to see the neo-Confucian sensibilities that shaped his conception of the American experience:
Things being investigated, knowledge became complete [Americans gathered together and initiated the idea of liberty]. Their knowledge being complete, their thoughts were sincere [Through discussions, freedom was emblazoned on the hearts of the people]. Their thoughts being sincere, their hearts were then rectified [The pledge to seek freedom recalled virtues of righteousness and filial piety]. Their hearts being rectified, their persons were cultivated [American patriots renounced and overcame their individual passions and suffering]. Their persons being cultivated, their families were regulated [Mothers and wives supported their sons and husbands who worked to defeat the British in order to honor their ancestors]. Their families being regulated, their states were rightly governed [The Americans defeated the British and built a civilized and powerful state]. Their states being rightly governed, the whole kingdom was made tranquil and happy [The aftermath of the American struggle led to peace and security radiant on the four horizons].
Phan Chu Trinh's step-by-step rendering of the American revolution, however, must also be viewed within the context of the challenges to the neo-Confucian canon posed by Chinese reformers. In the writings of the Chinese reform scholar K'ang Yu-wei, which were a particular source of inspiration for Phan Chu Trinh, the meaning of a utopian peace, the penultimate step in The Great Learning, took on radically new connotations. K'ang argued that human history inexorably moved through three stages, from the age of disorder through the age of approaching peace to the final age of universal peace. While the neo-Confucian tradition emphasized the links between individual and societal moral cultivation in these stages as well as their cyclical and repetitive character, K'ang focused on their linear development and the accompanying emergence of new political forms, placing absolute monarchy in the age of disorder, constitutional monarchy in the age of approaching peace, and republican government in the age of universal peace.
Phan Chu Trinh's admiration for the Chinese reformer along with his virulent antimonarchism lead one to believe that the image of utopian peace—"Everywhere on the four horizons the words peace and security were radiant"—with which Phan closed his depiction of the American experience more fully reflected the republican vision of K'ang Yu-wei rather than neo-Confucian ideas. A speech Phan Chu Trinh delivered several months before his death in 1926 reinforces this interpretation. In it, he refers to the United States in support of his call for the eventual establishment of a republican government in Vietnam after the long process of internal cultural reform had been completed.
The reform generation's admiration for America cannot be understood without reference to these larger forces that shaped its critiques of Vietnamese society and prescriptions for reform. This imagined America, with its Confucian heroes who knew the path of social evolution led to a glorious future and used their conscious will to guide society toward it, was a central theme in works by Phan Chu Trinh, Phan Boi Chau, and other Vietnamese reformers. It reflected their own idealized self-image and articulated their aspirations for the movement they led. The reform generation passed from the Vietnamese political stage in the 1920s, as did the centrality of Social Darwinism for Vietnamese anticolonial thought. But the images of America that emerged in the radicalized political discourse of the next generation of Vietnamese anticolonialists betrayed the echoes and lingering potency of the neo-Confucian and Social Darwinian voluntarism that animated the reform generation's vision for Vietnam.