The hotly debated history of literacy, and thus, dissidence, in Vietnam is bittersweet and complex enough to fill the pages of several tomes. In this essay, I offer the highlights of generations of Vietnamese activism to evolve and shape the most basic tool of advocacy—the written language.
In its dynastic era, Vietnam had two systems of writing: Chữ Hán and Chữ Nôm. Chữ Hán, inherited from generations of Chinese occupation, was classical Chinese characters adapted to Vietnamese pronunciation. Chữ Hán was the official written language for government documents. It was indistinguishable from classical Chinese. Chữ Nôm was a logographic writing system created by Vietnamese scholars who adapted Chữ Hán to transcribe spoken Vietnamese. In contrast to Hán, Chữ Nôm was used for literature, to record folk songs, and translate Chinese literature. It was a very difficult script to learn since it was made up of two Chinese characters put together to represent the semantic and phonetic component of any particular Vietnamese word.
Anyone able to read and write Chữ Nôm had to know Chữ Hán as well. There was a very small elite educated class with this ability. Most literature had to be written in verse for easy memorization so that the 3-5% literate could pass it to the mostly illiterate population. Literature centered on patriarchal Confucianism with stories of a male hero with literary or military arts skills who was loyal to a king and whose sidekick was a virtuous and beautiful woman. The most famous literature from this era was Nguyễn Du’s Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kiều), written in Chữ Nôm. It is well-known for its dissident nature as a critique of feudalism.
Vietnam’s current writing system was introduced in the 17th century. Napoleon III, long ridiculed as a second-rate power due to France’s lack of influence in Asia, sought to rectify its reputation by adding Vietnam to the French Colonial Empire. France’s door-in was to send missionaries to Vietnam to set the stage for colonization.
French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes and Portuguese missionaries, Francisco de Pina, Gaaspar do Amaral, and Antonio Barbosa, frustrated with challenges in learning the native language, wanted to facilitate their “evangelizing” (i.e. surveillance and colonization) work by creating a romanized alphabet, “Quốc Ngữ,” that was modeled after the French alphabet. Quốc Ngữ was used as a weapon of spiritual invasion to separate Vietnamese people from their traditions, especially those associated with Confucianism with its ties to China.
But while much credit is given to these missionaries, allow me to speculate: had Vietnam not been colonized and given the demonstrated passion of its people for literature—it would have, if left to its own devices, evolved or developed its own written language system devoid of the chains of colonialism.
Between 1802 and 1858, the number of Vietnamese Catholics and French traders, missionaries, diplomats, and most concerning, naval personnel had increased exponentially, raising alarms in the Nguyễn dynasty for the possibility of rebellion or foreign invasion. To protect the country’s independence and national security, the Nguyễn dynasty resisted state relations with the West and issued a series of edicts beginning in 1832 prohibiting Christianity with punishments as harsh as execution in later edicts against missionaries who were sneaking into the country. This motivated the French to flex their military might and establish a French protectorate in Vietnam.
The Nguyễns continued to persecute Vietnamese Christians and missionaries including executing two Spanish Dominican missionaries. French retribution manifested in the arrival of 70 warships on Vietnamese shores in 1861. Facing French invasion and internal rebellion, the Nguyễn dynasty was forced to cede three provinces to France. This paved the way for France to eventually seize all of Vietnam in 1864, which they renamed to “Annam” (Central Vietnam), “Tonkin” (North Vietnam), and “Cochinchina” (South Vietnam).
French colonization brought disruptive social restructuring and transformations designed to ready Vietnam for efficient resource extraction. Generational social structures and networks, as well as the village system, were reorganized to create a new market economy based on wage labor and impersonal commercial exchange.
From 1919 to 1927, colonial forces shut down the resource-starved village schools that were set up under the Nguyễn Dynasty. The French abolished the Chinese-inspired civil service exams, which prepared students to serve as clerks, bureaucrats, or mandarins in Vietnam’s feudal and dynastic state system. In their stead, the French instituted colonial schools that taught French and Quốc Ngữ. This was intentional to sever ties with China and make Vietnamese historical records and ancient literature, recorded in Hán and Nôm, inaccessible to the majority of Vietnam’s population and all of its future generations—an intellectual genocide, in a sense.
Those attending school received a French-focused curriculum of the “you be a good colonial subject” vein which emphasized (1) French cultural and behavioral norms, (2) reinforcement of Vietnamese traditionalist morality, and (3) communication skills for Vietnamese people on how to address and communicate with their colonial “masters.” The schools also introduced new topics to the Vietnamese that were commonly taught in French schools such as science, history, politics and economics.
Vietnamese students experienced vocational tracking in colonial schools, often unable to advance past the third-grade reading level due to the rigorous examination system which filtered out students unable to advance levels as a result of failing the exams. The filtration system resulted in only 0.3% (point three percent!) of any single cohort of children being able to advance to the 7th grade.
Throughout this time, increasing access to education for common folk coupled with the centuries-long evolution of Quốc Ngữ provided Vietnamese dissidents with the skills and tools for a cultural renaissance to fuel the fight for independence. Modern historical representations tend to credit either the French colonial administration in 1910 or the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục (Tonkin Free School), established in Hà Nội in 1907, as the forces behind the eventual spread of Quốc Ngữ and the increase of literacy in Vietnam. In reality, however, the Tonkin Free School only lasted a few months (March to November 1907) before its founders, Phan Bội Châu and Phan Châu Trinh (pen name Tây Hồ) faced persecution by colonial forces.