Rival nationalisms and the rebranding of language in early 20th century Tonkin

The French colonization of Vietnam in the mid-late 19th century generated a massive and traumatic conduit, along which a rich diversity of technologies, products, social values, and cultural concepts, traveled with alarming speed. One of the most influential concepts to be imported from Europe was the model of French nationalism, and the notion of an invisible fellowship that bound together the people of a state through a shared and monolithic history, culture, and most significantly—language.

Alongside these new nationalist concepts, the Vietnamese were deeply influenced by contemporary efforts to modernize, and resist either the threat or reality of colonialism in other parts of the world. These forces converged to form a particularly volatile intellectual space over the first few decades of the 20th century; and in the center and the north, where traditional education in Literary Chinese and the Confucian Classics continued to receive entrenched support, the debates over language and education came to occupy the center of the nationalist conversation. 1See especially Marr, D. 1981. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial: 1920-1945; Hue-Tam Ho Tai. 1992. Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution; and McHale, S. 2004. Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam. Yet by the end of 1919, the civil service examinations had been dismantled in Hue, and the lycée Albert Sarraut (where many of Vietnam’s future leaders would be educated) was opened in Hanoi. In the same year, the French-endorsed literary magazine Nam Phong [Southern Wind] edited by Phạm Quỳnh (1892-1945), published both a famous defense of vernacular Vietnamese language as emblematized by the long narrative poem known as The Tale of Kiêu [Truyện Kiều 傳翹] by Phạm Quỳnh himself, as well as another article defending Literary Chinese as a cornerstone of Vietnamese national identity by the literatus Phạm Huy-Hổ. Despite the apparently opposing views of these two publications, a closer look reveals that they both support—or attempt to support—a vision of the Vietnamese nation that enshrined the vernacular language at its heart, and sought to identify a national essence [quốc túy國粹] as encoded in Vietnamese literary and educational practice. The task at hand was to reconcile an older concept of Vietnamese identity—one that enshrined Literary Chinese at the heart of Vietnamese culture—with new concepts of nationalism that demanded Vietnamese vernacular as the ‘national language’. To do so, Phạm Quỳnh and Phạm Huy-Hổ had to grip the beast by both ends—rebranding and promoting the Vietnamese vernacular on one side, while redefining and denationalizing Literary Chinese on the other.

Phạm Quỳnh and the rebranding of language in the modern nation

Despite fluency in both Literary Chinese and modern Mandarin, Phạm Quỳnh was not classicaly educated, but rather a graduate of the school of interpreters and a beneficiary of French education. As both Ho Tai Hue-Tam and David Marr have noted, Phạm Quỳnh himself was possessed of a vision of Vietnamese national identity deeply influenced both by European models of the nation-state, and efforts to modernize throughout East and South Asia, such as the national essence sub-movement of contemporary Chinese neo-traditionalists, and the views of the Indian intellectual Rabindranath Tagore. 2ibid. Tai, p.48 As Hue-Tam Ho Tai put forth, Phạm Quỳnh spearheaded a Vietnamese instantiation of Chinese neo-traditionalist thought, which sought to identify the quintessence of Vietnamese culture in order to preserve it, and—like Rabindranath Tagore’s vision for South Asia—ultimately merge it with western features of civilization in order to produce a new modern Vietnam.

Cover of the first issue of Nam Phong, published in 1917.

Phạm Quỳnh was perhaps best known as the the editor-in-chief of Nam Phong, selected by the Governor-General of Indochina, Albert Sarraut, and the chief of the sûreté, Louis Marty, to use the magazine to promote collaboration with the French colonial regime. For this, Phạm Quỳnh became almost universally reviled for what was perceived to be a pro-colonial and collaboratist stance.

Phạm Quỳnh sought to define a Vietnamese quintessence rooted in the Vietnamese language, which nevertheless espoused a (perhaps diluted) version of classical values—and which would in turn remain open and amenable to French influence. This required the drawing of new lines around language, culture, and society, that made the older concept of a Vietnamese nation—one in which Vietnamese language was only considered secondary in power and expressivity to Literary Chinese—awkward and unacceptable. Although Phạm Quỳnh drew heavy criticism—especially from anticolonial intellectuals like Ngô Đức Kế 吳德繼 (1879-1929)—even his greatest detractors would eventually embrace both the Vietnamese vernacular, and the romanized alphabet (Quốc Ngữ ; lit.: national language) as the new linguistic vehicles of modern Vietnamese nationalism.

The Nam Phong project strongly recalls Benedict Anderson’s seminal description of modern nationalism, particularly the standardization and promotion of a ‘print language’ as a powerful tool for nationalistic self-articulation, to the empowerment of certain capitalist and political agendas (and at the expense of pre-national diversity). As Anderson also noted, the essential fantasy of the nation was founded on an imagined fellowship defined by shared language, ethnicity, and cultural beliefs. From this perspective, Phạm Quỳnh may be viewed as passionately dedicated to reifying a particular (and particularly elitist) vision of Vietnamese nationhood, which enshrined vernacular language and vernacular literature at its heart.

Page from 'the tale of Kiêu’. © British Library Board (shelf no. 14287/p.14).

This agenda is made particularly clear in Phạm Quỳnh’s famous defense of the Tale of Kiêu as the definitive repository of Vietnamese culture (or national essence), published in 1919.  3The Tale of Kiêu was written in the early 19th century by Nguyễn Du 阮攸 (1766-1820), an official who served as ambassador to Beijing under the Nguyễn Dynasty. Nguyễn Du used a Chinese vernacular novel entitled The Tale of Jin, Yun, and Qiao (金雲翹傳) as a basis for the plot of his reimagined poetic rendering. This new version of the story—written in vernacular Vietnamese Nôm, and using the native poetic meter known as six-eight—was called a ‘New Cry from a Broken Heart’ (Đoạn trường tân thanh 斷腸新聲). The poem enjoyed popularity over the colonial period, but its esteem leapt forward astronomically after the 1920s, largely due to Phạm Quỳnh’s promotions. The universal love and acclaim of the poem today, is perhaps rooted in Phạm Quỳnh’s 1919 elaborate and impassioned defense of the poem. Phạm Quỳnh begins with a series of rhetorical questions that attempt to reify and amplify the poem’s universal popularity among the Vietnamese: 4All translations in this article are my own.

[Among] the people of our country, who does not know The Tale of Kiều? Who has not memorized some measure of lines from The Tale of Kiều? Who does not know clearly the story of the maiden Kiều, or does not feel for Miss Kiều—a beautiful lady, cursed by fate, full of talent and beauty, but who encountered a destiny of broken hearts, fifteen years of bitterness in life, as though cruelly spurned by Heaven so as to make a shining mirror for all those of shallow disposition? 5Phạm Quỳnh. 1919. ‘Truyện Kiều’ ((On) The Tale of Kiêu), Nam Phong 39:480-500. Imprimerie Tonkinoise: December 1919; see p.480

Although reviled as a collaborator, it is not hard to see how Phạm Quỳnh’s views on the Tale of Kiêu became so popular: he is a master of emotive rhetoric, armed with a deeply intuitive sense of literature. This combined with, as David Marr noted, the popularity of a message of ‘language nationalism’, amplified the voice of his message beyond his own deeply ambiguous reputation. 6ibid., Marr, pp.154-155. But what is more interesting than the power of his rhetoric, is the cultural vision of the Vietnamese nation that he is constructing. In a rather grand move, Phạm Quỳnh attempts to sweep away all socio-economic and cultural diversity in Vietnam, and to extend his elitist vision of the Vietnamese nation far and beyond the educated class, by hitching it to the popularity of The Tale of Kiêu.

In the following passage, Phạm Quỳnh assembles an image—not only of the universal, trans-class, trans-labor, transregional love for the poem—but also of a national identity based on that love, which unites all these disparate groups of Vietnamese:

But is it not wondrous that each and every class of people within our country—from men of literature and knowledge to the common worker, from those elites of the arched gates to those who work the fields gathering mulberry—that there are none who do not love the Tale of Kiều, none who read The Tale of Kiều and are not moved, as though experiencing those desperate situations, suffering that bitter pain, undergoing those catastrophes, and weathering the footsteps of those roads for themselves. 7ibid., Phạm Quỳnh, p.480; note the loose translation here, for purposes of clarity.

Here, Phạm Quỳnh is actively fabricating an ‘imagined community’—one in which people of all classes and backgrounds are bound together by a shared understanding of, and affection for, the Tale of Kiêu. The contradictory nature of this vision is self-evident, especially where Phạm Quỳnh refers to the reading [đọc] of the poem—an example of his privilege on display, despite his sweepingly inclusive rhetoric. Indeed, as Hue-Tam Ho Tai has discussed, Phạm Quỳnh’s particular species of neo-traditionalism differs from Chinese instantiations precisely in its unstinting elitism. 8ibid., Tai, p.49.

But the more important point here is that Phạm Quỳnh is attempting to construct a sense of the Vietnamese spirit as residing in Vietnamese vernacular literature. Over the course of the essay, Phạm Quỳnh hits virtually every note of the European model of a nationalist anthem, but repeatedly returns to the notion of one people who speak one language, and of that national language reposing in a national literature. In defense of the primacy of vernacular language to the nationalist project, Phạm Quỳnh first turns to France as an example:

The nations of Europe and America respect masters of literature more than emperors or kings, because the work of the spirit is more valuable and precious, its influence deeper and further, than works of a single era regarding the roads of governance. The names of King Louis XIV, of Napoleon I, may one day disappear, but the names of the famed, such as Pascal, Corneille, Racine—so long as there are men who speak French under heaven, so long as there are men who understand deep and subtle ideas, then [these] will never be forgotten. 9ibid., Phạm Quỳnh, p.491.

Establishing vernacular literature as a vessel for national culture sets up for the major crux of Phạm Quỳnh’s entire agenda: to associate a Vietnamese national essence with the Vietnamese language. Phạm Quỳnh explains his promotion of this ‘language nationalism’ in the following passage:

What is ‘establishing language?’ It is the conveyance of the highest ideals of ourselves, our most caring sympathies, the conveyance of all our feelings and our natures, crystalized into the spoken language of our country—that spoken language which has already undergone countless generations to take form, and which will certainly be inherited by countless generations, never lost. Thus, so long as marching time remains, our spirit will remain, and so long as our spirit remains, our language will never be lost. As such, is not the establishment of language a thing long-lived and undying in this life? 10idem

Once again, one is struck by the power of Phạm Quỳnh’s rhetoric—an almost religious quality to the way in which he infuses his views of the nation and of history with emotion. This is where Phạm Quỳnh lays the abstract groundwork for his specific arguments about the Tale of Kiêu: language is the repository for the entire intellectual experience of a people, and thus language—spoken language; vernacular language—is the vessel in which a nation’s spirit resides. This leads us to Phạm Quỳnh’s enshrinement of the Tale of Kiêu—from his perspective, a uniquely rich, mosaic, profound, and subtle example of the vernacular language, expressing an unparalleled range of ideals, feelings, thoughts, and philosophies that he attributes to the spirit of the Vietnamese:

So long as there are Annamese living on this peninsula of the Eastern Seas, and so long as the Annamese still know how to speak the Annamese language, then The Tale of Kiêu will continue to have readers. And so long as the Tale of Kiêu continues to have readers, the spirit of the Master of Tiên Điền [i.e. Nguyễn Du] will continue to drift amid the rivers and mountains of the land, and [thus] Vietnam will never…be lost! 11idem

Here, finally the link is made between poem and language, and ultimately, between poem and nation. The essence of the Vietnamese people is imagined as the spiritual essence of Nguyễn Du himself, maintained by the readership of the Tale of Kiêu, drifting like an intangible current in the air, indestructible so long as the Vietnamese language remains. This message became Phạm Quỳnh’s personal anthem, and despite his popular indictment by virtually all anticolonial factions, the union of the vernacular language with national identity proved, perhaps, the most durable cornerstone of modern Vietnamese national identity.

Rebranding literary Chinese in the new nationalism of the 20th century

Yet how did this new concept contend with the incumbent view, one which enshrined not vernacular Vietnamese, but Literary Chinese as the clearest expression of Vietnamese national identity? How did those who came to be swayed by Phạm Quỳnh’s new nationalism reconcile older values and older concepts of what it meant to be Vietnamese? Some answers to these questions may be found in an article appearing in the same 1919 issue of Nam Phong, by an intellectual named Phạm Huy-Hổ. Known today primarily for his Summary of National History and Philology [Quốc sử tiếu học lược biên 國史小學略編, pub. 1907], Phạm Huy-Hổ’s article was written ostensibly as an inquiry into the history of Chinese writing in Vietnam, and is entitled Since What Era has Our Vietnam Known Han Writing? [Việt-Nam ta biết chữ Hán từ đời nào?] However, the political and nationalist objectives of the author are made plain in the very first sentence:

Today, our country must study Quốc Ngữ and French letters, but neither must Chinese writing be abandoned. 12Phạm Huy-Hổ. 1919. ‘Việt Nam ta biết chữ Hán từ đời nào?’ (Since What Era has Our Vietnam Known Chinese Characters?), Nam Phong 39:416-419. Imprimerie Tonkinoise: December, 1919; see p.416.

Clearly, the nation-state requirement to enshrine the vernacular language needed to reckon with the incumbent preeminence of Literary Chinese in Vietnamese society. The way in which Phạm Huy-Hổ chose to do this, was to revise the history of Chinese writing in Vietnam, starting from the very beginning. That beginning, in turn, he identifies as the very mythological dawn of the Vietnamese people:

I believe that we have known Chinese writing ever since the moment when the Hồng-Bàng clan first established our country. The Hồng-Bàng were the children of the clan of Shennong [Thần-Nông], already knew Chinese writing, and so of course taught it to their children. 13idem

Here, Phạm Huy-Hổ repeats a claim initially found in the 15th century historical chronicle known as the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, linking the (perhaps mythological) Hồng Bàng dynasty with the Sinitic sage-king inventor of agriculture, Shennong. 14This is a key point in my longue durée analysis of prenationalist formulations of Vietnamese identity, and is discussed at length in the full article. However, Phạm Huy-Hổ makes explicit what might be considered an implicit point in this association: if we accept it, we must also accept that the Hùng kings of the Hồng Bàng dynasty knew Chinese, and were perhaps even native Chinese speakers.

This historiographic construction, along with all of its controversial implications, not only raised no nationalist eyebrows in the 15th century (when the Đại Việt sử ký thoàn thư was composed), but was in fact an integral feature of a double-articulated concept of the Vietnamese nation as a southern instantiation of classical culture that was formalized at this time. 15Please see full article. Since language was not tied to national identity in a zero-sum manner, and since Literary Chinese—if any language—occupied the central altar in Vietnamese quasi-national ethics of the time, there was absolutely nothing sacrificed in claiming Shennong as a forefather, and everything to gain. In the 20th century, however, such a view—incumbent as it was—forced a couple of questions that demanded resolution: 1) must Vietnam be understood as ‘educated by the Chinese?’ and 2) can Chinese writing and language belong to the Vietnamese nation, or must it be understood as essentially belonging to a Chinese nationalism? These are the questions that Phạm Huy-Hổ — as an inheritor of a precolonial concept of Vietnamese identity—was forced to confront in his Nam Phong article.

 Phạm Huy-Hổ rather dexterously resolves these issues by arguing that Chinese writing is not ‘Chinese’ at all—at least not in the national sense:

To summarize, [as for] these square characters that Cang Jie originally established previously, of all the regions in East Asia it was first people from China that spread them, and thus all came immediately to know them as ‘Han’ characters before all else—[only] later adding native or regional writing. Our Vietnam joins two Han characters together to make Vietnamese Chữ Nôm. In the Two Quangs, they add or subtract strokes from Han characters to create the Chữ Nôm of the Two Quangs. In Japan, they took the forms from Han characters and joined them to make Japanese Chữ Nôm. Therefore, Han writing is writing common to all nations of East Asia, and not the writing of the Chinese nation alone—just as Latin letters are the root of writing over in Europe. 16ibid., Phạm Huy-Hổ, p.417.

This is the silver bullet that Phạm Huy-Hổ aims at those who might argue that Chinese writing belongs to China, or conversely that Chinese writing does not belong to the Vietnamese nation. Note that Cang Jie, the legendary inventor of Chinese characters, is not here described as ‘Chinese’, but as a nationless sage who created writing in an antique age before all nationhood. The only special claim the Chinese have to Han characters is that they were the first to use and disseminate them.

However, for Phạm Huy-Hổ, attributing China—not simply the Middle Kingdom [Trung Quốc 中國], but the Chinese nation—with the invention of writing was an unacceptable position, that precluded any claims by other East Asian nations to ownership of Sinitic writing and all developed out of it. Thus, while echoing the basic understanding of how writing was invented and disseminated across East Asia that had prevailed for centuries, Phạm Huy-Hổ also felt the need to break the explicit connection between the Chinese nation and the Sages of antiquity—responsible for the invention of writing (and other major civilizational achievements). China was now merely the first nation to appropriate and disseminate writing, rather than the culture or civilization that invented it. This clearly reflects the intervention of a new conceptualization of the Vietnamese nation based on the European nation-state, and it is no surprise that Phạm Huy-Hổ employs the analogy of Latin letters to support his claim here. The unspoken lynchpin of the argument is that Italy can no more claim special ownership of Latin letters than China could claim special ownership over Chinese characters.

In the next passage, Phạm Huy-Hổ makes it unassailably clear that this is the real crux of his article, and not a survey of when or how Chinese writing entered into Vietnamese society:

Why do the Chinese [as well as] we [the Vietnamese], call those square characters Han characters? Han means the Central Land [Trung-châu 中州 ], and it is that those characters were originally established in the Central Land. Thus, one must not call them ‘Chinese’[Tàu]. In past days, China was comprised of more than a thousand countries, and later, merged into some hundreds of countries, and then slowly merged into a single country. And yet within that single country, today, one still reads those characters differently in different provinces. If hypothetically later on, China again divides into many countries, each with its own national designation, then regarding [the pronunciation] of those characters, how would you know which country’s tones and sounds to take as a model, calling those characters as belonging to such and such a country? 17ibid., Phạm Huy-Hổ, p.418.

Here, then, is Phạm Huy-Hổ’s answer to the elephant in the room: the fact that even the Vietnamese themselves call Chinese writing ‘Chinese writing’—or at least, Han writing. In a remarkable rejection of the actual etymology of the term Hán 漢 (which refers ultimately to the Han Dynasty—the first stable imperial dynasty after the classical period, and thus definitively post-dating the legitimately more diverse and less unified Zhou period, out of which the ‘classics’ emerged), Phạm Huy-Hổ baldly argues that the Hán here means Trung 中— [i.e., ‘central’]. The fact that this is not true aside, Phạm Huy-Hổ’s proposal essentially and explicitly rejects China’s national claim to Sinitic writing, and instead, decomposes Chinese history to delegitimize that claim. Remarkably, Phạm Huy-Hổ is responding precisely to what Benedict Anderson identified as one of the key features of an ‘imagined community’—the fantasy of an ancient and monolithic narrative of history. The Chinese nation, then, is not five thousand years old, is not monolithic, and may not lay claim in any innately authoritative way over something like the invention of writing. It is difficult not to detect, just beneath the surface of Phạm Huy-Hổ’s hypothetical scenario of a future splintered China, the analogy of a post-Roman Europe in which all nations feel free to lay claim to Latin cultural achievements, without the awkward presence of a living Roman Empire to complicate the narrative.

First page of Phạm Quỳnh’s 1919 essay on The Tale of Kiều.

In these remarks, we see Phạm Huy-Hổ’s ultimate answer to the delicate demands of the Nam Phong vision of Vietnamese national identity: he must divorce Chinese writing from China, so that its role as a pillar of Vietnamese national identity may be preserved. After presenting several arguments for the severe consequences of abandoning both Chinese characters and Literary Chinese language, Phạm Huy-Hổ finally states what he and generations before him had firmly believed about the role of the Chinese language in Vietnamese nationhood:

Chinese characters are intertwined with our nation’s people, and cannot be disentangled. That is simply the way it is. 18idem; note the loose translation here, for purposes of clarity

The use of the word quốc dân [our nation’s people]—a political neologism with explicitly nationalist connotations—makes it clear that Phạm Huy-Hổ’s project in this article matches Phạm Quỳnh’s agenda for Nam Phong: the construction of a new model of the Vietnamese nation. For Phạm Huy-Hổ, any definition of Vietnamese nationhood would be meaningless without the presence of Chinese writing. This in turn expresses a concept of Vietnamese culture and nationhood stretching back at least to the 15th century. But this attachment to Literary Chinese required a massaging of the monolingual definitions of nationhood that France and the western world had brought to Vietnam. While Phạm Quỳnh focused on the proper enshrinement of the Vietnamese vernacular language, Phạm Huy-Hổ felt the need to denationalize Chinese writing in order to preserve at least some place for it in this vision of the Vietnamese nation. Of course, despite his pleas, all forms of Sinitic writing would die out within two decades.


Phạm Quỳnh’s enshrinement of the vernacular may seem strikingly at odds with the task and sentiments of Phạm Huy-hổ discussed above—but only if we ignore Phạm Huy-hổ’s major preoccupation in his defense of Chinese writing. Recall that Phạm Huy-Hổ felt a powerful need to disassociate Chinese writing from the Chinese nation—to strip the potential for a nationalist connection between the Chinese people and Chinese characters, so that he could feel free to claim Chinese writing for Vietnam (something that never had posed a problem before colonization). But even in claiming Chinese writing (and by implication, Literary Chinese language) as part of Vietnam’s national identity, it remains clear that Phạm Huy-Hổ was writing under the pressure of a new vision of the nation, promoted by Phạm Quỳnh—one in which the true repository for the Vietnamese spirit could never be Literary Chinese, or Chinese characters—but only the Vietnamese vernacular. That is why Phạm Huy-Hổ’s article proceeds from the position that “Chinese characters should not also be abandoned”. It is a defense in retreat, a compromise between older concepts of Vietnamese identity formed in the wake of the Ming occupation centuries earlier, and the new nationalism, which imagined a single ethnicity, a single language, and a single culture. Phạm Huy-Hổ’s hope for the maintenance of Chinese writing in Vietnamese society were eventually dashed, for the most part due to the meteoric rise of Quốc Ngữ. In this, one might imagine that even Phạm Quỳnh may have felt some measure of regret. Given the powerful language with which he lifted up vernacular Vietnamese—a rhetoric that so ably reflected contemporary notions of the nation—it is no surprise that Sinitic writing (ultimately including Chữ Nôm) and Literary Chinese became the most dramatic casualties of this rebranding of Vietnamese nationhood. Within a matter of decades, the central pillars of Vietnamese identity had been replaced, and a thorough renovation of the temple of the Vietnamese nation was accomplished. It remains an enduring irony that The Tale of Kiều—Phạm Quỳnh’s choice to embody Vietnam’s national essence—is such a monumental work of Chinese erudition, marked by a thoroughly hybridized language, and based of course, on a Chinese novel.

These reversals in the tenor and nature of Vietnamese nationalism—particularly as they apply to questions of language—suggest many strong and curious parallels with contemporary Korea. Similarities in the older visions of Vietnamese nationhood have already been discussed. But the efforts of Phạm Quỳnh to promote vernacular language—as well as the (relatively) new vernacular script, quốc ngữ—bear striking parallels to the initial promotion of han’gŭl under Japanese colonization. As chief editor of Nam Phong, Phạm Quỳnh worked under the close supervision of the Governor-General Albert Sarraut and the chief of the sûreté, Louis Marty, both of whom viewed the promotion of quốc ngữ as a possible alternative outlet for nationalistic energies that might otherwise galvanize into anticolonial sentiments. Ironically, quốc ngữ would become a vehicle for exactly the kind of anticolonial activity feared by Sarraut and Marty over the later 1920s and 1930s, when French-educated intellectuals such as the Self-Reliance Literary Movement [Tự lực văn đoàn] embraced it as a tool for self-strengthening. A comparison of the complex promotion of vernacular writing by the French and Japanese colonial regimes, and their consequences for both the anticolonial movements and the development of Vietnamese and Korean nationalisms, would be well-worth conducting—especially given the similarities in precolonial nationalisms that seems to have obtained. Finally, the strikingly similar role of both Chinese characters and especially Literary Chinese language in precolonial Vietnamese and Korean societies, strongly suggests that parallel processes of rebranding the role and nature of language in national identity must have occurred, not only in the critical moment of late 19th and early 20th century colonization, but potentially multiple times throughout history.

John D. Phan, Assistant Professor, Dept. of East Asian Languages & Cultures, Columbia University (john.phan@columbia.edu).


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