28 May 2012

Vietnamese Disciples of Fukuzawa Yukichi

From A Story of Vietnam, by Truong Buu Lam (Outskirts, 2010), Kindle Loc. 2512-2567:
Phan Chau (or Chu) Trinh (1872-1926), like Phan Boi Chau, had his eyes fixed on independence for his country. Unlike Phan Boi Chau, he was a doctorate (tien si [Ch. 進士 jinshi]) degree holder and had made a short stint of two years in the mandarinate before engaging in a life of a political activist. He went to Japan with Phan Boi Chau, but came back with a completely opposite program of action. He seriously opposed any use of violence in the struggle for independence, and vehemently rejected any interference or assistance, military or otherwise, from any foreign country. He advocated a republican regime in which the people can exert influence over the conduct of public affairs. He promoted a slow but secure march toward independence and civilization, even if need be, under the leadership and guidance of the protecting power that is France.

In 1906, he wrote an open letter to the Governor General of Indochina in which he vented out his frustration in a scathing accusation of the indigenous mandarins who took refuge under the wings of the colonial authorities to abuse with impunity the common people of Vietnam. (An English translation of this document can be found in Colonialism Experienced, Ann Arbor, 2000, p. 125-140.)

In 1907, with a group of Confucian scholars such as Luong Van Can, Nguyen Quyen, Dao Nguyen Pho, Duong Ba Trac, Le Dai and Hoang Tang Bi, he helped create a new type of school modeled after the Keio Gi[j]uku University which was established in Tokyo by a Japanese educator and reformist, Fukuzawa Yukichi. The Vietnamese school was called Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc [東京義塾] (Japanese: Tokyo Gi[j]uku; English: The Eastern Capital Free School). Its existence was sanctioned by a decree of the French colonial government dated March 1907 and its demise was imposed by another decree dated December of the same year.

The school’s life was indeed short, but its influence on the people reached beyond any calculation. It was the first experiment in mass education. Thousands of students of all ages flocked to the school in the evening hours to listen for free to scholars talking frequently about the humanities: morality, human rights; occasionally about the social sciences: economics, political regimes. They taught national history; resuscitated famous personalities of the world; they discussed about the relative advantage of modernization versus westernization; they tried to inculcate into the young minds the virtue of patriotism, loyalty, propriety. Some teachers even introduced to their students rudiments of science and technology. Within a couple of months, branch schools were established in many other cities.


In addition, the teachers adapted dozens of old proverbs and sayings to contemporary situations; they composed songs in verse encouraging their students to learn the quoc ngu, not to hesitate to go abroad to study, to read newspapers everyday, to have their hair cut short, not to smoke opium nor to drink alcohol, not to gamble, not to succumb to female charms.

Such was the success of the school that the French authorities felt threatened and so they decided to shut it down in December of the same year that it opened. The ideal of non violence that had been ardently promoted by Phan Chau Trinh was put to a serious test and it failed.

For this reason, he wanted to experiment with something else. In 1908, in the province of Quang Nam, the people complained that their taxes were too high and the days they had to work without pay for the government too numerous. They took their protest to the provincial capital city in a relatively orderly demonstration. Rapidly, the movement spread to neighboring provinces. The repression came swift, harsh and not too orderly. Many scholars were implicated in the movement. The French executed Tran Quy Cap (1870-1908) a tien si degree holder (1904) and a member of the mandarinate. The monarchical tribunal sent Huynh Thuc Khang (1876-1947), Phan Chau Trinh and Ngo Duc Ke (1878-1929), all three tien si as well, to the infamous penitentiary on the island of Poulo Condore (Con Non or Con Son). Fortunately for Phan Chau Trinh, his resourceful friends alerted the Society for Human Rights which persuaded the government to commute his sentence to exile in France to start in 1911.

While living in exile, Phan Chau Trinh became the patriotic icon around which the Vietnamese community in France rallied itself. During the first world war, he was incarcerated at the Sante Prison, suspected of contacting the Germans for help to liberate his country. He must be innocent of this charge given his revulsion toward violence and his distaste for foreign intervention.


During his stay in France, Phan Chau Trinh wrote several books, among which the best known was a collection of poems he composed during his incarceration at the Sante Prison. Two books of his have been published and confiscated several times right after they were put on the shelves; consequently, they were known only by their titles. One was a Song to Awake the Soul of the Nation (Tinh Quoc Hon Ca [醒国魂歌 Ch. Xingguohunge?]), and the other was a long “epic” poem of 3620 verses written in nom in the style of six and eight syllables. Entitled Giai Nhan Ky Ngo Dien Ca (The Marvelous Encounter of Wonderful People, In Verses) it relates the adventures of a group of friends, belonging to all nationalities, bound together by the virtues of loyalty and friendship, even tinted with some romance. This epic poem was, in fact, an adaptation in verses of a book entitled Jia Ren Qi Yu [佳人奇遇] (Giai Nhan Ky Ngo) that Liang Qichao himself translated from a Japanese work [佳人の奇遇 Kajin no Kigū Strange Encounters with Beautiful Women by Shiba Shirō].

Phan Chau Trinh’s many requests to the Ministry of Colonies for his repatriation were finally granted in 1925. Back in Saigon, he gave a number of public talks on the subjects of monarchy and democracy, virtue and morals in the East and the West.

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