Back to Table of Contents

Session 116: Apprehensions of Modernity in Colonial Vietnam

Organizer and Chair: Peter Zinoman, University of California, Berkeley

Discussant: Christoph Giebel, University of Washington

This panel explores the contested forms and meanings of modernity in colonial Vietnam. Instead of assessing the degree or character of colonial Vietnamese modernity with reference to some fixed definition of the term, participants will explore how specific Vietnamese intellectuals and members of different social groups made sense of the concept and deployed it for their own purposes. While the significance of French ideas about modernity in general and colonial modernity in particular will be given some consideration, participants will focus on the discourse produced by Vietnamese. A major objective of the panel is to demonstrate the diversity of Vietnamese opinion about the characteristic aspects of modernity and the differential implications of Indochina’s rapid modernization for various social groups: women, workers, cultivators, youth and members of the pre-colonial elite. To bring connections and tensions among various conceptualizations of the concept into bold relief, participants will focus primarily on the Vietnamese discourse of modernity that emerged during the 1920s and 30s. Papers will examine how ideas about the body, sexuality, capitalism, technology, language, literature and radical politics shaped and figured in this discourse during the period.

Vu Trong Phung: The Adventures of a Literary Reputation

Peter Zinoman, University of California, Berkeley

Despite the fact that he died in 1939 at the age of 27, Vu Trong Phung has generated more controversy over a longer period of time than any 20th-century Vietnamese writer. During the 1930s, his work became the subject of intense debates over literary representations of sexuality and pornography. During the 1940s, communist literary critics failed to reach consensus over the revolutionary merits of his work, leaving it in an uncategorized and hence unpublishable limbo. During the 1950s, Vu Trong Phung’s writing provided a battleground for a bitter conflict between communist cultural officials and intellectuals connected to the Nhan Van Giai Pham Movement who championed Phung’s body of work as the most significant achievement of modern Vietnamese literature. Climaxing when Politburo member Hoang Van Hoan launched a bitter attack on Phung’s three most important novels (all published in 1936) in an essay circulated internally in 1960, the conflict ended with the repression of Nhan Van Giai Pham and the banning of the author’s work for the following 30 years. Since the onset of Renovation in the mid-1980s, Phung’s work has emerged again at the center of debates over the quality of modern Vietnamese literature and the long-term effects of the cultural policies of the Communist Party. This essay argues that the capacity of Phung’s work to generate intense controversy, both during the author’s lifetime and long after his death, is due to the fact that its deeply modernist impulses have been read within an official cultural environment (both colonial and communist) profoundly hostile towards literary modernism. To make the case, an elucidation of Vu Trong Phung’s particular brand of modernism will be presented in the essay.

Vietnamese Railroad Workers and the French Technocratic Vision

David Del Testa, University of California, Davis

Scholars have explored extensively how colonial Indochina served as a site for the deployment of knowledge. Gwendolyn Wright has shown how the French used Indochina as a laboratory for social engineering; David Marr has shown how the Vietnamese used European ontological and literary notions to become ‘modern.’ But scholars have not had the opportunity to explore in detail the sites and methods of discursive exchange nor the long-term social impact of this exchange for the Vietnamese and the French. They have either lacked sustained and consistent documentary evidence or viewed the exchange of knowledge as a dichotomy of French brutality and Vietnamese resistance. Now, however, scholars have begun to interpret new sites through which they can interpret how and to what extent the French and Vietnamese exchanged knowledge. The French colonial railroad company is a site of this kind of exchange.

The construction of railroads in Vietnam by the French originated in a desire to promote social transformation as much as economic development. In the French conceptualization of the railroads’ social role, Vietnamese railroad workers served just as much as symbols of colonialism’s technical and administrative blessings as train drivers, conductors, etc. Realizing the railroads’ social mission fell to French managers who had almost universally received their schooling at the École polytechnique, France’s elite technical school. The administrative efficiency, hierarchical meritocracy, scientific and technical learning, and economic development promoted by these polytechniciens contrasted positively with the unfulfilled promises and brutality of other aspects of French occupation. By examining certain aspects of apprenticeship and administration of the colonial railroad system, this paper will illustrate a growing appreciation of technocratic values amongst railroad workers who later became a significant part of post-colonial Vietnam’s leadership.

Nguyen Van Vinh: Brokering Culture Across Colonial Divides

Christopher Goscha, Ecole des Hautes Etudes

Until his death in 1935, Nguyen Van Vinh was considered one of Vietnam’s best known translators, journalists and essayists on Western modernity, literature and its adaptations to Vietnamese society. Trained as an interpreter and employed in the French colonial administration, Nguyen Van Vinh was well placed to negotiate Western ideas via the influential newspapers he ran, such as the Dong Duong Tap Chi, Trung Bac Tan Van, and the Annam Nouveau. Besides translating major Western literary works into Vietnamese (Hugo, Dumas, etc.), Nguyen Van Vinh was also an avid traveler, a careful observer of Vietnamese village society, and a virulent critic of Confucian tradition. As he was being laid to rest in 1935, young, Western-minded cultural revolutionaries paused to pay homage to him and his work.

The problem is that Nguyen Van Vinh’s collaborationist politics with the French during the colonial period have largely condemned him to a historiographical purgatory. To this day, we know surprisingly little about this man—or why so many young intellectuals of the 1930s would have taken the time to notice Nguyen Van Vinh’s passing.

This paper is an attempt to rescue this remarkable man and his work from historical oblivion and to analyze his literary and journalistic contributions in terms of the wider ‘cultural revolution’ of which he was an early player. Politics counted in his life, as this paper will show. However, by factoring in the culture side of Nguyen Van Vinh’s work, this contribution will provide a larger reflection on the question of colonial modernity, how it was brokered at the local level, and in surprisingly diverse and original ways by Vinh.

The Development of Sports in Colonial Vietnam: A Modern Rediscovery of the Body and the Affirmation of National Strength (1918–1940)

Agathe Larcher-Goscha, Université de Paris VII

This paper examines the unprecedented development of sports that occurred in colonial Vietnam following World War I. It was marked by the creation of specialized sports schools, by the spread of gymnastic courses in the Franco-Vietnamese curriculum, by an increase of athletic facilities in colonial towns, and via the keen interest the French and Vietnamese press showed for sports, athletes and champions.

The sporting practices introduced by colonialism had no equivalent in traditional Vietnamese culture, whose Confucian morality had given more importance to intellectual exercises than to physical ones. The popular development of sports reflects how colonialism could generate deeper changes in Vietnamese mentalities.

Colonial modernity, as manifested by the development of sports, will be analyzed from four angles. Part one examines how the development of sports in Vietnam introduced new conceptions of the Body, of the Self, and of the place of Vietnamese women in society. The second section considers why French authorities favored the spread of sports as a way of promoting modern hygienic care and Western ideas of health. Part three turns to how the introduction of sports to Vietnam was also designed by the French to promote new Franco-Vietnamese relations as part of a colonial dream of "Franco-Vietnamese Collaboration." In the final section, we turn to the close relationship between sports and nationalism. We examine the construction of a Vietnamese nationalist discourse on the idea of Strength, one, which was opposed with increasing success to the colonial one that had long focussed on the weakness of Vietnamese force and patriotism. In short, sports were one of the arenas where modernity, nationalism and colonialism worked themselves out in complex, though fascinating ways.