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Colonial Eduation in Indochina

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  • Colonial Eduation in Indochina

    In 1945 the declared Democratic Republic of Vietnam chose to a thousand year old tradition of writing their language in Chinese characters, and instead adopted a Romanized script developed by Portuguese missionaries in the 17th Century. That decision underscored the pragmatism of both the Communist revolutionaries and, ironically, the French colonial education system. I believe it was Bo Archer who once said that the French had built far more prisons they they did schools in Indochina, but that is blatantly untrue. In fact the French built far more schools than prisons, and in many ways those schools pave the way for a modern Vietnam.

    French education in Indochina has three distinct periods: 1860-1917; 1917-1930; and 1930-1945: For most of the first period, the French were chiefly concerned with establishing their rule over Southern Vietnam and Cambodia, gradually extending it over Central and North Vietnam. These latter two were protectorates, and up until 1895 were viewed as independent states. After 1895 they were, for all intents, colonies. And at that time the French were still too filled with their own sense of cultural superiority to appreciate the Vietnamese culture. Jules Ferry’s radical return to the idea of free public education, however, impacted upon the colonies. After 1917 the French came to appreciate the cultures of Indochina as at least the equivalent of the ancient Celts in their glory before the Romans colonized them.

    In 1879, the French started public schools in Cochinchina, since the Protectorate of Annam, which then included Tonkin, retained the old Confucian education model of six or so pupils taught in the scholar’s home. The model adopted by Cochinchina was a Franco-Indigenous one in that it taught both subjects common to French schools as well as Vietnamese subjects, generally in Vietnamese with transition to French language studies for advanced grades. As the model developed, it spread into the Protectorates; to Tonkin in 1904, Cambodia in 1905, and Annam and Laos in 1906. The goal was to establish a school in each village that would engender within students studying modern subjects and their own history, literature, and language, an appreciation for the French language and culture which those going on to higher levels study. Well known products of this system included Truong Vinh Ky, Paulus Cua, Nguyen Van Vinh (founder of the Indochinese Review / Dong Duong Tap Chi), Pham Huy Ton, Pham Quynh, and Tran Trong Kim.

    Within Tonkin and Annam, the traditional schools continued to exist alongside the Franco-Indigenous schools In 1908 there were 15,000 traditional schools in Tonkin and Annam teaching Chinese characters to perhaps 200,000 students, compared to 1,126,000 public school students in primary cycle studies in all of Vietnam in 1920. As might be expected, the ideal of one public school per village was never realized. The real beneficiaries of public education were those living in towns and cities. But more importantly, this public education, however modest, marked the beginnings of a modern Vietnamese culture that used the Romanized Quoc Ngu script, leading to a loss of interest in Chinese characters and the traditional exam system. The last triennial Imperial Exams were conducted in Nam Dinh in 1915 and Hue in 1919, when the numbers of candidates presenting themselves had dropped to historic levels. It should be noted that it was possible to study Chinese and Chu Nom characters in public schools at the advanced level, and the 1930 graduate certificate exam included an optional examination in Chinese calligraphy.

    Within the colonial public school system, a student could theoretically advance to university level on their efforts alone. But many factors intervened. Even today, rural families in Vietnam often pull their children out before finishing High School to work on the family plot. But though the numbers dropped dramatically as one advanced from the Elementary through the Primary to the Local Baccalaureat, which opened the doors to a university education in France or Indochina, the French colonial system was impressive for what it did; i.e., create a modern elite who passed on what they had learned at whatever level to their compatriots. They became civil servants (26,941 in 1941-42), lower level clerk and primary school teachers (16,000 in 1941-42) as well as professional revolutionaries (mentioned, but no number given).

    In 1907, an Indochinese University was created in Hanoi with schools of Literature, Law, and Science. It only operated for a year before the Quang Nam Tax Riots triggered its closure. It remained closed until 1917, when it reopened to add a School of Medicine and Pharmacy, Veterinary Science, Edcuation, Water Courses and Forestry, Commerce, Finance, Law, Adminsitration and Fine Arts. Then in 1945 it was permanently closed when the Japanese ended French rule. At that time it had 1,222 students (837 Vietnamese, 346 French, 18 Cambodian, 12 Lao, 8 Chinese, and 1 unspecified were registered for the schools of Law, Science, Medicine and Pharmacy alone.

    The legacy of this French education system in colonial Indochina was the diffusion of Quoc Ngu as the preferred writing system. A legacy that “was neither desired nor foreseen by either the colonizers or the colonized” (p. 225) The French had judged neither Chinese characters nor Chu Nom as instruments conducive to modernization. And that reflected the opinion of a French naval officer who could read and write both, as well as speak both Chinese and Vietnamese. As he put it: “This common language (Quoc Ngu), solidified through our use of Latin characters, opens a clear path for civilizing ideas to penetrate; and who knows whether it will be in this way that European science, so absolutely unknown in the Far East, will be understood one day? We can hope that some of the Annamese people, whose future is in our hands, will acquire an incontestable moral superiority over the remainder of Cochinchina; to solidify a language through writing is, after all, a revolution almost comparable to the discovery of printing.” (Gabriel Aubaret, cited on p 226)

    The goal of this Franco-Indigenous education system was, in the words of former Governor Alexandre Varennes, to “make sure they have an Asian education that is useful to them in their country.” (p.226) It did that, and the colonized elites themselves began to value Quoc Ngu, among them Phan Van Truong, a nationalist leader who wrote a pamphlet defending and promoting it. By 1917 a generation of modernist writers and poets were writing and publishing in a variety of Quoc Ngu periodicals, many government sponsored or subsidized, such as Nam Phong Tap Chi and Dong Duong Tap Chi, and some privately funded, Ironically, the most politically radical publications, such as Nguyen An Ninh’s La Cloche Felee, were published in French..

    So far, I haven’t seen the names of any French educators on Saigon’s streets, but maybe some day I’ll stumble across one or two.

    Note: the majority of this post has been paraphrased from Indochina; An Ambiguous Colonization 1858-1954, by Pierre Brocheux and Deniel Hemery, English translation published by Uni. of California Press, pp. 219-229. Neither of those fine gentlemen should be blamed for any errors of my own.
    dit: Lirelou

    Phong trần mài một lưỡi gươm, Những loài giá áo túi cơm sá gì!

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