Q. When does the ‘modern’ begin in Vietnamese history? A Historiography Essay (Alexander Woodside, George Dutton, Benedict Anderson, David Marr, Charles Keith)

Below is a historiographical paper that I wrote for Professor Peter Zinoman’s seminar on Southeast Asian Historiography in Fall 2015.

Modernity and the Modern Era in Histories of Vietnam: A Historiography Essay



When does the ‘modern era’ begin in Vietnamese history? How does it compare to other eras in Vietnamese history? What are the characteristics of Vietnamese modernity? The question of ‘the modern’ consumes debates in colonial and post-colonial studies, and is often entrenched within debates regarding the nation state and Western imperialism. While the question of modernity and the modern era has been intensely debated in East Asia and South Asia, critical studies of modernity still remain limited in Southeast Asia and Vietnam.[1] In this essay, I will explore the question of the modern era in Vietnamese history and situate this within Dipesh Charkabarty’s post-colonial critiques of studies on modernity. I demonstrate that Vietnam scholars approach the topic of the modern era and modernity in three different ways: first, the modern era is characterized by political integration, centralization, and bureaucratic systems of rule; second, the modern era is characterized by ‘modern’ forms of bureaucratic governance, technologies, and consumerism often ushered in by Western colonial influences; or third, the modern era is tied to the modern nation-state. To frame this another way, Vietnam scholars have located the beginning of the modern era within institutions of centralization and bureaucracy from the fifteenth century to nineteenth century, in colonial capitalism and Western ideologies of the 1886 to 1945 French colonial period, or in the debates regarding the Vietnamese modern nation-state and nationalism in the twentieth century.

In the groundbreaking book Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Dipesh Chakrabarty demonstrates how ‘Europe’ and constructs of Western modernity have been universalized to understand non-Western histories.[2] Chakrabarty explains, “The phenomenon of ‘political modernity’–namely, the rule by modern institutions of the state, bureaucracy, and capitalist enterprise–is impossible to think of anywhere in the world without invoking certain categories and concepts, the genealogies of which go deep into the intellectual and even theological traditions of Europe.”[3] Chakrabarty argues that the European construct of modernity and development emanating from Europe enabled and justified Western colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth century. This interpretation of the non-West as a civilization “not-yet” modern continues to influence contemporary histories of Asia. In response, Chakrabarty provincializes European political modernity and the modern state institutions by investigating how the Bengali middle class experience modernity.

Chakrabarty continues to explore the study of modernity in the non-West in his later works. In the American historical Review Roundtable, “The Muddle of Modernity” Dipesh Chakrabarty examines scholarly use of the labels ‘modernity’, ‘modernization’, and ‘modernism’ in recent years in studies of the East.[4] Examining the work of scholars such as Sheldon Pollock, C.A. Bayly, and Jadunath Sarkark, Chakrabarty claims that the recent attempt to democratize the word modernity to the non-West muddles the political and historical understanding of modernity entrenched in Euro-centric institutions and concepts. Chakrabarty explains the distinctions between modernity and modernization:

Modernity in the West thus alludes to two separate projects that are symbiotically connected. One refers to processes of building the institutions (from parliamentary and legal institution to roads, capitalist businesses, and factories) that are invoked when we speak of modernization. The other refers to the development of a degree of reflective, judgmental thinking about these processes. The latter is what is often invoked by the term “modernity. The distinction is, of course, only analytical, for the development of ideas and the development of institutions are in reality intertwined processes.[5]


Chakrabarty pushes against the use of the concept of modernity to describe what is actually ‘modernization,’ the institutional and infrastructural change over time. Chakrabarty concludes that historians must be more cognizant of the “normative freight that the word “modernity,” with all its diverse and somewhat slippery meanings” implies in different historical and political contexts.[6]

From his book and article, Chakrabarty’s critiques on studies of modernity in the non-West can be generalized into three arguments: (1) interpretations of modernity rely on European constructs of modern institutions and ideologies and reaffirm ‘Europe’ as the standard of modernity, a “silent referent in historical knowledge”[7]; (2) in many cases modernity is understood to have been introduced to the East through encounters with the West and colonialism; and (3) scholarship does not distinguish between modernity, modernization, and modernism. Chakrabarty’s critiques of scholarship on modernity emphasize (1) the problem of Euro-centric definitions of modernity as well as (@) ambiguous terminology to describe the complex socio-political phenomena of modernity in different historical contexts. I will evaluate how these problematic slippages of a Euro-centric understanding of modernity persist throughout studies of Vietnamese history. At the same time, my historiography demonstrates how scholars propose alternative schemas of modernity specific to the case of Vietnam. The three different approaches I will examine include bureaucratic traditions and alternative modernitites in pre-colonial Vietnam, colonial modernity and practices in French colonial Vietnam, and the modern nation-state of twentieth century Vietnam.

Argument One: Alternative Modernities, Autonomous Histories, and Asian Political and Bureaucratic Traditions in Pre-Colonial Vietnam

In the 2006 book Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History, Alexander Woodside examines the development of the mandarinate political system in Vietnam, China, and Korea.[8] Woodside argues that the political and administrative theory and practices of these three mandarinates demonstrate an alternative political rationality to the “Western modernity” shaped by the industrial revolution and capitalism. In this way, Woodside strives towards a pluralized definition of ‘modernities’ that “allows us to begin to uncover the traditions of discursive rationality that the cruder singular notion of the modern has obscured; or at least to end uses of the singular term for the modern that merely camouflage one civilization’s historical self-centeredness.”[9] Although Woodside does not cite Dipesh Charkrabarty explicitly, his study is a methodological intervention to provincialize and decenter modern political systems away from Europe. Woodside thus grounds his understanding of modernity in the mandarinate political system—a nonhereditary merit-based power system that produced a structure of bureaucratic accountability, a culture of responsibility to the larger political system, and the communication of standards for officials.

Lost Modernities is an ambitious study that challenges standard concepts of modern nation states and political systems. Pushing against the area studies division of East Asia and Southeast Asia, Woodside situates the three mandarinates within a shared political and religious world of Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, the experience of Chinese Han-Tang empire (Korea and northern Vietnam) and Chinese influence upon writing systems, law codes, veritable records of history, and specialized ministries.[10] However, rather than attaching the system of mandarinates entirely to China and Confucianism, he emphasizes the plural definitions and localized experimentations of the much smaller mandarinates in both Vietnam and Korea. Woodside defines mandarinates as political systems administered by Confucian scholar-officials who hold limited terms of office and are evaluated by a complex set of civil service examinations, personnel evaluations, moral code, and hierarchy of rewards and responsibilities.

Woodside engages with prevailing theorists on modernity and bureaucratic state formation such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Harold Perkin, Anthony Giddens, and Max Weber to understand how China, Vietnam, and Korea developed diverse post-feudal ideals of a merit-based bureaucracy. Additionally, he draws from early modern histories of the Holy Roman Empire, European feudal aristocracies and civil service systems to offer alternative ways of thinking of modern nation-based political systems. Woodside also situates his study within the postcolonial theoretical intervention of western hegemonic concepts of nation and historical time.

Woodside continues to explain how the how Asian mandarinates and modernities ‘lost’ to Western scientific management theory. Influenced by the American thinker Frederick Winslow Taylor in the beginning of the twentieth century, Western scientific management theory claimed that scientific methods could be applied to human workers’ productivity. Applied to factories and steel mills, the link between classification of human labor and material output transferred to organization of civil service work. Woodside explains the spread of “Taylorism” to British and American government by the 1920s and China by the 1930s.[11] The influence of Western scientific management theory thus overtook the mandarinate political system and bureaucratic theory. Woodside adds that the histories of these modernities were ‘lost’ within colonial and post-colonial histories. French colonizers of Vietnam (1880s to 1945) preserved the character of the Vietnamese mandarinate in Tonkin and Annam, but stripped the institution of its moral values and political influence as a “symbol of Vietnamese inferiority to their European rulers.”[12] Additionally, the Communist revolutions in China and Vietnam further  encouraged a view of the mandarinates as an archaic, despotic, and static while privileging processes of scientific governance and efficiency.

In this way, Lost Modernities combines political science concepts of governmental systems, scientific management theory, and systems theory with postcolonial arguments for alternative narratives of modern political systems. At times though these theoretical and polemical interventions become unruly and uproot Woodside’s argument from historical specificity. Furthermore, the recuperative attempt to center East Asian ‘achievements’ of mandarinate modernity consumes the argument of the text, shrouding other Woodside’s other observations such as, the Vietnamese challenge to develop a critical mass of talent to staff the mandarinate system. Nevertheless, this book is one of the few that approach the question of modernity directly and situate modernity prior to direct Western political and economic influence in the region in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In his earlier work Vietnam and the Chinese Model published in 1971, Alexander Woodside analyzes how Confucian institutions were adopted and adapted by the nineteenth century Vietnamese Nguyen dynasty.[13] The five chapters examine themes of acculturation, civil administration, court bureaucrats and provincial administration, and education and exams. Among the tremendous details of bureaucratic, administrative, and educational comparisons between Vietnam and China, Woodside elaborates on the local variants of Confucian systems in Vietnam. He concludes that these differences were due to the overabundance of administrative units for the relatively smaller Vietnam, the cultural diversity and distance between bureaucrats and peasants, and the simplification and translation of Confucian bureaucracy as a coherent system.

In the preface to this ambitious work, Woodside engages briefly with the question of modernity. He mentions that the Tây-sơn Rebellion had not received enough attention and arguably marks the beginning of modern Vietnamese history. In this short aside, Woodside lists five important factors of the Tây Sơn Rebellion that led to more centralized, ‘modern’ forms of political and nationalistic thinking: the extensive involvement of Westerners in Vietnamese politics, the role of the Vietnamese peasantry as a socio-political battleground, the political unification of Vietnam, the struggle against China and Chinese merchant class in Vietnam, and the participation of other mainland Southeast Asian actors such as Cambodia, Siam, and Burma. These elements and consequences of the Tây Sơn Rebellion relate to the carving of the geographic and political boundaries of the modern nation space.[14]

Aside from this explicit reference to the beginning of ‘modern Vietnamese history,’ Woodside uses the word modern in the rest of the book as synonymous with ‘contemporary.’ Throughout Vietnam and the Chinese Model, the word ‘modern’ chronologically distinguishes the nineteenth century as politically and culturally distinct than later years.[15] Some examples of this use include “modern Hanoi,” “modern Vietnamese scholars,” and the “modern historian.” The use of ‘modern’ as a synonym for ‘contemporary’ is common in Vietnamese historiography written during and before the 1980’s and also in histories of pre-colonial Vietnam. This is due in part to the postcolonial and literary turn in the 1980’s and 1990’s, where scholars increasingly theorized and deconstructed the concept of the modern, colonial modernity, and the modern nation-state.

Thirty-five years later, Vietnam historian George Dutton finally took up Woodside’s comment about the Tây Sơn as the beginning of modern Vietnamese history in his important monograph The Tây Sơn Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth Century Vietnam.[16] Dutton challenges the two main historiographic interpretations of the Tây Sơn uprising: the nineteenth century Nguyen Dynasty court histories present the Tây Sơn as an uprising of bandits with no political legitimacy or popular support; in comparison, the mid twentieth century Vietnamese Communist historians framed the Tây Sơn uprising as a glorified collective peasant movement.[17] Dutton debunks the myth of Tây Sơn heroic political leadership and demonstrates how peasants continued to struggle under military service, heavy taxation, conflict, and forced labor under the thirty years of Tây Sơn administration.

As the first English language study of the Tây Sơn, this book examines the uprising and Tây Sơn period from the point of view of the different social groups involved. The chapters are divided into the historical, political, and geographic landscape and factors leading to the uprising, the leadership of the movement and claims to power, the experience of Vietnamese peasants under Tây Sơn rule, and the fate of the Chams, ethnic Chinese, Vietnamese Christians, and pirates or those living on the ‘social margins’ under Tây Sơn rule. Based on extensive historical sources of administrative records, the Nguyen Dynasty court histories, the Quốc sử quán (Historical academy), the Archives des Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP), Dutton showcases the regional politics and diversity of Đàng Trong society during the Tây Sơn period.

Although Dutton does not theorize the modern era and modernity explicitly, Dutton’s approach to studying the political and social complexities of the Tây Sơn period offers a localized lens of understanding Vietnamese history without the burden of Western definitions of ‘modern’ political institutions and nation-states. Dutton provides a close analysis of Vietnamese concepts and strategies of kingship and how political-military leaders like the Tây Sơn brothers struggled in an economically and politically divided regime. Focused on the Tây Sơn brothers Nguyễn Nhạc, Nguyễn Huệ, and Nguyễn Lữ, Dutton examines the different ways in which the brothers claimed political legitimacy. While the Nguyen claimed authority through non-Confucian, military, and Buddhism and the Trinh claimed Confucian political authority and lineage, the Tây Sơn also relied upon popular beliefs concerning the supernatural, sanction of heaven, and claimed to assuage popular economic grievances.[18] Furthermore, Dutton resists from the simplistic conclusion that a unified Vietnam implied a modern Vietnamese nation-state. While Dutton concedes that the Tây Sơn uprising and Nguyen triumph under Nguyễn Ánh (Emperor Gia Long) in 1802 resulted in the unification of the country under a single leadership, he argues that the wars also exacerbated peasant grievances and political unrest.

Like Woodside, Dutton often uses the word ‘modern’ as synonymous with the adjective contemporary. Furthermore, Dutton places the Tây Sơn period within the broad periodization of the ‘early modern’ (between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries) characteristic of European chronologies and comparative Southeast Asianists such as Victor Lieberman and Anthony Reid. At the same time, Dutton approaches the Tây Sơn period with a lens of continuity rather than rupture from previous forms of political leadership, governance, and geopolitical relations.

In his important 1961 essay, “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia,” John Smail drew attention to the post-colonial shift away from ‘Europe-centric’ histories to ‘Asia-centric’ understandings of Southeast Asia. [19] Rather than a moral-based claim to include indigenous voices, Smail encouraged a scholarly shift in both ‘perspective’ and topics considered of ‘relative importance.’ Smail called for a larger understanding of ‘autonomy’ to include the nuances of local social actors, the persistence of coherent social structures, and the important role of disruption and acculturation in Southeast Asian history. In this way, Alexander Woodside’s and George Dutton’s monographs offer ‘autonomous’ and alternative ways of understanding political modernity beyond European standards of bureaucratic institutions, political systems, and nation-states. Pluralizing understandings of modernity, Woodside attributes modernity in China, Vietnam, and Korea to the highly developed bureaucratic political system of mandarinates. Furthermore, both authors locate ‘modern’ political systems prior to the French colonial encounter of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In this way, the authors avoid the methodological pitfall of Euro-centric measures of modernity that Chakrabarty critiques. Woodside and Dutton demonstrate a Vietnam-centric, localized, and ‘autonomous’ history of Vietnam that emphasizes continuity of political culture and governance rather than a disruptive shift towards political modernity.

Argument II: Capitalism, Colonialism, and the Cultural Practices of Modernity

The next group of scholars locates the modern era in the early twentieth century social developments and influence of Western colonialism, capitalism, and urbanism. These scholars examine how modernity was discussed within the rapidly developing Vietnamese print media of the 1920’s and 1930’s—a cultural and political print sphere that facilitated new forms of political, cultural, and social consciousness. Certain goods and practices such as travel, dress, education abroad, leisurely activities like sports, dancing, and hunting proliferated throughout Vietnamese literature and newsprint. Within these pages, many of these social and cultural practices were conflated with ‘modernity’—a state of being associated with the West and defined antithetically against tradition, the past, or the status quo. In other words, these authors characterize the ‘modern era’ within the advent of Western imperialism and ‘modernity’ as the “reflective, judgmental thinking about these processes” of modernization and social change. [20]

In the edited volume The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Vietnam, the authors directly engage with the everyday practices of modernity in Vietnam. The editors Van Nguyen-Marshall, Lisa B. Welch Drummond, and Danièle Bélanger open the volume with the question “Who are the urban middle class in Vietnam?” and divide the volume’s chapters into a historical section and a contemporary section. In the introduction the authors locate modernity within the cities of Hanoi and Saigon throughout the twentieth century. The authors emphasize the importance of studying class and the rise of a distinct middle class in 1920s and 1930s Vietnam. They focus on the development of ‘class’ during the following historical moments: the rise of the colonial middle class and bourgeoisie class consciousness of the 1920’s, the discourse of socialist classlessness in North Vietnam and class disparity in South Vietnam during the Second Indochina War, and the contemporary program of market socialism in post-war đổi mới cities. Recognizing the potential problems of importing western concepts of the ‘middle class,’ to vietnam, the contributors to the volume nevertheless assert the usefulness of the concept to understand Vietnamese urban life, social relations, and “symbolic capital.” The authors draw from Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic capital and habitus, the “emobdiment of certain practices and ways of being and living that are unconsciously performed because they are learned through early life experience and socialization.”[21] In this way, the authors frame modernity as a set of practices embodied, performed, and reinvented, in social settings and in changing historical contexts. They argue that the Vietnamese urban middle class defined itself through creating a ‘distinction’ from the urban working poor and the emulation of wealthy and at times ‘Western’ behavior.

In one of the chapters “Advertising, Modernity, and Consumer Culture in Colonial Vietnam,” George Dutton examines advertisements to understand the relationship between consumer culture, the urban Vietnamese middle class, and perceptions of modernity in 1920’s and 1930’s Vietnam. Dutton argues that the pursuit of material objects and social advancement was an attempt to define and ‘partake’ of modernity in its “talismanic form.” Advertisements branded cosmetics, medicines, clothing, and foods as “new”, “scientific,” “improved”, “modern” and overall antithetical to tradition and the past. Dutton explains, “modernity, whatever its abstractions in rationality and scientific advances, was made manifest for the Vietnamese urbanite in the panoply of products and services advertised in newspapers of the day.”[22] In this way, newspaper advertisements evoked a sense of obtaining and performing ‘modernity’ through the conspicuous consumption of ‘modern’ products.

Dutton also analyzes how new forms of social identity emerged within the culture of consumerism and urban modernity. Dutton argues that the concept of a ‘rational consumer’ developed on the pages of advertisement; the consumer was increasingly individualistic but also part of a larger consumer community.[23] Dutton describes how the urban shift towards individualism was symbolized in changing gender norms, new definitions of love and relationships, and increasing attention to individual beauty, appearance, and public representation. Dutton explains that the development of consumer, middle class identity was centralized within the few cities that had a critical mass of Vietnamese residents, commercial industries, and a colonial administration such as Saigon-Chợ Lớn (with 300,000 inhabitants), Hải Phóng (200,000), and Hanoi (150,000).[24] Dutton expresses how within these primarily urban settings, Vietnamese dealt with questions of the ‘modern’ publicly through consumption and displays of modernity.

Dutton illustrates the newsprint debates on urbanism and modernity in his earlier article, “Lý Toét in the City: Coming to Terms with the Modern in 1930s Vietnam” published in 2007.[25] George Dutton examines the various manifestations of the cartoon character Lý Toét, a caricature of the country bumpkin learning to live in the city. Dutton argues that the character Lý Toét served two purposes: firstly, the bewilderment of Lý Toét reaffirmed the sense of sophistication amongst Vietnamese urbanite readers and secondly, his struggles with the physical dangers of everyday life in the city critiqued notions of progress and urbanization. Specifically, Dutton makes the case that this latter interpretation complicates the understanding of the Phong Hoá editorial team—the Self-Strength Literary Group—a group of literary writers known for advancing scientific knowledge, popular literature, and certain Western practices. Dutton argues that while Phong Hoá constantly discussed and advocated the progression towards ‘modernity,’ the group also saw progress as a tremendous threat. Dutton also claims that the Lý Toét character could reflect a popular mentalité of “the feelings, fears, and hopes of a wider cross-section of the literate Vietnamese public.” Through the character Lý Toét, modernity was experienced, performed, and contested. Print and literature functioned as the stage for individuals to make sense of the ambiguities of urbanization, and to understand modernity as both a benefit and a threat.[26]

Dutton’s study also sheds light on the development of Vietnamese print culture in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He argues that these new journals demonstrate the historical moment when “the past and “tradition” stood in dramatic contrast to the present and “modernity.”[27] In both the book chapter and this article, Dutton calls attention to how newspapers and advertisements relationally defined a concept of progress and modernity against the construct of the past and tradition. However, Dutton does not problematize modernity further. Dutton could have drawn from the period literature on modernization to reemphasize his important point about the inherent contradictions and uneven experience of modernization.

Although limited on one front, Dutton’s analysis of Lý Toét demonstrates how newspapers presented ‘modernity’ as a skill and knowledge to be acquired. Lý Toét’s humorous blunders in the urban landscape reminded Vietnamese readers the necessity to learn to ‘be modern.’ By interpreting Lý Toét through the multiple lenses of rural and urban contrasts and the learning of ‘modernity’, Dutton sheds light on how Vietnamese readers conceptualized the changing urban landscape of the 1930s. Although he does not engage heavily from a theoretical standpoint on debates about modernity, Dutton sheds light on the hesitancies and sense of dislocated ‘in-betweenedness’ that people felt regarding the experience of modernity and urbanism.

Dutton, Nguyen-Marshall, Drummond, and Bélanger are only a small subset of a large group of French colonial Vietnam scholars who locate the start of the modern era during the French colonial period.[28] These scholars especially focus on the interwar 1920’s and 1930’s as the epitome of modernity. The scholars discuss the social, economic, and ideological processes of modernity—or what Chakrabarty explains as the intertwined process of modernization and modernity. For these scholars, modernization takes the physical form of urbanization, colonial education, and Western science and consumer products. At the same time, these scholars call attention to the discursive debates on ‘modernity’ in the rapidly developing Vietnamese quốc ngữ (Romanized Vietnamese) and French language print sphere.

However, locating Vietnamese modernity in direct correlation to Western imperialism results in certain epistemological challenges. As Chakrabarty aptly stated, the reliance on European introduction of ‘modernity’ reinforces a binary of the East and pre-colonial history as a ‘not-yet modern’. In other words, this approach of a Western-initiated modernity overemphasizes the historical rupture of French colonialism to transform Vietnam from pre-modernity to modernity. Furthermore, the dramatization of colonial modernity can overgeneralize the very uneven experiences of Western cultural and political influences in Vietnam.[29] As Peter Zinoman points out in his book chapter “Provincial Cosmopolitanism,” many Vietnamese intellectuals engaged with global modernity in a random, uneven way, with dated French newspapers and translated works.[30] Zinoman emphasizes the particular, creative, and varied experience of ‘modernity’ in Vietnam, and reminds scholars of the possibility of a “coexistence of putatively opposite impulses” in Vietnamese cultural politics. Similar to Zinoman’s biographical study of Vũ Trọng Phụng, Christopher Goscha examines the nuanced experience and role of Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh and his understanding of modernity. In “The Modern Barbarian: Nguyen Van Vinh and the Complexity of Colonial Modernity in Vietnam,” Goscha demonstrates how Vĩnh served as a “cultural broker” between France and Vietnam, modernization and Westernization, tradition and modernity, and in turn created his own vision of modern Vietnam.[31] Both Zinoman’s and Goscha’s close study of Vũ Trọng Phụng and Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh offer a model for a deeper, more localized understanding experience of colonial modernity beyond generalizations of Western imperialism and colonial capitalism.

Argument III: Modernity, Anti-colonialism, Nation, and Nationalism

In the seminal work Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson argues that the nation is a new, modern phenomenon.[32] The seventeenth and eighteenth century witnessed the demise of previous forms of political systems that were shaped by a sacred language, dynastic power, and a sense of uneven cosmological temporality. By the eighteenth century, the emergence and spread of print-capitalism—the technological, mass production of newspapers and the novel and the spread of vernacular print languages—influenced individuals to think of themselves and relate to others in different ways. Anderson describes ‘homogoenous empty time’ as the process where individuals could envision parallel and plural realities and connect to other individuals in an ‘imagined community.’ The imagined community is one in which members will not know most of their fellow members, is finite with limited boundaries, sovereign power, and a community of fraternal, horizontal comradeship. For Benedict Anderson, the nation is a new, modern concept of community and political identity. The following group of Vietnam scholars also presents modernity within the context of the modern nation state and modern nationalism. Central to their thesis is the recognition that new, ‘modern’ forms of political identities emerged in twentieth century Vietnam.

In Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation, Charles Keith sheds light upon the role of the Vietnamese Catholic Church in the rise of Vietnamese nationalism and a ‘modern’ identity.[33] As the first comprehensive, English language study of the twentieth century Catholic Church in Vietnam, Keith rejects the current historiography of Vietnamese Catholics as simply supporters of French colonialism and in opposition to Vietnamese nationalism. Instead, Keith instills a sense of political and cultural agency for Vietnamese Catholics and indigenous religious organizations to critique the French colonial state. Keith demonstrates how a ‘national’ Catholic Church emerged in Vietnam after World War I through print culture and connection with global Catholicism. Keith reveals how the Vietnamese Catholic Church strategically identified with global Catholic movements and Vatican political stances on national self-identity and human dignity. Through this relationship with Rome and missionary political structures, Vietnamese Catholics were able to reposition themselves as a modern political and religious institution.

While the focus of the book is on the development of the Vietnamese Catholic Church and concepts of nation, Keith also demonstrates how Vietnamese Catholics contributed to a new, ‘modern’ political consciousness and nationalism. In chapter six, Keith examines the culture and politics of Vietnamese Catholic nationalism, and characterizes both Social Catholicism and Vietnamese Catholic anticommunism as a “modern, transnational phenomenon.”[34] In other parts of Catholic Vietnam, Keith describes Catholic political consciousness as tied to the rise of a modern national culture. As shown in Argument II on ‘modern’ colonial practices, the descriptor ‘modern’ increased in popularity to describe cultural and political ways of thinking in the first decades of the twentieth century. Keith shows how newspapers used terms such as ‘modern’ to describe certain social and political changes of the twentieth century. Writers contrasted the often ambiguous and all encompassing adjective ‘modern’ with ‘traditional,’ as a way to make social and cultural critiques. For example, one Catholic newspaper explained that “atheism and materialism of modern life made it less likely that Vietnamese youth might convert to Catholicism.” Keith also notes that Catholic writings on the question of women “worried that social change threatened women’s “traditional” roles as keepers of hearth and home; in the words of one priest, women’s rights nữ quyền should be ‘to preserve their dignity and righteousness’ and ‘respect their status.’”[35] In this way, Keith demonstrates how the formation of the national Vietnamese Catholic Church coincided with debates on modernity and political identities, or within a phenomenon Keith terms as ‘religious modernity.’

In Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925, historian David Marr addresses Vietnamese turn of the twentieth century responses to French colonialism and debates regarding the Vietnamese monarchy and civilization.[36] Marr highlights the motivations and limitations of movements such as the Cần Vương, the Đông Du and the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục. Characterized as scholar-gentry that came of age in 1900, this generation of anticolonialists dealt with the political and cultural experience of ‘mất nước’ (losing one’s country) and struggled to create a sense of national identity and survival. Marr characterizes the responses of Vietnamese intellectuals to French colonialism as a search for explanations for the current state of colonial subservience and a future within or outside of colonialism. In his concluding chapter called “Changing the Guard,” Marr describes a new generation of anticolonialists in the period after 1924. Described as “impatient at Mencius, Montesquieu, and Spencer” this new generation of youth would be participants in Lenin and Sun Yat-Sen inspired political organizations such as Thanh Niên Association, Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng, the Indochinese Communist Party, and the Fourth Comintern. For David Marr, the 1920s and 1930s marked the transition from a traditional scholar gentry generation of anticolonialists such as Phan Bội Châu and Phan Chu Trinh to a generation of ‘modern’ mass politics and intelligentsia.

Marr elaborates on this thesis in his second book, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945.[37] Marr examines the fundamental changes in political and social consciousness in the period 1920-1945. Drawing from the vibrant social and political debates of quốc ngữ newspapers, Marr organizes his book thematically on the themes of the colonial setting, morality, ethics and politics, language and literacy, the question of women, perceptions of the past, harmony and struggle, knowledge power, and learning from experience. Marr’s argument relies on a schema of three politically distinct generations of intellectuals: the scholar gentry at the turn of the twentieth century, the new intelligentsia of the 1920s and 1930s, and the Marxist-Leninist educated cadre (who later absorb the new intelligentsia). In contrast to the previous generation of scholar-gentry, the modern intelligentsia came of age within the socio-political changes of French colonialism—they were educated in French and Franco-Vietnamese schools and employed as clerks, teachers, and journalists. Marr explains that this generation “…stood unsteadily between two worlds and tried hard to envisage a third.”[38] With a Marxist lens on history, Marr again focuses on the intellectuals who were committed to “thinking, talking, reading, and writing about change.”[39] He focuses on the giới trí thức mới (new intelligentsia) of the 1920s and 1930s and the revolutionary cadre intellectual who rise in influence in the 1930s and 1940s. Marr argues that this generation drew from diverse sources of political and social ideologies such as voluntarism, Buddhism, science, Marxism-Leninism and “put on trial” these ideas as solutions to the injustices of colonialism.

Marr argues that the two new generations of intellectuals took on and constructed the concept of the modern to critique and contrast themselves with previous generations of Confucian, traditionalist intellectuals. He argues that by the 1920s, remnants of the past scholar gentry such as the Vietnamese emperor, mandarins, and education system had become evident as political and ideological failures to the new generation of intellectuals, whose iconoclasm pushed them towards new ideas to transform their current conditions. In other words, the new intelligentsia reflected, questioned, and reinvented the meaning of Vietnamese ‘tradition’ and its failures to enact social change.

Like Dutton and Keith, Marr also illustrates the trope of ‘tradition versus modernity’ in Vietnamese literature and socio-political debates. Duong Ba Trac’s essays explored the tension between “traditional values and enticements of modern education, material convenience, and sensual pleasures.”[40] In this way, Marr extends the concept of ‘modern’ further to encapsulate a generation who were concerned with social and political change of the status quo and ‘tradition.’


In this historiographical analysis, I examined the three general argumentative claims to the beginning of Vietnamese modernity. The first argument located the modern in bureaucratic and ‘Asian’ traditions of governance in pre-colonial Vietnam. The second argument placed modernity in the Western influences of colonial capitalism, education, and print technologies of the French colonial period. The third argument connected the question of the modern era to the modern nation state and modern political consciousness. As Dipesh Chakrabarty and other post-colonial scholars have argued, the question of modernity has been dominated by Euro-centric interpretations of history and the nation-state. In many ways, all three of these arguments analyzed directly respond to this critique of Euro-centric determinism in studies of modern Vietnam and modernity. By situating the modern era in pre-colonial Vietnam, Woodside and Dutton rejects the chronology of colonial modernity and emphasize the continuity of pre-twentieth century governmental institutions and political culture. French colonial scholars of Vietnam attempt to move away from the hegemonic influence of colonialism by focusing on Vietnamese discursive reflections on modernity. For Charles Keith and David Marr, positioning the modern era alongside the development of the nation reveals how modernity could also be a tool for political consciousness and empowerment. While most of these scholars do not directly problematize the use of the term ‘modern’ or ‘modernity,’ they also do not rely entirely on the ambiguous term of ‘modernity’ to explain historical processes of cultural and political identity.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. London; New York: Verso, 2006.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. Provincializing Europe:  Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. New Haven, CT: Princeton University Press, 2000.

———. “The Muddle of Modernity.” The American Historical Review 116, no. 3 (June 1, 2011): 663–75.

Dutton, George. “Advertising, Modernity, and Consumer Culture in Colonial Vietnam.” In The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam, edited by Van Nguyen-Marshall, Lisa Barbara Welch Drummond, Danièle Bélanger, and Barbara Welch, 21–42. Singapore: Springer, 2012.

———. “Lý Toét in the City: Coming to Terms with the Modern in 1930s Vietnam.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2, no. 1 (February 1, 2007): 80–108.

Dutton, George Edson. The Tây Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam. Southeast Asia–Politics, Meaning, and Memory; Variation: Southeast Asia–Politics, Meaning, Memory. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006.

Goscha, Christopher. “The Modern Barbarian: Nguyen Van Vinh and the Complexity of Colonial Modernity in Vietnam.” European Journal of East Asian Studies 1, no. 3 (2004): 99–134.

Keith, Charles. Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation. University of California Press, 2012.

Marr, David G. Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925. Berkeley: University of California [Press], 1971.

———. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

Nguyen-Marshall, Van, Lisa Drummond, Danièle Bélanger, and Barbara Welch. The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam. Singapore: Springer, 2012.

Shih, Shu-Mei. “Gender, Race, and Semicolonialism: Liu Na’ou’s Urban Shanghai Landscape.” The Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (November 1, 1996): 934–56.

———. The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917-1937. Berkeley Series in Interdisciplinary Studies of China, Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Smail, John R. W. “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia.” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 2 (July 1, 1961): 72–102.

Thongchai Winichakul. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994.

Woodside, Alexander. Lost Modernities China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

———. Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Zinoman, Peter. “Provincial Cosmopolitanism: Vũ Trọng Phụng’s Foreign Literary Engagements.” In Traveling Nation-Makers: Transnational Flows and Movements in the Making of Modern Southeast Asia, edited by Caroline S. Hau and Kasian Tejapira, 126–52. Singapore: NUS Press, 2011.


[1] For a literature review of the extensive work on Chinese modernity and the May Fourth Movement, see Hung-Yok Ip, Tze-Ki Hon, and Chiu-Chun Lee, “The Plurality of Chinese Modernity,” Modern China 29, no. 4 (2003): 490-509.  The works examined included David Der-wei Wang’s (1997) Fin-de-Siecle Splendor, Lydiu Liu’s (1995) Translingual Practice, Leo Lee’s (1999) Shanghai Modern, and Yeh Wen-hsin’s (2000) Becoming Chinese. For a study on the complexities of modernity in India, see

[2] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe:  Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (New Haven, CT: Princeton University Press, 2000).

[3] Ibid. P. 4.

[4] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

[5] Ibid. P. 669.

[6] Ibid. P. 674.

[7] Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe:  Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. P. 28.

[8] Alexander Woodside, Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[9] Ibid. P. 9.

[10] For example, Woodside explains that the three mandarinates organized the central administration around six specialized ministries:  personnel and appointments; finance and taxes; rites and education; war; justice and punishment; and public works

[11] Woodside cites Chinese journals and organizations dedicated to increasing efficiency and rationality in administrative work during the Nationalist period and at the Chinese municipal level.

[12] Woodside, Lost Modernities China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History. P. 13.

[13] Alexander Woodside, Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Vietnamese and Chinese Government in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971).

[14] As Thongchai Winichakul later elaborates in Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, the demarcation of a physical territory of the geobody involves the process of ‘negative identification’ and understanding of other political, cultural spaces. Based on Woodside’s analysis, the extensive involvement of both Western and Southeast Asian actors within a local Vietnamese rebellion thus shaped the development of the modern Vietnamese geobody. Thongchai Winichakul, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994).

[15] The one time that Woodside uses the adjective ‘modern’ to mean something beyond a temporal designation is when he refers to the Sino-Vietnamese resistance to Christianity as an expression of the elite religion rather than “modern Western concept of the separation of church and state.” P. 284.

[16] George Edson Dutton, The Tây Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006).

[17] This conflation of the Tây Sơn uprising as an expression of popular peasant grievances and the valorization of the national hero Nguyen Hue remains the prevailing interpretation in contemporary Vietnam.

[18] Dutton, The Tây Son Uprising. P. 62-63.

[19] John R. W. Smail, “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 2 (July 1, 1961): 72–102.

[20] Chakrabarty, “The Muddle of Modernity.” P. 669.

[21] Van Nguyen-Marshall et al., The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam, Asia Research Institute Springer Asia Series (Singapore: Springer, 2012). 10.

[22] George Dutton, “Advertising, Modernity, and Consumer Culture in Colonial Vietnam,” in The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam, ed. Van Nguyen-Marshall et al., Asia Research Institute Springer Asia Series (Singapore: Springer, 2012), 21–42.

[23] Ibid. P. 22.

[24] P. Galstady, La Cochinchine (Saigon: Société des Études Indochinoises, 1931) pp. 32, 34 and Eugène Teston and Maurice Percheron, L’indochine Moderne: Encyclopédie Administrive, Touristique, Artistique, et Économique (Paris: Librarie de France, 1931). pp. 454, 537, 543 as cited in Ibid., 23.

[25] George Dutton, “Lý Toét in the City: Coming to Terms with the Modern in 1930s Vietnam,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 2, no. 1 (February 1, 2007): 80–108.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid. P. 80.

[28] Other important Vietnam scholars who discuss modernity and modernization during the French colonial period include Christopher Goscha, Shawn McHale, Gwendolyn Wright, and Peter Zinoman.

[29] The writings of Shu-Mei Shih on ‘semicolonial’ China analyze Chinese intellectuals’ uneven and translated interpretations of Western modernity. Shu-Mei Shih, “Gender, Race, and Semicolonialism: Liu Na’ou’s Urban Shanghai Landscape,” The Journal of Asian Studies 55, no. 4 (November 1, 1996): 934–56,; Shu-Mei Shih, The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917-1937, Berkeley Series in Interdisciplinary Studies of China, Vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[30] Peter Zinoman, “Provincial Cosmopolitanism: Vũ Trọng Phụng’s Foreign Literary Engagements,” in Traveling Nation-Makers: Transnational Flows and Movements in the Making of Modern Southeast Asia, ed. Caroline S. Hau and Kasian Tejapira (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011), 126–52.

[31] Christopher Goscha, “The Modern Barbarian: Nguyen Van Vinh and the Complexity of Colonial Modernity in Vietnam,” European Journal of East Asian Studies 1, no. 3 (2004): 99–134.

[32] Benedict R. O’G Anderson, Imagined Communities Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Rev. ed (London; New York: Verso, 2006).

[33] Charles Keith, Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation (University of California Press, 2012).

[34] Ibid. P. 200.

[35] Ibid. P. 130-131.

[36] David G Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

[37] David G Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

[38] Ibid. P. 9.

[39] Ibid. P. 31.

[40] Ibid. P. 124.

One thought on “Q. When does the ‘modern’ begin in Vietnamese history? A Historiography Essay (Alexander Woodside, George Dutton, Benedict Anderson, David Marr, Charles Keith)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s