BOOK REVIEW Shawn McHale’s Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam

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McHale, Shawn. Print and Power:  Confucianism, Communism and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.

In the foundational study on print culture in Vietnam, Print and Power addresses two important arguments: (1) The historiography of 20th century Vietnam has overemphasized the significance of communism and anti-colonial nationalism and focused on the small group of urban, educated elite intellectuals. (2) Rather, Buddhism was more important to Vietnamese public life and was the cornerstone of Vietnamese national identity. Thus Mchale’s text contributes to a more complex understanding of the rise of the ‘public sphere’ (or rather the multiplicity of spheres such as clandestine, religious, traditional spheres) in Vietnam as well as a deeper understanding of the development of Buddhism during 1920to 1945.

The first two chapters are an early attempt to explain the rise of print culture and colonial policies on print and censorship. The majority of the work focuses on the semi-autonomous development of political communities around Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism. In his chapter on Confucianism, McHale first situates himself within the revisionist critique of the overrepresentation of Confucianism in Vietnam. At the same time, McHale analyzes how Confucianism was wrapped together with 20th c Vietnamese debates (Trần Trọng Kim, Đào Duy Anh, Trương Tửu) on morality training, ethics, Vietnamese culture, nostaligia, and social change. In the chapter on Communism, McHale analyzes the role of print in spreading ideas about Communism in the case of the Nghe Tinh 1930-1931 uprisings an the rise of the Viet Minh (1940-1945). This short section investigates the meaning of ‘propaganda,’ its diverse audiences, and methods of transmitting, translating, and sharing a political message. Although short, McHale contributes alternative analyses of Communism through print culture (language of Communism, practices of reading, self-study groups). His final chapter on Buddhism is the most significant contribution to the historiography of Buddhist culture in the Mekong Delta. McHale analyzes the eclectic religiosity of south Vietnam (drawing from Zen and Pure Land Buddhism), milleniarian movements, Buddhist devotionalism, and the Buddhist Revival of the 1920s onwards. This examination connects the development of print culture with Buddhist Revival, the Vietnamization of a diverse frontier wilderness, and the growth of popular Buddhist devotionalism.

Critiques: Source, analytical lens, and the role of institutions

  • Daivd Marr has highlighted the source bias of Print and Power’s reliance on the BNF collection which excluded and could not capture the complexity of Vietnamese politics and anti-colonial writings.
  • Furthermore, the analytical lens of comparing Confucianism, Buddhism and Communism are exogenous historical categories and oversimplifies all three aspects. Marr specifically aclls out McHale’s understanding of Communism and the focus on the Communist Party (in the role of the ICP in the Nghe Tinh soviets and the Viet Minh propaganda efforts).
  • McHale’s study focuses on newspapers and does not discuss the role of cultural institutions such as libraries and education in the development of Vietnamese print culture and reading public.

Even with its limitations, Shawn McHale’s book Print and Power contributes to the surprisingly limited scholarship on 20th century Vietnamese print culture. Print and Power has been a fundamental to more recent scholarship on print culture and modern Vietnamese national identity including Philippe Peycam’s The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Saigon, 1916-1930 (2012) and Charles Keith’s Catholic Vietnam: A Church from Empire to Nation (2012) (my review forthcoming on this blog).  My research on Vietnamese libraries will build upon and contribute to the limited, but important body of scholarship on institutions and print culture in Vietnam.

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