Below is a paper I wrote for Professor Alexander Cook’s Chinese Socialism in Global Perspective class Spring 2014. I discuss the historiography of Vietnamese youth and student movements and generational politics in the early twentieth century.
This paper examines the historiography of Vietnamese youth and student movements in the first half of the twentieth century. Given that the literature on Vietnamese student movements is relatively limited, I examine how students and youth movements are discussed in larger studies on the political atmosphere of 1920-1945 Vietnam. From these studies, I highlight how research on modern Vietnam has often been framed through the lens of generational politics—where political actors respond to the inadequacies of previous generations and intellectual shifts moves historical time forward. The first half of this paper examines the work of foundational scholars in modern Vietnamese history, Hue-Tam Ho Tai, David Marr, Pierre Brocheux, and Daniel Hémery, and explores their use of periodization and generations to discuss students and political radicalization. The second half explores the categorization of students in the work of Scott McConnell and historian of China Fabian Lanza. Drawing briefly from two monographs by Richard Wolin and Arif Dirlik, I conclude with some reflections on student movements and cultural politics of Vietnam on a comparative and thematic level.
In the following examination of texts, I also ask the following methodological questions regarding writing histories of movements and ideology. How do scholars understand historical origins and legacies of ideology and movements without falling into teleology and simplistic causation? For example, how do scholars write the political history of early twentieth century Vietnam without framing a Marxist-Leninist style revolution as historically inevitable? How have scholars positioned debates in culture in the understanding of revolution? Does the historical categorization of ‘student’ and generational politics reveal or obscure our understanding of the Vietnamese revolution?
Radicalism, Young Intelligentsia, and ‘Political Mood’
In the field of Vietnamese history, Hue Tam Ho-Tai’s Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution published in 1992, continues to be the foundational text to understand the foundations of revolutionary culture and thinking. Hue-Tai’s work contributes a complex interpretation of the 1920’s and 1930’s by placing these early stages of the Vietnamese revolution in the framework of cultural discourse and political action. This work critically challenges the existing historiography in its over-determined and teleological understanding of a Marxist-Leninist inspired Vietnamese Revolution, and sheds light upon the 1920’s and 1930’s as a period of variegated political and cultural mentalities and debates. With these methodological intentions, Hue-Tam engages with these ideas reflexively in order to understand the mindset and logical processes that historical agents made as they considered the viability and appeal of certain political paths. Imbuing her historical actors with a tremendous sense of agency, Hue-Tam shifts the interpretation of Vietnamese intellectuals from simply reactionaries to colonial rule; instead she shows how individuals engaged with each other on interpretations of the past and future of Vietnamese society and negotiated a strategy of action.
The author argues that the 1920’s and 1930’s witnessed the formation of a particular strain of reaction to the colonial status quo, and coins the term Vietnamese radicalism, defined as “an essentially nonideological current of reaction, both to colonial rule and to native accommodation to that rule, the chief characteristics of which were iconoclasm and the marriage of the personal and the political.” Hue-Tam locates the emergence of radicalism amongst a specific generation of Vietnamese nationalists—mostly urban, French or French colonial educated, youth who came of age in the political climate of the 1920’s and expressed themselves through student strikes, associations, and newspapers. Characterized as the yearning for new personal and collective forms of expression, radicalism was the “political mood” and also a form of cultural politics of the 1920’s and 1930’s generation of students. The first part of the book discusses the cultural and political frustrations of radical youth: the contradiction between Confucian values and colonial society, the failures of reformism to deal with social and political inadequacies, and the status of women. After establishing a ‘political mood’ of the period, Hue-Tam undertakes the challenging task of figuring out how and when a spirit of disenchantment and iconoclasm became politicized. She demonstrates that key events in the span of a couple years, the trial of Phan Boi Chau, the death of Phan Chau Trinh, and the arrest of Nguyen An Ninh would “light the torch of patriotism” and formed the collective political and cultural experiences of urban radical youth.
By formally labeling the political culture of iconoclasm and disenchantment of the 1920’s generation, Hue-Tam is able to address the whirlwind of vibrant political debate and the rise of youth culture rather than disregard nonideological movements as protean and amateur. At the same time, the term radicalism also takes away from the specificity of certain ideologies and individuals (such as different strains of anarchism, Nguyen An Ninh’s self-identification, reformist, and literary modernists). She attempts to portray this experimental period of “intellectual and political options as they appeared”, but at times this results in a overly broad mix of terms used under the idea of radicalism such as anarchism, revolution, anticolonialism, iconoclasm, individualism, and nationalism. Nevertheless, this characterization of the period does not take away from her ultimate argument regarding the individualist and experimental phase of nationalist politics. Hue-Tam asserts that this moment was crucial to the development of the mass politics of the Vietnamese Revolution, but sidesteps falling into a teleological argument by justifying the significance of that phenomena on its own right.
Hue-Tam Ho Tai draws from the historical periodization and thematic approach of David Marr. The focus of David Marr’s first book, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 (1971) addresses Vietnamese scholars’ initial response to colonialism at the turn of the twentieth century, particularly in debates regarding the state of the Vietnamese monarchy and civilization. His concluding chapter titled “Changing the Guard”, contrasts the older scholar-gentry such as Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh with youth from the 1910’s and 1920’s who would later participate in important associations such as the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (Vietnam National People’s party), the Comintern, and the Fourth International. Marr provides a lengthy description of Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh) and explains the role of Canton as a beacon of anti-colonial activity to describe the rise of a new generation of Vietnamese anti-colonialists born after 1895, educated in Franco-Vietnamese schools, and more receptive to twentieth century intellectual ideologies such as Marxism-Leninism. Concluding with the arrest of Phan Boi Chau in 1925, the scholar-patriot who had become a symbol of “yeu nuoc” (love for country), Marr argues that Phan Boi Chau recognized that Vietnamese anticolonialism had transformed to a different generation of leaders. Furthermore, Marr analyzes the content and reception of the speeches of Phan Chu Trinh in 1925 to support his argument that a significant generational shift had occurred. Marr explains how these speeches (imbued with philosophical idealism) failed to connect with the young Cochinchinese intellectuals whose interests lie more in Kant, Comte, Nietzsche, and Marx. Marr concludes with the death of Phan Chu Trinh, and the close of a generation of scholar-gentry who set the philosophical framework for the next generation.
Marr’s second book explores the emergence of this new generation of young intellectuals, as they put Vietnamese Confucian ‘tradition on trial’ and searched for alternative worldviews. In Vietnamese Tradition on Trial 1920-1945, Marr examines the fundamental changes in political and social consciousness in the period 1920-1945, aspects that Marr argues, formed one of the preconditions for mass mobilization and people’s war strategies from 1945 onward. His primary interest is the group of “new intelligentsia” (gioi tri thuc moi) of the 1920’s and 1930’s, who consisted mainly of the petit bourgeoisie and were identified by a certain “state of mind.” Marr explains that the intelligentsia differed in approaches to change, but were inherently committed “to thinking, talking, reading, and writing about change.” However, he argues that the era of Vietnamese intelligentsia ended by 1939 with a crackdown on public expression, and thus intellectuals held visible roles only through illegal activity or political organizations.
Marr’s book is organized thematically with chapters on the colonial setting, morality, ethics and politics, language and literacy, the question of women, perceptions of the past, harmony and struggle, and knowledge power. Each of the sections sets out to illuminate a certain theme in the intellectual debates during this period as well as how it changed over time. Yet often these debates are framed too simplistically along lines of Confucianism or Marxism, often with eventual dominance of the communist movement. Marr often inserts Ho Chi Minh’s personal and intellectual trajectory in the story as a point of comparison, and thus the specter of communism runs through the entire book rather than examination of intellectuals’ critical engagement with Marxist-Leninist ideas and Communism as a political path. Furthermore, contemporaneous intellectual and spiritual debates such as religious movements, Hue intellectuals, moderates, and literary modernists are only mentioned briefly, often as alternate but not quite viable paths. Thus the story of how Communism became the leading path amongst intellectuals seems straightforward, rather than complex and contested such as in Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s study of this period.
Although the structure of the book depicts a predetermined history, the philosophical questions that Marr raises are crucial to understanding the intellectual milieu of this period. Similar to Hue-Tam’s argument regarding iconoclastic radicalism, Marr frames these decades as the recognition of inherent contradictions within political and cultural structures. In this way, this is a story about cognitive dissonance—where belief systems were at odds with present realities, and thus individuals were pushed to either search for a new worldview or adapt that worldview to the present conditions. Fundamental to David Marr’s argument is the idea that periods of social and cultural strain witness the rise in ideological frameworks with which to provide structure and answers to the present and future. In this way, Marr characterizes the different responses of Vietnamese intellectuals to French colonialism as a searching for explanations for the current state of subservience and a future within or without that system. Furthermore, he argues that by the 1920’s, remnants of the past such as the emperor, mandarins, and education system had become evident as failures to a new generation of intellectuals, whose iconoclasm pushed them towards new ideas to transform their current conditions. Like Hue-Tam’s characterization, this is a story of rupture from previous systems of morality as well as of prolonged alienation and inability for intellectual expression.
In terms of students and youth movements, Marr does not critically reflect on the category of the ‘intelligentsia’. Marr frames these decades as the new forms of ‘knowledge power’ by the young intelligentsia, a generation different from the patriotic scholar-gentry and a product of the colonial system. This general use of this category in both Marr and Hue-Tam’s work results in a predetermined existence of a certain social category. With much less attention that in Hue-Tam’s work, the key events around student public identity, Phan Chu Trinh’s death and funeral in March and April 1926, only received cursory attention in Marr’s work. Marr describes the death of Phan Chu Trinh as a fleeting moment of pride and unity as Vietnamese were able to organize solemn public processions and publicly mourn the “morally upright patriot.” At least sixteen funeral observances were held throughout Indochina, and Marr notes that some principles punished students for participating (such as wearing black armbands). Marr mentioned that this suppression resulted in “a series of historically significant strikes” and some students then became more involved in political matters. Marr does spend several chapters describing the colonial education system, the limited opportunities education afforded Vietnamese youth, and also colonial strategies to prevent the ‘radicalization’ of Vietnamese youth through study abroad in France.
In this manner, Marr does not attribute a political and social identity to ‘students’ outside of the larger ‘young intelligentsia’ of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Although limited in critical reflection about cultural politics and youth movements, Marr’s work was much a product of the after-war years and first exposure to Vietnamese documents and newsprint to Western scholars. The preface to Marr’s third book, Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power published in 1995, reinforces the historical context of Marr’s work. Marr admits that his first two books were shaped by the following goals: Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 “attempted to show the political will of a minority of Vietnamese in incredibly trying circumstances” and Vietnamse Tradition on Trial 1920-1945 “aimed to demonstrate that the Vietnamese deserved to be taken seriously as thinking people.”
Scholars Daniel Hemery and Pierre Brocheux also mark the 1920’s as a period of transition and emergence of a new generation of intellectuals. In their comprehensive study of colonialism, they use David Marr’s model of an emergent revolutionary elite, or ‘intelligentsia’, and characterize the generation of 1923-1929 as the result of structural changes in education and socio-political expression. The authors explain that the new generation of Vietnamese intellectuals were “prevented from carrying out the essential social functions of the modern intellectual: elaborating and disseminating knowledge and ideologies, directing production and exchange, managing policy by both exercising power and playing oppositional roles at all levels of the state and the civil society.” Although these roles do not seem to be at much of a rupture from the early modern intellectual, the authors explain that this ‘situation of dramatic cultural alienation’ caused some of this generation to respond with social dissidence and revolution of society. Brocheux and Hemery argue that two events characterize the new political force of revolution: Nguyen An Ninh’s speech delivered in Saigon on October 15, 1923 that condemned Confucianism and France’s civilizing mission and Pham Hong Thai’s attempted assassination of Governor-General Pierre Merlin in Canton on June 19, 1924.
Similar to Hue-Tam’s argument, Brocheux and Hemery often cite the writings and actions of Nguyen An Ninh to personify the spirit of ‘individual liberation, political emancipation, and social transformation” of the new intelligentsia. However, it was not until after the 1926 events, that significant revolutionary parties (such as Jeune Annam, Societe secrete Nguyen An Ninh, Tan Viet Nam Cach Menh Dang, and the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang) and a significant communist movement (Thanh Nien) formed, drawing thousands of young intellectuals throughout the country and to bases in China and Thailand. Brocheux and Hemery synthesize the complexity of the early communist movements by emphasizing its appeal to the intelligentsia for ideological coherence and an attempt to reconcile nationalism with political action. Yet, similar to the other histories of colonial era student movements, the intelligentsia and student population emerge briefly in the story of student strikes and intelligentsia radical politics, only to be subsumed into the revolutionary parties and uprisings of the late 1930’s and 1940’s.
Student Experience and Problematizing Categories
Scott McConnell’s Leftward Journey: The Education of Vietnamese Students in France, 1919-1939 is one of the only English language studies focused exclusively on Vietnamese colonial-era students. McConnell provides important details regarding Vietnamese study in French lycees and situates study abroad within the context of failed French colonial education policy in Indochina. Characterizing the socio-cultural isolation of students as ‘déclassé” McConnell also highlights the contradictions of French ideas of ‘liberal imperialism’, educational development, and the civilizing mission. McConnell writes from a French political perspective, but his argument attempts to explain the radicalization of Vietnamese students with a severely limited number of sources by these very actors. His source material is entirely French-language sources, records from the Intercolonial Security Police, writings of French officials, and Vietnamese student memoirs.
With such a state-centric source base, the narrative of Vietnamese radicalism becomes filtered through the language and suspicions of an oppressive colonial state. McConnell’s central thesis generalizes the experience of Vietnamese study abroad and also conflates that experience with radicalization. He argues that Vietnamese students became Communists and Trotksyists through their experience in France, especially without a rigid system of control of Vietnamese study abroad. McConnell adds that Vietnamese students participated in French Communist politics and cites the case of Ho Chi Minh. Although McConnell’s main argument remains simplistic and under-supported, the author does shed some light on debates in French politics regarding the colonies and education. Furthermore, he also provides some important details regarding the diverse backgrounds of the students based on government reports.
In Behind the Gate: Inventing Students in Beijing, Fabio Lanza disentangles the political and sociological categorization of students and considers how the events around May 4, 1919 intersected with the politicization of the group of ‘student.’ Lanza critically challenges the ahistorical way in which students and activism have been interwoven into the modern history of China as always already fixed. This approach to historical and political categorization could deeply enrich Vietnamese scholarship on radical youth and on the emergence of political identities.
Lanza employs Henri Lefebvre’s idea of lived space and Alain Badiou’s definition of politics, which comes into existence by distancing and challenging the identities imposed by the state. Lanza focuses on a very specific group and time, the politicized students of Beijing University (Beida) between 1917 and 1920. Divided into the four parts Lived, Intellectual, Political, and Social Space, Lanza thus structures his argument by the various challenges to the state that shaped and came to produce the identity of Chinese ‘student’. Lanza argues, “Politics is not a function of place, social categories, or abstract concepts, but it lies rather in the ability to produce a space in which a new everyday can be experienced, new relationships formed, and alternative lives can be lived…Only by claiming a space of its own, only by producing a new everyday, can a group express and realize its politics.” In this way, Lanza engages with the ‘politics of the quotidian’ and demonstrates how the exercise and transgression of certain spaces by students was an act of political defiance.
Notably, Lanza uses the sociological construction of space and politics to examine the historical constitution of ‘students’ In turn he challenges historians to consider new ways to understand historical agency and structures such as the relationship between students and the state. Furthermore, Lanza’s approach also gives importance to the role of mythology and symbol in the constitution of categories and the decisions of historical actors. For example, Lanza argues that the physical movement of Beida students—students who carry tremendous symbolic capital as activists—outside the school and into the streets in May and June 1919 was an act of ‘dislocating politics’ and challenging governmental delegitimation of youth movements as apolitical. Although somewhat unorthodox, Lanza’s arguments remain inherently historical, and consider the ways in which the May Fourth political category of students “claimed a right for politics” and differed from previous students. Additionally, Lanza notes how this group was shaped by tremendous twentieth century societal changes such as urbanization and changes in education and government.
Concluding Reflections on Student Movements, Cultural Politics, and Ideology
As if responding to the generational arguments inherent within the history of modern Vietnam, Lanza challenges the analyses of students as an “epiphenomenon of socioeconomic transformations or structural crises.” Rather than associate the emergence of a political identity with only structural changes, Lanza illuminates the level of self-reflexivity of May fourth historical actors who engaged with self-categorization of ‘citizens’ and ‘people’. This attempt to restore agency to students also emerges in scholarship that reduce cultural politics and youth movements to juvenile and apolitical moments. Lanza argues that the New Culture Movement and May Fourth were inherently political and embody the radical redefinition of politics pursued outside of formal governmental institutions. Lanza cites the work of Kristin Ross and draws parallels with the generalization and dismissal of the May 1968 movement as “nothing more than a generational ferment—emotional, natural, and passing.”
Richard Wolin’s The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s also responds to the oversimplification of youth movements. Recognizing the revolutionary idealism of student movements, Wolin critically examines the events of 1968 as an alternative interpretation to revolution; rather than a Marxist revolution by the seizure of means of production, Wolin argues that this period saw the discussion of a revolution of everyday life. Furthermore he considers important legacies of the late 1960s and 1970s: the broadening of politics into culture and the groundwork for social movements around identity politics. These interpretations of cultural politics can shed light on how to examine student movements beyond manifestations of ‘youthful unrest.’
If the May 1968 revolts in France and May 1919 revolts were moments in which culture became a political terrain, then the 1920’s and 1930’s also witnessed a glimpse of that paradigm shift in the radical discourse of Vietnamese young intelligentsia. As argued most clearly in Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s work, the ‘revolution of everyday life’ and identity politics in Vietnam saw its heyday in debates regarding individual, social, and political change carried through 1920’s and 1930’s short-lived journals, illegal pamphlets, and student societies. However, this experimental phase of ‘individualist’ ideas with anarchical tenets is usually framed in histories of modern Vietnam as pre-ideological; by the late 1930’s, the radical energy of a youth movement is channeled into political parties and appears to dissipate. This obscuring of youth movements by ideology is in part due to the dominance in the historiography of questions regarding the triumph of certain political parties and ideologies, such as mass politics and Marxist-Leninism in Vietnam. In a similar way, cultural politics and youth movements—Vietnamese radicalism of the 1920’s and 1930’s, China’s May 1919 movement, and French May 1968-ers—have often been personified as a generation in waiting for a convincing worldview.
However, in Arif Dirlik’s examination of the pre-May fourth period and the founding of the Communist party in China, the author aptly argues that ‘ideology’ is an ongoing activity and political organization, a construction. In other words, Dirlik emphasizes the human factor of intellectual history to continually redefine ideas and to construct political meaning. Nevertheless in his explanation of the eventual rise of the communist party, Dirlik explores the power of abstract organizations and ideology and the appeal of ideological coherence to individuals.
The works in this historiography have approached the emergence and contributions of a specific group of young, radical, intellectuals in Vietnam in the 1920’s and 1930’s. These works address the emergence of a distinct intellectual and social identity as a result of factors regarding societal changes (education, political liberties, platforms for exchange) and formative experiences (travel, world events). The metaphor of age and generation is useful in personifying change over time and also to understand the motivations of historical actors. The Vietnamese youth of this period emerge as generationally different in terms of political expression and strategies. Yet, the understanding of generational shifts can also lead to assumptions of a linear path to political and ideological development. All in all, what the authors in this historiography attempt to illuminate is how historical actors decide and continuously reexamine their political paths. This recognition of self-reflexivity and agency can, as Arif Dirlik has shown, disentangle the monolithic occlusion of ideology.
Brocheux, Pierre, and Daniel Hémery. “Resistance, Nationalism, and Social Movements, 1900-1939.” In Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954, 281–335. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.
Dirlik, Arif. The Origins of Chinese Communism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Hue-Tam, Ho Tai. Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Lanza, Fabio. Behind the Gate Inventing Students in Beijing. Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Marr, David G. Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
———. Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925. Berkeley: University of California [Press], 1971.
———. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
McConnell, Scott. Leftward Journey: The Education of Vietnamese Students in France, 1919-1939. New Brunswick, USA; Oxford, UK: Transaction Publishers, 1989.
Wolin, Richard. The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
 For the purpose of this paper, I only survey English language scholarship in this field. Yet, I also recognize the tremendous contributions of French language scholars Daniel Hémery, Pierre Brocheux, and Trinh Van Thao to scholarship on Vietnamese radicalism and students. Daniel Hémery, Revolutionnaires Vietnamiens et Pouvoir Colonial En Indochine (Paris: Maspero, 1975); “Generations Au Vietnam: Des Intellectuels En Situation Coloniale,” Approches-Asie, no. 11 (1992).Van Thao Trinh, Vietnam: du confucianisme au communisme : un essai itinéraire intellectuel (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007). Pierre Brocheux, “Une histoire croisée : l’immigration politique indochinoise en France, 1911-1945,” Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières, 2009, http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article14195.
 Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992).
 Ibid. P. 1.
 David G Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).
 David G Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).
 Ibid. P. 31-32.
 Marr describes how this generation was educated in French and Franco-Vietnamese schools, sought employment as clerks, teachers, and journalist and “…stood unsteadily between two worlds and tried hard to envisage a third.” Ibid. P. 9.
 The other mention of student strikes and activism is in the discussion of Vietnamese students in France and their demonstration in front of the Elysee Palace against colonial repression of the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (Vietnam Nationalist Party) uprising that February.
 David G Marr, Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995). P. xxiv.
 Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, “Resistance, Nationalism, and Social Movements, 1900-1939,” in Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 281–335.
 Ibid. P. 305.
 Ibid. P. 306.
 Scott McConnell, Leftward Journey: The Education of Vietnamese Students in France, 1919-1939 (New Brunswick, USA; Oxford, UK: Transaction Publishers, 1989).
 The population of Vietnamese students generally comprised of children of Vietnamese administrators, children of the new landed-elite of Cochinchina, and also those of lower middle class backgrounds.
 Fabio Lanza, Behind the Gate Inventing Students in Beijing, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).
 Ibid. P. 7.
 Lanza argues how the transgression ‘student’ identity was a political act: “By moving outside the school, students also refused to be contained by the narrow meaning of “students,” and claimed politics as a form of collective action that exceeds sociological definition. They crossed borders physically, socially, and politically.” P. 123
 Ibid. P. 6.
 Ibid. P. 133.
 Richard Wolin, The Wind from the East: French Intellectuals, the Cultural Revolution, and the Legacy of the 1960s (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
 Arif Dirlik, The Origins of Chinese Communism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).
 Hue-Tam Ho Tai’s historiographical intervention and approach to writing a history of the origins of revolution resemble Arif Dirlik’s The Origins of Chinese Communism written just a few years earlier. Hue-Tam does not explicitly mention this work, but references Arif Dirlik’s earlier article “Vision and Revolution,” Modern China 12:2 (April 1986).