‘A Xu/sou for the Students’: A Discourse Analysis of Vietnamese Student Migration to France in the Late Colonial Period

This was originally published as a book chapter in Nguyen, Cindy A. 2015. “‘A Xu/sou for the Students’: A Discourse Analysis of Vietnamese Student Migration to France in the Late Colonial Period”. In Transnational Migration and Asia: The Question of Return, edited by Michiel Baas, 135–56. Amsterdam University Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1963142.11.

Below is an early proof version of my chapter:


“’A Xu/Sou for the Students:’

A Discourse Analysis of Vietnamese Student Migration to France in the Late Colonial Period”

Cindy A. Nguyen


This chapter examines the physical and emotional experience and representation of Vietnamese student migrants between metrópole and home within the first decades of the twentieth century. Amongst the circulation of ideas on civilization, individualism, and nationalism, newspaper debates questioned the meaning and role of ‘the student’ within a rapidly changing, modern and one-day independent Vietnamese nation. However, rather than assume colonial study as simply a producer of radical intelligentsia, this chapter considers how the discourse of ‘the student’ was shaped both by the obligation to return to Vietnam and the students’ rejection of that cultural world. For some individuals, civilizational discourse and the opportunity for education abroad was the emancipation from both family and outmoded social expectations. For others, this sense of individuality inherent within student migration, reified the feeling of apartness brought by physical distance and cultural estrangement. Through studying the rhetoric of sending Vietnamese abroad, this chapter demonstrates the symbolic power and responsibility that an educated youth carried in relation to shifting definitions of the home—both familial and national.


In the period after the First World War and the repatriation of Vietnamese soldiers and workers, a substantial number of Vietnamese continued to move relatively freely between France and Vietnam, remaining in France for varying periods of weeks, months, or even permanent resettlement for some.[1] The French and colonial government loosely classified many of these individuals as ‘students’—as many of the Vietnamese youth attended French schools, seeking to earn a French degree. Aside from an administrative classification, the ‘student’ also emerged as a particular social category throughout Vietnamese intellectual and political debates on modernity, nationhood, and education. The Vietnamese ‘student’ became a social type, infused with overlapping expectations for socio-economic prestige or political activism on their return to the colony. The student’s journey and obligation to ‘return’ functioned as indications of family success, and opportunities for individual freedom and social achievement. Furthermore, often throughout these discussions the student became an illusive subject in need of financial or ideological guidance; ultimately ‘the student’ served as vehicles for depicting broader discontent in Vietnamese politics and colonial society. In other words, inherent within the definition of French study abroad were the expectations to return to the colony and to engage within the currents of political and social change. This chapter explores the multifaceted construct of the Vietnamese ‘student’ in the first decades of the twentieth century, and considers the various social and political discourses that contributed to its constant re-invention.

Rather than attempt a comprehensive history of ‘the student’—a categorical referent of assumed age, political leaning, upbringing, and formal education—this chapter undertakes Joan Scott’s challenge of making visible subject-positions and identities through understanding the discursive processes of identity formation, of which “achieve their effect because they are unnoticed” (Scott 1991: 792). In other words, Vietnamese youth who studied in France did not always identify as the construct ‘student,’ but were entrenched in the historical formation and re-formation of a particular social identity. The lived reality of students’ ‘experience’ and rhetoric used to characterize them operated in different but not isolated planes. Rather, the discursive characteristics of the ‘student’ existed as an ephemeral and contested undercurrent throughout the historic present of Vietnamese political and social debates. By examining Vietnamese language newspapers, memoirs, community fundraisers, and popular literature, this chapter will demonstrate the multidirectional forces, (such as pressures to return) and historic moments that come to produce the new identity of Vietnamese students. As Scott eloquently explains: “Treating the emergence of a new identity as a discursive event is not to introduce a new form of linguistic determinism, nor to deprive subjects of agency. It is to refuse a separation between “experience” and language and to insist instead on the productive quality of discourse” (Ibid). This chapter ultimately demonstrates how the categorical identity of student functioned both as static tropes instrumentalized for social reform and also as fluid discursive processes present within the lives of the students themselves.

Aside from the important French language articles by Daniel Hémery (1975) and Pierre Brocheux (2009), the current body of scholarship on Vietnamese students is fairly limited in number and scope. More focused on the French response to migration, Scott McConnell’s (1989) Leftward Journey provides a synthesis of student migration and explores the radicalizing potential of French policy and associations on Vietnamese political ideology. McConnell supports his argument through his extensive examination of French language documents; yet he admits his limitations in using Vietnamese sources that could have diversified his understanding of the experiences and social roles of Vietnamese students. Le Huu Khoa’s (1985) sociological study on immigration from its earliest colonial beginnings to contemporary relations with the Democratic Republic of Vietnam poses important theoretical questions on immigrant identity and sense of belonging. These previous works lay the groundwork to understand processes of radicalization and acculturation, but offer limited insight into the emotional, cultural, and social burdens re-articulated through migration and pressures to return. Thus, this study seeks to fill that gap by shedding light on the influence and discursive representations of migrant ‘obligations.’ How does the obligation to not only return, but also return as an educated and productive contributor to society shape the migration experience of Vietnamese students? What social, cultural, or political measures determine a ‘successful’ student migrant? Furthermore, what roles do student migrants hold within the diverse socio-political movements such as civilization, nationalism, modernization, or radicalism during the late colonial period in Vietnam?

As a theoretical parallel and for functional purposes, this chapter refers to the broad phenomenon of Vietnamese study abroad as ‘student migration.’ As an intellectual framework, cultural history and migration studies offer useful insight into the dialectic between sending communities and migrants. For example, the descriptors migrant and student—defined by an experienced phase—fix temporal identities onto eternal categories. As revealed through this discursive study of Vietnamese students, study abroad and eventual return to Vietnam became inextricably woven within the identity of the Vietnamese student in the late colonial period. Thus, while most Vietnamese students only lived in France for a short period before returning to Vietnam, the ‘student-migrant experience’ continued to permeate throughout Vietnamese intellectual life and transnational networks as cultural and ideological tropes. This examination of Vietnamese students in France does not attempt to represent the diverse experiences of Vietnamese students abroad, but seeks to provide insight into the dialectic and influential realm of student identity that existed between metrópole and colony, ideal and reality.


At the Intersection of Colonial Education Rhetoric and Reality: The Purposes of a French Degree

Characterized by shifting colonial education policies, lack of funding, and a disorganized scope of curricula and training, the French colonial school system offered a haphazard and limited educational opportunity for Vietnamese youth. The Franco-Indigenous colonial schools served the dual purpose of training loyal Vietnamese administrative and technical agents and replacing potentially rebellious Vietnamese teachers.[2] Beginning in 1906, the focus and direction of new colonial policy attempted to streamline the technical and philosophical purposes of education in Vietnam.[3] Many of these reforms were driven by the strategy to rupture Vietnamese cultural traditions, remove the threat of scholar-inspired revolts and schools as breeding grounds for anti-colonial dissent, and distinguish French supremacy within a hierarchy of education (Anderson 2006). However colonial policy, curriculum, and classroom structure diverged in practice.

Even though over the years the primary education system showed improvement in organization and access, between 1920 and 1938, the highest number of Vietnamese youth enrolled in school did not surpass 10 percent (Kelly 1979, 1987). Nevertheless, the limited range of academic training offered in Vietnam–village public schools, French lycées, the University of Hanoi, the School for Interpreters, or the Tonkin Free School—profoundly influenced the ways in which Vietnamese systematically “experienced colonialism,” in their early youth through invasive attempts at academic centralization. Colonial educated students experienced a measure of mandated French language, history, and culture instruction and were required to recite daily their loyalty to France with the phraseNos ancêtres, les Gaulois (Our forefathers, the Gauls).An even smaller population of students advanced to post-primary elite schools: an estimated 10,000 students between the years 1920s and 1930s (Marr 1981: 37).[4] Intense racial discord permeated throughout these schools, and colon teachers often unfairly disciplined, failed, or prevented Vietnamese students from graduating, in attempts to protect colonial socio-economic elite status.

With the limited opportunities for intellectual and economic ascension in the colony, many Vietnamese sought intellectual enrichment and economic leverage through overseas studies in France. Aside from the few cases of early Vietnamese diplomats from the Hue court to France, large-scale Vietnamese study abroad did not occur until after 1910—when a series of initiatives for modern education in Vietnam were suppressed, leaving little “alternative for modern education except for a Tây Du or voyage a l’Ouest to France” (Brocheux 2009).[5] Between 1915 and 1920, France recruited about 90,000 Indochinese (the majority of whom illiterate were Vietnamese) who served as soldier-workers and agents (McConnell 1989). During the Second World War, France also recruited manual labor and soldiers from its colonies such as Vietnam. Brocheux explains that while the majority of these temporary migrant workers and soldiers were repatriated after the wars, some remained to attend French schools and the unlettered majority entered the French working class.[6]

Aside from those who initially journeyed to France via military conscription, a substantial number of Vietnamese from diverse social classes traveled to France to study abroad. Children of well-connected and landlord merchant classes, or the petit bourgeois urban population, formed the majority of the student population, yet students of the relatively poor working class also participated in overseas education through community or patron sponsorship (Marr 1984: 33). The majority of officially registered students stayed in France for six to seven years depending on their ability to secure funding. Official records estimated Vietnamese high school and university students in France in 1929 to be at least 1,800 (1,100 in Paris, 200 in Aix-en-Provence, 110 in Toulouse, and the remaining in Marseille, Bordeaux, and Lyon).[7] Although around 3675 individual files of Indochinese living in France were accounted for in the Ministry of Colonies, official population data on Vietnamese migrants was severely limited, unsystematic, and often broadly classified. The variable statistical data also calls to question how the French government quantified ‘student life’ and its many determining factors. For example, these numbers do not illustrate the frequent movement of students between institutions, the varied duration of registered studies, their simultaneous employment at various jobs (such as sailors,) and their participation in youth and student groups.

By 1926 and 1927 colonial educational reforms in Franco-Vietnamese education also pushed Vietnamese students to obtain a French diploma in order to hold a position in the civil service (Blanc 2005: 1159). With this restriction, a degree earned in the metrópole, regardless of prestige of institution, carried considerable weight in comparison to one earned from a Franco-Vietnamese school.[8] Furthermore, the emergence of a nouveau riche Vietnamese middle class built on landownership and trade, ushered in new social standards to showcase affluence and success, many of which reflected the perceived lifestyle of French colons such as the following material and experiential qualifiers: Western clothes, practicing sports, leisure travel, or access to a “modern French education” for their children (Kelly 1979: 213).[9] Similarly, Vietnamese such as merchants and urban clerks sought entrance into the cushioned fantasy of colonial success, defined by a French degree or a position in the civil service.[10] (Kelly 1979)

Throughout the decades of student migration, colonial officials did not maintain a consistent policy on migration and instead issued confusing and contradictory policies in regards to Vietnamese study abroad. For example, in the earlier years of overseas study, colonial policies were deeply informed by the ‘mission civilisatrice’ and associationist policies; accordingly, in the 1910s to 1920s study abroad was described by colonial administrators as the opportunity for cultural and intellectual enrichment of the “gentle, well mannered, and hard-working” Vietnamese (McConnell 1989). The semantics of building loyal and educated Vietnamese elites carried through many of the reforms in Franco-Indigenous schools as well as the rare colonial scholarships to study abroad, such as the highly publicized sponsorship of Phan Văn Trường in 1930. On the other hand, some officials such as Governor-General Pierre Pasquier were worried about the politicizing influence of a liberal education system and left-wing associations in France. Regulative measures were enforced more strictly in the late 1930s, due to attempts to quell the rise in anti-colonial activity.[11] Nevertheless, compared to students from other French colonies, Vietnamese traveled to France in larger numbers through own initiatives such as family sponsorship, military or ship hand consignment, or aided by informal student networks for housing and job opportunities.

Thus, the historical context of shifting cultural values, education policies, and economic and political possibilities of migration were among the many factors that shaped, motivated, and complicated the Vietnamese study abroad in France.[12] Throughout the interwar years, the topic of students abroad arose in a variety of socio-cultural print media in response to the rising significance of student migration. As demonstrated in the following analysis of journals, literature, and newsprint, education abroad became crucial facets to other socio-political campaigns for education and social reform and throughout ideological discussions on civilization, modernity, and nationhood. The discussion on Vietnamese youth was swept within the larger wave of the effervescent, evolving, and engaged reading, writing, public sphere—aided by the continual development of the popular script quc ng, capital investment within printing, and a larger density of a semi-literate population by the turn of the 20th century Vietnam.[13] While printing houses emerged primarily in cities, (and often only existed for short periods,) the circulation of newspapers and printed material promulgated across geographic divides, constructing an “imagined community” of ideas, discussion, and new forms of cultural and intellectual expression. Many of these newspapers provided the intellectual space to discuss new cultural and political ideas, such as the purpose, responsibilities, and social obligations of students abroad. These print forms were spaces to figure out new meanings and to contest them, and ultimately “contradictions within any one of them, multiple meanings possible for the concepts they deploy” (Scott 1991: 792). In other words, the ‘Vietnamese student’ became a construct infused with overlapping and at times conflicting emotional, ideological, and/or political meaning, at times detaching the ideal from the actual experience of student migration itself.


“A Xu/Sou for the Students”: Newspaper Campaigns & Social Change

Ph N Tân Văn (Women’s News or Modern Women) was a key example of vibrant intellectual debate and reflections on social and cultural changes during the 1920s and 1930s. Based in Saigon, Ph N Tân Văn, (henceforth referred to as P.N.T.V.,) was one of the most relatively progressive and well circulated print sources in colonial Vietnam.[14] The first issue, published on May 2, 1929, declared itself as an independent journal based on contributions from male and female readers on any current issues open for debate.[15] Nevertheless, one of the most remarkable efforts of this newspaper were the various methods and national rhetoric employed to engage the Vietnamese community, notably in garnering civic engagement to support Vietnamese students in France.

Even from the start, P.N.T.V. elicited the support and monetary contribution of its readers towards the ‘social cause’ of Vietnamese students. In its second issue on May 5, 1929, the series “A Xu/Sou for the Students” urged its readers to donate weekly to aid Vietnamese students in France. While the request did not explain how the money would be sent or for what explicit purpose, the act of giving and sacrificing for ‘Vietnamese society’ merited the most detailed justification. Following the request for donations for scholarship funds, the article explained the social significance of supporting the education of Vietnamese youth with the following declaration: “When we brothers and sisters realize and feel compelled to worry about our home (quê hương) —our country and future—then on that day we will stand up and open our eyes with others; if not that day will be very far away from us.” This statement revealed the complex relationship between individual and ‘home’—a bond depicted as civic duty towards the country of Vietnam. In this way, forms of civic engagement and social improvement were the ideological justifications for P.N.T.V. student and other community campaigns, in this case, to send students abroad to learn, return, and contribute new skills and ideas to ‘our country and future.’

The vague claim of ‘civilizational improvement’ was a moral and cultural imperative that dominated almost every newspaper discussion concerning the condition of Vietnamese society. This rhetoric of self-strengthening particularly proliferated throughout education campaigns; a ‘modern Vietnamese society’ and educating Vietnamese youth and women became the general rallying point on the pages of P.N.T.V. and in other progressive newspapers in the 1920s and 1930s.[16] In a long article titled “Waving the Flag of Humanity (Pht C Bác Aí),” a metaphoric flag is raised to call attention to educate and train the ‘wretched poor of Vietnam.’[17] Without much detail as to who the ‘poor’ of Vietnam actually referred to, the answer to this social malaise was found in the sending of these ‘poor’ to school (specifically, through the aid and support of the P.N.T.V. scholarship funds). Here and in many other subsequent articles, specific attention is dedicated to the philanthropic nature of the newspaper—15% of print sales contribute to a scholarship fund titled “Vietnamese Women Scholarships (Vit nam Ph n Hc bng).”[18] Furthermore, month long sequences reported the handful of P.N.T.V. scholarship competitions based on exams and literary technique; these competitions were extensively reported, detailing the merits of education and periodically biographies of winning students.[19]

In both the call for donations and literary competition, particular transparent administrative information is given in an effort to both build legitimacy as a community service and also towards the formation of greater Vietnamese civil society. Almost every issue of P.N.T.V. contained at least one article focused on Vietnamese students in France. The topics concerned requests for monetary contributions, the status of community-funded scholarships, or discussions on the importance of education. On the other hand, a smaller section of each magazine would feature some news from student correspondents in France. In virtually all of these correspondences and campaigns, those in need of scholarships, or were just simply young Vietnamese in France, were often referred to as the ‘Poor Students.’ These conversations lacked specific details of the inherent identity of the ‘poor student,’ what subject they studied, or if they were actually registered students abroad. Thus students were often represented as a social category in need of community assistance. This conflation of identity presumes individual characteristics as well as a sense of individual agency. In the scholarship campaigns of P.N.T.V., the construct of ‘poor student’ functioned as a rallying force, a social cause to invoke community activism. Furthermore, the act of furthering educational opportunity was often portrayed as a contribution towards the greater good or fellow “đồng bào“ (compatriot, or literally “children of the same wound”) (Werner 2010: 19). This moment of vibrant socio-political debates, cultural reform, and re-articulations of identity represented the development of an imagined community of ‘our country,’ in which individuals both belonged to and could shape. Yet, at the foundation of social change and the expression of the collective, (be it understood as a national consciousness, global modernity, or class awareness,) remains the reexamination of the interrelated relationship between self and society.


Finding the ‘Self’ in Society: Student Responsibilities, Politics, and Networks

In contrast to the well-publicized community event of scholarship competitions (that even merited positions in the first pages,) the series titled “Letters Sent from France” depict a much more conflicted representation of student life in France. Often these articles were published by student correspondents currently living in France; some letters were authored by well-known contributors such as Cao Chánh, (who also went by Thạch Lan) but the majority of the articles, like the other columns, were un-authored or signed by the collective “P.N.T.V.” One of the most critical examinations of Vietnamese study abroad was Thạch Lan’s reflection titled “What do Vietnamese students learn abroad?” printed on January 16, 1930. Modeled as an interview between the author and a student, Thạch Lan asked the student to explain the significance of Vietnamese youth studying in France. Characterizing Vietnamese study abroad as a “popular current trend,” Lan repeatedly pushed the student to explain the purpose of study abroad, rather than the technical details of the experience. The student responded by explaining the various disciplines, (law, literature, medicine, and machinery,) and degrees, (tú tài, c nhơn, tn sĩ, k sư,) that Vietnamese earn; simply put, a student returns to Vietnam and is henceforth a “nhân tài, (talented person) of course.”

Yet, as evident in Thạch Lan’s repetitive questioning of “So then what…,” Lan sought to expose the flawed justifications for studying abroad. The rest of the two-page article critiqued the supposed “knowledge” that came with a diploma. In Lan’s caricature of a Vietnamese student, French degrees were devoid of meaning because they were not awarded on merit, but instead were given because teachers were frustrated with their lazy and ignorant students. In describing an incident in which an English teacher took pity on his poor but lazy Vietnamese student, Lan sarcastically commented, “Yet again, today our Vietnam receives another degreed scholar.” Lan’s interrogative fictional piece projected a caricature of Vietnamese students as lazy and undeserving. However, a student correspondent himself, Lan did not believe in the deterministic fate of Vietnamese youth and proudly asserted, “Our Vietnam truly has the potential to learn.” With this qualifier, Lan adamantly called for the reexamination of the role and responsibility of Vietnamese youth. “Our generation of youth today has a penchant for excuses—at age 20, they claim that they are still too young to contribute to society and must focus on their studies!” In this way, Thạch Lan measured the success of Vietnamese study abroad according to students’ return to Vietnam and their ability to ‘contribute to society.’

Lan continued to elaborate on social responsibilities of educated youth by describing and dividing the existing social stratum of intellectuals into two categories—politics and letters, (the former listed as law, encyclopedias, dictionaries, and the latter as journalism, literature, and speech competitions). He specifically used the new word “thượng lưu xã hi,” translated from the French word for intellectual elite, élite, to categorize the broad spectrum of educated individuals (without much regard to background, class, or political leaning).[20] In reexamining these intellectuals, Lan recognized their intellectual accomplishments, but critiqued this “elite intellectual generation” as “outdated for modern society.”[21] Thus, he once again addressed the youth of today to step up and assume the necessary social and political duty that accompanies the “new educated social stratum.”[22] While Lan did not clearly specify what the ‘inherent duty’ of youth actually entailed, his focus was clearly to invoke both shame and responsibility within the young readers of the newspaper. He further critiqued students who not only hid behind their studies, but also did not return as wise, empowered intellectuals. Lan concluded with the request for those apathetic, “ignorant” students to come home and either better prepare themselves for dedicated study, or find some other meaningful contribution to society rather than be a mere degreed student, described as “no worse than a retired person.”

In this article, Thạch Lan, a ‘student’ at one point in his life himself, demonstrated his frustration that he most likely experienced firsthand as a correspondent writer for news in France. Nevertheless, he positioned himself outside of this class of ‘elite intellectuals’ to re-examine the troubling state of Vietnamese youth, who he believed to be “mesmerized by modern trends and leisurely life in Paris.” Instead, Thạch Lan’s commanded students to take up the social responsibility that accompanies their education and contribute to the larger meaning of xã hi (society), (another newly defined word influenced by the idea of French societé).[23] While the caricature of the ‘Vietnamese student’ in Thạch Lan’s article differed greatly from the ‘Poor student’ of P.N.T.V.’s scholarship campaigns, both representations continued to define and reattribute new social meaning to the role and responsibility of educated youth.

The conversations in P.N.T.V. demonstrate the multiple actors involved in forming a group or generational identity, of which students themselves attempted to carve out a social path without clear historic precedence. Engaged within the circulation of debates on ‘modern civilization,’ Vietnamese intellectuals were particularly attracted to the Social Darwinistic potential for the evolution of not just the Vietnamese nation, but also individual cultivation. This complex reflexivity of ideal and application is contextualized within a larger historical moment of transnational, cross-cultural exchange—a process in which historian Mark Bradley (2004) characterizes as the turn of the 20th century “global circulation of civilizational discourse…appropriated and transformed by local actors”(p. 66). Bradley also argues that the appropriation of more radical civilizational discourse to Vietnamese society projected the “transformative re-articulations of individual agency and the proper relations between self and society” (p. 66). As demonstrated in the campaigns for and reflections on students, the idea of the autonomous and responsible individual was deeply embedded within a mutual relationship with ‘society,’ thus often resulting in an assumed expected return of students. Furthermore, the meaning of society in itself was undergoing reexamination. Tensions and visions of past and present, tradition and modern, and material and abstract varied amongst an individual’s imagined community, resulting in varying motivations and experiences for students who traveled abroad.

At the same time, this generational and radicalizing shift was specific to the group of Vietnamese youth who came of age in a political climate—a time characterized by “iconoclasm and the marriage of the personal and the political” frustrated with the failures of acommodationist reform to produce change and also unattached from the past scholar-led resistance of colonialism (Ho-Tai 1992: 2). Hue-Tam Ho-Tai explains the various manifestations of Vietnamese radicalism within diverse nascent ideological paths ranging from Marxism to Constitutionalism. For example, Marxism attracted many Vietnamese anti-colonial youth through its “promise of a certain victory instead of annihilation, and national redemption instead of endless struggle for survival” characteristic of Social Darwinism (Ho-Tai 1992: 243). Amongst the Vietnamese population in France complex existed a smaller number of student activists who also engaged within the loose network of Vietnamese and French students, workers, writers, socialists and liberals, and intellectual leaders—the most famous of whom were the “Five Dragons,” Nguyễn An Ninh, Nguyễn Tất Thành (Hồ Chí Minh), Phan Văn Trường, Phân Châu Trinh, and Nguyễn thế Truyền.[24] World events such as the Russian Revolution in 1917, the exile and death of Vietnamese leaders, the founding of Communist parties in France, China, and Russia shaped the political and intellectual leanings of Vietnamese intellectuals living in France, where the interactions between individuals and ideas functioned as a “laboratory of political and cultural modernization of Vietnam” (Brocheux, 2009).

Trotskyist Hồ Hữu Tường (1910-1980) described the transformative experience of studying abroad in Marseille and Lyon in the 1920s, and defined much of his experience around his interaction with other students such as the politically active Nguyễn Thế Truyền, Phan Văn Trường, Nguyễn Văn Tạo, and Phan Văn Chánh.[25] Many of Tường’s remarks on the generational identity of students revolved around a student’s revolutionary potential and an ironically subversive academic accomplishment abroad. In these pages, Tường portrayed Nguyễn An Ninh (1900-1943) as ‘another radicalized student’ protegy.[26] According to this retelling, Ninh skillfully navigated the French degree structure, and earned the highest degree within only one year. Tường describes: “Through this symbolic act and accomplishment, wherever Ninh went, the colonizer French in Paris held Ninh in extremely high regards” (Tường 1972: 12). In this way, Tường broadly defined his studies as a potential for social and individual empowerment in the context of a colonizer-colonized relationship.

Yet, in reality, study abroad in France did not necessarily manifest itself in individualistic emancipation, political radicalism or nationalist ideology. The opportunity for socio-economic ascension, civic duty, as well as individual autonomy empowered some of these students, yet cultural and social expectations weighed heavily on these students as well. Feelings of cultural anomie and non-belonging, financial burdens, and expectations from family and community were among the many pressures of study abroad. Furthermore, the increasing political fervor of nationalist discourse in France and Vietnam generated idealistic demands from Vietnamese youth to fulfill not only their individual familial obligations but also a responsibility to the vague ‘greater good.’ The following sections convey the diverse experiences and complex ways in which individuals, such as Tùng Hương and Nhất Linh, negotiated different expectations, challenges, and new ideas through physical movement. Furthermore, these first person published diary or fictional accounts provide another facet to understand the construct of the ‘student’—an amalgamation of socio-political discourses on personal and national responsibility.


Tùng Hươngs “On the Way to Southern France”: Letters from a ‘Failed’ Student

In contrast to Hồ Hữu Tường’s exuberant autobiography, many letters exchanged between students abroad and family, friends, and lovers back home depict the routine challenges of life abroad. These letters bring to the surface the challenge and necessity of maintaining migrant transnational kinship networks beyond emotional nostalgia — both social and economic expectations surrounded those family members to maintain emotional composure and financial stability. Thus, these personal sources shed light upon the significant influence of temporary or permanent migration upon family relationships, as well as the consequential adaptations, transformations, and methods of assistance within those networks of transnational relationships.

Some of these personal letters were selected and published on the pages of journals such as P.N.T.V. and Nam Phong (Southern Wind), and described new experiences abroad. Furthermore, many of the letters that were published functioned also as an important news source and emotional vehicles to enlist financial support. Although letters chosen for publication often carried a journalistic purpose, published correspondence also offered the reading public an almost sensational experience of life abroad. In a similar manner, the letters of Tùng Hương regarding his journey to France from July 16, 1924 – December 3, 1931 were published in Nam Phong Tạp Chí, on September 1932.[27] Although the biographic information of ‘Tùng Hương’ is relatively limited, the emotional candor embedded within each letter home to Saigon provides valuable insight into how some Vietnamese students comprehended and depicted to others their study abroad experience.

Hương introduces this series with a tone of humility and hesitancy: “I wrote these letters during my experience on a journey where I could not complete my university degree, thus I could not achieve the feat of making a name for myself for my country; therefore I did not want anyone to pay attention to me.” Beyond administrative requirements, the significance attached to a French degree percolated throughout many realms of Vietnamese society. For some, a degree received in the colonial metrópole became the essential signifier of success in colonial Vietnam. For others, the pursuit of a French degree and the experience of study abroad encompassed a transformative intellectual experience as well as an individual career stage. This aspiration for a degree and the fascination with the French school system also stemmed from the prestige awarded to lettered individuals or degreed candidates—cultural values inherent within centuries of Confucian-inspired Vietnamese education and examination systems.

In his disheartened introduction, Hương explains that in recovering these letters he realized that these honest emotions, struggles, and journeys were nonexistent in other books. Thus, he felt compelled to share these emotional reflections, (regardless of his ‘socio-cultural failure’ to return with le bac degree,) and to remember the significance of such “deeply affectionate phrases” such as “Through you, I am able to love and cherish the sound of my country.”[28] On November 30, 1924, Hương recounted his first experiences eating salade (xà lách) and melon, his difficulties adjusting to the cold weather, and the fascinating lectures and discussions in his classes. Following the pleasant recollections of student life, Hương listed in detail the increasing living costs and student fees, forcing him to decrease his budget on meals and clothing. Here and in other accounts, Hương represented his student life in France as well-adjusted: he confided to his addressee the excitement, novelties, and daily events of his new life, but also tempered this romantic migrant experience with difficulties in finances, acculturation, and home-sickness. Furthermore, the detailed daily expenses reflected both the downtrodden life of many Vietnamese students and also the immense dependency of students on their families and sending communities for financial support.

Hương’s letters and reflections also reveal significant ways in which certain social expectations and political predilections influenced individual experiences and identity formation. For example, the widely assumed superiority of ‘French education’ and the ‘dedicated Vietnamese student’ played a substantial part in forming Hương’s first impressions of student life. In Hương’s first encounter with local Vietnamese students and his first classes in Marseille on October 18, 1924, he described his days as extremely regimented, with designated times for eating, speaking, and studying. In contrast, in his studies in Lyon at du Parc, Hương ruminated on the style and quality of teaching in France, concluding that it was entirely similar to that in Saigon.[29] He exclaimed, “I’ve already spent time and efforts to travel all the way here, only to find that this is exactly like home!”[30]

Furthermore, in stark contrast to Hồ Hữu Tường’s fascination and full involvement with student associations and political activism, the archetype of the ‘radicalized Vietnamese student’ emerged very subtly in Hương’s letters. In a long letter on September 2, 1925, while describing in detail the various French national holidays and developed transportation system, Hương mentioned only in passing, the existence of French-led student strikes. He asks, “Do you know what a protest is?” and continued by explaining that anyone who held a measure of power, discontent with any issue, “could assemble with others, drag oneself outside, and shout throughout the streets.”[31] Describing only one example, Hương explained a recent protest regarding Christianity and the involvement of a group of students at the University of Lyon. In a tone of surprise, Hương described that the students confronted the government building, sang songs in protest, and could not be dispersed by government soldiers on the basis that “Arrest would be illegal, since they were granted freedom, (of assembly).” Here Hương used the word for freedom, “t do,” in a manner influenced by the French concept of liberté that implied both individual and social freedom.[32] As swiftly as he introduced this topic, Hương nonchalantly proceeded to explain other aspects of French life, such as strange holidays commemorating Catherine, Noel, and a description of a local Chinese restaurant. This short reference to student activism shows how political life was just another aspect of French life, and in Hương’s case, not particuarly interesting besides an act of strange defiance. As evident by the immense detail of his routine life and expressions of nostalgia for his loved ones, these private letters functioned as a medium to cope with the complex and isolative process of student migration. Hương’s published journal entries were filled with a preponderance of self-doubt, curiosity, dislocation, and anomie, inherent throughout print representations of student migration during this period, such as the following work by Nhất Linh.


The Pursuit of the ‘Self’ in “Going West”

Son of a failed Confucian mandarin, Nguyễn Tường Tâm (1905-1963), more widely known as Nhất Linh, had a prolific and complex literary career, including several novellas and short stories, editor of the first satirical journal in Vietnam, Phong Hóa (Customs) launched in 1932, and the production of his own journals.[33] Poking fun at the colonial propaganda of the civilizing mission, he serialized the short story “Going West” (Đi Tây) in 1935-36, of this physical and ideological journey towards “civilization.”[34] One of the few literary works focused on the experience of study abroad, “Going West” is also argued to have been a semi-fictional account of Nhất Linh’s own three-year journey to France in 1927 to study journalism and receive a science degree (Lockhart, 1994). Although largely a humorous caricature of Vietnamese students abroad, “Going West” sheds light upon the multifaceted emotional, cultural, and financial difficulties as well as the intricate Vietnamese communities of life abroad in France. Embedded within Nhất Linh’s humorous satires such as “Going West,” often lie biting critique of intellectuals, who were characterized by social regality and blind confidence in the ambiguous role of ‘civilization’ to realistically reform Vietnamese society. Portrayed as a transformative moment of self-validation, to “become civilized” was to “sáng mt ra” (open one’s eyes) and functioned as the primary motivation for the life and journey of the protagonist of “Going West,” Lãng Du.

Through the wanderings and process of self-discovery of the protagonist “Lãng Du,” Nhất Linh voiced a sense of non-belonging as an intellectual caught between the romance of modernity and the social reality of urban life in Vietnam. In “Going West” and in many of his other works, Nhất Linh addressed how the clash of old and new, traditional and modern, emancipated many young individuals, like himself, from the chains of archaic social mores. The main protagonists of his stories such as Lãng Du, whose name meant wanderer, often drifted around as excluded vagabonds, in search of social, intellectual, and artistic fulfillment.[35] Lãng Du’s overt naiveté possibly reflected Nhất Linh’s perceptions of Vietnam and his own imprisonment within what he described as the weight of backward cultural mores and expectations. As he traveled farther from Vietnam, Lãng Du finally realized the economic and social deficiencies of Vietnam. While his time in France offered a sense of intellectual and social fulfillment, Lãng Du felt that his cultural upbringing inhibited his attempts to assimilate within French society during his short stay in France.

The France that Nhất Linh depicted carried a certain imagined dystopic quality—to fully escape and become “French” required the impossible rejection of the physical and cultural baggage of being “Vietnamese.” Furthermore, at the end of “Going West,” the social and emotional rejection that some students experienced was characterized by the forced return of Lãng Du back to Vietnam, on suspicion of anti-colonial activity. Concluding this travel narrative with the depressing awareness of his place in Vietnamese society, Nhất Linh described Lãng Du—a student migrant caught between reality, enlightened modernity, and social acceptance—as someone “…not dead, but…” something else. Assuming a language of modern romantic desperation, but under the guise of tragic-comedy, Nhất Linh’s depiction voiced the cultural and emotional struggles of student migrants placed between two worlds and ultimately trapped in a non-place, as a déclassé. “Going West” was embedded with the deep sense of estrangement, depicting the liminal existence of students such as Nhất Linh who straddled the reality of anachronistic Vietnamese social expectations, an unsupportive and exploitative colonial structure, and a contradictory and socially excluded intellectual class. Further complicated by the ideological movement between colonial landscapes, these experiences and pursuits of social purpose left many students disheartened or detached—suspended between the civilizational rhetoric and isolative reality of temporary student migration.



In recognizing the socio-political vestiges of their parents’ moral and educational upbringing, the Vietnamese youth who came of age between the 1910s and 1930s experienced a dramatic generation shift in education and worldviews. Within discussions on colonial education policy, socio-economic success, civilizational discourse, and political activism, sending communities and students discussed and re-invented ‘the student’ as vehicles for change. This constructed reciprocity between community and student sheds light upon the symbolic power of “the modern” (as understood within politics, culture, and/or class) derived from a French educational degree. Inherent to this understanding of student purpose were two factors: the potential of a cultivated individual and the necessary ‘return’ home of the student migrant. These ideas were shaped by certain Spencerian perspectives of Social Darwinism that offered new modes of identity focused on individualism, self-cultivation, and ideals of civilizational achievement. David Marr emphasizes this yearning for self-expression as the intelligentsia’s search for “…a set of beliefs that both explained reality and provided the means to alter it” (Marr, 1981, p. 329). As students ascended in the various forms of education offered in the colony and metrópole, they searched, harkened back, or imagined their path in the increasingly polarized intellectual community.

With the limited options for modern academic study in the colony, the opportunity to study abroad symbolized a measure of empowerment for both the individual and community. For the individual, travel to the colonial metrópole was the realization of self-cultivation, social acceptance, and cultural zenith. For the community, investment in the education of Vietnamese youth increased cultural capital for the imagined Vietnamese society, and for some, it was a crucial step in the development of a modern, developed and even independent nation. Both realms of socio-cultural significance reflect the grafting or localization of civilizational discourse, a re-inscription of definitions of modernity, individualism, and nation. These internally and socially constructed debates supersede one just between ‘self’ and ‘society,’ but also traverse constructs of history, memory, social responsibility, and generational differences. Thus, through examining the experience of and discourse on Vietnamese student migration to France, this chapter brings to light the intricate ideological and emotional interrelationships of students and their sending communities, relationships that are constructed, rejected, and re-inscribed against the socio-cultural changes of early 20th century colonial Vietnam.



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[1] One of the most well known Vietnamese immigrants to France during the colonial period was Lê Hữu Thọ, author of the semi-autobiographical Itinéraire d’un petite mandarin (The Journey of a Little Mandarin). Thọ had studied in Tonkin at a French lycee, and arrived in France in 1939 at age 19 intending to be a translator.  However, Lê Hữu Thọ found himself caught within the tides of the second world war, living through the Vichy regime, and later married a French woman and resettled to France.

[2] Gail P. Kelly also explains how education policy became the setting for political and cultural “conflicts” in 1918-1938 Vietnam between teachers, Vietnamese landlords, French colons, elite collaborators, and the colonial administration.

[3] From the recommendations made by the Council for the Improvement of Native Education between 1906 and 1913, three primary guidelines were applied in structuring colonial education: defined by current Vietnamese socio-economic conditions; must avoid Vietnamese traditions and Chinese language; and must also be distinct from French systems in substance and structure.

[4] In 1920, an estimated 2,430 Vietnamese enrolled in upper education in the colony, 1938 increased to 4,552. The estimated figure of 10,000 estimated figure originates from David Marr’s conclusion that out of 20,000 upper-level educated men and women during this period, only about 10,000 actively contributed to the intellectual class.

[5] 1908 marked the end to Phan Bội Châu’s ‘Go East (Đông Du)’ movement for Vietnamese to study abroad in Japan, and around the same time the closure of the University of Hanoi, Tonkin Free School (Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thc or L’ecole libre du Tonkin), and attempts for modernisation or ‘enlightened’ approaches to education.

[6] Although Marxist and Communist ideology has been argued to not directly engage the majority of Vietnamese working class in French, Brocheux demonstrates how those engaged with Vietnamese intellectuals abroad played auxiliary roles in the independence movement by providing meeting spaces such as restaurants, offering transportation, and relaying messages. (Brocheux 2009)

[7] These population statistics originated from a police note from January 23, 1929. CAOM, Slotfom III/6 as cited by (Brocheux 2009). Furthermore, Marie-Eve Blanc provides a useful, although limited chart of the changing Vietnamese population in France during the colonial period in “Vietnamese in France,” in (Encyclopedia of Diasporas, 2005, p. 1161)

[8] For example, Vietnamese students who held a French baccalaureat garnered more socio-economic clout than those who earned a colonial baccalaureat.

[9] The majority of the earliest students traveling to France came from the nouveau riche, large landowner families from Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam), many of whom financially and politically benefited from French colonial redistribution into a plantation economy. Some of these students would later become active members of the Constitutionalist Party in Saigon.

[10] Kelly illustrates how this lifestyle was mocked through the popular Vietnamese proverb “The civil servant gives orders; in the evening he drinks champagne, and in the morning, cow’s milk” (1979: 214).

[11] David Marr also explains this regulation of Vietnamese study abroad as a shift in colonial cultural programs from a “Western” education to an “Indochinese” structure. This is also seen in decision to raise the colonial budget to expand the University of Indochina (also known as the University of Hanoi) in 1937 (Marr, Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945, 39-40).

[12] The decrease of student migration dramatically decreased during the Depression, which hindered landlord families from financing expensive education abroad for their children (Marr 1981).

[13] Prior to the current Romanized quc ng system of Vietnamese language, Vietnamese was written in demotic script of Sinicized Vietnamese or classical Chinese  (ch nôm and ch hán vit). Portuguese Christian missionaries initiated Romanized quc ng script in the early 16th century, and the French supported the spread of quc ng within its colonial administration and education system as a means of communication and political separation from Vietnam’s Chinese cultural connections.

[14] Some of the issues of P.N.T.V. have also been reprinted in (Lan 2010). Shawn Mchale (1995) examines the development of women’s liberation ideology (gii phóng Ph n) within the first ‘women-centered’ newspaper N Gii Chung (Women’s Bell) and Ph N Tân Văn of the 1930s.

[15] The readership of these newspapers were primarily men and women of the intellectual bourgeoisie, who according to a colonial study by Andre Dumarest (1935), tended to mimic a certain “Western” lifestyle and cultural values. André Dumarest, Formation de classes sociales en pays annamite [The formation of social classes in Annam] (Lyon: Ferreol, 1935), 234 as cited in Shawn McHale, “Printing and Power,” (p. 177).

[16] David Marr (1984) explains how “’women and society’ had become something of a focal point around which other issues often revolved. Hundreds of books, pamphlets, and articles were published on all sides. Women became conscious of themselves as a social group with particular interests, grievances, and demands.” (Marr 1984)

[17] Ph N Tân Văn no. 3 (5-16-1929) in (Lan 2010).

[18] In P.N.T.V. no. 3 (5-16-1929), the article claimed proudly that within three months, they were able to already produce two scholarships. (The calculation was explicitly given as 4,000 copies x 6$ = 24,000 $ x .15= 3600$)

[19] The article “Xong Cái Học Bổng Thứ Nhứt (The Completion of the First Scholarship Competition” claimed the first two pages of this issue; also detailed reports on the competition, students’ scores, and even some examination questions continued throughout subsequent issues. Ph N Tân Văn no. 22 (9-26-1929).

[20] The word for society xã hội here can be loosely translated in the following manner through Đào, Duy Anh. Hán-Vit T-Đin.

[21] Lan described the existing heritage of social intellectual elites in the following manner: “from the South: Buì Quang Chiều, Nguyễn Phan Long, Dương Văn Giá, the Central: (?) and the North: Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, Phạm Quỳnh, etc…” Lan recalled his disappointing interview with intellectual Bùi Quang Chiều where Chiều hesitated to directly address Lan’s question on “the issue of women.” Instead, according to Lan, Chiều replies, “I’m already very old, and my duties are almost over…”Thạch Lan, “Người Annam Đi Ngoại-quốc Học Gì?”

[22] Lan called on the generation of students to be ashamed of their accomplishments in comparison to those of the Chinese heroine Trịnh Duc Tú, with the phrase “even this little Chinese girl took on the responsibility of society.”

[23] Đào Duy Anh defines xã hi as “1) nhiu ngưi cùng mưu ích li chung, kết hp thành đoàn -thế 2)Nhng đoàn –thế loài ngưi có mi quan-h sinh-hot chung nhau (societé).” p. 572 The first meaning refers to mutual benefit and coordination, the second focuses on relationship and a more Western notion of social interaction.

[24] Les <cinq dragons> for a brief period in 1919-1923 were centered in a small apartment in the 13th arrondisement of Paris. Inspired by Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” this group of colleagues wrote the famous petition for Vietnamese self-determination.

[25] Hồ Hữu Tường, Bn Mươi Mt Năm Làm Báo While the autobiographical 41 years of Working in the Newspaper Industry, had a propensity to blur the lines between recollection and creative embellishments, Tường’s description of student life in France reveals the significant political undercurrents of student life in France.

[26] Nguyễn An Ninh (1900-1943) was a well-known and talented scholar, journalist, and anti-colonialist.  What struck Tường mostly about Ninh’s academic accomplishments was his ability to skillfully write in French, notably in his anti-colonial newspaper La cloche fêlée (The Cracked Bell) based in Saigon.

[27] Nam Phong Tạp Chí, no. 176 September 1932, republished in Tùng, Hương. “Trên Đường Nam Pháp (Mấy Đoạn Gia Th).” In Nguyễn Hữu Sơn, Du Ký Vit Nam: Nam Phong Tp Chí, 1917-1934, 2:303–331. Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh: Nhà Xuất Bản Trẻ, 2007.

[28] “Nhờ anh mà em mới biết yêu qui tiếng nước nhà.”  Hương, “Trên Đường Nam Pháp,” 303.

[29] December 16, 1924.

[30] “Đi xa đường mà như thế nảy thời cũng tiếc đó thay.”

[31] “Như ông nào cẩm quyền mà có làm điều gì bắt bình, thì họ hiệp đoàn nhau rồi kéo đi reo hò cùng hàng phố.”

[32] Đào Duy Anh defines t do as following only one’s opinion, resistant to others’ constraints. (liberté) (Anh 1957).

[33] Nhất Linh was also known as the founder and active contributor of the Self Reliance Literary Group in 1933. A cohort of intellectuals, the Group fought a socio-cultural war with words; their works encouraged socio-economic responsibility, rebuked Confucian traditions, and advocated a measure of modernization

[34] For more biography information on Nhất Linh, see (Lockhart 1996) and his introduction to “Broken Journey: Nhất Linh’s ‘Going to France’”, East Asian History 8 (December 1994).

[35]  In another of Nhất Linh’s reflexive short stories, titled “A Dream of Tu Lam,” the two main characters abandon their unsatisfying administrative careers in search of a lost utopia, wandering the world as vagabonds.



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