Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Nguyen Truong To: A Catholic Reformer at Emperor Tu-Duc's Court

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Nguyen Truong To: A Catholic Reformer at Emperor Tu-Duc's Court

Article excerpt

In the years between the initial Franco-Spanish invasion of Vietnam in 1858 and the definitive establishment of France's protectorate in 1885, the Vietnamese official elite (comprised of the emperor, court mandarins, other high-ranking bureaucratic officials, and the class of Confucian scholars) split into two antagonistic factions known in Vietnamese as chu hoa (the "advocates of peace") and chu chien (the "advocates of war"). The chu hoa faction believed that continued resistance to European arms was futile; its members therefore advocated appeasement of European demands in order to avoid continued warfare. The chu chien faction was convinced that appeasement was immoral (contrary to the Confucian duty of the "superior man" [quan-tu] to serve the emperor, and a betrayal of the Vietnamese people's proud tradition of determined opposition to foreign domination) and, in any case, bound to fail, given the covetousness of the Europeans. These informal groups -- for factionalism was officially forbidden by the court -- competed for the favour of the Tu-duc Emperor (r. 1848-83), sometimes taking matters into their own hands when imperial approbation was not forthcoming. Although the Vietnamese imperial state's response to the European aggression that began in 1858 was initially a military one, the "advocates of peace" emerged as the dominant faction at court from 1862 through 1874, during which time the court attempted to appease the French, hoping to avoid further unequal combat and perhaps to regain territories ceded in 1862. The court's policy of appeasement, however, failed miserably, and France successfully colonized southern Vietnam and established ill-defined protectorates over central and northern Vietnam by the end of this period.(1)

Given Vietnam's tumultuous twentieth-century history, it is not surprising that the nineteenth-century advocates of armed resistance to European domination (i.e., the chu chien group) have received more scholarly interest in the West than have the proponents of appeasement (the chu hoa group). American historians in particular have focused on the phenomenon of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century resistance movements, seeing them as crucial to understanding the tenacity of modern-day Vietnamese revolutionaries. David Marr, for example, made the theme of "Vietnamese anticolonialism" and its transmission from nineteenth-century figures (such as Phan Dinh Phung) to twentieth-century ones (such as Phan Boi Chau and Ho Chi Minh) the leitmotif of his pioneering work on the genesis of modern Vietnamese nationalism.(2) One less-felicitous result of Western scholarship's interest in nineteenth-century resistance figures is its relative neglect of the "advocates of peace", who have been the subject of few articles and received no book-length treatment.

Yet the "advocates of peace" also deserve our attention, for their response was part of the initial Vietnamese reaction to French imperialism and, more generally, to Western civilization. In this light, I propose to examine the thought of one particular "advocate of peace", Nguyen Truong To (ca. 1830-71). Nguyen Truong To is an intrinsically interesting figure because, as a politically aware nineteenth-century Vietnamese Catholic who studied the Confucian classics as well as Western learning, he was perhaps the first Vietnamese to confront the burning question of Vietnam's technological backwardness vis-a-vis the West and the related issue of which aspects of Western civilization, if any, should be adopted in order to remedy the situation. And, given Nguyen Truong To's unique position at the intersection of Western and Vietnamese civilizations during the first phase of the conquest, the analysis of his works can tell us much about this contentious era.

Let us begin by summarizing the available biographical information about Nguyen Truong To. Nguyen Truong To was born into a Catholic family in Nghe-an province, central Vietnam, in ca. …

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