Reinterpreting the Past for the Future: Study on the Historical Writings of Phan Bội Châu and Hoàng Cao Khải

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Reinterpreting the Past for the Future: Study on the Historical Writings of Phan Bội Châu and Hoàng Cao Khải

Type: Research master thesis
Title: Reinterpreting the Past for the Future: Study on the Historical Writings of Phan Bội Châu and Hoàng Cao Khải
Author: Tai, Ran
Issue Date: 2019-02-01
Keywords: Vietnam, nationalism, colonialism, intellectual history, Asia
Abstract: This thesis compares the texts of Vietnamese national history written in the colonial period by two competing reformist intellectuals Phan Bội Châu and Hoàng Cao Khải. Exposed to the currents of thought such as Social Darwinism and the theory of evolution in early twentieth century Asia, both of them realised the backwardness of Vietnam and stressed the necessity of reform. However, Phan decided to fight against the French while Hoàng chose to collaborate with them. As will be shown in this thesis, both Phan and Hoàng, despite the difference of their political stances, endeavoured to justify their respective propositions by constructing the historic past of Vietnam. As two reformist intellectuals, Phan Bội Châu and Hoàng Cao Khải regarded the introduction of Western civilisation in late nineteenth century Asia as a key moment for the Vietnamese people to get rid of their backward conditions and evolve into a civilised nation. However, they shared different opinions about the nature of this transition of Vietnam. Phan Bội Châu was inclined to view the French invasion as a “Messianic” moment which marked the “rupture” between the past and present in Vietnamese history. In his historiography, Vietnamese society in the past centuries was inherently barbarous, and this barbarousness led to the current backwardness of the country. Meanwhile, Phan Bội Châu, as an anti-French activist, emphasised that the salvation of the Vietnamese nation should never rely upon the assistance of France. He insisted that albeit France was a civilised state, it played an anti-progressive role in the process of Vietnam’s modernisation. Therefore, resisting against the French colonisation naturally became the most important step in the national salvation and rejuvenation. To justify his anti-French proposition, Phan constructed a genealogy of national heroes who, out of their inherent “anti-foreign nature”, participated in the resistance against China’s invasions in the previous millennia. Meanwhile, he included the present anti-French revolution into the glorious anti-foreign tradition of the Vietnamese nation. Hoàng Cao Khải systematically refuted Phan in Việt sử kính and Việt sử yếu. Based on the theory of the transition of models of civilisation, however, Hoàng Cao Khải argued that it was not the inherent barbarousness of the Vietnamese people but the decay of the model of civilisation that Vietnam followed in previous times that resulted in the inferior status of Vietnam in the current international competition. In Hoàng’s narrative, the history of Vietnam is depicted as a gradual and consistent process towards civilisation, in which China, because of its superiority in competition, functioned as the first model for Vietnam to follow and eventually made the later a domain of civilisation. Considering the power of France which had been demonstrated in its recent competitions with Vietnam, Hoàng suggested that France had already replaced China as the new model of civilisation for Vietnam to follow. In the face of Phan Bội Châu’s emphasis on the anti-foreignness of the Vietnamese nation, Hoàng employed the analytical framework of the dichotomy between “universal principle” and “brute force” to analyse those uprisings against the China’s colonisation and argued that most of them were merely contingent responses to inappropriate policies based on the “brute force”. Moreover, by utilising the ideas of Social Darwinism to reinterpret the connotation of “universal principle”, Hoàng justifies the behaviour which employed “brute force” in the process of disseminating so-called “universal principle” and civilisation. Apart from their interpretation of the past, this thesis examines their imagination of the future as well. Based on their discussions about the issue of Champa, it points out the shared “pro-imperial” orientation of Phan and Hoàng in their opinions on the international status of Vietnam after modernisation. That is, neither Phan (despite his anti-colonialist stance) nor Hoàngrealised the underlying nature of the phenomenon of colonialism itself let alone intending to challenge or subvert the current colonial order. The world they envisioned in which a decolonised Vietnam situated is still established upon asymmetrical relations of power.
Supervisor: Paramore, Kiri
Faculty: Faculty of Humanities
Department: Asian Studies (Research master)
Specialisation: ReMA of Asian Studies
ECTS Credits: 25

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