Vietnam in transition: reflections on Change (6)

The Dynamics of Change


This chapter is about factors that influence the process of modernisation in contemporary Vietnam. Dynamics of change are factors that influence the course of evolution by their interaction in a given period.

Questions such as “What was the role of French missionaries in the early days of Vietnamese literary education? How has the bridging between two cultures occurred? What are the catalysts in the Westernisation of the Vietnamese society? Is there a cause and effect linked to the Vietnam War? How has the Vietnamese culture evolved or survived all these changes? How can Vietnam succeed its integration to the World economy?” may find an explanation by studying the paradigm shift that results from these changes over a certain period of time. The period between 1862 to 1954 may be the most interesting historical period to observe the paradigm shift in the philosophy of education in Vietnam due to external influences, namely the influence of French politics for East Asia and the education policy that derives thereof.

The protagonists of this period represent the general trends of the period. On the one hand, the New School or Modernist trend promoted modern education and openness to Western thinking and technology, while the Old School or traditionalist trends opposed to French influence associated sovereignty loss. In between, the Moderate trend tried to find a balance between the two opponents.

History of Education and Early Educators

Among the early educators that strongly influenced the course of history of education were Tran Trong Kim in the early half of 20C, and Luong Kim Dinh in the second half. Putting their legacy and contribution to the nation-building process in the historical context helps us to understand the enormous impact that ideas can have on the destinies of millions of teachers and students, connecting the Eastern wisdom to the Western pragmatism.

Tran Trong Kim (1882-1953). Tran Trong Kim[1] shared his personal experience of the early days as the first Chief of State of this young nation. Although his political career did not last more than 4 months, his contributions to the Vietnamese education system of the post-world-war-2 period were crucial to the development of modern education until today.

Tran Trong Kim started his writing career in 1914 when he was editor in charge of the “academic” rubric of the Indochina Magazine, where he published a series of didactic articles on ethics and pedagogy. His published works show his multi-dimensional capacity as a writer, an educator and a political visionaire who accompanied various steps in the transformation of many Vietnamese generations during the first half of 20C.

In 1914, he published Introduction to Moral Education followed by an Introduction to Pedagogy in 1916.  In 1919, Introduction to Vietnam History was published for the first time. It became a success among educators and has been re-edited since then for at least 10 times during a period of eighty (80) years. This innovative way of writing History textbook made way to a series of other textbooks that have been added to the new method of learning since the introduction of the Vietnamese roman alphabet, the Quoc Ngu.

Between 1925 to 1971, he continued to write or supervised the production of school textbooks that covered humanities studies subjects such as Vietnamese and Chinese literature, Eastern and Western philosophies, political and educational philosophies, Pedagogy and Moral ethics as well as Methods of learning applied to Western thinking. For instance, the Introduction to Vietnam History that was first published in 1926 was co-written with Nguyen Van Ngoc, Dang Dinh Phuc, Do Than included illustrations by Nam Son Nguyen Van Tho. It was a collective work that was commended to be used in the early days of French schools.  Other publications included the Annotated Tales of Thuy Kieu; Poetry of Duong Dynasty; Poetry of Vietnamese Writers; Vuong Duong Minh etc.

Text books on Moral education include a series of textbooks for different levels from kindergarten to high school children such as: 47 moral teachings of the Le Dynasty was translation into French “ Les 47 articles du Catéchisme moral de l’Annam d’autrefois”; Similarly, the Introduction to Moral education; Introduction to Confucian studies; Introduction to Buddhist studies; Introduction toTaoist studies were introduced to high school and university students who later became teachers of many generations thereafter.

The collection on Pedagogical methods included: Introduction books to writing, grammar, mathematics, natural science, history of religions, Vietnamese grammar, pedagogy for primary school teachers, methods of research in history, methods of learning chinese philosophy, etc. among others, the Vietnamese Grammar Textbook was co-written with Pham Duy Khiem, Bui Ky and published in 1941. But above all, his main legacy was the five-volume series on Nho Hoc studies. The series was first published in 1930 and reprinted many times as textbooks for classical Chinese studies until today.

In 1933, he delivered a speech on “Philosophy of Life” or “Quan Niệm Về Cuộc Nhân Sinh” during a conference organised by the French authorities. His speech was a summary of the Vietnamese ethos as interpreted through the lenses of Eastern traditions. His worldview represents the Moderate trend that characterizes the average Vietnamese who tend to the circumstances of the moment with wisdom and philosophy.

The New School or Modernist Trend

Typical authors of this trend (tan-hoc protagonists) were Pham Quynh, Dao Duy Anh, Truong Vinh Ky, and Nguyen Hien Le who embraced the modern way of learning, embracing modernity and new democratic ideas in governance and the role of the modern State.

Pham Quynh (1892-1945). Pham Quynh[2]  was a renowned politician and scholar during the early days of Vietnam as a young nation. He supported the modernisation of Vietnamese education although he came from the Han-Nom tradition. He encouraged the preservation of eastern cultures while adopting ideas from the West and contributed to the translation of Han-nom to quoc ngu script. At its early stage of development, the young Vietnamese script lacked the appropriate vocabulary and many scientific and academic works were adopted from Chinese or Japanese concepts. He founded the first Vietnamese magazine – the Nam Phong Tap Chi – and used it to educate Nam Phong readers through rubrics related to academic works in the national language. His contribution to the Bréviaire colonial of the France-Indochine helped the Western world understand more about An-nam people and rich culture. He also supported a peaceful dialogue between nations through intercultural integration during this crucial period where the clash of civilisations was at its peak. Sadly, being labelled as a pro-French collaborator, he was killed in 1945 by the radical faction led by the Viet Minh, as the French Indochina War broke out by the end of World War II.

Dao Duy Anh (1904-1988). Đào Duy Anh[3] appears in Larousse as one of the great encyclopedists of modern times. For the Vietnamese, he remains one of the most outstanding educators for many generations of historians and Vietnamologists.

Đào Duy Anh has dedicated his life and work to the good of the country and its people. In 1927, he co-founded the Voice of the People Newspaper with Huynh Thuc Khang. In 1928, he initiated the Quan Hai Tung Thu together with renowned patriots such as Phan Dang Luu and Vo Nguyen Giap, his companions in the resistance for national liberation and reunification.

His most memorable contribution to the Studies of Vietnam remains above all, the Vietnam Brief History of Culture (Việt Nam Văn Hóa Sử Cương), published in 1938 (and re-edited at least seven times between 1951- 2010). The book covers all aspects of the country, from economic and socio-political, to academic activities that have accompanied the evolution of Vietnamese culture throughout its development.

More importantly, his work also reflected the changes in the Vietnamese culture due to modernisation that affected the break or change of old values and the rise of new ethics. The research and structured work of the book based on rich and diverse documentation shows his outstanding ability as a researcher. 

His most famous book, Vietnam Brief History of Culture remains, until today, one of the works that have laid out the foundation for the studies of Vietnamese culture. He left an impressive repertory, covering topics in linguistics, literature, and intercultural studies: Han-Viet Dictionary (1932), French-Vietnamese Dictionary (1935), Literature Review of Nguyen Du’s Kim Vân Kiều (1943), Critique of Confucianism (1943), China’s Brief History (1944), Vietnam Ancient History (1955), and Vietnam History (1955).

Truong Vinh Ky (1837-1898). Truong Vinh Ky[4] remains one of the rare Vietnamese scholars who mastered 27 languages at the end of the 19C. He was the first interpreter to accompany Phan Thanh Gian delegation to France in 1863. His works in Education include a number of textbooks on Learning French and Quoc ngu scipt), History of the An-Nam.

The impact of foreign culture through the translation of scholastic works is confirmed through the experience of many cultures that were under the influence of great civilizations such as the Han and Indian in the case of East and South-east Asia.

With the expansion of foreign trade exchanges, the zone of intercultural interactions has widened at an exponential speed. Vietnam, being situated at the crossroad of so many cultures, is not exempted from this phenomenon. In the case of Vietnam, the first attempt of translation into the new quoc ngu script was initiated with Truong Vinh Ky’s Kim Van Kieu, Dai Nam Quoc Su Dien ca, Gia Huan Ca, Luc Van Tien from Nôm, as well as classic Confucian works such as Tam Tu Kinh, Dai Hoc, Trung Dung, and Minh Tam Buu Giam from Han characters to the new script.

Nguyen Hien Le (1912-1984). In my opinion, another prolific translator that remains the champion on the history of translation is definitely Nguyen Hien Le[5]. His collection of translated work has added to the heritage of national literature in many ways.

Nguyen Hien Le who spent a lifetime in research and promoting the new ways of learning, the lack of coherence in the methods of referencing of the old tradition made research work difficult for scholars.

Indeed, the preservation and archiving of original literary works in Vietnam is a big problem due to disruptions caused by war and other historical events. One example is the case of Sam Trang Trinh or Predictions of Master Trinh Nguyen Binh Khiem: it is noted that the original manuscript in Nôm has fourteen (14) introductions and 248 verses belonging to the original text by author Hoang Xuan. The manuscript in Nôm script is stored at the National Library while the original manuscript in quoc ngu script by author Mai Linh is stored by the Han Nom Institute in Hanoi located in another part of Hanoi.  Tran Trung Vien, Author of Co Nhan Dam Luan or Conversations with the Ancients also confirmed that the lack of proper referencing methods and annotations makes research on ancient literature difficult and inaccurate, and therefore needs a standardized methods of reference.

The Old School or Traditionalist Trend

Typical authors of this trend (cuu-hoc protagonists) were Phan Boi Chau, Phan Chu Trinh, Luong Kim Dinh, among others. Though not entirely anti-modernist, they promoted nonetheless the preservation of traditions and customs and were actively engaged in anti-colonialist actions, sometimes using violent protest in the public sphere and were jailed at some point of time in their lives, or even assassinated.

Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940). Phan Boi Chau[6] was a dominant personality of early Vietnamese resistance movements, whose impassioned writings and tireless schemes for independence earned him the reverence of his people as one of Vietnam’s greatest patriots.  Phan Boi Chau was part of the Old School supporter for whom education and preparation for the mandarin examinations were the only means to success in the traditional bureaucracy. By the time he received his doctorate in 1900 Chau had become a firm nationalist. In 1903 he wrote Luu cau huyet le tan thu (“Ryukyu’s Bitter Tears”), an allegory equating Japan’s bitterness at the loss of the Ryukyu Islands with the Vietnamese loss of independence. With fellow revolutionaries he formed the Duy Tan Hoi (“Reformation Society”) in 1904 and secured the active support of Prince Cuong De, thus presenting to the people an alliance of royalty and resistance. Due to the Franco-Japanese Alliance, the Vietnamese monarchist movement in Japan was abandoned in 1908-09 and the resistance movement was re-organised in Canton, China, under the name Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi (“Vietnam Restoration Society”). As the plan to assassinate the French governor-general of Indochina failed, he was imprisoned in Canton from 1914 to 1917, during which time, he wrote Nguc trung thu (“Prison Notes”), a short autobiography. Among his notable works are Viet Nam vong quoc su (1906; “History of the Loss of Vietnam”), renowned as Vietnam’s first revolutionary history book, and Hau Tran dat su (“Strange Story of the Latter Tran”), a historical novel with political implications.

Changing Paradigms for Social Transformation

The divergence between the two trends (Old School vs. New School) is apparent in the philosophy of education and the role of educators in the social transformation of Contemporary Vietnam. In this chapter, we will explore ideas that have influenced Vietnamese modern education in its early days, namely Phan Chu Trinh and the Anti-colonial nationalist trend, Rousseau’s Social Contract, Dewey’s Pragmatism inciting social transformation through action, and on the other hand, Krisnamurti and  Luong Kim Dinh inclination on the spirituality dimensions of education that accompany the transformation of individuals.

Phan Chu Trinh (1872-1926). Phan Chu Trinh[7], alias Tay Ho, grew up under the French Colonial period and received a bilingual education in both Han-viet studies and French-Vietnamese. He was among the early scholars who led the anti-imperialist resistance. The Duy Tan Movement promoted democratic ideas such as equality among nations and sovereignty for the colonies whereeas The Dong Du Movement encouraged young students to “Travel East” to learn from the Japanese Meiji modernisation model. Exiled in France after escaping the death penalty, he continued his anti-colonial discourse, among which the discourses on “East-West Ethics and Morality” (Dao duc va luan ly Dong Tay), and “Absolutism vs. Democracy” (Quan-tri chu nghia và dan tri chu nghia) were a wake-up call to the conditions of colonised peoples. However, he is still remembered as a tan-hoc protagonist.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s[8] political philosophy has influenced the progress of the Age of Enlightenment throughout Europe, as well as aspects of the French Revolution and the development of modern political, economic, and educational thought.

His Discourse on Inequality and The Social Contract are cornerstones in modern political and social thought. In terms of education, his Emile, or On Education (1762) is an educational treatise on the place of the individual in society. Rousseau was also the most popular of the philosophers among members of the Jacobin Club during the period of the French Revolution and was interred as a national hero in the Pantheon in Paris, in 1794, 16 years after his death.

In modern political philosophy, Rousseau is a source of inspiration for liberal theories, communitarian ideas, civic republicanism, and in theories of deliberative and participatory democracy.

The Social Contract, originally published as On the Social Contract or Principles of Political Right was published in 1762. The book theorizes about the best way to establish a political community in the face of the problems of commercial society, which Rousseau had already identified in hisDiscourse on Inequality published in 1755.

The Social Contract helped inspire political reforms or revolutions in Europe, especially in France. Arguing against the idea that monarchs were divinely empowered to legislate, Rousseau asserts that only the people, who are sovereign, have that all-powerful right. The Social Contract theory is apparent in the political discourse of the early days revolutionary movement in Vietnam, based on the idea of inequalities and right of the people.

The most comprehensive English edition of Rousseau’s works is Collected Writings (13 volumes), Roger Masters and Christopher Kelly (eds.), Dartmouth: University Press of New England, 1990–2010.

John Dewey (1859-1952). John Dewey[9] is considered the greatest American philosopher in the 20th century. In 1988, he was honored by UNESCO as one of the four greatest educators, along with Georg Kerschensteiner, Maria Montessori and Anton S. Makarenko, who were decisive influencers on educational thinking and the appearance of human education in the 20th and 21st centuries.

John Dewey has devoted his entire life of nearly a century to the cause of building a democratic education, for the advancement of learners, for the great benefit of people, for the fullest development of talents. ability, intelligence. John Dewey’s educational philosophy and its relationship to experience, democracy, humanism and pragmatism have greatly influenced modern education systems around the world. John Dewey’s educational philosophy has strongly influenced Vietnam’s Resolution 29-NQ Reform of education and training for a fundamental basic and comprehensive change on education and training.

Krishnamurti (1895-1986). Jiddu Krishnamurti[10]  was born and educated in India but spent much of his time in the United States and Europe. His interests included psychological revolution, the nature of mind, meditation, holistic inquiry, human relationships, and bringing about radical change in society.

He stressed the need for a revolution in the psyche of every human being and emphasised that such revolution cannot be brought about by any external entity, be it religious, political, or social. His supporters, working through non-profit foundations in India, Britain, and the United States, oversee several independent schools based on his views on education. They continue to transcribe and distribute his thousands of talks, group and individual discussions, and writings by use of a variety of media formats and languages.

Many of his works were translated into Vietnamese. He wrote many books, among them The First and Last Freedom, The Only Revolution, The Songs of Life, Commentaries on Living, Zen Education and many more philosophical essays.Luong Kim Dinh (1914-1997). Luong Kim Dinh[11] was born in Nam Dinh and ordained Catholic priest in 1943. He studied French civilization, sociology and philosophy at the Institut Catholique de Paris and Confucianism at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Chinoises in France. Returning to Vietnam in 1957, he taught philosophy at the Le Bao Tinh Academy and the Saigon University Faculty of Letters since 1960, Van Hanh University since 1967, and Dalat University. The numerous works of Kim Dinh present a plethora of insights into the Vietnamese cultural heritage and can serve as a valuable basis for a Vietnamese‑American theology. He founded the School of thought An Vi or An Việt or Tranquility Philosophy and Việt Nho (or Authentic Vietnamese Confucianism). He published more than 30 books on Vietnamese culture and philosophy from 1963 until his death at age 83, in 1997.

[1] Một Cơn Gió Bụi. Kiến Văn Lục, NXB Vĩnh Sơn 1969; Luận Đề Trần Trọng Kim 1882-1953, NXB Bạn Trẻ 1960; Quan Niệm Về Cuộc Nhân Sinh, NXB Trung Bắc Tân Văn 1938.

[2] Source: Pham Quynh, p.17 Phe Binh Cao Luan, p. 231 Tu Dien Van Hoc.

[3] Source: Dao Duy Anh, p. 58, Tu Dien Van Hoc.

[4] Source: Truong Vinh Ky, p. 324, Tu Dien Van Hoc.

[5] Source : Nguyen Hien Le, P. 187, Tu Dien Van Hoc.

[6] Source : Phan Boi Chau, p. 237, Tu Dien Van Hoc. Phan Boi Chau, Critics on French Colonial Education, Nguyen Van Hoa, Tư tưởng của Phan Bội Châu về giáo dục ở Việt Nam đầu thế kỷ XX.

[7] Source: Phan Chu Trinh, bio 240, Tu Dien Van Hoc.

[8] Pham Van Chung, Tư tưởng của Jean Jacques Rousseau về giáo dục, English Title: J.J. Rousseau on Education.

[9] Đỗ Xuân Tiến, Adapting John Dewey philosophy of education. Source: Triết lý thực dụng của John Dewey và công cuộc đổi mới căn bản, toàn diện giáo dục và đào tạo ở Việt Nam hiện nay. Journal of Science – Dong Nai University, 16-2020. ISSN 2354-1482. English Translation of Excerpts by Anh Tho Andres (2021)

[10] Krishnamurti, Zen Education, Vietnamese translation Ong Khong (1969)

[11] Luong Kim Dinh,

Reference: Anh Tho Andres, Dynamics of Change, in: Anh Tho Andres, Christoph Stückelberger, Vietnam integration. Education, Culture, Ethics. Voices of Teachers. Geneva: Vietnam Ethics Series, vol. 2, Publishing (2022).


Published by Anita H.

Expert in Intercultural Communication, navigating between 4 cultures and 5 languages which I use daily for work and leisure. Author of blogs on wordpress and blogspot on SBI Training Solutions Projects: vietnamhoc, yourvietnamexpert, yourvietbooks,

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