Vietnam in transition: reflections on Change (4)

Impact of Change on International Integration

How do Changes affect People as a Nation? The Case of Vietnam and Taiwan

The first half of 20C was a historical period with many significant changes affecting the modernisation process of Vietnam, marking an apparent transformation in all aspects of social life for the people and a changed worldview on international relations. The case of Taiwan-Vietnam relations during this period illustrates this transformation in their similarities. Both countries witnessed the gradual transition and takeover of China’s secular role as ‘protector’ and ‘sovereign’ over Vietnam and Taiwan to a third power, the colonialist French for Vietnam and the imperialist Japanese for Taiwan. As a result, both countries experienced a transformation in nationalist sentiments with resistance uprising from only an armed struggle to a more organised resistance armed with vibrant political and cultural components. At the same time, both countries underwent the acculturation process that affected the social life in both countries equally. The social change was the result of many factors that were common to both.

Dependency Relations with China

Regarding the historical and geopolitical ties with China, Taiwan and Vietnam occupy a crucial geostrategic position. Taiwan is an island located in the East China Sea, 100 miles east of China, 200 miles from the Philippines, 700 miles from the Chinese island of Hainan, and away from Vietnam and the Spratlys archipelago. The Spratlys, 900 miles to the South, are connected to the North by the Ryukyu Islands, located 700 miles from the central Japanese archipelago, according to Duong Dinh Kien (2014). Therefore, Taiwan’s position between Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia as the intersection of strategic locations of East Asia poses a threat to the region in Southeast Asia and Northeast Asia as well as to major countries in the world. On the other hand, Vietnam is located on the Indochinese peninsula, bordering the Eastern Sea to the East, Guangxi to the North, Guangdong to the Northeast, Yunnan to the West, Ai Lao to the Southwest, and Champa and Chan Lap to the South. Due to its location as the last boundary on the continent of the Han people’s southern expansion and the last terrestrial frontier to the Eastern expansion of Indian culture, Western strategists considered Vietnam as the Gate of Southeast Asia or the Railing of the Pacific. Thus, regarding the geographical position, Vietnam has a crucial strategic role and is a southern neighbour sharing a border with China on land and at sea. This unique geographical position profoundly affected the national defence’s political, economic and security relations between the two countries throughout history. When there is peace and friendship, this is a highly favourable natural condition for economic and cultural exchanges. Still, when the two countries relations become tense, it is one factor that makes the risk of war easy to happen. In the past, just like Taiwan, feudal Vietnam had always been the subject of annexation and expansion by China’s great power. Although not considered an administrative unit of China, Vietnam was a vassal country and had to pay tribute to the Chinese Emperor to maintain friendly relations. Thus, both Vietnam and Taiwan had close ties with China in a relationship of dependency until the arrival of Western powers.

Following the Peace Treaty between China and colonial countries, China made concessions by exchanging interests in Taiwan and Vietnam to preserve the independence and interests of its nation. Under this Treaty, China ceded Taiwan to Japan as a colony under Japanese rule for 50 years until Japan’s defeat in World War II in 1945. Similarly, Vietnam’s fate changed with the 1884 Francophonie Peace Treaty, where the Qing army should withdraw from Vietnam and hand the country over to French colonial powers. As the Qing Dynasty still hesitated to enforce this Treaty, a Sino-French war broke out, reaching China from the uplands of North Vietnam, interrupting the bargaining to divide interests between the French and Qing empires. Once again, the fate of the Vietnamese people was in the hands of imperialist powers.

Indeed, the Treaty of Tianjin between the Qing Dynasty and France signed on June 9, 1885, was not only a compromise between China and the imperialist countries to end the war but was also the end of the most drastic phase of the power struggle between the Qing and French colonialists on the one hand, and between the Qing and the Japanese imperialists over the control of Vietnam and Taiwan.

Culturally speaking, both Taiwan and Vietnam were inherently a part of Bach Viet culture, which was part of the South China feudal tradition. Under the feudal period, both Vietnam and Taiwan belonged to the ‘Chinese cultural zone’. Under the domination of Japan, Taiwan’s economic and social picture underwent many significant changes. The Japanese extended the railway from Kirun (Keelung) to Takao (Kaohsiung) and other transportation networks. The Bank of Taiwan was established in 1899 to encourage private Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi and Mitsui, to invest in Taiwan.

In 1905, the island got electricity by hydroelectricity from Sun Moon Lake, exports quadrupled. Irrigation systems with dams cover agricultural land in Taiwan. Food production increased rapidly, making Taiwan a major food region for Japan’s industrial economy. In terms of education and healthcare, Japan had built a large infrastructure for schools, hospitals and healthcare. In terms of culture, all Taiwanese at that time had to learn and speak Japanese, use Japanese names, and even adhere to the Japanese religion Shintoism. Therefore, in the modern cultural landscape of Taiwan exist parallel vestiges of traditional Chinese culture together with Western cultural monuments built by the Roman Catholic or Muslim followers, as well as Japanese cultural imprints.

Meanwhile, after two periods of colonial exploitation, Vietnam’s social life underwent profound changes in all aspects. While still applying large-scale exploitation of the colony’s natural resources to supply her industrial needs, French colonialists also invested in the infrastructure with new schools, medical centres, transportation networks, cities, economic centers and settlements. In particular, French colonialists introduced the capitalist mode of production to Vietnamese entrepreneurs, thus transforming the relationship in business operations to a larger scale.

While Taiwanese were completely assimilated into Japanese culture, in Vietnam, French colonialists applied a policy of cultural enslavement and discrimination of the native population regarding social status. On the one hand, the positive influence of French culture on the national culture still leaves its mark on today’s Vietnam with a growing community of Christian followers; a new intellectual elite who serves the administration’s needs in the expansion of French education system and French cultural influence, etc. On the other hand, resistance movements against French Imperialists were still a threat to French dominance over the local population, making the acculturation of Vietnamese people who readily adopted French culture during this turbulent historical period still a marginal phenomenon of Vietnamese society.

Resistance against Colonialism and Imperialism

In Taiwan, the Japanese colonialists encountered armed resistance from the Han and the autochthonous people. There were groups of people who were Taiwanese nationalists and fought for Taiwan’s independence with an independent Taiwanese government; Meanwhile, there were groups of people who were influenced by Chinese nationalism and tried to bring Taiwan back to Chinese rule. Typical for this group is the uprising led by La Phuc Tinh (羅福 星) – a member of the Dong Minh Hoi, an organisation founded by Sun Yat-sen and the forerunner of the Kuomintang. La Phuc Tinh was arrested and executed along with 200 of his comrades in 1913. After that, however, there were more and more vibrant political and cultural struggle movements imbued with bourgeois democracy. Nonviolent resistance gradually took over armed insurrection. The most typical was the cultural enlightenment movement organized by the Taiwanese Cultural Association, founded in 1921. The Association has aroused exciting cultural activities in all social classes from young people, intellectuals to workers and laborers such as publishing newspapers, establishing a reading room, organizing rehearsal activities, opening summer schools, organizing political debates through the Association of the Underprivileged against the Society of the Right People, and some other cultural activities, according to Tuong Vi Van & Thai Minh Dinh (2008).

Likewise, the Vietnamese anti-French resistance took place through the Can Vuong Movement (1885-1896), although multiple struggle movements resulted  in many losses of life on both sides by the end of 19C.

Political Struggle through Education and Diplomacy

From the failed lessons of the preceding movements, plus the increasingly strong influence of the democratic movement from the West and other countries in the region, such as the Meiji Reform in Japan, and the Reform Movement in China, patriotic activities in Vietnam have turned to political struggle to revitalize the people’s intelligence, people’s spirit, and people’s livelihood to be able to fight imperialism. At that time, hardliner patriots such as Phan Boi Chau with the Dong Du movement or reformists such as Phan Chau Trinh were all associated with patriotism with the renovation and cultural reform in education to open people’s minds and revive people’s spirit.

The goal of education was to give access to the broader majority of people, increase the literacy rate and create more awareness of democratic values such as human rights, civilization, evolution and independence. Differently from Taiwan, Vietnam promotes the use of Quoc Ngu script based on the roman alphabet and thus achieved a fast speed in leveraging the literacy rate in Vietnam with a standard written and spoken language. In contrast, Taiwan still advocates the use of Chinese or Japanese characters.

However, radical scholars leading the patriotic movements in the early 20C in both countries could not find a proper way to gain sovereignty through armed struggle. Although the struggle for national liberation had contributed to awakening the people to stand up and fight against the imperialists and colonialists, the balance of power was still to the advantage of western imperialists. Only in 1945, when World War II ended with Japan as a defeated country, Taiwan and Vietnam officially escape Japanese-French rule.

Thus, being two geo-political entities in the same region with multiple similarities, both countries have the premise that facilitates an open dialogue for a friendly relationship based on trade, investment and cultural exchanges for the mutual benefit of both sides. By 21C, Vietnam still keeps a fruitful trade relationship with Taiwan and other ASEAN countries.

References: Anh Tho Andres, Reflections on Change, in: Anh Tho Andres, Christoph Stückelberger (Eds.), Vietnam Integration. Education, Culture and 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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