Writing near the end of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, David Marr traces the development of anticolonial sentiment and activities in Vietnam through 1925. Primarily a work of political history, Marr also addresses intellectual history, tracing the use of quoc-ngu for scholarly and political tracts, the cultural foundation of ideological attacks against mandarins collaborating with French occupation, the deployment of popular literature to mobilize public opinion, and a move away from strictly Confucian guidelines for social norms. These changes set the stage for the reformers and revolutionaries who successfully gained national independence.
Marr’s central assumption is that anticolonialism in Vietnam was based first on a group of foundational myths about Vietnam self-consciously created by activists such as Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chu Trinh during the first decade of the twentieth century. These two men were the intellectual leaders of the generation that laid the groundwork for later successful revolutionary movements. Phan Boi Chau particularly attacked parts of the traditional Confucian base of Vietnamese culture, particularly the exam and degree system, which he felt was useless in training leaders in the modern world. Attacks on the degree system led to a newer form of education focusing not on Confucian classics, but on quoc-ngu, French, Chinese, and other modernist subjects.
The traditional and new schools competed with each other for students, prestige, and funds. Traditional schools continued to have prestige as the key to financial success and advancement, leading even peasant families to sacrifice in order for a son to spend the long years of study necessary to pass the tests. Traditional education also benefited from the examples of the scholar-gentry participating in the Can Vuong Movement at the end of the nineteenth century. These Vietnamese patriots used traditional Confucian arguments to attack mandarins who collaborated with the French administration to line their own pockets. While the collaborators might argue that they were merely accepting the inevitable, the patriots argued that their loyalty to the King required resistance, and that without it, the French would erase Vietnamese culture, not just their nation.