Right was the Vietnamese mandarin-scholar Pham Quynh on so many levels when he declared, A nation exists by means of language; when language exists, the nation cannot disappear. When, in the seventeenth century, the Vietnamese language, or quoc ngu, was first elaborated by Catholic missionaries, it was done in an attempt to spread the gospel, thereby creating a Christian nation. A few centuries on, at the turn of the twentieth century, when the French colonizers employed the same language, it was done with the double aim of removing their colony from the Chinese orbit and integrating it within the French nation. Finally, when even the Vietnamese themselves started using quoc ngu, it was, as always, to forge a nationbut this time, a Vietnamese one. The history of the Vietnamese language, today a palimpsest of local culture, Chinese vocabulary and an adapted Roman alphabet, has shown us thus that its wager has always been the establishment of some kind of nation or community. It could hardly be more fitting, then, that quoc ngu literally means national language.
Seeing that the story of quoc ngu has been a meaningful reflection of the stakes in Vietnam, we might ask ourselves: how has the use of quoc ngu affected contemporary Vietnamese history? In my essay I shall focus on the twentieth century, since this was mainly when the struggles between the colonizers and the colonized took place.
[...] Furthermore, the idea of the French colonisers supplanting the Chinese influence was evinced by the changes in the imperial examination system: in 1896, quoc ngu began to be used in certain sections of the examination. Then, in 1903, a French section became compulsory. Finally, the examination system was abolished altogether in Tonkin in 1915, and shortly after, in Annam in 1918. It was in fact also from 1918 onwards that no official document was to be written in Sino-Vietnamese any longer. Thus was quoc ngu used for the dual purpose of “Frenchifying” the locals on one hand, and “de-sinicising” them on the other. B. [...]
[...] In it, he stressed that of the urgent tasks was to elevate the level of education of the people. The Government has decided that one year from now, all Vietnamese will know quoc ngu, our Romanised national script Before anything else, it is imperative that everyone knows how to read and write quoc ngu.” 4 As can be seen, there is a direct link between the Vietnamese Communist Party and Vietnam's post-war rise in literacy levels, which itself can be attributed to the accessibility of quoc ngu. [...]
[...] Finally, when even the Vietnamese themselves started using quoc ngu, it was, as always, to forge a this time, a Vietnamese one. The history of the Vietnamese language, today a palimpsest of local culture, Chinese vocabulary and an adapted Roman alphabet, has shown us thus that its wager has always been the establishment of some kind of or community. It could hardly be more fitting, then, that “quoc literally means “national language”. Seeing that the story of quoc ngu has been a meaningful reflection of the stakes in Vietnam, we might ask ourselves: how has the use of quoc ngu affected contemporary Vietnamese history? [...]
[...] Hence, the importance of modernising Vietnam was checked by the cultural stakes that writing in quoc ngu presented. It must also be understood that the developments in the perceptions of quoc ngu on both the French and Vietnamese sides ran parallel to each other. What was to one party an asset, was always to the other a shortcoming of quoc ngu, and vice versa. Thus, while the script was often for the Vietnamese a treacherous kind of instrument for acculturation, it came to be for the French a seditious tool of dangerous modernisation as well: for instance, the Tonkin Free School, one of whose policies was the promotion of quoc ngu, soon became viewed as a centre of anti-French agitation, and was consequently suppressed after just a few months of its establishment in 1907. [...]
[...] Yet one must be careful not to overstate the advantages that accrued to the Vietnamese with the use of quoc ngu, because there are qualifications to be made. Even as quoc ngu was a handy tool to modern Vietnam, the script remained a foreign import, and had the negative associations of belonging to the colonial enemy. Moreover, the use of this new writing meant a rupture with the national past and heritage on many levels. On a daily level, the use of quoc ngu meant people could not even read the numerous inscriptions found on pagodas and temples, nor understand their family genealogy. [...]
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