INDOCHINAvietnam and the rise of gia-long
rebellion, occupation, and subjugation of Ðai nam
struggle against french domination
landowning, economy, and politics
ho chi minh
The word Indo-China appeared in English in 1810, and Indo-Chine in French a decade later. A linguist and a geographer coined the term for the peninsula between India and China. In the early twenty-first century it comprises Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. In the early nineteenth century "Indochina" described no political boundary, but it bridged a cultural one. Theravada Buddhist realms using a variety of Indic alphabets occupied most of the peninsula, while a Confucian kingdom whose texts employed Chinese characters ruled the east coast. Yet the notion of a dichotomous zone of Indic and Sinic cultures was a European view. Mainland Southeast Asia's dozen kingdoms and principalities were ethnically diverse descendants of twenty-three fourteenth-century polities. Few of their inhabitants considered them local exemplars of distant centers of world civilizations. The early dissonance between indigenous and imperial geographies was mutual. In the eastern peninsula, terms for "Europeans" in Khmer (barang), Vietnamese (phap), and Lao (falang), derive from the Arabic for "Franks." Later, as subjects of French Indochina, speakers of those languages would rarely consider themselves "Indochinese."
In the early nineteenth century, political consolidation proceeded as dynamic new dynasties forged three dominant kingdoms. Those of Burma and Siam carved up the west and central peninsula. In the east, the new dynasty produced a new name. The vast Tay Son revolution launched in 1771 reunited the kingdom of Ðai Viet ("Greater Viet") in 1786, after a century and a half of division. The Trinh and Nguyen families had ruled the country's "outer" north and "inner" south since 1627, maintaining the powerless Hanoi court of the Lê dynasty (1427–1788) as a symbol of unity. When the Lê monarch sought Chinese military aid in 1788, the Tay Son leader seized the throne. He drove out the invading Chinese to end the Lê era. Meanwhile, however, the surviving southern prince Nguyen Anh gathered a new army and took Saigon in 1788. Marching north, he overthrew the Tay Son in 1802. Assuming the regnal title Gia-Long and seeking Chinese recognition for his new Nguyen dynasty, he chose to give Ðai Viet a new name, Nam Viet ("the Viet South"). The Chinese court, which had long termed it An Nam ("the pacified South"), amended this to Viet Nam. As "king of the Southern Viet Country" (Viet Nam Quoc Vuong), Gia-Long accepted China's suzerain ruling on his kingdom's name.
"Viet Nam" made more than a nominal new start. Historian Alexander Woodside suggests that the Tay Son era "inaugurates modern Vietnamese history." The revolution reunified the country after growing successfully from its villages, "for the first time making the peasant world the crucial battle-ground for Vietnamese rulers and would-be rulers" (Woodside, pp. 3–4). Others, including Europeans, also entered Vietnamese politics. From the Siamese capital Bangkok, French bishop Pigneau de Behaine and four hundred French soldiers and sailors supported Gia-Long's rise to power. So did a Thai rebel and a Chinese pirate and their two fleets of junks, twenty thousand Siamese troops, and a former Cambodian palace slave with five thousand Khmer followers. Despite a history of sporadic ethnic violence, the region that became southern Indochina was a relatively open zone of diverse external and indigenous interaction. Ethnic and national divisions consolidated only slowly, under Nguyen and later French rule.
Vietnam's internal conflicts had forced closer contact with its Buddhist neighbors after centuries of uneven Confucian restrictions on commercial exchanges. Chinese merchants had monopolized much of the trade that mandarins permitted; a small Vietnamese trading class struggled to emerge. Tay Son rebels, seizing the port of Saigon in 1776, threw Chinese goods into the sea, and massacred ten thousand Chinese in 1782.
The upheaval also brought politico-cultural change. For three decades, bureaucratic appointments proceeded without the traditional triennial examinations in the Chinese Confucian classics. The Tay Son made Vietnamese the official language of government for the first time, and commissioned a new compilation of Ðai Viet's history. Vietnam's nom script, employing Chinese characters to write sentences in Vietnamese, began to replace Chinese-language texts. Despite nine centuries of Chinese rule (42–939 c.e.), Confucianism had never dominated the diverse society of Ðai Viet. Cults of indigenous spirits and female deities remained common. From the seventeenth century European missionaries converted tens of thousands of Vietnamese to Catholicism. The eighteenth century brought Ðai Viet's incorporation of the largely Khmer, Theravada Buddhist region of the Mekong Delta, along with a revival of Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhism, a nom literary renaissance, and the rise of women writers such as Ho Xuan Huong (c. 1775–1820), and even a female Tay Son general, Bui Thi Xuan.
Faced with these challenges to the Confucian culture of government, in 1802 Gia-Long set about strengthening the "Chinese model." But pragmatism proved necessary. Gia-Long retained Europeans at his court and, while calling himself the "Son of Heaven," confided to a Frenchman that there was no such thing. Building his new capital at Hué in central Vietnam, Gia-Long replicated Beijing's "Forbidden City," referring to Vietnam as the "Middle Kingdom," yet he also recognized Siam as a peer: "Cambodia is a small country… . And we should maintain it as a child. We will be its mother; its father will be Siam" (Chandler 1983, p. 116). Gia-Long ordered "clear borders" between "the Vietnamese and the barbarians" (Choi, p. 34). In 1813, he restored the country's traditional name Ðai Viet, and a thirteen-thousand-strong Vietnamese army installed a protectorate over Cambodia. Yet Gia-Long withdrew Vietnamese residents from there in 1815 to avoid "trouble with Cambodians in the future," and later ordered his officials to "prevent my people from intervening in their lives" (Choi, pp. 34–35).
Gia-Long's domestic rule was relentless. In 1804, he ordered the captive Tay Son woman general Bui Thi Xuan trampled to death by elephants. He adopted the legal code of China's Ching dynasty (1644–1911), subjecting mandarins whose wives or daughters visited Buddhist temples to forty strokes of a cane, and he banned construction of new temples. He reinstated Confucian classical examinations and had a fourteenth-century Chinese text, Twenty-Four Stories of Filial Piety, translated into nom as a primer for pupils. Wives had to obey their husbands, children parents, and subjects the ruler. Gia-Long compared his people to "a child who needs care. Now that the war is over people have been used to a hard life—so they are easily ordered about and work can be done. If one waits a few years they will be used to a peaceful life and won't obey easily." Confucian texts again guided government. The Vietnamese translator of Twenty-Four Stories, received in China as a "barbarian," quickly demonstrated Confucian scholarly accomplishment that the imperial court acknowledged.
As well as obedience from subjects, Confucianism required benevolence from rulers. Gia-Long urged the wealthy to donate food in hard times, and made land grants to the poor. His son and successor Minh-Mang (r. 1820–1841) followed suit, and built a "relief" system to meet food shortages in times of drought, flood, and fire. He ordered the rich to hand over two-thirds of their lands to the village communes, and forbade the sale of communal land for profit. In his view, "the relationship between a king and his people is like that of a good father with a young child who does not wait for the child to be cold to put clothes on him."
The stricter cultural controls both reflected and aggravated social unrest. Two hundred uprisings broke out during Minh-Mang's reign. He put down three major rebellions in the 1830s and a fourth in 1841. Minh-Mang tried unsuccessfully to ban the nom script in the first year of his reign. In 1840, he attempted to ban village theater performances, a venue for peasant gatherings. He complained that "a stupendous number of males and females, old people and young people, watch these plays. This must definitely be an evil custom" (Woodside, p. 27).
The Confucian restoration strengthened restrictions on trade. In the early 1820s American and English visitors considered Vietnamese "the ablest builders of ships," and "the best sailors in the Far East" (Chesneaux, p. 54). But in 1822, Ðai Viet exported only seventeen thousand tonnes of goods to its main trading partner, China. A mandarin dismissed the merchant as one who "eats his meat in a big lump, very greedily" (Woodside, p. 35). British diplomat John Crawford reported of Gia-Long: "Some of the French officers who had been admitted into his confidence, and even familiarity, informed me that they had often ventured to recommend to him the encouragement of industry within his dominions, but that his constant reply was that he did not want rich subjects, as poor ones were more obedient." An English doctor lamented "the number of men engaged on work which is absolutely unproductive for the State, as well as being harmful to the practices of national industry. The lowliest mandarin is served by a multitude" (Chesneaux, p. 59).
Laos and Cambodia occupied the Mekong basin, separating Vietnam from Siam. Though well-watered, their soil infertility and low population density encouraged competition for labor rather than land. From 1824, officials of the new Siamese king, Rama III, carried out a population census on the west bank of the Mekong and began widespread tattooing of its Lao peasants to control their movement. In 1826, the hitherto loyal Lao monarch Anuvong (r. 1804–1828) rebelled against Siam. Crossing the Mekong from his capital, Viang Chan (Vientiane), his armies attempted to evacuate all the Lao to the east bank. When Siamese troops counterattacked, he appealed for Vietnamese support. The Siamese devastated Viang Chan; the French found only "huts among the ruins" four decades later. Siam's army forcibly deported the city's ten thousand families to the west bank along with much of the remaining population of central Laos and dispatched Anuvong to his death in Bangkok.
Siam's suppression of Laos preceded Vietnam's conquest of Cambodia. Partly to block the Siamese advances, Minh-Mang first seized much of east central and southern Laos, which he renamed Tran Ninh and Cam Lo. Yet with one-third of southern Vietnam still populated by non-Vietnamese, Ðai Viet's greatest threat remained internal. The adopted son of the governor of Saigon, Lê Van Khoi, rebelled in 1833. With a French missionary by his side, Khoi won support from Mekong Delta Khmers, Chinese merchants in Saigon, and from Siam's Rama III, seeking access to the China trade. In 1834 Minh-Mang defeated the Siamese armies that had invaded through Cambodia, and he crushed Khoi the next year. Minh-Mang now had full control not only of Ðai Viet, but also Cambodia, which became the protectorate province of Tran Tay Thanh. Now laying claim to more than the old Viet realm, in 1839 Minh-Mang renamed his kingdom Ðai Nam, "the Great South."
At the height of its expansion, the Vietnamese kingdom had overreached. Cambodia's people had no wish to be "Vietnamized," but Minh-Mang instructed his commander there: "The barbarians have become my children now, and you should help them, and teach them our customs … teach them to use oxen, teach them to grow more rice, teach them to raise mulberry trees, pigs and ducks… . As for language, they should be taught to speak Vietnamese. [Our habits of] dress and table manners must also be followed. If there is any out-dated or barbarous custom that can be simplified or repressed, then do so… . Let the good ideas seep in, turning the barbarians into civilized people" (Chandler, 1983, p. 126). Khmers had to grow their hair long, wear trousers instead of sarongs, eat with chopsticks, and perform unpaid labor for foreign mandarins.
Rebellions broke out every year from 1836. Minh-Mang wrote his viceroy in Phnom Penh: "Sometimes the Cambodians are loyal; at other times they betray us. We helped them when they were suffering, and lifted them out of the mud… . Now they are rebellious: I am so angry that my hair stands upright… . Hundreds of knives should be used against them, to chop them up, to dismember them." He added in another edict that Cambodian rebels must be "crushed to powder." Cambodian rebel leaders reciprocated: "We are happy killing Vietnamese. We no longer fear them; in all our battles, we are mindful of the three jewels [of Buddhist teaching]—the Buddha, the Law, and the monastic community" (Chandler 1973, pp. 153–154). Ðai Nam slowly lost its hold on Cambodia by 1841, to the advantage of Siam.
Ðai Nam now faced challenges from the West, in particular France, which called the country Annam, its former Chinese name. French bishops had developed a powerful interest there, home to about seventy thousand Catholics by 1820. Minh-Mang was less receptive to French influence than his father, and the last two Frenchmen left his court by 1824. The next year Minh-Mang attempted to ban Catholicism. He executed several Western missionaries in 1833, and Vietnamese Catholics in 1838–1839. Increasingly, French Catholics claimed the responsibility of protecting their co-religionists in Ðai Nam.
The French also came for commerce, as did other Westerners. British missions reached Hué in 1803 and 1822. A French warship visited its port, Da Nang, in 1817. As France's first consul, in 1820 Louis XVIII appointed a Frenchman married to a Vietnamese. Even under Minh-Mang, Ðai Nam was never closed to Western ideas. By 1836 it was buying British gunpowder. Troops in Western-style uniforms manned its cannons. Minh-Mang purchased steamships and set up a factory outside Hué to reproduce a steam engine while refusing Western expertise. The attempt failed. Vietnam would become the only Confucian country to be completely conquered by a European power.
Before he died, Minh-Mang sent an embassy to France to discuss a treaty and the question of Ðai Nam's Catholics. Paris refused to negotiate. His successor Thieu-Tri (r. 1841–1847) imprisoned a French bishop in 1845. A U.S. ship briefly seized Da Nang in an unsuccessful attempt to have the bishop released. A mandarin wrote: "The barbarians from Europe have a very firm and very patient character… . They never abandon an enterprise and are discouraged by no difficulty. For us this must be a matter of the greatest disquiet. These barbarians go into all kingdoms, and fear no fatigue. They bribe peoples, without any thought of cost" (Chesneaux, pp. 65–66).
In 1847, French vessels destroyed Vietnam's fleet at anchor in Da Nang harbor. Thieu-Tri wrote to his mistress: "Of old, the use of guns and of projectiles was unknown. But since [the Westerners] employed these engines of war, they have never lost a single battle and no fortress, however solid, has been able to withstand their assaults. At present everybody must agree that rifles and cannons are the Gods of Might." At least some Western powers agreed. In 1856 French ships bombarded Da Nang fort. In January 1857 a French missionary and lobbyist informed Napoleon III that "the easiest thing in the world" would be to occupy Cochin China, Ðai Nam's southernmost region: "France has in the China seas ample forces for this task… . The population, gentle, hardworking, very accessible to the preaching of the Christian faith, groans under a frightful tyranny. They would welcome us as liberators and benefactors. In a little time the entire population would become Catholic and devoted to France" (Hodgkin, p. 124).
Ðai Nam's peasants lived in misery. Rebellion erupted in 1854–1855. King Tu-Duc (r. 1847–1883) was presiding over repeated natural disasters. A Vietnamese historian has noted that "government supervision of hydraulic works was so inefficient that the Red River dyke at Van-giang was broken eighteen years in succession." A folk poem complained that "even a thousand years from now, people may still know of the hunger and sufferings in the reign of Tu Duc." Peasants began to believe the king had lost the "Mandate of Heaven." A revolt led by a Catholic Lê pretender wracked northern Ðai Nam in the years 1861 to 1865.
Tu-Duc could not deal with both domestic unrest and foreign invasion. In late 1858, a French expeditionary force landed near Da Nang, ordering the city to surrender. Strong Vietnamese resistance instead besieged the French positions. So the fleet sailed south and took Saigon on 18 February 1859. The French declared it a free port, open "to all friendly nations." When the Second Opium War ended, France turned to expansion. Tu-Duc had to surrender Cochin China's three eastern provinces, around Saigon, in 1862. French territory now separated the western three provinces from central and northern Ðai Nam. The country was cut in two. Tu-Duc withdrew his mandarins from the French zone, which set up a new administration. In 1865 Saigon produced the first Vietnamese-language newspaper, Gia Ðinh Bao, a monthly semiofficial newsletter using quoc ngu, a romanized script that missionaries had devised to write proselytizing texts in Vietnamese. Gia Ðinh Bao was appearing three times per week by 1880. Viet Nam was on the verge of cultural transformation.
Siamese influence in Cambodia coexisted with dynastic and ethnic unrest. Colonial forces, steaming up the Mekong from Saigon, made Cambodia a French Protectorate in 1863. King Norodom (r. 1859–1904) hoped France would shield Cambodia from Siam and Ðai Nam. But his main dangers were domestic. Though smaller and divided, they resembled the multiethnic forces fielded by Gia-long and Lê Van Khoi. Norodom's half-brother, Prince Si Votha, was already fomenting revolt against him, and two messianic Buddhist monks now launched their own rebellions. In 1865, one of them, Pou Kombo, a member of the small Kouy minority, recruited a thousand Khmers, three hundred Vietnamese, and a hundred Muslim Chams and tribal Stiengs. By late 1866, Pou Kombo fielded five thousand troops in a single battle, including seven to eight hundred Vietnamese. Royalist and colonial forces killed him the next year, but one of his lieutenants re-emerged five years later with four hundred followers "of every race in Indochina." Si Votha launched yet another rebellion in 1876–1877.
French forces slowly subjugated the rest of Ðai Nam. They seized the three western provinces of Cochin China in 1867, and the country's center and north in 1882–1883. As the Romans had divided Gaul, the French partitioned Ðai Nam into three parts—Cochin China (the south), Annam (the center), and Tonkin (the north). Some Vietnamese patriots saw collaboration as their only choice. In the 1860s, an anonymous "Letter from Cochin China" stated: "Alas, let us moderate our love for the fatherland; the wind of the West has blown lightly over us and made us shiver and tremble." Others would not submit, like the Cochin Chinese who told French forces in 1862: "If you wish for peace, give back his territory to our king… . Do you wish a ransom in exchange for our territory? We will pay it on condition that you will stop fighting and withdraw your troops to your possessions. We will even have gratitude for you, and your glory will be like the universe. Do you wish a concession to watch over your commercial interests ? We will consent to this. But if you refuse, we will not cease to fight in order to obey the wish of heaven."
Yet others saw only a third way out. Phan Thanh Gian, mandarin viceroy of Cochin China, committed suicide at the loss of his last three provinces. Gian had visited Europe in 1863, seen its industrial development, and written: "Under Heaven, everything is feasible to them, save only the matter of life and death." The French could not deny him suicide. The viceroy of Tonkin followed suit after the French successfully attacked Hanoi in April 1882.
Tu-Duc died the next year and turmoil wracked the court. Three boy-kings succeeded in turn, each quickly executed or deposed. The crown passed to fourteen-year-old Ham Nghi in 1885. The regent, Ton That Thuyet, spirited him into the hills and launched a royalist crusade against the French invaders. Under the royal name, Thuyet sent out an appeal for resistance, drawing a nationwide response from Confucian scholars. In Binh-Dinh, candidates taking classical examinations broke out of their enclosed camp and joined in the anti-French struggle. After three years of fighting in Annam and Tonkin, the French captured Ham Nghi. Until 1895, the mandarin Phan Dinh Phung led continued resistance, weighing the national plight over traditional obligations to ancestral tomb and village: "Now I have but one tomb, a very large one, that must be defended. … These events affected the whole country, the entire population."
A similar conflagration erupted in Cambodia. In June 1884, French governor Charles Thomson sailed three French gunboats up the Mekong and forcibly imposed France's right to introduce "all the administrative, judicial, financial and commercial reforms" it judged necessary, including the appointment of French résidents in provincial towns, the introduction of property in land, and outlawing slavery (Chandler, 1983, p. 143). As rebellion erupted in January 1885, Siam's King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868–1910) predicted that "the situation in Cambodia will deteriorate further," explaining: "Since the time the French assumed full administration of Cambodia, more taxes have been introduced and the tax collection procedure has been reorganized and tightened. People who have never been taxed or taxed very slightly naturally feel that the new taxes imposed on them by the French administration are unjust" (Natthawut, vol. 7, p. 91).
A two-year nationwide insurgency tied down thousands of colonial troops who took heavy casualties and caused significant destruction. In May 1885, for instance, after three hundred Khmers drove the French and their "Annamese" troops from the port of Kampot, escapees reported the retaliation: "The French sent two steamships and two Vietnamese ships to bombard the Khmer rebels… . The French then moved in and burned down the town" (Chotmaihet Phraratkitraiwan, pp. 63, 70). A French source estimated that deaths and an exodus to Siamese-controlled northwest Khmer provinces reduced the protectorate's population by 195,000. Colonial forces were able to quell the revolt in 1886 only with cooperation from King Norodom and the loss of 5,360 troops. Rebel Prince Si Votha fought on until 1889. His death in a remote jungle camp in 1892 ended three decades of dissidence.
China renounced its claim to suzerainty over Vietnam in June 1885. France built a new Indochinese empire by excluding Chinese and Siamese influence, and by exploiting divisions between Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Lao. Colonial official Jules Harmand wrote in 1885 that a person of Annamese "race" should accept that "our aid allows him to take vengeance for the humiliations and defeats that he has never forgiven his neighbours." Yet Annamese reluctance worried Paul Beau two decades later: "One must reawaken in them the expansionist instinct that seems to be flickering out" (Goscha, pp. 17, 19). Another French official took solace from what he called Cambodia's "strong national sentiment and traditional hatred for their former despoilers," as "a double immovable wall which must block all subversive projects" (Kiernan, p. 7).
The creation of "French Indochina" was completed in 1893 by seizure of the four northern and southern Lao kingdoms and principalities, after French gunboats forced Bangkok to surrender Siam's claim to the east bank of the Mekong. Luang Prabang, Viang Chan, Xieng Khouang, and Champassak, now comprising the Protectorate of Laos, were unified in 1899. Several hundred thousand Lao and various upland minorities were to become "Indochinese," along with the ten million Vietnamese and seven hundred thousand Khmers. Beginning in 1887, a French governor-general presided from Hanoi over French résidents-supérieurs in Tonkin, Annam, Cambodia, and Laos, the four territories subject to the French Foreign Ministry, and over the governor of Cochin China, which was constitutionally a colony run by Paris's colonial and naval ministries. The Radical politician Paul Doumer, governor-general of Indochina from 1897 to 1902, centralized its taxation, budget and government, which he ran with an advisory council of twenty French officials and five "indigenous high functionaries" chosen by the governor-general (Steinberg, p. 187). Finally, by further treaty with Siam in 1907, Indochina incorporated more Lao and Khmer territories west of the Mekong, including Battambang and Angkor Wat, which Bangkok had ruled since 1794.
"Indochina" gained little local resonance. In Vietnamese, Dong-Duong ("east of the ocean") had meant Japan, as its characters still did in Chinese. An 1898 Dictionnaire Annamite-Français published in Saigon fails to translate Dong-Duong as "Indo-Chine," a meaning that first appeared in a different Dictionnaire Annamite-Français published in Paris the next year. In 1920 French officials tried to substitute Dong-Phap, or "France d'Orient" (Goscha, pp. 15–16). Cambodians simply Khmerized the French as indochen.
Indochinese also pursued different paths to modernity. Vietnamese rebels had slaughtered many Catholics, often mistakenly, for supposed collaboration with France. However, a leading Catholic collaborateur, Petrus Truong Vinh Ky, played a key role in disseminating the romanized quoc ngu alphabet, which facilitated Vietnamese absorption of Western ideas and technology. He wrote:
Thanks to this writing, our poor disinherited country will be able to enter into the community of peoples and the great issues which the West has brought before the world; the sciences whose unexpected revelations strike the spirit and confound the intelligence will no longer be unfathomable mysteries to us, and these old errors, prejudices, absurd beliefs will disappear, giving way to true knowledge, to the high and serious inspiration of a wise philosophy. But for that one must have books, books, and still more books.
Eight centuries of bureaucratic examinations on Chinese classics would soon end, as Vietnam's Sino-Confucian heritage came under concerted attack. Yet the country's alternative cultural traditions of borrowing and adaptation also assisted Vietnamese modernization and international integration. As the romanized script spread, the country's first independent quoc ngu newspaper, Nong Co Min Dam, began publication in 1901. Cambodians and Lao continued to read and write in their Indic scripts. A Khmer-language newspaper, Nagaravatta, appeared in 1936, and a Lao counterpart in 1941, followed by short-lived romanization efforts in both countries and a Cambodian student's postwar invention, a Khmer-script typewriter.
Indochina remained a constellation of peasant societies, but French rule brought partial economic revolution to Vietnam. Cochin China officials rewarded collaborateurs with huge tracts of land. Saigon developed an absentee landlord class, both French and Vietnamese, to whom peasants paid about half their crop in rent. French property law undercut the traditional power of village councils to redistribute land, while colonial officials and entrepreneurs drained large areas for new cultivation. Cochin China's ricelands quadrupled in area, its population tripling to 4.5 million. Vietnamese rice exports soared from 57,000 tonnes in 1860 to 1.55 million in 1937. Socioeconomic polarization escalated. Cochin China's wealthiest 2.5 percent of landholders owned more than fifty hectares each, totaling 45 percent of the riceland. In contrast, 72 percent of the peasants had less than five hectares, comprising only 15 percent of the land.
In the densely populated protectorate of Tonkin, 62 percent of farming families owned under two-fifths of a hectare, the poorest 90 percent owning only 37 percent of the land. However, northern landlords tended to be village residents rather than absentees. In sparsely populated Cambodia, peasants were more independent, and landlordism rarer. The poorest 43 percent of rural families owned less than one hectare, totaling 25 percent of the cultivated land, but a middle peasant majority owned 44 percent, leaving the wealthiest 6 percent, owning more than five hectares each, with 31 percent. Yet Cambodians paid the highest taxes in French Indochina. As rice production and exports increased, the world market penetrated both Vietnamese and Cambodian peasant life.
Vietnam also gained a working class, including up to fifty thousand workers in French-run coal and other mines in Tonkin. Conditions were poor, hours long, wages low, disease and death frequent. Workers labored on new coffee and tea plantations, railways, cotton mills, cement factories, and petroleum refineries. The French drafted another 100,000 northerners to labor on southern and Cambodian rubber plantations in the 1920s. For the first time, Vietnam was producing bulk exports. As the nation's culture became internationalized, so did its economy.
And its politics. In 1913, the French ended an era when they captured and beheaded the last rebel leader, De Tham, whose parents had fought the Nguyen dynasty in the 1840s. However, while holding out in the hills, De Tham had succeeded in passing on the torch of resistance by working with Vietnam's new generation of anticolonialists, who were led by Phan Boi Chau (1867–1940).
Son of a poor scholar family, Phan Boi Chau was sitting for his Confucian examinations in 1885 when word came of the young king's revolt. He and sixty fellow students tried to form a fighting force until a French patrol blasted the village. After passing the 1900 examinations, Chau followed the modernizing movements now developing in China. He read Liang Ch'i Ch'ao, who aimed to reform China on the Western model. Chau visited China, and then Japan in 1905. Working secretly with De Tham until 1913, Chau ran Vietnam's anti-French underground for twenty years, sponsoring antitax riots in 1908 and leading the last Confucian-educated generation to modern nationalism. Chau's critique of "Mandarins" appeared in a text of that title, distributed in a Hanoi school set up under his inspiration in the early 1900s: "Not knowing about the existence of new books and periodicals is one thing. But knowing about them and yet sealing off, blocking out, insuring that the story is not heard or seen—that is building and preserving for oneself a fundamentally slave-like character. People of that type should really make us sick!" (Marr, 1971, p. 173).
A popular song of the era, "The haircutting chant," launched an anonymous call to Vietnamese men to avoid Chinese-style pigtails: "Study Western customs… . Don't lie, Today we clip, Tomorrow we shave!"
Writing his autobiography in China in the 1930s, Chau recalled reciting poetry in 1899 in his native Nghe-An province, in central Vietnam. In his audience was a nine-year-old who would later take the name Ho Chi Minh. The region was the heartland of the 1885–1895 revolts; like Chau and their leader Phan Dinh Phung, Ho came from a Confucian scholar family. He studied Chinese and French, then taught quoc ngu and French for a year in southern Vietnam. In 1911, aged twenty-one, Ho took off to see the world. After a navigation course in Saigon, he worked for two years as a kitchen hand on a ship plying between France and Boston and New York. During World War I he washed dishes in a London hotel. The 1916 Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland caught his attention. Ho moved to Paris the next year, weeks before news arrived of the Russian Revolution.
France enlisted one hundred thousand Vietnamese to fight in World War I. Ho condemned their sacrifice in The Trial of French Colonialism (1923): "They perished in the poetic desert of the Balkans, wondering whether the mother country [France] intended to install herself as a favourite in the Turk's harem; why else should they have been sent here to be hacked up?" Ho joined the French Socialist Party because of its "sympathy for the struggle of the oppressed peoples."
At the 1919 Versailles Conference, Ho tried to present U.S. President Woodrow Wilson with a request for equal rights and freedoms for French and "Annamese." Expressing the continuing confusion of an emerging Vietnamese identity, Ho's petition alternated the terms "Annam" and "Indochina." Entitled Revendications du peuple annamite, it began: "the people of the former Annamese Empire, today French Indochina, submit to the honourable governments… ." Later that year, Indochina's Governor-General Albert Sarraut proposed an "Indochinese Federation" to give Vietnamese a greater voice (Goscha, p. 46–47). The same year, 1919, saw the last Confucian examinations for appointments to the Vietnamese bureaucracy. Quoc ngu quickly replaced Chinese and nom as the national alphabet.
Modern Vietnamese literature emerged in the 1920s. In two decades ten thousand books and pamphlets appeared in quoc ngu—nearly fifteen million volumes circulated. One-tenth were "modernising essays and translations," mostly inspired by Western thought and technical achievements (Marr, 1981, p. 49). Readers of quoc ngu numbered more than two hundred thousand, and colonial schools enrolled one hundred thousand children each year. But the French built few schools in prewar Cambodia and Laos.
Ho Chi Minh's petition at Versailles made him well-known in France. In 1920 he became a founding member of the French Communist Party, as a "Representative of Indochina." He pricked the conscience of the French left by reminding it of the hardships France had imposed on Vietnam, Algeria, and Madagascar. In 1924 elections, Ho's newspaper Le Paria supported the Communist Party, "the only party to put up a coloured candidate in Paris."
Ho spent 1924 in the Soviet Union, meeting communists from around the world. He then moved to China, where he was based for the next twenty years. As a Comintern representative, he organized a Vietnamese communist movement, training its officers, and coordinating its activities with other Asian communists and anticolonialists. He launched the Vietnamese Communist Party in February 1930, but the Comintern intervened to change its name to the Indochina Communist Party (ICP). As China's emperor had first imposed the name "Viet Nam" on Gia-Long's new dynasty in 1802, now the USSR insisted on Vietnamese communist responsibility for revolution throughout "Indochina." The former name outlived the latter.
If the French grip seemed strong to many "Indochinese," communist revolution was on the agenda. Nationalism emerged more slowly in Cambodia and Laos, and in all three countries it continued an uneasy coexistence with Vietnamese communist internationalism. In Hanoi on 2 September 1945, Ho Chi Minh, leading the Indochina Communist Party, proclaimed a new state, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Six years later, during a final war with France, the ICP began to dissolve itself into three national communist parties. After its victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Cambodia, Laos, and a temporarily redivided Vietnam emerged as separate states. "French Indochina," as Hanoi later proclaimed, "passed into history" (Anon., p. 99). Vietnam was reunited in 1975, as it had been in 1786.
Indochina ultimately failed, not because a European term failed to bridge an Indic-Sinic cultural chasm, but because France had attempted to impose political unity by both external force and the simultaneous fostering of ethnic difference and antipathy. The imperial process of divide and rule undermined its own state-building. Centuries of consolidation of twenty-three medieval Southeast Asian kingdoms into several dominant powers favored the emergence of an Indochina polity. But Ðai Nam's failure in Cambodia and Laos only prefigured that of France, whose dispatch of "Annamese" in Minh-Mang's footsteps exacerbated Khmer resentment at the dual colonial presence. If Minh-Mang provoked more virulent Cambodian reactions, French rule mobilized more concerted Vietnamese responses. Too few Annamese relished their new colonial assignment to a traditional external role, and within Vietnam colonial power and the internal divisions it imposed proved even less successful. French Indochina collapsed in multiple ironies. Its contradictory attempts to unify separate kingdoms by force and rule them by deepening divisions provoked not only ethnic nationalisms sufficiently distinct to preclude any postcolonial union, but also a muted resurgence of traditional inter-ethnic collaboration in an anticolonial cause. France's occupation of a compact multinational territory only facilitated coordination of mounting resistance that doomed a complex colonial project.
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INDOCHINA.THE PROCESS OF COLONIZATION
INSTRUMENTS OF COLONIAL DOMINATION AND CONTROL
RESISTANCE AND REPRESSION
COLONIAL LIFE AND CULTURE
THE TWO WORLD WARS
A THIRTY-YEAR WAR
CAMBODIA AND LAOS
French colonial Indochina was a federation of protectorates, kingdoms, and colonies comprising Laos, Cambodia, Tonkin, Annam, and Cochinchina—the last three since subsumed into the borders of modern-day Vietnam. Named Indochina by the French because they situated it at the crossroads of Chinese and Indian influences, it was created by gradual accretion. It should not be confused with the more general term Indochina, designating a vast swath of Southeast Asia, often taken to include Thailand.
Although the kingdom of Nam-Viet was established in 207 b.c.e., and Vietnamese independence from China was again achieved in the tenth century of the common era, neither the contours of Vietnam nor certainly the space known as Indochina came into focus until the French colonial era. Colonial conquest had been preceded by the influence of French missionaries, most notably members of the Société des Missions Étrangères, present in the region for centuries. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the French Second Empire undertook military conquest of the region. French forces radiated from Saigon into Cambodia (Kampuchea) between 1859 and 1867. A second wave of expansion in 1884 sealed the French conquest, in spite of military reverses at the hands of the Chinese at Lang Son. Treaties in 1884 granted France a protectorate over Tonkin in the north and French tutelage over the Vietnamese court in Hue (capital of Annam). That same year, the kingdom of Cambodia was officially transformed into a French protectorate. In 1893, under pressure from French gunboat diplomacy, neighboring Siam (later Thailand) recognized French rule over Laos, which France had claimed since 1887. The resulting federation of Indochinese regions known as the "Indochinese Union" constituted an ill-defined patchwork of languages and alphabets (Vietnamese, Laotian, Hmong, Khmer, among others), ethnic identities (highland minorities, ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Khmer, ethnic Lao, ethnic Thai, etc.), religions (Confucianism, cult of ancestors, Theravada Buddhism, Catholicism), and government models (kingdoms, protectorates, and states).
The French navy played a dominant role in both the conquest and administration of Indochina. While the French army was granted considerable control over Algeria, the navy was given carte blanche over Indochina for much of the colony's existence (1859–1954). Vietnam's last emperor, Bao Dai, quipped that in Indochina "the sovereign may rule, but the French Admiral governs."
The French practiced a policy of dividing and conquering in Indochina by playing upon old antagonisms (for example, northern and southern Vietnam had once been at war in the seventeenth century and much of southern Vietnam had been under Kampuchean, or Cambodian, control until the nineteenth century). In so doing, the French became not only the arbiters of Indochina but also the cement that held this heterogeneous federation together. The French administration dispatched many ethnic Vietnamese to manage Laos and Cambodia but not vice versa. They also placed ethnic Vietnamese in prisons located in highland minority areas and attempted to forge alliances with some ethnic minorities in view of checking a perceived Vietnamese dominance. In some cases, these triangular tensions shaped the actual contours of Indochina, as in Laos and Cambodia, where the French became extremely sensitive to Thai designs and intrigues with ethnic Thais living in French Indochina. Border skirmishes with Siam (later Thailand) occurred during much of the French colonial era. Siam itself served as a buffer zone between French and British agents of influence.
Indochina attracted considerable investment and speculation in France, from its rubber plantations and Michelin's stakes in them to the powerful Banque d'Indochine. By 1940 Indochina emerged as the third largest global exporter of rubber. Conditions were notoriously cruel on these rubber plantations, where some 133,000 laborers toiled by 1942. French Indochina also produced considerable quantities of minerals and rice. Liquor and opium monopolies played prominent roles in the colonial economy. France also introduced large-scale planning and public works to Indochina. The trans-Indochinese railroad, undertaken between 1905 and 1936, provided not only a motor and showcase of development and modernization but also, more ironically, a catalyst of Vietnamese national unity.
The very first French forays in Indochina met considerable resistance, although the shapes and degrees of resistance certainly shifted over time. They included an initial wave of monarchist, conservative resistance, a subsequent pro-Japanese streak, and the emergence of multiple Marxist opposition movements, out of which the Indochinese Communist Party eventually triumphed. Uprisings at Yen Bay and by the Nghe Tinh soviets in 1930 were met with brutal repression by a colonial administration increasingly reduced to a policing role. By 1936, when police repression was actually slightly relaxed under the Popular Front government in France, Indochina's detention ratios were 2.3 times higher than those in France, and roughly 1.5 times higher than those in the neighboring Dutch East Indies (later Indonesia). At the zenith of incarceration in 1942, some thirty thousand prisoners, many of them political, languished in the retrograde and brutal French penal system, emblematized by the penitentiary island of Poulo Condore.
Already in 1917 the Thai Nguyen prison revolt had featured some of the nationalist claims of future struggles. However, most historians identify the Nghe Tinh soviets of 1930 as initiating a significant escalation and militarization in the French response to Indochinese communism. The heavy-handed tactics used by the French army to quell these uprisings anticipated the large-scale violence that would break out again a decade later.
Indochina evoked more than a simple geographical area: it came to embody a set of fantasies in the colonial imagination. This mythical Indochina occupied a central place in French literature, from Roland Dorgelès to Marguerite Duras, but also in architecture, art, and film. Beyond the romantic vision of Indochina disseminated in these media, Indochina was in reality a colony marked by hierarchies: the French administration itself was more stratified than at home, and the chasm between colonizer and colonized was considerable in terms of access to employment or education. The settler's universe was far removed from life in the metropole. A metropolitan French visitor described the average settler's situation unkindly: "[they obtain] land from free concessions, employees through forced labor, and remuneration through bonuses" (Meyer, p. 234). Throughout the colonial period, with a handful of exceptions like the French novelist Marguerite Duras, the small European community in Indochina (some thirty-nine thousand in 1940) enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle in the opulent French quarters of cities like Hanoi and Saigon, at seaside resorts like the Cap Saint-Jacques, or at the hill stations at Tam-Dao, Dalat, and Bokor. In France, Indochina earned the reputation as a land in which the most humble European man—not to speak of high-ranking officials—could afford a coterie of servants and several congaï, or mistresses. Many French colonial women, for their part, considered themselves more emancipated in Indochina than back home in France, although some, like a character in George Groslier's 1929 novel Le retour à l'argile (The return to clay), complained of ennui.
In the First World War, some 48,922 Indochinese served in the French military. Of them 1,548 "died for France," according to inscriptions at the Temple du Souvenir Indochinois—a monument to Indochinese soldiers of the Great War located outside Paris. In the wake of the war, many Indochinese elites attempted, in vain, to translate this sacrifice into colonial reform.
The Second World War heralded far greater changes in Indochina. In September 1940, following France's defeat to Nazi Germany, Japanese forces launched assaults on French positions in Tonkin. That month, Japan and Vichy France reached agreements, one allowing Japanese troops to station in Indochina, another placing Indochina within the Japanese zone of economic influence. Although Japanese troops were present in Indochina between 1940 and 1945, the Vichy French government of Admiral Jean Decoux remained in place until March 1945. Vichy reforms and ideology were introduced, and Vichy police forces forcefully suppressed rebel uprisings in both the north and south of Indochina. In fact, French Indochina was the only former Asian colony east of Bangladesh to remain in colonial hands in 1945, because in Hong Kong, Burma, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, Malaysia, and Singapore, the Japanese had simply toppled the colonial administration. However, while they did not actually remove the French administration until 1945, the Japanese nevertheless actively supported pan-Asian and anticolonial movements in Indochina. Among them was the religious sect Cao Daï, whose supporters were rounded up by the French in a move that typified the complexity of Vietnamese-French-Japanese relations in this era. Japan finally put an end to this uneasy working arrangement when on 9 March 1945 it orchestrated a coup that toppled French rule. In August–September 1945, after Japan's surrender to the Allies, Ho Chi Minh, who had slipped back into Indochina from exile in 1941 to found the Vietminh, declared Vietnam's independence. The removal of both the French and the Japanese in 1945 signaled a profound shift. The noncommunist nationalist resistance was largely compromised by its close ties with Japan. Only the Indochinese Communist Party emerged strengthened in August 1945, untarnished because of its reasoning that the French and Japanese had constituted a "double yoke of oppression."
Economic conditions were difficult in this period. Between 1940 and 1943, the price of rice in Tonkin rose eightfold. Poor food distribution, the confiscation of rice stocks by the Japanese army, and other factors, including a power vacuum, conspired to starve roughly one million Vietnamese in 1945.
In August 1945 Indochina was occupied by Chinese troops in the north and British Commonwealth forces in the south. Ho Chi Minh's Vietminh and their sympathizers dominated large sections of Indochina. Within the Indochinese Communist Party, some advocated maintaining the unity of Indochina, although in the end the communist movements of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia ended up taking separate nationalist paths.
Starting in September 1945, the French government strove to retake Indochina, which it considered the keystone of its overseas empire. Vietnam would be at war almost continuously between 1945 and 1975. In late 1945 the French forces, led by Marshal Leclerc's (Philippe de Hauteclocque) armored division that had liberated Paris in 1944, made rapid headway in southern Vietnam but encountered stiff Vietminh resistance in the north. In March 1946 France recognized Vietnam as a "free state" within the French Union but retained control over former Cochinchina. In December 1946 war erupted again in the north. Although the French took and retook cities like Hanoi and Haiphong, they were unable to control rural areas—even near Saigon. From its bastion in the mountains of northern Vietnam, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was able to direct a coordinated campaign featuring both guerrilla and regular Vietminh units, led by General Vo Nguyen Giap.
With the war's escalation came internationalization. France, still recovering from the ravages of World War II, was unable to bear the brunt of costs alone. The United States, once sympathetic to the cause of Vietnamese independence and even to the person of Ho Chi Minh, began around 1949 to consider Vietnam a theater of the Cold War. A now communist China (since 1949) was increasingly uneasy with this war at its doorstep. In 1950 both the Soviet Union and China recognized Ho Chi Minh's side as the only legal government of Vietnam. Increased American aid did not produce French victories. In 1950 French forces suffered a reverse at Cao Bang. In France, support for the war was waning. French forces, many of them hailing from colonies themselves, were drained by guerrilla warfare. In 1954 French troops were encircled in a valley at Dien Ben Phu near the border with Laos. General Giap laid siege to the French garrison, while at the same time diplomats attempted to reach a solution in Geneva. The diplomats were presented with a fait accompli when on 8 May 1954 Dien Ben Phu fell to the Vietminh. The Union indochinoise, and hence Indochine, technically ceased to exist in 1954. On 20 July 1954 in Geneva, a cease-fire was signed, dividing Vietnam along the same seventeenth parallel that had separated British and Chinese forces in 1945.
This divide remained on the map until 1975. The years from 1955 to 1975 marked greater and greater American involvement in what was now a civil war between North and South Vietnam. In 1963 South Vietnam's Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem, was assassinated in a coup. That same year the Vietcong (communist guerrillas south of the seventeenth parallel) made major inroads. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson escalated the war on two fronts: trying to quell insurgency in the South, and bombing North Vietnam. The United States dropped some eight million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia over the duration of the war. The Vietcong were supplied by the Vietminh through a tortuous network of paths known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which ran largely through Laos. Near Saigon, in the so-called Iron Triangle (around Cu Chi), the Vietcong expanded by hundreds of miles underground galleries from which they had already fought the French. In 1968 the Vietcong launched the Têt offensive, which failed to hold its objectives but ultimately proved that the rebels could orchestrate large and coordinated attacks in the heart of the South. North Vietnam launched a final offensive against the South in 1975. The South fell in just over one month (10 March–30 April). Just over fifty-eight thousand U.S. troops died in combat, and approximately one million Vietnamese soldiers perished. Estimates of civilian casualties run in the millions. After 1975 a massive exodus of political and religious refugees took place, a diaspora composed of some 1.4 million people between 1975 and 1989.
In 1953 King Norodom Sihanouk of Cambodia declared independence from France. In 1975, five years after Sihanouk was deposed by a military coup, the Khmer Rouge took power. Under the murderous leadership of Pol Pot, they committed genocide against their perceived opponents, until the Vietnamese army invaded Cambodia in December 1978, in a move supported by Moscow but strongly opposed by Beijing. In retaliation, China invaded Vietnam in 1979, before being stymied by the Vietnamese army. Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia for a decade.
Laos, like Vietnam, had become independent in 1945, only to see the French take over again a year later. Between 1953 and 1975 Laos was torn by civil war. Laos also became a major, though unofficial, theater of military operations during the U.S.-Vietnam war. In 1977, two years after a people's republic was established in Laos, the country signed a friendship treaty with Vietnam.
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