How and When Vietnam’s “Resistance Movement Began” (part one)
When the young emperor, Ham Nghi, together with his court, fled Hue in July 1885 for the security of the mountains of central Vietnam, the Vietnamese resistance to French colonial rule began. The decision to resist the imposition of the French protectorate was sudden, but not unplanned. One of the regents responsible for the government of the thirteen-year-old Ham Nghi was Ton That Thuyet. He had long urged a more vigorous defence against French force and had prepared a mountain retreat, supplied with food, ammunition, and gold. But only a series of insults by French military commanders and an attempt to deprive the court at Hue of all power and influence finally convinced the royal family that its honour at least required an active military defence.
On his flight from Hue Nghi issued a royal declaration known as the “Loyalty to the King Edict.” True to Confucian belief, the emperor accepted full blame for the calamities that had befallen the country but insisted upon strict obedience to the new edict. Loyalty to the monarchy and hatred of the French were sufficiently strong to produce a twelve-year guerrilla resistance against the French. It drew its leaders from loyal mandarins and other local scholars and has been named the “Scholars’ Revolt.” Until the French captured Ham Nghi in 1888, the Scholars’ Revolt centred around him.
With the French in hot pursuit of the fleeing court, the would-be rebels were unable to reach the mountain retreat they had selected in advance. The supplies stored there fell, instead, into French hands. The rebels moved farther into the mountains, quickly becoming dependent upon the support of small villages.
THE GUERRILLA WAR BEGINS
In the early years, the rebels were highly effective. Selective Vietnamese ambushes prevented French troops from gaining a major foothold in the mountains. Ton That Thuyet reportedly had more volunteers than he could use. The classic pattern of guerrilla warfare emerged. By day the forces kept to the security of the mountains. At night they entered villages to resupply and to gain new recruits. Everywhere the French appeared to be in control of the villages, but nowhere were they safe.
With these early successes, Ton left the young emperor in the care of his sons and travelled to China, hoping in vain to enlist the support of Peking. The French, too, began to seek support elsewhere. Their demand for more money and more troops from France was met in Paris by criticism from the Chamber of Deputies, which had previously been so enthusiastic about the protectorates.
The French then turned south to their colony of Co-chin China, in hopes of enlisting support. Twenty years of colonial rule had its effect there. A large number of Vietnamese already held stakes in the French rule. These tested collaborators proved willing to raise armies to fight their fellow Vietnamese in the North. One of the wealthiest of the Cochin Chinese, Tran Ba Loc, also proved to be one of the most ruthless of antiguerrilla fighters. He literally wiped a score of villages off the map.
The French also sought other allies. After Ham Nghi’s flight, they had installed a new emperor, Dong Khan. They called upon the mandarins to support this “rightful” ruler, making a highly enticing offer: Rebels who voluntarily surrendered would be pardoned; those caught would be summarily executed. However, many mandarins refused to recognize the new emperor and at best remained neutral. Much like the Americans nearly a century later, the French also exploited the guerrillas’ reliance upon Vietnam’s ethnic minorities in the mountains, especially the Muong. Small bribes were often enough to gain the cooperation and loyalty of the ethnic troops.
The French used this last connection to capture Ham Nghi and strike a fatal blow to the resistance. While in the care of Ton That Thuyet’s sons, he was guarded by Muong tribesmen. The French approached the Muong chief, offering him opium and a military title in exchange for his betraying the emperor. Ham Nghi was captured in November 1888. True to the Confucian tradition of obedience to the father, one of Ton’s young sons fell in defence of his monarch. The other, shamed by his inability to carry out his father’s instructions, committed suicide. The sixteen-year-old Ham Nghi behaved with dignity, refusing to communicate even his name to his French captors. He would not meet with relatives who had returned to the court at Hue and lived the rest of his life in exile in the French colony of Algeria.
THE END OF THE SCHOLARS’ REVOLT
The capture of Ham Nghi was a turning point in French pacification efforts. More and more mandarins saw the wisdom of accepting the French offer and returned to their duties, this time in the service of the French. Others followed the Confucian tradition of retirement to their home villages. It became increasingly easy for the French to consolidate their rule without aid from Paris. Mandarins were able to conscript native troops to battle the remaining insurgents, and taxes were heavily increased to pay for the military campaigns.
For a minority, however, the capture of Ham Nghi only intensified their efforts. Plans were laid for a long-term struggle. One guerrilla group captured and beheaded the Muong betrayer of Ham Nghi. Others developed increasingly sophisticated guerrilla tactics and began the manufacture of replicas of the most advanced French weapons. But the French developed a strategy that ultimately led to the end of guerrilla resistance. Focusing their entire attention on a particular area they built a series of fortifications around the guerrillas’ mountain base. Slowly moving in, they trapped the guerrillas in an ever-tightening noose. Ultimately the guerrillas’ only hope was exactly what the French wanted: a frontal attack at-tempting to break through the French ring. These tactics destroyed the mass of the guerrilla movement. Those who were left fell victim to disease, starvation, many commit suicide.
By 1897 the last of the guerrilla forces in the mountains of Tonkin had been subdued. A decade of peace commenced, during which the French could begin the process of developing their new possessions. But the rebellion lived in the memory of the people, providing lessons both by what it had accomplished and what it had not.
The Scholars’ Revolt failed largely because of the limitations of its guiding philosophy, Confucianism. The appeal to scholars provided Ham Nghi’s court with its only link to the masses and gave the movement its popular appeal. But it was also the major cause of its failure. The scholars commanded their own village peasants’ loyalties, but unlike the guerrillas of the 1950s and 1960s, they had little support from other villages, much less a national leadership. This localism made it difficult for guerrillas, once forced from their native areas, to reestablish bases with close ties to neighbouring villages-an essential element in the guerrilla strategy.
The Scholars’ Revolt was also hampered by traditional Confucian loyalty to the family. The French tactic of arresting and threatening death to the parents of resistance leaders was cruel but successful. Those Vietnamese who chose the good of the country over their filial responsibilities often went through extreme mental anguish. One creative mandarin tried to convince his peers that Vietnam was the parent of all its people and that fighting for one’s country was the equivalent of ancestor worship. “Now I have one tomb,” he argued, “a very large one that must be defended: the land of Vietnam… If I worry about my own tombs, who will worry about defending the tombs of the rest of the country?” But in 1890 he was a remarkable exception and convinced almost no one.
Finally, the Scholars’ Revolt suffered from its conservative goals. Its aim was the restoration of the Nguyen court and its mandarin bureaucracy. Village loyalties were strong enough to enable local scholars to raise small guerrilla armies. Ultimately, however, peasant apathy and the promises of the French to bring the benefits of “civilization” to the Vietnamese robbed the Nguyen regime of its support.
Despite its failure, the Scholars’ Revolt marked the beginning of the Vietnamese resistance movement. The heroic deaths, such as those of Ton’s sons, in-spired by Confucian honour, became a source of inspiration for the next generation of Vietnamese. Especially among mandarin families, the wish to avenge the death of a father, uncle, or older brother provided the psychological impetus for the rebirth of the resistance movement after 1900.
While peace dominated the years following the repression of the Scholars’ Revolt, its glory was kept alive. Veterans told stories of the revolt, stirring schoolboys. Inevitably a new generation of scholars arose for whom the study of classical Chinese military tactics attained importance equal to the study of classical Chinese philosophy. By 1903 these young men began plotting, with independence as their goal The victory of the Japanese over the Russian empire in 1904 was proof that an Asian country could defeat a western power and stimulated the second generation of Vietnamese resistance. The struggle of this new generation centred, above all, around two men Phan Boi Chan and Phan Chu Trinh.
THE BIRTH OF A REVOLUTIONARY POSITION
Phan Boi Chau was born in 1867 in the central province of Nghe An. His father had passed the mandarin examinations but declined government service. He chose instead the honorable but poor existence of a village teacher. When the Scholars’ Revolt began in 1885, young Phan put his studies aside and organized his classmates into a candidates corps. As the I French entered his home village, the corps dissolved in panic. Phan felt that he was unable to prevent the panic because he lacked the prestige of a mandarin’s degree, and he returned to his studies. His father’s failing health made it all the more important that he establish himself. In 1900 he passed his examinations. Later that year his father died, and Phan was free to embark on his real career: organizing Vietnam’s anti-colonial movement.
True to his upbringing, Phan began his struggle with an entirely traditional outlook. He first sought the support of leading veterans of the earlier rebellion, receiving the blessing of the famous Hoang Hoa Tham, whose defeat in 1897 marked the end of the Scholars’ Revolt. Tham encouraged Phan to find a royal pretender to the throne around whom the resistance could gather a loyal following. Ironically, Phan’s choice was a direct descendant of Prince Canh, the son of Gia Long, whom Pigneau de Behaine had brought to France in 1784 to be educated as a pro-French ruler. In 1903 Prince Cuong De accepted the offer and began a lifetime as the center of royalist attempts to gain Vietnamese independence.
As Phan deepened his commitment to the past, he started reading the works of Chinese mandarin reformers breaking away from their own Confucian heritage. Some spoke only of a reformed Confucianism, while others supported the republican ideas of Sun Yat-sen. Many of them, unwelcome in China, had found refuge in Japan. When news of its victory over Russia in 1904 reached Vietnam, the allure of Japan grew. Phan and his small band of allies agreed that Vietnamese independence could only be won with foreign support. Japan became the most logical candidate.
In 1905 Phan sailed for Japan, having written ahead to the famous Chinese reformer, Liang Ch’i Ch’ao. Liang warned Phan against any reliance on Japanese aid. Japanese support, he argued, would inevitably result in Japanese domination of Vietnam. Still, Liang graciously introduced Phan to leading Japanese liberal politicians.
Japan’s liberals disappointed Phan. They ruled out military aid and suggested instead that Phan raise money to send young Vietnamese to Japan for advanced study in both military arts and modern technology. Liang urged Phan to accept the Japanese offer as the best hope for the moment.
Returning to Vietnam, Phan Boi Chan organized the “Exodus to the East,” as the program to encourage study in Japan was called. To raise funds and coordinate the program, the “Public Offering Society” was formed. By the summer of 1908 two hundred young Vietnamese were studying in Japan. Among the Vietnamese in Japan was Prince Cuong De, by now hunted by the French because of his claim to the Vietnamese throne.
To raise funds, Phan’s fledgling movement depended upon more than direct solicitation from wealthy Vietnamese. Sympathizers to the cause began to develop commercial enterprises-hotels, restaurants, even newspapers-and turned the proceeds over to the movement. Given the traditional Confucian aversion to commercial ventures, this in itself was a major break from the past.
Phan also began to reconsider his reliance on traditional philosophy. While never disavowing his support for the monarchy and Prince Cuong De, he gradually began to sympathize with the belief of Chinese reformers in democracy. Phan became convinced that an independent Vietnam required the active participation of its citizens, rather than the restoration of the rigidly hierarchical mandarin system. The resulting synthesis gave birth to Vietnamese constitutional monarchism.
Vietnamese prisoners placed in stocks by the French after arrests made during the poison plot.” These participants and many others involved in the plot ended up executed or behind French bars.
THE POISON PLOT
Gradually the pieces began to come together. By late 1907 Phan felt that the time was ripe for an attempt to force the French out of Vietnam. His group developed a plan by which the French officers of the Hanoi garrison would be poisoned by low-ranking native troops, who would then seize crucial points in the capital. Broader planning was limited to assurances of support by former leaders of the Scholars’ Revolt in central and southern Vietnam.
The French officers were poisoned as planned, but the French apparently had some inkling of trouble. Their intimations were confirmed when one of the poisoners headed straight for the confessional after committing the deed. The Catholic priest immediately violated his vow of confessional confidentiality and informed the French authorities. Phan’s plot was thwarted, and his supporters throughout the country wisely cancelled their planned attacks on the French.
In the aftermath, colonial authorities executed thirteen of Phan’s followers. Scores more were sent to prison. Phan himself, already wanted by the French police avoided arrest by remaining in Japan during the “revolt.” The French, however, soon discovered the connection between the aborted revolt and the “Exodus to the East” program and prevailed upon the Japanese government to deport the Vietnamese studying there.
By 1908 Japan was flexing its muscles as a new imperial power more concerned with maintaining good relations with other great powers than with supporting the independence movements of its small neighbours. Japan’s short-lived role as the benign liberator of Asia was over. Most of the Vietnamese students in Japan avoided deportation to Vietnam by finding refuge in China. Phan and a small group of followers made their new home in Siam, where they smuggled propaganda tracts back into Vietnam.
The misconceived alliance with Japan underscored a dilemma faced not only by Phan Boi Chau but by all of his successors in the independence movement. The small nation required substantial outside assistance to regain its independence, but that assistance called for dependence upon another country. Whether dealing with Japan, the United States, China, or the Soviet Union, no Vietnamese ruler was ever wholly able to walk this tightrope.
Phan played a major role in resistance politics for another two decades. But 1908 marked the climax of his leadership. While his belief in direct, violent action makes him, in many ways, the father of modern Vietnamese revolutionary philosophy, his political philosophy and tactics were largely from another era. He felt that the masses still required the traditional symbol of the monarchy. Although he recognized the need for mass support in any anti-colonial movement, he was unable to develop a modern strategy. He still believed that the peasantry would follow the scholar class out of a traditional sense of loyalty. Phan’s mirror image was found in his contemporary, Phan Chu Trinh, the other father of modern Vietnamese nationalism.
PHAN CHU TRINH AND THE WESTERN ALTERNATIVE
Phan Chu Trinh was born into a wealthy scholar’s family in central Vietnam. His father fought in the Scholars’ Revolt but, suspected of being a traitor, was killed by other leaders of the movement in 1885. Orphaned at age thirteen, Phan relied on his elder brother for education in the Chinese classics. By 1901 he had received the highest mandarin degree, apparently on his way toward continuing the family tradition. But he soon became attracted to the Chinese reformers and met Phan Boi Chan in 1903. In 1905 he made the break, resigning his post in the mandarin bureaucracy.
Whereas Phan Boi Chau considered the French the major enemy, Phan Chu Trinh levelled his attacks against the traditional Vietnamese court and mandarin bureaucracy. He rejected the monarchy in its entirety and called for the establishment of a democratic republican Vietnam. In Phan Chu Trinh’s opinion, French rule was preferable to a restored Nguyen regime. The two men respected each other, but their divergent views prevented them from working together.
Phan Chu Trinh’s beliefs enabled him to maintain communication with the French. In 1906 he addressed a letter to Governor-General Paul Beau requesting that the French live up to their civilizing mission. He called for the abolition of the vestiges of mandarin rule and the development of modern legal, educational, and economic institutions, including the industrialization of Vietnam. Phan also charged the French with responsibility for what had transpired in Vietnam, particularly the exploitation of the countryside by Vietnamese collaborators. Phan’s ideas soon won him a sympathetic audience among progressives in France itself.
These links also enabled Phan to organize and open the Hanoi Free School in 1907 with the permission of French authorities. The Free School’s theory held that scholars must renounce their elitist traditions by learning from the masses and the peasants be given a modern education. The school’s most successful enterprise was a series of free public lectures which frequently resulted in an animated discussion by the audience. Hundreds in attendance were exposed to western ideas while debating various theories of modernization. To Phan, the major intent of these lectures was to overcome the Confucian philosophy that dominated Vietnamese politics thought.
Within a year, however, the French closed the school. The Free School had scrupulously avoided any illegal activities, but the colonial authorities were convinced that it had ties to the more radical program of Phan Boi Chau. Peasant tax revolts had erupted in 1908, and the French were not willing to take any chances.
Phan Chu Trinh was arrested the following spring charged with inciting the tax riots. He was condemned to death, but his progressive admirers in France intervened. The French resident superior commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. In 1911 the French pardoned him but placed him under house arrest. When Phan Chu Trinh then requested a return to prison rather than partial freedom, the French permitted him to travel to France.
In Paris Phan made contact with his French supporters who opened their journals to his attacks on French colonial rule. To support himself he found employment as a photo retoucher. He lived in Paris for more than a decade as a symbol, rather than a leader, of resistance. His home became an important meeting place for anti-French Vietnamese who made their way to France.
Phan Chu Trinh’s more peaceful path to Vietnamese independence proved to be no more successful than Phan Boi Chau’s. His political theory, never well developed, was unable to draw the fine line between reliance on the French to modernize Vietnam and full acceptance of the colonial regime. Not surprisingly many of his associates eventually collaborated with the French rule. Like Phan Boi Chau, Phan Chu Trinh was unable to mobilize the peasants against the French. He was more concerned with reforming the scholars than forming a mass political organization.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 another generation of Vietnamese resistance leaders had passed from the scene, the last group to enjoy leadership by virtue of its scholarly background. But this generation provided an essential link between traditional Vietnam and the modern political movements that followed in the 1920s. They began the process of sweeping away the ossified Confucian ideology. Phan Boi Chau developed the first violent revolutionary strategy; Phan Chu Trinh bequeathed his belief in a non-mandarin republican form of government. Their failures, too, were important. They taught the next generation the most important facet of modern politics: the need for mass organization.
“HE WHO ENLIGHTENS”
The initial blow for Vietnamese independence after World War I came from Paris. There, a twenty-nine-year-old Vietnamese by the name of Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot) presented a petition for Vietnamese independence to the Versailles Peace Conference, deciding the fate of postwar Europe. The petition caused the French government some embarrassment, but the peace conference quickly dismissed it. Not so easily dismissed was the young petitioner, Nguyen Ai Quoc. He had come to Paris as a ship’s cook in order to learn about the West. There he met Phan Chu Trinh who taught him the trade of photo retouching and encouraged his patriotic spirit. For the rest of his life, Nguyen Ai Quoc relentlessly pursued the goal of Vietnamese independence. A quarter of a century after appearing at Versailles, he changed his name to Ho Chi Minh, “he who enlightens.”
But the 1920s were not a decade for the likes of Nguyen the Patriot. Anticolonial politics were dominated instead by Vietnam’s new elite -the increasingly wealthy urban middle class. As the worldwide prosperity of the post-World War I period reached Vietnam, a new generation emerged with closer cultural ties to the French. Many, perhaps the majority, relied upon that regime for their wealth, accepting the dependent status which French rule guaranteed. But others, in one way or another, joined the nationalist cause.
The most moderate among them avoided politics altogether but still made a valuable contribution to Vietnam’s new sense of nationalism. Especially in Cochin-China, they established newspapers, journals, and books, all published in quoc ngu. But these earliest ventures were largely initiated with French support, often with French capital, and limited to cultural and pedagogic themes. Still, they continued the work of Phan Chu Trinh by attacking Confucian philosophy and opening the minds of many Vietnamese to western ideas.
Other nationalists shared the beliefs of their apolitical countrymen but could not keep silent about their political grievances. Prior to World War I, they coalesced around a French-language newspaper, the Native Tribune. In the 1920s they emerged as the Constitutionalist party, led by the Tribune’s publisher, Bui Quang Chieu. By the mid-1920s they had developed a platform for the political development of the Vietnamese nation. Ultimately they hoped to achieve a separate constitution for the country, with a relationship to France modelled after Canada’s dominion status in the British Empire. For this, the French colonialist branded them Bolsheviks.
The Constitutionalists’ immediate demands included an expansion of educational opportunities for Vietnamese and the development of a university in Hanoi on equal footing with those in France. They also called for the creation of a representative council of Vietnamese elected through wide suffrage. As an intermediate step, they called for equal representation among French and Vietnamese within the Colonial Council.
The Colonial Council was, in fact, reformed in 1922, increasing Vietnamese representation to ten of the twenty-four seats. In the early 1920s, the Constitutional party routinely won every Vietnamese seat on the council. This was indicative of their support but also resulted from the restricted suffrage laws. Only twenty-two thousand Vietnamese had the right to vote.
THE FAILURE OF THE MODERATES
Post-World War I agitation reached an early climax in the years 1925 and 1926. In November 1925 Alexandre Varenne arrived in Saigon as the new governor-general of Indochina, appointed by the leftist coalition that had just won the French elections. The Constitutionalists presented him with a list of demands, insisting upon greater political rights for the Vietnamese and the development of their economic and cultural life.
Earlier in the year, Phan Chu Trinh had returned to Vietnam from Paris, by then a sick man. He died in March 1926. His funeral included a long procession from Saigon to Tan Son Nhut, where he was buried. Thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese lined the streets to pay tribute to the father of the Vietnamese independence movement. Bui Quang Chieu of the Constitutionalists made a speech but disappointed the crowd by calling for Franco-Vietnamese harmony. It was a fatal mistake, revealing that the Constitutionalist party had fallen behind the times.
In the aftermath of the funeral, student strikes erupted in Saigon, Hanoi, and My Tho, which housed three leading secondary schools of Vietnam. But there still existed no means of linking this new urban unrest to the village masses. By mid-1926 this small crisis had passed. Varenne’s rule proved remarkably tranquil. A few badly needed reforms were initiated, but the political forces were dispersed The Constitutionalists had lost their dynamism and posed no further threat to the French. One Vietnamese nationalist asked in anguish, “Have we all forgotten Phan Chu Trinh?”
THE VIETNAMESE NATIONALIST PARTY AND THE CHINESE MODEL
Not all had. On Christmas night, 1927, a small group of anticolonialists met in great secrecy near Hanoi to found the Vietnamese Nationalist Party. The party was a conscious imitation of the Chinese Kuomintang, the Nationalist party of Chiang Kai-shek. Its major achievement was the development of the first revolutionary organization in Vietnam. Although it employed certain rituals traditional to Asian secret societies, it also adopted Lenin’s modern organizational principles. An elected central committee issued orders down through the party structure, organized into small cells, to diminish the chances of detection by the French police. In political theory, the new party was less innovative. It simply adopted the platform of Chinese Nationalists.
According to the French secret police, the party grew to fifteen-hundred members in 120 cells by early 1929. It was the first party to draw its membership from outside the scholarly or wealthy elite. It encompassed students, small merchants, and a few landlords, but few peasants. Still, almost none were scholars or came from mandarin families.
The party’s promising beginnings, however, were soon destroyed. A group of Vietnamese workers approached the party asking that the French supervisor of labour recruitment in Indochina be assassinated. Labour recruitment, which was often forced, and the working conditions on plantations had long been scandalous. Peasants complained that those “recruited” never returned home. The Nationalist party shared the hatred of the workers for the recruitment practices but refused the assassination on strategic grounds: The recruiter’s death would not weaken French rule and would lead to reprisals. Turned down by the party, the workers, who may have been party members, assassinated the French bureaucrat on their own.
The French reacted by arresting every party member they could find. Their lists were quite accurate. Eventually, four hundred arrests were made, resulting in seventy-eight convictions. The leadership of the party was decimated. The party’s founder, Nguyen Thai Hoc, escaped and regrouped his forces in a village near Haiphong. A heated discussion took place. Nguyen pointed to unrest among Vietnamese troops in French regiments and called for a major uprising. It appears, however, that he was aware that the up-rising would not succeed. Instead, he was convinced that the French police would soon destroy the remnants of the party. He wished to see the Nationalist party end in action rather than through passive arrests.
The uprising was scheduled for February 9, 1930. At the last minute, Nguyen Thai Hoc attempted to postpone the uprising for a week, but his messenger was captured by the French. Other forces, unaware of the postponement, began the rebellion as planned. In several garrisons, native troops attacked French officers, but within nine hours the French had restored order. Almost all of the remaining party leaders were arrested. Nguyen Thai Hoc was beheaded. The few members who escaped arrest headed for sanctuary in southern China. There, riven with factionalism, they were unable to form an alliance with other resistance fighters in exile. They played only a small role in the 1930s but reemerged during World War II, when their strength came almost entirely from an external source-the Chinese Nationalists, after whom they had fashioned their party
The Constitutionalists were in many ways the heirs of Phan Chu Trinh, although the party’s attacks on French rule lacked the sharpness and radicalness of his ideas. The Nationalists were the heirs of Phan Boi Chan. Both parties advanced the development of the prewar resistance movement and introduced new elements of political thought and organization. But neither achieved a synthesis between the ideas of the two fathers of Vietnamese nationalism. More important, neither could reach the Vietnamese peasantry. By the late 1920s, however, new organizations emerged, perhaps less active politically than their forerunners but with roots deep in village Vietnam.
THE VIETNAMESE ALTERNATIVE
In the 1920s a true counter-culture emerged in the villages of Vietnam. The spearhead of this alternative both to the French and the traditional Vietnamese bureaucracy was various religious movements, including a revitalized Catholic church. Later, in the 1930s, the Communist Party emerged out of this counter-culture, offering not only a cultural and philosophical alternative to French rule but a political one as well.
The emerging counter-culture was not really anything new. Rather, it brought together elements long a part of traditional Vietnamese life. Alongside the official mandarin scholars with their court-approved interpretation of Confucius had stood the local village scholars. These scholars had been trained like the mandarins in the Chinese classics. But after failing their examinations or being dismissed from government service they had returned to their home villages. Some who were otherwise qualified had simply refused government service. Many had chosen the career of a village teacher.
Their presence always represented an unofficial alternative to mandarin Confucianism. While a mandarin, for example, might emphasize the heavenly mandate of the ruler and the necessity of strict obedience, the local scholars would argue that the ruler’s mandate really came from the people and insist upon the right of rebellion against an ineffective emperor. In Vietnam’s times of crisis, this divergence often led to civil war: the Tay Son found substantial support from among the local unofficial scholars.
Scholars who refused government service also found other occupations as chiefs of bandit gangs. Banditry played a substantially different role in Vietnamese society than the term implies. The French referred to most of the guerrillas who opposed the establishment of their rule as bandits, and they were not entirely wrong. Many bandits in Vietnam traditionally played a semipolitical role. Peasants forced to leave their villages, perhaps for unpaid debts during bad harvests, frequently had no alternative but to join a bandit gang.
One of the most famous of these gangs was led by Cao Ba Quat, considered the most brilliant scholar of all Vietnam. Cao Ba Quat, lacking the right contacts at the Nguyen court, was angered at being refused a government post. In 1854 he led an uprising against the Nguyen called the “Locust Revolt.” Cao Ba Quat whipped up support for his rebellion among discontented peasants in the area of Son Tay, where locusts were ravaging the fields and inflicting severe hardship. The bandits roamed the countryside for several years before the Nguyen army could quell the revolt and finally pacify Son Tay.
The increased landlessness and indebtedness of the peasantry under French rule resulted in the growth of such bands. Led by disaffected village scholars like Cao Ba Quat, they contained the seeds of political opposition to French rule. They were a constant headache to the French, but little more. They lacked the means of organizing into larger groups or of making their political opposition widely known. Still, the French could not ignore the political side of banditry when the gangs robbed, with substantial local peasant support, the warehouses of wealthy landlords.
The importance of banditry really lay in its leadership, made up largely of well-educated men. Like the local schoolteachers, the bandit leaders had sufficient knowledge of the ruling system of government to exploit it for the advantage of the peasants who followed them. That is, the bandit seemed to have many of the attributes of the middleman who did so much to exploit the peasantry. The two occupied roughly the same position in society, but with a crucial difference. The middleman operated for his own personal benefit, the local scholar and, often, the bandit leader for the benefit of the community. The key to the organization of an effective anti-colonial movement proved to be the development of a new class of middleman that could understand and manipulate the French system for the welfare of the peasants. The pioneers in this new form of the organization were religious: the Cao Dai sect in Cochin China and reformed Catholicism in Annam and Tonkin.