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 defense 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 honor,
at least required an active military defense.
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 centered 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 traveled 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 the
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 defense
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 committed 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 neighboring villages-an essential element in the
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 honor, 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 an 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 centered, above
all, around two men Phan Boi Chan and Phan Chu Trinh.
The birth of a revolutionary tradition
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
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. Sympamizers
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 with 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
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
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 canceled 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 neighbors. 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 anticolonial 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 leveled 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 an 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 most successful enterprise
was a series of free public lectures which frequently resulted
in 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
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 return to prison rather than partial freedom, 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 leader,
of resistance. His home became an important meeting place of 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 World War I 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 nonmandarin
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
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
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 modeled
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 a 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 Vietnamese and development Of their economic and cultural
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
The party's promising beginnings, however, were soon destroyed.
A group of Vietnamese workers approached the party asking that
the French supervisor of labor recruitment in Indochina be assassinated.
Labor 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
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
any 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
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 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
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
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 anticolonial 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 organization were religious: the Cao Dai sect
in Cochin China and reformed Catholicism in Annam and Tonkin.