In this last International Conference on the Tonkin Free School, I presented on how the inclusion of women in the discourse of education, as a tool to strengthen the nation, was an important first step to discussing the role of women in society.

Below is a detailed abstract of my presentation, which I will also be presenting as a longer talk with the Department of Asian/Pacific Studies at the University of Victoria in December.

I open with an excerpted poem from Phan Bội Châu’s Nữ Quốc Dân Tu Tri (1927), a textbook for the moral education of women. The main message in this lesson for women to retain is as follows: If anyone asks if you have a husband, tell them that you are married and that “his Surname is Viet and given name is Nam.” This excerpt is an example of how Phan Bội Châu and intellectuals like him negotiated certain modern ideas of nationhood with discretion, in relation to the Confucian morals that organized Vietnamese society up until then. The fact that women, too, were capable of expressing nationalism by affirming a social role – here, her loyalty to her husband, indistinguishable from none other than the nation itself – shows how central the question of women’s status in society was to ideas of nationhood.

In this presentation, I argue then that the co-education of women in the early 20th century, as modeled by the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục [Tonkin Free School] (DKNT), presents an irreconcilable paradox about women’s status in Vietnam that effectively reflects how the Vietnamese more generally were grappling with new ideas of nationhood. While women’s roles and responsibilities were simultaneously considered as national contributions, in a way that legitimized the separation of gender roles, this co-education also broke down barriers and boundaries that represented productive intellectual engagement. This presented two sides of the coin, two effects inextricable to one another, because only on this premise of being equal civil contributors were women invited to participate in conversations with one another and with men about their own status in society.

Drawing from original curriculum material from the DKNT as well as prominent journals of the 20th century, this paper presents how women’s education has been construed both formally and informally – in curricula and in print material – and the effect it had on women’s status in society. In other words, women were indeed invited to the table, but how they were seen at the table was still slow to change. Nevertheless, this was an important first step that blurred those boundaries that relegated women to confined places in the home.

The DKNT served as a precedent for thinking about cultural strength, based on Chinese and Japanese models. With influence from Fukuzawa Yugichi, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, discourses around cultural strength were not grounded in military or material power, necessarily, but in knowledge and education of a people. This was thus the mission of the DKNT, despite its short-lived existence, to educate the Vietnamese, particularly of the close relationship between politics, progress and education. When we look at the textual materials available for students at the time, including the Quốc Văn Tập Đọc (National Literature Reader) and the Quốc Dân Đọc Bản (People’s National Manual), moral education was a fundamental part of the DKNT curriculum. One of the most important lessons these texts promulgated, however, was that individuals alone were imbued with the responsibility of saving their country, and therefore it was necessary to teach them about their rights and political duties. This would be radical for the education of women, because granted access to such materials, as well as lectures and lessons alongside men, women were learning that they, too, had a national role to play. While these roles were still often the gendered roles of mother and wife, the responsibility of their task was extrapolated to that of the national level. This indeed legitimized the separation of social spheres, and attributed social responsibility to women. But I believe that it’s on this premise that further arguments about the inclusion of women, because of their social responsibility, could be made.

One important case is to look at the emergence and nature of the journal Phụ Nữ Tân Văn (PNTV), which ran between 1929-1934. Just as the DKNT encourage women to attend classes, inviting women to consider breaking down the boundaries of their national contributions, so too did the journal on PNTV and what it meant to educate women. The journal covered topics of all kinds, from religion, to women’s education, to economical changes in the country. It saw itself as “a literary organ concerned with issues relating to women, which are none other than those relating to society. ” In addition to creating a platform for the discussion of women’s issues, it also propogated important messages to women and children, about the importance of education, encouraging and empowering women to be self-sufficient, to engage in debates with others, and that education is one opens one’s mind. Indeed, women still had a national role to fulfill, but PNTV played an important role in making those roles and contributions less prescriptive, and more ambiguous. I end with an early cover of PNTV – which was utilized for over a year – and to contrast this image with the lesson conveyed by Phan Bội Châu in my opening. The cover features three women, each dressed to represent the North, Central and South regions of Vietnam. The caption, a couplet, reads, “Phấn son tô điểm sơn hà, làm cho rõ mặt đàn bà nước Nam [Powder and lipstick serve to embellish the Motherland, making clear the countenance of Vietnamese women].” Here, the Vietnamese woman is not married or a mother to the Vietnamese nation, she is its very face. The way make-up might outline the features of a woman’s face is none other than the ink that reveals the features of Vietnam, outlining and filling in its physical features, mountains and rivers, but also its true value (double meaning for countenance). She does not exist relationally to the nation, bound by any social or moral contract. In being a metaphor for the nation itself, she is versatile and diverse, which very much represents the content that the journal wished to share with its public. In this light, issues concerning women were issues that concerned the rest of the society.