The Legacy of the Co-education of Women in the Tonkin Free School (1907-1934)

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.

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Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc (Tonkin Free School) 1907

The Vietnam Studies Center at Fulbright University Vietnam organized its first international conference around the Tonkin Free School and its legacy in the liberal arts education model at Fulbright.

The Tonkin Free School was radical because it was the first institution to open education to all, men and women, adults and children. With lectures in the crowded streets of Hang Dao in Hanoi, it coalesced ideas behind the Keio Gijuku, founded by Fukuzawa Yugichi, who believed that education would mitigate social disparities and the self-strengthening rhetorics of Liang Qichao and Kang Youwei, which claimed that in order to strengthen a nation, one had to first begin with the self.

If you’re interested in learning more, Nam Phong Dialogues will be releasing an episode on this very topic within the next few weeks! Stay tuned (: !

Panel 1: Cultural exchanges between Vietnam and East Asian countries from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries
Panel 2: Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc, Vietnamese literati and “Western-learning” intelligentsia, with a focus on Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh
Panel 3: The liberal spirit of Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc
Panel 4: Lessons from Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc for Contemporary Vietnamese (higher) education

Student exhibition on the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc and its legacies.

“DONT” short film teaser

One of the best things about being in New York City this past year was getting looped into creative projects adjacent to my expertise. One of those projects was being a language consultant for a short film, Don’t directed by creative director, Sally Tran.

Don’t is a 14-minute narrative short film that celebrates femme and genderqueer identities. The film’s empowering narrative centers on a female character and depicts the triumphs of solidarity and ambition with kickass moves and visual effects and four Asian Languages.”

Go here to learn more, watch the teaser, and support the project!

Fulbright signs MOU with Columbia University

My time at Columbia ended with a trip to Vietnam with a Columbia Delegation to help bring awareness to Columbia’s burgeoning Vietnam Studies program, led by Profs. Lien-Hang Nguyen and John Phan. We presented in Hanoi as well as Ho Chi Minh City to state officials, alumni, entrepreneurs, and youth about building a global-minded Vietnam Studies curriculum at Columbia. I had the very easy task of talking about how I conduct research at Columbia, and I can give it to you here in a nutshell: it has very little to do with burying myself behind books at the library (though Columbia does have a very extensive collection of works on Vietnam) but everything to do with being involved in the community, getting my students excited about Vietnamese history by incorporating research into my teaching, and working alongside experts of other regions beyond Vietnam.

In this new relationship with Columbia, Fulbright University Vietnam – my new home institution – will similarly think about Vietnam beyond its immediate boundaries and consider how such partnerships with universities around the world can broaden resources for research and teaching. Signing the MOU with Columbia is an important step for both institutions, and it was a great privilege to be the hinge for such a partnership. You can read more about the MOU here.

Toward an intellectual history of Vietnam

Carving out a place for myself in academia has culminated to something I’ll label here as establishing a subdiscipline of Vietnamese intellectual history. Intellectual history, which comes from a European tradition, has predominantly focused on ideas in relation to philosophy, reserved for erudites distanced from the masses. Only more recently has ‘global intellectual history’ emerged to valorize different sources of epistemological contribution around the world, to encourage new perspectives and connections. In the case of Vietnam, so much of Vietnamese intellectual activity (at least in the modern context) is inextricable to nationalism, cultural exchange, societal transformations. At the core of major on-the-ground transitions is in fact a negotiation and discussion of ideas both from within and without. If we return to this fundamental understanding of intellectual history, as the interpretation, circulation and transformation of ideas, then we are able to see how Vietnam’s intellectual activity offers an understanding of intellectual history that is integral to the making and shaping of social and political history.

Join us for a conversation that uses Martina Nguyen’s latest book On Our Own Strength as a point of departure for a larger conversation of what such a subdiscipline would look like.

Fiction beyond language

One of the best things about my work as an academic is getting to meet artists and writers in the community and talking about their work. Join me this Friday for a discussion hosted by the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University around Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s international bestseller /The Mountains Sing/ and her venture in representing Vietnamese history in a language that is not her own.

This virtual event is open to the public and you can register here:
bit.ly/3Djxwd1

Association of Asian Studies 2022 Annual Meeting

While I didn’t make it to Honolulu, HI physically for this year’s AAS meeting, one great upside of the hybrid conference model was preparing a virtual presentation that I now get to share with a broader public. Often, the attendance for panels can vary, for a number of reasons, so getting to share a conference paper online is such a great work around. This paper is part of a larger article where I look at moral and material excess through an ecocritical lens, currently under review with Environmental Humanities.

Nam Phong Dialogues

I’ve been working on this project for the last couple of months and am very proud to finally be able to share it. Nam Phong Dialogues is a podcast with the purpose of making history (especially about Vietnam) accessible. When this project was in ideation, I thought of my adolescent nieces and nephews, my adult friends of Vietnamese descent, and thought about how they, too, would love to learn about Vietnam, if only it weren’t so seemingly obscure and distant. If there was a way to make it fun, approachable, then maybe they would feel more connected to a part of their history.

Whether you are Vietnamese or not, an academic or not, this podcast is for you. Kevin Pham (Gettysburg College) and I bring to you candid reflections but also critical ideas about political, social, and intellectual life in Vietnam.

We hope you’ll give it a listen.