dissertation overview

In search for a language of liberation: Vietnamese francophone youth and intellectual thought, 1920-1954 


Michel Foucault wrote in his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” (1984) that it was not a set of values to be retained from this period, in the same way that modernity is not to be considered a period in time, but rather that the Enlightenment marked a change in attitude, a relationship with and a mode of thinking about contemporary reality. This relationship begins with /returns to the self, for the “Modern man,” citing Baudelaire as a quintessential example, “is not the man who goes off to discover himself, his secrets and his hidden truth; he is the man who tries to invent himself. This modernity does not ‘liberate man in his own being’; it compels him to face the task of producing himself.” In other words, the Modern man is a man of his time, in which the constant negotiation between reflection and creation, in relation to his contemporary society, defines him, rather than any preset truths he needs to learn or discover.Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 10.15.57 PM.png

And so what does this mean for Vietnam two centuries later? Foucault’s reflection on a question that Kant took on during the Enlightenment redirects the importance of the era away from its characteristics to a shift in perspective. For scholars, this becomes critically relevant as a mode to think about intellectual activity in the colonial context beyond apparent colonial paradoxes. And for the Vietnamese intellectuals of the era, this “new” way of thinking of one’s relation to contemporary society opened up questions that would lead to the formation of Vietnamese national consciousness and identity.


Vietnam in the first half of the 20th century saw a rise in literacy, political activity, and the consciousness of Vietnamese identity in relation to French and Chinese influences. Such transitions left their mark on the languages used in Vietnam, which included ideogram based scripts such as literary Chinese and demotic Nôm, and romanized Vietnamese and French. This project uses language expression as a lens to delve into political and intellectual history and to examine how this language negotiates identity and intellectual freedom. More specifically, In search for a language of liberation examines the work of five writers (Cung Gĩu Nguyên, Đào Đăng Vỹ, Nguyễn Mạnh Tường, Phạm Văn Ký and Trần Văn Tùng), and argues that their generation redefined the architecture of intellectual engagement through their interaction with French thought and language.

This thesis traces how the colonial education system and increased print media circulated both Enlightenment and mission civilisatrice discourses in Vietnam. While such discourses generated ambivalence within the colonial system, they also introduced a new “attitude” for thinking about contemporary society that is analogous to Michel Foucault’s definition of modernity. Modernity, in other words, was not merely a temporal break from older systems, it offered an openness of thought and prompted constant reflection on one’s society. For example, Phạm Văn Ký’s interpretation of French Symbolism offered an aesthetic theory to make meaning out of the disavowed ideogram writing systems. Or once Vietnam became independent, Nguyễn Mạnh Tường’s affinity to Montaigne’s skepticism became a philosophical foundation for his caution regarding later political regimes. These writers illustrate the capacity for intellectual expression to exist outside a mainstream narrative for anticolonial and anti-French revolution. By focusing on essays, novels, and journals as well as historical archives, this study aims to show how linguistic and cultural genealogies in Vietnam challenge any linear development of a native identity traceable to a unified, ascetic origin. In this vein, the project makes transcultural connections across colonial writing more generally, to bring Vietnamese, postcolonial, and Francophone studies into dialogue and to open up a larger study of the currents of culture and epistemology that remains pertinent in today’s age of globalization.

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Disciplinary questions

When the study of “Vietnamese literature in French expression” appeared for the first time in the 1980s, it was characterized as an ethnographic presentation of Vietnamese culture for a non-Vietnamese, French-speaking other. But there are also political stakes and colonial ambivalences to account for that help take this peculiar corpus of literature beyond area studies. Central to my research more generally is therefore the question of situating Vietnamese literature, including its francophone, anglophone, and Vietnamese ‘varieties’ in relation to a discipline or field. How does it respond to post-colonial or colonial identifications, what is its role in understanding complex colonial relations beyond human interaction, where does it stand now in a curriculum?