Vietnam during the first half of the 19th century: scientific and technical theory and the reality of the country revisited

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Being considered as the last and longest ruling family in the monarchical history of Vietnam, there are so far a good number of researches on Nguyen Cochinchina and the Nguyen Dynasty based on dimensional approaches and new materials. Nonetheless, history of Vietnam from the standpoint of science and technology in fact remains unstudied. The purpose of the article is to reassess the scientific and technical theory and the reality of Vietnam during the first half of the 19th century in the main contents: (i) knowledge-building, scientific and technical potentials; (ii) national situation in terms of seapower and ability facing technical achievements; and (iii) a critical point of Vietnamese science and technique at the time.

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Introduction Prior to mid-19th century, the Vietnamese army confronting with the Western army for the first time faced a great challenge. The victory of the French expeditionary forces displays the victory of an advanced scientific and technical society over an agrarian one. Having signed treaties, the Nguyen court gradually acknowledged the French protectorate for a long time. When Gia Long [1Ш] (r. 1802-1820), the first Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty (15Ш), as- cended the throne, he continued to keep the relationship alive with the West in order to reaffirm Vi- etnam’s position in the region. In the first decades of the 19th century, the Nguyen Dynasty gradually gained the necessary political stability and soon learned about the civilization in the Western hemisphere. It was the emergence of new factors that could help reform the country thanks to a wise and modernized foreign affairs policy while taking up Western technology. In course of time researchers recognized the traditional perception of the Nguyen Dynasty to be generally “conservative”, because it was tied up with the Confucianism, refused to adopt Western culture and did not go beyond the tradition; it was even called “reactionary” when it easily suc- cumbed to foreign aggression, thus becoming a traitor of the nation. These remarks are primarily based on the “unsuccessful” attempt of Emperor Tø Due [SIS] to protect the sovereignty, indepen- dence and the territorial integrity. During 1840-ies and 1850-ies, statistical data show that dozens of ships from the West arrived in Vietnam with purposes of not only trading and demanding for the abolition of religious prohibition but also encouraging the act of provocation and the yoke [Bai Nam thøc luc 2007]. As for the Vietnamese historiography, great researches of the official history of Vietnam brought into the public since 1970-ies by the Institute of History, or national bodies of historical studies and training seek to confirm that Vietnam lost its independence due to the Nguyen Empe- rors’ mistakes, especially under Thieu Tri (the third Emperor) and Tø Buc (the fourth Emperor). Otherwise, and for further details, foreign scholarship (both French researchers of the colonial peri- od, and European and American historians) seeks to explain Vietnamese history of the 19th centu- ry from political, cultural, economic, social and military approaches, as ruled by an outdated/un- derdeveloped oriental regime, which conserved the stagnation and the weak military background in every way. The purpose of the article is to revisit the Vietnamese scientific and technical theory and the reality of the country in the first half of the 19th century from the point of view of the history of science and technology[9]. Knowledge-Building and Scientific and Technical Capabilities During the time when having ascended the throne, Emperor Minh Menh [ВДАгТ] strengthened centralized institutions, gradually isolating French senior officers, suppressed the Christian-related rebellion, and was more active in cultural and political exchange with the West. The Opium War in China broke out, causing the second Emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty to face two issues: the first re- lated to the future strategy of foreign policy towards the West, while the second touched on refor- ming the country. Under his reign, Emperor Minh Menh time and again sent his diplomatic missions to Pe- nang, Calcutta, Batavia (now Jakarta) and so on, on the “merchant ship” to Southeast Asia for ex- tending a wide range from China to India [Youn Dae-yeong 2016]. The ship traveled to Guangdong (China). When they returned, they reported that British military had intervened in the Chinese mili- tary and plotted the expansion of Western countries. Also, time and again Minh Menh discussed the events and impacts of the Opium War [BNTL 2007-5: 707, 808; Yu Insun 2009]. In addition, he sent a mission to Paris and London to seek and get more information[10]. The mission went to Western Europe, but did not obtain the cooperation from European countries; thus, it failed to get the expec- ted results and the mission returned when Minh Menh had died. In 1844, during the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri’s, Båo Tri Phu was sent to Batavia to buy a relatively modern steamship[11]. In 1845 the Emperor was proposed the project of “The Imperial Military Examinations” [А А ШA ], and the physical training and martial arts practice were approved in 1846 [BNTL 2007-6: 456, 529, 674]. Furthermore, the method of military training, the regimes of military examinations and official reorganization had been issued and revised. As a result, in the summer of 1846, the court promoted a detailed program of reforming the military examination system to enhance the capabilities of fighting against Western intervention [BNTL 2007-6: 881-899]. When Emperor Thieu Tri [IHfn] had ascended the throne, his attitude toward Christianity took a turn for “tolerance”. But the change of the Thieu Tri Dynasty was strongly impacted and fell into “deadlocked” situation when in 1847 the French navy fired at the Nguyen Dynasty’s navy fle- ets. In response to this act of the French, Thieu Tri demanded that all the Christians would be exe- cuted [Le Thånh Khoi 1955: 342-343], still insisting that “Christianity is the false worshipping, its enchantment [one’s heart] is deep, there should be many ways to remove it, just take it easy and ig- nore it. We do good when change their wrong-doing. If we hastily apply the execution, have we anything else to do?” [BNTL 2007-6: 1003]. In spite of Emperor Thieu Tri’s order to execute every European in Vietnam [Nguyen Xuan Tho 2016: 47] during his reign no European missionary was put to death. War ships arrived in Vietnam in 1840-ies, some ships were built there in the late 17th and the early 18th centuries, otherwise the French attack in 1858 would have differed in features, scale and equipment. Especially many ships were built during the reign of Emperor Minh Menh[12]. Some of the hu- gest ships only were 30 meters long. In 1839, the court ordered to build a new type of ship named Thanh Loan, its length was 9 truang 5 thuac (about 40 meters), its width 1 truang 1 thuac 2 tåc, its depth 1 truang 7 thuac 1 tåc[13]. In 1840-ies and 1850-ies, engine ships were sunk and broken one after another after a short time of overloaded use. The government seemed to have had insufficient funds and was not able to repair them in the years, when ship-building was most likely an experi- ment. The Reality of the Country Since Minh Menh’s reign, it has been emphasized that the Capital is the place where the mo- untains and the sea are united, the land is high and the river is calm. The place lies between the South and the North. In the waterway, there are the Thuan An and Tu Hien estuaries which are deep, while in the route, there are Hoanh Son Range [fSlilil] and Hai Van Pass [ШШМ] which blocks the area [BNTNC 2007-1: 13]. Being an outside exchange gateway, the strategic location of the Central region, including Bå Nång is supposed to be well known to the government. Besides Tran Hai Bai [tft'/tpM] “the bay named Vung Son Tra [BNTL 2007-2: 759] has the worst geographical disadvantages.” “Bå Nang seaport is an important place, because it is the place where ships have to go through” [Minh Menh Chinh Yéu 2010: 1636]. The state government required that the local authorities should immediately demand the tro- ops to pay more attention to the mandarins who went back from abroad for business trips and tem- porarily transited in any county. If the mandarins had opium with them, they would have been im- mediately arrested and the exhibits confiscated. If the ship arrived at Bå Nang’s seaport, the sailor would have been interrogated by a mandarin of the local defense command. If the ship arrived in the Capital, the sailor would have been interrogated by two envoys of Bo Binh [V-hlf Military Ministry] and Bo Hinh [jfljtiif Jus tie e Ministry], After the military clashes in 1841 and 1847 in Bå Nang, both the court and local people grip- ped with emotions and fears of what happened next, dared not even dream of cultivating. During 1856, Western ships arrived and stopped at all the seaports including Thuan An and Tra Son [BNTL 2007-7: 504]. In early 1857, the imperial government prepared 2 mountain guns and 8 assa- ult rifles for 2 temporary military bases in the Thuan An sea, sent mandarins to supervise the imperial city, forts and military posts of Bå Nang seaport, and hold sessions of shooting practice at the Thuan An seaport [BNTL 2007-3: 486, 489]. Regarding the fighting in Bå Nang in 1858, Dai Nam thøc luc recorded shortly as follows: “The ships from the West (12 ships) arrived at the entrance of Bå Nang Port (in Quang Nam province) and bombarded the fortresses. When the Emperor had he- ard about it, he sent Tran Hoang, the governor of Quang Nam and Quang Ngai, to call up the pro- vincial army (2,070 persons) for active services when needed. He also called Commander Båo Tri for going to the citadel immediately with Le Van Pho, the Surveillance Commissioner, to keep an eye on the citadel. His father was Tran Van Nhiep, who fought for the citadel with Tran Hoang” [BNTL 2007-3: 567]. Until 1860, Emperor Tn Dhc [Ш®] tried the best measures for the fight against the French attack such as warring participation of good generals, encouraging the military troops in Quång Nam, Bå Nang and the whole country, persistently watching out the enemy and so on. In Bå Nang, having stopped the French army for a while, General Nguyen Tri Phuong gave up the strategy of “fast fight and fast victory” and having considered the strategy of “taking advan- tage of being on the defensive”, took the defense as a strategy and built more fortifications to gradu- ally approach the enemy.” Emperor Tø Bnc said that such a defensive strategy had “6 drawbacks”, while he wished to attack and beat the enemy for making a huge success” [BNTL 2007-6: 584; Phan Tran ChRc, Le Que 2015: 54-67]. It is noteworthy that Tø Bnc’s official documents in volu- mes 93 and 96 of the 11th edition (1958) recorded the instructions of the Emperor for the deploy- ment of military actions in Bå Nang [Le Tien Cong 2018: 17-23]. The Emperor was “lost in tho- ught day and night”. From mid-1859, the confidential information about the plan for fighting the aggressors showed the disorder in the imperial government, mainly due to discussions about which is better: to attack or to retreat, to make peace or to give battle. Eventually Tø Bnc had to decide by himself. However, the Emperor himself was too confused to have a comprehensive plan. According to Binh Thanh Hieu’s essay on textbooks (and examination topics) for the Imperial Palace Doctoral Examinations at the time, there are some noteworthy points [Binh Thanh Hieu 2013: 60-69]: - First, along with the Co van Classical books] and Kim van [W, Modem books] known as Thdi vø såch C-urrent political issues] the textbooks for the Imperial Palace Boctoral Examinations contain more pieces of information on the Nguyen Dynasty’s administration and management. The textbooks are especially appreciated for the information on Tø Bnc’s reign. The requirement for pragmatism in the imperial examinations had never been so urgent as at that time. - Second, the textbooks for the Imperial Palace Doctoral Examinations contained pressing issues about war, peace/détente, and Christianity (or righteousness and superstition) and the issue of reforming the country. Since 1858 till 1860, the policy of “peace” was limited in general due to the fierce resistance and heroism of Bå Nang population. Only having signed the peace treaty in 1862, the Emperor and the court were increasingly hesitated between war and peace, negotiation and fighting, “War, peace, surrender, retreat, which is the best?”. The court discussed vigorously and in order to get more opi- nions of the officials, this issue became a subject of exams, especially of the Imperial Palace Docto- ral Examinations[14]. The exam book asking the question about Western technology made a compliment that “its sophistication conquers creation”, but noted that Western knowledge was not based on the principle of the Five Elements [5ff]. Thus, it was “contrary to the ancients”. Western technology was “a monstrous thing”, originated from a saint; it “exploited things to serve”. In general, the outdated mood prevailed. The Critical Point of Science and Technique In a broad historical perspective, using sociological data and biographical facts, the researc- hers highly appreciate the level of science in the reign of Emperor Minh Menh and call it “the peak of knowledge” of the era [VY DYc Liem 2018: 35-38]. It should be noted that during the reign of the powerful Emperor, public figures in Minh Menh’s era succeeded in establishing a post-war unified Vietnam, reinforcing the establishment of territory and developing economic and political relations as a powerhouse in Southeast Asia [Li Tana 2004; Nhung Tuyet Tran, Anthony Reid 2006]. However, this success had no continuation in the next decades when there was a demand for a new generation of intellectuals from a geopolitical, scientific, technical, military, and economic transformation perspective and economic and social changes [VY DYc Liem 2018: 37-38]. Thus, when considering both scientific and technical corol- laries and the reality of the country, there are two major stages which are Gia Long and Minh Menh periods (to some extent, it includes the short reign of Emperor Thieu Tri for the later stages). From a comparative point of view, it can be seen that in terms of time, Japan signed the first treaty with the United States in 1854, and in five years (1854-1858), successively signed treaties with 20 countries and territories. In April 1855, Thailand had to sign a diplomatic and economic treaty with Britain. In the following years, the Thai court had to sign similar treaties with the USA, France and the Netherlands [VY Duong Ninh 2007: 210-211; Nguyen Van Kim 2018: 75-89]. Thus, it can be concluded that Vietnam, Japan and Thailand had a relative balance of legal and eco- nomic autonomy. As it has already been said, the reform attempt of Emperor Thieu Tri to save the country re- ached a deadlock. Tø DYc’s successor did not have enough time to inherit and develop the reform policy that Minh Menh or Thieu Tri had pursued. In a battle of 1847, the French were confident about their abilities to destroy the entire warship immediately [Taboulet 1955: 372-373]. The case of refusing to not open the letter and not to receive the letter from the court was a “tragedy” of dip- lomacy. After that case, the emperor “was often unhappy”. When he had free time, he went far away to Doan Vu Communal House to have a shooting practice, ordered his people to make grass figures in the shape of Western soldiers and the one who had hit a grass soldier would have been re- warded [DNTL 2007-6: 975-976, 984-985]. Ten years later, La Pierre on Gracieuse and Victorieuse fired at Vietnamese “small” battles- hips. Prior to the 19th century, the French attack would have been different in term of feature, scale and equipment. Some documents show that after having defeated some strongholds in DF Nang, the French army saw a number of toil and copper cannons, but they seemed to be newly installed, or at any rate looked fairly new [Nguyen Phan Quang 1999: 367-368]. Not only warships, but also muskets for the Vietnamese troops were produced in France and Belgium. The gunpowder produced in the UK could be purchased in Singapore, or Hong Kong [Iffi-Huong Cång], Usually, this equipment was obsolete and had the poor performance as far as the shooting range is concerned; the reloading and the flintlock did not function either. Probably, the guns were bought in the 1830-ies and 1840-ies and their quality was not equally good (during Minh Menh’s reign, thousands of guns given by the French to Emperor Gia Long were handed out in provinces) [Nguyen Tuong Phuong 1950: 52]. Although the Vietnamese artillery was known for its “precise aiming and skillful hitting” [Phan Tran ChRc, Le Que 2015: 50], there were rumors about its poor equipment. The cannon could only miss the target which made DFo Tri prefecture governor shoot several times at the same target. During the war, “the bullets from the Vietnamese side flew above our heads [so the French] and fell in a pond behind us”. Meanwhile, building more forts and fortresses in Vietnam befitted the defense strategy [Luu Anh Ro 2005: 103-106, 112][15]. Meanwhile, equipping the war with modern facilities[16] [17] [18], Tø Due gave “Kinh Ho Kiem [Books teaching old tactics and techniques in the last thousands of years] to the auxiliary forces in Quång Nam and Gia Dinh” [Luu Anh Ro 2005: 176], set out the war layout of archery, spear and sword, and other primitive ruses de guerre... With the defense system which had carefully been planned out before the French attacked, R. de Genouilly admitted that “by setting out the war layout mentioned above, Annam government proved to be ready for the upcoming battle” [Luu Anh Ro 2005: 231]. However, during the battle, the defense system showed its weakness for it was ineffective, too vague and in need of constant restructuring . From the mentioned changes on the theory base of the paradigm of science by Thomas K. Kuhn, the replacement of a new paradigm is a continuous “revolution”: Old paradigm - Normal science - Anomalies - Crisis - Revolution - New paradigm4 process[19]. Prior to the mid-19th cen- tury, even when South Vietnam had fallen in the hands of French colonialists in the 1870-ies, the old paradigm with the article of faith (“They [the West] rely on their wealth, we rely on our virtue. They depend on their strength; we depend on our manpower. They use their skills; we use our loy- alty. The skill is superficial, it is just a redundancy”) was kept alive. The reason of the normal science was “Unable to change the literary tradition that has existed for thousands of years, the com- mon sense of religion is inviolable”, “Noi ha ngoai Di” [lWVI'74 civilized Central China, barbari- ans outside], “learn of barbarians”[20]. As a consequence, although it appeared that the anomalies and the crisis in the Vietnamese society (a number of questions raised when failures in the fight against French colonialism remained irreparable), the revolution and the new paradigm never took place. While searching for a theoretical argument, we found many documents in text books of the period of Tø Duc’s reign [Dinh Thanh Hieu 2013: 60-69]. Our explorations show the harmony with the module changing process. During that period, Communal village exams (martial arts) were divided into four events. The third event was gun shooting exam. National exams resembled more or less the inter-provincial exam but were more complicated (according to the 17th Minh Menh exa- mination program of 1836) [Nguyen Tuong Phuong 1950: 61]. If regarding the stage since the 11th till the 19th centuries as a historical paradigm, the post-stage period of this bureaucratic monarchy recognizes the inheritance and continuation of the model-standard period (since the 16th until the 19th centuries), with similarities and “differences/ anomalies” compared to the standard framework. Minh Menh wanted to follow the Emperor Le Thanh Tong [11ж] model, but the social context of the 15th century Early Le Dynasty was very far from the social model of the Nguyen Dynasty in the 19th century. For various reasons, including the lack of new economic and social dynamics, the post-model period of the Vietnamese monarchy had been prolonged and had become increasingly inadequate in self-reliance convert [Nguyen Thna Hy 2018]. Continuously exogenous effects from the early 19th century had appeared “anomalies”, indicating “crisis” to a soon manifested paradigm shift, through a transition period since the mid-19th century till the early 20th century. Some Remarks According to the above-mentioned scholarship, facing the 19th century changes, Vietnam restored the orthodoxy model of oriental (underdeveloped) feudalism. From the standpoint of the history of science and technology, it is correct to confirm that Vietnam was strongly influenced by Qing China Confucianism, creating the totalitarian state in every respect, holding monopoly in go- vernance activities, including the national scientific system. Prior to the 19th century, Western Europe had passed the industrial and scientific and tech- nological revolutions which had created a solid base for conquering the world. In the meanwhile, al- though the Vietnamese traditional society had changed, the continuation seemed to stop at core[21] (upper ruling class and elite). Vietnamese scientific and technical system was a transition, but the change was slow, with the draw, between the limited penetration of periphery (communal village, lower class and society) into core and the tension of the paradigm shift [Nguyen Manh DYng 2018]. Profited from commercial interests at sea, geostrategic and geopolitical positions [Mahan 1918; Kaplan 2017], the French seapower sent troops into Vietnam owing to tremendous advanta- ges. Though the Vietnamese defeated their allied legionnaire in Då Nang, in the long-term, Vietnam was not able to win a war which in fact was based on a highly rised material civilisation. Indeed, though Tø DYc made reform efforts, the weakness and shortcoming of the cultural, economic and social supports (national realities), the lack of a political doctrine and the fundamentals of science and tech- nique made Vietnam unable to sustain and defend its sovereignty and its territorial integrity.

About the authors

Manh Dung Nguyen

Vietnam National University

PhD, Associate Professor, Vice Director of the Institute of Policy and Management - University of Social Sciences and Humanities Hanoi


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