Examing the Social Impacts of French Education Reforms in Tonkin, Indochina (1906-1938)

By Milkie Vu
2012, Vol. 4 No. 04 | pg. 3/3 |

Reform of 1926

According to the 1926 Code, each village was required to operate a primary school on its own funding. The village would be able to hire its own teachers. The curriculum still had to follow certain guidelines, although it is worth pointing out that there seemed to be a relax on the content, for French was no longer mandatory. French administration would send officers to inspect the quality of the education. Theoretically, this procedure should facilitate literacy in rural areas; an unofficial report estimated that this system set up a primary school for each 1.6 km2 (0.6 square miles) in Tonkin44.

Yet a new battle commenced between the teachers sent to rural areas and the villagers. Most of these teachers grew up in urban atmosphere, and normally had aspired for higher posts in colonial administrative services. Having resort to teaching jobs in the countryside, they openly display their detest of the area, and consequently came into hostility with the villagers. For instance, in Kuyen Luong school in Ha Dong province in 1925, the instructor Pham Huu Thinh reported that elders kept trying to enter the classroom, and cursing at him whenever they took exception to the lesson. His students did not sympathize with him; they instead joined in with the elders. Another case was Do Van Khoi, a teacher in Quan Khe, Hai Duong province, who was beaten up badly by villagers who objected to the content being taught45.

Since the village ran the school financially, this meant that the salary for the teachers who came into conflicts with locals was often withheld. In many cases, even when the teachers did not provoke outrageous anger, in bureaucracy still deduced their salary by half, or even two-thirds46.

As Gail Kelly remarks, “the village school became intertwined with class struggle in Vietnamese society: of the village/state, peasant/elite . The Vietnamese royalty, the French-created elite, and the French were involved in a system of exploitation. Villagers asserted their right to organize their own universe and the way their children were to be educated”47.

This period of late 1920s and early 1930s also witnessed burgeoning nationalist movements to resist colonial forces and to reclaim the of Vietnam to the Vietnamese. Several of their participants originated from Franco-Vietnamese schools. Having to face discrimination from the French they interacted with daily, and at the same time possessing intellectual capability to envision changes, they started allying themselves with anti-colonial parties. During the 1930s, it was noted that there were constant cases of students being imprisoned for organizing or attending meetings of secret organizations, including the Communist Party. Archives of the Inter-colonial Secret Police in Paris are filled with notices of meetings of this sort that were recuperated from bulletin boards and walls of post-primary institutions in Indo. Somehow, many students had found a way to actively link their dissension in classroom to broader struggles48.


Similar to the majority of policy issued under colonial administration in Indochina, education reforms in Tonkin were intended principally to benefit the French rather than the Vietnamese. The French government, however, had to balance between their desire for economic and political gains under expansion, and their propaganda and execution of colonial “assimilation” theory. They did not do a very good job of resolving this tension, and their confusion played out in more than twenty years of constant reforms in Tonkin.

To be fair, French education reforms did benefit a small group living in urban area. Indochinese University in Hanoi was the only university in all French colonies. Several Vietnamese still reflect on the period of 1930-1945 as “Age of Enlightenment” in Vietnam, particularly in Hanoi, when knowledge from the Western world helped foster a class of intelligentsia that was tremendously accomplished in sciences, arts, music, philosophy…49. Education reforms, however, did this at the expense of the majority. Almost ninety percent of all children who entered grade one between 1920 and 1938 were destined to not get beyond third grade. In 1939, it seemed unlikely that more than ten percent of Vietnamese population (1.8 million) could read in any at all50.

From an anthropological point of view, education in Tonkin both produced social changes and mirrored the conflicts in society. It simultaneously demonstrated and exacerbated regional and class differences. Through contestation within the classroom, the villagers displayed their struggle against both the urbanites and the French rule. In the urban areas, Vietnamese students came into hostility with French administrators.

More imperative for the future of Vietnam, however, was the class of students formed in Franco-Vietnamese schools who became involved with nationalist groups. Their education and conditions equipped them with necessary knowledge and passion to lead anti-colonial movement. As many have argued, chữ Quốc ngữ, which was originally implemented by the French, fostered a sense of unified Vietnamese and eventually became a very effective tool of political proceedings. Education reforms ultimately could be seen as a pathway that led to resistance in Tonkin and in Indochina against the French government.


Bowen, John. Why the French don’t like Headscarves. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2007.

Brocheux, Pierre and Hemery, Daniel. Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954. Translated by Ly Lan Dill-Klein, with Eric Jennings, Nora Taylor, and Noemi Tousignant. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 2009.

Dao, Duy Anh, Việt Nam Văn Hóa Sử Cương. Hà Nội: NXB Văn Hóa Thông Tin.

Kelly, Gail. “Conflict in the Classroom: A Case Study from Vietnam, 1918-38”. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 8:2 (1987): 175-195

Kelly, Gail, “Schooling and National Integration: The Case of Interwar Vietnam”, Comparative Education 18:2 (1982): 175-195.

Lewis, Martin D. “One Hundred Million Frenchmen: The ‘Assimilation’ Theory in French Colonial Policy”. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 4:2 (1962): 129-153.

Marr, David. Vietnamese Anti 1885-1925. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California. 1971.

Marr, David. Vietnamese Traditions on Trial 1920-1945. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California, 1981.

Tai, Hue-Tam Ho. Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992.

Tran, Hoa T.P., “Franco-Vietnamese Schools and the Transition from Confucian to a new kind of Intellectual in the Colonial Context of Tonkin”. Paper presented at the Harvard Graduate Students Conference on East Asia, Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 2009.

Tran, Hoa T.P., “Cải cách giáo dục và khủng hoảng của nhà trường Pháp-Việt ở Bắc Kỳ cuối những năm 20, đầu những năm 30 thế kỉ XX”, in Di sản lịch sử và những hướng tiếp cận mới. Edited by Le Hong Ly. NXB Thế Giới. 2011.

Trinh, Thao V., “L’idéologie de l’école en Indochine (1890-1938)”, Tiers-Monde 133:34 (1993): 169-186.

1.) Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hemery, Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954, trans. Ly Lan Dill-Klein et al. (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2009), 18.

2.) Gail Kelly, “Schooling and National Integration: The Case of Interwar Vietnam”, Comparative Education 18:2 (1982): 188.

3.) Brocheux and Hemery, Indochina, 74.

4.) Kelly, “Interwar Vietnam”, 189.

5.) Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 13.

6.) David Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California, 1971), 78

7.) Tai, Radicalism, 13.

8.) Tran Thi Phuong Hoa, “Franco-Vietnamese Schools and the Transition from Confucian to a new kind of Intellectual in the Colonial Context of Tonkin” (paper presented at the Harvard Graduate Students Conference on East Asia, Cambridge, Massachusetts, February 2009), 2.

9.) Tai, Radicalism, 12.

10.) Dao Duy Anh, Việt Nam Văn Hóa Sử Cương (Hà Nội: NXB Văn Hóa Thông Tin), 304.

11.) David Marr, Vietnamese Traditions on Trial 1920-1945 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California, 1981), 34.

12.) Dao, Văn Hóa Sử Cương, 306.

13.) Tai, Radicalism, 12.

14.) Thoi Vu (Current Affairs) 109, 1939, quoted in Phan Cu De, Ngo Tat To, Tac Pham (Ngo Tat To: Works), collected and edited by Phan Cu De (Hanoi: NXB Văn Học, 1977).

15.) Dao, Văn Hóa Sử Cương, 308.

16.) Nguyễn Trường Tộ, “Di thảo số 4 – Kế hoạch làm cho dân giàu nước mạnh”, in Nguyễn Trường Tộ, con người và di thảo, compiled by Truong Ba Can (T.P. Hồ Chí Minh: NXB T.P. Hồ Chí Minh, 2002), 157.

17.) Tran, “Franco-Vietnamese Schools”, 5.

18.) Brocheux and Hemery, Indochina, 218, 219.

19.) Gail Kelly, “Conflict in the Classroom: A Case Study from Vietnam, 1918-38”, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 8:2 (1987): 194.

20.) Trinh Van Thao, “L’idéologie de l’école en Indochine (1890-1938)”, Tiers-Monde 133:34 (1993), 170.

21.) Gustave Dumoutier, Les Débute de l’Enseignement Français au Tonkin (1887), 1.

22.) Kelly, “Conflict in the Classroom”, 195.

23.) Trinh, “L’idéologie de l’école”, 175.

24.) Philippe Devillers, Người Pháp và người An Nam: Bạn hay thù? (T.P. Hồ Chí Minh: NXB Tổng Hợp T.P. Hồ Chí Minh, 2006), 288.

25.) Martin Deming Lewis, “One Hundred Million Frenchmen: The ‘Assimilation’ Theory in French Colonial Policy”, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 4:2 (1962): 131.

26.) “Tableau 1 – Evolution générale de la situation démographique”, INSEE, accessed December 12, 2011.

“Code Officiel Géographique – La IIIe République (1919-1940)”, Statistique générale de la , accessed December 12, 2011.

27.) John Bowen, Why the French don’t like Headscarves (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2007), 12.

28.) Kelly, “Interwar Vietnam”, 180.

29.) Tran Thi Phuong Hoa, “Cải cách giáo dục và khủng hoảng của nhà trường Pháp-Việt ở Bắc Kỳ cuối những năm 20, đầu những năm 30 thế kỉ XX”, in Di sản lịch sử và những hướng tiếp cận mới, ed. Le Hong Ly (NXB Thế Giới: 2011), 294.

30.) Interview with Trúc Khê Ngô Văn Triện by Lê Thanh in 1943.

31.) Tran, “Cải cách giáo dục”, 297.

32.) Trung tâm lưu trữ Quốc Gia I, Phòng thống sứ Bắc Kỳ RST-8464- hồ sơ 42.

33.) Kelly, “Interwar Vietnam”, 179.

34.) Kelly, “Conflict in the Classroom”, 195.

35.) Ibid.

36.) Ibid., 197

37.) Nguyen Van Ngoc, “Một buổi tập đọc”, in Học báo (1924).

38.) Governement Général de L’Indochine, Rapports, Deuxième Partie Tableau V, 1920, 1926.

39.) “Mấy lời trung cáo các nhà tân học”, in Thực nghiệp dân báo (1921).

40.) Luu Trong Lu, “Một nền văn chương Việt Nam”, in Tao đàn (2: 1939).

41.) Tai, Radicalism, 48.

42.) Kelly, “Conflict in the Classroom”, 196.

43.) Ibid., 202.

44.) Tran, “Cải cách giáo dục”, 304.

45.) Kelly, “Conflict in the Classroom”, 199.

46.) Tran, “Cải cách giáo dục”, 304.

47.) Kelly, “Conflict in the Classroom”, 200.

48.) Ibid., 207.

49.) Tran, “Cải cách giáo dục”, 288.

50.) Marr, Traditions on Trial, 161.

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