From the late 1800’s to 1954, Viet Nam was a part of France’s colonial possession, French Indochina. Seen as a “back door to China,” Indochina was colonized for power, profit, and economic exploitation. To justify their imperial domination, however, the French claimed it was their mission civilisatrice (“civilizing mission”) or responsibility to colonize the “underdeveloped” regions of the world and civilize it to European standards. To support this stand, the French often went to great lengths to change and reform the social structures of the land. The motives behind these efforts, however, were almost always for the benefit of the French and the development of Indochina was barely considered.
In Viet Nam, French colonization brought social change through education and language reform. Adamant in their beliefs that French culture was superior to Vietnamese culture, the French moved to dismantle the traditional Confucian educational institutions that had dominated the Vietnamese structure for centuries. By building French and Franco-Vietnamese schools, the European power integrated French ideals into the education system and even managed to completely rewrite the language, replacing the original character system with Vietnamese written in the Latin alphabet. Even today, the Vietnamese language is very similar to French, with some words being direct derivatives of their French equivalent. (For example, “suitcase” in French is valise and in Vietnamese is va li.)
Behind these education reforms was also the hidden agenda of penetrating and dismantling the Vietnamese social and cultural structure. Termed la conquête des esprits (“conquest of the mind”), taking over the schooling system was to be an effective way to solidify French influence. Gustav Dumoutier, the inspector of the Franco-Vietnamese school system, wrote, “If we want to exercise our influence in these countries, to draw Indochinese people to follow our way, to liberate them and raise their spirit, we should deliver our ideas to them and teach them our language…starting from the school.” Ultimately, the new education system was a way to dismantle any social structure that did not have the French at the top. The traditional schooling structure that bred elite scholars and politicians was seen as ground for political instability, as a base of power that could challenge France’s rule. By rendering the system of Confucian ideals obsolete, the French effectively invalidated the elite’s claim to power and status. Ironically, though, by instilling a system that taught European values, they inadvertently created a new class of students whose education and conditions equipped them with the necessary knowledge and passion to lead the impending anti-colonial movement.