21 April 2019
Ho Chi-minh's massive and concerted effort to eliminate illiteracy paid off. In one month’s time, the vast majority of Vietnamese people became literate. Photo: HKEJ
Ho Chi-minh's massive and concerted effort to eliminate illiteracy paid off. In one month’s time, the vast majority of Vietnamese people became literate. Photo: HKEJ

How Vietnam learned to live without Chinese characters

Earlier, I posted on social media a few pictures of ancient Chinese characters that I took during my recent trip to Vietnam and some netizens were intrigued by them. Would the current state of international relations be different if Vietnam was still using Chinese characters today?

The use of Chinese characters by the Vietnamese people dates back to as early as the Eastern Han dynasty of ancient China (25 AD to 220 AD). For centuries, Chinese characters remained the official written language of ancient Vietnam and were widely used by its well-read intellectuals, who were deeply influenced by Confucianism.

At the same time, ancient Vietnam also adopted the same civil service examination system practiced by imperial China.

As a result, many ancient Vietnamese manuscripts were actually written in Chinese characters, and ancient Vietnamese intellectuals were just as familiar with Confucian classics as their counterparts in the Middle Kingdom.

In fact, the modern Vietnamese alphabet in use today has a relatively short history: it was “invented” by European missionaries in the 19th century through the Romanization of Chinese characters and was then promoted by the French colonial authorities.

Yet, the promotion of the newly invented alphabet by the French met with opposition from the Vietnamese social elites. And for that reason, throughout the late 1800s and the first half of the 20th century, Chinese characters declined in popularity among the younger generation,

After Ho Chi Minh took power, Chinese characters were used alongside the Vietnamese alphabet in the country. However, he immediately made a sweeping effort to ban Chinese characters and mandate the use of the Vietnamese alphabet in order to eliminate illiteracy across the nation as soon as possible and pave the way for economic development.

Compared to the complicated Chinese characters, the Vietnamese alphabet is a lot easier to pick up for the average individual. And Ho’s massive and concerted effort to eliminate illiteracy did pay off: in one month’s time, the vast majority of Vietnamese people became literate.

In fact Ho’s anti-illiteracy program was so successful that in 1987 the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recommended commemorating him and his remarkable achievement in facilitating literacy in Vietnam.

However, apart from eliminating illiteracy, Ho actually had a more secret and personal agenda in banning Chinese characters and mandating the use of the Vietnamese alphabet across his country: even though Ho himself was deeply influenced by Chinese culture and spoke excellent Mandarin as well as Cantonese, he actually hated anything associated with China.

His grudge against China could have stemmed from his own unpleasant experience: during the 1930s, he was once held in custody by the Kuomintang authorities on the orders of Chiang Kai-shek and was badly tortured in jail, and hence his deep hatred of anything Chinese.

Besides, given that Vietnam had remained China’s vassal state “since ancient times”, Ho was determined to cast off the lingering influence of Chinese culture on his country by banning the use of Chinese characters, and help his countrymen reshape their sense of cultural and national identity, something that would prove instrumental in achieving Vietnam’s regional hegemony in the decades that followed.

Banning the use of Chinese characters among the Vietnamese people could also prevent China from building a “fifth column” in the country.

Moreover, the fact that Vietnam was finally having its own official language also helped put the country on an equal footing with China, as Beijing could no longer exert any cultural domination over Hanoi.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sep 13

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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