The Global Origins of Early Vietnamese Republicanism, Part I

Christopher Goscha
Professor of History, University of Quebec at Montreal

National emblem of the Republic of China, 1912-1928. Yuan Shikai (left) and Sun Yat-sen (right) with flags representing the early Chinese republic.
National emblem of the Republic of China, 1912-1928. Yuan Shikai (left) and Sun Yat-sen (right) with flags representing the early Chinese republic.

Utilizing a global historical approach, Professor Goscha explores the dynamic origins of Vietnamese Republicanism, in part I of this two-part Forum series.

Just as nationalism, liberalism, and republicanism spread across the Atlantic world in the 18th and 19th centuries, underpinning a series of revolutions stretching from Philadelphia to Paris by way of Port au Prince and Bogota, so too did people, their books, papers, and print technology move such powerful ideas across the Indian Ocean into East Asia with similar effect by the turn of the 20th century.[1] This global transfer of ideas, however, did not move in a straight line. Nor did it necessarily arrive through the colonial connection, even though Euro-American imperial states had colonized much of the Afro-Asian world during this period.

The arrival of Republican ideas to Vietnam is a case in point. While there is no doubt that the French introduced a wide range of Atlantic ideas through the empire, Vietnamese first encountered Republicanism through their participation in an East Asian world. Vietnam’s longer history of exchange with Japan and China played a critical, and oft-overlooked, role in the dissemination of Republican ideas. We must factor in these wider timelines and global connections in order to understand better how Atlantic ideas did not necessarily arrive in the non-Western world via the colonial connection; nor were they as linear as we may have thought. This wider perspective remains as true today as it did in the past.

Part I: The Spread of Atlantic Ideas into the East Asian World

Asian states had for centuries been part of dynamic region and interacted with a world centered around China. The arrival of Westerners by maritime routes in the 16th century did not change this. China stood at the center of global exchanges from the time of the Romans until the mid-18th century. Traders from Asia, the Middle East, and Europe called on ports like Guangzhou (Canton), Fujian, and Shanghai, while southern Chinese merchants and migrants settled in Southeast Asian urban centers stretching from Manila to Rangoon by way of Bangkok and Malacca. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta were but two of the best known Euroasian travellers moving through China and the Indian Ocean in the 13th and 14th centuries. These port cities circulated commercial goods, technologies, and people across this zone, as well as political, cultural, and religious ideas. Guangzhou boasted a mosaic of mosques, churches and temples. Like Shanghai, it was also home to printing presses, publishing houses, papers, and vibrant intellectual and artistic activities.

Even Japan, often considered to have been isolated during this period, was not immune to these globalizing processes.

Source:Kokushi Shozo Taisei Call no.:281.038-Ko53 Monochrome, 5.8×6.5 cm
Nakae Chomin

Tokugawa leaders in Japan may have restricted contacts with the outside in the 17th century, but the Shogun never “closed off” his country. Through the port of Nagasaki, his government carefully monitored global events and, thanks to Chinese and Dutch intermediaries, imported, translated, and studied much of the Western scientific and political canon. The famous political theorist, Nakae Chomin, for example, first studied French and Dutch in Nagasaki under the Tokugawa before going on to champion popular rights and democracy as the “Rousseau de l’Orient”.

Europeans accelerated the intensity and reach of these exchanges by creating maritime routes connecting the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean for the first time in world history. In so doing, they circulated goods, weapons, technology, and information like never before. The presence of scientific-minded Jesuits at the Qing court is one example of many. And all of this is why, by the 19th century, there was no way to stop the revolutionary ideas transforming the Atlantic world from moving eastwards. Many in Asia welcomed them and sought to adapt and use them for local purposes. Others travelled to Euro-America to see for themselves.

None, however, welcomed the new aggressive imperial expansion of these same Western states whose leaders so often abandoned their political liberalism when it came to treating interacting with the non-Western world. The embattled rulers of the Tokugawa and Qing dynasties understood the dangers of all this as they struggled to hold on to power against rising internal and external challenges. As the Shogun’s central control weakened in the 19th century and the Euro-Americans increased their imperial pressure on him to open the country to trade on Western terms, anti-Tokugawa families situated on the edges of the archipelago asserted themselves. The Satsuma and Choshu clans not only welcomed Western boats supplying them secretly with arms, but they also tapped into a wide range of new ideas they could use to justify overthrowing the Shogunate, remaking Japan, and competing with the Atlantic powers. Nationalism, science, and capitalism were on that list.

In China, as Qing rulers struggled throughout the 19th century to hold their empire together in the face of massive internal revolts and foreign military aggression, Chinese administrators, reformers, anti-monarchists, and merchants looked abroad for

Kang Yuwei
Kang Yuwei

new ideas and support in order to remake China. Famous reformers like Liang Qichao and Kang Yuwei embraced a number of Atlantic ideas to help them create a modern constitutional monarchy and industrialize China rapidly. The success of the Meiji leaders in doing both only emboldened them. In 1898, Liang, Kang, and others submitted their famous “100 days reform” to the Qing emperor. They called on the court to democratize the education system, modernize the economy, and create a constitutional monarchy. When the court rejected the reforms, Liang and Kang fled to Meiji Japan, the canal for Atlantic ideas flowing into East Asia.

With more success, the future father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen dedicated his life to modernizing China, overthrowing the monarchy, and transforming both into a Republic. Until the Qing dynasty fell in 1911, this native of Guangzhou travelled widely throughout the Asia-Pacific region, making stopovers in Singapore, Rangoon, Saigon, San Francisco, and Hawaii. These were all areas where large overseas Chinese communities resided and Atlantic ideas circulated in Chinese and Japanese translation. He studied all sorts of new political theories and models; but Euro-American Republicanism and nationalism seduced him most. Determined to create a Republic abroad, Sun Yat-sen solicited donations, enrolled young recruits, and established nationalist associations, papers, and publishing houses among the overseas Chinese.

Sun Yat Sen and wife
Sun Yat-sen and his wife Song Qingling, Shanghai, 1922.

Like Liang and Kang, Sun Yat-sen too moved on to Japan impressed by what the new Meiji rulers were doing. Just as they had overthrown the Tokugawa Shogun in 1868, Sun was confident that they would help him overthrow the Qing. In 1905, he created the Revolutionary Alliance in Tokyo (the future Guomindang or nationalist party), with supporting branches operating among the Chinese in Southeast Asian port cities. In 1911, when the Qing imperial state finally imploded, Sun transferred his Republic to southern China and in 1912 became the first president of the Republic of China. Over two thousand years of monarchical rule ended.

While the Chinese Republic would shatter into pieces until Chiang Kaishek tried to patch it back together with force in the 1920s, Republicanism had clearly moved beyond the shores of the Atlantic and it was more than just a word game in Asian hands. And rather than separating the Atlantic revolutions from these transformations occurring in Asia, we might consider these revolutions as interconnected, longue durée historical phenomena.

Contrat_SocialBy the turn of the 20th century, a series of Atlantic-derived “isms” were flowing through East Asian port cities as a host of little-studied men and women set to translating, adapting, appropriating all sorts of political, economic, cultural, and social theories. Nakae Chomin travelled with the famous Iwakura Mission in 1871 to Europe, stayed and studied in France until 1874, then returned to Japan as the translator of Rousseau’s Social Contract. His writings and translations inspired Vietnamese, Chinese, and Koreans alike. In the 1880s, Chomin’s newspapers and democratic ideas landed him in trouble as Meiji leaders sought to resurrect the long dormant monarchy. But Atlantic “isms” continued to spread.

To Liberalism, Republicanism, Nationalism, and Constitutionalism, were now added Darwinism, Marxism, Socialism, and new theories of Colonialism.[2] This latter “ism” is particularly important because aggressive forms of colonial expansion almost always accompanied the new regimes born of Atlantic ideas. Leaders in Japan and France, for example, shared a common desire to equip their nation-states with empires. The violent spread of imperial-states across the Indian Ocean world directly affected how liberal ideas would continue to circulate in Asia. After all, both monarchical and colonial authoritarian states in Asia opposed the spread of political theories that challenged the legitimacy of their undemocratic institutions.

The creation and expansion of Japanese and Euro-American colonial states throughout Asia did not, however, destroy the pre-existing Asian networks circulating ideas and information discussed above. Colonialism may have redirected such movements or forced them underground, but these Asian networks did not vanish; and they are essential to understanding how Republicanism first arrived in Vietnam.

Read Part II.


[1] For the Atlantic world revolutions, see among others the work of Jacques Godechot and Robert Palmer.

[2]On the Eurasian and maritime trajectoires of Asian communism, see my ‘Pour une histoire transnationale du communisme asiatique : les chevauchements sino-vietnamiens dans les mers du Sud’, Communisme 2013, Paris, Vendémiare, 2013, pp. 21-46.

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