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The Politics of Vietnam

Updated on February 2, 2013

Born and raised by a family of scholars Phan Boi Chau was a well educated man who found nationalism as his main focus, in the early 1900’s. His family had been scholars for generations. Phan lived in Japan where he wrote political pamphlets calling for the liberation of Vietnam from the French colonial regime. An interesting fact about Phan Boi Chau is that he was born in Nam Dan district, in Nghe An province, which was also Ho Chi Minh's birthplace. Throughout my research it’s notable how many of Vietnam's nationalists and revolutionaries have hailed from Nghe An. After placing among the top in his provincial examinations, he began his revolt against French colonization in Vietnam. Frances began with the decision to establish its own colonial empire on the South East Asian peninsula (Summers, 17). Following his examinations Chau spent the following five years, traveling about the country making contacts with other anti colonial scholars and seeking out in particular the survivors of the Can Vuong movement. Through them Chau hoped to launch a rebellion against the French. He also sought to identify a member of the Nguyen ruling family who was sympathetic to the cause, and who would serve as titular head of the independence movement and as a rallying point for both moral and financial support. Phan Boi Chau at this time also visited Japan to meet with Japanese and Chinese revolutionaries and to seek further financial support for the Vietnamese cause. The significance of Phan Boi Chau is the amount of controversy and future revolutions he almost single handedly sparked against the French for the liberation of Vietnam. He was a man who failed numerous times however managed to end up fight for the independence of Vietnam. Over the course of Chau’s life he engaged and initiated many violent demonstrations against the French most of which were unsuccessful. Due to his nationalist views he was labeled as Vietnams “first modern nationalist” (Kutler, 574).

This label was a fitting name giving the amount of organizations and effort Chau put into fighting the French. After creating revolutionist parties Duy Tan Hoi (Reformation Society), Viet Nam Cong Hien Hoi (Vietnam Public Offering Society), Phan Boi Chau (Vietnam Restoration Society), Thai Nguyen Uprising and the Constitutionalist Party he was then labeled as a “nationalist rebel” (Olson, 105). “Conquests by the French began in September 1857 with the capture of city Da Nang (Summers, 19).” Since then Chau had been busy forming numerous organizations to support his cause. Founded in 1904 Duy Tan Hoi Reformation Society was the first party organized by Phan Boi Chau to push the resistance against the French. The Viet Nam Cong Hien Hoi (Vietnam Restoration Society) replaced the failed Duy Tan Hoi, in 1912. This society was created to unite the hundred or so Vietnamese then studying in Japan. The organization was important because of the opportunity it provided for the students to think and work together as Vietnamese. Next was Phan’s Vietnam Restoration Soceity, which was stirred by the Chinese Revolution. Phan Boi Chau and the other Vietnamese nationalists in exile in Guangzhou formed a new organization in order to replace the moribund Duy Tan. The main goals of the newly organized Vietnam Restoration Society included the eviction of the French, recovery of Vietnamese independence, and establishment of a Vietnamese democratic republic. By this time Phan was attempting to carry out relatively small terrorist bombings and assassinations however all of which were unsuccessful and quickly stopped by the French. In 1917 due to the previous year's revolt, Vietnamese troops rebelled once again in the province of Thai Nguyen and held the town of Thai Nguyen for several days before the French put down the rebellion and recaptured the town and once again stopped Phan Boi Chau.

Lastly, the Constitutionalist Party which was founded in 1917. This party was created with the hope that it would be able to exert pressure on the Colonial Council of Cochinchina and the governing body of the colony. The party drew its support from Vietnamese who were large landowners, wealthy merchants, industrialists, and senior civil servants. A major reason why these strategies and societies failed was due to lack of funds and very poor organization. Actually becoming so broke they decided to scam a Japanese pharmaceutical company out of expensive medications and medical equipment. Promising to repay them they fled with the supplies. They even printed their own currency, which they agreed to honor when or rather if, they attained power. If they won they could easily pay people back, and if they lost it wouldn't cost them anything. The money was printed in a similar way to the Chinese paper notes. These were among the most controversial attempts to raise funds and collect money for their organizations. By this time the French regarded Chau as the most dangerous of the nationalist revolutionaries. Between 1907 and the end of WWI there was probably no single decision made or act of resistance committed that was not either directly instigated by Chau’s agents or inspired by his political teachings. (Turner, 11)

Phan Boi Chau favored using the Vietnamese monarchy as a rallying point for driving out the French, and Phan Chu Trinh, who favored abolishing the monarchy and using Western democratic ideas as a force for gradual reform and independence. The success both Chau and Trinh were limited both by their inability to agree on a strategy and their failure to involve the Vietnamese peasantry. The Vietnamese peasantry made up the vast majority of the population, and the use of them could prove successful to their plans.

After World War I, another Vietnamese independence leader arose who understood the need to involve the masses in order to stage a successful ant colonial revolt. Ho Chi Minh, studied Confucianism, Vietnamese nationalism, and Marxism Leninism, patiently set about organizing the Vietnamese peasantry according to Communist theories, particularly those of Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Phan was arguably the most prominent leader of Vietnam's independence movement during the first few decades of the twentieth century, until the mantle was passed to Ho Chi Minh (Freeman, Overturned Chariot 6). Phan came at a time when most of the educated Vietnamese recognized that their country must change in order to survive. For most of Phan’s younger life he spent it supporting his family through his writings and teachings. Even before he finished his final examinations he was well aware of the situation and wrote an appeal for putting down the French and retrieving the North which he put up along the streets, however it didn't receive any response. There little demonstrations were only the beginning; it was not until the early 1900 that he truly began his evolutionally career, as shown above.

The many revolts, violent demonstrations and protestant organizations Phan created and led did not go unpunished by the French and outside authorities. Phan Boi Chau was arrested by the Chinese authorities and thrown in jail on suspicion of helping rival Chinese authorities. Fortunately the intervention of the Chinese Minster for the army stopped them from killing him or handing him over to the French. But he was kept in prison for almost four years until 1917. In 1917, Phan Boi Chau was released from prison. He spent the next eight years in exile in China, studying and writing but exerting little direct influence on the Vietnamese nationalist movement. Phan also utilized this time to write many biographies, including his own, and other books. He also wasted no time and rallied some of his fellow revolutionaries to meet with the German government in Thailand. The Germans donated a large amount of money and promised more if a spectacular action could be done in Vietnam against the French. Anxious to gain more political power and hopefully gauging Frances attention they complied. The comrades attempted a terrorist raid but failed completely, wasting all the money. These among many plans had gone unfilled and aborted.

In the end Phan Boi Chau was betrayed by one of his fellow revolutionaries Thuong Huyen. In 1925, Phan Boi Chau arrived in Shanghai on what he thought was a short trip on behalf of his movement. However as soon as he arrived he was arrested by French agents and transported back to Hanoi. The trail brought up numerous indictments from the past including but not limited to murder and supplying offensive weapons used to commit murder in two incidents. While imprisoned, French officials refused to release Chau’s name to the public, but it was soon leaked out and caused massive protests, by his supporters. These protests eventually led to Phan Boi Chau’s release from prison. The court granted him bail however he was then sentenced to permanent house arrest. His supporters once again rallied against the government and were granted rights to build a better home for their past leader. The house was very a modest home with three sections and a small garden where he was granted visits from his supporters, children and grandchildren. It was in his house he was allowed to live the remaining of his life. On October 29 1940 after Japan invaded northern Vietnam, Phan Boi Chau’s body gave up and he lost his life. Chau's contribution to Vietnam’s independence was infinite and immeasurable. The significance of Phan Boi Chau is clearly shown by his endeavors to forcibly expel the French. Although he was not successful in his attempts, he paved the way for many future revolutionaries. Chau suggested learning from other Asian independent movements and leaders, and realized in the end that only the Vietnamese could win their own independence. His greatest weakness was his failure to involve the Vietnamese peasantry, who made up 80 percent of the population, in his drive for independence. This massive amount of help could have been utilized in his demonstrations. However his main adversity throughout many of his strategies was to arm and fund his plans. Phan Boi Chau and his followers concentrated on recruiting the elite, in the belief that the peasant masses would automatically rally around the scholar gentry. The many efforts by Chau allowed future Vietnamese independence leaders to draw inspiration from his efforts and other early nationalists. They also learned from their mistakes and valued the importance of winning support at the local level. Chau was consider to be both a hero and a terrorist, however he still played one of the most significant rolls in the fight for Vietnams independence.



Dictionary of the Vietnam War

James s. Olson pgs

Copyright Jan1990, P. Bedrick Books

Vietnam War Almanac

Harry G Summers Jr.

Copyright Aug1998, Presidio Press

Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War

Stanley L. Kutler

Copyright Oct1995, Scribner Book Company

Overturned Chariot: The Autobiography of Phan Boi Chau.

Freeman, Nick, Sojourn: Vol. 16, Issue 2

Copyright Oct2001, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies

Southeast Asian Perspectives: Myths of the Vietnam War

Robert F. Turner

Published 1972, New YorkNew York, Friends of Vietnam Inc.,


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