The Heritage of Vietnamese Nationalism 5

Ham Nghi had issued an edict during his flight from Hue, urging “the rich to give their wealth, the mighty their strength and the poor their limbs so that the country might be rescued from the invader.” The proclamation, known as Can Vuong, or Loyalty to the Emperor, inspired resistance leaders long after his deportation.
In late 1886, for example, a guerrilla chief, Dinh Cong Trang, defended the village complex of Ba Dinh in central Vietnam against murderous onslaughts by a French force of more than three thousand men—among them a young engineer, Captain Joseph Joffre, later to become supreme commander of France’s armies in World War I. An¬other, De Tham, was a former bandit who held sway over three provinces in northern Vietnam and even threatened the approaches to Hanoi. Tracked for years by the French, he fought until 1913. But the most distinguished resistance figure was Phan Dinh Phung, a mandarin from central Vietnam whose virtues were posthumously extolled by a contemporary poet:
A loyal subject between heaven and earth,
His death deprived us o f independence.
Phan Dinh Phung had earned immense prestige as the Ngu Su, or Imperial Censor, a position that allowed him to criticize officials and even the emperor for misconduct. He performed his duties with such courage and integrity that, as an adviser to Ham Nghi, he clashed with Ton That Thuyet, whom he regarded as rash and dishonest. But Phan Dinh Phung rallied to the dissident boy ruler and created his own guerrilla army, based on a mountain overlooking a French for¬tress at Hatinh, near the coast of central Vietnam. For more than seven years, his forays against the French reached as far north as Thanh Hoa province and south to Quang Binh. His organization became a model for future insurgents. He divided his operational zone into twelve districts for the sake of flexibility. His trained and disciplined men manufactured arms and ammunition by copying captured French equipment, and his political cadres levied taxes from local villagers. But even before Phan Dinh Phung’s death from dysentery in 1896, the French had begun to overwhelm his followers with their forces, and they bribed his family and friends to betray him. In one act of extreme sacrilege, the French desecrated the tombs of his ancestors and publicly displayed their remains to the town of Hatinh.
Phan Dinh Phung’s death ended a phase of Vietnamese resistance that had spanned a generation since 1858, when the French first as¬saulted Tourane and then occupied Saigon. And, though the early opposition failed, its mistakes would educate later nationalists. Because they lacked unified direction, many of its uncoordinated regional groups were isolated and chopped down by the French. Most of its partisans had focused mainly on military actions, neglecting political efforts necessary to mobilize mass support. Especially in the north, insurgents had also persecuted Christian communities suspected of pro-French sympathies, thereby alienating Vietnamese Catholics who might have been won over.
The movement was beaten as well by unvarnished French brutal¬ity—carried out beyond the scrutiny of inquisitive journalists. The French subscribed at the time to the principle of “collective respon¬sibility,” which meant that any Vietnamese village found sheltering guerrillas could be destroyed and its notables summarily executed. Colonel Fernand Bernard, a French officer of the period, revealed a widespread practice in a brief description of one incident at a place called Haidung: “Our side suffered not a single casualty in the uprising there, but without benefit of trial, sixty-four heads rolled.”
Though France had effectively “pacified” Indochina by the twentieth century, the resistance continued, now personified by two Vietnamese with different strategies. Phan Boi Chau, a radical monarchist, held that with Chinese and Japanese help a powerful emperor could crys¬tallize the opposition. Phan Chu Trinh rejected royalism and con¬tended rather that cooperation with progressive elements in the French colonial administration would propel Vietnam toward modern de¬mocracy. Neither succeeded, but they inspired a new generation of nationalists.
The son of a poor scholar, Phan Boi Chau was born in Nghe An, a perpetually rebellious province of central Vietnam, also the birthplace of Phan Dinh Phung and Ho Chi Minh. He switched from archaic Confucian studies to politics in 1900, at the ripe age of thirty-three, appalled by the revolts that ravaged his native region. Traveling around Vietnam, he evolved the notion of a royal resistance move¬ment, and he found a candidate for its leader in Prince Cuong De, a direct descendant of the emperor Gia Long. A dramatic event that thrilled nationalists throughout Asia also aroused him: in 1905, Japan defeated Tsarist Russia, the first time an Asian nation had vanquished a European power. He departed for Japan.
There Phan Boi Chau met Japanese political figures and exiled Chinese Nationalists, among them Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese republic in 1911. He wrote books, including a revolutionary history of Vietnam, and he brought Prince Cuong De to Tokyo, later scuttling him as he discarded the idea of a renovated monarchy in favor of a democratic republic. Most important, he formed an up-to- date political organization, the Viet Nam Duy Tan Hoi, or Association for the Modernization of Vietnam, to agitate among merchants, stu¬dents and other middle-class Vietnamese at home and abroad. He also helped to create an East Asia United League, composed of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Philippine nationalists. Thus he intro¬duced two innovations to the Vietnamese struggle for independence— a relatively sophisticated vehicle for mobilizing insurgent sympathies and a connection with other Asian militants.
Constantly hounded by French agents, Phan Boi Chau lived fur¬tively, traveling from Vietnam to China to Hong Kong to Japan to Siam and back to Vietnam. In 1925, he was still on the run at the age of fifty-eight when French operatives in Shanghai finally caught him. According to some accounts, he was betrayed by Communist rivals. Tried in Hanoi on charges of sedition, he died under house arrest in Hue fifteen years later.

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