Piety and Power 6

A gentle, almost effeminate scholar, Minh Mang reinforced the Confucian administration he had inherited from his father. Like the Chinese emperor to whom he paid tribute, he was the “Son of Heaven” at the pinnacle of an intricate bureaucracy of civilian and military mandarins whose authority reached down to the provinces and districts. The highest of these officials headed his six central min¬istries—interior, finance, religion, justice, war and public works— while those at the lowest echelons managed local government, col¬lected taxes and commanded troops stationed throughout the country. The establishment contained no department of foreign affairs. The Western “barbarians,” as Minh Mang referred to them, were un¬worthy of institutional attention.
In theory, this hierarchy mirrored a static concept of order and harmony, which required that it be shielded against innovation. For that reason Minh Mang feared potentially disruptive ideas and prac¬tices. His code severely punished Buddhists and Taoists, whose beliefs violated the doctrine of the emperor’s divinity. The same apprehension prompted his hostility toward Christianity.
At first, Minh Mang tried to control Catholic missionaries by sum¬moning them to his court at Hue on the pretext that he needed their linguistic talents and other skills. But they ignored him, and, in 1825, he issued the first of several harsh edicts banning their further entry into Vietnam because, as he put it, “the perverse religion of the Eu¬ropeans corrupts the hearts of men.” One of Gia Long’s old advisers, the eunuch Le Van Duyet, reminded Minh Mang of his father’s pledge to Pigneau to tolerate Christianity. But revolts against the regime were then spreading, particularly in the south, and Minh Mang sus¬pected that foreign and native Catholics were involved in them.
The emperor saw proof of his suspicion in 1833, when Le Van Duyet’s adopted son, Le Van Khoi, rebelled against him with apparent Catholic encouragement. Minh Mang ordered the arrest of both French and Vietnamese priests. Many escaped, but one of them, Fran¬cois Isidore Gagelin, formerly a cartographer at the imperial court, was captured in Binh Dinh province, brought to Hue in irons and condemned to death for “preaching the religion of Jesus.” On the morning of October 17, 1833, six soldiers slowly strangled him as he knelt on a scaffold in the capital. Having read of Christ’s resurrection, Minh Mang had the priest’s corpse exhumed three days later to de¬termine whether he had truly died. Over the next seven years, ten foreign missionaries were executed, some cruelly.
By modern standards of inhumanity, Minh Mang’s anti-Catholic campaign was mild. Moreover, as Vietnamese then observed, the repression hardly matched the persecution by Christians of nonbe-lievers elsewhere—not to mention the abuses of Christians against each other. But Minh Mang’s measures came at an inopportune mo¬ment.
In France, religious zeal was again intensifying, in reaction against the secular spirit of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. Mission¬aries were renewing their efforts to propagate the word of the Church, and they especially sought to intensify their crusade in Vietnam, where martyrs had already suffered for the Christian cause. The navy, the most conservative branch of France’s military establishment, was also determined to extend French influence abroad. Hence the navy and the missionaries became natural allies, with a common outlook and a joint goal. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, Vietnam was to be governed by French naval officers. By no coincidence, the French high commissioner for Indochina as late as 1946, Admiral Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, was a Carmelite monk who had ex¬changed his cassock for a uniform during World War II.
The pressure for a firmer French presence in Asia mounted after the Opium War of 1841, through which the British forced China to open itself to foreign trade. France’s businessmen, whose activities in Asia had been dormant for decades, now reviewed the prospects of the Asian market. But French policy proceeded prudently.
Louis XVIII and Charles X, the Bourbon monarchs who followed Napoleon, had favored the missionary revival, but Louis Philippe, who seized the French throne in 1830, sought to subdue the militant Catholic clergy. His foreign minister, Francois Guizot, a Protestant, was even cooler toward Catholic aims. Guizot also opposed political and military ventures in the East, because, as he said, “we have suf¬ficiently grave and complicated questions to manage in Eu¬rope . . . without throwing ourselves into other hazardous enterprises elsewhere.” That theme was repeated later by French enemies of im¬perialism—but, like Guizot, they would be drawn into “hazardous enterprises” of which they disapproved.
In 1840, his reign almost ended, Minh Mang amended his attitude toward Europe. Viewing England’s intervention in China as a portent of a fresh European foray in Asia, he tried to deter a French attack by negotiating. He dispatched two mandarins to France, where their un¬announced arrival caused a sensation. Catholic activists took advantage of the occasion to denounce Minh Mang’s persecution of Christians, and even the Vatican joined the protest. Louis Philippe, caught up in domestic difficulties, refused to grant the Vietnamese diplomats an audience. An opportunity for compromise was squandered—as would be later chances for reconciliation between France and Vietnam.
Minh Mang died soon afterward, and his successor was even more chauvinistic than he. The new emperor, Thieu Tri, sharing his father’s apprehensive view of missionaries, sought to curb them. But he failed to discern that, with European imperialism in Asia gathering mo¬mentum, any semblance of anti-Catholic repression would provoke French intervention. Even Guizot now shifted, largely to placate re¬ligious and business factions at home, and in 1843 deployed a per-manent French fleet in Asian waters “to protect, and if necessary to defend, our political and commercial interests.” He also authorized the navy to rescue threatened French missionaries, preferably “without involving the French flag.” His policy, however reluctant, spurred French action against Vietnam.
Despite French propaganda portrayals of him as a brutal savage, Thieu Tri initially showed moderation toward missionaries. His aim, after all, was simply to get rid of them. But the priests were passionate men, convinced that God had ordained them to convert pagans. They were also politically astute, aware that a changing mood in France favored them. So they subbornly pushed on, even though they would collide with the Vietnamese. Thieu Tri tried to avert the clash, as his treatment of Dominique Lefebvre illustrated.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *