Piety and Power 2

Lisbon had supplanted Venice as Europe’s main center for Asian products only five years after Vasco da Gama’s pioneer journey to India, and the Portuguese could not be stopped. They consolidated Goa as the capital of their Indian territories, then pushed eastward to capture Malacca, the gateway to the China Sea, fanning out from that pivotal Malayan port to assert their presence nearly everywhere in Asia. They journeyed to the distant Molucca islands in quest of spices, secured commercial concessions in Burma and Siam, and even sailed to forbidding Japan. Bold Portuguese were probably the earliest Eu¬ropeans to gaze at Angkor, the fantastic ruins of the vast Cambodian empire. Like many other Europeans after them, some deserted to serve local rulers as mercenaries. In 1557, the Portuguese built a base at Macao, on the southern edge of China, and it remains in their hands to this day—the world’s oldest imperial possession.
And they sailed to Vietnam. The area had been visited by traders from ancient Rome, and, in later times, by an occasional Catholic missionary. But the first European to plant a durable settlement there was Antonio Da Faria, who in 1535 found a suitable site for a harbor at Faifo, a coastal village fifteen miles south of Tourane, now the city of Danang. Da Faria had hoped to make it a major Portuguese enclave, like Goa or Malacca, but Faifo never flourished. The Portuguese left a permanent souvenir of their presence there, however, in a misnomer for Vietnam. They labeled the area Cauchichina, deriving “Cauchi” from “Giao Chi,” the Chinese characters for Vietnam, and adding “China” to distinguish it from Cochin, another of their colonies in India. Later, the French, to portray Vietnam as disunified, referred only to the southern third of the country as Cochinchina and called the center Annam and the north Tonkin.
Scarcely a century after their dramatic expansion, the Portuguese began to lose their grasp in Asia, partly because of their own avarice, corruption and mismanagement, and partly because their fortunes were declining in Europe. Other European powers raced for Asia’s wealth. The Dutch took over the Spice Islands of Indonesia and the English would dominate India. In 1676, the French latecomers to the scene established a station at Pondicherry, on the east coast of India south of Madras. But Europeans made little headway in Vietnam.
As it would be three centuries later, Vietnam was then torn by a civil war between regional factions—the Trinh in the north and the Nguyen in the south. Europeans sold weapons to both sides—a risky business, since supplying one camp antagonized the other. But they could not brutally subdue the Vietnamese as they had more passive Asians, like the Malays and Javanese. Whatever their own differences, all Vietnamese hated foreigners, and their sophisticated administrative structure, modeled on China’s, could effectively mobilize resistance against western intruders. Besides, the Europeans were too preoc¬cupied with fighting among themselves to mount campaigns of the kind that would have been required for conquest.
By the end of the seventeenth century, trade with Vietnam seemed to be pointless. The Dutch and English closed the small offices they had opened earlier in Hanoi, and the French shut down their post at Pho Hien. Only the Portuguese remained where they had started, at Faifo, to fly the flag and carry on their marginal transactions with Macao. But if the merchants had failed, Catholic missionaries evolved a different approach—and with greater success.
The Catholic Church left a deeper imprint on Vietnam than on any other country apart from the Philippines, which Spain governed for nearly four hundred years. From the seventeenth century on, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese embraced the new faith, for diverse rea¬sons. Native merchants were eager to ingratiate themselves with West¬ern traders. To peasants, Christianity represented freedom from the traditional Confucian system and its oppressive mandarins. The north, where people were impoverished by the pressure of population on scarce land, was especially receptive to Vietnamese priests, who be¬came community leaders. Whole districts turned Catholic, and some became fortified bastions. In 1946, many of these same Catholic dis¬tricts, still intact, fought against both the French colonial forces and the Communist-led Vietminh nationalists. Nine years later, following the French defeat and the establishment of a Communist government in North Vietnam, entire Catholic villages fled south, attracted by the more congenial regime of Ngo Dinh Diem—whose ancestors, like their own, had been converted to Christianity centuries before.
The Vietnamese emperors pursued contradictory and often unpre¬dictable policies toward Christianity. They welcomed the mission¬aries’ technical advice, as well as their connections to European suppliers of modern arms and other merchandise. But they feared that Western religion, with its accent on individual salvation, would erode the foundation of their society, which was based on the Confucian concept of reverence for authority. As a seventeenth-century emperor proclaimed, a subject could not divide his loyalty between the tem¬poral and spiritual but “owes all his allegiance to the state and his sovereign.” The Vietnamese rulers were particularly disturbed by the achievement of Alexandre de Rhodes, the seventeenth-century French Jesuit who perfected the simplified script quoc ngu, which transcribed Vietnamese, previously written in arcane Chinese ideographs, into the Roman alphabet. The innovation endangered the traditional Vietnam¬ese structure, for priests could now propagate the gospel to a wide audience, thereby weakening officials whose power reposed largely on their narrow scholarship. But most important, the Vietnamese emperors feared that Christianity might portend European imperial¬ism—as, in fact, it did. Nevertheless, they oscillated between perse¬cuting and tolerating Catholics, and the imperial court was never without a contingent of Jesuit physicians, astronomers, mathemati¬cians and other scholars.

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