Vietnam’s Evolution of Script Essay

Vietnam has always been admired for maintaining its own identity after various foreign invasions from the Chinese and the French. However, one of Vietnam’s most identifying features is its unique writing system. Vietnam’s writing system has adapted throughout centuries due to outside influences and has even evolved into a particular Latin script. The fact that Vietnamese was reformed into a Roman script makes it the only South East Asian country that has done so. This essay will provide and analyse various historians’ accounts of the evolution of Vietnam’s writing system.

The essay will begin by discussing China’s influential rule over the Vietnamese and its introduction of classical Chinese script. Consequently, the essay will elaborate on how the Vietnamese were able to create their own hybrid script, chu nom, in the midst of the Chinese millennium. Further on, the essay will illustrate the gradual influences of external Catholic missionaries and the reformation of the Vietnamese script into quoc ngu, or national language, through Jesuit missionary, Alexandre Des Rhodes.

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Moreover, the essay will then emphasize on the French invasion and its effects on the Vietnamese writing system. To sum up, the essay will analyse the further spread of quoc ngu through Vietnamese scholars, and how it has become the writing system that it is today including cognate words that will be presented to further exemplify the evolution of the Vietnamese writing system. During Chinese millennium rule, dating from 2nd BC to 10th century AD, the Vietnamese were culturally imprinted by the Chinese (Sardesai pp. 4. ) The Sinification of the Vietnamese brought forth the introduction of, “Chinese classics, Confucian ethical ideals, and Chinese ideographs. ” (Sardesai pp. 34) In Focus on South East Asia, ASEAN Focus Group further elaborates on the Sinification of Vietnam by describing that, “… ordinary Vietnamese displayed such characteristically “Confucian,” traits as respect for hierarchy, emphasis on an individual’s social obligations, intense family loyalty and reverence for education and scholarship.

Even so, Vietnamese popular culture always remained self-consciously distinct, hostile to China and wary of the country’s Sinophile upper class. ” With attention to this period, the Vietnamese adopted Chinese ideograms and classical Chinese, or chu nho, and was established as the official language of Vietnam (Miksic pp. 80. ) Nevertheless, classical Chinese was the ‘vehicle’ necessary for intellectual growth, but only the court and upper class had access to learn it (Miksic pp. 80. This caused a gap between the elites and the latter, creating a cultural division between Sinified Vietnamese and rebellious Vietnamese (SEAN Focus Group pp. 144. )

However, even though the Chinese had successfully indoctrinated their culture into the Vietnamese upper class, the Vietnamese latter resented the Chinese rule and wanted to express their own identity (Miksic pp. 80. ) As a result, the Vietnamese created their own form of hybrid script called nom. Nom, or chu nom, means ‘southern characters’, and was conceived with the help of Chinese characters without as many consistent rules of construction (Miksic pp. 0. ) The hybrid script, chu nom, gave the Vietnamese the ability to express Vietnamese vocabulary and gave writers and poets a chance to express themselves without having to follow the Chinese prosody or other strict classical Chinese rules.

According to South-East Asia: Literatures and Languages, “the nom script was also used to for official edicts of the Ho (beginning of the 15th century), and the Tay-son (end of the 18th century) and the first years of the Nguyen dynasty (early 19th century. ) In general, however, nom tended to be used most in the works of a non-official nature and of popular literature. (Miksic pp. 80) Consequently, once Vietnam gained their independence from China in 939 AD, a new source of foreign influence began to arise (Sardesai pp. 35) Merchants, scholars and missionaries had begun to wander through Vietnam, bringing in ideas and religious beliefs with them (Sardesai pp. 34) Western ideals and religious beliefs such as Mayahana Buddhism, Daoism, Islam and Christianity flooded into Vietnam and to its compiling identity. Incidentally, it was the influx of European Catholic missionaries that influenced the transition of chu nom to a Latin based written script.

Catholic missionaries deemed necessary the creation of a Latin version of chu nom in order to use it to prepare texts for their sermons and translate Christian texts (Miksic pp. 80. ) Therefore, missionaries attempted to adapt the phonetics of chu nom by using the Latin alphabet and adding diacritics to fully grasp the language which created quoc ngu, or national language (Miksic pp. 80. ) Nevertheless, it was French Jesuit Alexandre Des Rhodes who was accredited for quoc ngu in 1651 because of his published Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary known as Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum (Miksic pp. 0) By the end of the 19th century, quoc ngu was kept, “confined to Catholic circles and was not used in official teaching or by the general populace,” (Miksic pp. 80) For this purpose, the creation of quoc ngu had been created in order to reach out to more Vietnamese masses and convert them to Christianity.

By the time there were 450,000 converts, the Vietnamese government began to grow weary of Western ideals and organized religions of any form fearing that it would cause threat to the Confucius authority (ASEAN Focus Group pp. 46. ) This led to Vietnamese government repression and persecution of thousands of Catholics and priests in villages. Hence, the conflict became a reason for the French to intervene (ASEAN Focus group pp. 146. ) Before the French invasion in the 1850’s, Vietnam was described as a “paradoxical combination of dynamism and stagnation,” but the French colonisation became a catalyst for the “development of intellectual crisis in Vietnam,” (Osbourne pp. 9) Thus, in 1859 the French invaded Saigon in Southern Vietnam, completely taking over in 1862 and gradually creating a diffusion of quoc ngu throughout Vietnam, or what the French called Conchin China (Miksic pp. 80) The French colonial authorities used quoc ngu as a “political instrument to break the national and traditional culture of the Vietnamese. ” (Miksic pp. 80)

Whilst, other Vietnamese reformists and revolutionaries who were still followers of Confucius ideals, regarded quoc ngu as a tool and a symbol of modern Vietnam with a powerful ability to reach out to masses through Latin script (Miksic pp. 0) The use of this new system spread rapidly, especially once the French established the first Vietnamese language newspaper, Gia Dinh Bao in 1865 (Miksic pp. 80) Other movements were used to introduce quoc ngu as a bridge of knowledge, such as the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc movement, or Tonkin Free School, that was inspired to “modernize” and “popularize western scientific knowledge and political concepts,” in the 1900s (Miksic pp. 0) In addition, by the 1930’s the abolition of classical examinations for the civil service majorly increased the use of quoc ngu whilst literary movements such as Tu Luc Voan Doan made an emphasis on enhancing and comprehending the writing system (Miksic pp 81)

Through the written script of quoc ngu, Vietnam was finally set free from the Chinese cultural imprint that their script had stemmed from into a more modern Latin based system (Miksic pp. 0) In essence, as the transition between chu nom to quoc ngu circulated through Vietnam by the French and Vietnamese scholars, the Vietnamese intelligentsia finally established quoc ngu as the adopted written system of Vietnam in the 1920’s. The ASEAN Focus group states that, “quoc ngu helped the growth of an impressive modern Vietnamese literary culture, and the production of popularly accessible newspapers and political literature. ” By 1945, with the aid of literary movements and editorial influences from the north such as Dong Duong Tap Chi, Trung Bac Tan Ban, and Nam Phong Tap Chi, quoc ngu was able to evolve to what it is today.

The written system has not stopped evolving, and constantly adds on new words in order to build up more scientific terminology (Miksic pp 81) For example, cognate words present in modern day Vietnamese demonstrate the amount of influence that the Latin script and the French have been able to implement into quoc ngu. Cognate words present in Vietnamese written system include automobile, which in Vietnamese is written, “Oto”, and coffee, which is, “Ca phe. ” (Nguy??n, Th? Thanh Binh pp. 278) In conclusion, the Vietnamese writing system has undergone a series of changes, evolving from two different types of written scripts.

Beginning with ruling classical Chinese script, chu nho, towards the break out of Vietnamese hybrid script also known as, chu nom, the distinction between the Vietnamese and Chinese identity is attempted to be emphasized in written script. However, with the introduction of foreign influences, Western ideals and Christianity, came the revolutionary phonetic transition of chu nom, into quoc ngu, a Latin based script, which led to the published work of Rhode’s Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese dictionary.

As aforementioned, quoc ngu was maintained in Catholic circles but with the Confucian political persecution of Christians, arose a context for a French invasion that led to further distribution of Western ideals through Vietnam, and with them, quoc ngu. Nevertheless, the integration of Vietnamese scholastic, literary, and political movements, could quoc ngu finally reach the Vietnamese written system it has become today, including cognate words that are universally acknowledged.

Works Cited

Church, Peter C. , ed. “Vietnam. ” Focus on Southeast Asia. S. l. ASEAN Focus Group, 1995. 143+. Print. Miksic, John N. “Southeast Asia: South-East Asia Languages and Literatures: A Select Guide. Edited by Patricia Herbert and Anthony Milner. Whiting Bay, Arran, Scotland: Kiscadale Publications, N. d. Pp. X, 182. Bibliographies, Illustrations. ” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 24. 01 (1993): 77+. Print. Nguy??n, Th? Thanh Binh. Vietnamese Beginner’s Course. Richmond: Curzon, 2001. Print. Osborne, Milton E. Southeast Asia: an Introductory History. 10th ed. Sydney: George Allen ; Unwin, 2010. Print. SarDesai, D. R. Colonial Interlude: The French in Vietnam and Kampuchea. ” Southeast Asia past and Present. 2nd ed. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Education, 1989. 118+. Print. SarDesai, D. R. “Cultural Heritage: The Consolidations of Burma, Siam and Vietnam. ” Southeast Asia past and Present. 2nd ed. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Education, 1989. 74-79. Print. SarDesai, D. R. “Cultural Heritage:Early Kingdoms in Mainland South East Asia. ” Southeast Asia past and Present. 2nd ed. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Education, 1989. 34+. Print.


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