The French were not the first conquerors of Vietnam, so the Vietnamese people were no strangers to resisting foreign domination. Vietnamese resistance to French colonialism was energetic and determined, if not always successful.
The Trung sisters
China ruled medieval Vietnam for nine centuries. Its exploitation of the Vietnamese people had often triggered peasant uprisings. Arguably the most famous uprising against the Chinese was that led by the Trung sisters.
Born into a military family, the two Trung sisters received training in martial arts and battle tactics. They strongly opposed the imposition of Chinese culture and values on the Vietnamese people. They organised a militia to expel Chinese officials from their village. Over time, their forces expanded enough to drive the Chinese out of most of northern Vietnam.
The Trung sisters ruled briefly as queens until they were defeated in 43AD by a much larger Chinese force. The story of the Trung sisters is one of Vietnam’s most famous legends. It has served as both a model and an inspiration for countless resistance fighters.
More than 18 centuries later, a new generation of Vietnamese found themselves battling a foreign oppressor. There were many attempts to resist French colonialism. One of the first occurred during the brief reign of emperor Ham Nghi (1884-85).
Ham Nghi came to the throne at just 12 years of age. His entourage of advisors was mostly anti-French, particularly his regent, Ton That Thuyet. For a year, Ham Nghi’s officials criticised and condemned French rule in Vietnam. In 1885, the French raided the royal palace, forcing Ton That Thuyet and a few others to whisk the young emperor to safety.
Hidden in the forests of Annam, the fugitives heard news that China had signed the Treaty of Tientsin with the French, relinquishing all Chinese claims on Vietnam. With no prospect of help from the north, the emperor-in-hiding confronted the spectre of a French takeover alone.
In July 1885, Ton That Thuyet and his supporters formed Can Vuong (‘Loyalty to the King’). They hoped to create a nationalist resistance movement with the young Ham Nghi as its figurehead and rallying point.
From his jungle hiding place at Van Xa, the deposed young emperor issued a decree of resistance:
“We have been forced to flee the French and now live in great shame. With one united mind, body and spirit, we shall resist. All Vietnamese shall fight back. Do you fear death more than you love your country? Will you live under the shadows of the French, or will you join us? Come and live in the jungle. Obey our righteous appeal for freedom … Perhaps with Heaven’s assistance, we shall be able to turn chaos into order, danger into peace, and finally retrieve our entire country.”
War against Christianity
Can Vuong survived for around a decade. It never managed to spark a significant anti-French uprising or gain widespread support but its evasive guerrilla tactics made it difficult to deal with.
Can Vuong’s mission – to drive French soldiers from Vietnam – proved difficult. While there were barely a thousand French troops in Annam, almost all were stationed in the coastal citadels, which could be easily defended from attacks.
Rather than attack French soldiers, Can Vuong turned its offensives against Christian converts. The second half of 1885 saw at least four significant massacres of Vietnamese Christians. Some parts of Annam collapsed into a virtual civil war between the royalist Can Vuong and local Christians.
It took weeks for the French to respond to the unfolding crisis in Annam, which they did by reinforcing the coastal cities and marching another 4,000 soldiers down from Tonkin. Meanwhile, the French installed a new emperor – Ham Nghi’s more subservient brother, Dong Khanh – hoping this would undermine support for Can Vuong.
Ham Nghi was captured in 1888 and handed to the French, who exiled him to northern Africa.
Phan Dinh Phung
Without its figurehead, the Can Vuong eventually faded away – but many of its local commanders continued the struggle against French colonialism. One of the most successful was Phan Dinh Phung, a former royal mandarin who had fled with the emperor in mid-1885.
Unlike other guerrilla leaders, Phan Dinh Phung insisted on thorough organisation and military discipline, down to the wearing of uniforms and recognition of ranks. He was also determined and ruthless, unfazed about killing French civilian officials, Vietnamese Christians or other ‘traitors’.
French soldiers, seeking to intimidate Phan Dinh Phung and force his surrender, raided his home village, destroyed houses and graves and held his brother to ransom. Phan Dinh Phung responded defiantly: “If they chop up my brother, remember to send me some of the soup”.
Phan continued to elude the French until 1895. Weakened by dysentery, he was surrounded by a regiment of 3,000 French soldiers. Phan Dinh Phung died in January 1896 and his supporters were rounded up and executed. His decade-long struggle against the French became a model for future revolutionaries, who often referred to Phan Dinh Phung in their speeches and political rhetoric.
Phan Boi Chau
Another important resistance leader was Phan Boi Chau (1867-1940). Like many other nationalist revolutionaries, Phan Boi Chau was a scholar, though his education was influenced by Chinese rather than French teachers.
As a teenager, Phan Boi Chau joined Can Vuong and attempted to put together a ‘students’ battalion’. In 1903, he joined forces with Prince Cuong De, an heir to the imperial throne who had been dispossessed by the French. Together they formed the Viet Nam Duy Tan Hoi (‘Vietnamese Modernisation League’) and unsuccessfully sought financial assistance from China and Japan.
In 1905, while living in Japan, Phan Boi Chau published Viet Nam Vong Quoc Su (‘The History of the Loss of Vietnam’), which was both a history of Vietnamese resistance movements and a condemnation of French colonialism. Written in a direct style influenced by Western texts, it became popular with ordinary Vietnamese and was one of the most important anti-colonial texts of its time.
Phan Boi Chau was exiled from Japan and for a time attempted to smuggle arms to Vietnamese rebels. This failed, however, and by 1910 he was living as a beggar on the streets of Hong Kong.
His fortunes were revived by the successful nationalist revolution that gripped China in 1911. He relocated there and joined up with other exiled Vietnamese. In 1912, they formed the Viet Nam Quang Phuc Hoi (‘Vietnam Restoration League’). Observing the changes unfolding in China, the League determined that republicanism rather than a revival of the imperial monarchy was the best model for an independent Vietnam. The League had little support within Vietnam itself and could not obtain assistance from the Chinese – but many of its political ideas would be adopted by later nationalist groups, like the Viet Minh.
A historian’s view:
“From 1885, perhaps earlier in the South, the Vietnamese identity came under critical and sustained challenge, first felt by the scholar-gentry and eventually by the miniscule bourgeoisie, the artisans and the bulk of the peasantry. The scholar-gentry generation that came to political maturity around 1900 was haunted by the image of mat nuoc, or ‘losing one’s country’ – not merely in the political sense, but more critically in terms of their future survival as Vietnamese. They struggled to bring new meaning and ethnic salvation (cuu quoc) out of a developing sense of loss and despair. From this struggle came major changes in the view and tactics of the Vietnamese anti-colonialists.”
David Marr, historian
1. Vietnamese resistance movements were active and energetic, though only partly successful. Most drew their inspiration from the medieval legend of the Trung sisters (40-43AD).
2. The first notable anti-French resistance group was the royalist Can Vuong, which formed in Annam in the mid-1880s and had the young emperor Ham Nghi as its figurehead.
3. Can Vuong found fighting the French military difficult so instead targeted Vietnamese converts to Christianity. It was eventually defeated but several members formed private armies and resistance groups.
4. One of the more successful resistance leaders, Phan Dinh Phung, eluded the French for a decade, using guerrilla warfare underpinned by military organisation and discipline.
5. Some resistance movements were more intellectually based, such as that of the scholar Phan Boi Chau, who wrote nationalist material and criticisms of French colonialism.