When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, the French conquest of the Indochina peninsula (péninsule indochinoise) had been considered complete since 1897, at which time the Vietnamese military resistance, known as Cần Vừơng (Save the King) had ended.[1] In that same year, Governor General Paul Doumer (1857-1932) founded the Indochinese Union (l’Union indochinoise) and organised the general government of Indochina.[2] The colonial state, which lasted until 9 March 1945, was comprised of five territorial and administrative entities. For understandable political reasons, the realm and sovereignty was broken into three "countries": Annam, Tonkin and Cochinchina. The latter was designated a colony, while the first two, together with Cambodia and Laos, were designated protectorates. This distinction was purely a formal one, since French administrators progressively reinforced their role and intervention in "protected" monarchies.

Indochinese society was such a complex medley of ethnicities and cultures that a centralised regime was the most effective form of rule.[3] The Viêt or Kinh people had lived under Chinese domination for the past 1,000 years and had inherited an indelible civilizational legacy; the culture of their Lao, Cham and Khmer neighbours was in turn influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism and later by Islam, imported from the Indian region over many centuries. Buddhism and Confucianism were the touchstones of these three populations’ religious and political culture and laid the foundations of their states. These three major ethnicities forced the indigenous inhabitants to take refuge in the highlands and forests. This population maintained its clan and tribal organisation, as well as their animist and folk beliefs that placed great value on shamans (King of Fire, King of Water), or on Phumibun (Buddhist holymen).

The plurality of the region lent an advantage to the French conquerors, who played "divide and conquer". But at the same time, this complexity posed substantial obstacles. Three decades were too short a time to introduce changes by importing extremely alien cultural practices, which included a novel economic mode of production as well as new social and political structures, religious beliefs and psychological behaviours.

For that reason, historians have concentrated much of their attention on the post-World War I period. From 1925 on, the societies in Indochina were transformed by the expansion of new economic sectors, the emergence of new social classes moulded into a new hierarchy, and above all, the birth of a novel culture under Western influences.[4]

The Involvement of Indochinese Societies in the First World War

Societies in Indochina were entangled in two geostrategic theatres: that of the Far East and that of the French imperial space. In the last thirty years of the 19th century, East Asia found itself at the centre of the inter-imperialist competition between Great Britain and France, Great Britain and Russia and, at the turn of the 20th century, Japan and Russia. European powers shifted their rivalry in the Balkans to the Chinese Empire and the African continent. At the same time, they modified their alliances: the Anglo-French Entente Cordiale replaced policies of confrontation that had barely avoided a military clash at Fachoda in 1898. In 1917, Japan, the Republic of China and Siam declared war on Germany. Japan seized the opportunity to annex the German concessions in China and the islands of the Northern Pacific.[5] From 1917 on, the Russian revolution swept across the Eurasian continent and reached the Pacific Ocean.

In 1914, the demarcation of the French empire was almost complete.[6] Even if increasing economic power was not always the sole motivation behind colonial expansion, it rapidly became the primary one. Such was the case in Indochina. Albert Sarraut (1872-1962), a politician of the Third Republic greatly involved in the empire’s evolution, promoted the development (la mise en valeur) of French colonial resources. He conceived this policy as the redemptive process that followed on the heels of the initial violent military aggression. Part of Sarraut’s colonizing program included forging an association with the Indochinese people to generate wealth, so that they could reap the fruits of their labour. Sarraut implemented his program when he was governor general of Indochina from 1911 to 1914 and again from 1917 to 1919.[7]

On the eve of war, this development process had already begun, but had not been fully implemented. In 1910, the rice growing area in the Mekong Delta had reached 1 million hectares and exported more than 1 million tons. Indochina was the third largest exporter behind Burma and Siam; rice-processing plants multiplied across Cochinchina. Big French companies operated coal, zinc and tungsten mines in Tonkin; Saïgon and Haîphong had bustling seaports. The Yunnan railway (linking Haïphong to Yunnanfu) was a singular accomplishment about which the French boasted, but elsewhere only short sections of a railway network existed. A few southern rubber trees estates appeared in 1911 but at this time, rubber production was just a distant promise, as planters had to wait five or six years before tapping the trees. The actual expansion of rubber tree plantations and production began in earnest in 1926 and 1927.[8] Nevertheless, the Banque de l’Indochine was founded in 1875 and exercised control of French business in Indochina, China and the Pacific. The bank enjoyed the unique privilege of issuing the colonial currency and working hand in hand with the colonial government.

War expenses and mobilization of both indigenous labourers and French colonists obliged the government to postpone the implementation of agricultural and commercial development programs.[9] The growth of major towns like Hanoï, the headquarters of the general government, and Saïgon-Cholon, the main economic centre, had not yet reached the high level that it would in the 1920s. Therefore, the socio-professional groups with urban functions (bureaucrats, employees of public and private services, manufacturing labour) remained embryonic.[10]

Changes in the Societies

Not every Indochinese society or even all groups in a single society underwent structural or functional transformations. The more perceptible changes took place in Vietnamese society, while Khmer and Lao societies remained more attached to their religious and political traditions and institutions. The montagnards (mountaineers/highlanders) of the northern and central part of the peninsula remained largely unknown to the French. Only army officers and Catholic missionaries established relations with them and reported on them. The most famous of those priests was Jean-Baptiste Guerlach (1858-1912), who Christianized the high plateau of central Vietnam from 1882 to 1912. Colonial anthropology did not exist, but Guerlach was the first to study the Bahnar, Reunguao and Sedang morals, beliefs and cults. As a result, some highland territories remained blank spots on geographical maps. From 1914 to 1919, ethnic groups with minimal contact with the French, such as the Phnong and Stieng in Cambodia,[11] the Kha in the Boloven plateau (Laos) and the Hmong in Upper Laos, rebelled;[12] all these aborigines defended their autonomy and their customary ways of life.

Although no census data was collected until 1921, estimates in 1914 counted more than 17 millions inhabitants in Indochina, 80 percent of whom were ethnic Viêt. The great majority of the Viêt, Khmer and Lao people living in the lowlands were rural; most were peasants and craftsmen, while Chinese immigrants, by contrast, were largely traders.[13] The plight of all these inhabitants was determined by a combination of political economy and climatic scourges. All had to endure fiscal burdens since the colonial currency – the French Indochinese piastre – had not yet penetrated the countryside. Peasants continued to perform statute labour (corvée) and were frequently submitted to often arbitrary requisitions. The colonial regime aggravated the fiscal burden that the Indochinese had to bear by adding supplementary local taxes in some places when the currency began to circulate. The regime created three monopolies (salt, alcohol and opium) to generate revenue to finance the general colonial budget as well as to pay back its financial loans in France.

Peasants were also confronted with the hazards of the tropical climate: typhoons, floods and droughts often brought lethal epidemics. From 1902 to 1918, the Red River Delta flooded every year; in 1913 and 1915, more devastating floods destroyed 94,000 and 365,000 hectares of rice fields, respectively.[14] Mother nature levied her own taxes when disasters caused cataclysmic losses of harvests. In the years before the war, rice consumption per capita fell and starvation was rampant. This situation worsened in 1916 when, as a consequence of drought and flooding, the rice harvest yielded half the crop of the preceding year. Even the northern provinces of Annam-Thanh Hoa, Nghê An and Hà tinh were affected. Famine generated hooliganism, plundering, murder and suicide; even cannibalism was reported in some places. When people believed they had a chance of surviving, they left their homes to find jobs elsewhere.[15]

While outbursts of disorder were a natural consequence of disasters, famine also accelerated the recruitment of workers and soldiers for the war in Europe, since departure to France offered a way of escaping economic hardship and finding a better life. In the 1920s, the same causes pushed northern peasants to agree to be indentured labourers in the southern rubber estates and even farther away on the island of New Caledonia. Poor health conditions explain why a great number of recruits were sent back home after undergoing two medical examinations. During the first half of 1916, some 60,000 young men were recruited in central Annam, but only 18,000 ever boarded ships for France – the rest returned to their towns and villages.[16].

When the northern part of the country regained peace in the first decade of the 20th century after the destructive military campaigns of French conquest, demographic growth picked up again and compounded the impact of natural disasters and the burden of taxation. A period of permanent demographic growth began that had a heavy impact on the agrarian regime, food production and the hygiene situation in Tonkin and northern Annam. In the less populated and rather prosperous Cochinchina, Cambodia, and Laos, draft evaders abounded and volunteers were not pushed to go to enlistment offices.[17]

Warning Signs

The most influential changes occurred in Vietnamese society. Chronologically, changes were first cultural, then political, especially in the world of the educated intellectuals. When resistance against the French ceased, this group looked for a way out of the crisis caused by the shock of foreign aggression. They turned to Chinese reformers, principally Liang Qichao (1873-1929), through whom they were introduced to Western thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) and Charles-Louis Montesquieu (1689-1755), among whom Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was probably the most influential. The theory of evolution offered a powerful explanation for their anxieties. Liang also provided translations of the biographies of the heroes of Italian national independence, Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-1882) and Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872), which shaped the intellectuals’ definition of a Viêt national identity.[18] The idea of reforming Vietnamese society and culture gained ground at the turn of the 20th century.[19]

1905 was a key date: military victory over the Russian empire made Japan a symbol of emancipation for colonized Asian people groups. Its military successes were attributed to the Meiji policy that proved the effectiveness of modernization following Western methods. In Indochina, it inspired opposition to French rule, leading some Vietnamese to advocate both for the reform of institutions and education based upon Western science and technology as well as for armed activism. The intellectual Phan Bội Châu (1867-1940) was the leader of that pro-independence current. He organized for 300 youth to study in Japan and rally around Prince Cừơng Để (1882-1951), who claimed a legitimate right to the throne of Annam.[20] Phan Bội Châu’s project broke down when the Japanese government made a deal with the French government, expelling Phan Bội Châu and the Vietnamese students, who then were forced to take refuge in China. Phan Bội Châu went on to plot against French domination with limited Chinese Republican subsidies and empty promises of support from the German and Austrian consulates.

Another section of reformist intellectuals chose to take action inside the country. Their efforts were more cultural and peaceful; they launched a powerful movement for education called Duy Tân and Minh Tân (New Light and Meiji, respectively). Their campaign started from Quang Nam and expanded northwards and southwards with a wide national scope. Their driving force were the intellectuals from Annam, who opened schools everywhere they could, the most important being the Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục (DKNT, the Hanoï School for Righteous Cause), founded in 1907. Open to men and women, the school taught traditional morals and patriotism in both Chinese characters as well as the Roman alphabet (chử quốc ngử), and to a lesser extent, the French language. Teaching chủ quốc ngử was a major initiative because this mode of transcription, created by Jesuits in the 17th century to facilitate evangelization, had been generalized and enforced when the French conquered the Viet kingdom. As a result, DKNT dissociated it from foreign domination. That was a decisive step in the evolution of the Vietnamese culture and politics in the 20th century.[21] In 1907, in the south and the centre of the country, many (perhaps a majority) of educated Vietnamese families boycotted franco-native (franco-indigènes) schools that stigmatized cái học vong bản or "schools for the uprooted".[22] In those schools, Chinese characters were no longer taught, as a result of which the brilliant future of a mandarinate career was closed. Actually, Romanized transcription and French were taught. So, when DKNT teachings associated chử quốc ngử with Chinese ideograms, it gave the Romanized transcription its stamp of nobility. The termination of recruitment examinations in 1915 in the provinces and in 1919 in the imperial capital confirmed the trend.

A writer from central Vietnam recounted that

the primary school of Xuan Truong district was opened in 1897 to teach French and Quốc ngử. Until 1907, in spite of school allowances granted by the French résident, only catholic children from five villages attended it. From 1908, when DKNT became more successful, one could see children from Hành Thiện attend Xuân Trừơng school.[23]

So the DKNT accelerated the progression of Tân Học (New Knowledge), and eventually strengthened the reformist trend in the educated strata of society, even though the colonial authorities closed the school only a few months later.

The DKNT had an important impact, but it was just one initiative amidst a nationwide effort to modernize. For instance, Minh Tân [New Light] was promoted in Cochinchina by Trần Chanh Chiếu, alias Gilbert Chiếu (1868-1919), a landlord, entrepreneur and political journalist. As if emulation were contagious, even the young prince enthroned in 1908 took the reign name Duy Tân (Modernity).[24] The effervescence of ideas and acts was not limited to purely cultural or political matters, it extended to economics when mandarins and literati tried to extend trade and handicraft enterprises under the motto "let us compete with the Chinese". Most of them failed in their attempts because of lack of experience and capital,[25] but they nevertheless set an example and opened the way for future efforts.

In his Report to the General Governor (Rapport au gouverneur general), French Résident supérieur Ernest-Fernand Levecque (1852-1927) had grasped the significance of Duy Tân and Minh Tân:

The progress of the movement had been favoured by the evolution of minds... . I noted that under the influence of our ideas, our schools, our teachings, quite many clever and educated Annamites have progressively adopted some modern ideas. Faculties for analysis and critique have notably expanded among common people. Before, we noted they did not care about political matters, they remained absolutely passive when facing the authorities, they obeyed mandarins’ orders. Nowadays, we see youths reading quoc ngu printed newspapers, interested by current affairs, contesting administrative decisions... . We cannot but congratulate that awakening of their minds, that intellectual and moral improvement. Though, that evolution makes our rule more and more delicate and not easy to exert.[26]

In the same Rapport, Résident supérieur Levecque made an explicit allusion to Phan Chu Trinh’s memoir to Governor General Paul Beau (1857-1926), dated 15 August 1906, published by the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient in the March-June 1907 edition (pp. 166-175), in which Phan advocated a new culture for modernizing Vietnam. He also exposed the obsolete monarchy as well as the corrupt and inefficient mandarinate, calling for the abolition of both institutions. In doing so, he indirectly but clearly denounced the French protectorate regime. In 1907, he repeated the ideas in his Letter to my compatriots. Both manifestoes stirred the Viet authorities and opinion as well as the French colonial government.

Such calls for reform did not stop before 1914 and the colonial government seized the opportunity to tame them when the anti-tax revolt broke out in the central provinces, the region that had been home to Duy Tân activities and had produced the movement’s leading personalities. In addition to cracking down on the peasant uprising, colonial authorities repressed the reformist intellectuals with devastating results: 125 graduated literati were sentenced, most of them to hard labour in the penal colonies of Poulo Condor and Lao Bao,[27] and a few were sentenced to death, including Trần Qúy Cáp (1870-1908) and Phan Chu Trinh (1872-1926). The former was executed, while the latter escaped and was sent to Poulo Condor.

From 1911 to 1925, the modernizers who had been silenced at home went to France, where Phan Chu Trinh, who had been freed from Poulo Condor after the intervention of his French friends, became a rallying personality for Vietnamese immigrants. In France, he was joined by Phan Văn Trừơng (1895-1933), a lawyer, close collaborator and supporter. Both men were joined in the 1920s by Nguyễn Thế Truyền (1898-1969), Nguyễn Aí Quốc alias Hồ Chí Minh (1890-1969), and finally by Nguyễn An Ninh (1900-1943). The five men became the legendary figures known as the Five Dragons. Supported by the French Human Rights League (Ligue de défense des droits de l’Homme, usually referred to as the Ligue des droits de l’homme) and left-wing personalities, they struggled against the colonial regime by calling upon the democratic rights of the French Revolution. Later, Nguyễn Aí Quốc went further by responding to the call of the Russian Bolshevik revolution. Attracted by the anti-imperialism of the Third International in Moscow, he joined it in 1923 after participating in the foundation of the French Communist Party in 1920.[28]

Meanwhile, other Vietnamese were directly involved in the Great War: between 1915 and 1919, 42,922 soldiers and 49,180 workers, volunteers or not, were enlisted and sent to Europe.[29] Most worked in the rear-guard industrial plants or transport networks, but some fought on the front line or drove trucks facing the constant danger of German artillery. As Kimloan Hill’s article "Indochinese Workers in France (Indochina)" in this encyclopaedia[30] is a comprehensive treatment of the subject, I shall limit myself to two questions: what was the impact upon those men during these four or five years? And how did the experience influence them? These soldiers and workers came from a country where racial hierarchy dictated social and interethnic relations; suddenly, they were immersed in a democratic, egalitarian society where citizens enjoyed fundamental freedoms established during the French Revolution of 1789. Neither public nor working places were submitted to official segregation. The soldiers who were on the front line shared the same horror of trench warfare regardless of the colour of their skin. Rare violent conflicts occurred in 1917 and 1918 when riflemen were forced to repress the French soldiers’ mutinies and when workers refused to join the labour strikes. But most incidents occurred as a consequence of free sexual encounters between men and women – French soldiers were furious toward those who took advantage of their absence from home.

Workers and soldiers from Indochina could not help but be conscious and sensitive to the contrast between human relations in France and in their own societies when they went back home. All the French who supervised them worried very much about what would happen. The colonial writer Albert de Pouvourville (1861-1939) summed up this anxiety:

Those yellow men have had relations with French workers, these are good workers, but like the French privates they used to grumble. The yellow men came in contact with those grumblers and boasters, with the orators of the trade union who filled naïve and gullible souls with poisonous extremist theories…. They also came in contact with women who always stayed around the barracks and who poisoned their bodies as well as their minds…. In the immoral and revolutionary school they attended during two years, these Asians have been instilled with a lot of Western ideas about social violence…. It is easy to guess what the Annamites think of France, of us, of our women... . When they return home after the war, what they will have in their minds is quite worrisome.[31]

In reality, these men returned to live in a colonial society characterized by relations between masters and subjects. One can imagine what they resented when, back home, they again experienced daily humiliation. Their unchanged status as subjects under white rulers was compounded by other factors: currency depreciation of the franc had repercussions on wages, savings, pensions and even war bonds that some (such as interpreters and clerks) had bought. These men had received professional training but they did not find the promised employment; those who expected access to higher positions in their villages were often deceived. The frustrations that accompanied many men returning from the European front turned "coolies into rebels".[32] Phan Chu Trinh himself called his compatriots to join France and fight for it, though he later denounced the ingratitude of the French state towards those who paid the blood tax (l’impôt du sang). A bitter disillusionment enveloped the entire Vietnamese society.


In Indochina, French colonists, whose number reached 24,000, feared "like the British in Egypt" that the departure of their military forces would provoke a general uprising of the Indochinese people.[33] They still had fresh memories of the events of 1913 when, in Tonkin, French officers and Vietnamese mandarins were killed by bombs thrown by Quang Phục Hội activists (Phan Bọi Châu’s new party). In Saïgon, however, an audacious attack against the central prison led by a messianic "Emperor Red Dragon" was easily crushed.

In 1916, anxiety was at a high when thousands of Cambodian peasants rose up against fiscal overburden;[34] concern mounted in the neighbouring country when Duy Tân, King of Vietnam (1899/1900-1945), chosen and enthroned by the French authorities, agreed to lead a revolt by taking advantage of the thousands of men gathered in Huế barracks waiting to sail for France.[35] But remarkably, these recruits did not stand up to follow their king, who was rapidly captured, deposed and exiled to the island La Réunion.

This setback was significant and justified Albert Sarraut’s optimism when he reported to the minister of colonies that the troubled year 1916 had gone and that in 1917, Indochina was "peaceful and safe", "the majority of people loyal", particularly the Cambodians, whom Sarraut praised for their calmness and docility.[36] Nevertheless, as if to undermine Sarraut’s opinion, a coalition of political prisoners, wardens and constabulary mutinied in the Thai Nguyen jail in August 1917. It took the French army three months to overcome the rebels.[37]

The opposition to French administration was locally scattered, uncoordinated and rose up only when there were specific motivations: for example, the Khmer peasants who demonstrated in 1916 against fiscal reforms did not exercise violence or strike authorities as the Viet peasants of the central provinces had done in 1908. Instead, they marched to the royal palace in Phnom Penh to present their grievances to their king, a traditional custom respectful of the monarchy.

The tragic events in 1908 did not stop the reformist mainstream, but the cleavage between activists who leaned towards direct action (meaning terrorist operations) and peaceful modernizers became more marked. The latter played the game of Pháp Việt đề huề (French-Viet collaboration). Some agreed to work under French sponsorship, as was the case with Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh (1882-1936) who edited Đông Dương Tạp chí [Indochina Review] (1913-1918), followed by Pham Quỳnh’s Nam Phong Táp Chí [Southern Winds] (1917-1934). They played key roles by elaborating on a modern Vietnamese culture inspired by European one.

The suppression of traditional examinations for recruiting mandarins (1915, 1918) and of the traditional system of education in 1919 were steps toward modernization alongside the incomplete restoration of the University of Hanoï in 1917 and Albert Sarraut’s promulgation of a Code of Education (Code de l’instruction publique) the same year. The code laid out the entire structure of colonial education from the primary to the secondary level and, later, to the university level.[38]

The period between 1914 and 1918 was a space-time continuum and not an empty parenthesis in the evolution of Vietnamese society and culture; in Indochina, local societies shifted from a regional and local history to a World history.

Pierre Brocheux, University Paris Diderot

Section Editor: James P. Daughton