The Vietnamese Mandarin
The Vietnamese Mandarin
There can be no doubt that the mandarins, whose authority derived from the acquisition of knowledge, were the country’s only wielders of power, nor that as a class they were firmly opposed to technical progress and social change. Thus, if it is true that Vietnam could have avoided the loss of her independence by changing and progressing, the mandarins must be held largely responsible for the failure of Vietnam to defend herself against the West.
The mandarins have indeed been blamed by their critics for almost everything that went wrong in nineteenth-century Vietnam. Vietnam’s alleged intellectual stagnation, social immobility, and suicidal policy of isolation from the West were directly ascribed to the conservative attitudes of the mandarins, and to a governmental system that gave them control of the state. Western observers in particular, ever since they began to study Vietnam’s strictly mandarinal system of government, have concentrated on discovering and exposing its flaws. They saw that mandarinal mentality rejected the idea of change and progress, and they consequently connected the mandarins’ intellectual habits with the state of stagnation in which they found Vietnam. The mandarins’ particular intellectual training, which was responsible for their habits of mind, was diagnosed as the whole system’s basic fault. In a manner quite typical for the mandarins’ own intellectual predisposition, Vietnam’s economic backwardness and political inflexibility in the face of colonial aggression were explained by the intellectual matter that fed, and the educational methods that formed, the mandarins’ minds. After a century of such criticism, the word “mandarin” has now become a term of abuse.
Although some aspects of Vietnamese life became quite plausible through this approach, as they would in every effort to show the correlation of mind and society, this Western theory has also done a great deal to obscure the realities of social and intellectual life in nineteenth century Vietnam. It stresses only one element in a complex pattern of causes, and uses as an explanation what needs to be explained. To say that the mandarins’ intellectual formation contributed to Vietnam’s state of social immobility is no doubt correct; but even this is an insight of little value without an answer to the question of why Vietnamese society lacked the forces, and the mandarins themselves the motives, to break the mold of an antiquated mind.