In Search for a Language of Freedom: Vietnamese Francophone Youth and Intellectual Thought, 1920-1954

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Vietnam in the first half of the 20th century saw a rise in literacy, political activity, and the consciousness of Vietnamese identity in relation to French and Chinese influences. Such transitions left their mark on the languages used in Vietnam, which included ideogram based scripts such as literary Chinese and demotic Nôm, and romanized Vietnamese and French. This project uses language expression as a lens to delve into political and intellectual history and to examine how this language negotiates identity and intellectual freedom. More specifically, In search for a language of freedom examines the work of five writers (Cung Gĩu Nguyên, Đào Đăng Vỹ, Nguyễn Mạnh Tường, Phạm Văn Ký and Trần Văn Tùng), and argues that their generation redefined the architecture of intellectual engagement through their interaction with French thought and language. The study traces how the colonial education system and increased print media circulated both Enlightenment and mission civilisatrice discourses in Vietnam. While such discourses generated ambivalence within the colonial system, they also introduced a new “attitude” for thinking about contemporary society that is analogous to Michel Foucault’s definition of modernity. Modernity, in other words, was not merely a temporal break from older systems, it offered an openness of thought and prompted constant reflection on one’s society. For example, Phạm Văn Ký’s interpretation of French Symbolism offered an aesthetic theory to make meaning out of the disavowed ideogram writing systems. Or once Vietnam became independent, Nguyễn Mạnh Tường’s affinity to Montaigne’s skepticism became a philosophical foundation for his caution regarding later political regimes. These writers illustrate the capacity for intellectual expression to exist outside a mainstream narrative for anticolonial and anti-French revolution. By focusing on essays, novels, and journals as well as historical archives, this project aims to show how linguistic and cultural genealogies in Vietnam challenge any linear development of a native identity traceable to a unified, ascetic origin. In this vein, the project makes transcultural connections across colonial writing more generally, to bring Vietnamese, postcolonial, and Francophone studies into dialogue and to open up a larger study of the currents of culture and epistemology that remains pertinent in today’s age of globalization.

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Vietnam; Francophone; Freedom; Comparative Literature; Language; Southeast Asian studies; Intellectual History; French literature; Colonial History


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Aching, Gerard Laurence

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Dubreuil, Laurent
Taylor, Keith Weller

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Romance Studies

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Ph.D., Romance Studies

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Doctor of Philosophy

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Government Document




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dissertation or thesis

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