The controversial legacy of Phạm Quỳnh

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Throughout his life, Phạm Quỳnh ostensibly believed that his work was to expand people’s knowledge, revitalize people’s will, and enrich people’s lives — a project initiated by Phan Châu Trinh, although Phạm had never explicitly admitted his similarity to Phan, and Phan assertively condemed Phạm for corrupting the youth’s rebellious will. There are, however, two major differences between Phạm and Phan. On the one hand, while Phan considered educational reform as a means to later gain independence from the French, Phạm acted consitently in accordance with the policy of the colonial government. On the other hand, while Phan emphasizes the practical aspect of learning — that is, fields of study and professions with scientific, economic and commercial value that make the country rich and strong, Phạm only focuses on literature, especially the kind of literature that asks people to conform to the ruling power. And in fact, even in that aspect, Phạm’s scholarly work was not as significant as that of Nguyễn Văn Tố. Nevertheless, whenever confronted by the anti-French intellectuals and activists, Phạm Quỳnh always insisted that, just like them, he was helping the country in his own way, and he held this position till his death in 1945. 

Phạm Duy Tốn and Phạm Quỳnh in Paris, 1922

Phạm Quỳnh left behind a controversial legacy. In assessing Phạm’s life and career, there appear two main opposing sides. One thinks of him as a henchman for the French; those who belong to this faction include Đặng Thai Mai, Nguyễn Đình Chú and Nguyễn Văn Trung. The other evaluates him purely in the literary context, claiming that Phạm has the merit of vulgarising chữ quốc ngữ, the modern Latin writing script for Vietnamese, as well as paving the way for the development of Vietnamese literature; This group involves Nguyễn Công Hoan, Thanh Lãng, Thụy Khuê, and Phạm’s descendants, namely Phạm Thị Ngoạn (Nguyễn Tiến Lãng‘s spouse) and Phạm Tuyên. Even Phạm’s contemporaries had mixed reactions to his work: whereas Dương Quảng Hàm, Vương Hồng Sển expressed their respect to him, Ngô Đức Kế, Huỳnh Thúc Kháng and Phan Văn Hùm constantly criticized him.  

But if there is any implication of continuing to study Pham Quỳnh’s life and work, and more generally Vietnamese literary history, in today’s context, it should be to land a third position that embraces both previously opposing ideas. At this point, once we side against Phạm Quỳnh and deny the contributions of his Nam Phong magazine due to their pro-colonialist nature, we must go further to question the legacy of a person for whom we have a lot of respect, that is Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, not to mention other press and publishing groups whose anti-colonial character was not so obvious, such as Tự Lực Văn Đoàn, Tân Dân or Lê Cường. And consequently, we will end up falling into that biased attitude of those post-war Northern critics who denied the literary legacy of South Vietnam during the period of 1954-75. On the contrary, if we are on the side of Phạm’s proponents, we may risk losing the comprehensive view of the Vietnamese literary scene at the begining of the 20th century, as it is impossible to detach the political elements from the literary works at the time. This sort of dilemma has to do with a more philosophical question about art for art’s sake and art for humanity’s sake, which sparked a great debate among intellectuals before 1945. Even though the majority of people involved were in favor of the latter position, we’ve grown mature enough to question: “Isn’t it nonsense to deny the literary masterpieces that carry non-conforming moral values?”

Phạm Quỳnh’s identity card

While waiting for a possible resolution from the unread texts, we can temporarily come to an assessment of Phạm Quỳnh with the separation between politics and literature, based on what is known. 

Politically, it may be an exaggeration to say that Phạm Quỳnh was a henchman for the French. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that he was a naive and misguided journalist and politician, who assumed that the path he took – which was manipulated by the colonialists – was a way to save the country. But such naivety is understandable since Phạm was part of the 1913-32 generation which, according to professor Thanh Lãng, is characterized by the association with France. It’s the generation that had witnessed too many failures of armed resistance against the French: Patriots were beheaded or imprisoned, and patriotic teachings were forbidden. We should also consider that unlike Phan Khôi, Đào Trinh Nhất or Ngô Đình Diệm, neither Phạm Quỳnh nor Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh came from a family with a long-standing Confucian tradition, much less followers of the Cần Vương movement. Phạm Quỳnh rose up with talent and diligence in studying French, and he grew up in a setting where the French rule in Indochina had been solid. Being influenced more by French than Vietnamese culture, and also benefiting from being a civil servant for the protectorate, Phạm was therefore not vehemently anti-French. 

As for literature, it must be recognized that Phạm Quỳnh is an important figure, because although he wrote for a French-sponsored news outlet, he was still one of very few voices in the early days of Vietnamese printing press, where the colonial policy was far stricter than that of the later period. Thus, he played a paramount role in popularizing the modern language script. But generally, Phạm Quỳnh’s contributions in this regard is not as significant as Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh’s, as elaborated in Nguyễn Văn Trung’s studies. And the hitherto praises for Phạm Quỳnh, regarding him as a linguist or anthropologist, seem to have no evidential foundation. Phạm Quỳnh was no doubt famous as a journalist, scholar, translator, and politician, but he was not that critical of a journalist as Phan Khôi, not that knowledgeable of a scholar as Nguyễn Văn Tố, not that skillful of a translator as Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh, and not that conscientious of a politician as Ngô Đình Diệm. 

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