Indo-China comprises the modern countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Its early history shows many different groups of people living in this area under the shadow of the powerful empire of China. Even when an independent country was established in what is now northern and central Vietnam, its rulers continued to maintain the Chinese system of government as well as Chinese culture. Vietnam was also linked to the maritime silk route that brought in goods, people and ideas. Other networks of trade connected it to the hinterlands where non-Vietnamese people such as the Khmer Cambodians lived.
Colonial Domination: French troops landed in Vietnam in 1858 and by the mid-1880s they had established a firm grip over the northern region. After the Franco-Chinese war the French assumed control of Tonkin and Anaam and, in 1887, French Indo-China was formed.
For many European powers, colonies were considered essential to supply natural resources and other essential goods. Moreover, the colonizers thought it was the mission of the ‘advanced’ European nations to civilize the backward people.
For increasing cultivation, the French began to build canals to irrigate the land in the Mekong delta. This helped in increasing rice production. The area under rice cultivation went up from 274,000 hectares in 1873 to 1.1 million hectares in 1900 and 2.2 million in 1930. Vietnam exported two-thirds of its rice production and by 1931 had become the third largest exporter of rice in the world.
After that, the French began to work on infrastructure projects. This was necessary for transportation of goods for trade and also for moving military garrisons in the entire region. Construction of a trans-Indo-China rail network began in this period and the final link with Yunnan in China was completed by 1910. The second line was built to link Vietnam to Siam (early name of Thailand).
Should Colonies be Developed: Paul Bernard was an eminent French thinker. He believed in developing infrastructure in Vietnam so that people could become more prosperous. A prosperous public would mean a better market for the French business. He also advocated for land reforms so that farm output could be improved.
The colonial economy in Vietnam was mainly based on rice cultivation and rubber plantation. Rail and port facilities were set up to service this sector. Little effort was made by the French to industrialise the economy.
The Dilemma of Colonial Education: The French wanted to civilize the Vietnamese by imposing the ‘modern’ European culture on them. They also wanted to educate the local people so that a large workforce could be created for clerical jobs. They did not want to impart a better education as they were afraid that more education could lead to awakening among the local people which could prove dangerous for the colonial rulers. So, full access to French education was denied to the Vietnamese.
Talking Modern: The elites in Vietnam were highly influenced by the Chinese culture. It was important for the French to counter this influence. They systematically tried to dismantle the traditional education system and established French schools for the Vietnamese. But replacing the Chinese language (which was used by the elites) was very difficult.
Some French policymakers wanted the use of French as the medium of instruction. They wanted to build an Asiatic France which could be solidly tied to the European France.
Some other policymakers wanted Vietnamese to be taught in lower classes and French in the higher classes. There was a provision to award French citizenship to those who learnt French and acquired the French culture.
There was a deliberate policy of failing the students in the final year of French classes. This was done to prevent the local from qualifying for the better-paid jobs. The school textbooks glorified the French and justified colonial rule. The Vietnamese were shown as primitive and backward who were only capable of manual labour.
Looking Modern: Looking modern; as per the French; meant aping the western culture. Short haircut was encouraged, while Vietnamese traditionally kept long hair.
Teachers and students did not blindly follow what was written in the curriculum. There could be open opposition as well as silent resistance. When the number of Vietnamese teachers increased in the lower classes, it was no longer possible to control what was being actually taught.
The schools proved to be fertile ground for developing the feeling of nationalism among the Vietnamese. By the 1920s, students began to form political parties and to publish nationalist journals. The Party of Young Annan (political party) and Annanese Student (journal) are some examples.
The imposition of French education and culture backfired as the Vietnamese intellectuals felt a threat on their own culture.
Hygiene, Disease and Everyday Resistance: The city of Hanoi was built by using modern engineering and architecture. A beautiful city was built for the colonial masters. It had wide avenues and well laid out sewer system. The irony was that the sewer system; which was being touted as the symbol of hygiene became the perfect breeding ground for rats and led to the plague epidemic in Hanoi.
The Rat Hunt: To stop the spread of plague, as rat hunt was started in 1902. Vietnamese workers were hired for the task and were paid for each rat being caught. People began to catch rats in thousands. The payment was done when a tail of a rat was shown as a proof that a rat had been killed. Many people began just clipping the tails and collecting the bounty. Many people even began to raise rat to earn more. This incident showed that at some juncture even the superior power of a colonial master fails and even the weak can assume a very strong bargaining position.
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