Jacob RAMSAY. Mandarins and Martyrs. The Church and the Nguyen Dynasty in Early Nineteenth-Century Vietnam. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008. xii-212 pp. Maps, notes, bibliography, index.$ 50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-5651-8. Reviewed by Peter C. PHAN, Georgetown University, Washington, DC.
Hundreds of thousands of Catholics, both foreign missionaries and native Vietnamese, are claimed to have been martyred for their faith in the nineteenth century. In 1988 Pope John Paul II canonized 117 of them, of whom ninety-six were Vietnamese, eleven Spaniard, and ten French. Of these, all were killed after 1833, two decades before the French invasion of Vietnam in 1858. The canonization was perceived by the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam as a deliberate political affront and an incitement to rebellion, at a time when the country was tottering on an economic brink. It also provoked myriad historical studies and conferences on the Nguyen dynasty and Catholic missions in the nineteenth century. One of the controversial issues was: Why were Catholics killed by the state? If it was for their faith, then they would be martyrs. But if it was because of their collaboration with foreign powers, then the Vietnamese Catholics would be traitors and foreign missionaries would be spies, and the whole nature of Christian mission in Vietnam would be under suspicion. As can be expected, the Catholic Church would hold the former position, and the Vietnamese government the latter. But could it be that the answer is both? Religion and/or politics? What is the truth?
To find an answer to this question, Jacob Ramsay delves into several of the Nguyen dynastic chronicles — now available in Vietnamese “quoc ngu” translation —and the personal correspondences of French missionaries, especially those belonging to the Société des Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP, founded in 1658). It is important to note that this book, originally a doctoral dissertation at the Faculty of Asian Studies, the Australian National University, focuses only on the first half of the nineteenth century, before France's invasion of the country in 1858. Consequently, Ramsey's historical judgments on the relationship between the Vietnamese government and Catholic mission, whether justified or not, should not be extrapolated to periods prior and subsequent to these five decades.
Ramsay's work continues and is built upon the historiographical research of scholars such as Keith Taylor, Li Tana, Choi Byung Wook, and Nola Cooke, who among others initiated a new approach to Vietnamese studies, espoused by research centers such as those at Cornell University, Australian National University, and the National University of Singapore. (On this new historiography, see Nhung Tuyet Tran and Anthony Reid, eds., VietNam: Borderless Histories, the University of Wisconsin Press, 2005). Instead of constructing a grand narrative on an allegedly homogeneous Vietnamese identity based on nationalist or socialist ideologies, the new research focuses on the multiple political, economic, ethnic, and cultural elements constituting the ever-evolving identity of Vietnam in relation not only to China but also to other peoples and countries of Southeast Asia.
Ramsay's immediate purpose is not to find an answer to the question formulated by the title of my review. Rather his larger project is to study the rise of anti-Catholic violence in early nineteenth-century Vietnam and the social and political changes created by this violence in the decades preceding French colonial rule. But it is precisely in this wider context that a satisfactory and historically responsible answer can be found. This context is marked by two unrelated yet mutually influencing events, namely, Minh Mang's (the second emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, r. 1820-41) threefold agenda of bureaucratic reform and centralization, cultural homogenization, and territorial expansion on the one hand and the renascence of the MEP buttressed by a huge financial support from Catholic France on the other.
One serious obstacle to the implementation of Minh Mang's agenda was the presence of the Catholic Church and its mostly French missionaries, especially in the Gia Dinh area (the Dang Trang [inner region]), which had long fought for independence from the Hue court. Ramsay rightly rejected the canard that early-nineteenth Vietnamese Catholics were persecuted because they were the fifth column of colonialist France or because they actively opposed Minh Mang's nationalist policies. He traced the rise of Nguyen anti-Catholicism to Minh Mang's frustration at his inability to reduce Gia Dinh under his political control. Gia Dinh's resistance to the central government, especially under Le Van Duyet and his adopted son Le Van Khoi (Khoi's successful armed rebellion in 1833-35), was supported mostly by the local people the majority of whom were not Catholic.
Of great value is Ramsay's use of the resources —some hitherto unpublished —of the MEP to elucidate the situation of Catholic mission in the first half of the nineteenth century. Not only is he able to account for the spectacular revival of MEP in Vietnam thanks to the enormous infusion of money but also to provide in the process a fascinating portrait of the conflicts within the MEP itself (e.g, the bitter critique of Etienne Cuenot's ecclesiastical policies by his own confreres) and those between French missionaries and the local clergy (see pp. 145-47 for a hair raising encounter between the MEP Charles Herrengt and the Vietnamese priest Khoa!).
Ramsay is correct in noting the important role played by the Catholic laity in the expansion of Christianity in Vietnam some of whom were highly educated and widely respected, e.g., Simon Phan Dac Hoa.
Mandarins and Martyrs deftly weaves a rich history of the interactions between the Nguyen emperors Minh Mang, Thieu Tri, and Tu Due on the one hand and the Vietnamese Catholic Church and French missionaries on the other. If the alliteration may be extended, the word missionary could be added to the title of the book since it also offers interested portraits of important missionaries such as Etienne Cuenot and his mission reform.
After all this research into the economic, political, and missionary research in early nineteenth century Vietnam, can one finally give a definitive answer to the question of why Catholics were killed? As might be expected, a clear and unambiguous answer is not forthcoming. Perhaps Ramsey could have helped us better had he distinguished more sharply between the attitude of imperial Hue toward French missionaries and its attitude toward the Vietnamese Catholics themselves. With regard to the former, no doubt Minh Mang and especially Tu Due, with theFrench occupying the Six Provinces (luc tinh), regarded them —rightly or wrongly —as potential spies, political enemies, and religious subversives, especially in light of the behavior of Joseph Marchand in 1835. (This might also explain partly the often hostile attitude of the local clergy toward the younger MEP missionaries, in addition to the latter's racial and cultural superiority complex). In this respect, it is regrettable that Ramsay had not examined more closely the role of Bishop François Pellerin (1813-1862), who in 1853 vigorously lobbied Napoleon III to invade Vietnam and who urged, to no avail, Admiral Rigault de Genouilly to march on Hue after the French navy had occupied Da Nang. On the other hand, the persecution of Vietnamese Catholics was more religiously motivated as they were accused of following the ta dao [perverse religion], even though admittedly religious persecution was undertaken also for political ends. Whatever one may say about the killing of individual foreign missionaries, then, there is little doubt that the Vietnamese Catholics who were killed in the early nineteenth century by the Nguyen kings and their political appointees are "martyrs" in the proper sense, that is, killed for their faith.
Another lacuna is Ramsay's treatment of Vietnamese catechists. He rightly praised their contribution to the growth of Vietnamese Christianity —a role often neglected in standard mission histories. But his account could be fuller had he taken into consideration the origins and activities of the catechists at the time of Alexandre de Rhodes (see Peter C. Phan, Mission an Catechesis: Alexanddre de Rhodes & Inculturation in Seventeenth-Century Vietnam, Orbis Books, 1998, 101-106) and the extremely important work of the Amantes de la Croix religious sisters.
Stanford University Press is to be commended for printing the Vietnamese terms with all the necessary diacritics, a practice that is now widely available but still expensive. However, in future reprints, it would be necessary to go through the book with a fine tooth comb to correct the errors (including the diacritics for French words). Also, on p. 26, second last line, "Propaganda Fide" and not "Congregatio Fide." Lastly, while the bishop's name in French is preceded by "Mgr," in English the honorific title refers to something else ("monsignor" has been jocularly referred to as a warmabe bishop). I propose that from now on we refer to, e.g., Cuenot as Bishop Cuenot and not Mgr. Cuenot.
These little cavils notwithstanding, Ramsay's book is a magnificent contribution to Vietnamese studies. The fact that it is lucidly and elegantly written, and reasonably short is an excellent model for all doctoral dissertations.