Writing on Vietnam


Who was Phạm Phú Thứ?

A pioneer of economic liberalization in Tonkin that is seldom mentioned in English language histories.

Phạm Phú Thứ, also known as Giá Viên or Trúc Đường, has received some notoriety in post-reform era Vietnam. In 1993, the Quảng Nam native was  the subject of a seminar sponsored by Ho Chi Minh City’s Quảng Nam–Đà Nẵng Hometown Association. In 1994 an academic conference was organized, and the conference papers were compiled and published in 1995 under the title Phạm Phú Thứ với Tư Tưởng Canh Tân. Much of this information was then synthesized, supplemented with further details, and published in monograph form by Thái Nhân Hòa under the title Trúc Đường Phạm Phú Thứ với xu hướng canh tân in 1999. His collected writings (in Chinese characters), hitherto held in the Han Nom Library of Hanoi, were compiled under the title of Giá Viên Toàn Tập in 1999. They were then painstakingly translated into Vietnamese and published as a 2,640 page book by the Đà Nẵng Publishing House in 2014. 

But why have I never heard of him before? 

First a caveat: there is a solid chance that I am missing some piece of English scholarship on the figure, whether a book, dissertation, article, whatever, so if you know of something please tell me in the comments!

This hedging aside, the intense attention in Vietnamese makes a stark contrast with English scholarship. The major English works on the period, of which there are not many, do not mention him at all. For example Alexander Woodside’s monographs, Vietnam and the Chinese Model, and Community and Revolution in Modern Vietnam, as well his essay “The Relationship Between Political Theory and Economic Growth in Vietnam, 1750-1840”, mostly miss Phạn Phú Thứ’s heyday in late 19th Century.   

Osborne and Marr, who do focus on the late 19th Century, don’t mention Phạm Phú Thứ at all, despite covering the contemporary collaborationists and anti-colonialists  respectively. 

Mcleod does mention him, but only as the man who gave a eulogy for Phan Thanh Giản, a piece of evidence that vindicates Mcleod’s suspicion that emperor Tự Đức scapegoated Giản for losing Cochinchina. 

RB Smith discusses Phạm Phú Thứ on accident. When Smith gives a short but interesting discussion of Phan Thanh Giản’s trip to Paris via the “diary”, he is apparently unaware that this diary was actually written by Phạm Phú Thứ, who was deputy emissary of the journey! 

This lack in the English scholarship doesn’t necessarily invalidate any of the findings of these otherwise great books. But why does it exist? To speculate, I would say that there are two chief reasons. First, I think this English scholarship doesn’t mention Phạm Phú Thứ because it has been to some degree necessarily based in the problems topical among Vietnamese scholars. Phạm Phứ Thứ’s legacy became an important historical problem due to the way the opening and reform movement was articulated in the wake of Đổi Mới. As relatively powerful Vietnamese people sought to justify a limited openness to regularization of relations with the USA and entry into the World Trade Organization, they dug through their past for exemplary figures who could embody both anti-colonial loyalty and open minded transcendence of economic autarky.

So they found Phạm Phú Thứ !

Phạm Phú Thứ and Phan Thanh Giản having an audience with Napoleon III

But why do I care? Why does it matter?

The second reason they haven’t mentioned Phạm Phú Thứ has more to do with my interests in the figure: English scholarship has not tried to see Nguyen politics in terms of constituencies. The history of the Nguyen Dynasty has, for the most part, been a debate about ideas. What did they think of China and Chineseness? What did they think of the West and Modernity? How deep was confucian culture and institutions? Did they try to confucianize their subjects, and did their subjects resist? etc. This scholarship has been interesting and necessary, but if these are the questions you are asking, then Phạm Phú Thứ probably matters little. At the end of the day, he might not add much to the basic story arc of colonial trauma and national overcoming, and even if he altered the Nguyen story in some way, it would still pick back up again after the Can Vuong Rebellion in more or less the same spot: with Phan Chau Trinh and Phan Boi Chau. As long as we are writing a history of the “national discourse” then there is little motivation to explore these more limited regional figures.  

But my interests are a bit different. One of my questions is “when and how do Vietnamese merchants and capitalists first begin to exert an independent political voice  ?”. While I don’t yet know for sure if Phạm Phú Thứ represents such a political voice, I have a hunch that looking at his policies in terms of what constituencies they plausibly represent will help to answer that question. The assumption here is that the Nguyen State did not simply hover autonomous from social classes, and consequently its notorious political gridlock needs to be understood in these terms. 


So who is Phạm Phú Thứ 

I’ll be returning to Phạm Phú Thứ in subsequent posts, but I think a good way to end this one is by giving a timeline of his career as drawn from Thái Nhân Hòa’s 1999, Trúc Đường Phạm Phú Thứ với xu hướng canh tân. I still need to corroborate much of this, but I think it at least establishes that the man was no lightweight! 

Phạm Phú Thứ was born in Đông Bàn village, currently part of Điện Bàn District, Quảng Nam province, not far from Danang. (Why do so many important political figures come from this area!?). He was born into a “famous lineage” and showed early promise as a scholar. 

Between 1840 and 1843 he passed metropolitan, provincial, and palace exams. After working at the palace, he was promoted to the county chief of Lạnh Giang (contemporary Bắc Giang). 

In 1850 he submitted a memorial to Tự Đức in which he warned that if the young king continued to be lazy, it would be a grave danger to the country. For this insolence he was sentenced to labor in the imperial stables at Thừa Nông, south of Huế. Hòa speculates that Phạm Phú Thứ was only spared harsher punishment because he used to assist the young emperor with his poetry when he was a child. Phạm Phú Thứ worked at the stables for four months, and he was brought back to the capital only after the emperor’ mother intervened on his behalf. 

In 1851 Phạm Phú Thứ was rehabilitated. A Qing official named Ngô Hội Lân (in Vietnamese) was somehow shipwrecked off the coast of Đà Nẵng, and Phạm Phú Thứ was assigned to accompany him back to Guangdong. It was upon witnessing Macao, Shanghai, and Guangdong that Phạm Phú Thứ first developed an intense appreciation for commerce. He studiously took notes on the sophistication of Cantonese trades, industry, and services, as well as western trading activities in the region. 

He was quickly promoted through the ranks of the bureaucracy after his return. In 1852 he was a member of Tự Đức’s personal cabinet (nội các). In 1854 he was the county chief of Quảng Ngãi (tri phủ Tư Nghĩa). In 1855 he became chief of the ministry of rites (thượng thư bộ lễ). In 1856 Surveillance Commissioner of Thanh Hóa (Án sát).

In 1857 he became the Surveillance Commissioner of Hanoi, and it was at this time that he led the construction of a war galley (thuyền đồng), and submitted memorials requesting reforms that would privatize the rice trade to Hanoi while restricting government ships to coastal patrols and hauling heavy cargo back to the capital. 

After the French attack on Đà Nẵng in 1858, he requested to return to his hometown and raise a militia. It’s unclear if this was denied or if the moment simply passed, but he was reassigned to the First Assessor of the Ministry of Rites in 1860 and returned to the capital. 

In 1863 and 1864 he accompanied Phan Thanh Giản, Nguy Khắc Đan, and, as an interpreter, Petrus Kỳ, on a trip to Paris to negotiate for the fate of Cochinchina. The negotiations were a bust, but he took extensive notes on Egyptian, Spanish, French and Italian economic activity, and material culture. He also wrote poetry about his trip. These were compiled as Tây hành nhật ký and Tây phủ thi thảo respectively, which he submitted to great acclaim from the emperor. 

In 1865 he was promoted to the head of the ministry of finances and assigned to the privy council (cơ mật). In 1873 he became the First Assessor of the Ministry of War.

In 1874 he reached the pinnacle of his career when he became the provincial governor of Hải Yên, whose capital would later become Hải Phòng.  This is when he most extensively implemented his reformist ideas. He constructed granaries for the flood induced famines that were at the time endemic to the region, but he also “mobilized the rich” to contribute rice. He dredged rivers to facilitate trade, and he “encouraged the rich to invest in industrial technology” (công nghệ). He reduced taxes on craft manufacturers, sent the indigent to work in coal mines, and cracked down severely on “dishonest merchants” [gian thương], presumably including smugglers and mafias. He founded the Hải Ninh Customs Office with the French Consul, formalizing Hai Phong’s position as the premier entrepôt of Tonkin. 

He also opened French schools in Hai Phong and rehabilitated the Hải Học Đường publishing house, which published Chinese translations of English texts on science, mining, navigation, and diplomacy. It was a sort of Duy Tân movement avante la lettre.

In the end, Hòa credits “jealous flatterers” among Tự Đức’s coterie with Phạm Phú Thứ’s fall from grace. He was investigated for permitting illegal rice trade. He was lowered three ranks and returned to the capital. He died in his home village of Đông Bàn, Điện Bàn, Quảng Nam province in 1882. 


I am most interested in Phạm Phú Thứ’s activities while Surveillance Commissioner of Hanoi and Governor of Hai Yen Province. Who were the rich he was mobilizing? Who were the traders and crafts people he was deregulating? Where they “Vietnamese” or “Chinese”? Who were the “gian thương” and what were their relations to the district level bureaucrats? and to the endemic militia and rebel movements? What infractions was he charged with? 

I’ll be trying to tackle these questions in later posts, so if you have any leads for where I can look for this information, please let me know in the comments! 



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