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The Self-Reliant Literary Group (Tu Luc Van Doan): Colonial Modernism in Vietnam, 1932-1941

  • Author(s): Nguyen, Martina Thucnhi
  • Advisor(s): Zinoman, Peter B
  • et al.

This dissertation provides the most thorough history currently available of the Self-Reliant Literary Group. It sheds light on the cultural and political history of the 1930s, arguably the country's most dynamic intellectual and literary period. I examine the nature of colonial intellectual life by addressing the following questions: how did Vietnamese intellectuals make sense of the sweeping forces of modern life brought by French colonialism? How did they understand, internalize, and appropriate the foreign ideas and worldviews transmitted by their colonizers? And ultimately, how did they use this imported knowledge to help themselves and their compatriots? I argue that the cultural, social and political program of the Self-Reliant Literary Group was less concerned with the immediate seizure of political power than the progress towards a just, civil and modern Vietnamese society. Its reforms were wide in scope, concerned with cosmopolitan questions of fairness, freedom and social justice. The Group preferred the unknown and unpredictable future brought by modern life to the known stagnation of tradition. The Group believed that the past and its paradigms held back Vietnamese progress and iconoclastically broke away from their strictures. It looked to westernized societies for models to emulate, borrowing selectively and deliberately from western culture to envision a Vietnamese society that would someday be seen by other modern civilizations as an equal.

As arguably the most important group of intellectuals in 1930s Tonkin, the Self-Reliant Literary Group is an ideal lens through which to view this complex landscape. The publishers of the first satirical newspaper in Vietnam, the Group served as the vanguard of a new, youthful generation of Vietnamese intellectuals--educated only in modern French and vernacular Vietnamese, unfamiliar with the classical Chinese worldview of their Confucian literati predecessors. Deeply committed to the ideals of human progress, the Group reexamined every aspect of Vietnamese society, and sought to replace outdated traditions with new ways to build a civil society. I maintain that the Self-Reliant Literary Group constituted the first Vietnamese modernists--never before had intellectuals advocated such boldly iconoclastic, sweeping changes across the whole of Vietnamese society. Their reform program covered disparate issues such as rural/urban relations, national costume, domestic and international politics, women's issues, publishing, fashion and architecture. I examine their writings and social/political project to describe how these intellectuals constructed their own vision of a modern, civil Vietnamese society in a colonial context.

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