Phan Chau Trinh’s thoughts through the lens of modern Vietnam


In late April, the Fulbright School Alumni (FSA) organized a series of meeting in Hoi An gathering both Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management (FSPPM) current students and alumni. A highlight in this event series is the talk show with Mr. Nguyen Ngoc, a renowned writer, journalist, educator, and cultural researcher, discussing the thoughts and ideological legacies of Phan Chau Trinh (also spelled Phan Chu Trinh) – an early 20th-century Vietnamese nationalist. Ninety-five years after his passing, his ideology is still relevant in the current context and intrigues many thought-provoking dialogues among the young generation.

“Khai dân trí – Chấn dân khí – Hậu dân sinh”

Phan Chau Trinh (1872-1926) is a nationalist leader and reformer who was the leading proponent of Duy Tan, a reformist program in 1906-1908 that joined the aims of expelling the French and of restructuring Vietnamese society. After reading a wide array of books containing Western political ideas and other ideologies in the world at that time, Phan Chau Trinh came across the idea of restructuring the state by laying firm foundations in economic and industrial development to escape the colonial domination.

“[Phan Chau Trinh] said it was weird that we were ruled by a civilized country for around a century, but we failed to learn anything from them. He stressed that Vietnam had to learn from our rivals to become equal; then we would consider which path to take to reclaim independence,” Nguyen Ngoc told FSPPM alumni and students.

Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Dean of FSPPM and Mr. Nguyen Ngoc

For Phan Chau Trinh, the most important condition for us to reclaim independence is building a developed nation, with the motto “khai dân trí – chấn dân khí – hậu dân sinh” (expand people’s knowledge – revitalize people’s will – enrich people’s lives).

There are many documents mentioning that Phan Chau Trinh paid the most attention to “khai dân trí”, that means making education reforms, teaching new knowledge, and opening people’s mind. But, according to Nguyen Ngoc, Phan Chau Trinh attached great importance to “hậu dân sinh”.

“His concept of the people we build… first of all, they must have jobs; second, they must know how to do business; and third, they must dare to take risks.”

This is the ideological difference between Phan Chau Trinh and other nationalists at the time. For Phan Chau Trinh, we need to strengthen people’s professions and expand the country’s economic and financial potentials to minimize the dependence on foreign countries. He said that a progressive person must be a skilled worker because we can only be self-reliant if we are self-sufficient.

“We should not bother to identify the order of the three components in the motto Khai dân trí – Chấn dân khí – Hậu dân sinh’, Nguyen Ngoc emphasized. According to Phan Chau Trinh, to get rid of the slavery status of a colonized country, we must develop the economy, broaden culture and education, enrich people’s lives financially and mentally, and strengthen the state. We need to train a new workforce capable of deploying innovative and progressive ideas. Without this class, Vietnam could not develop into a power.

“There is no better time than now for us to reflect on Phan Chau Trinh’s thoughts. With the goal of building Ho Chi Minh City into an innovative megacity for Vietnam to become a powerful country by 2045, we need to pay more attention to economic development and national internal strength. Only by “khai dân trí – chấn dân khí – hậu dân sinh” can Vietnam play a prominent role on the international stage, ensuring national security and the future of the country, Dr. Vu Thanh Tu Anh, Director of FSPPM, said at the talk show.

Phan Chau Trinh’s thoughts on the mission of education reforms

Phan Chau Trinh was a lonely man. “Phan Chau Trinh was extremely wise, but his failure was inevitable because he was about 200-300 years ahead of his time,” Nguyen Ngoc commented. For that reason, his descendants need to learn the core of Phan Chau Trinh’s ideology and learn from his failure to transform Vietnamese society and make Vietnam a power.

Phan Chau Trinh is one of the most remarkable figures in Vietnamese history and culture in the 20th century. As a man of great vision, he understood the wicked problems that the country had to solve. That is why his main thought is to train people of the new age to be curious to know, to never stop learning, to have risk-taking and self-reliance spirit, and to be wholeheartedly willing to serve the country.

Is it true that we, the descendants of Phan Chau Trinh, though achieved certain success in reclaiming the country’s independence, have failed to drive Vietnam to the level of development as expected by Phan Chau Trinh? According to Nguyen Ngoc, today’s Vietnamese people are still lagging behind the world and have not fully fitted in the current flow of civilization. “We have an education system that fails to catch up with the country’s development,” Nguyen Ngoc said. However, he noted that “education cannot be reformed overnight, or be abolished and reestablished right away.”

But it does not mean that change is impossible. Today, Phan Chau Trinh’s thoughts are more meaningful than ever. The concept of learning for knowledge associated with practice is also the concept that schools and educational institutions should give priority to if they want to build a generation of “new people”. We need to teach and be taught modern theories and universal knowledge, but at the same time, we need to have a deep understanding of Vietnamese context to apply the knowledge effectively. By that we can become humans who know how to think, to choose, and to take responsibility for our choices rather than just rote learners.

That thought is also the “compass” orienting the development of Fulbright School of Public Policy and Management. Over the past 25 years, the school has contributed to training the new generations of Vietnamese people – more than 1,500 alumni who are mostly leaders and managers making positive changes in their communities – in government offices, public and private enterprises, academic and social institutions across the country. The values ​​that FSPPM has been cultivating for long – integrity, impartiality, inclusiveness, creativity, accountability, and constructive criticism – have become the pride of Fulbright community and inspired other academic communities in Vietnam to pursue education reforms.

Thạch Thảo

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