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Alexandre Rhodes and Nguyen Van Vinh

Alexandre de Rhodes
(1591 - 1660)

Nguyen Van Vinh
(1882 - 1936)

    Chinese letters were used in Vietnam for a thousand-year period until the begining of 20th century. Alexandre de Rhodes (born at Avignon in 1591; died at Ispahan, Persia, in 1660), who spent six years in Vietnam (1624 - 1630) for his catholic missions, had done a lot to introduce a system of Roman writing into Vietnamese language. Continuing the efforts of Portuguese Jesuit missionaries like Francisco de Pina, Gaspar d'Amaral, Antonio Barbosa, etc. in romanizing the Vienamese language, Alexandre de Rhodes published the first Vietnamese Catechist and the first Vietnamese - Latin - Portuguese dictionary (Rome, 1651). This writing system is called "quoc ngu" (national language).

     Nguyen Van Vinh was born in 1882 in Hanoi, the same year when Hanoi was taken by the French army. His parents were poor and could not pay for their chidren's education. To earn money to help his family, the eight-year-old Nguyen Van Vinh had to work at a school for interpreters in Hanoi. His work was to pull a bamboo fan hung under the class ceiling to get fresh air when the class was going. This allowed him to watch and listen to the French teacher, and he managed to learn and memorize quickly all the lessons. His brilliant ability was soon noticed by the teacher, who requested the school director to give him a scholarship to study in this school. He finished the school at the age of 14, topping the graduation exam, and became an excellent intepreter. He was then appointed to be the assistant of French governor of Bac Ninh province.
    In 1906, at the age of 24, Nguyen Van Vinh was sent to an exposition fair in Marseille. He had been aware of the important role which the press could play in Vietnam in the modernizing process, so on this trip he intended to learn as much as he could about this subject. He was the first Vietnamese who joined the French Society of Human Rights.
    Back to Vietnam, Nguyen Van Vinh resigned from his post and devoted himself to journalism. In 1907 he served as the editor-in-chief of the Dang Co Tung Bao, which was the first newspaper with "quoc ngu" printed in Tonkin (North of Vietnam). In 1913 he was the editor-in-chief the Dong Duong Tap Chi (The Indochina journal), where one learned to use "quoc ngu" to write literature. He was also the first author who translated masters of French classical literature, such as Balzac, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, La Fontaine, Moliere, etc. into Vietnamese "quoc ngu", as well as the famous Vietnamese novel in verse "The tale of Kieu" by Nguyen Du into French. His effort helped the Western knowledge and culture to spread among the population and facilitated the acceptance of quoc ngu by the Vietnamese society. In 1918 Kinh Khai Dinh declared "quoc ngu" to be the official writing language of the country. Chinese characters were officially abolished.
    Nguyen Van Vinh, however, could not earn living with his journalist and publishing carreer. His publishing house went bankrupt and his properties were confiscated. He went to Laos in a gold-rush and died there in 1936. His body was found in a boat by a river at Sepon (southern part of Laos) with a pen and a notebook still hold in his hands. He was writing his last report until his last minute. When his coffin arrived by train at Hanoi, thousands of Hanoians were waiting in a solemn silence at the main gate of the Central Railway Station to bid farewell to the man whose talent and tireless effort had made "quoc ngu" really become their written language.
    It is in homage to these two great men, Alexandre de Rhodes and Nguyen Van Vinh, that the painting "The Introduction of Roman Writing into Vietnam (The Transcendental Death of Mr. Nguyen Van Vinh)" was created.

Nguyen Dinh Dang
March 2001, on the occasion of 350th anniversary of the first Vietnamese dictionary by Alexander de Rhodes)

Some articles about Alexandre de Rodes and Nguyen Van Vinh:

Nguyen Van Vinh - the cutural bridge between East and West (by Hoang Tien, in Vietnamese)

"'The modern barbarian': Nguyen Van Vinh and the complexity of colonial modernity in Vietnam" (by C.E. Goscha)

Should we rewrite history ? (by Jacques Roland, Viet. trans. by Nguyen Dang Truc)

D'Alexandre de Rhodes a Nguyen Van Vinh (by A. Owhadi-Richardson)

10th International Journey of Francophony in Montpellier