Ho Chi Minh: A Lifeby William J. Duiker
To grasp the complicated causes and consequences of the Vietnam War, one must understand the extraordinary life of Ho Chi Minh, the man generally recognized as the father of modern Vietnam. Duiker provides startling insights into Ho's true motivation, as well as into the Soviet and Chinese roles in the Vietnam War.See more details below
To grasp the complicated causes and consequences of the Vietnam War, one must understand the extraordinary life of Ho Chi Minh, the man generally recognized as the father of modern Vietnam. Duiker provides startling insights into Ho's true motivation, as well as into the Soviet and Chinese roles in the Vietnam War.
New York Times Book Review
produce this rich, layered life of a man who has achieved mythic status
among the Vietnamese, Duiker draws on his years in the Foreign Service (one
of his postings was to the US Embassy in Saigon during the Vietnam
War)�Required reading for students of the 20th century ñ and for all who
want to understand how a man can come to epitomize a cause and sire a
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Read an Excerpt
IN A LOST LAND
He entered the city quietly, with no fanfare. While his followers roamed the streets, celebrating their victory or accepting the surrender of enemy troops, he settled in a nondescript two-story commercial building in the Chinese section of town. There he spent several days in virtual seclusion, huddled over the battered typewriter that he had carried with him during a decade of travels from Moscow to south China and finally, in the first weeks of 1941, back to his homeland, which he had left thirty years before.
By the end of the month he had completed the speech that he planned to make to his people announcing the creation of a new nation. Shortly after 2:00 P.M. on September 2, he mounted the rostrum of a makeshift platform hastily erected in a spacious park soon to be known as Ba Dinh Square on the western edge of the city. He was dressed in a faded khaki suit that amply encased his spare emaciated body, and he wore a pair of rubber thongs. Thousands had gathered since the early morning hours to hear him speak. In a high-pitched voice that clearly reflected his regional origins, he announced the independence of his country and read the text of its new constitution. To the few Americans who happened to be in the audience, his first words were startling: "All men are created equal; they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
The time was the late summer of 1945, shortly after the surrender of Japanese imperial forces throughoutAsia. The place was Hanoi, onetime capital of the Vietnamese empire, now a sleepy colonial city in the heart of the Red River delta in what was then generally known as French Indochina. For two decades, Nguyen the Patriot had aroused devotion, fear, and hatred among his compatriots and the French colonial officials who ruled over them. Now, under a new name, he introduced himself to the Vietnamese people as the first president of a new country.
At the time, the name Ho Chi Minh was unknown to all but a handful of his compatriots. Few in the audience, or throughout the country, knew of his previous identity as an agent of the Comintern (the revolutionary organization, also known as the Third International, founded by the Bolshevik leader Lenin twenty-six years before) and the founder in 1930 of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Now he described himself simply as "a patriot who has long served his country." For the next quarter of a century, the Vietnamese people and the world at large would try to take the measure of the man.
The forces that initiated his long journey to Ba Dinh Square had begun to germinate in the late summer of 1858, when a small flotilla of French warships, joined by a small contingent from Spain, launched a sudden attack on the city of Da Nang, a commercial seaport of medium size on the central coast of Vietnam. The action was not totally unexpected. For decades covetous French eyes had periodically focused their gaze on Vietnam: missionaries on the lookout for souls to save, merchants scouring the globe for new consumer markets and a river route to the riches of China, politicians convinced that only the acquisition of colonies in Asia would guarantee the survival of France as a great power. Until midcentury, the French government had sought to establish a presence in Vietnam by diplomatic means and had even sent a mission to the imperial capital at Hué, about fifty miles north of Da Nang, in an effort to persuade the Vietnamese emperor to open his country to French influence. When the negotiations stalled, the government of Emperor Louis Napoleon decided to resort to force.
The country that French warships had attacked was no stranger to war or foreign invasion. Indeed, few peoples in Asia had been compelled to fight longer and harder to retain their identity as a separate and independent state than had the Vietnamese. A paramount fact in the history of the country is its long and frequently bitter struggle against the expansionist tendencies of its northern neighbor, China. In the second century B.C., at a time when the Roman republic was still in its infancy, the Chinese empire had conquered Vietnam and exposed it to an intensive program of political, cultural, and economic assimilation. Although the Vietnamese managed to restore their independence in the tenth century A.D., it took several hundred years for Chinese emperors to accept the reality of Vietnam's separate existence; in fact, this happened only after Vietnam's reluctant acceptance of a tributary relationship with the imperial dynasty in China.
Vietnam's long association with China had enduring consequences. Over a millennium, Chinese political institutions, literature, art and music, religion and philosophy, and even the Chinese language sank deep roots into Vietnamese soil. The result was a "Confucianized" Vietnam that to the untutored observer effectively transformed the country into a miniature China, a "smaller dragon" imitating its powerful and brilliant northern neighbor. The Vietnamese monarch himself set the pace, taking on the trappings of a smaller and less august Son of Heaven, as the emperor was styled in China. The Vietnamese ruling elite was gradually transformed into a meritocracy in the Chinese mold, its members (frequently known as mandarins) selected (at least in theory) on the basis of their ability to pass stiff examinations on their knowledge of the Confucian classics. Generations of young Vietnamese males were educated in the very classical texts studiedand often memorizedby their counterparts in China. Their sisters, prohibited by rigidly patriarchal Confucian mores from pursuing official careersor indeed almost any professionwere secluded within the confines of the family homestead and admonished to direct their ambitions to becoming good wives and mothers.
Vietnam's passage into the Chinese cultural universe was probably not an especially wrenching experience, for the social and economic conditions that had helped to produce Confucian civilization in China existed to a considerable degree in Vietnam as well. Like its counterpart to the north, Vietnamese society was fundamentally agrarian. Almost nine of every ten Vietnamese were rice farmers, living in tiny villages scattered throughout the marshy delta of the Red River as it wound its way languidly to the Gulf of Tonkin. Hard work, the subordination of the desires of the individual to the needs of the group, and a stable social and political hierarchy were of utmost importance. The existence of a trained bureaucracy to maintain the irrigation system and the road network was considered essential, but there was relatively little need for commerce and manufacturing. Although indigenous elements were never eliminated in Vietnamese culture, to untutored eyes the country appeared to be a mirror image in microcosm of its giant neighbor to the north.
But if the Vietnamese people appeared willing to absorb almost whole the great tradition of powerful China, they proved adamant on the issue of self-rule. The heroic figures of traditional Vietnamrebel leaders such as the Trung sisters (who resisted Chinese rule in the first century A.D.), the emperor Le Loi, and his brilliant strategist Nguyen Trai, who fought against the Ming dynasty 1400 years laterwere all closely identified with resistance to Chinese domination. Out of the crucible of this effort emerged a people with a tenacious sense of their national identity and a willingness to defend their homeland against outside invasion.
One of the lasting consequences of the Vietnamese struggle for national survival was undoubtedly the emergence of a strong military tradition and a willingness to use force to secure and protect national interests. In the centuries after the restoration of national independence from China in A.D. 939, the new Vietnamese state, which called itself Dai Viet (Great Viet), engaged in a lengthy conflict with its neighbor to the south, the trading state of Champa. Eventually the Vietnamese gained the upper hand, and beginning in the thirteenth century they pushed southward along the coast. By the seventeenth century, Champa had been conquered and the territory of Dai Viet had been extended to the Ca Mau Peninsula on the Gulf of Siam. Vietnamese settlers, many of them ex-soldiers, migrated southward to create new rice-farming communities in the fertile lands of the Mekong River delta. Dai Viet had become one of the most powerful states in mainland Southeast Asia, and the Vietnamese monarch in his relations with neighboring rulers began to style himself not simply as a king but as an emperor.
But there was a price to pay for the nation's military success, as territorial expansion led to a growing cultural and political split between the traditional-minded population in the heartland provinces of the Red River delta and the more independent-minded settlers in the newly acquired frontier regions to the south. For two centuries, the country was rent by civil war between ruling families in the north and the south. In the early nineteenth century the empire was reunified under a descendant of the southern ruling family bearing the name of Nguyen Anh, who adopted the reign title Gia Long. At first the new Nguyen dynasty attempted to address the enduring legacy of civil strife, but by midcentury regional frictions began to multiply, supplemented by growing economic problems such as the concentration of farmlands in the hands of the wealthy, and exacerbated by incompetent leadership in the imperial capital of Hué.
The Vietnamese civil war had occurred at a momentous period in the history of Southeast Asia, as fleets from Europe, sailing in the wake of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, began to prowl along the coast of the South China Sea and the Gulf of Siam in search of spices, precious metals, and heathen souls to save. Among the Europeans most interested in the area were the French, and when in the nineteenth century their bitter rivals, the British, began to consolidate their hold on India and Burma, French leaders turned covetous eyes toward Vietnam.
In 1853 the third emperor of the Nguyen dynasty died, and the Vietnamese throne passed into the hands of a new ruler, the young and inexperienced Tu Duc. It was his misfortune, and that of his people, that on his shoulders was placed the responsibility of repulsing the first serious threat to Vietnamese independence in several centuries. Although well-meaning and intelligent, he was often indecisive and nagged by ill health. When French troops landed at Da Nang harbor in the summer of 1858, Tu Duc's first instinct was to fight. Contemptuously rejecting an offer to negotiate, he massed imperial troops just beyond French defenses on the outskirts of the city. Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly, the French commander, had been assured by French missionaries operating in the area that a native uprising against imperial authority would take place, but it failed to materialize. At first, the admiral hoped to wait out his adversary, but when cholera and dysentery began to thin out the European ranks, he decided to abandon the city and seek a more vulnerable spot farther to the south. Early the following year the French resumed their attack at Saigon, a small but growing commercial port on a small river a few miles north of the Mekong River delta. Imperial troops in the area attempted to counterattack, but their outdated weapons were no match for the invaders, and after two weeks Vietnamese resistance collapsed.
Although the first reaction of the emperor had been to fend off the aggressors with military force, the defeat in the south left him disheartened. Despite appeals from advisers at court for a policy of continuing defiance, Tu Duc decided to negotiate, and in 1862 he agreed to cede three provinces in the Mekong delta to the French, eventually to be known (with the addition of three more provinces a few years later) as the French colony of Cochin China. The first round had gone to Paris.
For a few years the imperial court at Hué maintained a precarious grip on independence, but when the French resumed their advance in the early 1880s, launching an attack on the citadel at Hanoi and occupying several major cities in the Red River delta, the court seemed paralyzed. The sickly Tu Duc had died just before the reopening of hostilities, and in the subsequent leadership crisis the court split into opposing factions. Over the next few months several new monarchs, most of them children, were enthroned and unseated in rapid succession. Ultimately, power was seized by the influential regent Ton That Thuyet, who put his own protégé, Ham Nghi, on the throne in hopes of continuing the resistance. In response to a Vietnamese request, the Qing dynasty in China sent imperial troops to aid its vassal, but the Vietnamese were nonetheless unable to prevail. In 1885 China withdrew its armed forces and signed a treaty with France expressly abandoning its longstanding tributary relationship with Vietnam. In Hué, a more pliant emperor was placed on the throne to replace the young Ham Nghi, who fled with his recalcitrant adviser Ton That Tuyet into the mountains in the interior to continue the struggle. In the meantime, the now dominant peace faction at court concluded a new treaty with France conceding to the latter political influence throughout the entire remaining territory of Vietnam. The French transformed their new possession into the protectorates of Tonkin (comprising the provinces in the Red River delta and the surrounding mountains) and Annam (consisting of the coastal provinces down to the colony of Cochin China far to the south). In Annam, the French allowed the puppet emperor and his bureaucracy to retain the tattered remnants of their once august authority. In Tonkin, colonial rule reigned virtually supreme. For all intents and purposes, Vietnam had become a French possession.
The French conquest of Vietnam was a manifestation of a process of European colonial expansion which had begun after the Napoleonic Wars and accelerated during the remainder of the nineteenth century as advanced Western states began to enter the industrial age. Driven by a desperate search for cheap raw materials and consumer markets for their own manufactured goods, the capitalist nations of the West turned to military force to establish their hegemony throughout the region. By the end of the century, all of the countries of South and Southeast Asia except the kingdom of Siamlater to be known as Thailandwere under some form of colonial rule.
The surrender of the imperial court did not end the Vietnamese desire for independence. Centuries of resistance to China had instilled in the Vietnamese elite class a tradition of service to king and country as the most fundamental of Confucian duties. Many civilian and military officials refused to accept the court's decision to capitulate to superior military force and attempted to organize local armed forces to restore Ham Nghi to power. In Ha Tinh province, along the central coast of Annam, the scholar-official Phan Dinh Phung launched a Can Vuong (Save the King) movement to rally support for the deposed ruler and drive the French from his native land. When his friend Hoang Cao Khai, a childhood acquaintance who had decided to accommodate himself to the new situation, remonstrated with Phung to abandon his futile effort and prevent useless bloodshed, the latter replied in the lofty tones of the principled Confucian patriot:
I have concluded that if our country has survived these past thousand years when its territory was not large, its wealth not great, it was because the relations between king and subjects, fathers and children, have always been regulated by the five moral obligations. In the past, the Han, the Song, the Yuan, the Ming [four of the most powerful of past Chinese dynasties] time and again dreamt of annexing our country and of dividing it up into prefectures and districts within the Chinese administrative system. But never were they able to realize their dream. Ah! If even China, which shares a common border with our territory and is a thousand times more powerful than Vietnam, could not rely upon her strength to swallow us, it was surely because the destiny of our country had been willed by Heaven itself.
But the existence of two claimants to the throne created a serious dilemma for all those Vietnamese who were animated by loyalty to the monarchy. Should they obey the new emperor Dong Khanh, duly anointed with French approval at Hué? Or should they heed the appeal of the dethroned ruler Ham Nghi, who from his mountain hideout had issued a call for the support of all patriotic elements in a desperate struggle against the barbarians? The dilemma of choosing between resistance and accommodation was a cruel one and created a division in the traditional ruling class that would not heal for over half a century.
At the heart of the anti-French resistance movement was the central Vietnamese province of Nghe An. A land of placid beaches and purple mountains, of apple green rice fields and dark green forests, Nghe An lies in the Vietnamese panhandle between the South China Sea and the mountains of the Annamite cordillera along the Laotian border to the west. It is a land of hot dry winds and of torrential autumn rains that flatten the rice stalks and flood the paddy fields of the peasants. It is paradoxical that this land, so beautiful to the eye, has often been cruel to its inhabitants. Crowded into a narrow waist between the coast and the mountains, the Vietnamese who lived in this land, over 90 percent of whom were peasants scratching out their living from the soil, found life, at best, a struggle. The soil is thin in depth and weak in nutrients, and frequently the land is flooded by seawater. The threat of disaster is never far away, and when it occurs, it sometimes drives the farmer to desperate measures.
Perhaps that explains why the inhabitants of Nghe An have historically been known as the most obdurate and rebellious of Vietnamese, richly earning their traditional sobriquet among their compatriots as "the buffalos of Nghe An." Throughout history, the province has often taken the lead in resisting invaders, and in raising the cry of rebellion against unpopular rulers. In the final two decades of the nineteenth century, Nghe An became one of the centers of the anti-French resistance movement. Many of the province's elites fought and died under the banner of Phan Dinh Phung and his Can Vuong movement.
The village of Kim Lien is located in Nam Dan district, in the heart of Nghe An province, about ten miles west of the provincial capital of Vinh. The district lies along the northern bank of the Ca, the main river in Nghe An province. Much of the land is flat, with rice fields washed by a subtropical sun stretching to the sea a few miles to the east, but a few hillocks crowned by leafy dark-green vegetation rise above the surrounding plain. Clumps of palm trees dot the landscape and provide shade for the tiny thatch huts of the peasants huddled in their tiny hamlets. Within each individual hamlet, banana trees, citrus, and stands of bamboo provide sustenance in times of need and materials for local construction. Still, the farmers of the district were mostly poor in the nineteenth century, for it was a densely populated region, and there was inadequate land to feed the population.
It was here, in 1863, that Ha Thy Hy, the second wife of the well-to-do farmer Nguyen Sinh Vuong (sometimes called Nguyen Sinh Nham), gave birth to a son, who was given the name Nguyen Sinh Sac. Vuong's first wife had died a few years earlier, after bearing her husband's first son, Nguyen Sinh Tro. To raise his child, Vuong married Ha Thy Hy, the daughter of a peasant family in a neighboring village. By the time Sac was four, his mother and father had both died, and he was brought up by his half brother Tro, who had already taken up farming on his father's land. The farmer's life was difficult for Tro and his neighbors. When a typhoon struck, the land was flooded, destroying the entire harvest; times of drought produced stunted rice plants. As a result, many farmers in the village worked at other tasks as a sideline, such as carpentry, bricklaying, weaving, or metalworking. Yet there was a long tradition of respect for learning in the area. A number of local scholars had taken the Confucian civil service examinations, and several offered classes in the classics as a means of supplementing their meager income.
At first, the young Nguyen Sinh Sac had little opportunity to embark on his own career as a scholar. Although the family history, carefully carved in Chinese characters on wooden tablets placed, in accordance with tradition, beside the family altar, recorded that many members had successfully taken the civil service examinations in earlier times, apparently none had done so in recent generations. Sac's half brother Tro had little interest in learning. Yet it soon became clear that Sac was eager for education. After leading his brother's water buffalo back from the fields in the late morning, he often stopped off at the school of the local Confucian scholar Vuong Thuc Mau, where he tied up the animal and lingered outside the classroom, listening to the teacher conduct his lessons. In his spare time, young Sac attempted to learn Chinese characters by writing them on the bare earth or on the leaf of a persimmon tree.
By the time he was an adolescent, Nguyen Sinh Sac's love of learning had become common knowledge throughout the village and came to the attention of Hoang Duong (also known as Hoang Xuan Duong), a Confucian scholar from the nearby hamlet of Hoang Tru who often walked over the mud-packed footpaths to Kim Lien to visit his friend Vuong Thuc Mau. Noticing the young lad on the back of a water buffalo absorbed in reading a book while his friends played in the fields, Hoang Duong spoke with Nguyen Sinh Tro and volunteered to raise the boy, offering him an education through the classes that he taught in his own home. Tro agreed, and in 1878, at age fifteen, Nguyen Sinh Sac moved to Hoang Tru village, where he began formal study in the Confucian classics with his new foster father and sponsor. The event was hardly an unusual one, since it was customary for the talented sons of poor farmers to be taken under the wing of more affluent relatives or neighbors and provided with a Confucian education in a local school. Should the child succeed in his studies and rise to the level of a scholar or government official, relatives and neighbors alike could all bask in the glow of the recipient's prestige and influence.
Like many other scholars in the area, Master Duong (as he was known locally) was part teacher, part farmer. The roots of the Hoang family were in Hai Hung province, just to the southeast of Hanoi in the Red River delta, where many members were renowned for their learning. After moving to Nghe An in the fifteenth century, Hoang Duong's forebears continued the tradition of scholarship. His father had taken the civil service examination three times, eventually receiving the grade of tu tai ("cultivated talent," the lowest level of achievement in the examination and the Confucian equivalent of a bachelor's degree in the United States today).
While Hoang Duong taught his students in two outer rooms of his small house, his wife, Nguyen Thi Kep, and their two daughters, Hoang Thi Loan and Hoang Thi An, tilled the fields and weaved to supplement the family income. Like their counterparts in villages throughout the country, none of the women in Master Duong's family had any formal education, since the arts of scholarship and governingreflecting timeworn Confucian principles introduced from Chinawere restricted exclusively to males. In Vietnam, as in China, it was a woman's traditional duty to play the role of mother and housekeeper, and to serve the needs of her husband. This had not always been the case, since Vietnamese women had historically possessed more legal rights than their Chinese counterparts, but as Confucianism became increasingly dominant after the fifteenth century, their position in Vietnamese society became increasingly restricted. Within the family, they were clearly subordinate to their husbands, who possessed exclusive property rights and were permitted to take an additional wife if the first failed to produce a son.
Within these constraints, Nguyen Thi Kep and her daughters were probably better off than most of their neighbors, since they had absorbed a little literary knowledge. Kep's own family also had a tradition of scholarship. Her father had passed the first level of civil service examination just like her father-in-law had. As the wife of a local scholar, Kep was a respected and envied member of the local community. In most respects, however, her life, and that of her daughters, differed little from their less fortunate neighbors, who spent their days knee-deep in the muddy fields beyond the village hedgerow, painstakingly nursing the rice seedlings through the annual harvest cycle.
In this bucolic atmosphere, young Sac grew to adulthood. He quickly showed himself adept at Confucian learning, and when he displayed a romantic interest in Master Duong's attractive daughter Hoang Thi Loan, the family eventually consented to arrange a marriage, although Kep was apparently initially reluctant because of Sac's status as an orphan. The wedding ceremony took place in 1883. As a wedding gift, Master Duong provided his new son-in-law with a small three-room thatch hut on a small plot of land next to his own house. A one-room structure nearby served as the family altar, where the males in the family were expected to pay fealty to the family ancestors. The house built for the newlyweds was cozy and clean, with the living space in the front room, the kitchen in the rear, and an outside room for Sac's study. The family was somewhat more affluent than most in the village but did not hire laborers for their rice fields or the small vegetable garden. During the next seven years, while her husband continued his studies, Hoang Thi Loan bore three childrena daughter, Nguyen Thi Thanh, born in 1884; a son, Nguyen Sinh Khiem, in 1888; and then, on May 19, 1890, a second son, Nguyen Sinh Cung, who would later be known as Ho Chi Minh. (In Vietnam, children are given a "milk name" at birth. When they reach adolescence, a new name is assigned to reflect the parents' aspiration for their child).
While Nguyen Sinh Sac studied in preparation for taking the civil service examinations, his wife, Loan, as was the custom, tended the rice fields and raised the children. According to the recollections of her contemporaries, she was diligent and family oriented, both traditional Confucian virtues, but she was also gifted and intellectually curious. She had some acquaintance with Vietnamese literature and often lulled her children to sleep with traditional folk songs or by reciting passages from Nguyen Du's famous verse classic Truyen Kieu (The Tale of Kieu), a poignant story of two lovers caught in the web of traditional morality.
In 1891, Nguyen Sinh Sac traveled to the provincial capital of Vinh to sit in candidacy for the tu tai, but he failed to pass. His performance was sufficiently encouraging, however, for him to continue his studies after his return home, and to teach classes to local children in his home to help support the family. When his father-in-law, Master Duong, died in 1893, adding to the family's financial burdens, Sac was forced to delay his preparations for retaking the examination. While his older sister helped with the household chores, little Nguyen Sinh Cung enjoyed himself, playing in the fields or roaming around his father's school. At night, before being placed in his hammock, his grandmother read him local tales of heroism. Cung was intelligent and curious, quick to absorb knowledge.
In May 1894, Sac took the examinations in Vinh a second time and received the grade of cu nhan, or "recommended man," a level higher than the tu tai and the equivalent of a master of arts degree. The achievement was unusual for a local scholar, and on his return to Hoang Tru village he was offered a small plot of land as a traditional reward given by the community to successful candidates in the civil service examinations. Since he had only three acres of rice land as part of his wife's dowry, Sac accepted, but he refused offers to arrange an expensive banquet in his honor, preferring instead to distribute water buffalo meat to poor villagers.
It was commonplace for recipients of the prestigious cu nhan degree to seek an official position in the imperial bureaucracy, thus "honoring the self and enriching the family" (vinh thanh phi gia), but Nguyen Sinh Sac preferred to continue his studies while earning a modest income as a local instructor of the classics. In the hallowed Confucian tradition of wifely sacrificein the expressive Vietnamese phrase, vong anh di truoc, vong nang theo sau, or "the carriage of the husband goes before, that of his wife after"Hoang Thi Loan continued to work in the family's rice fields while raising the family.
In the spring of 1895, Nguyen Sinh Sac traveled to Hué to take the imperial examinations (thi hoi), the highest level of academic achievement in the Confucian educational system. He did not pass but decided to remain in the city in order to enter the Imperial Academy (Quoc tu Giam) in preparation for a second effort. The academy, whose origins dated back to the early years of national independence in Hanoi, served as a training place sponsored by the court for aspiring candidates for the imperial bureaucracy. Sac had no funds to pay his tuition or room and board, but fortunately the school offered a few modest scholarships to help defray living costs and with the assistance of a friend he was able to obtain one. Sac returned briefly to Nghe An to bring Loan and their two sons back to Hué, so that his wife could seek work to help the family meet expenses.
In those days, the trip from the Nghe An provincial capital of Vinh to Hué was both arduous and dangerous. The journey lasted about a month, and the road wound through dense forest and over mountains infested by bandits. It was quicker and more comfortable to travel by sea, but to poor villagers like Nguyen Sinh Sac, the cost of passage by ship was prohibitive. The family thus decided to make the trip on foot, covering at most about thirty kilometers a day and walking in groups with several other travelers for protection against bandits and wild animals. With his short legs, the five-year-old Cung found it difficult to keep up the pace, so his father sometimes carried him, entertaining him with stories of mythical creatures and the heroic figures of the Vietnamese past.
Hué, originally known as Phu Xuan, had once been the headquarters of the Nguyen lords who had ruled the southern half of the country during the two centuries of civil war. After the founding of the Nguyen dynasty in 1802, Emperor Gia Long had decided to transfer the capital there from its traditional location in the Red River valley as a means of demonstrating his determination to reunify the entire country under Nguyen rule. A small market town nestled on the banks of the Perfume River about midway between the two major river deltas, it had become an administrative center after becoming the seat of the imperial court, but was still much smaller in size than the traditional capital of Hanoi (then known as Thang Long), and probably contained a population of fewer than ten thousand inhabitants.
After arriving, undoubtedly exhausted, in Hué, Nguyen Sinh Sac was able to arrange temporary lodgings at the house of a friend. Eventually, however, the family moved into a small apartment located on Mai Thuc Loan Street, not far from the eastern wall of the imperial city, on the northern bank of the Perfume River. The Imperial Academy was located on the southern bank, about seven kilometers west of the city. But Sac seldom attended school, spending most of his time studying at home. In his spare time he taught the classics to his own boys and the children of local officials. Reflecting the intense respect for education that characterized Confucian societies, he put extra pressure on his sons, admonishing them to study hard and pay strict attention to their calligraphy. According to the accounts of neighbors, little Cung had already begun to display a lively interest in the world around him, joining his brother to watch the imperial troops perform their drills and trying to sneak into the imperial city for a closer look inside. Observing a royal procession as it left the palace on one ceremonial occasion, he returned home to ask his mother whether the emperor had injured his leg. When asked why he had posed the question, Cung replied that he had just seen the ruler being carried by bearers in a sedan chair.
In 1898, Sac failed in his second attempt to pass the metropolitan examination and decided to accept temporary employment as a teacher at a neighborhood school in the hamlet of Duong No, just east of the city. His wife, Loan, remained in the apartment in Hué to supplement the family's meager income by weaving and taking in washing. The school at Duong No had been founded by a well-to-do local farmer, who gave permission for Sac's own two sons to attend the classes. It was apparently at that time that the boys were first exposed to the Confucian classics in the Chinese language.
In August 1900, Sac was appointed by the imperial court to serve as a clerk for the provincial examinations in Thanh Hoa, a provincial capital almost five hundred kilometers north of the imperial capital. The assignment was considered an honor, since cu nhan were not usually allowed to serve as proctors. Sac's elder son, Khiem, went with him; Cung remained with his mother in Hué. On his return from Thanh Hoa to Hué, Sac stopped briefly in his home village of Kim Lien to build a tomb for his parents.
The decision was costly. Back in Hué, his wife had given birth to her fourth child, a boy named Nguyen Sinh Xin (from xin, meaning literally "to beg"). But the ordeal weakened her already fragile constitution, and despite the help of a local doctor she became ill and died on February 10, 1901. Neighbors later recalled that during the Têt (the local version of the lunar new year) holidays, the young Cung ran crying from house to house asking for milk to feed the baby, and that for weeks his normally sunny disposition turned somber.
On hearing the news of his wife's death, Sac returned immediately to Hué to pick up his children and take them back to Hoang Tru village, where he resumed his teaching. For a while, young Cung continued to study with his father, but eventually Sac sent him to a distant relative on his mother's side, a scholar named Vuong Thuc Do. By then, little Cung had begun to make significant progress in his studies. He was able to recognize quite a few Chinese charactersthe essential medium for a Confucian education and still used to write the colloquial Vietnamese languageand enjoyed practicing them. It was clear that the boy was quick-witted and curious, but his father was concerned that he sometimes neglected his studies and sought out other amusements. Cung's new instructor may have been some help in that regard. Vuong Thuc Do genuinely loved his students and reportedly never beat themapparently quite unusual in his dayand he regaled his proteges with stories of the righteous heroes of the past, one of whom was his own older brother, who had fought with Phan Dinh Phung's Can Vuong movement against the French.
After a few months in Hoang Tru, Sac returned to Hué; his mother-in-law, Nguyen Thi Kep, kept the children. Sac's daughter, Nguyen Thi Thanh, who had stayed in the village with her grandmother when the rest of the family moved to Hué, was now fully grown but had not married, so she remained at home to reduce the burden on the family. Cung helped out in the house and garden, but still had time to play. In summertime he joined his friends in fishing in the local ponds, flying kites (many years later, local residents would recall that when on windless days many of his friends quickly grew discouraged, Cung would still try to keep his kite in the air), and climbing the many hills in the vicinity. The most memorable was Mount Chung, on the summit of which sat the temple of Nguyen Duc Du, a general of the thirteenth century who had fought against an invading Mongol army. It was here, too, where the patriotic scholar Vuong Thuc Mau, at whose doorstep Sac had first discovered his love of learning years before, had formed a band of rebels in 1885 to fight under the banner of the Can Vuong movement. From the heights of Mount Chung, climbers had a breathtaking view of rice fields, stands of bamboo and palm trees, and the long blue-gray line of the mountains to the west. There was only one sad interlude in this, the happiest period of young Cung's childhood. His younger brother Xin continued to be sickly, and died at the age of only one year.
Back in Hué, Nguyen Sinh Sac applied to retake the imperial examinations and this time he earned the degree of doctorate, second class (known in Vietnamese as pho bang). The news caused a sensation in Hoang Tru, as well as in Sac's native village of Kim Lien. Since the mid-seventeenth century, the villages in their area had reportedly produced almost two hundred bachelor's and master's degree holders, but he was the first to earn the pho bang degree. On his return, the residents of Hoang Tru planned a ceremonial entry into the village, but Sac, whose dislike of pomp and circumstance was now becoming pronounced, again declined the honor. Despite his protests, the village arranged a banquet to celebrate the occasion. At his request, however, some of the food was distributed to the poor.
According to tradition, the honor of claiming a successful examination candidate went to the home village of the candidate's father. In Sac's case, of course, this meant that the village that could now label itself "a civilized spot, a literary location" (dat van vat, chon thi tu) was his father's birthplace of Kim Lien, rather than Hoang Tru, where he now resided. To reward their native son, the local authorities of Kim Lien had used public funds to erect a small wood and thatch house on public land to entice him to live there. Sac complied, using it as a new home for himself and his three surviving children. It was slightly larger than his house in Hoang Tru, consisting of three living rooms, with one room reserved for the family water buffalo and a small room containing an altar for Hoang Thi Loan. A couple of acres of rice land were included with the house, as well as a small garden, where Sac planted sweet potatoes.
The award of apho bang degree was a signal honor in traditional Vietnamese society and often brought the recipient both fame and fortune, usually in the form of an official career. Nguyen Sinh Sac, however, had no desire to pursue a career in the bureaucracy, especially in a time of national humiliation. Refusing the offer of an official appointment at court on the grounds that he was still in mourning for the death of his wife, Sac decided to stay in Kim Lien, where he opened a small school to teach the classics. The monetary rewards for such work were minimal, and Sac contributed to his financial difficulties by giving generously to the poor residents in the village. Sac did adopt one concession to his new status, however, taking on the new name Nguyen Sinh Huy, or "born to honor."
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