- Mandarins and Martyrs: The Church and the Nguyen Dynasty in Early Nineteenth-Century Vietnam
Ramsay’s monograph analyzes the relationships among Vietnam’s Nguyen Dynasty, missionary Catholicism represented by the Paris-based Foreign Missions Society, and the Catholic communities of southern Vietnam between 1802—the founding of the Nguyen Dynasty—and 1867—France’s annexation of southern Vietnam’s “Six Provinces.” Exploiting dynastic annals and other primary Vietnamese sources as well as newly available missionary sources, Ramsey aims to reshape scholarly understanding in three ways. First, he tries to present preconquest Vietnamese Catholicism as a “popular religion” that had blended into local society. Second, he seeks to refine generally accepted motivations for Nguyen repression of Catholicism by stressing the dynasty’s “restoration” ideology and centralizing agenda rather than inculcation of “Confucianism” per se. Third, he attempts to demonstrate that the separation of Catholic and nonconvert Vietnamese into hostile communities dates from the conquest—not before.
Regarding the first theme, Ramsey asserts that preconquest Catholic villagers were integrated into Vietnamese society by showing that, throughout southern Vietnam, they often lived among nonconvert co-villagers, although no scholarly monograph maintains that Catholics always lived apart. However, he does not address arguments by Nicole-Dominique Lê in Les Missions-Étrangères et la pénétration française au Viet-Nam (Paris, 1975) and Ta-Chi Dai-Truong in Lich su noi chien Viet Nam [History of the Vietnamese Civil War] (Saigon, 1973) that Catholic villagers often provoked the ire of nonconvert neighbors by refusing to pay taxes to support villagelevel rituals that Catholics considered “superstitious” and withdrawing to form new hamlets or villages, thus increasing the charges levied on nonconvert inhabitants. Ramsey does, however, demonstrate variety in Nguyen officials’ views: some were less than ardent in their anti-Catholicism and primarily interested in preserving peace in their bailiwicks.
As to the second theme, motivations for Nguyen-era anti-Catholic repression, Ramsey criticizes previous scholars for emphasizing ideological antagonisms between Confucianism and Catholicism. He stresses instead the dynasty’s need to assert legitimacy via the dissemination of a “restoration” thesis that represented the events of 1802 as continuity, its centralization programs [End Page 647] launched in the 1830s, and its beliefs that Catholicism “intoxicated” Vietnamese subjects, causing them to reject imperial authority. Ramsey underestimates the complexity of existing interpretations such as those of Lê, in the work previously cited, or of Vo Duc Hanh, in La Place du Catholicisme dans les relations entre la France et le Viet-nam (Leiden, 1969), which are multicausational and nuanced. In addition to considering the causes Ramsey propounds, these scholars take seriously the dynasty’s reactions to the facts that some missionaries called for French intervention (which Ramsey admits) and some Vietnamese Catholics facilitated the mid-century invasions (which he denies).Yet both points have been documented in existing works with reference to French archival sources in which the officers who commanded the 1858 attacks recorded their debts to the Catholic Vietnamese who had come to their aid. These facts may be inconvenient, but they cannot be wished away as “largely unsubstantiated by primary evidence” (p. 140). Dismissing these events as significant causes of the Nguyen Dynasty’s mid-century anti- Catholic edicts and declining to examine relevant French archival records, Ramsey offers a very narrow view of the motivations for repression. Ramsey nonetheless expands our understanding of the repression’s impact, showing how accounts of “persecution” were published in France, stimulating public support for missionary activity, which brought to Vietnam more missionaries with more resources to protect Catholic communities via the bribing of local officials. However, these protections collapsed with France’s 1858 invasion, as pressures from above proved too strong for local officials to resist, leading to massacres, for example, at Bien-hoa.
The third theme, that Vietnamese followers of Catholicism, an integrated popular religion, were transformed into an isolated community antagonistically related to nonconvert Vietnamese by France’s conquest and colonization, is problematic since the other...