- Post-Mandarin: Masculinity and Aesthetic Modernity in Colonial Vietnam by Ben Tran
Ben Tran's Post-Mandarin: Masculinity and Aesthetic Modernity in Colonial Vietnam offers a much-needed study that reassesses, in the light of gender and modernism, the controversial works and literary contribution of six Vietnamese pre-war novelists. In his Introduction, Tran contextualizes the emergence of the new generation of Vietnamese intellectuals and of modern Vietnamese literature as the result of the rapid modernization of Vietnam in the colonial period. This included a French educational reform in the 1920s that saw not only the mass introduction of the Romanized quôć-ngũ' script in indigenous schools, but also the development of journalism and the print culture which contributed to the popularization of this new writing form among the young native elites. No longer trained in Chinese classical literature and faced with the need to create a new national literature corresponding to their colonial modern reality, these intellectuals—for whom Tran aptly coins the term "post-mandarin"—broke away from the centuries-old literary tradition that had nurtured their fathers' mandarinate careers, to turn to quôć-ngũ' prose writing in their search for a new aesthetic form of literary expression capable of accounting for and addressing the forces of modernization that were rocking the very foundation of the society in which they lived. [End Page 627]
Mass education in quôć-ngũ' also played a major role in creating a new generation of modern, educated women whose desire for individual freedom and personal autonomy no longer required them to accept the submissive role, the inferior status, and the many Confucian constraints—social, familial, moral, sexual—that the old society had imposed on them. Tran suggests that the conflict between tradition and colonial modernity, as it played out in the modernization of the native women, became a phenomenon that captured the interest and fascination of the post-mandarin male writers who then set out to speak about and for them. Furthermore, he argues, by placing the representation of modern women and the formation of modern feminine subjectivity at the center of their narratives, these authors were led to question their own roles and agency in relation to women as well as their own masculinity. Based on this argument, Tran proposes that female sexuality and the way it triggered sexual anxiety in these male intellectuals constituted the very site of modernity where discourses of gender, nationalism, and modernity overlapped. It was these discourses, declares Tran, that gave birth to the Vietnamese aesthetic modernity, a concept that, drawing from Jacques Rancière's theory of modernism, he reconceptualizes in terms of the prosaic, which he understands as encompassing both novelistic realism and nonfictional reportage.
To substantiate his thesis, Tran focuses on the works of six post-mandarin novelists: Nhâ´t Linh (Đo. an Tuy. êt), Khái Hu'ng (Nửa Chừng Xuân), Th. ach Lam (Hà N. ôi Ban Đêm), Tam Lang (Tôi Kéo Xe), Vũ Tr. ong Ph. ung (Làm Đ˜ı, Sô´ Đỏ) and Nguy˜ên Công Hoan (Kép Tu' Bê`n, Nhân Tình Tôi). While the rationale behind the selection of these particular authors and their novels is not made explicit, Tran does use their classification by genre in Vietnam's communist historiography to propose his own reading of these writers in terms of their representations of women and modernity. (In that earlier historiography, the first three authors of the Self-Strengthening Literary Group were labeled "degenerated romanticists," the last three "critical realists"). Tran organizes his book into five interconnected chapters. In the first two chapters, he brings to the forefront the connections between Th. ach Lam and Vũ Tr. ong Ph. ung based on their innovative exploitations of the reportage genre and their focus on the life and experiences of Vietnamese female prostitutes.
In his compelling and insightful first chapter, Tran analyzes Th. ach Lam's lesser-known reportage Hà N. ôi Ban Đêm (1933), adopting an ethnographic approach to...