written by Todd DePastino

Vietnamese resistance soldiers in French Indochina

Before the arrival of the French, Vietnam was a feudal land made up of villages of subsistence farmers.

The French began to dismantle this feudal system in the early 20th century, and the upheaval they wrought eventually exploded in Revolution.

Feudalism is a strange way of life for modern Americans to consider. It’s a system where the nation-state is weak, property rights are fuzzy, and there’s little mobility, social or geographical.

Under feudalism, land is controlled by land lords, but isn’t owned by them outright. Peasants have customary non-proprietary claims on land. That is, they can farm it, and their children can farm it, but they also owe rent. But if they can’t pay, peasants can’t be evicted.

On the flip side, land lords collect rent and compel peasants to serve in their labor gangs and armies. But the lords also have heavy obligations to maintain the general welfare of the villages under their charge. Above all, land lords are to shield peasants from the ravages of famine.

There’s perpetual tension between lords and peasants under feudalism. Lords are always trying to reduce their obligations. And peasants are always trying to squeeze more from their lords. Most of the time, there’s an uneasy equilibrium between the two. But every once in a while, something happens to jolt the system, break the balance, and tip the whole society to upheaval. Lords start abandoning their duties, and peasants revolt.

That’s what happened when the French took over in Vietnam.

The French sought to modernize Indochina and dismantle the traditional feudalistic social structure of the peasant village. They wanted to incorporate the colony into their own modern, market capitalist industrial system. And they wanted to do it fast.

Other peasant economies across time and around the globe have faced similar disruptions. But those ruptures usually took place slowly, over a century or more, and within the context of a unifying nation-state. In Vietnam, the change was imposed by a foreign imperial power over a scant 30 years. No wonder the backlash was ferocious.

The single most disruptive aspect of the new French social and economic system was its absolutist position on private property. Under the French, those who held legal title to property—the land lords—could do with their property as they pleased, regardless of customary tenancies and copyholds. And owning village land didn’t entail ancillary obligations to its residents. Feudalism’s paternalistic social contract had kept the system in unequal balance. The French tore up the contract, and the relationship between lord and peasant was reduced to a market transaction.

One of the first things to go under the French were the Commons, commonly-owned land held in reserve by every village for social insurance. The French oversaw the breakup of common lands throughout Indochina, mostly through auction and sale of the lands to land lords.

The French also introduced a new system of taxation that devastated the peasantry. Peasants had always paid taxes. But, under the Emperor, tax rates were on a sliding scale, collection schedules were irregular, and payment was left up to the village as a whole, not households.

The French showed no such flexibility, but imposed fixed rates uniformly over the country. They taxed each head of household, not each village. Under the old imperial system, the Emperor’s Taxman would arrive to the village and negotiate payment from the village elders who would, in turn, levy families based on ability to pay.

The French sliced through this deliberative process and imposed taxes on each head, stripping the village of its prerogatives and its power.

Finally, the French insisted that taxes be paid in cash, not in kind. Under the old imperial system, rice wine, salt, or rice itself might be used to pay tribute to the Emperor. But the French mandated that taxes be paid in piastres, cash money that peasants had rarely seen, let alone handled.

Peasants now had two options for earning cash: sell surplus rice on the market or go to work as a wage laborer.

Before the French arrived, peasants sold or bartered their rice on local markets only. The number of farmers trading was limited, and prices were stable. You always knew how much of a surplus you needed to take care of your family’s needs.

No longer. The French created a whole new marketplace for rice by orienting rice production primarily for export. Now, when a peasant took rice to market, that rice was competing with rice from Burma, Thailand, and elsewhere around the world. The price of rice plummeted locally in Vietnam, especially through the 1920s. By 1930, Vietnam was one of the leading rice exporters in the world, and prices had fallen so low, rare was the peasant who could grow enough of a surplus to meet a family’s needs.

Instead, peasants sold themselves on the marketplace to get cash. Hiring out their labor for wages meant they couldn’t tend to their own fields. Over time, peasant families lost their land.

By 1930, millions of Vietnamese peasants had entered indentured servitude to pay their debts. Then, as servants, they entered the coal, zinc, tin, and copper mines or worked on tea and rice plantations. Hundreds of thousands ended up on the massive massive rubber plantations located mostly in the South. Any one of these destinations was akin to a death sentence. Untold numbers died on the job.

What had been called Vietnam was in free fall. Seventy percent of the peasant population was landless. Whole families of beggars roamed country roads until they collapsed. French postcards, such as the one featuring LES MANGEURS DE POUX EN FAMILLE (A Family of Lice Eaters), painted the calamity as local color.

The Revolts of 1930 aren’t surprising. They limits of what they tried to achieve, however, are. The rebels, for all their outrage and violence, remained intensely local. They never tried to link up in a nationwide movement, never presented a unified front against their colonial oppressors. Instead, they thought small. They seized weapons and rice stocks, killed their land lords, and began farming their land again. It’s as if all they wanted was to turn the clocks back to a time before the French, when life was perilous but predictable.

A case in point are the villages of Nghe An and Ha Thinh, neighboring provinces which saw the largest, most numerous, and most violent uprisings. The provinces were starving. People had resorted to peeling the bark off trees. Being peasants, they marched to the provincial capital of Vinh to deliver a petition for relief. Thinking it an attack, the French sent a squadron of airplanes and dropped six bombs on the marchers, killing 200 people. Another small party reappeared hours later to retrieve the bodies and they, too, were bombed, killing another 15 or so.

That’s when the peasants erupted. They seized an arsenal, grabbed weapons, attacked a French garrison, killed colonial officials and their Vietnamese collaborators, seized warehouses filled with rice and retreated to their villages and stared farming.

Nine months later, in 1931, French troops occupied the province and executed some 10,000 rebel leaders.

Hundreds of miles away in a Hong Kong prison cell, a Vietnamese Communist leader and native of Nghe An, Nguyen Ai Quoc, heard about the collapse of the revolts and understood just how far his compatriots needed to go until they were ready to overthrow the French. The will to revolt was there, as were the numbers. The problem, he knew, was that they were still thinking small, like peasants. They hadn’t yet broken free of their loyalty to the village. To succeed in driving out the French for good, the peasants would need to be rallied around a new, bigger object of loyalty, Vietnam. What was missing from the revolts of 1930-31, in other words, was nationalism.

Instilling a love of nation into peasants is the tallest of orders. Nothing in the peasant experience promotes a sense of nationhood. To peasants, remember, be-all-and-end-all is the village. The village is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. It is everything.

A nation? To peasants, it can only mean an Emperor or other strongman demanding tribute and giving nothing in return. No good, peasants believed, can come from a nation.

Building national attachment takes time or wrenching crisis, or both. Italy didn’t become a nation until the 1870s. Same with Germany.

And what of the United States? We may say we became a nation in the American Revolution or, perhaps, with the ratification of the US Constitution. But, it’s probably more accurate to say that the United States became a singular noun only after 1865, when a Civil War settled the matter.

Nationalism is a historical project, a goal developed and promoted by a special segment of society capable of thinking and imagining belonging across great distances. Nationalists are moderns who live in cities and engage in long-distance trade.  They’re not bound to the land or to any particular town, village or province. They see the interconnectedness of regions woven together by railroads, telegraph cables, and networks of credit and commerce. To make a nation, you need the infrastructure—the modern methods of transportation and communication—to make a nation possible.

Such an infrastructure is exactly what France had created in Vietnam—the necessary and sufficient conditions for the blossoming of nationalism.

One of the first to recognize this was a man named Phan Boi Chau, Vietnam’s first modern nationalist.

Phan wasn’t a peasant. He was urban, highly educated, and well traveled. He had worked for the Emperor and the French. And he saw clearly that the French had created the material conditions for Vietnam to become a nation. They had built railroads, roads, and bridges to connect Vietnam from one end to the other. They had brought modern banking and communications to Vietnam, dredged ports and rivers. And they had introduced French ideas of nationhood and revolution.

“L’oppression nous vient de France,” said Phan in French, “mais l’esprit de libération aussi.” “Oppression comes from France, but also the spirit of liberation.”

Phan’s anti-colonial program involved embracing modernity, seizing the wealth and industry France had introduced. Becoming free, he said, didn’t mean turning back the clock or going back to the rule of the Emperor. It meant Vietnam taking its place among the modern independent nations of the world.  Vietnam could only achieve its independence, argued Phan, with people like him—the urban educated class—in charge of the movement.

Phan Boi Chau’s movement was a disaster. Hounded by the French police, imprisoned for a time in what would become known as the Hanoi Hilton, Phan spent the last 15 years of his life under house arrest. “My history,” he wrote, “is entirely a history of failure . . . But there is no doubt that our nation will achieve independence eventually. . . . Now there are people more able than I am . . . Have you ever heard of Nguyen Ai Quoc?”

Phan Boi Chau understood that his movement had failed because it excluded 90% of the Vietnamese population, the peasants. He also knew that anyone who could somehow mobilize the peasantry for a war of independence against the French could succeed.

That mobilization would be the historic mission of Nguyen Ai Quoc, the man later known as Ho Chi Minh.