Interview with Prof. George Dutton on colonialism and Vietnamese Catholicism

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you work on?

I am a professor of Vietnamese history and Southeast Asian studies in the UCLA Department of Languages and Cultures. I am also the Director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies. I’ve been engaging with Southeast Asia since 1987, when I traveled to the region for the first time as an exchange student at the National University of Singapore, a program I selected mostly on a whim. I felt in love with the region, and decided to pursue graduate work, first at Yale, and then at the University of Washington (Seattle), where I received a Ph.D. in Southeast Asian History. I work on Vietnamese history broadly speaking, with a focus on social and cultural history from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. I’ve written two books, one about an 18th-century popular uprising, and a second about an 18th-century Vietnamese Catholic priest (Father Philiphê Bỉnh). I’ve also written articles on topics ranging from early modern military technology to language change to the impact of advertising on Vietnamese modernity. I teach courses on Vietnamese history, but also Southeast Asian more broadly including ones on religion, upland populations across the mainland, and on Southeast Asian literature from the late 19th century to the present.

Casa Do Espirito Santo, where Father Binh lived from 1807 until his death in 1833 (now an upscale mall and high-end hotel).

Why did you decide to study Vietnam? 

My decision to study Vietnam was driven partly by a personal connection when I was very young, accompanying my parents to anti-war protests in the early 1970s, and partly by the fact that I was intrigued by a country that had been substantially isolated after the war. My first visit was in 1990, when I was working as an intern at a Washington, D.C. non-profit, and it inspired me to begin Vietnamese language classes and to make Vietnam the focus of my academic training. I was part of the second big wave of Vietnam historians being trained in the United States. The first emerged from Cornell in the early 1990s, while my generation received our degrees in the late 1990s and early 2000s. All of us now train and have trained further generations of Vietnam specialists in the United States, and the field is now much stronger in North America than it was two decades ago.

Do you think it’s possible to separate missionary work, religion, globalisation and colonialism? To what extent do you think notions of coloniality existed in association with Catholicism?

It is absolutely impossible to separate those things. Missionary work is, of course, religious on the face of it, but it is also always a cultural project. Missionaries introduce local communities to their faith, but also bring with them the cultural elements that they associate with the practice of whatever religion they are propagating. In terms of the association of coloniality and Catholicism, I think there was always at least an implicit sense of the Catholic missions as a kind of colonizing project. Not always in a political sense (though the Philippines are an important exception), but certainly in a cultural sense. The missionary efforts to convert and baptise Vietnamese went hand in hand with a range of cultural changes. This isn’t to say that missionaries steamrollered local cultural practices and customs, but they did engage in various forms of iconoclasm and suppression of culture in the name of their faith. Globalisation is also bound up with these things, though it is far more complicated. I am always a bit skeptical of the rather careless way in which this term is frequently used, namely as a radically new and recent phenomenon. On the contrary, I see globalisation–a phenomenon involving movement of peoples, ideas, ideologies, and cultural elements–as something with much deeper historical roots. While one can point to many historical examples, one needs only to consider the spread of Buddhism as a manifestation of what I’d consider globalisation more than two millennia ago. Buddhist monks travelled by boat and on foot across all parts of Asia, bringing with them language, religion, culture, and leaving their mark over a significant portion of the globe. While such cultural and population dispersion might happen more quickly these days, the reality is that this phenomenon has been with us for a very long time.

The fields and a church in the area in northern Vietnam where Binh was born and raised.

With the missionaries came stories of saints, archetypes, and ideas of the biblical patriarchy, etc. How was the issue of language and representation in Catholicism negotiated between missionaries and natives?

This is an enormously complicated topic, but as with any movement of ideas, there was a constant and complex process of the “translation” of European Catholic ideas, terms, and beliefs into Vietnamese contexts. These were rendered in local languages, both spoken and written, and then apprehended in different ways by local populations. Some of the core liturgical terms were translated in the course of extensive consultations amongst missionaries, while of course much of the translating of stories, tales, and texts was carried out by European missionaries who had developed skills in the vernacular Vietnamese script as well as the traditional Chinese characters most commonly used to write Vietnamese texts prior to the twentieth century. Vietnamese informants assisted in some of these translation exercises, but power lay in the hands of the European clergy. While seemingly a minor issue, language was often at the heart of fierce debates and struggles. In the case of Father Binh’s community, a core point of contention was how to pronounce the word “grace.” Portuguese Jesuits had allowed Vietnamese to pronounce it “garasa” (inserting a vowel between the initial G and R, because of the difficulty Vietnamese had in saying the “gr” dipthong. Later, Spanish Dominicans displaced the Jesuits and insisted that to be properly sanctified, the word had to be pronounced “gracia,” removing the extra A. Those who did not say it “correctly” would be denied access to the sacraments, despite Father Binh’s irrefutable argument that the modified pronunciation had been perfectly fine for a century and a half. This illustrates how words could often lay at the heart of fraught religious disputes.

The final entry in Father Binh’s last book (written in January of 1833, shortly before his death).

In your research on Philiphê Bỉnh, what were your most surprising or memorable findings?

One of the joys of this project was in reading Father Binh’s notebooks in his own hand. Much of the research for my earlier book project involved using modern versions of old texts, or recopied manuscripts with no direct connection to the person who created them. In reading Father Binh’s notebooks, which are preserved in the Vatican Library, I got a sense of him as a person, of how he wrote, how he organized his thoughts, and how he conceived of his project. Above all, the project enabled me to get a sense of Father Binh as a person, rather than merely as an abstract historical figure. His passions, his amusements, his anger, his emotions came through in the pages of his writings, and I tried to convey that in writing my book. Prior to the 19th century, there are very few Vietnamese historical figures for whom we have enough detail to really get a sense of who they were and how they lived, and that is particularly true for what one might call ordinary people. At some level, Father Binh was an ordinary person, from a modest background, and to be able to use my book to breathe life into his story was a real joy.

You raised so many interesting ideas about spatial, temporal and cultural geographies. How can we see space as a point of conflict and collaboration? 

Space, in the terrestrial sense, is so often a point of conflict. The need to delineate boundaries, and then to guard the territory within that bounded space lies at the root of so much global violence. European colonialism was perhaps only the most dramatic example of this impulse, one driven by the sense of a finite planet up for grabs in which each power sought to claim what territory it could before its rivals could do the same. This violent impulse was propelled by greed and then cloaked in hypocritical moralism. It took decades and the deaths of millions to unwind territorial colonialism, even as the effects linger around the world. Space as a site of collaboration in Southeast Asia is possible, but remains distinctly challenging. There is a growing awareness, now in the early twenty-first century, of a shared regional situatedness that demands cooperation: to protect the Mekong from the disastrous consequences of dam construction, to protect region-wide wildlife against overhunting and habitat destruction, to avoid calamitous burning practices that smother the region in suffocating smoke, to address transborder migration driven by unequal economic opportunity. Unfortunately, awareness does not automatically translate into action, and too often narrow national interests trump broader, but necessary actions. Local activism can help, but the challenges remain enormous. Ultimately, collaboration across the region must be understood as a necessity, not an option, and I hope that this understanding is reached before it is too late.

How do you see Vietnamese mission work as situated within a broader movement, and within Southeast Asia?

The renovated graves of Binh’s sisters and a brother.

Well, Vietnamese missionary activity was obviously part of a much larger European Catholic evangelizing endeavor across Southeast Asia. There were missionaries present in most countries of the region, with varying degrees of impact. Little real impact was seen across the Theravada countries of the mainland, where Buddhism was already fully established and seemed more than adequate to meet people’s spiritual needs. There was some modest success in a few Portuguese colonial port cities, such as Malacca, Macau, and Goa, and then of course in East Timor and a few other outposts in the eastern Indonesian archipelago. The major Catholic success, of course, was in the Philippines, which was both a colony and a mission field. The Philippine case is actually very closely linked to the Vietnamese mission project. Proximity meant that Vietnamese men interested in clerical training would often travel to Manila to attend Dominican seminaries there. It also meant that Spanish Dominican missionaries and clergy were part of the European missionary project in Vietnam, and Spanish Dominicans continued to serve as bishops in parts of Tonkin (northern Vietnam) throughout the entire French Colonial period. In fact, the last Spanish Dominican bishop of Eastern Tonkin was not replaced by a Vietnamese cleric until 1952. In short, Vietnamese missionary history is closely bound up not only with that found in other parts of Southeast Asia (and especially the Philippines), but also that in China, where Jesuit evangelizers were also very active in the early modern period, and where Portuguese Macao represented a nexus for both China-based and Vietnam-based missionaries.

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