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Issues of poverty and poor relief in colonial Northern Vietnam : the interaction between colonial modernism and elite Vietnamese thinking Nguyen-Marshall, Van


This dissertation explores the discourses on poverty in Colonial Vietnam. Based on French-language archival material and Vietnamese-language literary and journalistic sources, the dissertation examines both the French colonial administration's and Vietnamese intellectuals' conceptualization and representation of poverty and poor relief. While both the French and Vietnamese discourses on poverty diverged in their analyses of the problem, they both vied for moral authority in the domain of poverty relief. This dissertation, therefore, contributes to the Postmodernist argument that poverty is a socially constructed concept, revealing more about the elite than the poor of whom they wrote. Within the French colonial rhetoric one justification for colonial rule was the improvement of the material condition of Indochina. Poor relief fell within the purview of the French 'civilizing' mission, the official doctrine for French Imperialism. The colonial agenda, racial prejudices, and the French administrators' own ambivalent attitudes toward the poor made any attempt at poor relief doomed for failure. While poor relief functioned as a justification for the French presence in Indochina, when wielded by Vietnamese intellectuals the discourse on poverty became a rallying call for patriotism, nationalism, and for some, anti-colonialism. In the hands of the politically conservative intellectuals poverty became a problem connected with Vietnam's 'backward' culture and society. In the 1930s as the issue of poverty became more urgent, Vietnamese journalists and novelists began to explore critically the impact of poverty on their society. Literature of this period presented a compelling argument about the corrosive effect of poverty on Vietnamese society, and it subtly implicated French colonialism in the cause of poverty. By the late 1930s, left-wing writers took the discussion further to analyze the causes of poverty. Their writings left no doubt as to their conviction that colonialism and capitalism were responsible for the impoverishment of their society. In examining the various competing discourses on poverty among elite Vietnamese writers, this dissertation shows the diversity among the elite as well as the intellectual dynamism of the period as Vietnamese intellectuals grappled with the global forces of colonialism and capitalism. While Vietnamese intellectuals exhibited a modernist faith that poverty could be eradicated, and thought of themselves as modern, their own idealized society, a van minh (civilized) society was based on Confucian values, such as social harmony and responsibility.

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