Kelly Nguyen: Decolonizing the Classics in and beyond Vietnam

Published February 3, 2021.

Kelly Nguyen is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Classics and a 2020–2021 Cogut Institute Graduate Fellow. Her dissertation,“Vercingetorix in Vietnam: Classical Inheritance and Vietnamese Ambivalence,” explores the negotiation of Western imperialism, as mediated by Greco-Roman antiquity, by French-educated Vietnamese communities from the late-19th to the mid-20th century. She is the inaugural recipient of the Society for Classical Studies’ Erich S. Gruen Prize for the best graduate research paper on multiculturalism in the ancient Mediterranean. She received her B.A. from Stanford University in 2012 where she double majored in Archaeology and Classics (honors, highest distinction).

How did you come to focus on the history of Greco-Roman classics in Vietnam as a research topic?

Classics has long been perceived as the privileged inheritance of white European culture and continues to be appropriated by modern hate groups. That I will be the first woman (not to mention, woman of color) to graduate from the program of Ancient History in the Department of Classics here at Brown University is no coincidence — it is a result of a larger systemic issue, rooted in Eurocentrism and elitism, endemic to the field. My research emerged from the belief that Classicists have an ethical obligation to decolonize the discipline and to make the field more accessible to those whom it has traditionally excluded.

In recent years, many studies in classical reception have countered Classics’ Eurocentrism by demonstrating how marginalized communities, including those in the Global South, have engaged with Greek and Roman antiquity. My project contributes to this powerful movement — which could perhaps be called “Critical Classical Reception” after the phrase coined by my advisor Johanna Hanink — not only by unearthing a forgotten history of Vietnamese intellectualism, but also by exposing the structural inequities that sanctioned that erasure.

Why did the French colonizers make the classics a cornerstone of their educational policies in Vietnam?

In Vietnam, French colonial administrators struggled between assimilationist and associationist approaches to educational policies. The former was more aligned with la mission civilisatrice, the messianic belief that it was France’s duty to spread its universal values throughout the world, as it attempted to inculcate colonial subjects into French culture. The latter was rooted in racist ideologies and pseudoscience that insisted on the inability of non-European races to assimilate to “Western civilization.”

Under assimilationist policies, French schools were opened in Vietnam that were modeled on those in the metropole, which were themselves steeped in the Greek and Roman classical tradition. This new curriculum served dual purposes: to teach the foundation of “Western civilization” (i.e. Greek and Roman antiquity) and to sever the ties between Vietnam and China by replacing the Sino-Vietnamese classics with the Greco-Roman canon. However, as the French colonists grew wary of Vietnamese ambition, their assimilationist approach quickly gave way to an associationist one that tried to strike a balance between eradicating Chinese influence and limiting French education.

French colonial administrators used the Greco-Roman classical tradition to uphold the colonial hierarchy.

The struggle between assimilationist and associationist policies resulted in a different education system for Vietnamese people that consisted mostly of moral and vocational instruction  deemed more “appropriate” for their race. To further prevent Vietnamese students from enrolling in the privileged French schools, proficient knowledge of Greek and Latin comprised a large part of the entrance exams to these schools. Whether through an assimilationist or an associationist approach, French colonial administrators used the Greco-Roman classical tradition to uphold the colonial hierarchy. Yet nevertheless, elite Vietnamese people still managed to enroll in the exclusive French schools, which allowed them to climb and to challenge that hierarchy — albeit only to a certain extent.

In your work, you examine the ways in which Vietnamese people, from the 1880s to the present day, redefined Greco-Roman classics as a site of negotiation and resistance against colonial oppression. Can you give us an example? 

A powerful example is that of Phạm Duy Khiêm. I recently published an article on this case study in the Classical Receptions Journal. In this article, I examine the life and work of Phạm Duy Khiêm, the first Vietnamese classicist and a prominent political and intellectual leader in mid-20th-century Vietnam. I explore how Phạm Duy Khiêm used his education in the Greco-Roman classical tradition to challenge colonial power dynamics and to explore his own intercultural identity.

Phạm Duy Khiêm with Georges Pompidou and Léopold Sédar Senghor in their student years.

As I dove into Phạm Duy Khiêm’s work, I became fascinated by his subversive use of Classics to ultimately challenge the perceived inferiority of Vietnamese people and to create a “third space” that transcended the binary between colonizer and colonized. I decided to share his story as a window into the history of Vietnamese intellectualism in the field of Classics.

How do you see this legacy of classical education reverberate in U.S. engagements with Vietnam and war memories?

One way that I see its legacy reverberate is in the form of Vietnamese disremembering. While there are studies in classical reception that evoke “Vietnam,” they mainly do so to discuss the Vietnam War and, more specifically, the American experience and understanding of the war.

Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam (1994) is an infamous example. In Achilles in Vietnam, Shay demonstrates the utility of ancient Greek literature for processing the war trauma of American combat veterans from the Vietnam War. However, the privileging of American experiences and memories relies on a one-sided story that, whether explicitly or implicitly, authorizes American imperialism and its racist underpinnings.

My research emerged from the belief that Classicists have an ethical obligation to decolonize the discipline and to make the field more accessible to those whom it has traditionally excluded.

The national narrative recasts America’s soldiers as tragic heroes, while the Vietnamese continue to be seen as racist caricatures. Not only does Shay’s work reproduce American violence against Vietnamese people, but it also has normalized their dehumanization. In fact, Shay’s work has become paradigm-defining, inspiring a whole subfield of classical reception that privileges the American experience to the detriment of the Vietnamese. Subsequent works have similarly reduced Vietnam to a metonym of its infamous war as they uncritically borrow the cultural weight of the Vietnam War without thought to the country’s history, culture, and people.

My project is a direct response to this disremembering of Vietnamese people within the field of Classics and within the Western imagination more broadly.

Cogut Institute Graduate Fellows Kelly Nguyen speaks about her research in this speed talk recorded on January 21, 2021 as part of Meet the Fellows: Spring Edition.