Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam
264pp. November 2003
Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam
Author: McHale, Shawn Frederick;
In this ambitious and path-breaking book, Shawn McHale challenges long held views that define modern Vietnamese history in terms of anticolonial nationalism and revolution. McHale argues instead for a historiography that does not overstress either the role of politics in general or Communism in particular. Using a wide range of sources from Vietnam, France, and the United States, many of them previously unexploited, he shows how the use of printed matter soared between 1920 and 1945 and in the process transformed Vietnamese public life and shaped the modern Vietnamese consciousness.

Print and Power begins with an overview of Vietnam's lively public spheres, bringing debates from Europe and the rest of Asia to Vietnamese studies with nuance and sophistication. It examines the impact of the French colonial state on Vietnamese society as well as Vietnamese and East Asian understandings of public discourse and public space. Popular taste, rather than revolutionary or national ideology, determined to a large extent what was published, with limited intervention by the French authorities. A vibrant but hierarchical public realm of debate existed in Vietnam under authoritarian colonial rule.

The work goes on to contest the impact of Confucianism on premodern and modern Vietnam and, based on materials never before used, provides a radically new perspective on the rise of Vietnamese communism from 1929 to 1945. Novel interpretations of the Nghe Tinh soviets (1930-1931), the first major communist uprising in Vietnam, and Vietnamese communist successes in World War II built an audience for their views and made an extremely alien ideology comprehensible to growing numbers of Vietnamese. In what is by far the most thorough examination in English of modern Vietnamese Buddhism and its transformations, McHale argues that, contrary to received wisdom, Buddhism was not in decline during the 1920-1945 period; in fact, more Buddhist texts were produced in Vietnam at that time than at any other in its history. This finding suggests that the heritage of the Vietnamese past played a crucial role in the late colonial period.

Print and Power makes a significant contribution to Vietnamese and Asian studies and will be of compelling interest to those in the fields of comparative religion and European colonialism.

Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning, and Memory Series
"An illuminating and courageous book: it not only provides a fresh and detailed examination of the importance of print and its audience in the formation of a modern state, but also questions many of the general and often essentialist assumptions about modern historical developments in Asia generally and Vietnam in particular." —Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (15:2–3), 2006

"An essential starting point for what one hopes will be a fundamental reconsideration of the multiple and globally inflected ways in which the Vietnamese and other imperial subjects approached colonialism and modernity." —American Historical Review, December 2004

"For students of Buddhism, [McHale] offers a rare insight into southern Vietnamese perceptions, which can then be usefully compared with developments in other late colonial societies, for example Burma or Korea." —H-Net Reviews, May 2005 (Read full review)

"An elegantly written and beautifully argued study of how the rise of a modern print culture in Vietnam in the last years of French colonialism stimulated a far more pluralistic and transnational recasting of Vietnamese thought than we previously believed. A major contribution both to modern Southeast Asian history and to our rethinking of the history of colonialism." —Alexander Woodside, University of British Columbia

"Shawn McHale breaks new ground in this economic and social history of the Vietnamese use of print in the three decades between 1920 and 1945. He challenges the historiography of modern Vietnam, and he does so in a lively, lucid, and powerful way, with brilliant insights and discussions throughout." —Tana Li, Australian National University

Author: McHale, Shawn Frederick;
Shawn Frederick McHale is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University.
Read the introduction (PDF).

Part 1: The State and the Public Sphere
1. Transforming Print Culture and the Public Sphere
2. The Colonial State and Repression of the Printed Word

Part 2: Three Realms of Print
3: Confucianism and Vietnamese Culture
4: Printing Revolution, Spreading Communism
5: From Popular Visions of Paradise to the Buddhist Revival