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Nguyễn Văn Khoan (1890-1975). An Odd Man out of Vietnamese Anthropology?

Nguyễn Văn Khoan (1890-1975). Un représentant peu orthodoxe de l’anthropologie vietnamienne
John Kleinen


Nguyễn Văn Khoan (1890-1975), un grand savant presque oublié, mais qui n’a jamais cessé d’être cité par des contemporains : voilà la grande énigme d’un homme oublié, mais auteur toujours présent dans la littérature scientifique sur le Vietnam. Cet article expose des recherches faites sur la vie et la carrière d’un anthropologue avant la lettre qui a étudié la vie culturelle et spirituelle des Vietnamiens du delta tonkinois pendant la période coloniale. Selon le site Internet de Google (inclus Google Scholar) l’entrée de son nom compte entre 136 et 240 résultats. Ces articles sur le Dinh et le repêchage de l’âme font preuve d’une actualité sans précédent. John Kleinen (professeur émérite à l’université d’Amsterdam) a suivi les traces de ce mandarin-savant pendant et après la période coloniale, avec l’aide de ses proches parents, comme son fils Nguyễn Văn Phác et Đàm Thanh Sơn, fils de sa fille cadette Nguyễn Thị Hảo. Parallèlement, ce récit trace une histoire intellectuelle des Vietnamiens qui lui ont donné leurs talents et leurs personnalités à une période difficile de leur pays.

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Fig. 1 : Nguyễn Văn Khoan

Fig. 1 : Nguyễn Văn Khoan

Photos reproduites avec l’aimable autorisation de la famille de Nguyễn Văn Khoan.

1A name and a career, seemingly totally forgotten until the second half of the 20th century when anthropological research resumed in a country that recovered from war and misery, but also from the suffocating grip of scientific orthodoxy under one-party rule that confused science with ideology. That name belonged to the scholar Nguyễn Văn Khoan (1890-1975) who was once a scientific employee of the École Française d’Extrême-Orient’s (EFEO–French School of Far-Eastern Studies) elite staff in Hanoi together with Nguyễn Văn Huyên, Trần Văn Giáp and Nguyễn Văn Tố. While these latter’s names are recognized today thanks to their post-1945 services to their country, Nguyễn Văn Khoan’s name is not well known. His small, but precious collection of articles represent a gem that survived the issues of the day and proved to be important for later generations of scholars. But unlike a number of his contemporaries, his career ended in 1946 when the First Indochina War started on 19 December of that year.

  • 1 I like to thank Nguyễn Phương Ngọc for sharing so kindly the archival sources with me about Nguyễn (...)

2The recovery of voices like the of Khoan helps us to identify a commonality of direction and focus among Vietnamese and French scholars during the colonial period as well as the hierarchical relations of knowledge production that during the 1930s had kept Khoan’s work in a subordinate position to his French colleagues. Who was he and why he seems to be forgotten ? His professional career before 1945 is well documented in the archives of the EFEO and his later life is recently brought to light by one of his sons (Đào Viên, 2008).1

3Born in 1890 in the village of Yên Mẫn in the former Võ Giàng district (now district of Quế Võ) of the province of Bắc Ninh, he shared his birth village with another famous scholar, the writer, poet, musician and researcher Nguyễn Quảng Tuân (born in 1925). Being the youngest child in a family of four brothers, he represented the seventh generation of a lineage that dated back to the end of the 17th century. His eldest brother was a village head (lý trưng), but otherwise the number of mandarins or scholars in his family was limited.

4His second son Nguyễn Văn Phác (1930) (aka Đào Viên, his pen name) remembered him as

(A) typical Vietnamese of the last century. He wore a turban, a long robe ; he blackened his teeth, but not chewing the betel. He lived in a transitional period between Westernized and Traditional era, from Chinese characters to French language. (Đào Viên 2008)

  • 2 The salaries and benefits connected to this ranks are fascinating. Khoan started with an annual sa (...)

5Although vertical social mobility for Vietnamese was not a hallmark of the French colonial society at the first quarter of the 20th century, Khoan managed to get a scholarship at a very young age for the Collège du Protectorat (later Lycée du Protectorat nowadays the Chu Văn An school, named after a high-ranking official of the Trần Dynasty in Đại Việt), at the timeknown among Vietnamese as “Trường Bưởi”, the Buoi School, because of its location in the village of Bưởi, near the West Lake (Grand Lac) in Hanoi. His excellent grades made him eligible for the appointment as a clerk at the EFEO in 1923. Gradually he worked himself up from secretary to scientific chief-assistant (assistant principal de 3e classe), a position he received in 1942.2 In the meantime he had married for the second time. His first wife who came also from Yên Mẫn, gave him two sons. When she died in 1920, Khoan married Nguyễn Thị Tý, by whom he had nine children, four daughters and five sons.

  • 3 The term “annamitisants” is discussed in Nguyen Phuong Ngoc (2006; 2012: 132-144).

6Khoan belonged then already to the so-called ‘annamitisants’, the Vietnamese core staff of the EFEO, a position he had earned on the basis of his work about the Vietnamese communal house, the Đình, and its protective spirits.3 He is best known in the West for being one of the key informants of Pierre Gourou (1900-1999) for his book Les Paysans du delta Tonkinois, published in 1936 as his doctorate thesis, but researched in the years between 1931 and 1935 (see Tertrais 1993; Kleinen 2005; Bowd & Clayton 2005).

  • 4 There was a strict hierarchy between members and those described as Personnes associées like “Déta (...)
  • 5 In a long interview that I had with Gourou in Brussels in August 1994, he was much more communicat (...)

7French and Vietnamese experts and assistants provided Gourou with a wealth of information from district and provincial offices and archives. Excellent knowledge of the French language enabled many of these Vietnamese assistants to work closely with their French “superiors”, whose mastering of the Vietnamese language was comparatively lower.4 It was with the help of local mandarins that Gourou managed to organize a survey to collect data from 2,000 villages. Together with a population census, this survey data served as the backbone of his 1936 study. Furthermore, while Gourou had a sufficient knowledge of the Vietnamese language, he still relied on Vietnamese friends, field assistants and, occasionally, an interpreter who understood local dialects. How extensive his Vietnamese network exactly was is difficult to reconstruct from Gourou’s publications—especially given that he seldom quoted the works of Vietnamese scholars.5 But at least one man is mentioned as his teacher and key informant: Nguyễn Văn Khoan (Gourou 1936: 176).

  • 6 Khoan was appointed as “assistant de 4e classe” and moved up to “3e classe” in the same year. In 1 (...)

8Gourou’s Collège de France’s close colleague Paul Mus, who in the 1930s was an interim director at EFEO, called Khoan among others his “workmate” and “an original analyst of village ceremonies and rituals” and who in excellent way revealed “the mysteries of the Vietnamese village cults” (1977: 18). Another scholar, archaeologist and member of the EFEO, Jean-Yves Claeys (1896-1979), regarded Khoan as “a friend” and hailed his study (about the communal house) as “well documented” in such a way that it had revealed “an ethnic fact that was completely secret and jealously hidden before European observers” (Claeys quoted in Nguyen Phuong Ngoc 2012: 48). In 1930 Khoan was appointed as research assistant, a position he acquired for his publication about the đinh, the communal house, in EFEO’s prestigious Bulletin (Nguyễn Văn Khoan 1930). He also was responsible for the European section of the library of the EFEO including the works written in quốc ngữ.6

9As said Khoan, taught Pierre Gourou Vietnamese, but proved equally valuable as a colleague in the field ; his writings on local rituals display his unique knowledge of a world that was relatively inaccessible to outsiders and includes what is commonly regarded as the best description of the Vietnamese institution of the đinh, the communal house, where villagers worship the guardian spirit and in which the worldly power of the male notables is ritualized. South-Vietnamese historian Le Văn Hảo regarded the study as the “best documented monograph in his kind” (Le 1962: 41; also quoted in Nguyen Phuong Ngoc 2012: 92).

10Nguyễn Văn Khoan’s research focused on the ceremonial and political aspects of the đinh, its associated buildings and religious objects, and of course the various rituals that were performed. He also had a keen eye for gender aspects when he pointed to exceptions of the general rule of the communal house as a place for males, saying that there are special occasions when “notables came to kowtow before the Buddha, and the women before the Protective Spirits” (Nguyễn Văn Khoan 1930: 110). He also revealed a tabooed ritual (hèm) regarding the Protective Spirit in case the Guardian is a common person or a social outsider, e.g. those responsible for emptying the cesspools, a thief or an adulterer. Such practices refer to older traditions before Confucianism as a state ideology was introduced in Vietnam. Unlike the critical writer Ngô Tất Tố (1893-1954), Khoan was not discussing the social significance of this institution, which over the years became a bone of contention among elites and led to an involution of village rituals, including the costly custom of banqueting, once depicted by communist historians as “a social club for on the best mats eating feudal class” and thus “an instrument of colonialists and feudalists” (Tuan Chau 1962 quoted in Luttmer 1999: 12; see also Endres 2000).

11Khoan lived long enough to have witnessed the change in interest among Vietnamese (art) historians, when in 1972 the đinh was partly rehabilitated as an important institution not only for the elites. It would take another twenty years before the position of the đinh was reintegrated into the state-ideology as a traditional symbol of Vietnamese culture at the village level (Boudarel 1991: 207-218). Nowadays, communal houses are frantically restored, renewed and served an important function in nearly every village in the Red River delta that was lucky enough to have one, or at least had kept the drawings before the buildings disappeared during the collectivization period and the wars. Without Khoan’s trail blazing study—it was this study that his colleague Nguyễn Văn Huyên after he returned from France, inspired to continue about the village guardians- we would have only had works by Chinese or French scholars (see also Nguyen Phuong Ngoc 2012: 92, 158-164).

12Three years later, in 1933, Khoan presented another important piece of research about one of the most enigmatic phenomena of lowland Vietnamese, the believe in supernatural spirits and the existence of malicious and benevolent spirits and the way spirit mediums expressed parts of a folk tradition in which no gender-specific restrictions are made (see Nguyễn Văn Khoan 1933).

13His article was about a topic that currently is very fashionable in Vietnam: necromancy (see Kwon 2008). Many Vietnamese believe that in the dead person there is something that will not die and that there is a sort of a soul. This believe is in line with many other world traditions, religious or not. Khoan described a ceremony to call back the soul of somebody who had suffered from an unnatural death, (in Vietnamese bất đắc kỳtử) e.g. drowning or another accident like killing (also during a violent conflict). To appease the souls of those victims is imminent for the living for several reasons. A special ceremony “Lễ chiêu hồ” or “ngọi hồn"” which in Vietnamese literally means “to call, to evoke or to beckon the souls of the dead to come home” is organized any time when people feel that misfortune can happen to the living members of the lineage (Nguyễn Văn Khoan 1933).

14Khoan discussed thus at an early stage a phenomenon that in a country where later more than 3 million Vietnamese died during the “American” war (1964-1973), and out of which an estimated ten percent are believed to have been physically disappeared (cf. The term for soldiers “missing in action”), would become a central key to understand a hallmark of Vietnamese ancestor worship. Furthermore, and this was not the topic of Khoan’s research, the ritual he described involved a pretended way of magical communication with the deceased—either by calling their spirit as an ghost or meeting them bodily—for the purpose of divination, imparting the means to forecast future events or to discover hidden knowledge. The fervor of “waking the dead” in the late nineties and early tens of the 20th and 21st century and the reappearance of medium ship in post-Đổi Mới Vietnam can be better understood by rereading Khoan’s pioneering work from the 1930s (Fjelstad & Nguyen Thi Hien 2006).

15In her rich and valuable history of the early days of Vietnamese anthropology, the French-Vietnamese author Nguyen Phuong Ngoc deals also with the Institut indochinois pour l’étude de l’homme (IIEH), one of the first attempts in the Southeast Asian region to combine the study of anthropology with medicine through its link of physical anthropology. The installation of the Institute is a real “recognition of Vietnamese competences” (Nguyen Phuong Ngoc 2012: 49). Nguyễn Văn Khoan soon joined the staff. In a few years time, he published a number of important articles about several customs of the lowland Vietnamese regarding the care of young children at various moments of their life cycles in relation to their place in the ancestral tree (Nguyễn Văn Khoan 1938; 1939; 1940). Well known is the worshipping ritual of “lễ bán khoán”, literally “selling somebody’s child to a god or a goddess”, a ritual that takes place in a pagoda to sell in a fictive way a child to Buddha or to a protective Bodhisattva like Trần Hưng Đạo. The custom fits into a larger cultural practice to protect young children for all kind of bad influences including the disguise of names or giving nicknames to shield them against bad spirits. Khoan also discussed a traditional way of adopting children (con nuôi) who are taken from others to guarantee a male inheritance, prosperity, or just for economic reasons to augment the number of workers in a household. Other publications show Khoan’s pliancy in absorbing topics or themes like a lengthy article of 15 pages about the confirmation of oath by Vietnamese (Nguyễn Văn Khoan 1942) or about ceramics “Le céladon” (n.d.).

  • 7 Members of the VN Oriental Institute (Phương Đông Bác Cổ học Viện) at the time were Cao Xuân Huy, (...)

16In a number of photographs, the so-called ‘annamitisants’ of the EFEO figure prominently often with their European colleagues and on the occasion of important events regarding the EFEO. Mostly Nguyễn Văn Khoan is absent. In a 1937 photograph in which Nguyễn Văn Tố and Trần Văn Giáp sided with some French members of the EFEO, such as then incumbent director, George Coedes, Madeleine Colani, Victor Goloubew and Louis Bezacier he is not present (Clementin-Ojha & Manguin 2001: 37). A photograph taken circa 1957-1958 in front of the office of the former EFEO (Viễn Đông Bác Cổ học Viện), already re-baptised the Institute for Scientific Research of the Orient (Phương Đông Bác Cổ học Viện; later transformed into the Committee for Literary, Historical, and Geographical Research, (Ban nghiên cứu Văn học, Lịch sử, Địa lý), presented its personnel, there is also no sign of him.7 But more than ten years earlier, in 1945, he is present, clad in a black áo dài le and khăn xêp, behind president Ho Chi Minh, who paid a visit to the EFEO. He is standing at the same level with the director Nguyen Van Huyen behind the president of the DRV. The photo was taken at the main entrance of the Library of the EFEO in 1945 (the present-day Head Office of Institute of Social Sciences Information at 26 Lý Thuờng Kiệt).

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Standing behind Ho Chi Minh, third from left, Nguyễn Văn Khoan.

Source: Ngô Thế Long, 2008.

17More than a year later Khoan was reported missing because of the violent clashes between French and Viet Minh forces that led to the first Indochina War on 19 December 1946. Had he become one of the “compagnons de route de Ho Chi Minh” (Trinh Van Thao 2004) like Nguyễn Văn Tố, who died in battle at Bắc Kạn in 1947? And if so, did he join the resistance as a member of a generation or as a family member like Nguyễn Văn Huyên and his wife or medical doctors like Hồ Đắc Di and Tôn Thất Tùng? Nothing of this all. Khoan’s family left Hanoi for Bắc Ninh as a result of the heavy fighting during the battle of Hanoi that erupted on 17 December 1946. “Tens of thousands of residents fled to the countryside” just to discover like in the case of Khoan’s family that Bắc Ninh and Nam Định became a few days later part of the war as well (Logevall 2012 : 160 ff). His son remarked about this forced departure when he reminded the many books of his father in a special bookcase :

It is very regrettable that when my family had to leave Hanoi because of the war at the end of 1946, our house was completely destroyed, including that bookcase and other belongings.

  • 8 Khoan got two sons by his first wife Cap (1893-1920) and five sons and four daughters by his secon (...)

18His wife and three of the children, two daughters and his eldest son, returned to Hanoi in 1949, and Khoan together with two younger sons followed them in 1951.8

19After the fighting stopped, Vietnam was (temporally) divided into two parts. The Geneva conference enabled people to choose for either the Republic of Vietnam or the Democratic Republic in the North or when they lived already somewhere stayed where they were. Khoan’s wife and her children had for some reason gone to the south and didn’t return after the elections did not take place in 1956. Khoan remained in the North and decided at a certain moment to return to his native village in Bắc Ninh.

  • 9 We don’t know how many of his former EFEO colleagues were involved in the Nhân Văn-affair. Đào Duy (...)

20He lived through the difficult periods of Land reform, though he was not a landowner, the Nhân Văn-Giai Phẩm movement, in which he did not partake, and forced collectivization, not to mention the war that erupted again and was felt by everyone since 1964.9 From what the children later perceived as painful was the complete lack of communication between the northern and the southern part. Letters arrived through channels as far as Paris. Some of his children worked as medical doctors or were involved in one of another with the activities of the Republic of Vietnam. Like Duong Van Mai Elliot wrote in her The Sacred Willow (1999: 263): “(C)ontacts between the two sides of the conflict brought suspicion, so we stopped writing. (X.) in Paris became the conduit of news […].”

21Khoan never returned to his writing table. He apparently gave up any scholarly activity devoting himself in a mandarinal tradition to tend as his son recalled:

[…] (F)lower plants mostly the hortensia. Hortensia flowers bloom only at night, very slowly. Each time that happened, my father invited friends and family to watch the event, while sipping tea, munching sweet cookies under the moonlight and savoring the light aroma of the blooming flower all over the place. What a perfect, peaceful night. (Đào Viên 2008, website.)

  • 10 Tạp san Nghiên cứu Văn Sử Ðịa (Journal of Literary, Historical and Geographical Research), which co (...)

22My guess is that Khoan opted for a kind of internal migration being disappointed with the powers that be and the way the expectations of the August revolution waned. Unlike his colleague Nguyễn Văn Huyên, Khoan was not a revolutionary. He never joined the Communist Party or the Committee for Literary, Historical, and Geographical Research (Ban nghiên cứu Văn học, Lịch sử, Địa lý), which in 1959 was politically reorganized as the Institute of History. Khoan was not an historian and apparently human geography was not the object of the party’s control over intellectual life. His close relationship with Pierre Gourou might have been an objection to his fellow scholars who worked for the new institute, but Gourou’s work and that of Robequain were not completely discredited. Maybe, Khoan didn’t like to adapt to “Marxish” texts like many of his colleagues who appropriated and reworked in a Vietnamese style the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and others (Pelley 2002: 32-40). It is also possible that Khoan’s strict adherence to a form of empirical social science was at odds with the politics of scholarly representations that became the order of the day in those years. He did not produce any text that can shed light upon this matter.10 Khoan just disappeared from the scholarly scene. The end of his life came in 1975 at the age of 84 years, just a few months before the North-Vietnamese army took Saigon. In a repelling memory of his father his fourth son, Nguyễn Văn Phác, writes:

My father missed this historical important day, a day he had wished to see in order to reunite with his children on the other side of the river. We were unfortunate not to be next to him when he passed away. In a letter sent to us, announcing his death, my young sister told us that he died peacefully and quickly after the dinner. (Đào Viên 2008, website.)

23With Nguyễn Văn Khoan’s death, a remarkable scholar of Vietnamese culture and tradition disappeared. His writings, however, are a firm reminder of an excellent field-worker and a devoted anthropologist avant-la-lettre.

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BOUDAREL, Georges, 1961, "L’insertion du pouvoir central dans les cultes villageois au Vietnam: esquisse des problèmes à partir des écrits de Ngô Tât Tố", in Cultes populaires et sociétés asiatiques, ouvrage collectif, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1991, pp. 87-146.

BOWD, Gavin & Daniel CLAYTON, 2005, “Tropicality, Orientalism, and French Colonialism in Indochina: The Work of Pierre Gourou, 1927-1982”, French Historical Studies, 28, 2: 297-328.

CLEMENTIN-OJHA, Catherine & Pierre-Yves MANGUIN, 2001, Un siècle pour l’Asie. L’École française d’Extrême-Orient 1898-2000, Paris: EFEO/Les éditions du Pacifique.

ĐÀO Viên (blogger Nguyễn Văn Phác), 2008,).

DUONG VAN MAI, Elliot, 1999, The Sacred Willow. Four generations in the life of a Vietnamese family, New York: Oxford University Press.

ENDRES, Kirsten, 2000, Ritual, Fest, und Politik in Nordvietnam: Zwischen Ideologie und Tradition, Hamburg: LIT.

GOUVERNEMENT GENERAL DE L'INDOCHINE, Service de l’Information, 1943, Souverains et notabilités d’Indochine, Hanoi: IDEO.

FJELSTAD, Karen, and NGUYEN Thi Hien, ed., 2006, Possessed by the Spirits. Mediumship in Contemporary Vietnamese Communities, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program.

GOUROU, Pierre, 1936, Les Paysans du Delta tonkinois. Étude de géographie humaine, Paris: Les Éditions d’Art et d’Histoire, tome XXVII des Publications de l’EFEO.

KLEINEN, John, 2005, “Tropicality and Topicality: Pierre Gourou and the Genealogy of French Colonial Scholarship on Rural Vietnam”, Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography, 26, 3: 339-358.

KWON, Heonik, 2008, Ghosts of War in Vietnam, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

LE Van Hao, 1962, “Introduction à l’ethnologie du Dinh”, Bulletin de la société des études indochinoises(BSEI), XXXVII, 1: 41-72.

LOGEWALL, Fredrik, 2012, Embers of War, The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, New York : Random House.

LUTTMER, Nora, 1999, “Das vietnamesiche Dorfgemainschaftshaus, đinh im Rote Fluss-Delta : Geschischte und architektonische Entwicklung”, unveröffenttliche Magisterarbeit, Universität Passau.

MUS, Paul, 1977, L’Angle de l’Asie, Paris: Hermann, coll. “Savoir”.

NGÔ Thế Long, 2008, “Vietnam oriental institute during the period September 1945-December 1946 through document”, Social Sciences Information Review, 2, 2, June: 37-41.

NGÔ Thế Long, 2009, “Some features on Indochina Institute for Human Studies (1937-1944)”, Social Sciences Information Review, 3, 2, June: 46-53.

NGUYỄN Văn Khoan, 1930, “Essai sur le dinh et le culte du génie tutélaire des villages au Tonkin”, BEFEO, t. XXX: 107-139.

NGUYỄN Văn Khoan, 1933,“Le repêchage de l’âme, avec une note sur les hon et phach d’après les croyances tonkinoises actuelles”, BEFEO, fasc.1: 11-34.

NGUYỄN Văn Khoan, 1938, “Croyances tonkinoises relatives à la protection de l’enfance. I. La vente des enfants aux génies (ban khoan)”, BIIEH: 75-78.

NGUYỄN Văn Khoan, 1939,“Croyances tonkinoises relatives à la protection de l’enfance. II. Le don de l’enfant à une personne étrangère", BIIEH, 1939, fasc.1: 155-158.

NGUYỄN Văn Khoan, 1940,“Croyances tonkinoises relatives à la protection de l’enfance. III. Des heures néfastes pour les enfants”, BIIEH, fasc.1: 85-100.

NGUYỄN Văn Khoan, 1942,“De la prestation de serment chez les annamites”, BIIEH, fasc.1: 147-162.

NGUYỄN Văn Khoan, “Le Céladon” (no publication site; no year).

NGUYEN Phuong Ngoc, 2006, “Paul Mus et les ‘annamitisants’ vietnamiens de l’Ecole Française d’Extrême-Orient”, in L’espace d’un regard: Paul Mus et l’Asie (1902-1969), David Chandler & Christopher E. Goscha, ed., pp. 151-171.

NGUYEN Phuong Ngoc, 2012, À l’origine de l’anthropologie au Vietnam. Recherche sur les auteurs de la première moitié du xxe siècle, Aix-en-Provence: PUP, coll. « Sociétés contemporaines asiatiques ».

PELLEY, Patricia M., 2002, Postcolonial Vietnam. New Histories of the National Past, Durham: Duke University Press.

SINGARAVELOU, Pierre, 1999, L’EFEO ou l’institution des marges (1898-1856), Paris: L’Harmattan.

TERTRAIS, Hugues, 1993, “Pierre Gourou, le delta du Fleuve Rouge et la géographie. Propos recueillis”, Lettre de l’Afrase, 29: 7-13.

TRINH Van Thao, 2004, Les compagnons de route de Hô Chi Minh. Histoire d’un engagement intellectuel au Viêtnam, Paris : Editions Karthala.

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Note de fin

1 I like to thank Nguyễn Phương Ngọc for sharing so kindly the archival sources with me about Nguyễn Văn Khoan, that she collected during her research for her thesis (Nguyen Phuong Ngoc 2012). Khoan’s son Nguyễn Văn Phác and his nephew Đàm Thanh Sơn proved to be precious witnesses of a life that nearly seemed to be forgotten. They shared with me every relevant aspect of Khoan’s life they remembered.

2 The salaries and benefits connected to this ranks are fascinating. Khoan started with an annual salary of 1074$ (piastres), but in 1928 this amount was reduced to 996$. Cost-of-living statistics are not abundantly available, but between in 1928 e.g. an annual income of a five-member household of a day-labourer in Cochinchina was 135$ (slightly lower in the Red River delta). A Frenchman was able to buy for 100 $ nearly one kilo of meat. Rice was about 3$ per 100kg in 1933 (Annuaire statistique de l’Indochine, Hanoi, 1927, p. 196-97).

3 The term “annamitisants” is discussed in Nguyen Phuong Ngoc (2006; 2012: 132-144).

4 There was a strict hierarchy between members and those described as Personnes associées like “Détachés, chargés de mission, mis à disposition, collaborateurs, correspondants, membres d'honneur” (see e.g. for the differences). Unlike Huyen, Khoan, Giap and To do not figure until today in the list of scientific members of the EFEO, due to their position as assistants. See also Pierre Singaravelou (1999) and Nguyen Phuong Ngoc (2012: 30-31).

5 In a long interview that I had with Gourou in Brussels in August 1994, he was much more communicative about his scholarly network than in his books about Vietnam (see my report in Kleinen 2005). A year earlier, in a conversation with Hugues Tertrais, he recalled Khoan “un très chic type” possible because of Khoan’s traditional outfit and his refined manners (1993). He also remembered that he had assisted together with Khoan at a special ceremony of a drowning victim. Khoan collected empirical evidence for his later article about the same subject (1936).

6 Khoan was appointed as “assistant de 4e classe” and moved up to “3e classe” in the same year. In 1933 he reached the rank of “assistant de 2e classe” (arrêté 21 in December) followed in 1937 by 1st class assistant. In 1942 he became “assistant principal de 3e classe” (EFEO Archives Registres DA). Ranks in the French public administration system are difficult to compare. Like his colleagues Nguyễn Văn Huyên and Trần Van Giáp, he was entitled to receive the French Order of Chivalry, the Order of Academic Palms (Ordre des Palmes Académiques) for academics and cultural and educational figures, but is not sure that he received the medal. The Souverains et notabilités d'Indochine (1943) does not mention Khoan, though he as in the same “category” as Giap.

7 Members of the VN Oriental Institute (Phương Đông Bác Cổ học Viện) at the time were Cao Xuân Huy, Công Van Trung, Đang Thai Mai, Hồ Đạt Thang, Hoàng Xuân Hãn, Lê Du, Nguyễn Đỗ Cung, Nguyễn Đức Nguyên, Nguyễn Thiêu Lâu, Nguyễn Van Khoan, Nguyễn Van Tô and Trần Van Giáp. Some stayed in the DRV, others went South and joined similar institutions in the Republic of Vietnam (see Ngo 2008 and 2009).

8 Khoan got two sons by his first wife Cap (1893-1920) and five sons and four daughters by his second wife Nguyễn Thị Tý (1906-1978). His youngest sister Nguyễn Thị Hảo became the grandmother of physicist Đàm Thanh Sơn (born in 1969) and the first Vietnamese scholar who is admitted at the American National Academy of Sciences.

9 We don’t know how many of his former EFEO colleagues were involved in the Nhân Văn-affair. Đào Duy Anh (1904-1988) had never worked for the EFEO, though the research for his famous Pháp-Việt Từ điển was facilitated by access to the library he received from Leopold Cadière (Nguyen Phuong Ngoc 2012: 136).

10 Tạp san Nghiên cứu Văn Sử Ðịa (Journal of Literary, Historical and Geographical Research), which contained contributions from Nguyễn Van Huyên and Trần Van Giáp, did not publish any contribution by Toan between 1954 and 1959.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 : Nguyễn Văn Khoan
Crédits Photos reproduites avec l’aimable autorisation de la famille de Nguyễn Văn Khoan.
Fichier image/png, 171k
Titre Fig. 2
Légende Standing behind Ho Chi Minh, third from left, Nguyễn Văn Khoan.
Crédits Source: Ngô Thế Long, 2008.
Fichier image/png, 206k
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Référence électronique

John Kleinen, « Nguyễn Văn Khoan (1890-1975). An Odd Man out of Vietnamese Anthropology? »Moussons [En ligne], 24 | 2014, mis en ligne le 02 avril 2015, consulté le 28 octobre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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John Kleinen

John Kleinen is an anthropologist and historian with a PhD from the University of Amsterdam (UvA). He is a associate professor emeritus at the UvA since April 2013. He is affiliated to the Amsterdam International School for Social Science Research (AISSR) and the Maritime Research Centre Amsterdam (MARE). His current research interests include the history of Vietnam, the institutional dynamics of French colonial expansion, and theory and practice of visual anthropology. He has received several research grants from The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Science Organisation for Global Development (WOTRO), the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the Royal Academy of Sciences (KNAW) and the University of Amsterdam. Special research projects have been carried out for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Welfare and Culture, the Dutch Embassy in Hanoi and a number of NGO’s in the Netherlands and in Vietnam.

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