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Tuesday, 17 January 2017 14:31
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Huynh Thuc Khang: The political portrait of an intellectual

(LLCT) - On the occasion of the 140th birth anniversary of Huynh Thuc Khang (1876 - 2016), this article, from a historical perspective, means to further clarify his political portrait as a person, a thinker and an activist by studying his contribution to the national struggle for independence in the 20th century.

1. Huynh Thuc Khang as a person

Huynh Thuc Khang was born in 1876 in Tien Canh commune, Tien Phuoc district, Quang Nam province. As a child, he was called Huynh Hanh or Gioi Sanh or Minh Vien. He began to learn classic Chinese when he was seven. By the time he was 13 years old, he was famous for his vast knowledge and beautiful handwriting. In 1900, he sat his baccalaureate and came first in the exam. In 1904, he got the senior doctoral title (first class laureate) from a Confucian examination.

Customarily, three months after being honored as a doctor, the person should go to the capital to learn how to become a mandarin. However, “becoming a mandarin is not my wish”, Huynh Thuc Khang said and remained in his village on the excuse of illness.

However, feeling ashamed because the court had surrendered to foreign invasion, he decided to take action to save the country and people. In 1905, he and junior doctors Phan Chau Trinh and Tran Quy Cap went to the South, where they organized the Duy Tan (Reform) movement. Their motto was as follows: “Intellectuals, put down your pens and stand up. Timid no more. As long as you are breathing, do not forget to take revenge”.

After that, Huynh Thuc Khang returned to his village and led the Duy Tan movement in Quang Nam. In 1906, he and Le Vinh Huy founded the trading company Thang Binh to gather patriots and raise funds for the Dong Du (Eastward Going) movement. He and some influential people and his friends established a trading agency in Hoi An, founded schools to teach French and Vietnamese, and encouraged the Duy Tan movement. In 1907, Huynh Thuc Khang refused to be appointed as head of the education service in Dien Ban district and remained in his village to work as a reform activist. “Sometimes, I’d call for the government to change its way of managing people. Other times, I’d urge my students to go and study abroad, encourage foreign movements, discuss domestic issues, open schools, and found merchants’ association. About books, I’d read Luong - Khang. I’d also discuss Napoleon and Washington. Wherever there is a school, I’d join it and when I met people, I’d urge them to learn the Japanese way and dress the Western way”(1).

In March 1908, the colonialist and feudalist government suppressed the anti-taxation movement in the Central region. He was imprisoned in Hoi An and then sent into exile in Con Dao island.

After 13 years of imprisonment in Con Dao, also called “the hell on earth”, Huynh Thuc Khang was released and was placed under house arrest. The colonialist and feudalist government intended to buy him by giving him back the title “Doctoral Laureate of the Royal Editorial Academy” and inviting him to work at the Hue Museum, but he refused.

In July 1926, he was elected to the House of People’s Representative of Annam (Central Vietnam) and worked as its chairman. In October 1927, he resigned. During this time, he founded Huynh Thuc Khang Company in Da Nang, which was engaged in press and printing, to finance his political activities. In 1927, he worked as the manager and chief editor of the Tieng Dan (The Voice of People) newspaper(2), one of the first newspapers in Annam. This was also the period when Huynh Thuc Khang made a lot of contributions to the promotion of democratic movements and compiled a number of books, fiction and non-fiction, on culture.

As the Japanese had overthrown the French, Huynh Thuc Khang refused Bao Dai’s invitation to join a pro-Japanese cabinet.

While turning down senior positions offered by the colonialist and feudalist government, he moved to Hanoi, where he worked as Minister of Home Affairs for the resistance coalition Government headed by President Ho Chi Minh after the August Revolution had succeeded and as he felt moved by Ho Chi Minh’s invitation to work for the nation’s benefits. It was particularly noteworthy that he successfully worked as Acting President of the Government while President Ho Chi Minh was away in France. Before he left for France, Ho Chi Minh reminded Huynh Thuc Khang of the need to “use the constant to deal with the variable”. In 1946, Huynh Thuc Khang took up the position of Chairman of the Vietnam National Union. He made an important contribution to expanding national solidarity for the protection of the fruits of the August Revolution and preparation of forces for the resistance against French invaders.

When the national resistance broke out, the Government sent him as a special envoy to the Interzone 5, where he contributed to strengthening solidarity among local people.

He passed away on April 21, 1947 at the age of 72. Mourning for a person who had devoted his whole life to the country’s independence and people’s freedom and happiness, Ho Chi Minh wrote in his letter to the entire population:

“Mr. Huynh was a knowledgeable man with a strong spirit and very high moral standards. For his patriotism, he was imprisoned by colonialists for more than a decade on Con Dao island, where he suffered tremendously. Nevertheless, his determination and his love for the country and compatriots did not wane. Rather, he became even more resolute. He was never bought by richness or frustrated by poverty or intimidated by power. For his entire life, he did not need senior positions or benefits. He did not even wish to become a rich man or a mandarin. He only tried his best to make his people free and his country independent”(3).

2. Huynh Thuc Khang as a thinker

A good number of researchers believe that Huynh Thuc Khang was a nationalist. This is an accurate observation considering the history of the nation at the beginning of the 20th century and his main activities during this period of time. He was a “Duy Tan” nationalist and was one of the leaders of the reform movement. Given the then historical conditions of the country, “Duy Tan” should be understood as taking a new path to gain national rights. The core of the “Duy Tan” movement was democratic thinking. This logic illuminated a reality and explained why Huynh Thuc Khang and leaders of the movement aimed to foster the nation with the motto “improve people’s intellect”, with which they wished to awaken people’s sense of sovereignty and ultimately gain the most basic democratic right by then, i.e. national independence, through non-violent measures. As a logical consequence, Huynh Thuc Khang and leaders of the movement would focus on education and the motto “Nothing matters more than learning” invented by Phan Chau Trinh and was mentioned in the article “The Actual Situation” printed on the Dai Viet Tannewspaper in 1907. Phan Chau Trinh wrote, “Please do not use violence; if you do, you will be killed. Do not depend on foreigners; if you do, you will be fooled. Since the people of our country love freedom, I have something precious for you: Nothing matters more than learning”.

According to that policy, as a “Duy Tan” pioneer in education, Huynh Thuc Khang wrote, “When we talk about education, we must mention its isms. From a social perspective, we must take science as one of its isms”(4). Therefore, he criticized, “The academic circle in our country does not have a sense of freedom or creativity. They do not know how to anticipate. They only blindly work as forerunners’ slaves”(5). He said, “One must have a sense of independence and be able to freely anticipate and develop one’s ability and especially one’s creativity”, and “If one is to be free, one must know how to be independent. This means that one must know how to do research by oneself and believe in oneself. In other words, one must possess a research-oriented brain”(6).

These requirements were obviously close to the idea of free, creative people. They aimed to awaken people and create leaders of the country. This “Duy Tan” aspect permeated Huynh Thuc Khang’s democratic ideas.

Apparently, in the early 20th century, from 1905 to 1943, when the Tieng Dan newspaper ceased to exist, Huynh Thuc Khang’s activities were of a “Duy Tan” character, which aimed for democracy-based innovation of the ways of thinking and doing among Vietnamese in all areas. With his democratic activities for nearly half a century, from the Duy Tan movement to parliamentary and press activities later on, Huynh Thuc Khang managed to foster national pride with a new source of energy - democracy, and helped to create a new force - a generation with new thinking and willing to receive Nguyen Ai Quoc’s revolutionary ideas in the mid-1920s. 

In addition to his respect for Ho Chi Minh, democratic ideas were one of the major causes of Huynh Thuc Khang joining politics and devotedly serving the new democratic system in Vietnam.

Therefore, besides national pride, Huynh Thuc Khang’s democratic ideas helped to enlighten Vietnam in the 20th century. Vietnam is currently making use of these ideas and consider them to be a source of energy left by history for the ongoing renovation cause.

Before his death, Huynh Thuc Khang wrote President Ho Chi Minh a letter in which he stated clearly, “I’ve been dreaming about independence and democracy for 40 years. Now that our country is already independent and the democratic system is being implemented, I can breathe my last peacefully”. This manifests Huynh Thuc Khang’s democratic ideas. He was really a democratic activist who helped to pave the way for, and promote, democracy in our country.

3. Huynh Thuc Khang as an activist  

Huynh Thuc Khang met President Ho Chi Minh and spent the rest of his life working with him to serve the country. First of all, mention must be made of his particularly special sentiments towards Ho Chi Minh. Huynh Thuc Khang appreciated and admired Ho Chi Minh so much that he never hid his feelings, which was rare among Confucian intellectuals(7).

When asked how this war was going to fare and how long would it last, Huynh Thuc Khang said, “Do you think I’m flattering Ho Chi Minh? No. I’ve never flattered anyone in my life. You are young, so go to Hanoi and meet him and find out by yourself. In 1926, before dying, Tay Ho (Phan Chau Trinh) talked with me about overseas Vietnamese. He said that the independence of Vietnam would be attributed to Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh). Now I see his words are becoming true. You asked when the French resistance would end, I cannot predict its end. It is going to be a long resistance. It may take five, or ten, or 20 years. Who knows! But there is one thing I’m sure of: We are going to win. Previously, revolutionaries would only rely on the intelligentsia and the bourgeoisie. They would pay little attention to the majority of the population, workers and peasants, so they failed. Now things are different. The entire population is involved in the resistance, and it’s an all-out one. No need to talk about faraway places. Right here, in my inn, everyday my family talks about the resistance, how to donate rice to it, and popular learning. This happens in hundreds, even thousands, of families. Colonialists will eventually lose no matter how many planes, submarines and bombs they have. With the leadership of President Ho Chi Minh and other outstanding leaders from across the country who may already know or hear of, and the solidarity of people, believe me, we will drive colonialists away and take revenge for our homeland”(8).

Obviously, President Ho Chi Minh’s view that the revolution was a cause of people and for people, and the nation was attractive to Huynh Thuc Khang. This explains why Huynh Thuc Khang, although he did not strongly agree with the Party’s violent revolution policy, was devoted to the newly established democratic government and joined the cabinet as Minister of Home Affairs, the fourth most important position, at the invitation of President Ho Chi Minh.

Beginning as Minister of Home Affairs in the official Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, Huynh Thuc Khang attended the first meeting of the Government on March 4, 1946. He assumed the position of Acting President of the Government, at Decree 82 of 29 May 1946 signed by President Ho Chi Minh, until October 21, 1946, when Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam. After that, he continued to serve as Minister of Home Affairs in the new Government established in November 1946. This showed Ho Chi Minh’s trust in Huynh Thuc Khang amid the arduous resistance and national construction. 

He ran the Government, led and successfully organized the stabilization of the country’s political, economic and social situations, fought with the Republic of China army in the implementation of the March 6, 1946 Agreement, and dealt with violent action by French colonialists when they were replacing Chiang Kai-shek’s army in North of the 16th parallel.

During his office as Acting President of the Government, Huynh Thuc Khang signed 159 decrees, from the 92nd to the 251st. He also decided on a large number of issues while chairing Council of the Government meetings and was very successful in realizing Ho Chi Minh’s motto “Use the constant to deal with the variable” in dealing with enemies and preparing for the upcoming resistance against French colonialists.

As Acting President of the Government, Huynh Thuc Khang was resolute in punishing criminals of two reactionary organizations, Viet Quoc and Viet Cach. His statement was very clear, “Solidarity is needed to build a democratic republic, but it’s impossible to take advantage of solidarity to do unlawful things. I advise all political parties and people to stay united. However, for the sake of national interests, I have to punish those who have done unlawful things according to the law”(9).

Apparently, by following Ho Chi Minh during national liberation, Huynh Thuc Khang became a leader with active contribution to advancing the nation and was an exemplar for all Vietnamese generations.

Therefore, hearing about the death of Huynh Thuc Khang, President Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter to the entire population, “We mourn him by staying united, enthusiastically participating in the resistance, following his example of bravery and indomitability, and accomplishing the cause of national salvation to which he had devoted his entire life”(10).


(1) An Autobiography of Huynh Thuc Khang- from A History of Revolutionary Struggle in Tien PhuoDistrict1858-1975, Party Committee of Tien Phuocdistrict, 1993, p.31.

(2) The newspaper was published from August 1927 and was stopped in April 1943 by the colonialist government.

(3) Ho Chi Minh: Complete Works, National Political Publishing House, Hanoi, 2011, p.142.

(4) Chuong Thau and Pham NgoMinh: A Collection of Huynh Thuc Khang, DaNang Publishing House, p.269.

(5), (6) Op. cit., pp.383-385, 269.

(7), (8) “Somebody asked him: 

- What are Mr. Ho’s wealth and career like? What is his education like so people respect him that much?

Mr.Huynh smiled and said:

- It’s not what you think. Mr.Hois not like many other people who, in the name of revolution, enrich themselves and become senior officials. He is penniless. About qualifications, he’s not a doctor or postgraduate at all. But I’m pretty sure that none of us as well as our predecessors can match his intellect or revolutionary career. He can see very far, not only about domestic issues but also world affairs. What’s the future of this country like? How is that country going to change? He is an eloquent speaker who never bores his audience... (Memoirs by Le Nhiep - from the archive of the Institute of Ho Chi Minh).

(9) Statement in a press conference on June 17, 1946.

(10) Ho Chi Minh: Complete Works, vol.5, op. cit., p.143.

Assoc. Prof., Dr. Pham Hong Chuong

Institute of Ho Chi Minh and Party Leaders

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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