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source : http://afarvietnam.org/

 

Alexandre de Rhodes and the Vietnamese language

Among the East Asia countries under the Chinese cultural sphere of influence; only Vietnam got rid completely of Chinese characters from its written language. Chinese scripts, used for centuries, were scrapped and replaced with a phonetic alphabet. The story spans over three centuries, and the unlikely hero of the early period was a man from a distant place, Alexandre de Rhodes.
Alexandre de Rhodes and the Vietnamese language

The missionary from Avignon

Alexandre de Rhodes was a Jesuit missionary born on 3-15-1593 in Avignon, a city on the Rhone River, in the South East of France, and the siege of the papacy from 1309 to 1376.

The Society of Jesus and the Orient.

After his initiation to priesthood in Rome at the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, de Rhodes wanted to go to Japan and left Lisbon, Portugal, on April 4th 1619. The sea trip was arduous. They arrived in Goa (India) after six months and five days. There, they waited for a propitious moment to sail to Japan. However, the situation in Japan deteriorated, persecution of Christians became intolerable and Rhodes was ordered to switch his destination to Macao (May 1623), the portal to China. He spent six years in evangelization between Macao and Goa. He stayed at the college Madre de Deus in Macao “where all academic subjects were taught as in any great European university”. He learned Chinese and about Chinese religions.

A divided Vietnam in the 17th century

In 1624, de Rhodes arrived in the Southern part of then Vietnam, usually referred to as Đàng Trong in Vietnamese (the Inner Region, known to the West as Cochinchina). De Rhodes was surprised by the exotic tonal sounds of the Vietnamese language. Early 1625, he was in Hải Phố (‘Seaside Town’ or Faifo) or in the surrounding area, in modern Central Vietnam, accompanied by four other Jesuits priests and a Japanese catholic. Hải Phố, now known as the touristic town of Hội An and a World Heritage site, was bustling with trade during the 16th and 17th centuries, with settlers from different provinces of China, Japan, India and Holland. Among the Japanese immigrants were Catholics who had fled religious persecution in their own homeland.

Although he was already fluent in several languages, when de Rhodes first came to the South of Vietnam, and listened to the native language, especially when spoken by women, it sounded to him like the “twittering of birds”, and felt so desperate about ever being able to speak such a language. However, Rhodes started immediately to learn to speak the local Vietnamese dialect. “Everyday I was given lessons, he said, which I studied with the same application as I once studied theology in Rome.” This early period in his study of Vietnamese in Central Vietnam would influence the Vietnamese of his dictionary many years later, even when the latter was mostly based on a slightly different Vietnamese spoken in Northern part of Vietnam (Đàng Ngoài). He took a Vietnamese name Đắc Lộ, which sounds somewhat similar to “de Rhodes”, and meaning “The one who found the path”.

 

De Rhodes’s teachers of Vietnamese

One of his initial teachers was an 11-12 year old Vietnamese who managed to teach him all the tones and correct pronunciation of Vietnamese in just within three weeks. Even without any background in European languages, in the same short period, the boy was able to learn enough of the missionary‘s language to understand most of what he said and wanted him to do. The child, who later took the name of Raphael Rhodes, also learned to read and write Latin and Portuguese and assisted the priest at his mass. He impressed the priest tremendously with his intelligence and his ability to memorize, and later became his loyal assistant in his evangelical work in Vietnam and neighboring Laos.

However, his main teacher of Vietnamese was Francisco de Pina, a Portuguese priest. Born in Guardia in 1585, he joined the Society of Jesus at the age of 19 and for several years trained in theology, Japanese, sciences and arts in Macao before his arrival in Vietnam in 1617. He started immediately to study the spoken Vietnamese and was able to “grasp the cores of the language “only after a short period. He wrote a text about Vietnamese orthography and tones and was working on a treatise about Vietnamese syntax, collecting samples of stories and documents for the purpose of illustration of Vietnamese usage and grammar. Unfortunately, he died of drowning in 1625, only a year after de Rhodes arrived in Vietnam.

Among the missionaries, de Pina was the only one who spoke Vietnamese fluently, and did not need interpreters to communicate with the natives. This is the main reason why critics refuse to recognize de Rhodes as “the Father of quốc ngữ’ and would rather give this title to de Pina. However, despite his proficiency in its use and his pioneering research, de Pina apparently did not publish about the Vietnamese language. De Rhodes fully acknowledged, in his dictionary, the contribution of de Pina as his Vietnamese teacher and the role of other two Portuguese missionaries, Gaspar do Amaral (1592-1645) and Antonio Barbosa (1594-1647).

Evangelization activities

As Vietnam became de Rhodes’ second country, his evangelization efforts became very successful, according to his reports that some critics believed were somewhat inflated for the purpose of getting more backing from Europe. However, there were still episodes of hostility toward the missionaries, mostly based on the accusation that Christians abandoned the cult of ancestors. De Rhodes was expulsed from the country no less than six occasions but he always tried to come back even had the opportunity to meet with influential people. In general the missionaries were welcomed by both Lords, the motive being their desire to obtain their alliance and to exchange commerce with the Portuguese, as explained by Baldinotti, another Jesuit who arrived before de Rhodes. But as soon as they realized that the priests were not useful to them anymore, they expelled them (9).

In March1627, de Rhodes because of his fluency in Vietnamese was sent to Đàng Ngoài in North Vietnam. He boarded a Portuguese merchant ship and arrived in Cua Bang. (present day Ba Lang). Lord Trinh Tráng was on his way to fight Lord Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên for the first time, bringing King Lê with him. Portuguese merchants met him on his way to the South. The lord received the Portuguese delegation and the missionaries rather warmly. He asked the Portuguese ships to stay with his boats reserved for his royal maids and family members at a section of a river in Thanh Hóa, then left to fight his war against Nguyễn Phúc Nguyên. During several months, while waiting at this river section, Alexandre de Rhodes began his evangelizing work and baptized a certain number of people, among them two belonging to the intellectual class, a scholar and a monk, who took the baptismal names of Joseph and Ignatius.”

“Back from his defeat, Trịnh Tráng still received warmly the delegation. The Portuguese offered him a defense weapon; Rhodes gave him a treatise of Euclidean mathematics printed in Chinese characters by missionaries in China, a mechanical clock and an hourglass. Trịnh Tráng appeared to be very pleased. And he took the delegation upstream the Đáy River to Kẻ Chợ (the capital). At the beginning, Rhodes lived in the Trịnh Lord ‘s palace, but afterward, he got the permission to move outside so that people who wanted to learn about his religion could come to him easily.”

Four months later, the Trinh Lord ordered him to build a nice residence and beautiful church. So many people came to listen to him that he had to hold four to six sessions a day. A sister of the King, several members of the royal family and a few mandarins and generals were converted. At one point, there were a hundred catechists who studied in his seminary funded by the Catholic community.

Lord Trịnh Tráng’s sympathy toward the missionaries faded when suspicion against them was aroused by diverse groups of people who felt menaced by their presence: the concubines who were dismissed by men when they converted, the eunuchs who were afraid of losing their jobs if their lord converted, the monks who lost their followers.. Then an accusation of collaboration with the lord’s enemies led to an edict in 1628 forbidding people to contact the missionaries and to embrace their religion. De Rhodes received an edict of expulsion but tried to stay around for another two years. He finally was expelled for good from Đàng Ngoài in May 1630 and returned to Macao where he spent the next ten years as a professor of theology. In February 1640, he came back to Đàng Trong in the South.

 

The end of his stay in Vietnam

De Rhodes traveled all over South Vietnam but most his activities were in the areas of Huế and Đà nẵng, with the help of hundreds of catechists that he trained, until in 1645 when he was condemned to death by decapitation. His sentence was fortunately commuted to perpetual exile. He was definitively banned from the country by Lord Nguyễn. “I left Cochinchina in my body, he said, but certainly not in my heart; and so it is with Tonkin. My heart is in both countries, and I don’t think it will ever be able to leave them.” De Rhodes returned to Rome by 1649 and pleaded for increased funding for Catholic missions to Vietnam. There were probably 60,000 Catholics in Vietnam at the end of his stay. However, the Church sent him to Persia where he was the director of the Jesuit mission in that country and studied Persian well enough to be able to preach in that language. He died in the ancient capital city of Isfahan on November 16th 1660, at the age of sixty seven.

 

Legacy

Regarding his most important contributions to the development of modern Vietnam, the creation of the first Vietnamese dictionary and grammar treatise, it took along time for the quốc ngữ  to have the opportunity to grow and eventually to displace totally Chinese script (characters) as an effective, comprehensive written expression of the Vietnamese language. For the next two centuries, even Catholic catechisms and tracts were published not in Romanized script but in Chinese, nôm, or Latin. The most famous Vietnamese piece of literature, Nguyen Du’s The Tale of Kieu was written in classic nom characters more than a century after Rhodes published his dictionary.

In 1865, Gia Dinh Bao, the first modern script Vietnamese newspaper was published in Saigon. In 1917, an imperial decree abolished traditional forms of educations in favor of those based on the new script and French. Not long after, Vietnamese intelligentsia and politicians were quick to recognize  quốc ngữ  as an efficient, easy to master means to obliterate illiteracy, of educating the masses and creating a national consciousness. The rest is history; within a few decades, quốc ngữ  unexpectedly helped transform Vietnamese into a full fledged written as well as spoken language. More than three hundred years, after de Rhodes’ death, it seems that almost everybody agrees on this point, that at the root of all this development of modern Vietnamese language, lie the contributions of this obscure missionary from a far distant land.

 

Hien V. Ho

(Edited and abbreviated from the original article published in “The Men of Vietnam”, by Nghia Minh Vo, Chat Van Dang, Hien Van Ho , 2008, Outskirts Publisher)

December 17th, 2008

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