Joel of Far Outliers has been posting excerpts from A Story of Vietnam, by Truong Buu Lam (Outskirts, 2010), and his post on the “Late Demise of Classical Chinese in Vietnam” was very interesting to me—I hadn’t realized Chinese was used as late as it was. He starts out talking about how the French encouraged the use of quoc ngu to replace Chinese characters, then says:

It was, however, only toward the beginning of the 1920s that the Vietnamese warmed up to it and used it readily in their every day activities. In the early years of the twentieth century, Phan Boi Chau and Phan Chau Trinh still wrote all their works in classical Chinese. Even in 1924, in Paris, Phan Chau Trinh composed his many letters asking the French minister of Colonies to allow him to go home in the purest style of classical Chinese. The Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc [東京義塾 Eastern Capital Free School, named for Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Tokyo Gijuku (later Keio)] published their classic material in Chinese. The proclamation of the Thai Nguyen mutiny was written in Chinese. Classical Chinese survived at least to the middle of the century for two reasons. The last Confucian examinations were held only in 1918 in Hue, and the royal court of Annam will continue to use Chinese in its official documents until 1945, naturally with a great deal of translations into quoc ngu and French, for, to my knowledge, the last Vietnamese emperor had an exclusively French education.

(See Joel’s post for Wikipedia links and some examples of Vietnamese renditions of Classical Chinese.)


  1. Phan Boi Chau? Are the first two names pronounced “Fan Boy”?

  2. I’ve always believed that a “fan boy” is one of those youths who wave a palm branch over the head of a pharaoh. According to the OED under “fan”, “fan boy” and “fan man” were occupational descriptions in 1921.
    I wonder whether less compliance is expected of today’s fan boys than of “groupies” in the ’60s. Surely the Chinese are not already sliding into those decadent practices ?

  3. In case Dr. Weevil’s question is a serious one, no; Phan is pronounced [pʰan], similar to English pun but with a different vowel quality.

  4. Bathrobe says

    John, are you sure? As far as I know, ‘ph’ in Vietnamese is usually pronounced as /f/ (as in phớ, cà phê, etc.)

  5. John Emerson says

    There’s a really severe divide in the writing of Chinese history at the transition from wenyan to baihua. Basic classical Chinese isn’t that hard to learn, but the highly allusive and stylized mandarin style used before 1911 adds a whole other level of difficulty. As I’ve said here before, the grandfather of a friend of mine was a correspondent of Hu Shih and other eminent Chinese intellectuals, and she has a collection of his letters, but last I saw he she couldn’t find anyone able to read them.

  6. It pains me to suggest that John Cowan is wrong, but yeah, I’m pretty sure ph is a voiceless labiodental fricative (/f/).

  7. marie-lucie says

    When I was in university in France (a long time ago), I slightly knew a Vietnamese student called Pham. He was frequently embarrassed as his name was pronounced just like femme.

  8. Indeed, I was quite wrong here: Vietnamese ph was formerly [pʰ] but is now [f]; for this reason there is no orthographic f. I should have checked.

  9. pʰan [former Vietnamese pronunciation]/ Phan[modern Vietnamese pronunciation] = Pan in Mandarin = 潘 in Chinese.
    Pham = Fan in Mandarin = 范 in Chinese.
    The pronunciation of 潘 in Cantonese is Poon, but the Chinese phonetic of 番 is “fan” in Cantonese. As a last name, it is Poon, but somehow it was mixed up in Vietnamese and became a mixture of Faan and Poon, and so became Phan.
    Pham = 范 which is Fan in Mandarin and Faan in Cantonese.
    Both Phan and Pham are Vietnamese last names borrowed from Chinese surnamese via Cantonese pronunciation, not Mandarin pronunciation.
    For more:

  10. Oops! I meant “surnames” not “surnamese”.

  11. Phan Boi Chau? Are the first two names pronounced “Fan Boy”?
    No. Phonetically, it’s really “phahn boiy jow”, so Phan does not sound like the English word “Fan” at all.

  12. somehow it was mixed up in Vietnamese and became a mixture of Faan and Poon, and so became Phan.
    The pronunciation of 潘 as Phan seems to be completely regular, cf. characters with the same Middle Chinese rhyme: 瞞 man, 寬 khoan. No mixing-up I guess.
    (Но я должен отказаться от кормления троллей I guess)

  13. Mr Kelvin: you seem to be working on the assumption that trolls are monolingual. The idea does seem plausible, because trolls are supposed to be cunning and yet narrowly focussed on causing annoyance. No need to acquire several languages if you can get your kicks with one.
    With отказаться I condescended to consult Google Translate, because I remember what казать means (more or less). отказаться от reminds me somehow of the German von sich weisen = “spurn”. In the cod-idiom of introductory grammars: “instruct it (to take itself away) from me”, or “show it the door”. At least I could use this expression as a mnemonic aid.

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