Phan Đình Phùng
Phan Đình Phùng (Vietnamese: [faːn ɗîɲ fûŋ];
1847 – January 21, 1896) was a Vietnamese revolutionary who led
rebel armies against French colonial forces in Vietnam. He was the
most prominent of the
Confucian court scholars involved in anti-French
military campaigns in the 19th century and was cited after his death
by 20th-century nationalists as a national hero. He was renowned for
his uncompromising will and principles—on one occasion, he
refused to surrender even after the French had desecrated his
ancestral tombs and had arrested and threatened to kill his family.
Born into a family of mandarins from
Hà Tĩnh Province, Phan
continued his ancestors' traditions by placing first in the
metropolitan imperial examinations in 1877. Phan quickly rose through
the ranks under Emperor
Tự Đức of the Nguyễn Dynasty, gaining a
reputation for his integrity and uncompromising stance against
corruption. Phan was appointed as the Imperial Censor, a position that
allowed him to criticise his fellow mandarins and even the emperor. As
the head of the censorate, Phan's investigations led to the removal of
many incompetent or corrupt mandarins.
Upon Tự Đức's death, Phan almost lost his life during a power
struggle in the imperial court. The regent Tôn Thất Thuyết
disregarded Tự Đức's will of succession, and three emperors were
deposed and killed in just over a year. Phan protested against
Thuyet's activities, was stripped of his honours and briefly jailed,
before being exiled to his home province. At the time, France had just
Vietnam and made it a part of French Indochina. Along with
Thuyet, Phan organised rebel armies as part of the Cần Vương
movement, which sought to expel the French and install the boy Emperor
Hàm Nghi at the head of an independent Vietnam. This campaign
continued for three years until 1888, when the French captured Hàm
Nghi and exiled him to Algeria.
Phan and his military assistant
Cao Thắng continued their guerrilla
campaign, building a network of spies, bases and small weapons
Cao Thắng was killed in the process in late
1893. The decade-long campaign eventually wore Phan down, and he died
from dysentery as the French surrounded his forces.
1 Court official
2 Revolutionary career
2.1 Cần Vương
2.2 After Cần Vương
Phan was born in the village of
Đông Thái in the northern central
coast province of Hà Tĩnh.
Đông Thái was famous for producing
high-ranking mandarins and had been the home of senior imperial
officials since the time of the Lê Dynasty. Twelve consecutive
generations of the Phan family had been successful mandarinate
graduates. All three of Phan's brothers who lived to adulthood
passed the imperial examinations and became mandarins. Early on,
Phan indicated his distaste for the classical curriculum required of
an aspiring mandarin. He nevertheless persevered with his studies,
passing the regional exams in 1876 and then topping the metropolitan
exams the following year. In his exam response, Phan cited Japan as
an example of how an Asian country could make rapid military progress
given sufficient willpower.
Phan was never known for his scholarly abilities; it was his
reputation for principled integrity that led to his quick rise through
the ranks under the reign of Emperor Tự Đức. He was first
appointed as a district mandarin in Ninh Bình Province, where he
punished a Vietnamese
Roman Catholic priest, who, with the tacit
support of French missionaries, had harassed local non-Catholics. Amid
the diplomatic controversy that followed, he avoided blaming the
unpopular alliance between Vietnamese Catholics and the French on
Catholicism itself, stating that the partnership had arisen out of the
military and political vulnerabilities of Vietnam's imperial
government. Despite this, the
Huế court eventually removed Phan
from this post.
Phan was transferred to the
Huế court as a member of the censorate,
a watchdog body that monitored the work of the mandarinate. He earned
the ire of many of his colleagues, but the trust of the emperor, by
revealing that the vast majority of the court mandarins were making a
mockery of a royal edict to engage in regular rifle practice. Tự
Đức later dispatched Phan on an inspection trip to northern
Vietnam. His report led to the ousting of many officials who were
deemed corrupt or incompetent, including the viceroy of the northern
region. He rose to become the Ngu Su, or Imperial Censor, a
position which allowed him to criticise other high officials and even
the emperor for misconduct. Phan openly criticised Tôn Thất
Thuyết, the foremost mandarin of the court, believing him to be rash
and dishonest. Aside from his work in rooting out corruption, Phan
also compiled a historical geography of Vietnam, which was published
Despite his prominent position in the Nguyễn Dynasty, little is
known about Phan's personal stance on Vietnamese relations with
France, which was in the process of colonising Vietnam. France had
first invaded in 1858, beginning the colonisation of southern
Vietnam. Three provinces were ceded under the 1862 Treaty of
Saigon, and a further three in 1867 to form the colony of
Cochinchina. During the period, there was debate in the Huế
court on the best strategy to regain the territory. One group
advocated military means, while another believed in the use of
diplomacy in addition to financial and religious concessions. By
the time of Tự Đức's death in 1883, the whole of
colonised, henceforth incorporated with
Cambodia into French
Upon his death in 1883, the childless
Tự Đức had named his
nephew, Kiến Phúc, as his successor, rather than Dục Đức,
his most senior heir.
Tự Đức had written in his will that Dục
Đức was depraved and unworthy of ruling the country. However,
led by Thuyet, the regents enthroned
Dục Đức under the pressure
of the ladies of the court. Phan protested against the
violation of Tự Đức's will of succession and refused to sanction
anyone other than Kien Phuc. Lucky to escape the death penalty, Phan
was stripped of his positions. Later,
Dục Đức was deposed and
executed by Thuyet on the grounds of ignoring court etiquette,
ignoring the mourning rites for
Tự Đức and having affairs with
the late emperor's consorts. Phan again protested the regents'
actions and was briefly imprisoned by Thuyet, before being exiled to
his home province.
Phan rallied to the cause of the boy Emperor Hàm Nghi—the fourth
monarch in little over a year—after an abortive royal uprising at
Huế in 1885. Thuyet and fellow regent Nguyễn Văn Tường
Hiệp Hòa after disposing of Dục Đức. However,
the new emperor was wary of the regents' behaviour and attempted to
avoid their influence, leading Thuyet to organise his execution.
Kiến Phúc ascended the throne, but was poisoned by his
adoptive mother Học Phi—one of Tự Đức's wives—whom he
caught having intercourse with Tuong. Kien Phuc was thus replaced
by his 14-year-old brother Hàm Nghi. In the meantime, the French
concluded that the regents were causing too much trouble and had to be
Thuyet had already decided to place
Hàm Nghi at the head of the Phong
Trào Cần Vuơng (Loyalty to the Emperor Movement), which sought to
end French rule with a royalist rebellion. Phan helped the cause by
setting up bases in
Hà Tĩnh and creating his own guerrilla army.
Thuyet had hoped to secure support from the
Qing Dynasty of China,
but Phan thought that Vietnam's best chance of effective support came
from Siam. Gia Long, the founder of the
Nguyễn Dynasty and
great-grandfather of Tự Đức, had married his sister off to the
King of Siam. He had also used
Siam as a base-in-exile during his
quest for the throne in the 1780s. However, direct appeals to the
Siamese government only yielded a few pack trains of firearms and
ammunition. In preparation for the revolt, Thuyet had been building
up an armed base at
Tan So for over a year.
In any case, the
Cần Vương revolt started on July 5, 1885 when
Thuyet launched a surprise attack against the colonial forces after a
diplomatic confrontation with the French. Thuyet took Hàm
Nghi northwards to the
Tan So mountain base near the border with Laos
after the attack failed. The campaign was launched when the emperor
issued the Can Vuong edict that had been prepared by the
Phan initially rallied support from his native village and set up his
headquarters on Mount Vũ Quang, which overlooked the coastal French
fortress at Hà Tĩnh. Phan's organisation became a model for future
insurgents. For flexibility, he divided his operational zone into
twelve districts. His forces upheld military discipline and wore
uniforms. Phan initially used the local scholar-gentry as his
military commanders. Their first notable attack targeted two nearby
Catholic villages that had collaborated with French forces. Colonial
troops arrived a few hours later, quickly overwhelming the rebels and
forcing them to retreat to their home village, where the retribution
was heavy. Phan managed to escape but his elder brother was
captured by the same former viceroy of northern
Vietnam who had been
removed from office as a result of Phan's critical report. The
disgraced official was now a French collaborator, serving as the
Nghệ An Province.
The strategy of attempting to pressure Phan into capitulating was a
classical strategy of coercion. The French used an old friend and
fellow villager to make an emotional and deeply
Confucian appeal for
Phan to surrender in order to save his brother, his ancestral tombs
and his entire village. Phan was reported to have replied:
From the time I joined with you in the Can Vuong movement, I
determined to forget the question of family and village. Now I have
but one tomb, a very large one, that must be defended: the land of
Vietnam. I have only one brother, very important, that is in danger:
more than twenty million countrymen. If I worry about my own tombs,
who will worry about defending the tombs of the rest of the country?
If I save my own brother, who will save all the other brothers of the
country? There is only one way for me to die now.
Phan was later reported to have simply retorted, "If anyone carves up
my brother, remember to send me some of the soup". However, he
held no illusions about the prospect of successfully driving out the
French, stating "It is our destiny. We accept it."
This incident and Phan's response are often cited as one of the
reasons why he was so admired by the populace and among future
generations of Vietnamese anti-colonialists: he adhered to the highest
personal standards of patriotism. He identified with a countrywide
cause, far removed from the questions of family and region.
Phan's men were well-trained and disciplined, and the military
inspiration behind his rebellion was derived from Cao Thang, a bandit
leader who had been protected from royal forces by Phan's brother a
decade earlier. They operated in the provinces of Thanh Hóa in the
north, Hà Tĩnh,
Nghệ An in the centre and Quảng Bình in the
south, with their strongest areas being the two central provinces.
In 1887, Phan concluded that his tactics were misguided, ordering his
subordinates to cease open combat and resort to guerrilla tactics. His
men built up a network of base camps, food caches, intelligence agents
and peasant supply contacts. Phan traveled to the north in the hope of
coordinating strategic and tactical plans with other leaders. In the
Cao Thang led a force of around 1,000 men with some 500
firearms between them.
Cao Thang produced around 300 rifles by
disassembling and copying 1874-model French weapons that had been
captured. For the purpose of creating such replica guns, they
captured Vietnamese artisans. According to French officers who later
captured some of the Vietnamese copies, the weapons were proficiently
reproduced. The only details in which they were regarded as being
defective were in the tempering of the springs, which were improvised
with umbrella spokes, and the lack of rifling in the barrels, which
curtailed range and accuracy.
Nevertheless, the weaponry used by Phan's rebels was far inferior to
that of their adversaries, and their inland positions were within
firing range of the French Navy. The Vietnamese could not rely on
China to give them material support, and other European powers such as
Portugal, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom were unwilling to
sell them weapons for various reasons. Thus, Phan had to explore
overland routes to procure weapons from Siamese sources—using
seafaring transport was impossible due to the presence of the French
Navy. He instructed his followers to create a secret route from Hà
Laos into northeastern Siam; one such route from Mount
Vu Quang was believed to have been created around 1888. It is
unclear if Phan himself went to Thailand, but a young female
supporter named Co Tam was his designated arms buyer in Tha Uthen,
which boasted a substantial expatriate Vietnamese community. In
1890, the Siamese Army transported around 1,000 Austrian
repeating-rifles from Bangkok to
Luang Prabang in Laos. However, it is
unclear whether the weapons found their way into Vietnamese hands or
whether they were related to Co Tam's activities.
After Cần Vương
In 1888, Hàm Nghi's Muong bodyguard Truong Quang Ngoc betrayed
him, leading to the emperor's capture and deportation to
Algeria. Phan and
Cao Thang fought on in the mountainous
areas of Hà Tĩnh,
Nghệ An and Thanh Hóa. Another 15 bases were
built along the mountain to complement the headquarters at Vu Quang.
Each base had a subordinate commander leading units numbering between
100 and 500 men. The operations were funded by local villagers, who
were levied with a land tax in silver and rice. Local bases
were supported by nearby villages and excess funds were sent to Vu
Quang. Phan's men foraged and sold cinnamon bark to raise funds, while
lowland peasants donated spare metals for the production of
When Phan returned from the north in 1889, his first order was to
track down Hàm Nghi's betrayer Ngoc. When he was found, Phan
personally executed Ngoc in Tuyên Hóa. He then began a series of
small-unit attacks on French installations through the summer of 1890,
but these proved indecisive. The French relied mostly on district and
provincial colonial units to man their perpetually increasing line of
forts, which were usually commanded by a French lieutenant. In
late 1890, a French effort to move into the low-lying villages and
isolate the populace from the mountainous rebel bases failed. In the
spring of 1892, a major French sweep of
Hà Tĩnh failed, and in
Cao Thang seized the initiative with a bold counterattack on
the provincial capital. The rebels broke into the prison and freed
their compatriots, killing a large number of the Vietnamese soldiers
who defended the penitentiary as members of the French colonial
forces. This caused the French to intensify their efforts against
Phan, and a counteroffensive was conducted throughout the remainder of
1892, forcing the rebels to retreat back into the mountains. Two of
their bases fell and steady French pressure began to break their
covert resistance links with lowland villages. This compounded the
problems of securing food, supplies, intelligence data and recruits. A
ring of French forts continued to be erected, increasingly pinning
down Phan's men. The only notable gain for Phan's forces during
this period was the acquisition of gunpowder supplies from Siam.
This enabled them to mix foreign and local powder in a 50:50 ratio,
rather than their previous weaker mixture of 20:80.
Late in the year, the burden on Phan increased after the loss of two
Can Vuong allies. In September, Tong Duy Tân—who led the royalists
in Thanh Hóa— was captured and publicly executed. Nguyen
Thien Thuat, who had been active in the northern provinces of Hưng
Yên and Hải Dương, fled to
Guangxi in China. The supporters of
Tan and Tuat moved south and integrated into Phan's force.
Cao Thang proposed a full-scale attack on the provincial
Nghệ An and the surrounding posts. The plan proposed to Phan
included diversions to the south and the training of almost 2,000 men
in conventional military tactics. Unconvinced of its viability, Phan
reluctantly approved the plan. The troops were eager, but after
overpowering several small posts en route, the main force was pinned
down while attacking the French fort of No on September 9, 1893. Along
with his brother,
Cao Thang was mortally wounded while leading a risky
frontal attack with 150 men, and the forces retreated in disarray.
Phan regarded the loss of
Cao Thang as a significant one, admitting as
much in delivering the eulogy and funeral oration. According to
the historian David Marr, there was evidence that Phan clearly
realised the advantages and limitations of prolonged resistance.
Although Phan had previously stated that he was not expecting ultimate
success, the guerrilla leader thought that it was important to
keep pressuring the French in order to demonstrate to the populace
that there was an alternative to what he felt was a defeatist attitude
Hoang Cao Khai
Hoàng Cao Khải, the French-installed viceroy of Tonkin, perceived
Phan's intent to a degree that his French masters did not. Khai
was from a scholar-gentry family from the same village as Phan. He
became the main backer of a determined effort to crush Phan's forces,
using every means available: political, psychological and
economic. By late 1894, relatives and suspected sympathisers of
the insurgents were intimidated and more resistance commanders had
been killed. Communications were disrupted, and the rebel hideouts
became increasingly insecure. In an attempt to force Phan to
surrender, the French arrested his family and desecrated the tombs of
his ancestors, publicly displaying the remains in Hà Tĩnh.
Khai delivered a message to Phan via a relative. Phan sent a written
reply, allowing their exchange to be studied. Khai recalled the common
origins of the pair and promised Phan that he would lobby
Jean Marie Antoine de Lanessan and other French
officials for an amnesty in return for Phan's surrender. Khai
credited Phan with righteousness, loyalty and dedication towards the
The situation has changed and even those without intelligence or
education have concluded that nothing remains to be saved. How is it
that you, a man of vast understanding, do not realise this?... You are
determined to do whatever you deem to be righteous... All that matters
indeed is giving of one's life to one's country. No one therefore can
deter you from your goal.
I have always been taught that superior men should consider the care
of the people as fundamental; who has ever heard of men who were loyal
to their King but forgot the people's aspirations?... As of now,
hundreds of families are subject to grief; how do you have the heart
to fight on? I venture to predict that, should you pursue your
struggle, not only will the population of our village be destroyed but
our entire country will be transformed into a sea of blood and a
mountain of bones.
According to Marr, "Phan Dinh Phung's reply was a classic in savage
understatement, utilizing standard formalism in the interest of
propaganda, with deft denigration of his opponent". Phan appealed
to Vietnamese nationalist sentiment, recalling his country's stubborn
resistance to Chinese aggression. He cited defensive wars against the
Han, Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties, asking why a country "a
thousand times more powerful" could not annex Vietnam. Phan
concluded that it was "because the destiny of our country has been
willed by Heaven itself".
Phan placed the responsibility for the suffering of the people at the
feet of the French, who "acted like a storm". After analysing
his own actions, Phan concluded with a thinly veiled attack on Khai
and his collaborators.
If our region has suffered to such an extent, it was not only from the
misfortunes of war. You must realise that wherever the French go,
there flock around them groups of petty men who offer plans and tricks
to gain the enemy's confidence. These persons create every kind of
enmity; they incriminate innocent persons, blaming one one day,
punishing another the next. They use every expedient to squeeze the
people out of their possessions. That is how hundred of misdeeds,
thousands of offenses have been perpetrated.
Khai's appeal was rebutted with an appeal to history, nationalist
sentiment and a demand that the blame for death and destruction lay
with the colonial forces and their Vietnamese assistants. Phan raised
the stakes above family and village to the entire nation and its
With Phan's rebuke in his hands, Khai translated both documents into
French and presented them to de Lanessan, proposing that it was time
for the final "destruction of this scholar gentry rebellion". In
July 1895, French area commanders called in 3,000 troops to tighten
the cordon around the three remaining rebel bases. The insurgents
were able to execute ambushes at night, but Phan contracted dysentery
and had to be carried on a stretcher whenever his unit moved. A
collaborator mandarin named Nguyen Than, who had previous experience
in pacification in
Quảng Ngãi and Quảng Nam, was drafted in to
isolate the insurgents from their supporters in the villages. Cut off
from their supplies, the insurgents were left to survive by eating
roots and occasional handfuls of dried corn. Their shoes were worn
through and most were without blankets. Phan died of dysentery
on January 21, 1896, and his captured followers were executed. A
report submitted by the de Lanessan to the Minister of Colonies in
Paris stated that "the soul of resistance to the protectorate was
Statue of Phan Dinh Phung in District 5,
Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Phan's remains were disturbed after his death. Ngô Đình Khả, a
Catholic mandarin and father of Ngo Dinh Diem—the first President of
South Vietnam—was a member of the French colonial administration.
Kha had Phan's tomb exhumed and used the remains in gunpowder used for
Phan is widely regarded by
Vietnamese people as a revolutionary hero.
Phan Bội Châu, regarded as the leading Vietnamese anti-colonial
figure of the early 20th century, strongly praised Phan in his
writing, with particular emphasis on his defiance of Khai. During
Phan Boi Chau's career as a teacher, he strongly emphasised Phan's
deeds to his students. In 1941, after returning to
decades in exile, the Marxist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh, then using
Nguyen Ai Quoc
Nguyen Ai Quoc (Nguyen the Patriot), invoked the memory of
Phan in appealing to the public for support for his independence
movement. Like Phan, Ho was a native of
Nghệ An and Hà
Tĩnh. In the 1940s, Ho's
Vietminh named their self-produced style
of grenades in honour of Phan. Since then, Ho's communists have
portrayed themselves as the modern day incarnations of revered
nationalist leaders such as Phan,
Trương Định and Emperors Lê
Lợi and Quang Trung, who expelled Chinese forces from
Vietnam. Both North and South
Vietnam had prominent
thoroughfares in their capital cities (
Hanoi and Saigon, respectively)
named in Phan's honour.
^ Marr, pp. 61–62.
^ a b c d e f Marr, p. 61.
^ Hodgkin, p. 117.
^ Hodgkin, p. 116.
^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Marr, p. 62.
^ a b c d e f Karnow, p. 121.
^ a b c d e Goscha, p. 24.
^ McLeod, p. 43.
^ McLeod, pp. 44–45.
^ McLeod, p. 54.
^ Karnow, p. 119.
^ McLeod, p. 55.
^ Karnow, p. 90.
^ McLeod, pp. 51–53.
^ Marr, p. 55.
^ Karnow, p. 98.
^ a b c Chapuis, p. 15.
^ Chapuis, pp. 15–18.
^ Chapuis, p. 16.
^ a b c Chapuis, p. 17.
^ a b Chapuis, p. 21.
^ a b Chapuis, p. 20.
^ Marr, p. 47.
^ Karnow, p. 99.
^ Chapuis, p. 19.
^ Marr, p. 43.
^ a b c d e f g h Chapuis, p. 93.
^ a b c d e f Marr, p. 63.
^ a b c d e f g h Goscha, p. 25.
^ a b c d e Marr, p. 64.
^ Chapuis, p. 62.
^ Marr, p. 57.
^ Karnow, p. 100.
^ a b c Marr, p. 65.
^ Marr, pp. 64–65.
^ Marr, pp. 60–61.
^ a b c d e f g Marr, p. 66.
^ a b Hodgkin, p. 113.
^ Lam, p. 123.
^ a b Lam, pp. 122–124.
^ a b c d e f Marr, p. 67.
^ a b Lam, p. 125.
^ a b c Lam, pp. 126–127.
^ a b c d Marr, p. 68.
^ Vu Ngu Chieu (February 1986). "The Other Side of the 1945 Vietnamese
Revolution: The Empire of Viet-Nam". Journal of Asian Studies. 45 (2):
^ Marr, p. 117.
^ Marr, p. 85.
^ Duiker, p. 252.
^ Duiker, p. 13.
^ Karnow, p. 173.
^ Osborne, Milton E. (1970). "Truong Vinh Ky and Phan Thanh Gian: The
Problem of a Nationalist Interpretation of 19th Century Vietnamese
History". Journal of Asian Studies. 30 (1): 85.
^ McLeod, p. 51.
^ Li, p. 13.
Vietnam Country Map. Periplus Travel Maps. 2002–2003.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Phan Dinh Phung.
Chapuis, Oscar (2000). The last emperors of Vietnam: from Tu Duc to
Bao Dai. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
Duiker, William J. (2000). Ho Chi Minh: A Life. Crows Nest, New South
Wales: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-86508-450-6.
Goscha, Christopher E. (1999). Thailand and the Southeast Asian
Networks of the Vietnamese Revolution, 1885–1954. Surrey: Curzon.
Karnow, Stanley (1997). Vietnam:A history. New York: Penguin Books.
Li Tana (1998). Nguyen Cochinchina. Ithaca, New York: Cornell
Southeast Asia Program. ISBN 0-87727-722-2.
McLeod, Mark W. (1991). The Vietnamese response to French
intervention, 1862–1874. New York: Praeger.
Marr, David G. (1970). Vietnamese anticolonialism, 1885–1925.
Berkeley, California: University of California.
Truong Buu Lam (1967). Patterns of Vietnamese response to foreign
intervention: 1858–1900. Monograph Series No. 11. New Haven,
Connecticut: Southeast Asia Studies Yale University.
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