Phan Châu Trinh (Chinese: 潘周楨, 1872 - 1926), courtesy name Tử Cán (梓幹), pen name Tây Hồ (西湖) or Hi Mã (希馬), was an early 20th-century Vietnamese nationalist. He sought to end France's colonial occupation of Vietnam. He opposed both violence and turning to other countries for support, and instead believed in attaining Vietnamese liberation by educating the population and by appealing to French democratic principles.
Phan Châu Trinh was born in Tây Lộc, Quảng Nam Province in Annam, French Indochina on 9 September 1872. He was the son of a rich land owner and scholar. His father was a fighter in the Scholars' Revolt, but in 1885 he was killed by the other leaders in the revolt who suspected him of being a traitor. This left Trinh an orphan at the age of 13. His older brother educated him in classics. In 1901 he got the highest Mandarin degree.
In 1905 Trinh resigned from his post in the mandarin bureaucracy. He had become strongly opposed to the monarchy, traditional Chinese Confucian-influenced Vietnamese court and mandarin system. He called for an end to the monarchy and its replacement with a democratic republic. Having earlier met Phan Bội Châu in 1903, in March/April 1906 he went to Hong Kong and then to Kwangtung to meet with him again. He made his way there disguised as a disheveled common laborer. He then went to Japan with Châu as part of the Đông-Du movement. They stayed in Yokohama, where they had set up a two-story Japanese house to teach students, which they called Binh Ngo Hien. In June they went to Tokyo to inspect the Japanese education and political system.
Trinh disagreed with Châu's early ideas of asking for military assistance from Japan, as he didn't trust Japan's militarism. He also had other disagreements with Châu's philosophy. Therefore, they had a friendly argument for a few weeks before he returned to Vietnam. Back in Vietnam he continued to receive letters from Châu arguing about his opposition to the monarchy and his belief that the French could be used. Trinh continued to campaign with slogans like "Up with Democracy, Out with Monarchy", and "Making Use of the French in the Quest for Progress". This made Châu quite upset and worried that the movement was fragmenting and that fundraising efforts would fail.
In 1906 he wrote to the French Governor General Paul Beau. He asked the French to live up to their civilising mission. He blamed them for the exploitation of the countryside by Vietnamese collaborators. He called on France to develop modern legal, educational, and economic institutions in Vietnam and industrialise the country, and to remove the remnants of the mandarin system. In 1907 he opened a patriotic modern school for young Vietnamese men and women. The school was called Đông Kinh Nghĩa Thục (aka Tonkin Free School). He was a lecturer at the school, and Châu's writings were also used. The school carefully avoided doing anything illegal. Its ideas attacked the brutality of the French occupation of Vietnam, but also wanted to learn modernisation from the French. The school required scholars to renounce their elitist traditions and learn from the masses. It also offered the peasants a modern education. After peasant tax revolts erupted in 1908, Trinh was arrested, and his school was closed. He was sentenced to death, but it was commuted to life imprisonment after his progressive admirers in France intervened. He was sent to Côn Đảo island. In 1911, after three years, he was pardoned and sentenced to house arrest. He said he would rather return to prison than have partial freedom. So instead he was deported to France, where the French continued to monitor him.
He went to Paris in 1915 to get the support of progressive French politicians and Vietnamese exiles. There he worked with Hồ Chí Minh, Phan Văn Trường, Nguyễn Thế Truyền, and Nguyễn An Ninh in "The Group of Vietnamese Patriots". The group was based at 6 Villa des Gobelins. There they wrote patriotic articles signed with the name Nguyễn Ái Quốc which Hồ Chí Minh later used, "on behalf of the Group of Vietnamese Patriots". He worked as a photograph retoucher to support himself while he was in France. He returned to Saigon in 1925, where he died on 24 March 1926, aged 53. His funeral was attended by 60,000 people and caused big protests across the country demanding the end of French colonial occupation, which would not occur for three more decades.
In Tokyo, Trinh told Châu: "The level of their people is so high, and the level of our people is so low! How could we not become slaves? That some students now can enter Japanese schools has been your great achievement. Please stay on in Tokyo to take a quiet rest and devote yourself to writing, and not to making appeals for combat against the French. You should only call for 'popular rights and popular enlightenment.' Once popular rights have been achieved, then we can think about other things."
Châu commented: "Thereafter over more than ten days, he and I debated time and again, and our opinions were diametrically opposed. That is to say, he wished to overthrow the monarchy in order to create a basis for the promotion of popular rights; I, on the contrary, maintained that first the foreign enemy should be driven out, and after our nation's independence was restored we could talk about other things. My plan was to make use of the monarchy, which he opposed absolutely. His plan was to raise up the people to abolish the monarchy, with which I absolutely disagreed. In other words, he and I were pursuing one and the same goal, but our means were considerably different. He wished to start by relying on the French to abolish the monarchy, but I wished to start by driving out the French to restore Vietnam - That was the difference. However, even though his political view was the opposite of mine, he liked me personally a great deal and we roomed together for several weeks. Then all of a sudden he decided to return to our country."
Most cities in Vietnam have named major streets after him.