The Vietnamese Monarchy under French Colonial Rule 1884-1945

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The Vietnamese Monarchy under French Colonial Rule 1884-1945

On the 6th June 1884, a treaty was signed in Vietnam that transferred the power of the Vietnamese monarchy to the French government. The terms of the treaty included that the Vietnamese king surrendered the control of his foreign policy and his armed forces to France. On paper, the treaty allowed the king to maintain independence over domestic dealings. However, in reality, although he continued to style himself Emperor of Dai-Nam, his sovereignty was permanently reformed by the political and governmental alterations which transformed the original treaty.

At first France seemed to conduct herself somewhere between the two lines but soon after, she was hungry for more power. Consequently, the Vietnamese king soon found his powers diminishing. The creation of an Indochinese Union in 1887 represented one step on the ladder that removed the king’s power; indeed, it transformed the whole of Indochina into a French colonial possession.

Another step was when a dichotomy was introduced into the administration of the other two parts of the old empire of Dai-Nam; “while Trung Ky (Annam) remained under the nominal rule of the Vietnamese monarch, Bac Ky (Tonkin) became a fictitious protectorate, which was increasingly under direct French administration, without the protected government being able to exercise any control. Theoretically, Tonkin remained under the authority of the king in Hue, who was represented on the spot by a Kinh-luoc (Imperial High Commissioner). However, by the royal edict of Io June 1886 royal attributions were delegated to the Kinh-luoc, who was thereby empowered to appoint officials and to take all decisions concerning the administration of Tonkin without reference to the court. In practice, this authority was devoid of significance. As under article VII of the protectorate treaty the Tonkin mandarins could be dismissed at the French authorities’ request, the Kinh-luoc was in fact in a subordinate position to the latter. Tonkin’s administrative organization was thus taken away from the Hue court and placed under the discretionary power of the protectorate’s agents. This confiscation of the king’s authority was completed ten years later, with the devolution in I897 of the Kinh-luoc’s prerogatives to the French resident superior in Tonkin, who combined in his person the power of decision and of control. The Vietnamese mandarins were kept at their posts, but they retained little more than ceremonial functions and the French residents and their delegates held the real power. Tonkin’s constitutional evolution would from then on depend entirely upon the French high official placed at the head both of the protected administration and the protectorate”.

The Vietnamese monarch soon transferred all power over to French rule. By royal edit on the 15th August 1897, the French had the power to collect all taxes in return for upkeep of the Court, the king’s expenditure and the administration.

The very last of the king’s powers were finally taken away in 1925 when King Khai-Dinh died. On the 6th November 1925, it was stipulated in a charter that royal edicts would only relate to rituals. As such, the king was confined to the implementation of his first duties, that is, the celebration of the rites: offerings of wine to heaven and earth at the Nam-Giao sacrifices, the celebration of seasonal festivals and the memorial of the dynasty’s ancestors at their tombs. As Paul Mus once said, “what were left to the emperor and his mandarins, as such, were the flags and the arms of the pagodas, which were of lacquered and gilded wood”.


Nguyen, The Anh (1985) The Vietnamese Monarchy under French Colonial Rule 1884-1945, Modern Asian Studies, Cambridge University Press.


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