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Bình Dân Học Vụ, Vietnam's Revolution Against the Enemy of Illiteracy

O tròn như quả trứng gà / ô thì đội mũ, ơ là thêm râu.

In 1945, 95% of Vietnamese people could not read or write, according to Lao Dong. By 2018, that percentage had flipped, with the World Bank reporting the adult literacy rate in Vietnam at 95%. This dramatic change begs the question: how did a nation riddled with illiteracy teach itself the letters?

The story began in September 1945, when the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was born. After decades of struggle against French and Japanese colonial rule, the revolutionary Việt Minh, or League for the Independence of Vietnam, overthrew the then-government, and President Hồ Chí Minh declared Vietnamese independence.

The new government, however, had to face many adversities, three of which they identified as their main “enemies”: first, foreign oppressors (giặc ngoại xâm), as the French were still a presence claiming dominance of the country; second, hunger (giặc đói), as decades of war had ravaged the land; and, last but not least, the enemy of ignorance (giặc dốt), as it was a colonial aim to keep its subjects uneducated. In order to conquer this last enemy, just a few days after declaring independence, Hồ Chí Minh launched the bình dân học vụ (BDHV), or Popular Education, movement with the aim of eradicating illiteracy.

Uncle Hồ at a bình dân học vụ class. Photo via Tuoi Tre.

For the president, literacy wasn’t just about knowing how to read and write. It was the essential condition for social change. He believed that through education, people could gain awareness of the injustice in their lives and strive for freedom. To mobilize the BDHV campaign, he wrote in Cuu Quoc newspaper:

In order to safeguard our independence, to make our country strong and prosperous, each Vietnamese citizen must know their right and duty. They must have the knowledge to contribute to the country’s development. Above all, everyone should be able to read and write quốc ngữ (Vietnamese written in Latin script). Those who already know how to read and write can teach others. Those who don’t must try to learn. Husbands can teach their wives, older brothers and sisters can teach younger siblings, children can teach parents, the landlord can teach those living beneath his roof.

When Phạm Tấn Trình read Hồ’s call, he was eager to participate. Just 18 years old at the time, he was the eldest of eight siblings. He volunteered to be a BDHV teacher in his village. “My village is nested in a remote area of Hai Duong, far away from any inter-province roads. Yet we do have a market at the center of the village, a place to trade essential goods for the whole area,” he told Urbanist Hanoi in Vietnamese.

Stopping by a public board to study the letters. Photo via Tuoi Tre.

Leading into this market, there was only one road with a large wall running along one side, and a canal on the other. This proved to be a prime location for teaching. "Once we used a ladder to paint 23 huge letters on the wall, everyone who walked by could see them clearly. On market days, we took turns guarding the road and testing the people. Whoever could say the letters could stay on the road, but those who couldn’t had to wade through the canal," Trình reminisced.

On market days that fell on convivial occasions like Tết, people recited spelling rhymes together:

i, t (tờ), có móc cả hai.
i ngắn có chấm, t (tờ) dài có ngang;
e, ê, l (lờ) cũng một loài.
ê đội nón chóp, l (lờ) dài thân hơn;
o tròn như quả trứng gà.
ô thì đội mũ, ơ là thêm râu
o, a hai chữ khác nhau
vì a có cái móc câu bên mình.

‘i and t both have a hook. 
i is short with a dot, t is long with a cross
e, ê, l are the same kind.
ê wears a conical hat, l's body is longer;
o is round like an egg. 
ô wears a hat, while ơ spots a mustache.
o, a are two different letters
'cause a has a hook on the side.

He added: "Just like that, the villagers encouraged each other to learn — even though the memory of the horrible famine, which killed many people at the beginning of 1945, was still fresh in everybody’s mind."

In Trình’s village, the BDHV spirit was high. “In the afternoons, the youth force marched with drums to cheer for the movement. At nights, groups of people went to the village hall to attend our classes," he shared. "We loved our work, seeing erasing illiteracy as contributing to the great revolution. Within months, most people in my village knew the letters and were eager to learn more.”

Lưu Công Nhân, Bình Dân Học Vụ, 1955, oil. Image via Tia Sang.

The BDHV movement flourished thanks to people’s ingenuity. Within a year from the call, around 75,000 classes were held, which helped more than 2.5 million people become literate. At Hong Chau commune in Thai Binh, the whole village was like "a giant classroom." People painted letters everywhere, on the trees, on the fences, even on the backs of buffalo, creating a “forest of words.” When farmers worked in the fields, they staked boards with letters to the ground so that they could study while working. This was called học cắm chữ, or “learning with staked letters.”

On December 19, 1946, the First Indochina War — or the Anti-French Resistance War, as it is known in Vietnam — broke out. At this point, the BDHV movement took on a new color. The Quốc Ngữ spellingbook became Quốc Ngữ Kháng Chiến, or the National Language Resistance spelling book; wartime words and images like bom ba càng (lunge mine) and cảm tử quân (suicide squad) became part of the syllabus. Learning became a different political act, with slogans like “going to school shows one's love for the fatherland” and “each classroom is a propaganda center for the resistance.”

As the war escalated, Nguyễn Trung Thiếp was eager to do his part even though he was only 15 years old at the time. When the 198th Battalion came to rest near his village in Nghe An, he volunteered to be their signalman, but was refused.

"I was so sad I couldn’t go to the frontline," Thiếp recalls. "Fortunately, when I came home I met with Vương Kiêm Toàn, who was the Director of the Department of Popular Education at the time. He had come to visit our village and told me: ‘If you cannot kill the enemy at the frontline, maybe you can kill the enemy of ignorance at home!’”

And so Thiếp got involved in the movement: “When first started in BDHV, I was young and still going to school. But thanks to the support of the older and more experienced teachers, I could still do my part. The more I contributed, the more I learned and grew. Eventually I became an experienced teacher myself.”

Learning become a community movement. Photo via Tuoi Tre.

To help the students learn better, Thiếp strove to make the lessons more relevant to their lives: “One day, I saw a clam on the side of the road, its shell open. It looked kind of like the letter 'x,' so I thought maybe I could find images like this to make the lessons more fun. When I taught the letter 's,' I asked the class: ‘What does this one look like?’ Someone said: ‘It looks like half a betel leaf.’ Another: ‘It looks like a squatting frog!’ And everybody burst out laughing. These images not only made the class more fun, they also helped students remember the lessons better.”

Student welfare was also a concern for Thiếp: “Around 1954–1955, there was a great flood in my village. We lost all the crops. Famine loomed over the whole area. In that time of scarcity I still tried to teach, but a lot of people stopped coming to class to focus on survival. Once, I fainted from hunger in front of the class. The students found some congee to revive me. When I came to, I was happy and touched by their empathy. I tried to find some ways to help them as well, otherwise the class could never go on. I asked some organizations to help with pens and paper. Also I organized a group to catch crabs to sell, with all proceeds going into a fund to help the neediest in our class. This activity had good results, and other classes followed our example.”  

Thanks to people like Thiếp and Trình, the BDHV campaign could live on, surviving not one but two wars. After the Anti-French war, 93.4% of people between the ages of 12 and 50 were literate in North Vietnam. And a few years after the Second Indochina War, or the Anti-American Resistance War, 94% of the working population in southern Vietnam that were previously considered illiterate could read and write. At this point, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam declared the eradication of illiteracy.

Farmers learn during their break by writing on dirt. Photo via Tuoi Tre.

In 1975, the International Symposium for Literacy was held in Persepolis, Iran. Vietnam’s BDHVmovement was recognized as a successful case study of mass education. To explain Vietnam’s success, Professor Lê Thành Khôi wrote:

The political factor (struggle for independence, struggle for social emancipation) is the most powerful driving force in persuading the populations to accept the necessary sacrifices and efforts in order to wipe out ignorance. But the political factor alone is not enough…It is essential to make the masses conscious of the fact that the struggle against ignorance is their struggle, so that they will eventually assume responsibility for its pursuit themselves...In other words, we are not concerned here with doing things for the masses, but rather with making them capable of carrying out the work themselves, finding the necessary resources from within their own environment, with a minimum of outside assistance.

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