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How the 1st Quốc Ngữ Newspaper Shaped the Foundation of Vietnam's Modern Journalism

Stopping at the intersection of Saigon’s Trần Hưng Đạo and Trần Bình Trọng streets, the tranquil mausoleum of scholar Trương Vĩnh Ký remains hidden amid the daily commotion. Few realize that the visionary resting here, along with his associates and their contributions, laid the foundation for Vietnam's modern journalism with the launch of Gia Định Báo (Gia Định Newspaper).

After their conquest of Nam Kỳ in 1858, French colonizers focused on two primary objectives to solidify their power: controlling communication channels and building a new administrative apparatus. They quickly established a telegraph network to replace traditional means of communication, such as town criers, and began publishing newspapers to disseminate policies and directives to the local populace, scholars, and officials. The early newspapers were published in French for Frenchmen and locals fluent in the language, and in Chinese characters for the old-school intellectuals.

Traditionally, town criers were tasked with gathering villagers using a wooden snare, delivering news and official orders to them. Photo via Flickr user manhhai.

From 1862 to 1864, the first French-language newspapers emerged in Saigon, including Le Bulletin Officiel de l’Expédition Française de la Cochinchine (Official Bulletin of the French Expedition to Cochinchina), Le Bulletin des Communes (Municipal Bulletin), and Le Courrier de Saigon (Saigon Courier). The primary purpose of these publications was to announce administrative and legal information from the colonial government.

Courrier de Saigon. Photo via Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Bulletin Officiel de l'Expedition de Cochinchine. Photo via Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Initially, the French intended to impose a language policy similar to their African colonies, where only French was used. However, they eventually recognized that Quốc ngữ would pave the way for a new cultural landscape, replacing the one deeply rooted in Chinese influence. This script would also help familiarize Vietnamese people with French and help train interpreters proficient in both languages to aid colonial governance.

Thus, despite its origins over 200 years prior, Quốc ngữ was chosen because it “Romanized the ideographs” and served as an effective bridge between the colonial government and the Vietnamese people. The launch of a Vietnamese-language newspaper was then essential to establish the ideological and cultural assimilation of the natives.

Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum, a trilingual Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary by Alexandre de Rhode, was an important step toward the solidification of Quốc ngữ. Photo via Biblioteca Nacional de Portugal.

The decree permitting the first Vietnamese-language newspaper was signed on April 1, 1865 by the Governor of Nam Kỳ, with Ernest Potteaux, a French interpreter, as its editor-in-chief. On April 15, 1865, Gia Định Báo published its first issue, ushering in a new era for Vietnam's modern journalism.

The newspaper was compact, with four pages measuring 32cm by 25cm. The title was printed in both Chinese and Vietnamese. Initially, its publication was irregular, released monthly on the 15th, with the cover noting, “This paper is published once a month, on the 15th of the Western calendar. Those wanting an annual subscription must pay six 20 centimes.” By 1880, it was printed four times a month and became a weekly publication, delivered every Tuesday.

Gia Định Newspaper Issue 2 Year 2 (1866). Photo via Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In its early stages, Gia Định Newspaper mainly featured government decrees and directives. However, under the editorship of Trương Vĩnh Ký in 1869, it diversified its content. Alongside official news, it included in-depth articles, commentary, research, folklore, social reforms, and even ads. The content was divided into four categories: governmental affairs (official announcements, policy changes), non-governmental affairs (economic and social news), daily knowledge (science, social reforms, literature), and classifieds (advertisement, miscellaneous announcement).

Rue d'Adran, now Hồ Tùng Mậu street, where Gia Định Newspaper was printed. Photo via manhhai.

This change allowed the local intelligentsia to have a voice, breaking the elite Chinese cultural monopoly. While Trương Vinh Ký and his partners hadn't fully envisioned what modern journalism would be like, Gia Định Newspaper laid the groundwork for editorial formats such as reportage, commentary, reader's op-eds, and serialized stories.

Although it served the colonial government's propaganda needs, the Vietnamese scholars steering Gia Định Newspaper turned it into a valuable platform to popularize Quốc ngữ and promote local culture, particularly that of Nam Kỳ. Its articles vividly captured the social life of the time, addressing all topics from customs, festivals, taxation policies, marriage, infrastructure, and more. These documents still hold tremendous historical value today.

As researcher Nguyễn Hải Lộc from Vạn Hạnh University remarked: “Was the French promotion of Quốc ngữ out of goodwill? Definitely not. They wanted Vietnamese to read Gia Định Newspaper mostly to show their good deeds, and the privileges that those catering to the [colonial] status quo received... but despite their manipulative intent, we can clearly see the accomplishment of Petrus Ký [Trương Vĩnh Ký], Paulus Của [Huỳnh Tịnh Của], and Trương Minh Ký reflected in Gia Định Newspaper.”

Trương Vĩnh Ký. Photo via Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Gia Định Newspaper emerged during an age of political turmoil, when the French colonial government was tightening its grip over Nam Kỳ. But while its initial purpose was to reinforce colonial power, it also sowed the seeds for East-West cultural exchange and laid the first bricks for modern Vietnamese journalism. The legacy of the publication goes beyond its mere pages, cementing the pioneering spirit of scholars that brought enlightenment and knowledge to Vietnamese readers. 

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