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Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954.

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954, by Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hemery. Translated by Lylan Dill-Klein, Eric Jennings, and Nora Taylor. From Indochina to Vietnam: Revolution and War in a Global Perspective series. Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 2009. xv, 490 pp. $60.00 US (cloth).

This book provides a comprehensive and critical account of French Indochina from 1858 to 1954. The authors make great efforts to demonstrate the complexity of French colonial rule by analyzing the different phases of French colonialism, portraying the different aspects of colonial life (political, military, economic, social, and cultural), and encompassing the experiences and perspectives of the five regions, various social classes, and diverse ethnic groups that formed French Indochina, as well as major interest groups in France, such as the Catholic church, the business community, and the political parties. That colonization was an ambiguous rather than unchanging and monolithic process involving the intricate interactions of various forces and perspectives becomes apparent as the reader follows the authors' analysis of the diverse factors in the making of French Indochina. The authors effectively demonstrate that these interactions form a real, permanent, and crucial part of historical change in France, Indochina, and the world.

The book starts with a brief but informative introduction covering pre-colonial Indochina. The eight chapters that follow can be conveniently divided into three units. The first unit (chapter one) deals with the French conquest of Indochina from the attack on Da Nang in 1858 to the creation of the French Indochinese Union in 1897. The second unit (chapters two through five), which represents the book's most important contribution, analyzes the multifaceted changes that Indochina went through during the colonial period. The last unit (chapters six through eight) examines the economic and political problems of the French colonial system and the reasons for its eventual collapse. Though the eight chapters are written by two different authors, the book stands as a coherent piece with lucid and consistent arguments. Despite the authors' effort at offering a balanced coverage of the entire region of Indochina, it is understandable that they devote much more attention to Vietnam than to Cambodia and Laos.

The two authors set as their goal to produce a book that transcends both colonial and anti-colonial historiographies. They argue that while colonial historiography tends to downplay the negative impact of colonial expansion and domination, nationalist and anti-colonial historiographies focus too much on condemnation and have a penchant for glorifying the post-colonial nation-states. The most ostensible common ground of colonial and anti-colonial historiographies thus lies in their rejection of the ambiguous nature of colonial experience. Readers can easily tell that the interpretations of certain events and aspects presented in this book are indeed quite different from those provided by colonial and anti-colonial historians. For instance, both colonial and anti-colonial historians like to portray the traditional Vietnamese monarchy as a static, passive, corrupt, and reactionary system, but these two authors prove that image to be false. They find that, in the nineteenth century, the monarchs of both Cambodia and Vietnam showed strong interest in modernizing their countries and were quite active in dealing with Western threats. In order to justify colonial conquest, colonial historians often resort to emphasizing regional and social conflicts within Vietnam and denying the existence of a Vietnamese nation at the time of the conquest. The two authors contend that a national identity did exist in Vietnam at the time of conquest and that the resistance movement was patriotic in nature.

The self-proclaimed civilizing mission of the French colonialists, which is greatly extolled in colonial historiography, does not earn any admiration from the two authors, who affirm that there were strong economic motivations for the French conquest of Indochina and that economic exploitation and political oppression were striking features of French colonial rule. Though very critical of French colonialism, the authors set themselves apart from anti-colonial historians by arguing that colonialism was not an irrational system and that growth and modernization did occur in French Indochina--though they agree that there were cycles of growth and recession, that growth rate and the extent of modernization varied in different regions, and that growth and modernization did not bring equal benefit to all. Their analysis of the economic-political crisis of the 1930s is especially persuasive. They also disagree with anti-colonial historians on the assessment of the Vietnamese bureaucrats serving the French colonial government, maintaining that the Vietnamese mandarins were not as servile and passive as they are portrayed in anti-colonial historiography. Overall the authors argue that French Indochina was neither an adventure (an anti-colonial perspective), nor an epic (a view upheld by colonial historiography), but a natural product of two histories: the history of disintegrating East Asia and that of the global power relations of the modern world.

In addition to portraying and examining the diverse forces at work within and between France and Indochina, the authors also provide insightful discussions about French Indochina's relations with other countries and regions. Specifically, the book offers rather extensive coverage of such topics as the rivalry between France and Britain in the conquest of Asia, the China factor in the French conquest of Indochina, economic relations between Indochina and other Asian countries (particularly China), and the French-Japanese cooperation and confrontation during World War II.

This book can serve as a rewarding text for graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses on Vietnamese, Southeast Asian, Asian, or colonial history. It should be particularly enlightening to the students that on more than one occasion the authors clearly list the aspects and issues of colonial life that are still waiting to be explored. Whereas the presence of many French and Asian names and phrases in the text might be a necessary nuisance, the inclusion of many figures, maps, and tables provides a great convenience for the readers.

Xiaorong Han

Butler University
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Author:Han, Xiaorong
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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