Dead Jesuits stir up trouble in Vietnam

Intellectuals in Vietnam are having a heated debate about a city’s plan to name streets after two 17th century Jesuit missionaries.

The Jesuits are credited with systematizing the country’s official language.

Since October, authorities in Da Nang have collected public opinions about a plan to name 137 streets in the southern central city by the end of this year.

Two streets in Hai Chau district are due to be named after Fathers Francisco de Pina (1585-1625) and Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660).

Da Nang officials said the two missionaries played significant roles in the formation of the present Vietnamese script.

“The founding of the modern Vietnamese romanized script has boosted Vietnamese culture incredibly. Their names were suggested by historians and cultural researchers,” the city’s department of culture and sports said.

However, in late October, 12 historians, professors and researchers petitioned Da Nang authorities not to name schools and streets after the Jesuits.

They said Father Rhodes did not create quoc ngu and accused him of using it for evangelisation, condemning the religions of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, and hatching a plot to lead French troops to invade Vietnam.

Prof. Hoang Dung from the Pedagogical University in Ho Chi Minh City said most researchers agreed that quoc ngu was not a product of Father Rhodes, who amassed works from other people, but they appreciated his contributions to the national language’s development, especially his trilingual dictionary.

Many intellectuals who supported the street-naming plan said the 12 petitioners misunderstood the meaning of the word “soldats” (soldiers) in Father Rhodes’ work Divers Voyages et Missions published in 1653.

The supportive intellectuals also said the petitioners made groundless allegations that Father Rhodes was involved in the French invasion of Vietnam.

They said foreign missionaries and local Catholics made great contributions to taking Vietnam to the world and appreciating Western cultural values and are calling on Da Nang authorities to name streets after the priests to express the nation’s gratitude to foreign missionaries who contributed to the creation of quoc ngu.

Portuguese Father de Pina, a pioneer in learning and researching Vietnamese after he arrived in southern Vietnam in 1617, romanized Vietnamese writing system and composed a Vietnamese grammar book.

He also used the native language to teach catechism to local people and wrote a catechism book.

French Father Rhodes, who arrived in Vietnam in 1625 and studied Vietnamese with Father de Pina, gathered quoc ngu works by other authors and published three books in Rome in 1651: a Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary, a Vietnamese grammar book and a catechism book.

His works marked the first time a Latin-alphabet Vietnamese writing system was presented in a categorized way. He was expelled from Vietnam in 1645.


  • Republished with permission
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