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Cần Vương

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Title: Cần Vương  
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Subject: History of Vietnam, Phan Bội Châu, Yên Bái Province, Ba Đình Square, Phan Dinh Phung
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Cần Vương

The Cần Vương (Hán tự: , lit. Aid the King) movement was a large-scale Vietnamese insurgency between 1885 and 1889 against French colonial rule. Its objective was to expel the French and install the boy emperor Hàm Nghi as the leader of an independent Vietnam. The movement lacked a coherent national structure, and consisted mainly of regional leaders who attacked French troops in their own provinces. The movement initially prospered, as there were only a few French garrisons in Annam, but failed after the French recovered from the surprise of the insurgency and poured troops into Annam from bases in Tonkin and Cochinchina. The insurrection in Annam spread and flourished in 1886, reached its climax the following year and gradually faded out by 1889.[1]


The August 1883 Treaty of Huế, forced upon the Vietnamese court at Huế by the French in the wake of their victory at the Thuận An (20 August 1883), imposed a French protectorate on both Annam and Tonkin. Many Vietnamese were anxious to shake off the French protectorate, and opposition to French rule gradually increased during the next two years. Plans for an insurgency took shape while the French in Tonkin were distracted by the Sino-French War (August 1884 to April 1885). Matters came to a head in June 1885, when France and China signed the Treaty of Tientsin, in which China implicitly renounced its historic claims to suzerainty over Vietnam.

The 'Huế ambush', July 1885

The Cần Vương movement was launched in July 1885, when General Roussel de Courcy and an escort of French troops of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps were the victims of a sudden, premeditated night attack by thousands of Vietnamese insurgents during a ceremonial visit to Huế on 2 July. De Courcy rallied his men, and both his own command and other groups of French troops cantoned on both sides of the citadel of Huế were able to beat off the attacks on their positions. Later, under the leadership of chef de bataillon Metzinger, the French mounted a successful counterattack from the west, fighting their way through the gardens of the citadel and capturing the royal palace. By daybreak the isolated French forces had linked up, and were in full control of the citadel. Angered by what they saw as Vietnamese treachery, they looted the royal palace.[2] Following the failure of the 'Huế ambush', as it was immediately dubbed by the French, the young Vietnamese king Hàm Nghi and other members of the Vietnamese imperial family fled from Huế and took refuge in a mountainous military base in Tan So. The regent Tôn Thất Thuyết, who had helped Hàm Nghi escape from Huế, persuaded Hàm Nghi to issue an edict calling for the people to rise up and "aid the king" ("can vuong"). Thousands of Vietnamese patriots responded to this appeal in Annam itself, and it undoubtedly also strengthened indigenous resistance to French rule in neighbouring Tonkin, much of which had been brought under French control during the Sino-French War (August 1884–April 1885).

Attacks on Vietnamese Christians

The Cần Vương movement was aimed at the French, but although there were more than 35,000 French soldiers in Tonkin and thousands more in the French colony of Cochinchina, the French had only a few hundred soldiers in Annam, dispersed around the citadels of Huế, Thuận An, Vinh and Qui Nhơn. With hardly any French troops to attack, the insurgents directed their anger instead against Vietnamese Christians, long regarded as potential allies of the French. Although the numbers remain disputed, it seems likely that between the end of July and the end of September 1885 Cần Vương fighters killed around 40,000 Vietnamese Christians, wiping out nearly a third of Vietnam's Christian population. The two worst massacres took place in the towns of Quảng Ngãi and Bình Định, both south of Huế, in which some 24,000 men, women and children, from a total Christian population of 40,000 were killed. A further 7,500 Christians were killed in Quảng Trị province. In other provinces the number of victims was considerably lower. In many areas the Christians fought back under the leadership of French and Spanish priests, in response to a call from their bishops to defend themselves with every means at their disposal. Outnumbered and on the defensive, the Christians were nevertheless able to inflict a number of local defeats on Cần Vương formations.[3]

French military intervention from Tonkin

The French were slow to respond to the Cần Vương, and for several weeks did not believe the gruesome rumours emanating from Annam. Eventually the scale of the massacres of Christians became clear, and the French belatedly responded. Incursions into Annam were made by troops of the Tonkin Expeditionary Corps, which had been reinforced in June 1885 to 35,000 men. Initially forbidden by the French government to launch a full-scale invasion of Annam, General de Courcy landed troops along the vulnerable coastline of central Vietnam to seize a number of strategic points and to protect the embattled Vietnamese Christian communities in the wake of the massacres at Quảng Ngãi and Bình Định. In early August 1885 Lieutenant-Colonel Chaumont led a battalion of marine infantry on a march through the provinces of Hà Tĩnh and Nghệ An to occupy the citadel of Vinh.[4]

In southern Annam, 7000 Christian survivors of the Bình Định massacre took refuge in the small French concession in Qui Nhơn. In late August 1885 a column of 600 French and Tonkinese soldiers under the command of General Léon Prud'homme sailed from Huế aboard the warships La Cocheterie, Brandon, Lutin and Comète, and landed at Qui Nhơn. After raising the siege Prud'homme marched on Bình Định. On 1 September, Vietnamese insurgents attempted to block his advance. Armed only with lances and antiquated firearms and deployed in unwieldy masses which made perfect targets for the French artillery, the Cần Vương fighters were no match for Prud'homme's veterans. They were swept aside, and on 3 September the French entered Bình Định. Three Vietnamese mandarins were tried and executed for complicity in the massacre of Bình Định's Christians.[5] In November 1885 a so-called 'Annam column' under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mignot set off from Ninh Binh in southern Tonkin and marched down the narrow spine of Vietnam as far as Huế, scattering any insurgent bands in its way.[6]

French political response

The French responded politically to the uprising by pressing ahead with arrangements for entrenching their protectorate in both Annam and Tonkin. They were helped by the fact that there was by no means unanimous support for the Cần Vương movement. The queen mother, Từ Dũ, and other members of the Vietnamese royal family deserted Hàm Nghi and returned to Huế shortly after the uprising began. In September 1885, to undercut support for Hàm Nghi, General de Courcy enthroned the young king's brother Đồng Khánh in his stead. Although many Vietnamese regarded Đồng Khánh as a French puppet king, not all did. One of the most important Vietnamese leaders, Prince Hoàng Kế Viêm, who had been fighting the French for several years in Tonkin, gave his allegiance to Đồng Khánh.

Siege of Ba Đình, January 1887

The Siege of Ba Đình (December 1886 to January 1887) in Thanh Hóa province was a decisive engagement between the insurgents and the French. The siege was deliberately willed by the Vietnamese resistance leader Dinh Cong Trang, who built an enormous fortified camp near the Tonkin-Annam border, crammed it full of Annamese and Tonkinese insurgents, and dared the French to attack him there. The French obliged, and after a two-month siege in which the defenders were exposed to relentless bombardment by French artillery, the surviving insurgents were forced to break out of Ba Đình on 20 January 1887. The French entered the abandoned Vietnamese stronghold the following day. Their total casualties during the siege amounted to only 19 dead and 45 wounded, while Vietnamese casualties ran into thousands. The Vietnamese defeat at Ba Đình highlighted the disunity of the Cần Vương movement. Trang gambled that his fellow resistance leaders would harass the French lines from the rear while he held them from the front, but little help reached him.[7][8]

Intervention from Cochinchina

The catastrophe at Bình Định broke the power of the Cần Vương in northern Annam and Tonkin. The first half of 1887 also saw the collapse of the movement in the southern provinces of Quang Nam, Quảng Ngãi, Bình Định and Phú Yên. For several months after Prud'homme's brief campaign in September 1885 around Qui Nhơn and Bình Định, the Cần Vương fighters in the south had hardly seen a Frenchman. The Tonkin Expeditionary Corps was fully committed in Tonkin and northern Annam, while French troops in Cochinchina were busy dealing with an insurrection against the French protectorate in neighbouring Cambodia. In the early months of 1886 the insurgents took advantage of French weakness in the south to extend their influence into Khánh Hòa and Bình Thuận, the southernmost provinces of Annam. Cần Vương forces were now uncomfortably close to the French posts in Cochinchina, and the French authorities in Saigon at last responded. In July 1886 the French struck back in the south. A 400-man 'column of intervention' was formed in Cochinchina, consisting of French troops and a force of Vietnamese partisans under the command of Trần Bá Lộc. The column landed at Phan Ry, on the coast of Bình Thuận. By September 1886 had won control of the province. In the following spring the French moved into Bình Định and Phú Yên provinces. One of the Cần Vương leaders went over to the French side, and the resistance soon collapsed. By June 1887 the French had established control over the Annamese provinces to the south of Huế. More than 1,500 Cần Vương insurgents laid down their arms, and brutal reprisals, orchestrated by Tran Ba Loc, were taken against their leaders.[9]

Capture of Hàm Nghi, 1888

In 1888, Hàm Nghi was captured and deported to Algeria and the Cần Vương movement was effectively ended, although most of his supporters continued to fight on until they were killed, captured or executed. Revolutionary guerrilla attacks continued for years until the death of Phan Dinh Phung in 1896.



  • Fourniau, C., Annam–Tonkin 1885–1896: Lettrés et paysans vietnamiens face à la conquête coloniale (Paris, 1989)
  • Fourniau, C., Vietnam: domination coloniale et résistance nationale (Paris, 2002)
  • Huard, La guerre du Tonkin (Paris, 1887)
  • Huguet, E., En colonne: souvenirs d'Extrême-Orient (Paris, 1888)
  • Sarrat, L., Journal d'un marsouin au Tonkin, 1883–1886 (Paris, 1887)
  • Thomazi, A., La conquête de l'Indochine (Paris, 1934)
  • Thomazi, A., Histoire militaire de l'Indochine français (Hanoi, 1931)
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