Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization 1858-1954

Book Cover

Book Title

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization 1858-1954. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011


Brocheux, Pierre and Daniel Hemery (translated by Ly Lan Dill-Klein)


Hemery and Brocheux emphasized on the 'ambiguous' nature of the colonial experience. They rejected nationalist readings of the colonial past on both sides of the divide. Until the 1950s, interest in French Indochina was confined to the discipline of colonial history, with its narrow Eurocentric or an apologetic stance. However, now there was an increasing need to counter these perceptions as societies objectified by colonialism needed to be more aware of their own social and political history at a time when they were asserting themselves as major actors on the international stage.

Indochina is presented as a historical construct where not only is the control imposed and improvised from without, but it is also rooted within the social and anthropological space of the Peninsula. The impact of colonial rule is examined thus within this framework, thus lending the balance in focus and distance needed to provide a more wholesome examination of the period of colonization in Indochina.
Indochina acted as the site of an intermingling which had brought colonizers and the colonized into confrontation, yet leading also to cohabitation. The relationship was thus complex in that the relationship of the victor to the vanquished was intersected by the equally significant relation of the colonized to the colonizer. The book sought to approach Indochina through its multiple dimensions - political and military, economic, social and cultural - and various temporalities, encompassing the long colonial period as well as the brief, violent ruptures of decolonization.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

This book covers Indochina's entire history from her inception in Cochinchina in 1858 to the crumbling at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and her progress toward decolonization. The impact of colonial rule represented one of the broader topics approached in this book. However, the writer also specified the examination of the relationship of both colonizers and the colonized, whether they were collaborating, in the process of cohabitation or in conflict. The book provides the uncovering of French Indochina multiple dimensions - political and military, economic, social and cultural - and various temporalities, encompassing the long colonial period as well as the brief, violent ruptures of decolonization.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Indochina was approached as a historical construct, not only imposed and improvised from without, but also rooted within the tensions and dynamics of the social and anthropological space of the Peninsula. While Indochina was in fact a colonial space - the complexity that it entails would require more attention to the way the colonizers and the colonized are portrayed. Thus, the approach retains a perspective that is neither Eurocentric nor nationalistic but that carefully considers the positions of both the colonizers and the colonized. In doing so, the writers go beyond descriptive history, providing for a more substantial exploration of the various ambiguities and complexities of the French colonial period in Indochina. This helps to shed new light on the national histories of the emerging nation-states of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Promoters of Indochinese colonization ensured its initial great success: plantations and mines, banks and trading firms. Yet, the authors emphasized the fact that a colonial regime would not be able to operate without first securing a partnership, however subtle or fragile, with the dominant native classes and the colonized elites, who hoped to use modernization to secure their own aims. The concept of "French Indochina" was thus built upon the gradual convergence of solidarities and antagonisms between the dominant and the dominated. Up till the 1930s, this configuration of a "French Indochina" acted as a provisional compromise, strongly unequal yet very real such that some Vietnamese defined themselves as French Indochinese. Yet, authors also argue that in the end, modernity was seen as a tool for resisting colonization and promoting political democracy, particularly by Vietnamese intellectuals.

Annotated by Michelle Djong