Among the East Asia countries under the Chinese cultural sphere of influence; only Vietnam got rid completely of Chinese
characters from its written language. Chinese scripts, used for centuries, were scrapped and replaced with a phonetic
alphabet. Whether this was a blessing or a curse to Vietnamese cultural heritage, it cannot be denied that it has
played a pivotal role in the development of modern Vietnamese identity and even Vietnam's current political and economic
position in the world. The story spans over three centuries, and the unlikely hero of the early period was a man from a
distant place, Alexandre de Rhodes.
The missionary from Avignon
Alexandre de Rhodes was a Jesuit missionary born in Avignon, a city on the Rhone River, in the South East of France, on
3-15-1593. Avignon is well known for its Palais des Papes (Palace of Popes) and was the siege of the papacy from 1309 to 1376.
During the Great Schism of the West (Grand Schisme d'Occident) (1378-1417) when the French and the Italians elected different
popes, French Popes called "of Avignon" resided here. Pope Clement VI bought it from the Queen of Sicily in 1348 and it
became reunited to France only in 1791. This is to say that technically, Alexandre de Rhodes was born in a papal territory,
and although his birthplace is now a part of France he was not French by birth. This is an important point because in diverse
discussions regarding his role in the development of modern Vietnamese history, a few Vietnamese have pointed to his
supposedly French origin and accused him of being instrumental in the French colonization of Vietnam in the 19th century,
a matter that we will come back to later.
The Society of Jesus
De Rhodes started his initiation to priesthood in Rome at the novitiate of the Society of Jesus on April 24, 1612. The
Society of Jesus had been founded as the Company of Jesus by Ignatius of Loyola and other students at the University of Paris
in 1534. By the end of the 16th century, this order, known for its missionary works and its evangelization efforts, already
had important religious and humanitarian activities in far away places. Francis Xavier spent a decade of evangelization in
India and died in China; for seven years early missions were granted a feudal fiefdom of Nagasaki in Japan, and in South
America Jesuits founded controversial Christian Native American city-states ("reductions"), to prevent the Spanish and
Portuguese colonists from making slaves of the native populations. However, efforts of the Catholic Church in spreading,
and sometimes imposing, its faith also met with resistance due to religious and cultural conflicts, local governments'
hostility toward the European priests was mounting and persecution against the missionaries became rampant. The missionaries
knew that they were risking their lives when they went to those far away places, partly due to the long travels across oceans
and deserted lands to reach their destinations and to the nature of their works.