A Dead Priest: Violence and the Multilingual State in the China-Vietnam Borderlands

Friday, January 5, 2018: 10:30 AM
Blue Room Prefunction (Omni Shoreham)
Bradley Davis, Eastern Connecticut State University
At the turn of the 20th century, as the French authorities sought to secure control of the borderlands between China and Vietnam, a Catholic priest was murdered in his church. The official investigation eventually focused on Vietnamese militia, alleging collusion between local imperial officials and armed bandits fighting France. Despite colonial attempts to monopolize rule in the borderlands, a shared culture of violence connected the agents of French rule with their multiethnic enemies, including members of Vietnamese, Hmong, Yao, and Tai communities. The death of a Catholic priest exposed deep divisions within the Vietnamese and French bureaucracies and led to an investigation that revealed the multilayered, and multilingual, reality of colonial administration. This paper links a single act of violence to the broader history of violence in the China-Vietnam borderlands. During the 1890s, both the French “mission to civilize” and anticolonial resistance heavily relied on brute force. The investigation of a priest’s murder, committed by militia with links to bandits, depended on the coordination of imperial Vietnamese and French colonial authorities. This investigation, and the paperwork it generated, demonstrated the multilingual and multiethnic reality of colonial rule. As translators rendered oral statements into French from logographic and Romanized Vietnamese scripts, elisions, paraphrasing, and revisions captured this reality in the capillaries of colonial power.
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