History of writing in Vietnam

Until the beginning of the 20th century, government and scholarly documents in Vietnam were written in classical Chinese (Vietnamese: cổ văn 古文 or văn ngôn 文言[1]), using Chinese characters with Vietnamese approximation of Middle Chinese pronunciations.

At the same time popular novels and poetry in Vietnamese were written in the chữ nôm script, which used Chinese characters for Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary and an adapted set of characters for the native vocabulary.[2]

The two scripts coexisted until the era of French Indochina when the Latin alphabet quốc ngữ script gradually became the written medium of both government and popular literature.[3]


In Vietnamese, Chinese characters are called chữ Hán (字漢 ‘Han characters’), Hán tự (漢字 ‘Han characters’), Hán văn (漢文 ‘Han characters’), or chữ nho (字儒 ‘Confucian characters’).[4][5][6] Hán văn (漢文) also means Chinese language literature (in this case, Hán văn literally means ‘Han literature’).[7][8]

The Vietnamese word chữ (character, script, writing, letter) is derived from the Old Chinese word 字, meaning ‘character’.[9]

Sino-Vietnamese (Vietnamese: từ Hán Việt 詞漢越 ‘Sino-Vietnamese words’) is a term which is used by modern scholars in relation to Vietnam's Chinese-language texts to emphasise local characteristics and particularly the phonology of the Chinese written in Vietnam, though in regard to syntax and vocabulary this Sino-Vietnamese was no more different from Chinese used in Beijing than medieval English Latin was different from the Latin of Rome.[10]

The term chữ Nôm (字喃 ‘Southern characters’)[11] refers to the former transcription system for vernacular Vietnamese-language texts, written using a mixture of original Chinese characters and locally coined nôm characters not found in Chinese to phonetically represent Vietnamese sounds."[12] However the character set for chữ nôm is extensive, up to 20,000, and both arbitrary in composition and inconsistent in pronunciation.[13]

Hán Nôm (漢喃 ‘Han and chữ Nôm characters’)[14] may mean either both Hán and Nôm taken together, as in the research remit of Hanoi's Hán-Nôm Institute, or refer to texts which are written in a mixture of Hán and Nôm, or refer to some Hán texts with parallel Nôm translations. There is a significant orthographic overlap between Hán and Nôm and many characters are used in both Hán and Nôm with the same reading.[15]

The term chữ quốc ngữ (字國語 "national language script") means Vietnamese written in romanised script.


Chinese domination

No writings in Chinese by Vietnamese writers survive from the Chinese domination period.[16]

Imperial Vietnam

In Imperial Vietnam (939-1919), formal writings were, in most cases, done in classical Chinese. This was true both of the language of government and administration, and also of entry into government and administration by the wholly Chinese-language Confucian examination system in Vietnam. Chinese was also the language of medicine, astrology, religion, science and high literature such as poetry. Vietnamese existed only as an oral language, before the creation of the nom script to preserve and circulate less serious poetry and narrative literature. These writings are indistinguishable from contemporaneous classical Chinese works produced in China, Korea, or Japan as are the first poems in chữ nho by the monk Khuông Việt and the Nam Quốc Sơn Hà by general Lý Thường Kiệt.[16][17][18]

Localisation and Sino-xenic pronunciation

In Vietnam classical Chinese texts was read with the vocalization of Chinese text as such, equivalent to the Chinese On-readings in Japanese kambun (漢文), or the assimilated vocalizations in Korean hanmun (한문).[19][20] This occurring alongside entry of Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary into the vernacular Vietnamese language.[21] And creating, in Samuel Martin's term, a Sinoxenic dialect.[22] The Sinologist Edwin G. Pulleyblank was the one of the first linguists to actively employ "Sino-Vietnamese" to recover the earlier history of Chinese.[23]

Period of coexistence of two languages and two scripts

Main article: Vietnamese literature
Vietnamese birth certificate in 1938 showing different scripts in descending frequency: quốc ngữ, chữ nôm, chữ nho, French

From the 13th Century the dominance of Chinese writing - chữ nho - began to be challenged by a system of modified and invented characters modeled loosely on Chinese characters called chữ nôm, which, unlike the system of chữ nho (or chữ Hán), allowed for the expression of purely Vietnamese words, was created in Vietnam at least as early as the 13th century.[24] During the Ming dynasty occupation of Vietnam chữ nôm printing blocks, texts and inscriptions were destroyed, so that the earliest surviving texts are from after the period.[25] While designed for native Vietnamese speakers, chữ nôm required the user to have a fair knowledge of chữ Hán, and thus chữ nôm was used primarily for literary writings by cultural elites (such as the poetry of Nguyễn Du and Hồ Xuân Hương), while almost all other official writings and documents continued to be written in classical Chinese until the 20th century.[26][27]

French colonial period

The use of classical Chinese, and its written form, chữ nho (or chữ Hán), died out in Vietnam early in the 20th century during the middle years of French Indochina. At this time there were briefly four competing writing systems in Vietnam; chữ nho, chữ nôm, quốc ngữ, and French.[28] Although the first romanized script quốc ngữ newspaper, Gia Dinh Bao, was founded in 1865, Vietnamese nationalists continued to use chữ nôm until after the First World War when quốc ngữ became the favoured language of the Vietnamese independence movement.[29] Some scholars still study it today although its application is mostly confined to the historic context of Vietnamese texts.

Usage today

A calligrapher writing the Chinese character 祿 ‘good fortune’ (Sino-Vietnamese reading: lộc) in preparation for Tết, at the Temple of Literature, Hanoi (2011)

Individual Hán tự are still written by calligraphers for special occasions such as the Vietnamese New Year, Tết.[30]

Use of quốc ngữ for education in both North and South Vietnam from 1945-1975, and then all of Vietnam since 1975, has rendered most Vietnamese unable to read earlier Vietnamese texts, whether written in Chinese chữ nho, or vernacular chữ nôm. Hán Nôm Institute is the national centre for academic research into both Hán and nôm texts. Since the mid-1990s a small resurgence in teaching of Chinese characters, both for chữ nho and the additional characters used in chữ nôm, to enable the study of Vietnam's history has emerged.[31] Additionally many Vietnamese study Hán tự characters as part of learning modern Japanese and Chinese; in some cases it is also studied as part of learning Korean as a study tool for learning Korean etymology. The significance of the characters has occasionally entered Western depiction of Vietnam; for instance novelist E. M. Nathanson mentions the characters in A Dirty Distant War (1987).[32]

For linguists the Sino-Vietnamese readings of Chinese characters provide data for the study of historical Chinese phonology.


  1. Nguyễn, Tri Tài (2002). Giáo trình tiếng Hán. Tập I: Cơ sở. Nhà xuất bản Đại học Quốc gia Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. p. 5.
  2. Asian & Pacific quarterly of cultural and social affairs - Volumes 20 - 21 Cultural and Social Centre for the Asian and Pacific Region 1988 - Page 7 "... known script that was used by the Vietnamese, the "Southerners," to transcribe their language, in contrast to the Chinese ideographs (called chữ Hán i.e., "Chinese script," or chữ nho i.e. "Confucian script") of the "Northerners," the Chinese."
  3. Vietnam 10 - Page 522 Nick Ray, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Iain Stewart - 2009 "For centuries, the Vietnamese language was written in standard Chinese characters (chữ nho). Around the 13th century, the Vietnamese devised their own writing system called chữ nôm (or just nôm), which was created by combining two Chinese words or by using single Chinese characters for their phonetic value. Both writing systems were in use until the 20th century – official business and scholarship was conducted in chữ nho, while chữ nôm was used for popular literature. The Latin-based quốc ngữ script, widely used since WWI, was developed in the 17th century by Alexandre de Rhodes (see the boxed text, right). Quốc ngữ served to undermine the position of Mandarin officials, whose power was based on traditional scholarship in chữ nho and chữ nôm, scripts that were largely inaccessible to the masses."
  4. Nguyễn, Tài Cẩn (2001). Nguồn gốc và quá trình hình thành cách đọc Hán Việt. Nhà xuất bản Đại học quốc gia Hà Nội. p. 16.
  5. Hội Khai-trí tiến-đức (1954). Việt-nam tự-điển. Văn Mới. pp. 141, 228.
  6. Đào, Duy Anh (2005). Hán-Việt từ-điển giản yếu. Nhà xuất bản Văn hoá Thông tin. p. 281.
  7. Hội Khai-trí tiến-đức (1954). Việt-nam tự-điển. Văn Mới. p. 228.
  8. Đào, Duy Anh (2005). Hán-Việt từ-điển giản yếu. Nhà xuất bản Văn hoá Thông tin. pp. 281, 900.
  9. Nguyễn, Tài Cẩn (1995). Giáo trình lịch sử ngữ âm tiếng Việt (sơ thảo). Nhà xuất bản Giáo dục. p. 47.
  10. David G Marr Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920-1945 1984 p141 "Because the Chinese characters were pronounced according to Vietnamese preferences, and because certain stylistic modifications occurred over time, later scholars came to refer to a hybrid "Sino-Vietnamese" (Han-Viet) language. However, there would seem to be no more justification for this term than for a Fifteenth Century "Latin-English" versus the Latin written contemporaneously in Rome.8"
  11. Nguyễn, Khuê (2009). Chữ Nôm: cơ sở và nâng cao. Nhà xuất bản Đại học Quốc gia Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. pp. 5, 215.
  12. Hugh Dyson Walker East Asia A New History -2012 Page 262 "...chu nom, Vietnamese transcription, using Chinese and nom characters for Vietnamese sounds."
  13. Hannas: Asia's Orthg DILM Paper - Page 82 Wm. C. Hannas - 1997 "The linguistic defects are the same as those noted throughout this book for Chinese characters generally, caused by the large number of tokens (some twenty thousand in chu' nom), the arbitrariness of their composition, and the inconsistent "
  14. Trần, Văn Chánh (January 2012). "Tản mạn kinh nghiệm học chữ Hán cổ". Suối Nguồn, tập 3&4. Nhà xuất bản Tổng hợp Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh: 82.
  15. Eva Hung, Judy Wakabayashi Asian translation traditions 2005 Page 174 "A large portion of the lexicon of the Vietnamese language in recent centuries derives from Hán. Consequently, there is a significant orthographic overlap between Hán and Nôm, which is to say that many characters are used in both with the same meaning. This is primarily a lexical, not a syntactic, phenomenon, although Hán grammar did influence Nôm prose to a relatively significant extent (Xtankevich 1986)"
  16. 1 2 George Cœdès The Making of South East Asia 1966 Page 87 "No work of literature from the brush of a Vietnamese survives from the period of Chinese rule prior to the rise of the first national dynasties; and from the Dinh, Former Le, and Ly dynasties, all that remains are some poems by Lac Thuan (end of the tenth century), Khuong Viet (same period), and Ly Thuong Kiet (last quarter of the eleventh century). Those competent to judge consider these works to be quite up to the best standards of Chinese literature.
  17. Lonely Planet Vietnam Nick Ray, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow - 2010 "Sino-Vietnamese literature was written in Chinese characters (chữ nho). Dominated by Confucian and Buddhist texts, it was governed by strict rules of metre and verse. Modern Vietnamese literature (quoc am) includes anything recorded in ..."
  18. Alexander Woodside Vietnam and the Chinese Model: A Comparative Study of Nguyen and ... 1971 - Page 53 "Although traditional Vietnamese scholars called Sino- Vietnamese literature "serious literature" and nom literature "the literature of pleasure," this dichotomy is obviously misleading."
  19. Bjarke Frellesvig A History of the Japanese Language 2010 - Page 258 "... the rendition of Chinese text in Japanese, which affected grammar and usage (see 9.1) and (kanbun-)ondoku, the vocalization of Chinese text as such, which paved the way for the intake of a large number of loanwords from Chinese (9.2).
  20. Nichibunken newsletter Kokusai Nihon Bunka Kenkyū Sentā 1996- No23-36 - Page 52 "The novel was then translated from Chinese into Vietnamese by a Vietnamese revolutionist. Knowledge of kanbun (classical Chinese) was quite common among Vietnamese intellectuals, and the new kanbun style of Liang Zhi-chau ..."
  21. Wm. C. Hannas - Asia's Orthographic Dilemma 1997 - Page 77 "Sifting out Sinitic from native vocabulary is more of a problem in Vietnamese than in Japanese or even in Korean because of the longer history of contact between Chinese and Vietnamese, and because of the intimacy (most Vietnamese would...) Vietnam was under Chinese "suzerainty ... During this long period, the Vietnamese language itself was overshadowed and to some extent replaced by Chinese, opening the door to thousands of Chinese terms..."
  22. Language research - Seoul University Language Research Centre 1990 - Volume 26 - Page 327 "The term Sinoxenic dialects was first used by Samuel Martin to refer to the foreign readings of Chinese characters, such as Sino-Korean, Sino-Japanese, and Sino- Vietnamese. By Sino-Korean, Sino- Japanese, and Sino- Vietnamese, ..."
  23. John R. Bentley A Descriptive Grammar of Early Old Japanese Prose 2001 - Page 39 "... (1975:195, fn. 3) and his reconstructions, but it is interesting to note that Pulleyblank' s work actually supports Miller's claims. ... to have been one of the first linguists to notice the importance of SV in reconstructing earlier stages of Chinese."
  24. Laurence C. Thompson A Vietnamese Reference Grammar University of Hawaii Press 1965 revised 1987 Page 53 "Chữ nôm apparently existed for several centuries alongside the standard written Chinese of the royal court (called chữ nho 'scholar's characters' or chữ Hán 'Han [i.e., Chinese] characters')."
  25. Mark W. McLeod, Thi Dieu Nguyen Culture and Customs of Vietnam 2001 Page 68 - "In part because of the ravages of the Ming occupation — the invaders destroyed or removed many Viet texts and the blocks for printing them — the earliest body of nom texts that we have dates from the early post-occupation era ..."
  26. Ha Minh Nguyen, Bac Hoai Tran, Tuan Duc Vuong Colloquial Vietnamese: The Complete Course for Beginners Routledge 2012 Page 3 "Because of thousands of years of Chinese domination and influence, the Vietnamese used Chinese characters known as chu nho as their official written language for many centuries. However chu nho was not easy to learn and only the ..."
  27. D. W. Sloper, Thạc Cán Lê Higher Education in Vietnam: Change and Response 1995 Page 45 "All teaching materials are written in Han, Chinese classical characters known as chu nho. From about the thirteenth century a Vietnamese system of writing, chu nom or simply nom, was developed. ... chu nho was used for official business and scholarship, while chu nom was used for popular literature."
  28. Andrew Simpson Language and national identity in Asia 2007 Page 428 "..there existed a situation in which there were briefly four different available writing systems in Vietnam, chu nho, chu nom, quoc ngu, and Romanized French. ... (4) The acceptability of quoc ngu was then further heightened by its use to translate works of literature from Chinese and chu nom, as well as through its ..."
  29. Simon Eliot, Jonathan Rose A Companion to the History of the Book - Page 124 2009 "The first publication in quoc ngu was the first Vietnamese newspaper, Gia-dinh báo (Daily Paper, 1865), ... During World War I, the colonial administration encouraged quoc ngu journalism for propaganda purposes, and as a result journals"
  30. Vietnam Economic Times Volume 98 - Page 14 Viện kinh tế thế giới (Vietnam) "Today calligraphy is considered one of their most respected art forms. Vietnam also has a long history of calligraphy, but in its earliest form it was called Han Nom, a way of using the Chinese characters to convey Vietnamese words."
  31. Simon Eliot, Jonathan Rose A Companion to the History of the Book Page 124 - 2011 "Since the use of quoc ngu for education has rendered most Vietnamese now incapable of reading earlier Vietnamese ... an increasing commitment to the publication of translations from Chinese or of transcriptions from nom texts to render ..."
  32. E. M. Nathanson Dirty Distant War 1987 Page 121 "So they took the Chinese ideographs for those words, changed them a little to make them distinctive from the Chinese characters, and in that way developed a written language. That's the script that became what we refer to today as chữ nho."

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