Vietnamese Catholics and intellectuals have commended foreign missionaries and ancestors for developing the national writing system that helped spread Catholicism around the country. Some 200 people, including language, history, culture and evangelization experts, attended a national conference to mark 400 years since the formation and development of quoc ngu
and the role it played in the history of evangelization in Vietnam. The conference was held on Oct. 25-26 at the Pastoral Center in Ho Chi Minh City by the Episcopal Commission on Culture of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Vietnam (CBCV). Archbishop Joseph Nguyen Chi Linh of Hue, president of the CBCV, five other bishops and followers of other faiths were also present at the event which marked the 400th anniversary of the creation of the romanized writing system (1618-2018). The conference also marked the 100th anniversary of quoc ngu being officially taught in schools and becoming the country’s authorized script in 1919. Bishop Joseph Dang Duc Ngan, head of the Episcopal Commission on Culture, said that in the early 17th century Western missionaries joined with colleagues from East Asia and Vietnam to create the first form of a Vietnamese script to be based on the Latin alphabet and grammar.
At that time, Vietnamese people used chu han
(classical Chinese characters) and chu nom
, a system of characters based on Chinese characters invented by Vietnamese. Bishop Ngan said that at first they used the romanized writing system as a way to study Vietnamese, while local people used it to learn foreign languages. He said foreign missionaries with linguistic skills made endless efforts to improve the script system in order to help them effectively preach and spread Catholicism to local people. Jesuit Father Alexandre De Rhodes, who carried out evangelization work in Vietnam from 1625-45, amassed quoc ngu works by other authors and published three books on the alphabet in Rome in 1651: a Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary, a Vietnamese grammar book and a catechism book. Redemptorist Father Dominic Nguyen Duc Thong said foreign missionaries and local Catholics had used quoc ngu for centuries to integrate Catholic values into national traditions, cultures and society via dictionaries, literature, poems, dramas, songs, plays and through their daily behavior. Father Thong said Catholic works reflected love, morality, dignity, human values, Christian teaching and incorporated the values of other faiths. A tool for literacy
Jesuit Father Tran Quoc Anh from Georgetown University in the US capital Washington D.C., said quoc ngu had been an effective tool for Vietnamese to spread national ideas and communicate with the outside world. Previously, most people could not read or write either chu han or chu nom because they were much more complicated. Father Anh said Catholic works in quoc ngu had been easily learned by heart by local illiterate Catholics, thus strengthening their faith and helping to spread the Catholic influence in society, too. He said more than 320,000 people embraced Catholicism in the 50 years after first foreign missionaries introduced the foreign faith at Hoi An in 1615. He estimated 130,000 Catholics had sacrificed their lives for the faith during the religious persecution by local authorities in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Among them were 117 martyrs who were canonized in 1988 and one who was beatified in 2000. Prof. Quyen Si Bui Van Chuc, an expert in Asian languages and cultures, said the key to the popularity of quoc ngu was that it was easy to learn to speak, read and write. He said Vietnamese intellectuals had made great efforts to take the new alphabet out of local churches and spread it around society. “Quoc ngu is a valuable gift offered by the Catholic Church to Vietnamese people,” he said. “Catholics in Vietnam have a responsibility to maintain that gift effectively.” Father Joseph Trinh Tin Y, secretary of the Episcopal Commission on Culture, said people today should be grateful to the foreign missionaries and their Catholic ancestors who introduced quoc ngu to Vietnam. They also had a debt of gratitude to those who contributed to developing the romanized writing system.
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