Associate Professor, Doctor of History NGUYEN MANH HUNG
Nick name: a baggage horse in the university village
Pen name: Beetle

3.1 Who is Henri Oger? (1885 – 1936)

     3.1.1  The French intervention

     a. Today, the Vietnamese people no longer see, even the silhouette, of the french colonialists on the vietnamese land. They might be seen only through old pages of books of history or through research works such as the Bulletin de l’école Française d’Extrême-Orient (Far-Eastern French School), the Bulletin de la Société des Études Indochinoises, Bulletin of the Society for Indochinese Studies), the Bulletin des Amis du Vieux Huế (Friends of Old Huế Bulletin), or the Publication de I’Institut Indochinois pour l’étude de l’homme (publication of the Indochinese Institute for the Study of Man)…, or through research documents on the material, cultural, and spiritual life of the vietnamese people which those french colonialists had left behind. Among such documents, some of them not only confirmed the presence of many french scholars since almost one hundred years, but also affirmed the existence of many Roman Catholic priests and missionaries since many past centuries, through many research works on “The mission of Jesuits in Tonkin” (*), as well as on the big progress achieved in the conversion of atheists to Roman Catholicism from 1627 to 1646”.  

(*) Region governed by Lord Trịnh from Đèo Ngang to North VN

     b. All those priests and missionaries had not only set foot in the deltas of South and North Vietnam, but they had also gone deep into mountainous areas, such as the cases of the Rev. Father Savina who studied the ethnic minorities in the Northern mountainous area and in the Sino-Vietnamese frontier area; the Rev.Father Cadière, who besides the subjects relating to the society, language, and folklore of the Vietnamese – had also made researches on the history of the Chams; or the case of the Rev.Father Dourisboure who made researches on ethnography. There’s also the Rev.Father Alexandre de Rhodes who had compiled the Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitenum et Latinum – Rome 1651.

    c. There were, at that time, not only the missionaries and scholars, but also the tradesmen. Though very busy with their business, they were still present in the North to write their relations such as the case of Tavernier, or that of Samuel Baron (an Englishman) who had made descriptions of the land he visited. They also paid much attention to the political and social situations, as well as to the customs and habits, the geography, and the history of the language in the places they had visited.

     d. But, as a special feature, there were french administrators who not only took care of the administration, but had also saved much time for carrying out research works such as the case of Sabatier who studied the customary law and the saga of the Ede tribe, Landes who paid special attention to vietnamese folk-tales and language, and Cordier – although he was a custom officer, had worked as a translator for the Indochinese Ministry of Justice and had taught Vietnamese and Chinese to the french officials.  As for the Air Force captain Cesbron, he had wanted to elevated vietnamese legends and fairy tales up to the skies.

     e. There was also  the police superintendent Bajot who translated Đồ Chiểu’s poem Lục Vân Tiên into french, giving all his attention to each verse, each word… Among the many french researchers, the most famous ones were the following people: G.Dumoutier – an archaeologist, ethnologist and orientalist – employed by the Governor General as his interpreter, Maurice  Durand, the well-known author of the work entitled  “Vietnamese Popular Imagery”. Pierre Huard who had written the so commonly known book entitled  “Knowledge of Vietnam”, and more recently, we have had Philippe Langlet, a doctor in history, who had taught Literature at the former Saigon University,  and had translated the “Khâm Định Việt Sử Thống Giám Cương Mục (1970)” (Authorized History of  Vietnam) and used it as a thesis for obtaining his  Doctor degree. Today, not many people from that generation still survive. They have simply ceded their places to other Russian, Japanese, American orientalists… Depending on the researching  viewpoints, which might be either materialistic or  idealistic, dialectical or metaphysical … the Vietnamese studies are displayed before their eyes  with new elements.

     f. However, after going through all the documents left behind as mentioned above we  haven’t met with any french researcher whose name  is Henri Oger!  Maybe, we ought to read an article  by Pierre Huard, carried out on the Bulletin de  l’école Française d’Extrême-Orient and entitled  “Henri Oger, the pioneer in Vietnamese technology”  (1) (fig. 72). The contents of this article might somewhat  throw light on this frenchman.

Henri Oger –  The pioneer in  the  Vietnamese technology

     3.1.2  The life  of  Henri Oger

– An unknown person – an unfortunate destiny, fallen into oblivion for almost a century.  A pioneer in  vietnamese technology?  Through Pierre Huard’s article,  we’ve learned that:

     a. Henri Oger (1885-1936?) was born at Montrevault (Maine et Loire) on October 31, 1885. He obtained his  Bachelor of Arts (Latin, Greek, Philosophy) with a pass degree in 1995, then he continued with his practical higher studies (section4).

      Oger was a student of Messrs.  Sylvain Lévy, Louis  Finot, and the professors at the Institut de France  (Institute of France); after having obtained his bachelor  degree, he continued with his higher practical studies at  the Sorbonne University in Paris.  In 1907, Oger had  requested the Colonial Office to send him to Tonkin to perform his military service in the two years (1908 -1909)  and was authorized to do so (at that time H. Oger was  only 23 years old).  Then he attended the Colonial School (1909) and graduated with the 4th rank among the 26 students from his session. Pushing further his studies, Oger again graduated from the Vietnamese Language  and Chinese course.

     On June 3,1914, Oger returned, demobilized for 1 year, to France. On June 17, 1915, he was again mobilized.Though warmly recommended by the French deputies, Oger wasn’t allowed to work in France and had to be sent back to Vietnam.

     Due to too much overwork, Oger had to be hospitalized several times, and on June 18, 1919, he was repatriated and was on the retired list (Oct.18,1920).  Searching further into this period, Huard let us know that people saw Oger in Spain since February 1932, but later on no one had heard about him again, and he was  considered as missing in 1936.

     No one knows the date of Oger’s marriage, but they are a childless couple.  This widow lived at No.35 Libération avenue, at Chantilly (Oise) from 1952 and  died on December 28, 1954.

     b. That was all that Pierre Huard could find out about Henri Oger’s life; if there was something more, then that were the scientific activities that had filled his life. Later on, people evaluated Oger as a scientist, a scholar, who had profited by the military and administrative means in the french administration to satisfy his unlimited thirst for knowledge, and to make research works in the linguistic and literary fields.

     Oger went crazy over his work like a madman. He devised a project for establishing in Indochina an Investigating Organization aimed at learning about linguistics and the various dialects like the one established in India, by the British.

     However, Oger could only devise all such projects but he couldn’t go through the ways he had traced. Is it because of his unfortunate life, his illnesses and the ill-treatment he received, that Oger was obliged to leave his research works unfinished?

     3.1.3 What do they want?

     a. Is it true that, since they first set foot in Vietnam, the Occidental scientists had based themselves on scientific and well-organized research methods, especially when they had had all the means available, along with the assistance of the colonial administration, so they had, with their exotic viewpoint, gone deep into many different researching fields, which the vietnamese Confucian scholars, due to their being too familiar with such matters, hadn’t seen or omitted to work on? All such research documents left behind by them had greatly helped the posterior generations to complete objectively the funds of documents built and left behind by our vietnamese forefathers.

     b. However, is the assistance from the part of the colonialist administration entirely scientific and impartial? They had actually required the scholars to submit documents aimed at serving the administrating purposes. Is that the reason why a certain number of accidental scholars had failed to have objective, truthful and straightforward thinking upon carrying out research works on vietnamese matter?

      At first, is it true that their methods had adopted the view point of accidental cultural circle, at a period of time when colonialism was still prosperous?  They conducted research work on a people, not for trying to approach it, but actually for conquering it.

“When wishing to administer the colonial  people in a good manner, one must at first understand thoroughly the people one is  administering”.

     The above mentioned words of Governor General Doumer is a kind of directive. But, is it true that, to thoroughly understand a people, Doumer had leaned on the functional school of occidental ethnography whose function isn’t to  explain the historical sources and habits of that people, but actually consists of demonstrating the  practical significance and the actual function of such factors in that people’s society, and  demonstrating with fixed aims? (1).

c. Besides, is it true that in its methods of gathering documents, and conducting researches, this school had often paid attention to phenomena, that form a scan on such customs and habits to strive to find out and understand about their strange aspects, accordingly to an exotic taste?

      And is it right that Oger had actually been equipped with those aforesaid aims, missions, and methods to come to this strange land?  And if so, then how did Oger choose his object to study?

     If Pierre Poivre had gone to the Far-East to study the political situation, the customs and habits, the religions, the products, and the trading in Cochin China, in the years 1749 and 1750, then H. Oger had gone to perform on the spot research works on the material and mental civilizations in “Tonkin” in the years 1908 and 1909.

     d. In the process of learning and understanding, H. Oger had discovered an original art with the lissome pen brush (fig. 73), so lively in the hands of a number of talented artists, along with refined engravings that had a tradition, and that had been organized into guilds and associations. Moreover, there was also the rice paper industry of Bưởi village, well-known for its smoothness and its toughness, not inferior to that of types of paper produced in the Occident. All such factors had urged Oger to place “order”. How was the commodity ordered? Were they images of traditional festivals  as seen by Dumoutier?  If so, then Oger wouldn’t have to work so hard during two years and also couldn’t be called “the pioneer in vietnamese technology” by Huard; Oger had wanted to have a personal and original research work on vietnamese families, adopting the “monographic method”.


     e. Oger believes that the characteristic of this method consists of establishing funds used for clothing, foodstuffs, housing, salary and furniture. Oger had concretized into 5 groups of subjects which we can call chapters.

     The first chapter deals with materials, consisting of three types, namely minerals, vegetals, and animals used for manufacturing products and implements necessary for the activities of the families and the society. The second chapter deals with housing tools (fig. 74) and clothing. The third chapter deals with foodstuffs, eat-and-drink, and the preservation of hygiene and health.  The fourth chapter deals with lighting and cooking.  And the last one is the chapter dealing with utensils and labour tools.   


     f. To materialize the contents of the aforesaid requirement, Oger took along with him a vietnamese artist, specialized in drawing sketches, and lounged about the workers’ guilds and the shops (fig.75).Various questions with regard to the appellation, the sizes, the manufacturing methods, the manipulation of such or such tools or instruments were propounded.


     The sketcher rapidly sketched on paper the working in each one of its stages, acting somewhat like a photographer.

     And thus, according to Oger, this method permits him to recreate many series of activities  belonging to a same kind and through two different types of sketches that complete each other, namely the implements or objects (fig. 76) and the gestures deployed to make use of them.  Such tools made of wood, iron, tin, bamboo will complete one another and explain   themselves when arranged and used together.


     g. Continuing the road he had traced for himself, and to bestow upon his work a genuine scientific value Oger had, after two years of on-the-spot studying, taken  all those sketches back to show them to profound  Confucian scholars who examined and synthesized them.

     According to Oger, this way of exchanging works will lead one from the known things to things still  unknown and to new discoveries.  And, from such a   base, the vietnamese artists can recreate even the old  customs and habits that no longer exist nowadays in  our society (2).

(1) History of the development of ethnography and of the various ethnographical schools. Ethnographical  Review – 1961, No. 21 dated March 15,1961

 (2) a. Among thousands of sketches, we’ve found a number of them that describe long lost images such as the one showing the terrible scene of “a raft floating downstream” that had been sketched.  This is the scene of two offenders being bound to a raft bearing a sign that reads: “lustful adulterer and adulteress being put on a raft and sent downstream as a punishment”. The hands and feet of the offenders are nailed on a piece of wood placed on the raft. The woman is shown naked and the man gets a close-shaven head, and one wonders if it were a bonze wearing his toga?  The raft is floating hazardly downstream and no one seems to care for it (fig.77).


     If the scene of an offender being trampled to death by an elephant or drawn and quartered by horses is at the present time only an echo and a shadow, then this scene of “a raft floating downstream” can only remind us of the work entitled: “Quan Yin’s annotation” in which the rich man ask his son about the author of Thi M’au’s pregnancy:  (You better tell the truth and finish with this affair,  Otherwise you’ll run the risk of being put on a raft and let to float downstream).

     The above-mentioned matter has been recorded by G.Dumoutier in his work entitled: “Essays on the Tonkinese” (*) 101 as follows: “In May 1898, one of these mournful rafts had flown along the Nhị rivers”.

       b. Before the October revolution, we still remembered the scene through which a husband who caught in the act his adulterous wife, had shaved her head, bound her, and paraded her on the streets. While walking this husband exposed his wife’s faults, and beat on a tin barrel to bring shame on his wife vis-à-vis the whole village.

(*) G. DUMOUTIER – Essays on the Tonkinese – Imprimerie d’Extrême – Orient – Hanoi, Haiphong, 1908, P.43

     h. Being a scientific researcher, Oger believes that there is nothing more painful than reading the descriptions of the instruments or the gestures without  having under one’s eyes sketches showing them. There  are quite few writers with a fecund imagination and,  as a matter of fact, one can obtain a good memory  with one’s eyes much more easier than through reading.  For that reason, Oger’s work consists mostly of  drawings and sketches.  It’s not a fortuitousness instead  it’s a coherent method well argued about.

     Oger has asserted that his work, once becoming  an achieved manuscript and text, will be a scientific  and objective one. Each one of the drawing is described in details, followed by sound synthesized remarks. Oger also believes that: “the vietnamese language is very  rich in material terms.  As for its abstract capacity, it seems quite underdeveloped”.

     i. For that reason, the technical terms have been given in a complete manner beside the 4000 sketches,  causing the work to be a quite thick book.

     Oger continued to classify his documents and observations inside partitions and large compartments  so as to be able to achieve, later on, various monographies.  At first, Oger divided his work into  two distinct parts.  One part contains all the plates  and sketches. The other part holds the texts. Oger  felt that, by doing so, he could avoid all duplications.  Moreover, this method allows the author to add new observations behind the old ones, thus, not requiring  him to revise and rewrite his book once every five  years.  In the part holding the texts, Oger gave a table  of contents and an analytical index, facilitating the  use of his work.

     j. However, his book became quite a big one, a kind of encyclopedia containing almost 5000 sketches,  so no printing house or library agreed to assume its publication.  Oger had to motivate subscription to it,  but he felt that he had met with a “stupid and loutish  society”.  Besides a group, of some 20 persons who had  granted 200 piastres to Oger to spend as he sees fit,  he didn’t get any cent from any other people and that  was the sole capital he got in hands.  Oger was able to gather thirty engravers and those people had worked  throughout two consecutive months.  When they had  achieved more than 4000 engravings, summertime had come.  A summertime termed by Oger as “a burning tropical stove”.

     Due to the severe climate, Oger and his collaborators couldn’t be able to place such engravings under the rolling axis of the printing machine to obtain a greater number of copies.  And as such engravings became warped Oger had to adopt the hand-printing method used by artist of Hồ village and Hàng Trống st. This means that he needed to have the right sized rice paper to press on the engravings that had been smeared with ink beforehand; such kind of paper had been harshly manufactured by papermakers of Bưởi village (in the vicinity of Hanoi) out of the “dó” tree. This method produced a very slow work but the printed lines were marked in an extremely clear manner on the paper. So, this set of sketches on “technology” had undesignedly borne the aspect of folk woodcuts. H.Oger himself felt very highly pleased with this unexpected result.   According to Oger, this fact has the advantage of giving the book an indigenous style. “Everything is Vietnamese” and also according to Oger, this work doesn’t borrow anything from anybody, doesn’t lean on anybody in Indochina, and doesn’t copy from any available document.

     With regard to the above-mentioned matter, Oger wanted to answer those who affirmed that the documents used for compiling his book come from Dumoutier’s work.

     Besides H.Oger had affirmed that in the process of printing his work he had saved about 400 sketches, already engraved but not printed.  All such engravings and the ones already printed are now still available or lost?  We don’t have any idea about this matter (*) .

(*) With the assistance of the Plastic Arts Artists Association  and that of the Folk Literature association, we have visited the homeland of the artists at Hải Hưng; we had also paid a visit to the Hàng Gai temple and the Vũ Thạch pagoda (in July 1985) that are places on which the work had been published and circulated.  We haven’t had time to conduct deeper research work and hadn’t found any engraving left … Is it true that Henri Oger had taken all of them back to France?

     We’ve compared Oger’s drawings with a number of documents left behind by Dumoutier in the “Revue Indochinoise” and the work entitled “Essays on the Tonkinese”… and haven’t yet found anything that might  prove that Oger had used Dumoutier’s drawings,  although there were a  few duplicate sketches such as the one showing a “shuttlecock game with a feather- shuttlecock” by Dumoutier (fig.78) taken from his work entitled “Essays on the Tonkinese, p-53” and the one of H.Oger (fig.79).

Fig.78: SHUTTLE-COCK GAME (after Dumoutier)

Fig.79: SHUTTLE-COCK GAME (after Henri-oger)

 The sketch showing a scene of “Playing Tam Cúc”, extracted from Dumoutier’s book “Essays on the Tonkinese”p.57 (Fig.80) and Oger’s sketch (fig.81).

Fig.80: PLAYING TAM CÚC (a game with 32 cards – after G.Dumoutier)

Fig.81: VIETNAMESE GAME OF 32 CARDS (after H.Oger)

     We also reviewed Pierre Huard’s illustrations in his book entitled “Knowledge of Vietnam” and haven’t seen this author using Oger’s sketches, even though there are also a few duplicate subjects such as Huard’s illustration “Curetting the ears” (fig.82) p.169, the one of Dumoutier on  page 88, or the one of Oger (fig. 83).

Fig.82: CURETTING THE EARS (after P.Huard)

Fig.83: CURETTING THE EARS (after H.Oger)

     This is Pierre Huard’s Illustration “Roofing a house” (fig.84) (p.212) and Oger’s sketch (fig.85) (Please read the conclusion).

Fig.84: ROOFING A HOUSE (after Pierre Huard)

Fig.85: ROOFING A HOUSE (after Henri Oger)

     k. Before our writing the introduction, and later on, maybe other researchers will have opportunities  to conduct deeper researches and evaluate rightly the author and his work, let’s give the words to Pierre  Huard (1) – a researcher who has paid much attention  on Vietnam – and who has the following remarks on  Oger’ works.

     “The recovery of this work, which until now is no longer to be found, represents only the beginning of a large  investigation that, alas! has not yet been continued…Being compiled with a working spirit much inclined toward  technology, and intentionally disregarding all possible  circulation, this research work didn’t get the support of the  public in France and in Vietnam – a public that paid  attention to branches such as language, archaeology, folk-literature”!… “Nowadays this work deserves being  reevaluated and ought to be studied because of the following  two reasons: At first, it bears a traditional value and is the work  of a young researcher working  in an indifferent or even  hostile environment.  Next comes the fact that this work  has recorded numerous gestures and techniques which  the course of history has caused them to disappear  completely in today’s Vietnam”.

(1) PIERRE HUARD – The pioneer in Vietnamese technology – Henri Oger (1885-1936?) B.E.F.E.O. Tome LVII – 1970 – pp. 215-217.