Icons in Disguise: Vietnamese Resistance Figures Hoàng Hoa Thám and Ba Biểu in French Colonial Images and Related Texts, 1909-2007
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The following article considers the origins and subsequent usages of images featuring two figures today known as early Vietnamese resistance fighters against French colonization: the guerilla leader Hoàng Hoa Thám (黄花探 d. 1913), also known as Ðề Thám (提探), and his follower Ba Biểu (d. 1909). In addition to investigating the possible implications of differences in visual approach among the images’ initial photographers and publishers, primarily members of the French colonial military, it also juxtaposes a variety of related texts by French and Vietnamese authors from 1909 to 2007. The result is the brief observance of a path (not often smooth) from colonial villainy to postcolonial heroism, in which the photographic materials accommodate different political attitudes over time, through both original aesthetic effects and accumulated historical significance.
Ðề Thám has become one of the most successful travelers of the path from colonial villain to postcolonial hero. Orphaned in the wake of French attempts to colonize Vietnam in the mid-19th century, he found shelter among bandit chiefs operating along the northern border of the country. From the 1890s until the French consolidation of Indochina in the early 1900s, he gained a reputation for wielding diplomacy and violence against all who opposed him. Today, Ðề Thám occupies the role appointed him in 1917 by Vietnamese anti-colonial activist Phan Bội Châu (潘佩珠1867-1940): that of a hero in a long tradition of national resistance. This tradition could be dated to China’s annexation of Vietnamese territory under the Qin dynasty (秦221-206 B.C.E.). It includes figures such as the Trưng Sisters (d. 43 C.E.), whose first-century rebellion against Chinese rule is a highlight in millennia of sporadic conflicts with surrounding regions, followed by encounters with European missionaries, French colonizers and, in the late twentieth century, American, Soviet and other invader-allies in the Cold War-era hostilities known in America as the Vietnam War and in Vietnam as the War Against America. Like many of his predecessors, Ðề Thám now appears in Vietnamese popular story and performance, lends his name to localities and institutions across Vietnam, and presides (as a local deity) over an annual festival in the region of his greatest achievements – in his case, the region of Yên Thế, near the Sino-Vietnamese border.
While ancient heroes everywhere have shed the words of their detractors in the making of legend, Ðề Thám and his followers have undergone the more complex process of not only shedding such words but also prompting re-readings of their visual legacy, which consists mainly of photographs shot and published by French colonial officers. These officers include Alfred Léon Bouchet, who was serving as a colonial administrator in the region of Nhã Nam in Vietnam when he liaised with (and spied on) Ðề Thám on behalf of the French government; Principal Guard Ernest Richy (d. 1926), a supervising officer with Indochina’s Native Guard (garde indigène) in Nhã Nam, who occasionally accompanied Bouchet and otherwise participated in campaigns against Ðề Thám between 1909 and 1911; Captain Péri, head of Indochina’s military telegraph service, who supervised the installation of wireless transmitters along the borders of Vietnam, starting in 1905; and Pierre Dieulefils (1862-1937), whose career as an elegant studio photographer and giant of Hanoi postcard publishing seems to have begun with photographs of Vietnamese prisoners, taken (both the prisoners and the photographs) during his time as a military engineer, from 1885 to 1887.
On the surface, images of Ðề Thám and his followers produced by these individuals maintained predictable public messages of French superiority over Vietnamese, from suggestions of Vietnamese cooperation and docility (Figure 1) to proof of punishing colonial victory over rebellion (Figure 2). It also is no surprise that these colonial messages translate in postcolonial terms today as the silent subtlety of Vietnamese resistance (Figure 1) and the extent of its sacrifice (Figure 2), or that various stories have been excluded or added to the images in the process of translation. The present article examines the extent to which readings of photographic images of Ðề Thám and Ba Biểu, one of his most painstakingly depicted followers, respectively, have been able to accommodate changing stories. In asking how certain stories change, it also finds that some “colonial messages” were not so straightforward.
Ðề Thám’s Family Photograph 1: “Ðề Thám and Our Regional Administrator M. Bouchet”
The above image of Ðề Thám and Hoàng Thị Thế, his daughter, with Bouchet (Figure 1) was the only visual representation of Ðề Thám in an anonymous French magazine article on “Operations Against Dé-Tham” of June 26, 1909. It was roughly a year after Ðề Thám’s implication in a poisoning plot sparked the campaigns, and the article despaired over Ðề Thám’s effective guerilla tactics and diplomatic duplicity, complaining further that he “is skilled in exploiting the superstitious nature of the Vietnamese race [to gain support]” and “makes a legend of himself.” This legend is barely detectable in his image with Bouchet, however.
Bouchet holds a cord that probably activated the shutter of a camera, indicating that the image was his self-portrait as well as his “document” of Ðề Thám and Hoàng Thị Thế, framed in the “frontal” view prescribed for both anthropological and criminal “types”. According to the magazine’s caption, the image commemorates a moment of cooperation bought with the gift of a child’s toy, “before the present hostilities.” The scene itself shows two men of physically equal stature, their hands seeming to meet behind a child whom they appear to protect and present. Bouchet interrupts the flatness and symmetry of the composition with his left hand, placed authoritatively on his hip, the diagonal of his cigarette, and a gaze towards his left. As noted, he probably is controlling a camera with the cord in his hand, claiming control over the image through colonial technology and its scientific applications. On the other side, a rustic storage jar sits solidly behind Ðề Thám, perhaps included by Bouchet to symbolize Vietnam’s traditional way of life, pitted against his own modern methods. Hoàng Thị Thế is caught between them. The tiny driver in her toy car points towards Bouchet, who offers himself to both her and Vietnam as a superior leader, but she chooses to lean ever so slightly towards her real father. Within the vision of colonial rule presented by France in 1909, this image may have incorporated more equality than most in giving Ðề Thám and Bouchet equal visual space, yet the symmetry does not connote equal status. Bouchet seems to take the upper hand in a clash between “native traditions” and “imperial technology.”
Such symbolism, embedded in the caption’s claim of formerly friendly relations, may have conveyed the colonial view of the immediate past and desired future of France’s situation with Ðề Thám in 1909. The story changed after Ðề Thám’s 1913 defeat and the tightening of French control over Indochina. By the 1930s, Bouchet could write in his memoirs of a similar “family photograph” as a means to infiltrate and spy. Specifically, he used one photographic occasion to steal a glance at Ðề Thám’s inadequately concealed third wife, further confirming the existence of a newborn child. Nevertheless, Bouchet also congratulated himself on his charm, claiming that Hoàng Thị Thế was “radiant” at the gift of his “beautiful locomotive” (rather than a “little automobile”) and that “an imperceptible smile skimmed across the face of the chief.” He also assumes greater authority in his own narrative, not taking the photograph himself but delegating the task to Richy, who was assigned to accompany him during previously mentioned participation in the “Operations Against Ðề Thám.”
It was not until after Vietnam’s independence from France in 1954, followed by its Cold War-era hostilities involving America and other countries, that the memoirs of Hoàng Thị Thế were published in 1975, the year of the country’s reunification under a Communist administration. These memoirs had been written over ten years previously, in French, the language in which Hoàng Thị Thế matured after her capture by colonial troops and upbringing in France – during, as she writes, “half a century of separation” from her homeland, to which she returned in the 1960s. By this time, she could describe her father as a martial but caring leader to guerilla fighters of various rural origins, an idea aligned by the editors of the volume with the administration’s focus on peasant uprisings and other forms of resistance. Her recollection of a “family photograph” also adds a perspective of resistance, shedding any notion of friendly relations with Bouchet:
Taking advantage of the period of truce, Bouchet came sneaking in and out of our living space to spy. Many times he even brought a camera too, to take pictures, but they never could take pictures of my mother or brother Cả Trọng. When they did ask, my father said that they were away, and he called my brothers, Cả Dinh and Cả Huỳnh, and their two children, Oanh and Thủy, to be photographed with us. When the photography was finished, Bouchet pulled me to another spot with the ruse of playing ball, and asked:
“Where’s your brother Cả Trọng?”
“He is at First Mother’s house.”
“Then where’s your mother? She’s home, isn’t she?”
“No, my mother has been visiting my grandmother since yesterday.”
I had heard my uncle say it, so I did not contradict. When I related the above conversation to my parents, they both smiled. My father praised me as clever and hugged me until I couldn’t breathe. My mother gave me a horse made of sugar...
Suggesting that Bouchet used photography as much to try to extract verbal information as to capture visuals, Hoàng Thị Thế finally exposes the ulterior motives behind gift-giving, photography and other ostensibly friendly gestures in a military context. First, the 1909 colonial article had made a claim of past friendly relations when Ðề Thám remained active. Bouchet then gently justified his infiltration and espionage in the memoir written after Ðề Thám’s defeat, before Hoàng Thị Thế condemned the practice in her own writings from an era closer to our own. Perhaps the most relevant use of the above commentaries today is not to reconstruct the history of a particular image but to chart changing attitudes towards and awareness of the human relations of which photography has been a part.
Ðề Thám’s Family Photograph 2: “Ðề Thám Surrounded by his Small Children”
One more “family photograph” of Ðề Thám remains to be considered. It lacks the centering and symmetry of the previous one (Figure 1), suggesting a less rigid imposition of compositional and social order on the part of the photographer, who records faithfully that Ðề Thám and his companions seem hardly happy to see him. Nevertheless, the colonial presence remains outside the frame, allowing Ðề Thám to preside over his small group in a patriarchal pose. This may indicate why the image was chosen by Hoàng Thị Thế and another early Vietnamese author to illustrate their writings on Ðề Thám.
Unlike the previously discussed magazine illustration of Ðề Thám and Hoàng Thị Thế with Bouchet (Figure 1), the following postcard image of Ðề Thám “surrounded by his small children” (and apparently one adult helper: Figure 3) gives him pride of placement. He sits almost regally above a crouching man and three children seated on the ground, reserving a special spot at his knee for a child that Hoàng Thị Thế identifies as herself in her own use of the image in her memoirs. With no one like Bouchet to limit the use of Ðề Thám’s hands, he curls one protectively around the child’s shoulder while the other mirrors hers at rest on his lap, forming a tender pairing of large and small. While it is difficult to imagine a colonial photographer controlling such small details as arrangement of the hands while working in an enemy camp, the oscillating constellation of bright and textured visual points, such as hands, pendants, and the occasional light-colored fabric, create an asymmetrical yet balanced composition, suggesting an aesthetic sensibility opposed to the aggressive symmetry of Bouchet’s image.
The framing allows Ðề Thám much more visual power and poise. While figures around him range from sullen to vaguely defiant, Ðề Thám maintains an expression of calmness to match the strength of his pose. It is a different mode of compositional balance from that of the pairing that he formed with Bouchet, in which he was relegated to only half of the visual (and symbolic) importance. Here, his posture is solid and centered, similar to that of a painted “ancestor portrait” in the Chinese tradition, or, for that matter, a warrior taking a seat in a Vietnamese classical opera (tuồng), a genre that Ðề Thám occasionally patronized. The frontal, spread-bodied posture of the “ancestor portrait” also was appropriated by Western studio photographers for Asian subjects in the early era of photography, and the photographer may have framed Ðề Thám according to a stereotypical idea of Asian portraiture. Wherever agency may lie, the result reads more as a “portrait” than the “document” seen previously in the image with Bouchet.
The photograph of “Ðề Thám surrounded by his small children” seems to have been taken by Captain Péri, noted above for starting to install wireless telegraph transmitters along the borders of Vietnam in 1905. He was credited in an April 1909 advertisement for a photographic series (no longer extant) on “Military Operations at Yen-The” (that is, against Ðề Thám at his headquarters) offered for sale by Dieulefils, the previously mentioned military engineer who became a studio photographer and postcard publisher in Hanoi. Dieulefils released a series of postcards on the campaigns against Ðề Thám later that year, most likely using Péri’s negatives. The fact that several events depicted in the postcard series took place after April, such as the death of Ðề Thám’s follower Ba Biểu in August, implies advanced advertising as well as creative license in the preparation of the images by Dieulefils’ studio. As suggested by the comparisons to Bouchet’s image above, Dieulefils’ postcard series on Ðề Thám features a more delicate sense of posing and darkroom manipulation than other images from the same setting.
Many of the postcards that Dieulefils published were from images that he had taken himself, and it is not known in detail how he chose the images that were available by others. He inhabited a publishing world in which copyright meant relatively little, negatives changed hands, and images could be reproduced in a variety of places by various methods and with captions at the whim of the publisher. Therefore it might be supposed that he could allow his taste alone to determine his choices. If so, he may have shown an element of refinement by choosing not to reproduce the image of Ðề Thám and Bouchet as a postcard – or at least, perhaps, a subtler eye in choosing the images attributable to Captain Péri, some of which also appeared in the 1909 article that featured the image of Ðề Thám and Bouchet. Perhaps it is partly thanks to Dieulefils that the unsubtle image of Ðề Thám and Bouchet seems to have stayed mainly at the back of an old French pictorial, while Ðề Thám’s more dignified depiction early graced a postcard sent between soldiers as they were fighting him in the field, yet later remained appropriate to illustrate the memoirs of his daughter.
Hoàng Thị Thế’s memoirs reproduce “Ðề Thám Surrounded by his Small Children” in reverse, cropped to show only Ðề Thám and the little girl, captioned unambiguously as “Hoàng Hoa Thám and Hoàng Thị Thế (1905).” The date may have been extrapolated from the girl’s apparent age in the photograph, for it does not appear in Dieulefils’ postcard caption and was not added to another incarnation of the image in a Vietnamese-language book about Ðề Thám that appeared in the colonial period, “Rainbow at Yên Thế (the Legend of Ðề Thám)” (Cầu-vồng Yên Thế (Truyện Ðề Thám)). Here, the anonymous author credits the image as “collected by” Dieulefils (as Dieulefils himself had implied, dropping out reference to Captain Péri) but subtly alters his caption. Instead of “Ðề Thám Surrounded by his Small Children at Phuong-Xuong [sic: Phồn Xương],” it reads: “Mr. Hoàng Hoa Thám with his children, nieces and nephews. The little girl standing with her hand on his knee is Miss Hoàng Thị Thế, now a movie actress in France [italics added].” Written under colonialism, “Rainbow at Yên Thế” does not use the now standard Vietnamese term “righteous troops” (nghĩa quân) to refer to Ðề Thám and his followers, and its captioning incorporates Hoàng Thị Thế’s then ambiguous position. It does, however, introduce a sense of politeness with the titles “Mr.” and “Miss,” and the caption’s description of the little girl’s physical position emphasizes the tenderness noted above: that of the sequence of small and large hands formed by her placement at her father’s knee.
Colonial censorship of Vietnamese publications could be strict and mercurial, and materials about historical individuals who had fought French or other “foreign” invaders were among the books and pamphlets banned throughout Indochina between 1927 and 1936, including even a tract about Admiral Nelson. Choosing Ðề Thám as a subject could be considered a subversive act, and sympathetic readers of “Rainbow at Yên Thế” would have been struck by the contrast between the defiant past of the image and the contemporary fate of the people in it. Among other places, Hoàng Thị Thế’s tragic story was traced in Dieulefils’ postcard series, specifically through captions identifying her as the daughter of Đăng Thị Nho, Ðề Thám’s third wife, who in turn was shown in another postcard purportedly at her time of capture by colonial forces. Đăng Thị Nho was sent to French Guyana and died on the way.
To conclude the section on images of Ðề Thám, it may be useful to recall the complaint of the 1909 magazine article that featured the image of him with Bouchet: that he made himself a legend. Apropos to both of the images of Ðề Thám above, Hoàng Thị Thế’s memoirs indicate that Ðề Thám’s strategy towards colonial photography incorporated not only the concealment of certain family members in exchange for the sharing of others (as seen in her story of his “family photograph” with Bouchet), but also a thoughtfully constructed appearance for himself. Specifically, Ðề Thám’s clothing in both images matches her description of the way he “always” dressed, “even if nobility were coming”: white trousers and a standard black shirt, showing that he “was in need of nothing.” This projected a constant appearance to his followers as well as enabled them to serve as his doubles when necessary, potentially fooling the enemy.
For example, Hoàng Thị Thế notes that her “Uncle” Cõn (not a blood relation) “very much resembled” Ðề Thám and “replaced” him when he was too tired to receive guests or “when there were French whom we did not know.” When Uncle Cõn removed his glasses and donned Ðề Thám’s signature outfit, Hoàng Thị Thế herself sometimes mistook him for her father coming home. Perhaps it is valid to ask whether various photographs of Ðề Thám all show the same person – however, this also is beyond the scope of the present essay.
Seen But Not Heard: The Famous Death and Secret Life of Ba Biểu
Hoàng Thị Thế, in bringing her father’s story into agreement not only with her personal feelings but also with narratives of Vietnamese peasant resistance and “heroic sacrifice” (hy sinh) predominant in 1975, also severely abbreviated the story of Ba Biểu, a follower of Ðề Thám who seems to have had a special place in colonial texts and pictures. His postcard images served around 1909 as proof of French power over Vietnamese rebellion, via pictures of his corpse (Figures 2 and 5) and in the report of his death by shooting offered in the caption of a heavily retouched portrait that seems to show him alive (Figure 4). These images also may have prompted French writers of the 1930s and 1940s to conceive Ba Biểu’s character in terms of danger combined with physical attraction.
All three of the postcards representing Ba Biểu in Dieulefils’ series mention his death in the captions, but two of the images seem designed to contradict this information, at least in sentiment. Blended tones and black outlines of painterly retouching extend a posthumous ethereality to the image in which his eyes are open (Figure 4). In the image of his corpse above (Figure 2), a similar technique adds to the harmonious paradox of a slumberous yet upright repose that someone dead (or even sleeping) never could have held. Bouchet might have been creating unity from the verbal and visual contrasts of the open-eyed postcard when he wrote:
Ba-Bieu...sought for multiple assassinations, was the favorite of [Ðề Thám]. He had a fine face, a gaze extremely soft. He was, contrarily, of pleasant exterior. He would kill with a smile on his lips. He loved to see suffering! Ba-Bieu, the bloody, was the most dangerous of De-Tham’s partisans.
About a decade later (1942), Paul Chack expanded on Ba Biểu’s character, using visually evocative (not to say titillating) language that causes both of the above postcard images to slide away from life and death into a sort of dreamland of equal parts insult and attraction – or rather, where being attractive is an insult, indicating effeminacy and also cruel (as opposed to righteous) violence. After describing “the beautiful Ba-Bieu of androgynous body, delicate limb, fragrant hair, a ferocious beast in the mask of a vicious boy,” Chack suggests unsavory control over his chief. The occasion is an imagined conversation around a letter requesting Ðề Thám’s presence in Hanoi, to “pay homage” to the Governor-General of Indochina:
“The Governor-General has come to Yen-Thé,” murmured [Dé]Tham, “although he will require me to go over there one day.” One of [his] four men dared respond. Ba-Bieu was on his feet. Under his eyebrows, plucked until they failed to keep the slender lines of a courtesan’s, his eyes, full of a hypocritical caress, would watch the master. And his soft voice rose:
“You won’t go, oh venerable father. You won’t go, because you know that the French and all the Annamite dogs that lick their hands are setting traps for you, as though they’ve already caught you. You won’t go, because, here at Yen-Thé, and elsewhere besides, everyone admires your martial exploits and is ready to aid you in all of your commands. Before your thousand and two thousand followers, you needn’t lose face. You won’t go, because it is here alone, in our place, that you entrust your happiness and feel your safety.”
“I won’t go,” replied Dé Tham.
For he knew that he would risk the peril of death in leaving his followers. He was their chief, but he also was their prisoner.
Bouchet further described Ba Biểu as “the cruelest of the cruel,” listing numerous murders with dread, but also, with disdain, a temper tantrum “before the appalled notables [of his village]” and other instances of immature behavior. If the stories and images of Ðề Thám discussed above lent him the colonial reputation of a wily father-figure, those of Ba Biểu constructed him as a deadly child – more dangerous than Ðề Thám himself in his unexpected combination of soft looks and ruthless killing.
While Bouchet met Ba Biểu in person and Chack never did, both authors may have been inspired by Dieulefils’ postcard images, which seem to embody the sharp contrast that Bouchet and Chack draw between his appearance and his behavior. Bouchet’s most detailed record of a personal encounter with Ba Biểu also engages his description of the latter as both “wanted for multiple assassinations” and having “a pleasant exterior.” “Ba-Bieu,” he writes, “talkative, docile, conducts me to the gate that leads to the forest.” Soon after, they find a corpse, suspected by Bouchet to be a victim of Ðề Thám’s group. Roughly twenty years later, could recollections of such “docile” behavior be enough to prompt Bouchet’s description of “a gaze extremely soft”? Over thirty years later, how could Chack conclude so casually that Ba Biểu plucked his eyebrows (and all that this might entail)? The answers seem to lie in the portrait-postcard of Ba Biểu (Figure 4), which features painterly blending of pigments (perhaps crayon or charcoal), balanced with fine contrasts of black outline and the occasional white highlight. Underneath this “artist’s rendition” likely lies a blurry enlargement from a negative in which Ba Biểu appears as a figure in a group, too small to retain much detail when isolated as a portrait.
While tracing the original negative for the portrait-postcard of Ba Biểu is too large a task to be undertaken in the present investigation, one group photograph with Ba Biểu might be mentioned as a possibly related source. The image appears in at least two publications of the 1930s, and unfortunately copyright could not be clarified sufficiently to show its variations here. Around 1930, it was published in Bouchet’s memoirs with the following caption: “From the right: De-Tham, beside him, his messenger Ba-Phu, then the pirate Thach. At center: wearing a hat, the pirate chief Ly-Thu, called Dê-Bao, then Ba-Bieu, called Ba-Hap, the cruelest of the cruel. Finally, the bandit chief Cai-Thanh – photo taken in September 1908.” Three years later, in 1933, a much clearer print was included in an official history of Indochina’s Native Guard, captioned simply: “Dê-Tham (last on the right) in 1908.” The latter image bears handwritten names marking the figures of Ba Biểu and Ly-Thu. Perhaps more remarkably, it also includes a colonial figure on the far left edge of the frame, apparently Bouchet himself. Although the image is unattributed in both publications, the photographer may have been Richy, noted above as the officer in the Native Guard who took a photograph of Ðề Thám and his “family” at Bouchet’s instruction. In terms of Ba Biểu’s appearance in this group photograph and that of his portrait-postcard (Figure 4), he faces the viewer in both with essentially the same posture, wearing a Chinese-style jacket that opens on a particularly bright highlight on his neck – a somewhat clumsy area of the postcard where the texture wavers between that of his skin and the collar of a shirt. The postcard also shows him in a turban, which he does not wear in the group image and might have been added to frame his face against the card’s dark background. If the producers of the postcard did not know of Ba Biểu’s figure in this group photograph, they must have known a similar image.
Again, as with Dieulefils’ postcard image of Ðề Thám above (Figure 3) one might ask: why make a “portrait” of an intended colonial subject and stated enemy, a figure slated to be a “type”? Unlike in the case of Ðề Thám, the photographer had little to do with the mood of Ba Biểu’s “portrait,” which reflects the vision of the retoucher, an unknown worker (or workers) at Dieulefils’ studio. Dieulefils’ studio was at the height of its production around the time that his postcards on Ðề Thám were made, employing as many as forty people in 1910. Vietnamese photographers were operating their own studios in Hanoi and Cholon by this time, and it is not unreasonable to consider that Dieulefils may have included Vietnamese staff in his production. No matter who prepared the “portrait” of Ba Biểu, however, the aesthetic of the image today appears to be the choice of a fascinated eye that lingered on folds of clothing and tones of skin, creating a luminous and otherworldly presence that might have served as a memorial image under other circumstances – and today perhaps it does. Under colonialism, however, Bouchet and Chack transformed the idea of such beauty into a danger and a source of shame, a notion that may have made Vietnamese authors avoid Ba Biểu’s story while his image endured in silence.
Vietnamese sources adding to Ðề Thám’s heroism seem to eschew mention of Ba Biểu at any length. When he appears at all, it is briefly and in terms of his filial loyalties and sacrifice, often through the use of the word hy sinh (“sacrifice”), which took on a particular use for national martyrs. In Hoàng Thị Thế’s memoirs, for example, he is hardly more than a footnote: “born in Nhạn Tái, Kim Anh, third child in his family, a skilled general of Ðề Thám as well as his adopted child. Sacrificed for our cause [hy sinh] 1-6-1909 [sic] in battle at Phúc Yên.” One 1958 source cites further colonial desecration of his body: “the enemy found his body in a rice paddy near Nhân-tác [sic, Nhạn Tái], the village of his birth. To oppress the spirits of our people and show off their martial achievement, they cut off Ba Biểu’s head and displayed it in Phủ-lỗ, afterwards bringing it back to the village market at Phúc Yên. Here, the narrative goes beyond the visual limits of Ba Biểu’s images by projecting at once greater abomination by colonial forces and also a “post-postcard” scene in which his beauty is dismembered. In other words, the Vietnamese claim of abominations takes Ba Biểu into the realm of martyrdom eclipsed by the words of Bouchet and Chack but invited by Dieulefils’ postcard images.
A final element of Ba Biểu’s death, which is fundamental to the effects of the postcard images of his corpse (Figures 2 and 5), and which Vietnamese sources do not seem to mention, is the careful positioning of his body. Chack did not hesitate to describe Ba Biểu’s corpse as “cross-legged in the position of the Buddha,” although not with particular reverence: “Attached to a tree on the grand road from Hanoï to Thai-Nguyen, the corpse of Ba-Bieu, seated cross-legged in the position of the Buddha, was permanently exposed for the greater edification of the people of Phuc-yen.” More recently, in 2007, Claude Gendre has rewritten Chack’s statement with a suggestion of the miraculous – or perhaps the agency of villagers – in the placement of the body:
His men told the inhabitants of the hamlet that he had been mortally wounded in the battle of Thuong Yen by a bullet in the chest. Ba Bieu was dead, and they wanted to dispose of his corpse for fear of reprisal. To do this, they attached a stone to the neck of the body and submerged it in a rice paddy. Unfortunately, the corpse nevertheless returned to the surface. Attached to a tree on the edge of the route from Hanoi to Thai Nguyen, the body of Ba Bieu, its legs crossed in the position of the Buddha, was exposed to the population of Phuc Yen.
Bouchet does not compare Ba Biểu’s corpse to the Buddha, or mention the vaguely crucifixion-like situation of its being tied to a tree, noting only that the body was secreted away and reappeared in a rice field near his natal village. A decade later, Chack introduced the comparison with no explanation as to its deliberateness or lack of such, and Gendre, although he provides more background, also leaves a gap as to how Ba Biểu’s body finds the pose in which it was immortalized. If the posture began as a coincidence, it was pushed towards an iconic aura – if not actual symbolism – by the photographer and (in the case of Figure 2) the retoucher.
The horizontal postcard image above (Figure 5) shows a thin string used to stabilize Ba Biểu by lashing his neck to a tree trunk, creating tight wrinkles in his stretched skin. Colonial officers stand on either side at the edges of the frame, perhaps ready to fix his posture for the camera, yet they are dwarfed by his presence. While the mustachioed officer on the right appears closer to the viewer and the one on the left further away, the overall composition is one of symmetry in which Ba Biểu looks twice as large as the men on either side, like a divinity with his disciples or a martyr just taken down from a cross.
Although the eyes of the flanking officers cannot be seen, their downturned heads direct the viewer to Ba Biểu’s face, where his shadowed eyelids and dark skin form a contrast to his pale torso and legs, causing the eye to slide back and forth between these two focal points. In doing so, it pauses on the clean-looking scar on his abdomen. Is this from the bullet that killed him on, according to the caption of his open-eyed postcard (Figure 4), “the 16th of August, 1909, Tonkin (Yen-Thé)”?
Unlike the horizontal view of Ba Biểu’s corpse, the vertical view (Figure 2) pulls back to reveal a placard with Chinese on the right and perhaps smudged French on the left. There are no colonial soldiers. Neither is there a scar on Ba Biểu’s torso or a string around his neck. These details of manipulation at the time of photographing seem to have been hidden through later retouching of the image, giving it an uneasy appearance of strained “sleep.” Dark shadows under his chin and around his cheeks become flat areas of tone that meet the clean white outlines of his collar bone, which meld into fainter shadows that define his muscles and harden the appearance of his torso. It is almost as though Ba Biểu’s corpse is being given the appearance of life: his face smoothed with shadow, his scar hidden and his body imbued with a sense of tensed muscle through further use of shading. Nevertheless, even a living body would not be able to hold this pose for long, with the result that Ba Biểu uncannily seems to be feigning death, visually challenging the finality of the caption.
Both postcards of Ba Biểu’s corpse are immediately graphic but also perhaps disturbingly subtle in their visual combination of violent death and languid repose, created by manipulation of the body at the time of photographing as well as later retouching of its image. According to the captions on both cards, we see Ba Biểu “exposed after death for recognition.” Making such examples of “criminals” was the original intent of the violent martyrdoms that turned from brutal historical acts to tender depictions in the visual traditions of Christianity as well. Referring to these Western visual tropes, we note the small mark of injury on Ba Biểu’s largely intact and luxuriously exposed body, along with flowing drapery not unworthy of an altarpiece. In terms of East Asia, Chack early noted that his pose resembled the lotus position, which Buddhist monks may use to meditate in preparation for a peaceful and aware death. As with the postcard-portrait of Ðề Thám and children (Figure 3), the source of agency is ambiguous. Did villagers arrange Ba Biểu’s corpse in a deliberately meditative pose? If Captain Péri indeed had the awareness to frame Ðề Thám like an “ancestor portrait,” did he choose a particularly “Buddhist” angle for Ba Biểu? Even if these Asian references were coincidental, the care taken to centralize and define Ðề Thám and Ba Biểu in Dieulefils’ postcard series might be considered “iconic” in any tradition.
Perhaps a concluding statement on the postcard images in this article, particularly those of Ba Biểu, could be stolen from Jean Genet (1910-1986), whose early work explores shame, attraction, and power among criminals and the colonized – some might say with a delicate reverence for ephemeral and purportedly “cheap” formats not inappropriate to the appreciation of postcards. Taking inspiration from a criminal’s image in a newspaper, another space between the documentary and the commercial, he writes:
His handsome face, multiplied by the presses, swept down upon Paris and all of France, to the depths of the most out-of-the-way villages, in castles and cabins, revealing to the mirthless bourgeois that their daily lives are grazed by enchanting murderers...”
Working with a small set of images and texts as they take a colonial conflict into its postcolonial story, I have tried to recall that the power to influence through images lies not with any individual and not even in the images alone, but also in the texts with which they push and pull until, sometimes, elements of “enchantment” (in this case visual) quietly support the evolution of a legend. In terms of postcolonial expectations of colonial images, it might be supposed that the productions of Pierre Dieulefils, Alfred-Léon Bouchet, Captain Péri, Principal Guard Ernest Richy and Paul Chack would reflect their desire to capture an enemy in images, on paper, and in reality – but should it be? Bouchet seems to have made his imperialist arguments visually clear in his probable self-portrait with Ðề Thám and Hoàng Thị Thế, recording his diplomatic gift of “a little automobile” (Figure 1). Textually, Bouchet read Ðề Thám’s dignity as deceit (as did the article that featured his “self portrait”) and Ba Biểu’s beauty as a mask for violence. Chack added manipulation to Ba Biểu’s dangers in order to claim that Ðề Thám’s dignity was not fake but fragile.
Compositionally, “De-Thám surrounded by his small children” (Figure 3) resembles a studio portrait in an outdoor setting rather than a record of enemies or “native types,” the vision that might be expected from a military telegrapher’s encounter with rebels on the frontier. If so inclined, Captain Péri could have taken the latter “documentary” approach even “before the present hostilities” – the claim made by the caption of Bouchet’s more politically calculated image (Figure 1) – but he did not. Péri does not seem to have had the close contact and specific motives with Ðề Thám that Bouchet did, perhaps allowing him to be less concerned with “colonial messages” and more arrested by subjects of visual interest. Although he cannot be credited with the care taken in Ba Biểu’s “portrait” postcard (Figure 4), which relies almost entirely on later retouching in Dieulefils’ studio, his images of Ba Biểu’s corpse (Figures 2 and 5) evoke posed studio photographs in the “religious” mode, such as F. Holland Day’s biblical self-portraits, themselves references to a tradition of devotional painting. Apropos to the earlier suggestion of Ba Biểu’s “portrait” postcard as fit for memorial use, these last effects recall that the names, dates and events in the captions to Dieulefils’ postcard images, likely to be found in much military documentation, also comprise the information used to observe death anniversaries across many systems of belief: the “documents” were icons in disguise.
As stated at the start of this article, it is no surprise that colonial materials find their postcolonial readings. For example, a colonial anthropologist’s scientific “document” can become an ancestral portrait to the descendants of his subject. Above, however, I have tried to show that such a portrait is much more potent when it begins as a portrait, as in the case of Dieulefils’postcards of Ðề Thám with children and Ba Biểu with his eyes open. Similarly, the postcards of Ba Biểu’s corpse translate smoothly into symbols of sacrifice, because they started – if not exactly as depictions of martyrdom – as vehicles for the fascination with the human body that depictions of martyrs have shown since long before the age of photography. Finally, the fact that Dieulefils’ postcard images were prepared mainly by members of the colonial military should indicate that not all in the service of France saw their enemies with an eye to discredit them, even if their words said otherwise. Colonial texts defamed resistance figures for a time, just as postcolonial texts restored them as heroes. All along, the postcard images considered above have testified to a visual fascination which, rather than transcending the politics of the colonial and anti-colonial, has served the needs of both.
Ellen Takata holds her AB in Visual and Environmental Studies (oil painting and Japanese theater) and her MA in Regional Studies – East Asia (the writings of Trinh Hoai Duc in the context of Minh Huong histories in Vietnam) from Harvard University, as well as a Postgraduate Diploma in Fine Art from Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is employed currently as Research Associate in Asian Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The author offers her deepest thanks the following for their invaluable assistance and encouragement with the present article: the editors and two anonymous reviewers for Trans-Asia Photography Review, Dr. Joseph R. Allen, Dr. Christraud Geary, Dr. Claire Roberts, Dr. Paul Barclay, Dr. Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Dr. Binh Ngo, Dr. Paul Rouzer, Ton-That Quynh-Du, Ben Weiss, Maika Pollack, Meredith Brinker, Alena Williams, Matt Saunders, Takumi Ohata and Frank Perez.
All images in this article are scans made by the author from materials in her possession. While the images appear to be in the public domain, further clarification on copyright is welcome. Postcards are cited by series number and French descriptive title, excluding geographical elements in the titles, such as “TONKIN - Yen-Thê,” which are similar for all cards referenced. English translations of titles are provided in the captions for images pictured in the article but generally not for those cited in footnotes. In the translations of both captions and quotations, Vietnamese names appear as in the sources quoted, often French texts that did not use standard diacritics. Chinese characters also are provided initially for Vietnamese names when known. Unless otherwise noted, all translation is my own from Vietnamese, French or Chinese.
While a general attitude of “colonialism” prevailed across Indochina under French rule, technically only the southern region of Vietnam, known to the West as Cochinchina, was a “colony,” ruled directly by the colonial and naval ministries in Paris. The northern and central regions, known as Tonkin and Annam – the latter named with an old Chinese term meaning “pacified south” (安南 Mandarin: Annan) – along with Cambodia and Laos, were defined as protectorates under the French Foreign Ministry; In Search of Southeast Asia: A Modern History (Revised Edition), ed. David Joel Steinberg, Honolulu, HI, University of Hawaii Press, 1987, p. 187.
See a comprehensive comparison of French and Vietnamese sources in Tôn Quang Phiệt, Tìm Hiểu Hoàng Hoa Thám (“Understanding Hoàng Hoa Thám”), Hà Bắc, Sở Văn Hoá Thông Tin Hà Bắc, 1984. See also David G. Marr, Vietnamese Anticolonialism, 1885-1925, Berkeley, CA, University of California, 1971, pp. 73-75.
Chân tướng quân (“A True General”), originally written in classical Chinese, the primary writing system used in Vietnam before the colonial period. A modern Vietnamese translation appears in Hùm Xám Yên Thế (“The Sacred Tiger of Yên Thế), eds. Khúc Nhã Vọng and Nguyễn Bích Ngọc (translator), Hanoi, Nhà xuất bản Văn hóa-thông tin, 2008, pp. 109-134.
In Search of Southeast Asia, pp. 69-75; 187-190; 312-323. See also Nguyễn văn Thái and Nguyễn văn Mừng, A Short History of Viet-Nam, Saigon, the Times Publishing Company, for the Vietnamese American Association, 1958.
Historical novels on Ðề Thám include Nguyễn Duy Hinh, Ðề Thám: Con Hùm Yên Thế (“Ðề Thám: The Tiger of Yên Thế”), Saigon, Khai Trí, (undated, ca. 1961) and Lê Minh Quốc, Tướng quân Hoàng Hoa Thám (“General Hoàng Hoa Thám”), Ho Chi Minh City, Văn Học, 1996. Ðề Thám also is a Vietnamese classical opera, mentioned in Hoàng Châu Ký, Tuồng cổ (“Classical Opera”), Hanoi, Văn hóa, 1978, p.8. A version was produced as recently as 2010, featured in “Hat Tuong – Classical Drama Seeks Ways to Survive,” by VietnamNetBridge, March 31, 2010 (http://www.vietnam.com/article/hat-tuong--classical-drama-seeks-ways-to-survive.html), accessed May 22, 2012.
The festival is now a tourist attraction as well as a local celebration. See, for example, “Yen The Festival” (http://www.vietnamtourism.com/e_pages/tourist/festival.asp?uid=2141); and “Patriotic Yen The’s Festival – Bac Giang Province” (http://www.guidetovietnam.com/article_detail.php?cat=1&show_cat=1&sub_cat=5&article_id=371&city_id=4), both accessed May 23, 2012.
Richy appears in Bouchet, pp. 108-111, 113, 115 (including an account of a “family photograph” with Bouchet and Ðề Thám on pp. 113-115); Notice sur la garde indigène du Tonkin, Hanoi, Imprimerie d’Extrême Orient, 1931, pp. 70-71, 92; and E. Daufès, La Garde Indigène de L’Indochine de sa Création à nos jours, Tome Premier[:] Tonkin, Avignon, Imprimerie D. Seguin, 1933, pp. 199-202, 223.
Lieutenant-Colonel Cluzan, “Les télégraphistes coloniaux, pionniers des telecommunications Outre-Mer,” Tropiques 393 (March 1957): 3-8; André Touzet, Le réseau radiotélégraphique indochinois (Hanoi, 1918), pp. 4-5; Indochina, Gouvernement general, La télégraphie sans fil en Indochine services publics indochinois, 2nd ed. (Hanoi, 1931), pp. 516-17; cited in Daniel R. Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism,1850-1940, Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 128, note 90.
Thierry Vincent, Pierre Dieulefils: Photographe-Editeur De Cartes Postales D’Indochine, Gignac-la-Nerthe, Borel et Feraud, 1997, pp. 7-62. Dieulefils published his images of Vietnamese prisoners between 1905 and 1914 as the following postcards: series numbers 422, Pirates capturées en 1887 pendant le siege de Ba-Dinh (Cliché fait par M.P. Dieulefils sous officier du Génie au Tonkin 1885/1887) and 421, Femmes de Pirates capturées dans les retranchements de Ba-Dinh (Cliché fait en 1888 par M.P. Dieulefils sous officier du Génie colonne Dodds), listed in Vincent, p. 137; illustrated p. 67. See also the biography of Dieulefils on the website of Marie-Hélène Degrois, “Photographes d’Asie” (http://photographesenoutremerasie.blogspot.com/search/label/Dieulefils).
“Au Tonkin: les Opérations Contre Le Dé-Tham,” l’Illustration no. 3461, Paris, June 26, 1909, pp. 442-4. Perhaps most accusingly, the article features a nearly full-page image of Ðề Thám’s elderly father-in-law in the hands of (Asian) colonial troops, ostensibly abandoned. Unfortunately, deeper analysis of the image of Ðề Thám’s father-in-law, as well as its possible implications of failed filial piety in a Vietnamese context, must be saved for another time.
Perhaps the origins of this aesthetic were the profile and frontal “mug shots,” invented by Alphonse Bertillon for the identification of criminals, also used in anthropology. Bertillon’s major work on documentation of the human subject was published in many editions for international use, for example, as Signaletic Instructions, Including the Theory and Practice of Anthropometrical Identification; Translated from the Latest French Edition, with 132 figures, plates and tables, fully illustrating the Bertillon methods of measurement, description and statement of peculiar marks, including the large chromolithographic chart of the colors of the human eye, ed. under Major R.W. Mc Laughry, Chicago IL, The Werner Company, 1896. Photographic manuals made available to police and probably soldiers include R.A. Reiss, Manuel du Portrait Parlé (Méthod Alphonse Bertillon) a l’Usage de la Police, Lausanne, Th. Sack, 1905, and its German expansion, Signalementslehre (System Alphonse Bertillon): Handbuch für Polizeibehörden, Gendarmerie- und Polizeischulen, trans. and expanded by Hans Schneickert, Munich, J. Schweitzer Verlag, 1908. On criminology and photography, see Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October, Vol. 39 (Winter, 1986), pp. 3-64. John Tagg also considers the “frontal” view in late 19th century European and American photography, as both a choice for portraiture by a rising middle class (as opposed to the three-quarter “swagger portraits” of an earlier aristocracy) and a method of administrative documentation “in which this code of social inferiority framed the meaning of representation of the objects of supervision or reform,” The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1993 (1988), pp. 36-37.
Like many Vietnamese of his time, Ðề Thám maintained multiple wives, children and extended family in a single household, as was the system in China. Hoàng Thị Thế describes the living situation in her memoirs, Kỷ Niệm Thời Thơ Ấu (“Memories of Childhood”), trans. (French to Vietnamese), Lê Kỳ Anh, Hà Bắc, Ty Văn Hóa, 1975, pp. 18, 21-23.
On ancestor portraits and early photographic tastes in China, see Jan Stuart and Evelyn S. Rawski, Worshiping the Ancestors: Chinese commemorative portraits, Washington, D.C., Freer Gallery of Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in association with Stanford University Press, 2001, pp. 167-9.
Wu Hung, “Inventing a ‘Chinese’ Portrait Style in Early Photography: The Case of Milton Miller,” Brush and Shutter: Early Photography in China, ed. Lauren Edson, Los Angeles, CA, The Getty Research Institute, 2011, pp. 69-89.
For example, series numbers 3307, Interrogatoire d’un pirate à Cho-go (“Interrogation of a pirate at Cho-go”), featured in “Au Tonkin: les Opérations Contre Le Dé-Tham,” p. 444, where it is captioned, M. Bouchet interrogeant un des pirates captures (“M. Bouchet interrogating one of the captured pirates”); and 3326, Têtes de pirates de la bande de Huinch tués dans la combat du 11 Fevrier, Colonne Mayer (“Heads of pirates from the band of Huinch, killed in the combat of Februrary 11, Column of Mayer”), featured in the same article on p. 443, where it is captioned, Têtes de pirates, des bandes du Dé-Tham, tués le 11 février à Dong-Dan (“Heads of pirates of the bands of Dé-Tham, killed on February 11 at Dong-Dan”). Both postcards are listed in Vincent, p. 167; illustrated p. 133.
Published in Hanoi by Ngọ Báo, 1935. Although no author appears in the edition that I have seen, this work likely corresponds to Trai Cầu-vồng Yên Thế (“Son of the Rainbow at Yên Thế”), listed as a work of Trần Trung Viên in the bibliography of Ðịnh Xuân Lâm, Nguyễn Văn Sự and Trần Hồng Việt, Hoàng Hoa Thám và Phong Trào Nông Dân Yên Thế (“Hoàng Hoa Thám and the Yên Thế Peasant Movement”), Hanoi, Văn Hóa, 1958, p. 190; also cited by Tôn Quang Phiệt as “Cầu-vồng Yên Thế,” p. 15.
Shawn Frederick McHale, Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam, Honolulu, HI, University of Hawaii Press, 2004, pp. 51-54 (pp. 53-54 comprise a table of banned books).
Marins à la bataille, le XIXe siècle et l’Indochine, Paris, Éditions du Gefaut, 2001 (above excerpt from chapter 1 of La fin d’un pirate, originally published by Éditions de France, 1942), pp. 359-60, accessed via Google books, October 4, 2011.
Bouchet, facing p. 114. Original caption: A droite: De-Tham, près de lui, son messager Ba-Phu, puis le pirate Thach. Au centre: Coiffé d’un chapeau, le chef pirate Ly-Thu, dit Dê-Bao, puis Ba-Bieu, dit Ba-Hap, le cruel parmi les cruels. Enfin le chef de bande Cai-Thanh. – Photo pris en septembre 1908.
These photographers often were of Chinese descent and trained in Hong Kong. Names and brief biographies appear on Degrois’ website (http://photographesenoutremerasie.blogspot.com).
The reclamation of such photographs for formerly colonized peoples has formed a vital part of postcolonial photographic studies. See, for example, Photography’s Other Histories, eds. Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Petersen, Durham, NH, Duke University Press, 2003.