Afternoon Tea: “Confucian Constitutionalism in Imperial Vietnam”

The phantasm of “Oriental despotism” dominating our conventional views of East Asian imperial government has been recently challenged by the scholarship of “Confucian constitutionalism.” To contribute to our full discovery of the manifestations of Confucian constitutionalism in diverse Confucian areas, this paper considers the case of imperial Vietnam with a focus on the early Nguyễn dynasty. The investigation reveals numerous constitutional norms as the embodiment of the Confucian li used to restrain the royal authority, namely the models of ancient kings, the political norms in the Confucian classics, the ancestral precedents, and the institutions of the precedent dynasties. In addition, the paper discovers structuralized forums enabling the scholar-officials to use the norms to limit the royal power, including the royal examination system, the deliberative institutions, the educative institution, the remonstrative institution, and the historical institution. In practical dimension, the paper demonstrates the limitations of these norms and institutions in controlling the ruler due to the lack of necessary institutional independence. At the same time, it also suggests that the relative effectiveness of these norms and institutions could be achieved thanks to the power of tradition. The study finally points out several implications. First, the availability of the constitutional norms and institutions in the tradition is the cultural foundation for the promotion of modern constitutionalism in the present-day Vietnam. Second, the factual material concerning the Vietnamese experiences can hopefully be used for further study of the practice of Confucian constitutionalism in East Asia and further revision of the “Oriental despotism” - based understanding of imperial polity in the region. Third, the findings may also be useful for a more general reflection on pre-modern constitutionalism.

That is from Son Ngoc Bui, a legal scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s law school. Here is a link.

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