Warrior-gymnasts in Tonkin, Vietnam, 1909

I bought this unusual carte postale at the marché aux puces Vernaison, just north of Paris. It dates from April 1909, stamped in Hanoi, and titled “Tirailleurs Tonkinois à l’ecole de Gymnastique.” The Tirailleurs Tonkinois, or Tonkin Rifles, were a native auxiliary corps of light infantrymen established by the French colonial administration in Indochina at the start of the Sino-French War in 1884 who were then used in peacetime to suppress revolts, track down bandits, and generally pacify the local population. The carte postale shows a group of these Vietnamese infantrymen on some sort of apparatus adopting athletic poses. It has all the elements of a colonial-era demonstration of power: colonial overlords look on in pristine safari gear as the natives are made to do something ridiculous. Well, almost all the elements: also available at the marché aux puces were cartes postales commemorating the suppression of the Hanoi revolt of 1908 that showed rebellious Vietnamese at the very moment of decapitation — severed heads tumbling from their bodies — as the French civilizing mission continued on its noble path.


Leave a Reply