Revolutionaries in politics and in art:  the Marvelous Child

and the Old Painter:

The stories of Kỳ Đồng and Gauguin


To my son Huy

Hien V. Ho, MD


In September of 1901, fifty-three-year old  Eugene Henri Paul Gauguin, weary of "everything artificial and conventional" and financially destitute, landed in the village of Atuona, on the island of  Hiva-oa, and capital of the Marquesas Islands (or Archipelago) situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. A young Vietnamese greeted him in perfect French and took him on a tour of the Polynesian village.[1] Gauguin is now known all over the world for his post impressionist paintings, wood engravings and woodcuts, and Nguyễn Văn Cẩm or Kỳ Đồng has a few streets in Vietnam named after him, but few outside of Vietnam are aware of the story of the political revolutionary who, for three years, took on the role of nurse and companion to the French revolutionary artist during the final years of his life.

For Gauguin, it was self exile from European civilization. He sailed to the Polynesian Island in 1891, where he first settled in Tahiti and then in Punaaiuia in 1897, where he created several masterpieces depicting Tahitian life. On the contrary, for the then twenty-six-year old Vietnamese,  life in this isolated small island was in no way by choice; in fact he belonged to the first group of Vietnamese sentenced  to live in exile  due to his subversive activities against recently established French colonial rule (1884). 

The golden child

The story of Nguyễn Văn Cẩm (1875-1929) was very unusual even from the beginning. He was born in the province of Thái Bỉnh (former Hưng Yên) in North Vietnam. His father, a traditional Confucian scholar, made him take the screening exam to the prestigious and competitive provincial competition in Nam Định. The seven-year old boy’s performance was rated as excellent. The chief of Nam Dinh school district was so impressed that he submitted a report about this child prodigy to Emperor Tự Đức, who even took the effort to personally congratulate him and give him a scholarship. Noting that the child was still too young to be of any use to the government, Tự Đức instructed the local school authorities "to educate him so that our government can use him when he grows up" and bestowed upon him the title name of "Kỳ Đồng” which literally means "marvelous child" or "child prodigy," and the name by which he has been almost exclusively referred to since.

Many superstitious Vietnamese were convinced that Kỳ Đồng was the reincarnation of another prodigy, Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm (1491-1585), popularly known as Trạng Trình, a revered scholar, poet and astrologer, the so-called Vietnamese Nostradamus.

In 1887, a rebellion-group organized a procession headed for the chief town of Nam Dinh Province, with twelve-year old Kỳ Đồng sitting on a palanquin as the new spiritual symbol of the struggle against French occupation of the country. The “resident” (French officer who represented colonial authority in Nam Định) gave the order to break up the manifestation at gun point.

Life in Algeria

The organizers of the protest were sentenced to exile in the offshore prison island of Côn Lôn (currently Côn Đảo), about one hundred miles from Vũng Tàu (South Vietnam). Kỳ Đồng was given a wholly different kind of treatment: on October 2nd, 1887, he was sent to Algiers, the Algerian capital city on the border of the Mediterranean Sea, to study at a French lycée (high school), either out of admiration of his precocious intelligence or to make of him an intellectual ally. Algeria itself had been conquered by France only a few decades earlier, after protracted wars and bloody pacification programs against the native populations (1827-1871).     

According to an interview with the principal of the lycée[2], published by the newspaper la Dépêche algérienne, Nguyn-Cm, aka Ky Dong (translated into French as “Enfant merveilleux,” marvelous child) was sent to Algeria by a decision made on August 11, 1887 by M. Bihourd, the French resident of Tonkin (Northern part of Vietnam), with all expenses paid by the French Protectorate government. Kỳ Đồng did not seem to enjoy or to try to adapt to his new school environment. His “unsociability” forced the headmaster to separate him from his fellow Vietnamese and to place him with the older students. According to an article in T’oung Pao published in 1897 by Henry Cordier and others, “the letters coming from Tonkin when they sent Ky Dong to Algiers portrayed him as a little phenomenon, an extraordinary intellectual culture far beyond his years, and alluded to the prestige of the child in his country. But we had hoped that French education would reduce its religious fanaticism.”

“During the course of his studies, Nguyen Cam had the monomania of murder. He got up one night and tried to hit with a knife one of the students who shared the dormitory with him.”  


Friend with an Emperor

It was a boarding school and on days when students were allowed to go outside, they went to the homes of correspondants who were relatives or local people responsible for supervising them. Ky Dong went to his correspondant’s home every fortnight, but it was not the usual relative or family friend, it was his former Emperor, Hàm Nghi, Prince of Annam (1872-1943) who initially lived at l’Hotel de la Regence, then at his Villa des Pins, at El-Biar, 3 miles from Algiers. Ham Nghi was the eighth emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, one of four successive monarchs hastily put on the throne within a year[3] by the powerful regents, Nguyễn Văn Tường and Tôn Thất Thuyết, following Tự Đức’s death. His reign lasted only one year (1884-1885). In 1885, at  the age of thirteen, as the French stormed the imperial palace as a result of a regent-led armed revolt against them, Ham Nghi was taken to the jungle in the provinces of Quảng Trị and Quảng Bình (Central Vietnam)[4] to head the guerilla warfare movement (Phong trào Cần Vương: Movement to help the Emperor). [5]

Hình ảnh

Figure 1 : Emperor Ham Nghi

To replace him, the French placed his brother Đồng Khánh on the throne. They captured the fugitive young monarch in 1888 and sent him into exile in Algeria[6]. He arrived in Algiers on Sunday, January 13, 1889 when he was only seventeen years old, only three years older than Kỳ Đồng. They likely became close friends and because of his intimacy with the former emperor, the other students began to call Kỳ Đồng the “Little King.” It was reported that, initially, Hàm Nghi refused to learn French because it was “the language of invaders of his country,” spoke only through an interpreter and wore only a traditional Vietnamese tunic and turban. Only at the end of 1889, moved by the friendly treatment accorded to him by the French in Algeria, did he agree to study French. He thereafter quickly assimilated the new language. He was given the opportunity to visit the World Fair in Paris (Exposition Universelle) in 1889 where he was impressed by French painter Gauguin’s new style which would later strongly influence his own paintings when he himself became an accomplished artist. Afterwards, when, for unknown reasons, Hàm Nghi decided to stop receiving other Vietnamese at his home, he still made an exception for Ky Dong.

Hình ảnh

Figure 2 : Former Emperor Ham Nghi’s wedding

Ky Dong spent nine years in Algiers (1887-1896) and finished the French high school curriculum with the degree of Baccalaureat in Sciences, becoming the first Vietnamese outside the catholic clergy to attain that degree in the French education system. 

When Ky Dong was returned to Vietnam in 1896, the headmaster of his lycée, Mr Canivincq, thought that he foresaw the “nature of the young man,” and warned French authorities of possible danger of having him back but his warnings were ignored to his disappointment. We do not know for sure whether Hàm Nghi influenced in any way the political views of the young Ky Dong who was only three years his junior. As mentioned earlier, after a few months of initial hostility toward the French, Hàm Nghi assimilated quite well into the colonial society of the Algerian capital, married the daughter of a prominent French judge and refused to teach Vietnamese to his three children[7]. One may also wonder whether witnessing the fate of Algeria under harsh French rule had any role in reinforcing Kỳ Đồng’s nationalist feelings and leading him into a radical struggle against French colonialism in his own country.

Đám cưới vua Hàm Nghi by Hình ảnh Huế Xưa - Một thời vang bóng.

Figure 3 : Ham Nghi’s engagement(1904) []

The caption on this postcard reads: The marriage of the Prince of Annam. The Prince Ham Nghi, former Emperor of Annam and Miss Laloe during their engagements.


Đề Thám: the Tiger of Yên Thế

Đề Thám (or Hoàng Hoa Thám, 1860-1913) was a resistance fighter against the French during the first two decades of their colonial rule over Vietnam. He organized a guerilla army consisting of his extended family, patriots, Chinese expatriates (Giặc Cờ Đen, Black Flag bandits) and disaffected ethnic minority groups in North Vietnam. With his headquarters in Yên Thế, a district of Bắc Giang Province in North East Vietnam, he was a formidable threat to the authority of the French who spread excessive stories about his ferocity and ruthlessness. In 1897, at the time of Kỳ Đồng's return in Vietnam, Đề Thám had lost his control over Yên Thế and had to find ways to consolidate and reorganize his shattered forces.

Figure 4 : De Tham and family

Kỳ Đồng in Yên Báy

On his side was Kỳ Đồng who was soon busy helping a French doctor set up a plantation in the Yên Báy area, but one of his real intentions was to help Đề Thám recruit fighters in the resistance movement. The latter’s movement regained its strength, so much so that in 1898, he conducted direct attacks on Hanoi. 

Figure 5: De Tham

In the meantime, Kỳ Đồng developed his own resistance activities which became more and more overt and aggressive, mostly in Nam Dinh, Thai Binh (his native province) and Hai Duong and are remembered as the "Marvelous Child rebellion" (Giặc Kỳ Đồng). Eventually, based on information provided by captured Đề Thám fighters, Kỳ Đồng was arrested and sentenced to perpetual exile in the Devil's Island, a few miles off the coast of French Guiana and part of the French penal colony where political prisoners as well as criminals were kept in very harsh conditions. Instead, and fortunately for Kỳ Đồng, due to a processing error, he was sent to Tahiti in 1898, an ocean away from home but where life would be much more tolerable than in Devil’s Island.

Đế Thám, also known as the legendary "Tiger of Yên Thế," fought on with increasing scope and intensity. In 1913, the Yên Thế movement died with its leader when he was assassinated by a Chinese expatriate who brought his severed head to the French resident to receive a bounty. 


Figure 6 : Kỳ Đồng with an official in Marquesas[8]  


Kỳ Đồng and Gauguin in the Marquesas Islands

By 1901, Kỳ Đồng had been moved to the Marquesas Islands, one thousand kilometers to the East, likely because the French started to worry about his growing influence in Tahiti. He was married to a beautiful local upper-class woman named Punu ura a Tamihau. When Gauguin met Ky Dong for the first time, his only past brush with Vietnamese culture had been his visit to the World Fair of Paris in 1889 where he was fascinated by the Orient, its sculptures, its architectures and its women, which resonated well with his penchant for the exotic in his paintings. Now, Gauguin was happy to move to Atuana where he could find many French speaking friends (he could not speak the local language) and supplies came easily from Europe because there was a direct boat line connecting it with Tahiti. Also important was the fact that Gauguin was affected with late stages of syphilis and the only doctor available was residing in the village. Soon after his arrival, the painter managed to find a female companion, a twenty-year old Marquesan named Fetohonu (Star of the Turtles) that he picked up among a group of indigenous women. She was tall and beautiful, but somehow the painter did not notice or care to notice her club feet; the reason why was a matter of debate among the rowdy crowd of jealous women at the local tavern.  The spectacle of the old painter suffering from arthritis and the young woman treading along together on the road was perhaps the inspiration for Ky Dong to write, within the next few days, a comedy in three acts, made of 1500 Alexandrines, entitled "The loves of an old painter in the Islands of Marquesas." “I made of this scene a comedy of burlesque verses that I showed to the painter a few days later, he said, he liked it very much. After that date, I was very close to him.”[9] In the comedy, Paul, the artist describes himself as follows:

“Paul, annuitant, journalist,

But my true profession is symbolist painter,

Besides, you surprise me by not knowing my name,

I, whose fame resounds in the whole universe.”[10]

This work was published and edited recently in France by Jean Charles Blanc.[11] Lorraine Paterson, professor at Cornell University, interviewed Kỳ Đồng’s grand-sons in Papeete,  French Polynesia in 2006 and saw the original of the play which is still in their possession.[12]

It is interesting to note that Kỳ Đồng's sense of humor and poetic inspiration contrasted with the observation, probably biased of his headmaster at the lycée in Algiers years ago, about his "insociability" and his "monomania of murder." Perhaps, he was more at peace with himself now that he was happily married and delivering health care as a nurse to the isolated population of an idyllic island. The patient under his care, suffering from syphilis and skin lesions would spend the last years of his life on this remote island, married to a fourteen-year old girl, who would give him a daughter that he would never meet.

The last painting.

At the end of his life, when Gauguin was suffering from depression and extreme debility from syphilis, Kỳ Đồng was the only one allowed into his studio. One day, to humor him, Kỳ Đồng began to paint a portrait of his old friend. Out of curiosity, Gauguin came to his side, and then decided that he would do it himself with the aid of a mirror. He dedicated this self-portrait to Kỳ Đồng like he dedicated another self-portrait to Van Gogh years ago. It now hangs in a museum in Basel, Switzerland.[13] Kỳ Đồng died in Tahiti in 1929. Former Emperor Hàm Nghi died in exile in January 4th, 1944 in his Villa des Pins in Algiers (renovated and renamed Gia Long in honor of the first Emperor of the Nguyen dynasty).[14]


BS Hồ Văn Hiền

[Hien V. Ho, MD]

December 2, 2009


Figure 6 : Portrait of Gauguin (1903) by Kỳ Đồng and Gauguin.



1) Hà Vũ Trọng; Kỳ đồng vẽ Gauguin, Dien Dan Forum.

2) Trần Trọng Kim, Việt Nam Sử Lược  (A synopsis of Vietnamese History), pp. 323-327,Saigon:  Bộ Giáo dục, Trung tâm Học Liệu Xuất bản,1971

3) Jean-François Staszak, Geographies de Gauguin, p. 191, Editions Breal, 2003 

4) Henri Cordier, Gustaaf Schlegel, Jan Julius Lodewijk Duyvendak, Edouard Chavannes, Paul Pelliot, Paul Demiéville in T’oung Pao, Archives pour servir a l’etudes de l’histoire, des langues, de la geographie et de l’ethnographie de l'Asie Orientale.(1897)

5) Trịnh Văn Thanh.  Thành ngữ Điển tích Danh Nhân Tự điển, Saigon, Xuan Thu 

Hà Vũ Trọng; Kỳ đồng vẽ Gauguin, Dien Dan Forum.[1]

[2] Jean-François Staszak,  Geographies de Gauguin p. 191,2003, Editions Breal

[3] After Emperor T Đc’s  death on 7-17-1883 after his 36 year-reign, the following Emperors were hastily installed before Hàm Nghi: Dc Đc, who reigned for 3  days, then died later in jail in 1884, Hip Hòa who was forced by the regents to abdicate and to kill himself after 4 months, Kiến Phúc , 15 years old, who died after 6 months.

[4] Trn Trng Kim. Vit Nam S Lưc  (A synopsis of Vietnamese History), pp. 323-327,Saigon:  B Giáo dc, Trung tâm Hc Liu Xut bn,1971

[5] Nguyn Tn Lc. Hàm Nghi, Vietsciences (

[6] Trn Trng Kim. op. cit. p. 337

[7] “Ham Nghi, contexte et histoire ", article based on the book:  Français et Annamites, partenaires ou ennemis, 1856-1902 by Philippe Devillers, published by Denoël.


[8] From the on line article by Hà Vũ Trọng, taken from the bok about Kỳ Đồng by Nguyễn Khắc Ngữ (Nguyễn Khắc Ngữ, Kỳ-Đồng: Nhà cách mạng và Nhà thơ , Tủ sách nghiên cứu sử địa, Montréal, Canada 1990)

[9] Quoted by Guillaume le Bronnec who lived in the Marquesas since 1910 and who extensively documented the life of Gauguin in the islands. . Bronnec wrote an article in  Sté des Études Océaniennes, Bulletin n° 106 - mars 1954 Papeete, 1954 : “La vie de Gauguin aux îles Marquises (depuis son arrivée en 1901 jusqu'à sa mort en 1903”

[10] Paul

Paul, rentier, journaliste

Mais ma vraie profession est peintre symboliste

D'ailleurs, vous m'etonnez en ignorant mon nom,

A moi, dont l'univers retentit de renom.

Nguyen Van Cam, les Amours d'un vieux peintre aux iles de Marquises (1902)


[11] Les amours d'un vieux peintre aux îles Marquises / Ky Dong ; édité par Jean-Charles Blanc. - Paris : A Tempera, 1989. - 67 p. : ill. ; 17 cm.
ISBN 2-907687-00-X


[13] Hà Vũ Trọng; Kỳ đồng vẽ Gauguin, Dien Dan Forum.

[14] Thái Lộc, Vua Hàm Nghi giữ cốt cách Việt nơi lưu đày.

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