by Nguyet Cam
Classical eastern poetry took on a popular flavor at the hands of Vietnamese scholars, write Nguyet Cam
Heels muddied in the pursuit of wealth and fame
Weather-beaten face revealing life's cataclysmus
Thoughts of drifting fate brings pain
Bubbles in the ocean of misery
Duckweed at the edge of the dark shore
The taste of life numbs the bitter tongue
The journey through this life is bruising, full of obstacles
Waves in the river mouth rise and fall
The boat of illusion pitches and rolls at the edge of the waterfall
Nguyen Gia Thieu
For most non-Vietnamese, Vietnam conjures images of war or, perhaps, an Asian country striving to become the latest economic dragon. Few recognize that despite centuries of war and economic hardship, the Vietnamese have one of the world’s oldest languages, most fertile cultures and richest national literature's.
As with many Eastern cultures, the development of Vietnamese literature has been profoundly shaped by the country’s proximity to China, and particularly by the Chinese writing system. While spoken Vietnamese has always remained a distinct language, the same is not true for the written language. Early Vietnamese official, diplomatic and educational writings used Chinese characters. But they were pronounced in a Vietnamese way. Sometime before the 8th century, a Vietnamese writing system was devised. Known as Nom or Southern Letters, it transformed or combined Chinese characters to render Vietnamese words.
Nom began to be used in serious literature only during the Tran Dynasty in the 1200s. At the end of the 1300s, the most important mandarin in the Tran court, Ho Qui Ly, attempted to promote the development and widespread use of Nom. Before his plans were realized, Vietnam was invaded and occupied by China’s Minh Dynasty and Nom fell into disuse.
Under the Le Dynasty, set up in the mid 1400s, Nom received royal support and was encouraged in literary works. The first major collection of Nom poetry was Nguyen Trai’s Quoc Am Thi Tap. It was followed by the Hong Duc Quoc Am Thi Tap, a collection of poetry written by King Le Thanh Tong, who was known to compose verse for pleasure in his free time. Following tradition, Nom poetry addressed such themes as the beauty of nature or moral relations between rulers and ruled. There was little of real artistic value.
In the 16th century two anonymous Nom narratives appeared, entitled Vuong Tuong and To Cong Phung Su. These new longer Nom stories borrowed their plots from Chinese history beginning what became a long literary fashion. In the following century a new work, Lam Truyen Van, marked a major development in the history of Vietnamese poetry.
Written by Phung Khac Khoan during a period of exile, it was set in the countryside and offered poetic depiction's of fruit and vegetables. Not only did it break with tradition in subject matter, but it used vernacular language within a new poetic form, comprised of alternating six and eight word lines.
The populist form and content caught on, reaching a peak in the 18th and 19th centuries. The later period produced dozens of anonymous verse narratives, such as Hoa Tien, Phan Tran, Pham Ngoc Tai Hoa, Tong Tran Cuc Hoa; and substantial works by the luminaries of Vietnamese literature: Doan Thi Diem, Nguyen Gia Thieu, Ho Xuan Huong, Nguyen Cong Tru, and Nguyen Du.
Doan Thi Diem (1705-1748) was Vietnam’s first known female translator. She is believed to have translated Dang Tran Con’s poetic masterwork, Chinh Phu Ngam (The Song of a Soldier’s Wife), from Chinese into Nom. Her translation is simple, clear and beautiful:
Your way leads you to lands of rain and wind
mine takes me back to our old room, our bed
We turn and look, but all has come between
green mountains and blue clouds roll on and on
Another brilliant eighteenth century poet, Nguyen Gia Thieu expressed very personal feelings and sorrows in his work. Born into a high- mandarin family and promoted to an important post at a young age, Nguyen Gia Thieu turned his hack on wealth and status to devote himself to writing. His main work, Cung Oan Ngam Khuc (The Lament of a Concubine), described the misery, loneliness and desire for love of a young and beautiful concubine abandoned in a forbidden palace. It is easy to recognize feelings the poet himself might have, not just those of an imaginary woman. In contrast to Chinh Phu Ngam, Cung Oan Ngam Khuc is a work of high culture. Each sentence, each polished word is testimony to the poet’s literary erudition and sophistication. It is not an easy poem for the casual reader to understand.
On the other hand, many of the works by Ho Xuan Huong: "The Queen of Nom" remain transparent to all:
I'm like a jackfruit in a tree
Whose skin is rough and flesh thick
If you like it, then stake it,
Don't finger it; you'll get sticky hands
Jackfruit is staked for ripening, which involves a drying-out process. A master at double meaning, Huong uses everyday objects to describe the predicament of women. Despite her popularity, little is known of her life.
If Shakespeare's work represents the greatest literary achievement in the English language, then Nguyen Du's 3254 line masterpiece, "The Tale of Kieu", can be considered the pinnacle of classical Vietnamese literature.
Nguyen Du came from an aristocratic northern family with a long tradition of literary excellence. He based his story on the plot of a Chinese novel: "The Tale of Kim Van Kieu" by Thanh Tam. The narrative charts the ups and downs of Vuong Thuy Kieu (a real figure in 16th century Chinese history) a girl so beautiful that "flowers grudged her glamour" and so gifted that she "irked the jealous gods". When her family falls on hard times, Kieu must abandon the one she loves and sells herself to save them. From then on, her life is full of tears and misery; she must twice prostitute herself, twice serve as slave, and she twice attempts suicide. Finally, she is re-united with her family and marries her first love (who in then her younger sister's husband).
The Tale of Kieu presents a successful integration of fictional narrative convention with poetic form. Its subtle beauty recalls the best of Tang poetry as well as the simple lyricism of traditional folk songs. Written in alternating lines of six and eight words, the diverse images and multiple harmonies of its language suggest both music and painting.
The first lines, which most Vietnamese know by heart, set the theme of the tale: "talent and destiny are apt to feud" but a constant "heart" will save the day.
Thus on first meeting her true love, the youthful and handsome Kim Trong, Kieu's tragedy is foreshadowed in her innocent msings:
Who is he? Why did we chance to meet?
Does fate intend some ties between us two?
Kieu's feeling are lovingly revealed as they ebb and flow through her extraordinary life. In the midst of her troubles the inner turmoil she experiences is evoked:
Oh, how she pined and mourned for her old love
Cut from he mind, it clung to her heart.
After a shady businessman, Thuc Sinh, buys her out of prostitution and takes her as his clandestine concubine, Kieu expresses her anxiety and resignation to fate with a brilliant metaphor:
A clinging ivy - that's my humble lot
Will Heaven bless or curse this marriage knot?
In Vietnamese literature, few lines of verse about nature can be move people like Nguyen Du's
Waters, all gleaming, mirrors for the sky
Walls wreathed in sapphire mist, peaks gilt with sunlight
Characters in the Tale of Kieu are crafted so skillfully that they have become an integral part of everyday Vietnamese language. It is not unusual to hear people say someone is "as beautiful and gifted as Kieu"; "jealous as Hoan Thu", "dastardly as So Khanh", "henpecked like Thuc Sinh", or "as brave as Tu Hai". Artists paint Kieu, children recite Kieu, wits draw from Kieu for riddles and word-play, and women even consult her as method of fortune-telling. In the past when most of the country was illiterate, it was easy to find people who could recite Kieu by heart. Some could literally chant it from back to front. If you visit Hanoi's Hang Da market today, you may he lucky to meet an old merchant who will answer all of your questions by quoting directly from Kieu.
Writers too use lines from the Tale of Kieu, and its two concluding lines close this article:
May these crude words, culled and strung one by one
Beguile an hour or two of your long night.