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HỮU NGỌC: Four great figures: A brief expression of the Nation’s Spirit

Tuesday, 26/02/2019 14:04

NGUYỄN TRÃI: One of our most famous poets
    Nguyễn Trãi (a.t.k. Ức Trai,1380- 1442) made great constributions as a humanist in strategy, but he was also one of Viet Nam’s greatest poets. His poems in Hán Chinese appear in Collection of Poems of Ưc Trai (Ức Trai thi tập) with 105 poems. His Collection of Poems in the National Language (Quốc âm thi tập) contains 254 poems in Nôm, the Vietnamese ideographic script. These are the first important works in this national scrift that have been handed down to us.
    With Nguyễn Trãi, the humanist tendency of Vietnamese Confucianism reached its apogee, for he beleaved in fidelity to his monarch and to his people yet also believed in his filial piety. These qualities marked a worthy man of letters. The important services he rendered did not lead him to seek vains honors at court, where contemptible flatterers swarmed. To save the country, he had to save a king, but he never toadied to royalty.
Nguyễn Trãi can be compared to the ivory bamboo with its stalk proudly shooting upwards, often standing alone. He suffered from witnessing incessant court intrigues and social injustices. The sererity he could not find in his entourage explains his extraordinary attachment to nature,which he chose as his confidant. Yet, for Nguyễn Trãi, commitment to social obligations always prevailed over withdrawal and renouncement of the world.
   The samples below introduce this man’s spirit and help explain why UNESCO honored Nguyễn Trãi in 1980, on the six hundredth anniversary of his birth.
    Nguyễn Trãi wrote the following poem, “ Autumn night far from the family” ( Thu dạ khách cảm), in Han Chinese ideographic scrift, using seven-word meter:
A desolate inn with a mat door,
Arms folded, I recite poems at twilight.
The sadness of autumn winds scattering leaves,
Showers begin; dreams tremble ij the lamplight,
After war, old enemies are simply strangers
I send that sorrowful thought to Heaven.
In the end, everything is but illusion,
Don’t speak of kingdoms gained or lost.

      He wrote this poem, “Profession of Faith, poem 10” ( Tự thuật, bài 10), with Nôm Vietnamse ideograms in seven-word meter, except for the first line of six words:
He seeks neither fame nor fortune,
Whether he wins or loses, who cares?
With hills and rivers he’s not bored,
Poems stock his bag; wine, his gourd,
Friends are few, his lute lies silent,
With fish as companions, he won’t fish,
Behold those who seek positions and fame,
Weeds will cover their graves and names.

HỒ XUÂN HƯƠNG: Eroticism and Poetry

   Over time, Nghệ An and Hà Tĩnh provinces ( in central Viet Nam) have been famous for picturesque sites, miraculous temples and the individuals who reflect our nation’s pride. Among these heroes are Nguyễn Du ( 1766 - 1820), author of our national epic, the Tale of Kiều; Mme. Hồ Xuân Hương ( 1772 - 1822), a poet famous for her anti - Confucian feminism and avowed carnal love; Nguyễn Công Trứ ( 1778 - 1859), the renowned poet, administrator and economist; Hồ Chí Minh (1890 – 1969), poet and the founder of the modern Vietnamese state.
    In 1952, while researching works in Hán – Nôm ( Chinese and Vietnamese ideograms) archives in Paris, scholar Hoàng Xuân Hãn (1908 – 1996) found a manuscrift, which was a historic and geographic study of ancient Viet Nam. In the chapter dedicated to the maritime province Quảng Yên, he found five poems by Mme. Hồ Xuân Hương. These poems praise the beauty of Ha Long Bay as the poet’s small boat passes among the startling islands and amidst sky and water, mountains and forests, and the fairyland – like ambiance of the setting sun. Almost two hundred years after Hồ Xuân Hương’s visit, modern-day readers can savor the authentic feelings and impressions of a poet from our traditional culture. Here is a translation of “Crossing Hoa Phong”- Hoa Phong is an ancient name for Ha Long Bay- (Qua vũng Hoa Phong), one of the
five poems that Hồ Xuân Hương wrote in seven-word meter, using Chinese ideographic scrift:
Under sail, we leisurely cross Hoa Phong,
Mossy green cliffs emerge from the water,
The sea changes colors in mountains’ shade,
Waves lap at the nearby towering cliffs.
Dragon fish dart beneath the autumn haze,
Gulls and egrets driff into the sunset,
Darting into the hundreds of jade grottos,
Where is the Water Fairy’s Crystal Palace?

     An inevitable question arises: Is the author of this scholarly and elegant poem in Chinese characters the same Hồ Xuân Hương who scandalized Confucian orthodoxy with her poetry quivering with sensuality and vibrating with anger against social injustice? Archives of ancient works provide an affirmative answer, sketching for us a portrait of the woman from classical letters whose amorous passion found expression in the lyrical volume, Collection of Hương’s poems ( Lưu Hương ký).
    For some time, Hồ Xuân Hương was the concubine of the governor of Vĩnh Tường district in Vĩnh Phúc province northwest of Hà Nội. She scandalized the hypocritical feudal society with her sharp criticism of notables and her blunt yet refined verses praising the pleasures of the flesh, as in these lines in seven-word meter from “Three-Hill Pass” ( Đèo Ba Dội):
Whether sage or gentleman, none can refuse,
Legs weakened, they still fancy the climb.

       Or, consider this, the first of two quatrains from “Night Weaving” (Dệt cửi đêm), also written in seven-word meter:
The lamp lit, one sees virgin white,
The beater tapping gently through the night.
The treadles tamp down, up again, down,
The shuttle nudges along, a rushing sound.

    If your friends think of you as rather prudish or if risqué pleasantries make you feel uneasy, do not read “The jackfruit”( Quả mít) by Hồ Xuân Hương, again in seven-word metter:
Her fate: a jackfruit on a tree,
Rough skin, but tasty in a spree.
If you fancy, try sneaking a taste,
Beware! A groping hand emits a trace.

    This description of a fruit evoking the female reproductive organs is not from a book of erotica. Rather, Hồ Xuân Hương, one of the greatest names in classical Vietnamese literature, wrote the poem in the 1700s, using the Vietnamese ideographic scrift ( Nôm ). The original does not shock Vietnamese readers, who are charmed by the rhythm and music of the poet’s words. However, the poem runs the risk of sounding obscene when translated into an analytical European language lacking the melody of Vietnamese tones.
     Hồ Xuân Hương’s poems lend themselves to reading on
several levels. A feminist before her time, she wrote as an independent spirit struggling to survive in the stifling atmosphere of Confucianism. She dared to claim for women the right to physical love. She criticized the insincerity of hypocrites and defended unmarried mothers.


NGUYỄN CÔNG TRỨ: The poet of Poverty and “ the Solitary Pine”
      One of the most complex and fascinating Vietnamese literary figures from before the onset of the Western colonial conquest is Nguyễn Công Trứ (1778- 1858). Nguyễn Công Trứ was born in Hà Tĩnh province’s Nghi Xuân district. The son of a poor scholar, Nguyễn Công Trứ was educated in the Confucian spirit. As a
young man writing “Examination poem for myself”( Đi thi tự vịnh), he dreamed of serving the country represented by the monarch. These two lines from the eight –line poem in six word meter illustrate that point of view.
One we are born into this universe,
We all deserve recognition from the nation.

       Beginning in a minor post, Nguyễn Công Trứ distinguished himself as a brilliant administrator and strategist. He was especially known for clearing land along the coast of Nam Định and Ninh Bình provinces. By building irrigation- and- drainage canals, he protected Tiền Hải and Kim Sơn districts from the sea and
expanded usable land. Despite these services, the Royal Court did not value Nguyễn Công Trứ’s independent spirit. He was blamed for court intrigues and demoted. On one occasion, the Royal Court
stripped Nguyễn Công Trứ of all titles and reduced him to the rank of foot soldier. The decadent feudal society’s vices filled him with bitterness, which he expressed with his image of the solitary pine in “The pine tree”( Cây thông), a six-line poem written in six-word, eight- word meter:
When sad, he blames Heaven’s guile,
In joy, he weeps; in sorrow, he smiles,
Refusing manhood for Next Life’s trials,
A pine, he stands rustling in the sky
On a treacherous cliff dangerously high,
Those who brave the cold may come nigh.

        As is true of most Vietnamese old-school scholars, Nguyễn Công Trứ tempered his Confucian rationalism with tradition and with Taoism’s epicureanism and irony. His favorite genre was ca trù – the song girls’ verses taunting those who follow the social constraints of Confucianism, as he notes in this first of two
quatrains from “Friendship, Poetry and Wine”,(Cầm kỳ thi tửu):
Now that he’s acquired a taste of wine
He cannot refuse a proffered cup this fine,
Besieged by debts to poems he’s heard,
He’s doomed to a life of polishing words.

Nguyễn Công Trứ also wrote about poverty in “ The poor scholar’s charm” (Hàn nho phong vị phú), using that we now call free verse:
Damn poverty!
Damn poverty!
Aren’t only a few people talented?
Poverty is vice.
It’s one of the six misfortunes, according to the sacred books,
The first of all crimes, the proverbs say…

CAO BÁ QUÁT: Viet Nam’s Rebel poet
      In the West, when speaking of a rebel poet, people might think of the English poet, Lord Byron ( 1799- 1824). In Việt Nam, we think of Cao Bá Quát ( 1809 – 1853). Lord Byron died from fevers he contracted while fighting for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Cao Bá Quát died leading a peasant insurrection against the Royal Court.
      Cao Bá Quát was born into a scholarly family in Phú Thị near Hà Nội. He earned his master of arts in humanities at the age of twenty-four but was unable to proceed to his doctorate, even though others considered him a divine poet. He received an appointment to a subaltern post in Hue, where his pretty functionary’s work and the monarchy’s corruption bored him. Then he was appointed as an official for the mandarin examinations but was condemned to death for attempting to save the capable examinees who had been unjustly accused of crimes against the sovereign. After his death sentence was commuted, he spent many years in prison, tortured like a criminal.
       Cao Bá Quát sympathized with the humiliation of oppressed peoples. With sarcastic humor in “Watching Qing actors perform”(Đêm xem người Thanh diễn kịch), written in seven-word meter, he depicts Chinese actors from the Qing Dynasty in an opera. Here, “Hổ Môn” refers to the British victory over the Chinese Qing at Hổ Môn in 1840 during the First Opium War ( 1839 - 1842).
The stage lit with only thin darkness,
Sudden sounds make the night wind colder,
A soldier with thick beard and mail,
The false general calmly mounts and sits,
Each attribute – even angry eyes – is bogus,
Their costumes from ancient times are fake.
Didn’t Hổ Môn teach them any lessons?
Boring! Yet the viewers, noses aloft, laugh.

       While toasting a province chief, Cao Bá Quát improvised these opening lines from “An afternoon of wine at Province Chief Đông Tác’s house”( Trên chiếu rượu nhà ông Tuần phủ Đông Tác) in Chinese ideograms, using seven-word meter except for his threeword question:
Sir, you have prepared wine, don’t hesitate
Pour, keep on pouring! Older brother, drink!

Don’t you see?
The eagle flies as high as cloud,
The black crane sleeps on the hillside,
The oriole seeks seeds from dawn to dusk.

   Here, the eagle symbolizes those who nurture big ambitions; the black crane, those who retire into a contemplative retreat; the oriole, those concerned only with their daily rice.

    A man of courage, Cao Bá Quát could not bear the injustices of his time. Neither could he find solace in Buddhism, as he expressed in “ Mocking the Budda with a broken arm” ( Trào chiết tý Phật), which he wrote in Chinese ideograms using seven-word meter:
Everyone says a diamond cannot be broken,
What about Buddha with a broken arm?
He cannot save himself, how about others?
His fawning bonzes skim his altar offerings.

    Cao Bá Quát’s death while leading rebel troops is the logical outcome for the life of a man who, under the absolute monarchy, dared to write: “ All my life, I have bowed only before the flowers of plum trees.

Source: Vietnam writers and works

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