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Vietnamese Poetry


The Classical Tradition
The Origins of Vietnamese Poetry

Vietnamese recently celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of their country's first recorded poem. Vietnam is thus in the company of major European civilizations such as France or Germany, which also developed a voice of their own at about the same time or a little bit earlier. But the first recorded Vietnamese poem, composed in the year 987, had a Chinese midwife. It can be called Vietnamese only to the extent that it was partly composed by a Vietnamese, Do Phap Thuan (915-991), a Buddhist priest.
The circumstances surrounding the composition of that first poem are fascinating. In 939 Vietnam, under the leadership of Ngo Quyen, inflicted a decisive victory over the Chinese Nam Han troops and ended over 1,100 years of almost uninterrupted Chinese d omination, which had begun in the end of the second century B.C. It took the Chinese nearly half a century to reconcile themselves to the loss of Vietnam, which they referred to as the Protectorate of Annam. But finally in 987, they agreed to send to Vie tnam an envoy in the person of Li Chueh to invest the king of Vietnam with his title. This was equivalent to recognizing Vietnam as an independent state. Li, however, did not miss any opportunity to humiliate the Vietnamese or to put them in their place . Fortunately, the Vietnamese court was prepared for the occasion and sent out to meet Li a learned Buddhist priest, Do Phap Thuan, disguised as a ferryman to fetch Li across a river. When they were midstream, Li was suddenly inspired by the sight of tw o wild geese swimming in the river:
There: wild geese,
swimming side by side,
Staring up at the sky.
Realizing that the two lines merely made a couplet and that Li's intention was to invite or challenge him to complete the quatrain, Do Phap Thuan immediately rejoined:
White feathers against a deep blue,
Red feet burning in green waves.
(translated with Burton Raffel)
Thus was born the first recorded poem of Vietnamese literature. But, as has been pointed out by various authors, it was not too original a poem since a similar quatrain already had been penned by a T'ang dynasty poet, the Prince of Lo Pin.
Although born under these unimpressive circumstances, Vietnamese poetry soon flourished with a very distinctive voice of its own for the next four centuries, under the Ly and the Tran dynasties.
Written in Chinese characters and following Chinese prosody, this early poetry can be called Vietnamese only insofar as the pronunciation of its characters was concerned. This pronunciation, in time, differed so much from standard Chinese that it develop ed into a distinct language, in its spoken form incomprehensible to the Chinese. The literature in this language is called Sino-Vietnamese, just as there is Sino-Korean and Sino-Japanese literature.
During the first two and a half centuries of its development, Vietnamese poetry was the almost exclusive preserve ot Buddhist priests. During this whole period there were only a handful of lay authors, among them Doan Van Kham and Ly Thuong Kiet. The re st were all Zen Buddhist priests. it should come as no surprise therefore that much of the poetry of the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225) was concerned with Zen themes, with the transience of life, with the basic "emptiness" of the universe, with paradoxes. Van Ha nh (d. 1018), considered by many to be one of the greatest Vietnamese Buddhist figures and seen by a contemporary as influencing "three living generations," had this to say, in the beautiful English rendering by W. S. Merwin, about the transience of life:
The Body of Man
The body of man is like a flicker of lightning
existing only to return to Nothingness.
Like the spring growth that shrivels in autumn.
Waste no thought on the process for it has no purpose, coming and going like dew.
(translated with W. S. Merwin)
Similar advice was given by another Buddhist priest, Vien Chieu (998-1090):
My Advice While in Health
Like a wall, the body constantly threatens collapse.
A pity, really, the world still buzzes on.
Trust that Mind equals No-Mind, has no substance:
Let it come and go, appear and vanish.
What do we have to lose?
There are so many poems of this type not because the Vietnamese were incapable of other inspiration, but simply because of the nature of extant materials that remain to this day. Vien Thong, for instance, is believed to have written some 1,000 poems, yet what remains of his poetry amounts to only three quatrains and a few isolated couplets. This happened in part because the Buddhist authors of the poems attached little literary importance to their works, but saw them as merely instructional means to the Truth. Major blame for this state of affairs, however, must be put on the shoulders of the Confucian scholars of the 14th century, many of whom, in their zeal to establish Confucianism as the orthodox school of thought, tried to denigrate the earlier Bu ddhist culture. And, of course, the Chinese Ming invasion of Vietnam in the early 15th century did not help matters any, since it was the invading army's policy to gather all traces of Vietnamese culture, including books, art works, artisans and artists and take them back to China. Hundreds of Vietnamese works were thus lost, including the near totality of the Ly dynasty production. It was only by chance that a couple of Vietnamese Buddhist works survived from that early period. One of the most importa nt of these was Thien Uyen Tap Anh, (Collected Luminaries from the Zen Garden), a compendium of Buddhist biographies which carries remnants of opinion expressed by priests usually in the form of gathas, or final statements, at their death be d. Given these circumstances, it is easy to understand why a majority of surviving Vietnamese poems are concerned with philosophy, with the problems of life and death, and with the correct perception of such issues.
Dieu Nhan (1042-1114), a nun and the first recorded woman poet of Vietnam, wrote:
Birth, Age, Sickness, Death
Birth, age, sickness, death:
These are Life's constants.
Don't try escape,
the tangle will only further ensnare you.
Pray to Buddha,
in your confusion turn to Zen.
No, not another word
for it will only be wasted.
Such poetry may be perceived as gloomy, but not all Buddhist poetry reflects this pessimism. The whole training of the monastic life was meant to create an equanimity of mind in the face of death. One can even say that optimism shines through some of th ese gathas:
Spring goes, and the hundred flowers.
Spring comes, and the hundred flowers.
My eyes watch things passing,
my head fills with years.
But when spring has gone not all the flowers follow.
Last night a plum branch bloomed by my door.
(with W. S. Merwin)
This is the famous poem by Man Giac (1051-1096) who died when he was only in his forties. Notice the eye for the transient, for beauty. And notice also the basic optimism of his frame of mind, even on his death bed.
It was their equanimity of mind which allowed the poets of the Ly dynasty to enjoy the transient beauty of things, witness this beautiful rendering of Khong Lo (d. 1119) in one of his famous poems:
A Nap
Huge sky, great green mountains,
Small village of mulberries and smoke.
No one comes,
The ferryman sleeps --
And wakes, at noon,
In a boatload of snow.
(translated with Burton Raffel)
Commenting on this, John Ciardi, the famous translator of Dante's Divine Comedy, wrote: "How powerfully, even in translation, things speak in [the] poet's description of his sense of wonder at a sudden change in feeling."
Another poem by Khong Lo, one of my favorites in fact, is this one:
The Ideal Retreat
Huge sky, great green mountains,
I've got myself a naga-shaped spot,
linger in its sylvan delights.
Sometimes I climb to the one tall peak
and let out a long whistle that chills the sky.
The naga, a common motif in Indian art, is a realistic representation of the flat-headed cobra that gives off a sense of great power when it rears its head. The naga-shaped spot mentioned in the poem probably refers to a mountain ledge that thrust s out from the flank of a mountain cliff, a particularly fitting location for a hermit like Khong Lo. The sense of power, of course, is expressed most strongly in the last line where Khong Lo believes that his long whistle can chill the evening sky.
As for paradoxes, read this poem by Dao Hue (d. 1171):
Whether in visible form or mysterious garb,
Buddha is neither one nor divisible.
If you need to distinguish his aspects,
Imagine a lotus blooming in a furnace.
The paradox here is, of courser in the last line. A lotus in a furnace should normally be expected to wilt but if it is unconcerned, or rather is concerned only with being itself, it can ignore its environment and still blossom forth, hence the paradox a nd the essential integrity of Buddha as represented by that lotus. In sum, the poetry of the Ly dynasty is essentially of a single tradition, the Buddhist Zen tradition; at least that is the impression we get from studying the extant works. It is writte n mainly by Buddhist priests for other Buddhist priests, their disciples, or lay people with very close association with the Buddhist clergy and their concerns. It is highly philosophical, sometimes abstruse because it is written by and for people alread y advanced in religious training and thought. Nevertheless, it still has much to tell us, even after a time span of nearly a millenium, and this is an indication of the universality of its messages. Finally, because it was poetry written among friends a nd initiates, this genre of poetry also reflects great intimacy; witness how Doan Van Kham, a layman, mourned his friend and teacher, the priest Quang Tri:
Remembering Priest Quang Tri
Though you fled the Capital for the woods,
Your name came back -- fragrance from the hills.
I used to dream of being your disciple;
Then the news: You're gone, your door is shut.
Only sad birdcries in the empty moonlight outside your hut.
Who will compose the epitaph for your grave?
Reverend friends, do not grieve. Look round this temple:
In rivers and mountains, his face still shines.
What a beautiful farewell poem! The sentiment is so real that the reader feels almost as if he knows the priest.
If the poetry of the Ly dynasty (11th-12th centuries) was essentially the product of monastic life, the Tran dynasty poetry of the succeeding two centuries (13th-14th centuries) can be described as essentially court poetry with its own and different audie nce, conventions, limitations, and possibilities. Compared to the Ly dynasty poetry, the poetry of the Tran period offers much more variety. It is a poetry written by emperors and high-ranking courtiers and generals, and only incidentally by Buddhist pr iests; it is written also for this same audience and therefore addressed to their concerns rather than to the concerns of philosophers and religious men as under the Ly. The poetry of Huyen Quang Ly Dao Tai (1254-1334), the most famous priest-poet of the time, is more concerned with aesthetic and secular themes than with religious themes.
Mountain Dwelling
Nightly the autumn wind knocks on the screen.
Weeds riot outside this desolate mountain dwelling.
Long since, my mind withdrew to meditation.
For whom do these clamorous insects cry?
The Brazier
The fire's gone out. I light incense
And answer the child's question about poetry,
Grasping my waterpipe and wooden drumstick.
The common folk must laugh, seeing such a busy monk.
(translated with Linda Hess)
Huyen Quang even has a poem entitled "To All Government officials" in which he admonishes them not to go after "wealth and fame." This poem reflects a generally secular and bureaucratic temperament, as compared with the religious and philosophical tempera ment of the Ly dynasty.
But Buddhism was still a living philosophy to many, and at least it helped to humanize the thoughts of one like Huyen Quang in this poem, particularly remarkable for having been penned during a very martial age:
Pity for Prisoners
They write letters with their blood, to send news home.
A lone wild goose flaps through the clouds.
How many families are weeping under this same moon?
The same thought wandering how far apart?
(translated with Burton Raffel)
Huyen Quang and Tran Quoc Tang (1252-1313), whose religious name was Tue Trung, shared some important distinctions. Though owing much to such Chinese antecendents like Chu Yuan's "Encountering Sorrow" and "The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Forest" (4th centu ry), they were the first "flower children" of Vietnam. Both Huyen Quang and Tue Trung were in their thirties when the two major onslaughts by the Mongols occurred, forcing the country to some deep thoughts about national loyalty versus universality and mi ght versus right. No wonder that one of the reactions to these was psychedelic (though probably not drug-induced) poetry, like the poetry of the 1960s in the United States during the Vietnam War.
The more solid Buddhist and philosophical contribution to the poetry of the time was not the work of priests. It was, in fact, Emperor Tran Thai-tong (1218-1277) and Emperor Tran Nhantong (1258-1308) who, during their retreats, composed some of the more beautiful koans and statements about life and death and other philosophica1 topics. Thus, about death Tran Nhan-ton had this to say in his cycle of poems called "The Four Hills of Existence," a Buddhist term for the four traumatic experiences in a man's life (birth, aging, sickness, death):
The wild-raging storm sweeps the whole earth now,
running adrift the drunken fisherman's boat.
From all four quarters, clouds thicken and blacken,
waves surge like the report of beaten drums,
everything washed out by slashing rain, gust-driven,
beneath the shuddering menace of this thunder.
Afterward, the dust settles, the sky grows calm,
and the moonlit river lengthens out. What time of night is this?
(translated with KP)
Notice the movement of the poem that reflects so well the hurly-burly and confusion of life, where one may think that there are a lot of things to do and that unless one does them at once everything is lost. Yet when the dust settles one realizes how muc h was "much ado about nothing." And the poem is particularly attractive for its statement of the child-like sense of wonder at the news of death: "What time of night is this?"
The general theme of Tran poetry, however, is not philosophy so much as pride -- pride in the discovery (or rediscovery) of Vietnamese identity. The first systematic recording of Vietnamese mythology occurs at this time; the first Vietnamese history (by Le Van Huu) is written; the Vietnamese chu nom ("demotic character") script is systematized; the Truc Lam sect in Vietnamese Buddhism is established. This "discovery," this sudden assertion of Vietnamese identity occurs in the 1280s when Vietnam i s undergoing two of the fiercest Mongol invasions of the country (1285, 1287). Why?
This is a fascinating question for cultural historians because it happens not just once in Vietnamese history. Another "rediscovery" occurs during the "Golden Age" of Vietnamese poetry, the late 18th-early 19th century, another period of great confusion and turmoil in Vietnamese history, including another gigantic invasion by the Ch'ing Chinese. And the most recent flowering of Vietnamese poetry occurred during the Vietnam War, when the energy of the people was believed to have been all consumed by the war and day-to-day survival. It seems that the Vietnamese are most creative in times of crisis, that they spring into action when caught in a life-and-death situation.
During the Tran dynasty a patriotic poetry also develops, with representatives like Tran Quang Khai (1241-1294) and Pham Ngu Lao (1255-1320). Its heroic tone can still be felt in such poems as Tran Quang Khails "Emotions on a Spring Day" -- reminiscences of a victorious general in his old age:
Emotions on a Spring Day
The drizzle, white over the plum trees, falls in fine threads.
I close the door, sit and read, book-drunken.
Two thirds of my spring have been idled away.
At fifty I see myself a dwindling old man.
The mind yearns for home, but the bird is spent,
The tides of imperial favor swell, but the fish comes too late.
Only the reckless spirit of youth remains:
I will roll back the winter wind and write a new poem.
Only a pale moonlight remains, night drawing to a close.
A breeze carrying cool air from the east.
Willow branches whirl in the sky to rest on the pavilion.
Bamboos bang against the railing, waking me from my dream.
Moisture from a distant rain drifts in and clings to everything.
Suddenly I realize the rosy tint has left my face.
I banish the thought with three cups of wine.
Patting my sword, I remember the mountains and my battlefields.
Other poets of this period, like the emperors Tran Thanh-tong (1240-1290) and Tran Nhan-rong (1258-1308), chose other themes, delighting in the beauty of the land and its various regions and especially in the peace that they were able to restore to the la nd after the cataclysmic encounters with the Mongols.
On a Trip to the Temporary Palace of Thien Truong
by Tran Thanh-tong
This is strangely pure,
The supreme province:
Hundreds of birds, not a hundred organs;
Rows of orange trees, thousands, standing like servants;
Peaceful moon over peaceful people;
Autumn water, autumn sky.
The four seas are clear, dust has settled.
The trip is better by far, this year.
(translated with Burton Raffel)
Dust is a symbol of war; when the dust settles the war is over and peace can be shared by everyone.
Yet by the end of the period, such serenity was only a memory in Vietnam. In the second half of the 14th century the decline of the Tran was so obvious that Chu Van An (1300-1370) wrote a plea to the emperor asking that several high-ranking courtiers be dealt with summarily and executed for their crimes so as to restore people's confidence. This did not happen and Chu Van An retired to teach and write beautiful nature poetry. Pham Su Manh (1300?-1372) tried a different tack, reviving Vietnamese pride in the recent past and hoping thereby to whip people into action:
The Bach Dang waters swell into gigantic billows:
one can imagine seeing still Ngo Quyen's galley.
How I recall our emperors Thanh-tong and Nhan-tong
Who miraculously transformed earth and sky,
Filling our seas with thousands of warships
Plastering our passes with a million banners
Putting the country on firm foundations
And washing weapons in Heaven's River!
To this day, the people of the four seas
Still recall the days the Mongols were trapped.
(from "Left on Thach Mon Mountain")
But the institutional decay of Tran feudalism was so far advanced that nothing could save it. Nguyen Phi Khanh, the father of Nguyen Trai, could only lament:
Yearning for action, I can only fidget with my pillow,
Light incense and sit still - that's my confession ...
What can I do now, except
Stroking my book three times and sing the Ta-t'ung song.
(from "Waking Up One Evening in the Fall')
Ta-t'ung is the Chinese ideal of the perfect society, or "Great Harmony." Nguyen Phi Khanh obviously believes that all he can do is indulge in daydreaming.
Tran Nguyen Dan (1320-1390), Nguyen Trai' grandfather, also wrote in one of his poems: "I've recovered, but it was better being ill." In yet another poem he compared the people's situation to that of "fish in frying pans" and in a third one he lamented: "30,000 books prove useless/And useless am I to the people, with my white hair." It is despair like this which led Dang Dung to write one of the most despondent poems in Vietnamese literature, containing some unforgettable lines:
So much remains to do, but I am too old,
The world is too vast -- might as well just drink.
His moment ripe, a fool can catapult to glory
While heroes, their time past, must choke down their rage.
I dreamed of serving my lord, tilting the earth on its axis,
Washing my weapons in Heaven's river -- but I failed.
The land remains unavenged, my hair's already white.
How often have I whetted my sword under the moon?
The above examples represent the scholarly tradition in Vietnamese poetry, a poetry of limited audience and authorship. It is written in a restictive medium -- Sino-Vietnamese -- which is little more than a variety of Chinese, even though adapted to the c onditions of Vietnam, but nonetheless still full of vitality.
While the court and the Buddhist clergy wrote in what may be perceived as a "foreign" medium, the common people, of course, went on living and thinking and creating poetry in the vernacular -- in Vietnamese -- a language genetically unrelated to Chinese. Because this vernacular literature was not considered "high" culture, it was not recorded until the 18th century. Thus it is extremely difficult to assign exact dates to this poetry.
What is certain, though, is that, considered as a whole, this folk poetry reflects a rural Vietnam with a way of life dating back many centuries before. Thus, it is safe to assume that simultaneous with the scholarly tradition there developed in Vietnam a folk literature with a strong folk poetry component that was the voice of the common people. This poetry, orally passed from generation to generation, served both as moral teaching and entertainment to the Vietnamese. Much of it was sung at harvest ti me or festivals in song contests that could last the whole night.

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