CONTEMPORARY VIETNAMESE POETRY: ON THE PATH OF TRANSFORMATION
(A PORTRAIT OF VIETNAMESE LITERATURE)
By Khe Iem
(Translated by Joseph Do Vinh)
“Poetry as a Window on History and Change in Southeast Asia” is the main topic of a Panel at the 56th Conference of the Association for Asian Studies – Sponsored by Council of Teachers of Southeast Asian Languages, to be held in San Diego on March 4, 2004. In many respects, poetry is indeed linked to history and change. History here must be understood in the broader context of linguistic, literary and political developments. These are the primary elements that make up culture. When we speak of Vietnamese poetry, we are speaking of the larger category of Vietnamese literature as well, since up until the invention of the Quoc Ngu (Romanized National Script), Vietnamese literature was primarily poetic, absent of novels and essays. Short stories only began to emerge with the popular use of Quoc Ngu. The earliest were translations of Chinese and French stories that began to appear in the magazine Nam Phong Tap Chi. Thus, the novel only came into existence after 19211; an example of such work was To Tam, a romantic novel written by Hoang Ngoc Phach. Novels written after that period followed the structure and expressions of plot and character development of foreign literature, merged with the rhetoric techniques of classical poetry. Changes in Vietnamese literature always begin with changes to poetry, since poetry is at the heart of Vietnamese literature. But poetry as a mechanism for change historically has been subjected to the whims of political power, tracing back a thousand years. Changes in government, the written script and other historical changes have also affected the evolution of Vietnamese poetry. As such, we must study Vietnamese poetry from many different angles: the linguistic, historical and cultural influences of foreign civilizations such as China and the West, in order to understand the change and continuity in Vietnamese poetry typical of Vietnamese literature in general.
As to Vietnamese history, China2 dominated Vietnam for nearly one thousand years (from 111 B.C.E. to 938 C.E.). In modern times, Vietnam endured eighty years of French Colonialism (from 1863 to 1949). Those years of foreign domination instilled upon Vietnamese people foreign cultures that deeply affected their customs, daily lives and literary traditions. The Chinese rulers brought to Vietnam their distinctive traditions such as marriage reforms, education, agriculture, and many other aspects of civilization aimed at assimilating the Vietnamese. For instance, they taught Chinese script for use in daily administrative offices because at that time, although the Vietnamese people had their own verbal language, no writing system existed. After the great Ngo Quyen gained Vietnam’s independence from China (939 - 965), the Dinh Dynasty3 (968-960) took over and started to emulate the monarchist system from the Chinese Dynasties and continued to use Chinese script in administrative offices and diplomatic exchanges with China. Vietnamese poetry in Han Chinese script emerged under the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), written mostly by Zen Buddhist monks because only Buddhist monks had the privilege of the formal education provided by the monasteries; such writings were usually in the form of Sayings (katha).4 Buddhism arrived in Vietnam via two routes: by way of China and from India. Many of the Buddhist texts were written in Han Script. Therefore, Vietnamese monks were quite fluent in Han Script, and Sinology became popular with the spread of Buddhism.
As of the tenth century, most Vietnamese social, political, cultural, religious, artistic, and literary traditions reflected Chinese influence. In the year 1075, the Vietnamese emperor Ly Nhan Ton established the first mandarinate exams in Vietnam. The purpose of the exams was to recruit able civil servants into the emperor’s courts. Despite its political independence, Vietnam still relied on Chinese script and general culture until the reign of Tran Nhan Ton (1279 - 1298). Han Thuyen5 used Nom script, which was the unofficial Vietnamese script graphotype using Chinese characters, to write his famous poem ‘Van Te Ca Sau’ (Ode to the Crocodile). Nom script was transcribed phonetically from Vietnamese pronunciations. Like Han script, it proved very difficult to write. Only civil servants, scholars and students could write in Nom, since it was not popular with the common people. Nobody knew exactly how the Nom script originated. Nom script may have developed from the need to describe daily activities and objects more clearly than in Han script. This Nom script was not conventionalized. Every user adapted it according to the needs at hand. The reader had to rely on guesswork to comprehend the text.
In the sixteenth century, during the Trinh-Nguyen Lords’ demarcation period, foreign merchants and missionaries began to arrive in Vietnam. Since Nom script was difficult to learn, the missionaries devised an alphabet writing system based on Vietnamese pronunciation to facilitate the teaching of the Bible and to spread the Christian religion. This was called Quoc Ngu (national script), and it combined the work of many Italian, French and Portuguese priests. In 1651, a Jesuit Priest named Alexandre de Rhodes (1591-1660) published the first Quoc Ngu-Portuguese-Latin dictionary in Rome, marking the beginning of modern day use of the Vietnamese National Script, Quoc Ngu. In 1863, the French invaded Southern Vietnam6 and by 1884 had conquered the entire country, making the South its colony and the North and Central areas its protectorates. During the early years of French colonialism, the French had to quell many rebellions, including the Can Vuong7 (King Restoration) Movement. The French were not able to abolish the entire mandarinate exam system in the North until 1915 and in Hue (in the Central area) around 1919. Afterwards the French opened their own schools to train a new generation of colonists to work for them. They also established the Khai Tri Tien Duc Association (Progressively Open-Minded Association) to advance French culture and Quoc Ngu script.
Around the same time, in 1906, the Vietnamese revolutionary Phan Boi Chau organized the Phong Trao Dong Du8 (Go East Movement) to send Vietnamese students to Japan to acquire advanced education. He recognized how strong and prosperous Japan had become by modernizing itself. In early 1907, a number of young patriotic Vietnamese scholars with mixed Confucian and Western backgrounds, including Luong Van Can, Nguyen Quyen, Hoang Tang Bi, and Duong Ba Trac, opened the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc (Free School of the Eastern Capital).9 These scholars favored the use of Quoc Ngu over the archaic Nom and advocated Vietnamese nationalism, modernization, and mass education while resisting foreign cultural assimilation. At the end of 1907, the French closed down the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc by negotiating a treaty with Japan discontinuing the harboring of Vietnamese students. With the failure of the Phong Trao Dong Du and the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc, many Vietnamese scholars were disappointed and disheartened. They returned to working under French administrators, serving as researchers and analysts to reconcile differences between the French and the Vietnamese.
As part of its propaganda, the French authority assisted Nguyen Van Vinh in publishing Dong Duong Tap Chi 10 (Indochinese Review, 1913-1915) which specialized in the translation of Chinese and French literature into Quoc Ngu. Another publication, Nam Phong Tap Chi11 (Southern Wind Review, 1917-1932) edited by Pham Quynh, appeared in 1917 in three languages: Vietnamese (written in Quoc Ngu), French and Chinese. Articles chosen for publication were on revolutionary thoughts and academic research and were educational in nature. Nam Phong Tap Chi published widely in order to attract a large audience, from the Confucian educated to the western educated, in order to spread both ancient and modern studies. In 1928, Nguyen Van Ngoc published his modern collection of Vietnamese “folk and custom” verses12 of some eight thousand verses following such ideals. This collection laid the basis for harmony between Tho cu (old poetry) with Tho moi (new poetry). Here we can recognize the importance of the written word. Alphabet writing was easier to learn and write, similar to English or French. It helped to change the influence on Vietnamese culture from the Chinese to the West.
By 1932, a new generation of writers had emerged. Those new writers no longer subscribed to the East-West reconciliation views of the Nam Phong Tap Chi and Dong Duong Tap Chi generation. They revolted against the old, and promoted the new. The first of this new generation was author Nhat Linh, who published Phong Hoa magazine12 (Customs and Morals) and founded Tu Luc Van Doan (the Self-Reliant Literary Group) in 1933 that included Khai Hung (1896-1947), Thach Lam (1910-1942), Hoang Dao (1907), Tu Mo, Nguyen Gia Tri (1908-1993) and The Lu (1907-1989). These writers used Quoc Ngu to compose poems and novels. Many other writers later joined them, including Xuan Dieu (1916-1985), Huy Can, Vu Hoang Chuong(1916-1975), and Dinh Hung (1920-1967). Together they started an enlightening literary epoch called Tho van Tien Chien14 (pre-war literature). These writers shared a Confucian scholar background, with a penchant for Western education. Combining traditional Tang poetry with popular oral traditions, they composed a particular Vietnamese-style poetry. Up until this time, all literature was reserved for city-dwellers who were educated since the majority of the common population was still illiterate. It was this period that marked the departure of Vietnamese literature from its heavily Chinese-influenced traditions.
Prior to this, Vietnamese traditions were ingrained in an authoritarian monarchist system modeled after China’s. This system, based on Confucianism as its basic social-political-cultural philosophy, aimed only at controlling the populace. Confucianism became prevalent under the rule of the Confucian mandarins. Confucianism dictated loyalty above all else. The King had complete authority over his subjects just as a father has complete authority over his household. This authority over life and death matters was total and was not to be questioned. The King relied on his mandarins to control his subjects, while the mandarins were bestowed power and privileges in return. In order to attain the status of a mandarin, candidates were qualified through mandarinate exams.15 During these exams, candidates composed poetry and written texts in accordance with set rules of composition based on difficult formal and complicated Chinese literature. Should candidates fail to comply with these strict regulations or corrupt the process in any way due to their ineptitude, they would face imprisonment.
Thus, Confucianism became a competition-examination system. From the King to the mandarins, all were career poets who specialized in the flowery style. After some 2000 years of Chinese influence, most Han poets were mandarins (in nature); however, they had weaker poetic standards than the poets of the Tang period. From the beginning, poetry was a means to gain power, and then it became power itself. Once a Confucian poet became a mandarin, he became a ruler; his poetry became sacred, respected, no longer an artistic creation. Han Chinese writing was considered the language of the Sages, not to be used lightly or for entertainment. Once Han Thuyen used Nom script to write his poem (Ode to the Crocodile), more people composed poetry using Nom script to avoid the (said) rules and customs of the mandarin courts. Poetry written in Nom borrowed the Chinese forms initially, but gradually changed to using the traditional forms of Vietnamese folk poetry, which have the six-eight or double-seven and six-eight patterns (A Vietnamese word usually has a single syllable. Six-Eight refers to the count of a line of poetry: first a line of six words; then a line of eight words). At first, poets entertained themselves by using Nom as a new medium for writing poetry, but later some talented poets found that using Nom could relieve them from the usual constructs, enabling free expression, surpassing the eloquence of Tang poetry. Over time, the elite mandarin self inside the poets slowly took over the artist self, making Nom poetry more difficult to comprehend with many historical references. It had taken over the position of Han poetry and became Vietnamese classical poetry.
If Han poetry were an amalgamation of political power and literature, Nom poetry was now a separate literary movement that counter-balanced political power. This new kind of poet was obsessed with the power of opposites, that of illusion and politics, that of mandarin and artist. The great poet Nguyen Du, for example, was a high-ranking mandarin of the Nguyen Dynasty who was disillusioned with the royal court. He could only pour his feelings out into poetry in order to escape reality. Yet Nom poetry like Han poetry had its roots in a monarchist court culture that was heavily influenced by mandarin overtones of dictatorship and arrogance and lost appeal because it was reserved exclusively for elites who proclaimed themselves as venerable sages, “noble gentlemen.” Naturally, the common people had no role in that kind of poetry. And because the French government was busy quelling the masses, they ignored writing groups. Vietnamese literature began to shed political obsessions.
Before the development of Quoc Ngu, common people knew neither Han Script nor Nom Script. Although considered outsiders of the literary groups, the common people, whose spirituality was closely knitted with nature, had learned to express their emotions through traditional folk songs developed over thousands of years. Ca dao (folk songs) were sporadic creations of the rural masses that developed into metered poems of the six-eight (words per line) form or sometimes two lines of seven words each followed by a line of six words and a line of eight words. One can find a trove of anecdotes and tales in poetry and song that passed culture and customs down through the generations. These folk songs were filled with images of daily hardships such as farming, irrigation, or rice pounding. These people relieved the pressures of a life of hard labor by singing or reciting oral poems composed by unknown authors. Ca dao was very short and simple. It had only two or four verses, with rhyme and rhythm that were easily sung or recited.
While Tang poetry’s structure was rigid with its set rules such as ngu ngon tu tuyet (5-4 form: 5 words per line, 4 lines) or that ngon bat cu (7-8 form: 7 words per line, 8 lines). Pre-War poetry borrowed from these forms and from the structure of Tang poetry with its 5 or 7 syllable (word) verse form, adding the eight-word verse form and the six-eight-syllable verse form. The 5-4 and 7-8 forms mixed with the Ca dao form reflected the natural sounds of Vietnamese spoken language. Lacking structure and eloquence, Ca dao never developed into a formal aesthetic trend. Classical poetry and pre-war poetry stemmed from Ca dao. If classical poetry reflected a strange and faraway China, the pre-war poetry reflected the common love and romance found in individualism, estranged from traditional daily life. The general population never found a comfortable place in Vietnamese poetry because the literates excluded them in one way or another.
It is worthy to note that Vietnam remained relatively peaceful from 1932 to 1945. In 1945, at the end of World War II, the Nine-Year War with France began, ending with the Geneva Treaty 16 on July 20, 1954, that divided Vietnam in half. The northern half rallied to communism. The southern half rallied to capitalism. Soon after, another war broke out at the end of 1960, involving both halves of the country. It was during the 1960’s that the Nhan Van Giai Pham 17 (Humanism Quarterly Magazine) was established in the North, and the Free Verse Poetry Movement developed in the South. In both the North and the South, poets were trying to deviate from the stagnant pre-World War II. poetry. They experimented with more liberal forms of expression. By the end of the latest war in 1975, Vietnamese poetry had undergone two decades of near paralysis. It was not until 2000 that a new and more vibrant movement would emerge - New Formalism. In this essay, we have used comparative studies to juxtapose poetry with historical events within which these works came into being, taking into account the unique characteristics of each of the periods, from the 1960s until the present day.
During Chinese domination over Vietnam, poetry flourished, most notably in the Tang Dynasty (618 to 906). Vietnamese poetry, although evolving linguistically and conceptually over time, continued to echo Tang influence into the future. The following example is cited below to demonstrate this point.
The Chinese poet Jia Dao (779-843), as a youth on his way to take the national examination in the Capital, happened to compose the following two verses:
Ma tuc tri trung thu
Tang thoi (xao) nguyet ha mon
The horse sleeps under a tree by the lake
The monk knocks (pushes) the temple gate under the moonlight.
Since he was not quite satisfied with the word ‘knocks’, he was deep in thought and did not even notice a company of officials traveling by. The guards brought him to the State Minister Han Yu (768-824). (In the old days, common people had to stop and yield until the officials passed by; otherwise the people would be arrested for slighting the officials.). Upon discovering his endeavor, the State Minister suggested the word ‘pushes’ instead of ‘knocks’, which is more subtle, and pardoned his impropriety. The hidden meaning in these two versions is profound, demanding its readers to have a repertoire of classical poetry and historical reference. Jia Dao used the Buddhist perspective that human beings are tam vien y ma, meaning human beings’ hearts constantly change like a hyperactive monkey while their minds are like a moving horse, never calm. The monk is in control of his mind, as the horse sleeps under a tree. The moonlight reflects upon the lake, signifying life was illusive. Once the monk’s mind calms, he knocks (pushes) the gate. His action was a willful act of seeking the inner meaning of Buddhism, of the sutras as a means to an end, like the finger that points to the moon that is the truth. The monk is on his way to discover the ultimate truth, nirvana. The images of the horse, the gate, and the moonlight represented the human mind, Buddhist teachings and sutras. Han Yu suggested the word xao ‘pushes’, which was both gentle and implied that the ultimate truth was not far, but within reach. In these two short verses, one finds idealism. This style of poetry utilizes an “idea-beyond-words” technique. Later on, Jia Dao retired from his mandarin position. He became a monk and continued to write poetry. Once he lamented:
Luong cu tam nien dac
Thi thanh song le thuy
(I) composed two verses in three years
Once written, both eyes filled with tears
This historical reference of Thoi Xao (Knock-Push) and the technique, idea-beyond-words, influenced Vietnamese literature from Han script to Quoc Ngu, from Tang influenced-poetry through pre-War and Free Verse poetry. As Tang poetry demonstrated, it was a high form of Art. It required the poet and his readers to possess knowledge of the three great doctrines of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, not reflecting in reality but taking refuge from it. Vietnamese classical poetry and pre-War poetry were rhetorical arts, carefully choosing words, like Jia Dao. The only difference between them is that classical poetry heavily used literary references from (ancient) Chinese literature while pre-War poetry relied on words to convey romantic feelings. During Vietnam’s relatively peaceful period prior to 1945, both classical and pre-War poetry used the right rhetorical techniques. After the 1960s, both the North and South experienced social changes. Rhetorical usage was no longer suitable for such situations. Poets found new ways to express their thoughts and feelings appropriate to their rapidly changing circumstances. However, the communist government in the North forbade all forms of change (no free expression was allowed). Poets had to indulge once again in rhetorical usage although they were not allowed to have their compositions published; they had to keep their works to themselves. Their rhetorical technique took on ambiguous usage for even the most ordinary words. Their methods disregarded the rules of grammar, eliminating the “idea-beyond-word” approach in which no meaning is real.
Meanwhile in the South, most of the literary elites were those who had immigrated from the North in 1954. As strangers to this new environment who were withdrawing from the war around them, these writers tended to go into self-imposed isolation within the city walls. Alienated from the masses, they turned to their own minds and books, concentrating on words in order to reflect feelings instead of ideology. Thus, both the North and the South prior to the unification in 1975, and out-of-mainstream free verse poetry after the unification, were absorbed in the quest to find interesting words and imageries to paint surprising portraits that were quite removed from any realities.
Western influence on both the political and the literary culture began in earnest in the 1920’s and was filled with biases; however, the masses ability to grapple with the new concepts remained elementary. Many western ideologies, such as Communism or Surrealism, were only beginning to be digested in Vietnam, even as some of these same ideologies had been abandoned in the West. Over-enthusiasm for Western ideas had eclipsed the early advances made by such writers as those in the Self-Reliant Literary Group. Thus began a period of literary confusion. Hoang Dao with his Ten Meditations began something entirely new. Nhat Linh’s character Loan in Doan Tuyet took a knife to her husband, intent on his murder. She was symbolic of fundamentalist tendencies. The satires of Ly Toet, Xa Xe 18, portrayed a backward society filled with the dumb and the blind. These views were slanted toward the negative bias of Western perspectives. Unable to critically analyze and evaluate the impact of this negative trend, these latest writers could not improve or expand upon the national traditions. This confusion gave rise to violent tendencies that inspired a host of extremist activities to follow. This wholesale adaptation of western ideas, undigested and unprocessed, fostered misconceptions and gave birth to a syntactically ill-developed body of work that is typical of Vietnamese literature of the last half of the twentieth century. For several consecutive generations until now, Vietnamese literature looked to the West as a perfect model. In such literature, the common people were viewed as just as backward and stupid as Ly Toet and Xa Xe, the satirical characters of Tu Luc Van Doan fame. Vietnamese poetry during this period was nothing more than word play and wordsmithery, devoid of any positive social implications.
From 1960 to 1975, and even after 1975, Vietnamese free verse existed side by side with more structured and metered poetry. In the North, themes of revolution, of struggle, and of propaganda consistent with the party line dominated, while in the South themes of love and romance dominated. In both cases, poetry was a means to achieve an end, not an end in itself. Poetic traditions remained static. Thus, following the pre-World War II poetry, Vietnamese literature diverged into two main paths. One continued along the lines of Tu Luc Van Doan (the Self-Reliant Literary Group) with its emphasis on romantic portrayals, and the other was based on new usages of ambiguous rhetoric that pretended to accommodate change. These tendencies have been locked in place to the present day. Since no new aesthetics has emerged, and absent any new thoughts and techniques, Vietnamese literature has remained stagnant. We find ourselves today in that dilemma.
Ancient Greek rhetoric was established during the fifth century B.C.E. It is the art or study of using speech or written language effectively and persuasively, including techniques for the use of logic or argument aimed at persuading the audience about certain ideals or concepts, and it makes use of grammatical principles. Thus, logic has to be lucidly coherent, leading the audience to complete comprehension of an issue once it is presented. As a custom and habit from old tradition, it must shed light on the truth, and the speaker or writer must be capable of resolving difficult problems through clear and concise reasoning, with the logic flowing as in a story-telling. In poetry, rhetorical figures do not change the meaning of words, but only add to their emphasis through repetition. In short, rhetoric was the invention or discovery of ideas, the arrangement or organizing of ideas, and the style or way of putting ideas into words, which offered practice in oral argumentation for the philosophers, lawyers and politicians.
In the Middle Ages, the study of the trivium - grammar, rhetoric and dialectic - emphasized style and logic. During the Renaissance, with the invention of the printing press, the written word became increasingly important. Over the course of many centuries, rhetoric went from a focus on the use of the spoken word to a focus on the written word. And until now, it is a course of study within the English language and literature departments in universities. Later, along came the New Rhetoric with its new viewpoint, one not only related to the content, structure or written representational style, but also one that included many social and political issues concerning maintaining harmonious relationships with each other. Because of our cultural diversity, in everyday conversation many situations occur as a result of only a few misunderstood simple words. New Rhetoric broke away from studying texts for their beauty or content, and began to use rhetoric as a tool to analyze information about society, becoming a vehicle for mutual understanding among humans. Of course, sometimes the rhetoric could fall victim to negative terms, using unnecessary amplification, sham or empty words. In general, according to Western belief, rhetoric was merely a method for helping people open up to the world, while the Vietnamese interpretations kept the door closed to the outside, and were adapted particularly to the country and its own historical situation at that time.
When these two notions about rhetoric are compared, it becomes clear as to why Vietnamese poetry had to change. The idea was, if one line has one excellent word, it is an excellent line; if a poem has an excellent line, it is an excellent poem. Written words remain in the readers’ mind throughout their education and experience (for example, Sino-Vietnamese words). Words are signs with a signifier and an attached signified meaning. When a literary work uses only words or lines to create impressions and feelings, it leads readers into a supernatural or surreal world (in reality, a world that is nothing but words) containing only illusions unreflective of the real world. The overuse of impractical literature is a bad influence, and language becomes poison, which deceives readers. The language is no longer a means to transfer thoughts and information from one to another. The written word becomes a privilege of a minor academic group. It is a private power that allows neither a way in, nor a way out of that secluded domain, and the poet finds escape from reality. A text is good because of the feelings and illusions it creates with words. However, it brings no ideological development to that kind of literature. Thus, we have two distinctively different systems. On the one hand, we have a system based on Tang poetic traditions with its difficult word play. On the other hand, we have a system aimed at exploring thoughts and concepts based on style and logic, ever evolving to reflect social changes. These two systems are irreconcilable. Regardless of the superb translation work done between languages, true understanding has not been attained.