Literature

01

Dec
2021

Literature

Posted By : admin/ 46 0

Gia Long’s reign became famous in Vietnamese literary history because of three poets who have remained popular to the present time. One of them, Nguyen Du (1765–1820), came from a prominent family from Nghi Xuan district in Nghe An, near the coast just south of the Ca River. His father, Nguyen Nghiem (1708– 1775), was a laureate of the 1731 literary examination and had served the Le– Trinh regime as both a civil administrator and a military commander. His elder brother, Nguyen Khan (born in the 1740s), a laureate of the 1760 examination, was active in the mid 1780s attempting to assist the Le–Trinh regime in putting down the mutinous soldiers at Ke Cho and in resisting Nguyen Huu Chinh. Nguyen Du, orphaned at age 12, passed the regional examination of 1784 at age 19 and thereafter assisted his brother until they were overwhelmed by the Tay Son and forced to flee. His brother fled up the Red River into the mountains where he died. Nguyen Du returned to his home district and avoided serving the Tay Son, spending his time hunting in the Hong Mountains in the south of Nghi Xuan district. It was said that his footprints could be found nearly everywhere on the “ninety-nine” peaks of this region that rise up amidst rice fields near the sea. He finally returned to public service when he was summoned by Gia Long in 1802 and was appointed to a post in a prefecture near Hanoi. He served a short time before asking for and obtaining sick leave. But his taste for reclusion could not be enjoyed for long, because his reputation for erudition was too great. In 1806, he was summoned to Hue and appointed to the Secretariat. In 1809, he was given a post in Quang Binh Province, a short distance north of Hue, which contained the border walls built in the seventeenth century. According to his biographer, “he was frequently humiliated by his superiors and consequently writhed in frustration.” He was nevertheless selected to lead an embassy to the Qing court in 1813 because of his mastery of classical learning. Nguyen Du’s journey to the imperial capital at Beijing proved to be a large event in his life, for it inspired him to write two works of poetry that were widely circulated when he returned. He had a reputation as a good poet and for being especially good at writing poetry in the vernacular. One of the works he brought back from his trip to Beijing was a collection of poems in the classical language entitled Travels in the North, which followed a well-worn tradition of envoys to the north writing poetry about their experiences and feelings while on the road. The second work was a novel in the vernacular six-eight mode of poetry. In the  twentieth century, when literary critics began to think about “national litera- ture,” this work was raised to the status of “the masterpiece of Vietnamese  literature” and is relatively well known today among English-speaking peoples as The Tale of Kieu (the Vietnamese title is Kim Van Kieu). Despite his literary reputation, and despite his willingness to continue serving the reigning dynasty, Nguyen Du was not comfortable at the Hue court. According to his biographer, he was “haughty and conceited, but outwardly respectful, and was speechless with fear in the king’s presence.” Gia Long was reported to have chided him for his silent demeanor by reminding him that he had been treated well and entrusted with important tasks and in return owed his sovereign the benefit of his thoughts. Perhaps Gia Long identified the problem when, in the course of his gentle reprimand to Nguyen Du, he observed that the royal court “employs people on the basis of their talent without any regard to distinguishing between north and south.” The fact that he mentioned this point is a good indication that it was a sensitive issue. Nguyen Du, a northerner, may well have felt that he was intellectually superior to his southern colleagues and supervisors, and this may have been the source of his taciturnity. He was nevertheless highly valued by the rulers. He was on the verge of departing on another mission to the Qing court in 1820 when he died. Gia Long’s son and  successor, Minh Mang, honored him at his death, and two of his sons subse- quently enjoyed successful careers in officialdom.  The Tale of Kieu is a vernacular poetic translation of a Qing prose novel that Nguyen Du apparently encountered while on his 1813 diplomatic mission. Inspired by events during the disorders attending the fall of the Ming and the rise of the Qing in the seventeenth century, the Qing novel is in a romantic genre of “good boy” meets “good girl”: they fall in love, then great tribulations separate them until they are reunited in an ostensibly happy ending. Nguyen Du’s work is a relatively faithful translation of the Qing original, but what distinguishes it is his superb prosodic artistry, which displays a great knowledge of classical erudition yet cast into deliciously memorable vernacular poetry. A century later, the desire of Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike to put their finger on the essence of Vietnamese cultural identity found a plausible target in The Tale of Kieu, but setting aside the exuberance of modern nationalism, it also had meaning for the time in which it was written. The Tale of Kieu came from an orphaned, educated northerner raised among people loyal to the Le dynasty. Then, after years of rustic retirement to avoid serving a rebel regime, he decided to serve a new “southern” dynasty. The plot borrowed from the Qing novel provided ample scope for Nguyen Du to explore  the vicissitudes of idealism and tragedy; good intentions gone awry; comprom- ises between virtue and profligacy; the breaking of faith and the joy of redemp- tion; the search for the comfort of human love, of religion, of obedience to those  with a claim on one’s loyalty, and of doing what is right. The comedic reconcili- ation at the end of the tale, seemingly contrived by appeal to abstract moral  values, is nevertheless an affirmation of family solidarity despite the random violence of a world twisted with corruption and war. The story is also an answer  to the question about injustice visited upon women found in the eighteenth- century works by Dang Tran Con (Song of a Soldier’s Wife ) and Nguyen Gia  Thieu (Complaint from the Harem ). Like these works, The Tale of Kieu is about how women must suffer for their beauty and talent, but it goes beyond Dang Tran Con’s simplistic resolution as well as Nguyen Gia Thieu’s unresolved anger.  It is a more nuanced and complicated exposition of the ambiguities and contra- dictions encountered by people in real-life situations. It reflects the climate of thought during the reign of Gia Long when, after centuries of separation and three decades of bitter warfare, a king had managed to enforce peace and the possibility of some kind of unprecedented unity among Vietnamese speakers. Nguyen Du persevered amidst the frustrations provoked by his less educated southern overseers because he believed that a dysfunctional Confucian family was still better than no family at all. Another literary figure of this time whose reputation has been burnished by modern scholars is Ho Xuan Huong, a poetess who skillfully combined erudition with bawdiness in poems expressing a woman’s critical view of men scrambling up the ladder of success in a Confucian society. Most of what is written about her that cannot be gleaned from her poems has arisen from conjecture, for very little information about her actual life has survived. Pham Dinh Ho (1768–1839), known for his collections of anecdotes, was apparently acquainted with Ho Xuan Huong, for he wrote about her poems and that she enjoyed a literary reputation in Hanoi during the reign of Gia Long. It is generally believed that she came from a prominent literati family of Quynh Luu district in northern Nghe An Province. Different theories have been advanced to link her to one or another branch of this family, either the Ho Phi branch or the Ho Si branch. Both branches produced respectable scholars in the eighteenth century who served in missions to the Qing court. One of these, Ho Si Dong (1739–1785), imagined by some to have been an elder half-brother of Ho Xuan Huong, passed the capital exam of 1772 and ended his career, as did the elder brother of Nguyen Du, struggling on behalf of the Le–Trinh leaders against mutinous soldiers and the Tay Son. By the time of Ho Xuan Huong’s birth, her family was established in Hanoi on the shore of West Lake. Her father died when she was small and her mother, a “second wife,” remarried. Despite her lack of parental care, she received a good education, probably through the attentions of elder siblings or other members of her extended family. While still young, she was twice married and twice widowed as a “second wife” to older men who were local magistrates. Thereafter, she remained single and established a reputation in the literary circles of Hanoi with her poetry. Her poems reveal an intelligent and strong-minded woman with little patience for the authority of men. Recently, she has been celebrated as an early example of a liberated woman in Vietnam. However that may be, her poems were written from her experience and for people in her time. Judging from Pham Dinh Ho’s mention of her, she was appreciated in the Hanoi literary world of her  own generation. The cultural scene in Hanoi during Gia Long’s reign is signifi- cant not only as the context of Ho Xuan Huong’s poetry, but also for revealing  an aspect of social and political history in early nineteenth-century Vietnam that would have long-term effects. One feature of Gia Long’s reign was the large population of unemployed educated northerners who gathered at Hanoi on the fringe of the viceroyal government. Most of these men received an income from lands owned by their families. Many of them were waiting for opportunities to be employed in officialdom. Many others had no such expectations but simply enjoyed the lifestyle available in Hanoi. In 1807, 1813, and 1819, when regional exams were held in the north, the city was crowded with aspiring graduates. As in times past, there were famous teachers, hundreds of students, and merchants selling books and writing supplies. But something had changed from earlier times. After 1789, for the first time in centuries, there was no king residing in the city. The country was in the hands of the southerners. The sons of northern literati  families, who for generations had been educated for government service, accu- mulated in Hanoi with time on their hands and money in their pockets. During  the 1790s and 1810s, the culture of the Le royal court shifted from the palaces into the city streets and was transformed in response to the large numbers of northern scholars who were without access to, if not alienated from, the rulers at Hue and, consequently, without career prospects. It was at this time that the style of singing that had developed among the women of the royal court passed into the tea and wine shops of Hanoi, giving rise to “tally songs” (ca tru) or “happy girl songs” (hat a dao). The customers purchased tokens or “tallies” which they gave to their favorite singers. The women sang while beating castanet-style with sticks upon a small wooden sound box, being accompanied by a musician with a long-necked three-stringed lute. Customers took turns beating a small drum. The ability to beat the drum  correctly and in such a way as to express appreciation for the singer at appropri- ate parts of the song was a highly prized skill. Books were written to instruct  potential customers in how to beat the drum. In some establishments, a house critic measured the drummer’s skill by adding pebbles to a basket and the drummer would have to pay accordingly to ransom the pebbles out of the basket before departing for the night. Girls with less talent for singing danced to the music or served drinks to the customers. Two streets in Hanoi became famous for tally songs. Each street was under the jurisdiction of a village outside of the city that specialized in managing these places of entertainment. The youth of these villages were taught from an early age how to sing, dance, or play the lute. Tally song inns continued to be popular  even during the era of French colonial rule. In the mid 1950s the new revolution- ary government proscribed this form of music on the basis that it manifested the  decadence of the old feudal order, but since the 1990s it has been revived as a distinctive vestige of “national culture.” Ho Xuan Huong lived in Hanoi during the time that tally songs became fashionable among educated northern men with the luxury of spending their time in the city. Her poetry playfully uses double entendre and a woman’s perspective to satirize male sexual prowess as but a tedious demonstration of powerlessness in public affairs. Her poems were directed at an audience of men who could feel the sting of her prosodic skill. Nguyen Cong Tru (1778–1859) was a poet from this time who eventually escaped from the realm of uselessness inhabited by many northern literati. He was from the same district as Nguyen Du, Nghi Xuan in Nghe An. Nothing has  been recorded about his family background, but he did obtain a good educa- tion, which suggests that he may have come from an obscure family of local  magistrates and teachers or that he may have been a peasant whose intelligence earned the patronage of a magistrate or teacher. His biographer notes that he was proud and headstrong from the time of his youth, an observation that may have been colored by the vicissitudes of his later career as an official in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s. During those years, he experienced several turns of fortune with promotions and demotions resulting from his combination of an independent spirit with irrefutable talent. A certain strength of mind was already apparent in 1803 when, at the age of 25, he presented Gia Long with a ten-point petition during a royal visit to Nghe An. The contents of his petition have not been recorded but it was written in response to Gia Long publicly soliciting the opinions of local people after witnessing the distressing poverty of the region. When regional examinations were held for northerners in 1807 and 1813, Nguyen Cong Tru is said to have tried but failed. He finally obtained success in the examination of 1819 and thereafter embarked on what became a colorful but distinguished career during which he gained fame for reclaiming land on the coast of the Red River plain as well as for serving on the Cambodian border. He retired in 1848 and lived as a hermit in a Buddhist temple on a mountain. In 1859, at the age of 82, he requested to return to government service to help against the French invaders, but died shortly after leaving his mountain retreat. Nguyen Cong Tru was apparently among the customers of the tally song establishments in Hanoi during Gia Long’s reign, for he wrote many songs for women to sing in this style as well as instructions for how to express appreciation for their singing with the drum. His biographer, writing in 1910, noted that the songs he wrote were still popular. His poetry is full of optimism and the enjoyment of life amidst troubles and setbacks. He was one northerner who overcame the disorientation of the royal court being relocated into the south and found scope for his abilities in service to a new country.

0 / 5

Your page rank:

Leave your comment