Monthly Archives: August 2014

Chiều trên Sông Hương

One common criticism of classical poetry is that, as opposed to “new poetry” (詩㵋, thơ mới), it required the poet to repress his personal feelings and diminished the presence of the ego in art. This criticism is not without foundation, however, it is often repeated by people not widely read in classical poetry and uninitiated into appreciating the finer details of such poems. Classical Chinese poetry encompasses centuries of widely varying philosophies, aesthetic ideals, topics, genres, authors, and writing styles. Like any refined art, it cannot be dismissed with a few generalized criticisms aimed at summarizing over twenty centuries of artistic development in terms accessible to the uninitiated modern. Classical poetry has been preserved because, on some level, it deeply resonates in the reader’s soul. If classical poetry did not reflect a shared human condition linking past and present, how could it outlive the death of its authors, the rise and fall dynasties, and the ceaseless vicissitudes of time?  Those uninterested or even critical of classical Chinese learning often fail to understand that, ultimately, the ancient writers were just as “human” as we are today. Though separated by an uncrossable breadth of time and space, we share the same joys and sorrows, the same moon and stars, the same hopes and disappointments in love and life. Sitting here in a smoke filled café tucked away in a forgotten corner of the fourth largest sprawling metropolis of the United States, listening to Vietnamese pop music while mulling over obscure Chinese poetry and reflecting on the events of the past summer, I don’t feel like a singular anachronism lost in modernity. I feel human.






Hữu sở tư

Tư dữ quân biệt lai
Kỷ kiến phù dung hoa
Doanh doanh cách thu thủy
Nhược tại thiên nhất nha

Dục thiệp bất đắc khứ
Mang mang túc yên vụ
Hương giang đa phương thảo
Hà tâm thái hành đỗ

Thanh điểu cao vân gian
Cẩm thư hà thời hoàn
Quân tâm tuy phỉ thạch
Hữu khủng điêu chu nhan

Chu nhan bất khả trượng
Na năng bất trù trướng
Hà như song phỉ thúy
Phi khứ lan điều thượng

Thinking of someone

Thinking of the day I parted with you until now
How often have I seen the hibiscus flowers blossom
Separated only by the autumn river
It is as though we are each at the edge of the sky

I wish to cross, but cannot go
Haze and mist obscure everything
Fragrant grass flourishes along the Hương river
But who has the heart to harvest them?

Green birds disappear into the towering clouds
When will your precious letter return?
Though your heart is not made of stone
Worry has withered my rosy cheeks

If my rosy cheeks cannot remain as of old
How can I not be sad?
If only we could be like the colorful birds
Flying over the blossoming flowers


– The author of this poem, Đào Tấn (陶進, 1845-1907), has been featured in a previous post.

– The illustration is a picture of the Hương river (香江, Hương giang) mentioned in the poem. The river runs through the city Huế (順化, Thuận Hóa), located in central Vietnam, which was the imperial capital of the Nguyễn dynasty.




Currently, the vast majority of Vietnamese people, both in Vietnam and abroad, are illiterate in reading Chinese and Vietnamese characters. This has led to fairly widespread confusion regarding certain terms such as Hán (漢) and Nôm (喃) when used to describe a written language. Before continuing, it’s necessary to have a proper understanding of the difference between Hán (漢) and Nôm (喃) and their relation to the Vietnamese language.

1. Hán (漢) is used to describe Chinese characters (漢字, Hán tự). The term Hán literature (漢文, Hán văn) is generally used to describe writings in classical Chinese (also called literary Chinese). Classical Chinese, also referred to as wenyan (文言, văn ngôn) by modern sources, is a written language that served as the lingua franca for China, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan until the early 20th century. Two educated persons  from any of these countries would have been able to have a conversation in classical Chinese through writing, literally a “brush-conversation” (筆談, bút đàm).  The role of classical Chinese in East Asia is often compared to that of Latin in Europe. Prior to the 20th century, most Vietnamese literature was written using classical Chinese.

2. Nôm (喃) is used to describe characters derived from Chinese characters (漢字, Hán tự) used to write the Vietnamese language.The history and development of Nôm (喃) characters is so detailed that only a very brief overview can be given here. Because the Vietnamese language is a combination of words taken from Chinese and native Vietnamese words, literature written in Nôm (喃) also contains a large amount of Chinese characters (漢字, Hán tự).

Confusion and misinformation about these terms has spread because today Vietnamese is universally written using a Romanization system first developed by Roman Catholic missionaries to help Europeans learn Vietnamese. This Romanization system, known as the “National language” (國語, quốc ngữ), is not without great merit, but it also has many short-comings and negative influences on Vietnamese language and culture. Perhaps the greatest evil of this system is that it has led to the alienation of Vietnam from the rest of East Asia. Vietnam is an East Asian country with East Asian culture. It belongs in the same category as China, Korea, and Japan. However, because most Vietnamese people are illiterate in reading Chinese characters, the vast shared cultural treasury of the Sinosphere is alien territory to many.

One clear example of this is how translators deal with the names of Korean, Japanese, and occasionally even Chinese names for people and places into Vietnamese. Since both Korea and Japan use Chinese characters for personal names, etc the most logical method for rendering their names into Vietnamese would be to give the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese characters, i.e., the Sino-Vietnamese (漢越, Hán Việt) pronunciation. Instead, most newspapers and news-stations use the romanized Vietnamese writing system (國語, quốc ngữ) to render unpronounceable transliterations of Korean and Japanese names.

As an example of what should be done instead, here are the names of singers belonging to the popular Girls’ Generation group ( 少女時代, Thiếu nữ thời đại) given with their Sino-Vietnamese (漢越, Hán Việt) pronunciation:

Tae-yeon (太妍, Thái Nghiên) – 金泰耎 Kim Thái Nhuyễn (김태연 Kim Tae Yeon)

Jessica – 鄭秀妍 Trịnh Tú Nghiên (정수연 Jung Soo Yeon)

Sunny – 李順圭 Lý Thuận Khuê (이순규 Yi Sun Gyu)

Tiffany – 黃美英 Hoàng Mỹ Anh (황미영 Hwahng Mi Young)

Hyoyeon (孝淵, Hiếu Uyên) – 金孝淵 Kim Hiếu Uyên (김효연 Kim Hyo Yeon)

Yuri (俞利, Dũ Lợi) – 權俞利 Quyền Dũ Lợi (권유리 Gwon Yu Ri)

Sooyoung (秀英, Tú Anh) – 崔秀英 Thôi Tú Anh (최수영 Choe Soo Young)

Yoona (潤娥, Nhuận Nga) – 林潤娥 Lâm Nhuận Nga (임윤아 Im Yoon A)

Seohyun (徐玄, Từ Huyền) – 徐朱玄 Từ Chu Huyền (서주현 Seo Joo Hyun)



– I have never consciously listened to anything by Girls’ Generation





The Minh Tâm Bảo Giám (明心寶鑑, also romanized as Minh Tâm Bửu Giám) is an anthology of aphorisms and quotations selected from various Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist sources. The compiler of the work is unknown, although many point to a Ming dynasty (1368-1644) scholar named Phạm Lập Bản (范立本 Fan Li-ben). The title of the work translates to “The Precious Mirror of the Enlightened Heart-Mind”. It was highly influential and widespread in the Sinosphere (China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan) and was also translated into European languages by Roman Catholic missionaries in the 16th century. Each chapter covers a separate topic, which vary from the duties of governing a nation to the virtues proper to house-wives. Vietnamese translations and printings of this book were common during the Nguyễn dynasty (1802-1945). It was used as an educational tool. Vietnamese translations and printings of this work can still be found today. The book used in writing this post is a modern reprinting of an edition originally published in 1968, which in turn used the translation of Jean-Baptiste Pétrus Trương Vĩnh Ký (張永記, 1837-1898), a scholar, linguist, and convert to Roman Catholicism, who played a tremendous role in promoting the romanization of the Vietnamese language (𡦂國語 chữ Quốc ngữ).

The following quotation is taken from the first chapter of the Minh Tâm Bảo Giám – Doing Good (繼善篇 Kế Thiện thiên).

凡人有勢不可倚盡, 有福不可亨盡, 貧窮不可欺盡, 此三者乃天地循環週而復始, 故一日行善, 福雖未至, 禍自遠矣, 一日行惡, 禍雖未至, 福自遠矣。行善之人如春園之草, 不見其長, 日有所增, 行惡之人如磨刀之石, 不見其損, 日有所虧。損人益己切宜戒之, 一毫之善與人方便, 一毫之惡勸人莫作, 衣食隨緣自然快樂, 算甚麼命?問甚麼卜?欺人是禍, 饒人是福, 天網恢恢, 報應甚速, 謹聽吾言神欽鬼伏。

Phàm nhân hữu thế bất khả ỷ tận, hữu phúc bất khả hưởng tận, bần cùng bất khả khi tận, thử tam giả nãi thiên địa tuần hoàn chu nhi phục thủy, cố nhất nhật hành thiện, phúc tuy vị chí, họa tự viễn hĩ, nhất nhật hành ác, họa tuy vị chí, phúc tự viễn hĩ. Hành thiện chi nhân như xuân viên chi thảo, bất kiến kỳ trưởng, nhật hữu sở tăng, hành ác chi nhân như ma đao chi thạch, bất kiến kỳ tổn, nhật hữu sở khuy. Tổn nhân ích kỷ thiết nghi giới chi, nhất hao chi thiện dữ nhân phương tiện, nhất hao chi ác khuyến nhân mạc tác, y thực tùy duyên tự nhiên khoái lạc, toán thậm ma mệnh? Vấn thậm ma bốc? Khi nhân thị họa, nhiêu nhân thị phúc, thiên võng khôi khôi, báo ứng thậm tốc, cẩn thính ngô ngôn thần khâm quỷ phục.

Now, men have power and authority but it cannot be fully relied upon. They have fortune and prosperity, but cannot enjoy it to the fullest. Whilst in poverty and hardship, their shame has no limit. In Heaven-and-earth these three circumstances cycle without end and return to the beginning to repeat once more. Hence, if today one performs good works and good fortune has not yet come, at least misfortune will remain far-off. If today one does evil, though disaster has not yet fallen upon him, good fortune has also taken flight. The man who does good is like the grass of a vernal garden. Though one cannot see its growth, it increases daily. The man who does evil is like a whetstone. Though one does not see him deteriorating, he daily falls deeper into ruin. One must guard against taking away from others to the benefit of oneself. Always be ready to perform even the smallest good deed for others, and never shrink from cautioning others against even the smallest evil. If one contents himself with the clothing and food allotted by fate, what need is there to consult fortune-tellers and divination? Despising others is the root of disaster and misfortune, forgiving and loving others is the source of good fortune and happiness. The net of Heaven is vast; reward and retribution are swiftly dealt. Listen carefully to my words, and even the spirits will respect you.



– the illustration used is a picture from a Nguyễn dynasty printing of the Minh Tâm Bảo Giám, printed in the third year of emperor Đồng Khánh (同慶, 1864-1889), temple name Nguyễn Cảnh Tông (阮景宗). The title of the printing is “The Precious Mirror of the Enlightened Heart-Mind Explained” (明心寶鑑釋義 Minh Tâm Bảo Giám thích nghĩa) and the text provides Vietnamese translations of various terms and quotations.



Excerpted from the writings of the 20th century Vietnamese nationalist, Phan Bội Châu 潘佩珠:

The student said: May I dare to ask the meaning of ‘self-strengthening’?

The master replied: The Book of Changes says – The Way of Heaven, in its motions, suggests strength. The superior man follows this and strengthens himself without ceasing. That which is called ‘self-strengthening’ is found only in oneself. I exercise my hands and feet, I expand my vision and hearing, I open my thoughts, I exert my spirit, I have the power to advance without turning back to face the enemy and render retribution, honoring my ruler and loving my country, I have one indomitable spirit that cannot shatter, like a raging fire consuming the mountains, like the thundering waves crashing down on the sea, whoever touches me will be incinerated and drowned, those who gaze upon me will only be able to sigh in awe. If the people of the country know how to strength themselves, what worry would there be that their country would not strengthen itself? However, the motivation for self-strengthening is only found in the love for one’s country and desire to preserve and protect one’s race.

童子曰: 《敢問自強之說若何。 》

主人曰: 《易曰:天行健, 君子以自強不息。所謂自強亦在乎我而已, 我勉我手足, 我豁我耳目, 我開我心思, 我奮我精神, 我有赴敵報仇一往無別之氣, 我有尊君愛國百折不挫之心, 如熾火烈山, 潮水住海, 犯之者焦, 觸之者溺, 令人望而觀 仰而歎耳。國人各知自強, 何患其國之不能自強耶。然原其自強之尊旨, 則惟在於愛國保種而已。 》

Đồng tử viết: Cảm vấn tự cường chi thuyết nhược hà?

Chủ nhân viết: Dịch viết – Thiên hành kiện, quân tử dĩ tự cường bất tức. Sở vị tự cường diệc tại hồ ngã nhi dĩ. Ngã miễn ngã thủ túc, ngã hoát ngã nhĩ mục, ngã khai ngã tâm tư, ngã phấn ngã tinh thần, ngã hữu phó địch báo cừu nhất vãng vô biệt chi khí, ngã hữu tôn quân ái quốc bách chiết bất tỏa chi tâm, như sí hỏa liệt sơn, triều thủy trú hải, phạm chi giả tiêu, xúc chi giả nịch, lệnh nhân vọng nhi quan ngưỡng nhi thán nhĩ. Quốc nhân các tri tự cường, hà hoạn kỳ quốc chi bất năng tự cường da. Nhiên nguyên kỳ tự cường chi tôn chỉ, tắc duy tại ư ái quốc bảo chủng nhi dĩ.

[Đồng tử nói rằng: Dám hỏi thuyết tự cường là nhu thế nào?

Chủ nhân đáp rằng: “Kinh Dịch nói rằng: Đạo trời vậnh hành rất mạnh, người quân tử thể theo đó mà tự cường luôn, không bao giờ nghỉ”. Bảo là tự cường, cũng chỉ ở nơi mình mà thôi. Ta tung động chân tay của ta, ta mở rộng tai mắt của ta, ta mở mang tâm tư của ta, ta phân phát tinh thần của ta, ta có cái khí thế giết giặc báo thù, chỉ xông lên mà không thụt lùi, ta có cái tâm tình thương dân yêu nước*, trăm lần bẻ không chịu gẫy, như thể lửa mạnh cháy rừng, nước trào ngập bể, hể ai chạm đến thì chết thiêu, động vào là chết đắm, khiến cho người ta trông thấy mà phải kinh hồn bạt vía. Nếu dân trong nước, ai ai cũng biết tự cường, thì lo gì mà nước không tự cường được. Nhưng xét đến nguồn gốc tôn chỉ của tự cường, cũng chỉ ở chỗ biết thương nước yêu nòi mà thôi”. ] – Chương Thâu dịch

*thương dân yêu nước – nguyên văn là tôn quân ái quốc, nghĩa là tôn vua yêu nước.

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