Nguyễn Trường Tộ – Harboring at Đà Nẵng

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Nguyễn Trường Tộ (阮長祚, 1830–1871) was Roman Catholic scholar, reformer, and architect active during the reign of emperor Nguyễn Dực Tông (阮翼宗, 1829-1883) of the Nguyễn dynasty. He was born in the province of Nghệ An (乂安) in central Vietnam. As a youth, he studied privately with retired scholars and gained a reputation as a well-learned scholar in the Confucian classics. As a Roman Catholic, he was forbidden to take part in the imperial examinations. He made a living through teaching classical Chinese in private and at a Roman Catholic seminary. Under the tutelage of bishop Jean-Denis Gauthier (1810-1877), also know by his Vietnamese name Ngô Gia Hậu (吳嘉厚), Nguyễn Trường Tộ also became one of the first Vietnamese scholars to become fluent in French and well versed in European culture and government. Although it is certain that Gauthier accompanied him to Hong Kong and various other places in the region, it is not certain whether or not Nguyễn Trường Tộ went to France prior to 1867 when he sent as part of an official delegation by emperor Nguyễn Dực Tông.

As a reformer, he placed great emphasis on “practical studies” (實學, thực học) such as that of Western sciences opposed to the “empty learning” (虛學, hư học), i.e., poetic and literary studies, and the rote memorization of histories and Confucian texts emphasized by the imperial civil-service examinations. Despite not holding any official position, his erudition in both Western and Eastern learning earned him the respect of the emperor, to whom he wrote many petitions regarding the necessity of modernization in order to survive the imminent threat of French colonization. Regardless, many court officials opposed his propositions for reform and even falsely accused him of collaborating with the French in order to have him executed. The emperor himself did not ever implement any of the reforms proposed in  the detailed and impassioned memorials and petitions submitted to the court. A devout Roman Catholic, Nguyễn Trường Tộ also played an essential role in drafting the architectural plans  and aiding in the construction of several seminaries, convents, and chapels. Towards the end of his life, he volunteered to lead a military strike on the French, taking advantage of their entanglement in the Franco-Prussian war, to regain lost territory. By the time the imperial court summoned him to discuss his petition, he was already in frail health. His talent unrecognized and his concern for the survival of the Nguyễn dynasty unappreciated, he died disappointed, his great ambitions unattained. In his last moments, he wrote the following couplet: 「一失足成千古恨 ,再回頭是百年基。」 (Nhất thất túc thành thiên cổ hận, tái hồi đầu thị bách niên cơ). “One misstep has turned into everlasting regret, looking once again the foundation for a lifetime has already been laid”. (An anonymous Vietnamese translation is: Một bước sa chân ngàn thủa hận, quay mặt nhìn đã hết trăm năm)

沱曩過泊

萬代天地此風景
西朝何事動兵刀
一朝殺氣空流水
千古冤聲尚怒濤
江自西南雙淚下
門開東北雨山高
如今已慶鯨波靜
破浪乘風氣自豪

Đà Nẵng quá bạc

Vạn đại thiên địa thử phong cảnh
Tây triều hà sự động binh đao
Nhất triêu sát khí không lưu thuỷ
Thiên cổ oan thanh thượng nộ đào
Giang tự tây nam song lệ há
Môn khai đông bắc vũ sơn cao
Như kim dĩ khánh kình ba tĩnh
Phá lãng thừa phong khí tự hào

Harboring in Đà Nẵng

For ten-thousand generations Heaven-and-earth have had this scenery
For what reason has the Western court raised its soldiers and arms
In one morning, the air of the death has passed with the flowing water
For countless ages, the sound of lament still roars in the crashing torrents
As the river flows from the southwest, two trails of tears fall
A passage opening from the northeast, the rainy mountain is tall
Now there can celebration that billowing waves have been stilled
Crashing through the waves and riding the wind, my spirits are high

Notes:

– Đà Nẵng (沱曩) is a coastal city that has the largest harbor in central Vietnam. It was a crucial port for trade and the site of a French naval invasion during the Nguyễn dynasty. The territory ended up being ceded to the French. It was to this area that Nguyễn Trường Tộ initially accompanied Bishop Gauthier to escape persecution of Roman Catholics in his home province.

-“Western court” (西朝, Tây triều) refers to the French

-“billowing waves” (鯨波, kình ba) literally means “leviathan waves”, but is used in literature to describe great naval battles, etc

-poet Khương Hữu Dụng (羌有用, 1907-2005) has translated this poem into Vietnamese:

Đậu thuyền ở Đà Nẵng

Trời đất muôn đời phong cảnh ấy
Giặc Tây sao dám nổi binh đao
Lửa binh một sớm dòng xuôi chảy
Tiếng súng ngàn thu sóng giận gào
Nhánh rẽ Tây Nam sông đổ xuống
Núi canh Đông Bắc cửa ra vào
Mừng nay đã lặn tăm kình ngạc
Cưỡi sóng buồm dong mấy tự hào

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