Nguyễn Thượng Hiền – Returning to my village

ng thuong hien

Nguyễn Thượng Hiền (阮尚賢, 1868-1925), courtesy name (字, tự) Đỉnh Thần (鼎臣), was an official of the Nguyễn dynasty and anti-French revolutionary. He was a native of modern day Hà Tây province (河西省, Hà Tây tỉnh) of northern Vietnam. Born into an educated family, he passed the first round of the imperial civil service examinations at age 17. However, after the French took control of the imperial court, he refused to serve as an official under the reign of Nguyễn Cảnh Tông (阮景宗, 1864-1889). Eventually, he was summoned out of seclusion and forced to serve the imperial court as an official. He was also married to the daughter of Tôn Thất Thuyết (尊室説, 1839-1913), a leading mandarin in the imperial court of Nguyễn Dực Tông (阮翼宗, 1829-1883) who was famous for leading an anti-French resistance. After the three-year mourning period following his father’s death in 1907, Nguyễn Thượng Hiền left Vietnam to meet and study with other Vietnamese intellectuals in Japan. There he met fellow scholar and revolutionary Phan Bội Châu (潘佩珠, 1867-1940). The two collaborated in directing the Vietnamese Restoration League (越南光復會, Việt Nam Quang Phục Hội) which sought to organize military action against the French in order to retake Vietnam. Unfortunately, Phan Bội Châu was captured and imprisoned in Hong Kong, and the movement fell apart. Nguyễn Thượng Hiền was chased across China by Western authorities and often had to disguise himself as a Chinese man or even woman, to escape detection. He passed away in a Buddhist monastery in the Hangchow (杭州, Hàng Châu) after which he was cremated and his ashes thrown into the river. Because of his precarious situation, he also went by many pen-names (號. hiệu) including Mai Sơn (梅山),  Long Sơn (龍山),  Đỉnh Nam (鼎南),  Đỉnh Nhạc (鼎岳),  Thiếu Mai sơn nhân (少梅山人), Bão Nhiệt  (抱熱), and Giao Chỉ khách (交趾客).  Nguyễn Thượng Hiền was not only an outstanding Vietnamese patriot; he was also famous for being a highly refined poet. His love for Vietnam, his bitterness towards the French, and his vision of a better future for Vietnam shine through his poems. As an homage to him, I will be translating a number of poems from his collection of poems, “Collection of the Southern Branch” (南枝集, Nam Chi tập).



Quy lý

Phá quốc sự dĩ định
Ly hương tâm hà y
Cố thử nhất thất tại
Phiêu nhiên cô bồng quy
Dã minh hạc thượng lập
Giang hàn ngư sơ hy
Vấn tấn ỷ hạng tẩu
Hoàng hoa khai kinh phi

Returning to my village

The country’s destruction is already determined
Separated from home, on whom can my heart rely?
Looking back, a single house remains
Lightly, a lonely boat returns
A crane still stands in the darkening fields
The river grows cold, fish become scarce
I ask about my elderly neighbor’s health
Yellow chrysanthemums bloom on the briar door


-This poem has been translated into Vietnamese by scholar and professor Lê Thước (黎鑠, 1891-1975), pen-name (號. hiệu) Tĩnh Lạc (靜樂):

Về làng

Mất nước sự đã định
Xa làng lòng bơ vơ
Đoái trông ngôi nhà sót
Nhẹ nhàng chiếc thuyền đưa
Nội tối hạc vẫn đứng
Sông lạnh cá dần thưa
Hỏi thăm ông lão xóm
Cúc vàng nở vườn xưa


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