Vũ Phạm Hàm (武范邯 , 1864-1906), courtesy name (字 , tự) Mộng Hải (夢海), pen-name (號 , hiệu) Thư Trì (書池) was a Nguyễn dynasty scholar from the province of Ha Dong (河東省 , Hà Đông tỉnh) in northern Vietnam. He was noted for being extremely intelligent from youth and graduated through the highest ranks of the civil examinations beginning at age 21. Later in life he began to oversee civil service examinations and was known for coming up with extremely challenging questions involving clever wordplay that would result in the total failure of those taking the test. During some point of his life, his fame reached the ears of a French official stationed in the coastal city of Hai Yeung (海陽 , Hải Dương) who had an appreciation for Classical Chinese and liked to display calligraphy in his residence. Vũ Phạm Hàm complied with the French official’s request and presented him with a plaque with the phrase “Looking bland and soft as a piece of jade” (溫其如玉 , ôn kỳ như ngọc) taken from the Odes of Chin (秦風 , Tần phong), a chapter in the Classic of Poetry (詩經 , Thi kinh). Soon after, the French official proudly showed his new present to his educated Vietnamese acquaintances. Knowing that Vũ Phạm Hàm was famous for his ingenious wordplay, the Vietnamese guests were all extremely embarrassed and explained to the French official that this phrase was in fact meant to be insulting. The Odes of Chin were written in praise of various nomadic barbarian tribes; quoting from this chapter of the Classic of Poetry, Vũ Phạm Hàm intended to compare the French to the pesky barbarian nomads that were a continual nuisance during past dynasties. Not only that, the word “jade” (玉 , ngọc) could also be understood to be short for “jade stem” (玉莖 , ngọc hành) – a euphemism for the male reproductive organ. The Frenchman, furious at being cleverly called both a barbarian and a dick, subsequently had the plaque removed.
The following poem was written at the Liên Hoa cave (蓮花洞 , Liên Hoa động) in the province of Ninh Bình (寧平省 , Ninh Bình tỉnh) in northern Vietnam. It was here in this cave that a famous scholar, Phạm Văn Nghị (范文誼 , 1805-1884), pen-name (號 , hiệu) Nghĩa Trai (義齋) had retired in seclusion after failing in various attempts to oppose French interference in the imperial court.
Đề Liên Hoa động
Hoa Lư thành ngoại Liên Hoa động
Hoa dĩ nhân hương động cánh u
Đại cục vị hoàn năng nhất chiến
Danh sơn hữu chủ túc thiên thu
Thì gian tử đệ tập nhung mã
Sự khứ giang hồ lão điếu chu
Kim thế dĩ vô ẩn quân tử
Thạch bàn thư giá thủy không lưu
Written on Lien Hoa cave
Outside of Hoa-lu citadel there is Lien-hoa cave
The flowers receive their fragrance from man, but the cave remains secluded and dark
Tremendous turns of events not yet complete, he was able to fight his battle
Having their master, these famed mountains will be known for a thousand autumns
In treacherous times, disciples and students must practice with weapons and steeds
Events having past, retire on a fishing boat among rivers and lakes
This generations no longer has its scholar recluse
Beside a stone table and bookcase water still flows to no end
-Phạm Văn Nghị (范文誼 , 1805-1884), after retiring to the mountains took on the name of “The Master of Lien Hoa cave” (蓮花洞主 , Liên Hoa động chủ). The second and fourth lines suggest that the flowers and mountain scenery receive their fragrance and fame from their master, Phạm Văn Nghị.