Trúc Lâm đại sĩ – Inspired in a Mountain Hut


“Great Scholar of the Bamboo Grove” (竹林大士 , Trúc Lâm đại sĩ) was a pen-name (號 , hiệu) of Emperor Trần Nhân-tông (陳仁宗 , 1258-1308), the third ruler of the Trần dynasty (陳朝 , 1225-1440). In addition to being a skilled ruler who successfully dealt with invasions from the Mongol Yuan dynasty (大元 , 1271-1368) and boasted impressive military feats, Emperor Trần Nhân-tông was also famous for his refined poetry and profound knowledge of Buddhist studies (佛學 , Phật học). In the year 1293, he abdicated the throne and having installed his son as his heir, he became a Buddhist monk and wandered the countryside, seeking instruction from learned monks and eventually founding his own school of Zen (禪 , Thiền) Buddhism, called the Bamboo Grove school of Yên-tử mountain (竹林安子 , Trúc-Lâm Yên-tử). He lived the rest of his days on Mount Yên-tử (安子山 , Yên tử sơn) in Quảng-ninh province (廣寧省 , Quảng Ninh tỉnh) in northern Vietnam.



Sơn phòng mạn hứng

Thị phi ngôn trục triêu hoa lạc
Danh lợi tâm tùy dạ vũ hàn
Hoa tận vũ tình sơn tịch tịch
Nhất thanh đề điểu hựu xuân tàn

Inspired in a Mountain Hut

Words of right and wrong wilt and fall with morning flowers
Desires of fame and fortune grow cold along with the night rain
Flowers gone, rain cleared, the mountain is still and quiet
In the sound of a crying bird, once again spring has faded away


-I translated this poem from the version printed in “The Dream-records of Nam-Ông” (南翁夢錄 , Nam Ông mộng lục) a Ming dynasty book written by Lê Trừng (黎澄 , ~1374-1446). He was the son of Lê Quý Ly (黎季犛 , 1336-1407), founder of the short-lived Hồ dynasty (胡朝 , 1400-1406). After the Ming dynasty intervened in the conflicts surrounding the chaos in Vietnam that followed the Hồ rulers rebellion against the Trần dynasty, Lê Quý Ly and his sons were taken captive to China. Lê Trừng was an engineer and had profound knowledge of firearms. He eventually rose through the ranks of the Ming court and became a prominent official. In his later years, he compiled the “Dream Records of Nam-ông”, which is a rather short work containing various sketches of history, important figures, and poetry from Vietnam. I am currently in the process of translating this work into English and hope to have it published relatively soon. Lê Trừng had this to say about this particular poem:


(Kỳ tiêu sái xuất trần, trường không nhất sắc, tao tình thanh sở, dật túc siêu quần, hữu “Đại Hương Hải Ấn tập”, phả đa tuyệt xướng, tích kỳ địa tao binh hỏa, bất đắc lưu truyền. Dư chỉ ký tụng nhất nhị nhi dĩ. Hu! Khả tích tai!)

How lofty and pure, escaping from the dust of this world. Like the uniform color of the vast heavens, the refined poetic sentiments therein are clear and bright, cool and severe. His skill rises far above the common multitudes. His works included the “Đại Hương Hải Ấn collection”, which contained quite a few poems of unmatched excellence. Regrettably, his lands met with the ravages of war, and his works were not passed down. I can only remember but a few poems. Alas! How regrettable!

  1. Jim Potratz said:

    Please let me know when you have finished translating “Nam Ông mộng lục” I presume this was written in Classical Chinese and therefore more poetic than informative. Am I right?
    I am also curious if you ran across any female Chinese poets/writers writing soft porn similar to Ho Xuan Huong, As Japanese females were the first authors in Japan and wrote soft porn for their own amusement, I have often wondered what is wrong with women in China. I do suspect that Chin P’ing Mei (translated by Roy) may have been written by a woman.
    Anyways I am impressed with your skills in Chinese and translations into English. I am retired now (76) but did study several Asian languages. My current interest is centered on the beginnings in Vietnam and the 15th century Ming intrusion into Dai Viet (hence Hồ Nguyên Trừng ).


    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Sir,

      Yes, you are absolutely right about the “Nam Ong mong luc” (南翁夢錄). Judged by Western standards, it hardly counts as a history. It’s really just a collection of disjointed memoirs, some of them about his distant family members, the majority of which are related to poetry.

      Erotic writing has been fairly common throughout many of the Chinese dynasties. Hồ Xuân Hương (胡春香 , 1772–1822) has a spirit akin to native Vietnamese folk song/poetry “ca yao” (歌謠 , ca dao) but transposed into regulated verse (唐律 , Đường luật) instead of the native 6-8 meter (六八 , lục bát). As such, I find her poetry more mischievously naughty and full of innuendo rather than a celebrating eroticism (there’s plenty of similar naughtiness in the 歌謠 genre). As for Chinese writers, I’m more familiar with male writers writing from a female perspective or writing about women. I’m sure you’re familiar with the Hua-chien school (花間派 , Hoa gian phái) from the Five Dynasties period. Liu Yong (柳永) from the northern Sung dynasty has many erotic poems (probably semi-autobiographical haha). Li Ching-chao (李清照) comes to mind, but I haven’t read enough of her regulated verse to know anything about her style. You might be interested in the book “The Inner Quarters and Beyond: Women Writers from Ming Through Qing” edited by Grace Fong. It costs an arm and a leg, but it’s a fascinating read if you can obtain it through a library. I can’t remember if the author of the 如意君專 was male or female, but you can find a translation with original text in the book “The Fountainhead of Chinese Erotica : The Lord of Perfect Satisfaction”. If I remember correctly, the Chinese text printed in that edition is taken from a Japanese printing that was prefaced with the obligatory Confucian forward interpreting the book with a moralistic message.

      I hope you have some good advice and teaching to pass on to this 晚生 !


  2. Jim Potratz said:

    Thanks for your comments on Chinese erotica.

    I’ve spent the last several months looking at English and Vietnamese writings on Hồ Nguyên Trừng as well as the latter Tran Dynasty. Trừng is not truly appreciated in the modern world. He invented the “wooden sabot (gỗ lèn)” which must be used with ALL smooth-bore muzzle-loading cannon even today (muzzle-loading rifles usually use cloth wadding for the same purpose — position the projectile(s) in a gun barrel or launching tube and prevent the escape of gas ahead of the projectile). This changed the cannon/hand cannon (rifles did not exist) from toys (used to launch pojectiles previously thrown by hand, by bow and arrow, or by cataput) into guns aka killing machines. The use of wooden sabots greatly increased the range and the velocity of the projectiles. Trừng apparently did a lot of R&D on the projectiles — solid cannon balls are great against walls, etc.. but grape shot (a package of 4 to 20 shot the size of grapes) are most effective against large groups massing for a charge (think super-size 12 gauge with large shot). Trừng also supervised the casting of cannons (and the switch from brass to iron cannons) and acquiring the best gunpowder. Today the wooden sabot is taped to the shot package to slide down the barrel to the right position. I believe what was missed is that Trừng would have “standarize” the size of the bore or have “standarize” the size of the internal chamber so the wooden sabot could be placed in the best position. A westerner circa 18th century did devise a cannon with a smaller chamber for the gun powder so the wooden sabot would seal it from the bore. Otherwise, how do you ensure the right size sabot for the right bore in the heat of battle?

    Reading between the lines it looks quite obvious to me that Dai Viet history was re-written to justify a palace coup during the Tran Dynasty which ultimately set the stage for the Chinese invasion of 1407 and the successful rebellion that followed.

    All of this makes for a great soap — I have drafted out a rough scenerio for a work of ficition and would like your private views. Please email me so I can pass it on to you.

    Fyi: Although “Chinese-style Firearms in Dai Viet” does mention Trừng’s priming pan, he entirely missed the wooden sabot and it’s significance. He does mention 15th century Dai Viet cannon found in Thailand and Burma, which I thought was very interesting!


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