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古體詩/Cổ thể thi/Ancient style poetry

Cao Tieu

Recently,during one of my weekly visits to my teacher’s house, I noticed a collection of poetry entitled “Selected Poetry of Cao Tiêu” (高蕭詩選 , Cao Tiêu thi tuyển) on his bookshelf. I inquired about the book and my teacher, professor Đàm Quang Hưng (譚光興 , 1930- ) explained that the author of the collection, Hoàng Ngọc Tiêu (黃玉蕭 , 1929-2012) was a good friend of his and had given him this book before passing away only a few years ago. I asked permission to borrow the book and respectfully read the poetry of this man from my grandparent’s generation.

Hoàng Ngọc Tiêu (黃玉蕭 , 1929-2012) was born on 16 January 1929 in the village of Dưỡng Thông (養通), in the district of Kiến Xương (建昌縣 , Kiến Xương huyện) of Thái Bình province (太平省) in northern Vietnam. He went by the pen-name (號 , hiệu) Cao Tiêu (高蕭) and was a friend of the famous modern poet Vũ Hoàng Chương (武煌章 , 1916-1976). He served as a colonel in the South Vietnamese army before seeking refuge in the United States after the Communist victory in 1975. He passed away in southern California on 14 February 2012. His poetry collection, “Selected Poetry of Cao Tiêu” (高蕭詩選 , Cao Tiêu thi tuyển) consists of his classical Chinese poetry which he also rendered into Vietnamese poetic translations. The poems in this collection date from during the Vietnam War before 1975 and also after 1975.

念母

我生逢亂世
投筆著征衣
辭家執母手
母餞在柴扉
欲行難去步
母子淚同垂
戰陣南至北
安危無限期
別母音書斷
母歿信來遲
離國頭已白
半紀未回歸
天涯仰雲月
憶母不勝悲
寸草心難報
念母雙淚垂

Niệm mẫu

Ngã sinh phùng loạn thế
Đầu bút trước chinh y
Từ gia chấp mẫu thủ
Mẫu tiễn tại sài phi
Dục hành nan khứ bộ
Mẫu tử lệ đồng thùy
Chiến trận nam chí bắc
An nguy vô hạn kỳ
Biệt mẫu âm thư đoạn
Mẫu một tín lai trì
Ly quốc đầu dĩ bạch
Bán kỷ vị hồi quy
Thiên nha ngưỡng vân nguyệt
Ức mẫu bất thăng bi
Thốn thảo tâm nan báo
Niệm mẫu song lệ thùy

Thinking of my mother

I was born in a time of chaos
Casting aside my brush, I donned battle garments
Parting with my family, I held my mother’s hands
My mother bade farewell beside the log gate
I wished to depart but could not move
Mother and son together shed tears
Battles led me south to north
Safety and danger were undetermined
After parting from my mother, letters were cut-off
When she passed, the news arrived late
When I left the country my head was already white
For half a century I have not returned
At the edge of the sky I gaze at the clouds and moon
Missing my mother I cannot overcome sadness
My heart, like a blade of grass, cannot repay my debt
Thinking of my mother, tears fall

Notes:

-“Casting aside my brush” (投筆 , Đầu bút) is an expression used to describe a scholar abandoning his studies to enter the military (投筆從戎 , đầu bút tòng nhung)

-“log gate” (柴扉 , sài phi) is an expression used to describe the dwelling of a poor family

-“half a century” (半紀 , bán kỷ) is an abbreviation of 半世紀 (bán thế kỷ), which is less ambiguous, given that 半紀 traditionally means six years

-“blade of grass” is a reference to the extremely famous poem “Song of a traveler” (游子吟 , Du tử ngâm) by Meng Chiao (孟郊 , 751-814): “Who says that a heart like a blade of grass, can repay the debt of three months of spring’s sunlight” (誰言寸草心,報得三春暉。Thùy ngôn thốn thảo tâm, báo đắc tam xuân huy).

-The author translated this poem into Vietnamese:

Con sinh gặp phải thời loạn lạc
Bỏ sách đèn để khoác chiến y
Ngày lìa nhà, Mẹ tiễn đi
Con cầm tay Mẹ tái tê lòng sầu
Mẹ đưa con ra đầu cổng ngõ
Bước dùng dằng con khó rời chân
Mắt con mắt Mẹ lệ đầm
Giữa khi Nam Bắc ầm ầm sung ran
Lúc trận mạc nguy nan nào xiết
Trông thư càng biền biệt âm hao
Trong khi Mẹ mất từ lâu
Hung tin đến muộn con đâu có ngờ!
Rồi xa nước, tóc giờ đã trắng
Năm mươi năm con chẳng về nhà
Phương trời vọng bóng trăng xa
Niềm thương nhớ Mẹ thiết tha bồn chồn
Lòng tấc cỏ chưa tròn báo đáp
Vò ruột gan gió táp từng cơn
Cúi đầu khấn Mẹ lệ tuôn

30-4-2000

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Nguyễn Thượng Hiền (阮尚賢, 1868-1925), courtesy name (字, tự) Đỉnh Thần (鼎臣), was not only an important anti-French leader. He was also recognized as an accomplished poet and writer. Part of what makes his poetry and prose so unique is the variety of genres which he uses with mastery. His poetry and prose, in Chinese and Vietnamese, covers a huge range of emotions and affects, from erudite to simple, from taking pleasure in nature to calling for the blood of the French. The following poems, a series of three, are written in the pentasyllabic ancient style poem format (五言古詩, ngũ ngôn cổ thi). This format does not have restrictions of line number, strict rhyme, tonal regularity, strict couplets. Based on the content of the poems, I would date these poems to near the end of Nguyễn Thượng Hiền’s life. He left Vietnam after the 3-year mourning period following his father’s death in 1907. The second poem mentions being separated from Vietnam for “over ten years”, which would date these works to 1920 at the earliest. At this time, he was most likely hiding somewhere in China.

述懷其一

故國音信絕
他鄉儔侶稀
舉頭問青山
吾生將安歸
青山默無語
但見秋雲飛
斜陽復西墜
嘆息掩荆扉

Thuật hoài kỳ nhất

Cố quốc âm tín tuyệt
Tha hương trù lữ hy
Cử đầu vấn thanh sơn
Ngô sinh tương an quy
Thanh sơn mặc vô ngữ
Đãn kiến thu vân phi
Tà dương phục tây truỵ
Thán tức yểm kinh phi

Expressing my feelings

News from the old country is cut-off
In foreign land, friends and companions are few
Raising my head, I ask the green mountains:
To where will my life lead me?
The green mountains are silent without a word
I only see autumn clouds floating by
The slanting sunlight again falls west
With a sigh, I shut the briar door

其二

此身如孤篷
去國十餘載
四顧無相親
登高望天海
寒梅敵雪霜
恃有勁骨在
白髮死天涯
吾心終不悔

Kỳ nhị

Thử thân như cô bồng
Khứ quốc thập dư tải
Tứ cố vô tương thân
Đăng cao vọng thiên hải
Hàn mai địch tuyết sương
Thị hữu kính cốt tại
Bạch phát tử thiên nhai
Ngô tâm chung bất hối

This body is like a lonely raft
Separated from the country for over ten years
Looking all around, I have no companions
Ascending a height, I gaze at the sky and sea
Plum flowers fight against the snow and frost,
Relying on their strong bones
White-haired, dying at the edge of the sky,
I will never feel regret

其三

國讎不可復
天道良悠悠
徒將七尺身
載此百年憂
蒼赤困虐焰
山川亦含羞
寒燈撫劍坐
風雨鳴高秋

Kỳ tam

Quốc thù bất khả phục
Thiên đạo lương du du
Đồ tương thất xích thân
Tải thử bách niên ưu
Thương xích khốn ngược diệm
Sơn xuyên diệc hàm tu
Hàn đăng phủ kiếm toạ
Phong vũ minh cao thu

The country cannot be avenged
The way of Heaven is truly unfathomable
In vain, I have taken this body of seven-feet,
To carry the worries of one hundred years
Young and old suffer alike
Even the mountains and rivers swallow their shame
By the cold lamp, I sit brandishing my sword
Wind and rain roar in late autumn

Notes:

– “body of seven-feet”, (七尺身, thất xích thân) is a standard description of men of heroic stature, different from ordinary people. It should not be taken literally.

-The illustration is a picture of a high-ranking official of the Nguyễn court

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

I.

Nước nhà tin vắng bặt
Đất khách ít bạn bầu
Nhìn non xanh muốn hỏi
Đời ta sẽ ra sao?
Non xanh im chẳng đáp
Chỉ thấy mây bay cao
Bóng ác non đoài lặn
Than thở khép rèm lau

II.

Thân này tựa cánh buồm trôi
Tính ngày xa nước đã ngoài mười năm
Quanh mình ai kẻ tình thâm
Trông vời trời bể xa xăm dặm trường
Mai già chọi với tuyết sương
Là nhờ khí cốt kiên cường ở trong
Bạc đầu đất khách long đong
Tấm thân dù thác lòng không đổi dời

III.

Thù nước chưa thể trả
Đạo trời lồng lộng cao
Luống đem thân bảy thước
Mang mối lo ngàn thu
Nhân dân đều khốn cực
Sông núi cũng âu sầu
Dưới đèn ngồi vỗ kiếm
Trời thu gió mưa gào

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).

歸里

破國事已定
離鄉心何依
顧此一室在
飄然孤蓬歸
野暝鶴尚立
江寒魚初稀
問訊倚巷叟
黃花開荊扉

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

Notes:

-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

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.

有所思

思與君別來
幾見芙蓉花
盈盈隔秋水
若在天一涯

欲涉不得去
茫茫足煙霧
香江多芳草
何心採衡杜

青鳥高雲間
錦書何時還
君心雖匪石
有恐凋朱顏

朱顏不可仗
哪能不惆悵
何如雙翡翠
飛去蘭苕上

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

Notes:

– 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.

song lam3

Nguyễn Du (阮攸, 1766-1820) was a military adviser, mandarin, ambassador, and poet of the  transitional period between the end of the Lê dynasty (1427-1789) and the early Nguyễn dynasty (1802-1945). His birthplace was the village of Tiên Điền (仙田) in the district of Nghi Xuân (宜春), of the province Hà Tĩnh (河静). His father, Nguyễn Nghiễm (阮儼, 1708-1776) was a former prime minister of the Lê dynasty, but passed away when the poet was still a child. His mother passed away only a few years later. Hence, Du grew up in poverty under the care of an older brother. He is widely regarded as the greatest Vietnamese poet for his work Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh (斷腸新聲) which is a Vietnamese poetic adaption of a Ming dynasty novel. His courtesy name (字, tự) was Tố Như (素如), and his pen-names (號, hiệu) included Thanh Hiên (清軒) and Hồng Sơn lạp hộ (鴻山獵戶) . His Chinese poetry is divided between several collections: Thanh Hiên Thi Tập (清軒詩集), Nam Trung Tạp Ngâm (南中雜吟), and Bắc Hành Tạp Lục (北行雜錄). The following poem was written after dreaming of his deceased wife.

記夢

逝水日夜流
遊子行未歸
經年不相見
何以慰相思
夢中分明見
尋我江之湄
顏色是疇昔
衣飭多參差
始言苦病患
繼言久別離
帶泣不終語
彷彿如隔帷
平生不識路
夢魂還是非
疊山多虎廌
藍水多蛟螭
道路險且惡
弱質將何依
夢來孤燈清
夢去寒風吹
美人不相見
柔情亂如絲
空屋漏斜月
照我單裳衣

Ký Mộng

Thệ thuỷ nhật dạ lưu
Du tử hành vị quy
Kinh niên bất tương kiến
Hà dĩ ủy tương ti
Mộng trung phân minh kiến
Tầm ngã giang chi mi
Nhan sắc thị trù tích
Y sức đa sâm si
Thuỷ ngôn khổ bệnh hoạn
Kế ngôn cửu biệt ly
Đới khấp bất chung ngữ
Phảng phất như cách duy
Bình sinh bất thức lộ
Mộng hồn hoàn thị phi
Điệp sơn đa hổ trĩ
Lam thuỷ đa giao ly
Đạo lộ hiểm thả ác
Nhược chất tương hà y
Mộng lai cô đăng thanh
Mộng khứ hàn phong xuy
Mỹ nhân bất tương kiến
Nhu tình loạn như ty
Không ốc lậu tà nguyệt
Chiếu ngã đan thường y

Recording a dream

The river flows on day and night
But this traveler has not yet returned
Separated for so many years
What is left to console our longing?
In a dream I clearly saw you
Searching for me by the riverside
Your face was just like old
But your robes were wrinkled and loose
First you spoke of the pains of illness
Then of our long separation
Choked with tears, your words were stopped
You were indistinct as though behind a curtain
During life you did not know the way here
How could my dream really be true?
The Điệp mountains are filled with vicious beasts
Lam river is full of serpents
The road is so dangerous and treacherous
Being so frail, how could you find help along the way?
When my dream came the lonely candle was still bright
When my dream left, only a cold wind was blowing
I could no longer see your beautiful face
My heart was torn like ribbons
The waning moon entered into my empty room
Shining on my thin robes.

Notes:

– the Lam river (藍水, Lam thủy) flows through Nghi Xuân (宜春) district and is also known by other names such as Lam Giang (藍江) and Thanh Long Giang (青龍江). It is shown in the above picture.

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