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漢學/Hán học/Classical Chinese studies

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Here is the link to an audio recording in which I briefly discuss some issues concerning trends among modern Vietnamese pseudo-intellectuals: Vietnamese Intellectuals – Audio

Towards the end of the video, I read a translation of a passage from 南山叢話 (Nam Sơn tùng thoại) a 19th century Confucian text compiled by the disciples of Nguyễn Đức Đạt (阮德達 , 1824-1887), courtesy name Khoát Như (豁如). Here is the original text of the passage which I quote:

或問經所以鑄人乎翁曰人能鑄經非經鑄人請問 鑄經曰聖用範於易聖制範於書聖風範於詩聖典範於禮聖權範於春秋是故聖人者經之範也能鎔經者能自鎔能自鎔者能鎔人

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Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu (阮克孝 , 1889-1939) was an influential poet and writer in early 20th century Vietnam. He is best known by his pen-name (號 , hiệu) Tản Đà (傘沱). He was born in the village of Khê Thượng (溪上) in Sơn Tây province (山西省 , Sơn Tây tỉnh). His ancestors were officials under the later Lê dynasty (後黎朝 , Hậu Lê triều 1427-1789) and together agreed to live in retirement rather than serve the new imperial court after Nguyễn Thế Tổ (阮世祖 , 1762-1820) ascended the throne in 1802. However, his father, Nguyễn Danh Kế (阮名繼 , ?-?) ended up taking the civil service examinations and became a mandarin. Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu had a traditional education as a child. He was taught largely by his elder brother, and was versed in the Confucian classics and able to write poetry at a young age. Though he took the civil service examinations several times, he never passed. After failing repeatedly in the examinations and also suffering from several failed romances, he devoted his life to writing poetry and prose, sometimes writing for various newspapers, sometimes translating Chinese poetry, sometimes writing fiction. Today he is mainly remembered for his Vietnamese poems, many of which are still taught in schools in Vietnam and abroad. However, due to being overshadowed by his poetic works, his prose is often overlooked.

Below I have translated an article that he wrote for the Indochina Times (東法時報 , Đông Pháp Thời Báo) in 1927. Because he employs a lot of sino-Vietnamese vocabulary, I have given the definitions of some terms in Vietnamese along with the original Vietnamese article in its entirety in the notes.

問題漢學於南中

Vấn đề Hán học ở Nam Trung

The issue of Classical Chinese studies in the South

Now to bring up the issue of Classical Chinese studies in the South, I want to discuss with all the educated scholars living in the south to see if together we can realize a revival. If possible, this would be a fortunate undertaking.

From the time I was still in the North and had not yet set foot in the South, I often heard stories from travelers returning from the South discussing the temperament of Southerners saying, “The Southerners are hot-tempered and lack perseverance. When undertaking a task they are initially devoted and passionate but quickly become lukewarm.” From the time I entered the south until the present, a long time has not yet passed, my acquaintances are also few, so I cannot make any clear judgments. However, from what I can see, the Southerner’s dispositions and temperament are very good. In trustworthiness, loyalty, bravery, and courage they seem to surpass both the Northerners and those living in the Central regions. Because of this, the issue of Classical Chinese is very essential to the South. The Southerners are already posses the virtues of trustworthiness, loyalty, bravery, and courage. If they could adopt the spirit of silent recollection and perseverance from Classical Chinese studies in order to enhance and fortify themselves, then what unforeseen talents could be produced in the future? Classical Chinese studies in the South from past until present have lagged sorely behind the Northern and Central regions. Perhaps this is the reason why some judge the Southerners to be quick tempered and lacking perseverance.

Now, Classical Chinese studies have collapsed and degraded equally in all three regions. It would be excellent if Classical Chinese studies could be revived and reinvigorated in all three regions, but, reasonably,  the South requires the most work first. Also, today when speaking of Classical Chinese studies, many cannot see any profit from it before their eyes so the poor, who already have enough trouble making a living, most likely do not have time to study and have no motivation to allow their children to do so either. This is why a revival can take place in the South, because the South is much wealthier compared to the Northern and Central regions.

This essential undertaking should be taken up, and the times are favorable to doing so. If this issue is not considered, would it not be regrettable?

Today in the South, those who care for society work to plan and fund scholarships for poor students to study in France. This is an excellent undertaking. However, if French studies occupy ten portions of our thoughts, then Classical Chinese studies should occupy at least one or two portions. Because we are people of Asia, our innate characteristics as Asian people should be preserved and treasured, how could we allow them to be completely changed and altered? Moreover, when looking at the issues before us, though Classical Chinese studies have collapsed and degraded, they are not without merit to society. So, with the majority of society in mind, European studies are essential to advance the intellect and Classical Chinese studies need to be revived in order to preserve our innate character and morals. If those who care for society only emphasize European studies and set Classical Chinese off to the side, it can be worried that the result after several decades would be that all the educated intellectuals, with their wide learning and impressive degrees, will bring back the thinking of Westerners and see their homeland as barbaric and primitive. There could even be those who, forgetful of favors and devoid of gratitude, leave their homeland, leave their ancestor’s graves, leave their relatives, and cling to their wife, children, and property, to live in comfort in foreign lands. At that time, what is left in Vietnam, especially in the South, will be a people that is neither European nor Asian. How frightening!

Classical Chinese studies is an issue that faces the entire country, but it is particularly important to the South. If the South can undertake this task, not only will it bring substantial benefits to the Southerners, but it will truly have great merit for their entire nation. I have thus laid out my reasoning, if any one among the educated scholars in the South is in accord, please make your opinions known so we can plan together how exactly to go about this preservation and revival.

Indochina Times, issue 648 – 1927.

問題漢學於南中

Vấn đề Hán học ở Nam Trung

Nay xướng lên cái vấn đề Hán học ở Nam trung, tôi muốn được cùng các sĩ quân tử ở Nam kỳ cùng bàn tính xem nếu có thể thực hành chấn tác được thì tưởng cũng là một việc rất hay vậy.

Nguyên từ khi tôi còn ở Bắc, chưa bước tới trong Nam, thường nghe những người vào Nam về, nói chuyện tính tình người Nam đại khái cho rằng: “Người Nam kỳ có tính nóng nảy mà không bền, cho nên phàm sự sốt sắng mà rồi nguội lạnh ngay”. Từ khi tôi vào Nam đến nay, kể ra ngày tháng chưa được mấy, sự giao du cũng không lấy gì được rộng cho nên chưa xét đoán được rõ. Song cứ tôi xem ra thời tâm đức của người Nam rất tốt như thành thực, trung hậu, hào hiệp, dũng cảm, đều có vẻ hơn cả Trung, Bắc. Vì lẽ đó mà cái vấn đề Hán học đối với Nam trung lại là cần thiết. Người Nam đã có sẵn cái đức thành thực, trung hậu, hào hiệp, dũng cảm mà thêm lấy cái tinh thần trầm nghị ở Hán học tẩm bổ vào thời tương lai sản xuất ra nhân tài thực không thể lượng trước. Cứ Hán học ở Nam từ nay giở về trước, so với hai kỳ Trung Bắc kém xa cho nên có người luận tính tình người Nam mà bảo là “nông nổi không bền” hoặc cũng có vì thế.

Hiện nay thời hết thảy Trung, Nam, Bắc, Hán học nhất thiết suy đồi, nếu có thể chấn hưng được cả thời là sự rất hay, nhưng lấy sự thể mà xem thời Nam kỳ lại cần hơn trước hết. Vả chăng như nay mà nói đến Hán học, cái lợi ích mục tiền của cá nhân chắc là không có thời như những nhà nghèo khó, sự sinh nhai đương cần cấp, ai còn có thì giờ ngồi tính đến cái đó, ai có con mà còn cho theo cái đó làm chi. Vậy mà ở trong Nam thời có thể chấn tác được vì Nam kỳ so với Trung, Bắc phong phú hơn nhiều.

Lẽ cần nên làm mà thời thế làm được, vậy mà nếu bỏ không tính đến, nghĩ chẳng là đáng tiếc lắm ru?

Hiện nay trong Nam các người hữu tâm với xã hội, ra sức tính lập học bổng để giúp cho những học trò nghèo khó sang du học bên Pháp. Việc đó há chẳng là một việc rất hay. Song Pháp học tính mười phần, Hán học cũng nên tính đến một, hai phần. Bởi chúng ta là người Á châu, cái bản sắc của dân tộc Á châu chúng ta nên trân trọng giữ gìn, sao khá để toàn nhiên cải biến. Huống chi lại thử xem như các việc cần thời trước mắt chúng ta đó, Hán học tuy đồi bại mà đối với xã hội vị tất là vô công. Vậy nay theo đại thể của xã hội mà nghĩ, việc Âu học phải cần cấp là để tiến thủ về trí khôn, việc Hán học cũng phải chấn hưng là để duy trì về đức tính. Nếu các nhà hữu tâm trong xã hội chỉ chuyên tính về phương diện Âu học mà bỏ bên Hán học không nói đến, sợ cái kết quả sau vài ba mươi năm nữa bao nhiêu những kẻ thông minh tài trí học sáng đỗ cao rồi đều mang cái tư tưởng “vào làng Tây”, coi chốn quê hương là man dã, thậm tất đến có những kẻ vong ân bội nghĩa, bỏ quê hương, bỏ phần mộ, bỏ thân thích, chỉ quyến luyến lấy vợ con, tài sản, đem cái thân đi sung sướng nước ngoài. Khi đó thời trong cõi Việt Nam mà nhất là như ở chốn Nam trung chỉ còn dư lại một cái dân tộc Âu chẳng thành Âu, Á không phải Á, đáng lo thay!

Hán học là việc chung của cả nước mà đối với Nam trung quan thiết hơn. Nếu Nam trung mà làm được việc này thời không những có thực ích cho người Nam mà thực có đại công với toàn quốc. Tôi nay chuyên luận về lý thế như thế, nếu trong các sĩ quân tử ở Nam trung, ai có đồng tình thời xin phát biểu ý kiến rồi sau sẽ cùng tính đến sự thực duy trì chấn tác ra làm sao.

Đông Pháp Thời Báo số 648 – 1927

 

Notes:

– sĩ quân tử (士君子), ngày xưa chỉ người cao thượng có học vấn có phẩm đức. Lại phiếm chỉ kẻ đọc sách (tức văn nhân),

– tâm đức (心德), ý thức và tính tình

– trầm nghị (沉毅), không nông nổi, bền chí

– nhất thiết ( 一切), tất cả, toàn bộ

– chấn tác (振作), phấn khởi, ra sức hưng khởi

– hữu tâm (有心), có chí hướng, chỉ người có lòng hiệp nghĩa

– toàn nhiên (全然), hoàn toàn

– quan thiết (關切) quan hệ mật thiết

– lý thế (理勢), tình thế

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photo courtesy of Trần Quang Đức 

A large inspiration for the creation of this blog was the blog Kuiwon (歸源 , Quy Nguyên) which showcases works written in Classical Chinese by Korean authors from various periods of Korean history. After following this blog for a period of time, I consulted with its author who then encouraged me to do something similar with Classical Chinese works written by Vietnamese authors. As I mentioned in an interview with Người Việt Daily News (日報𠊛越 , Nhật Báo Người Việt) several months ago, it is impossible to have a profound understanding of Vietnamese culture and people without at least  rudimentary knowledge of Classical Chinese studies (漢學 , Hán học). This is evident from the fact that a huge number of Vietnamese people, both in Vietnam and abroad, are in a state of total disconnect with their people’s past cultural and historical heritage. I have met a number of Vietnamese people to whom I have had difficulty explaining that modern written Vietnamese is simply a romanization of chữ Nôm (字喃), an older writing system based on Chinese characters. Similarly, many of my Vietnamese acquaintances express confusion when I explain that Vietnamese family names are also shared by Chinese and Korean people, or that most given names are sino-Vietnamese (漢越 , Hán-Việt) and therefore can be written with Chinese characters. It would be reassuring if my experience was not representative of a majority, however, my interactions with people living both in Vietnam and abroad have confirmed this widespread ignorance. This ignorance of Vietnamese history and culture seeps into almost every conceivable area. For example, many people assume that the áo dài (襖𨱽) is representative of traditional “pure Vietnamese” (純越 , thuần Việt) clothing. In reality, precursors to the modern áo dài were only widely adopted (by force) during the 19th century under the rule of Nguyễn Thánh Tổ (阮聖祖 , 1791-1841). The áo dài in its modern form, like the one I am wearing in the picture below, was most likely not finalized until the early 1900s, and even then was only one of many different robes worn by Vietnamese people. Like most things, especially clothing, it did not develop in isolation, but had similar counterparts in Ch’ing dynasty China.

me

In fact, the disastrous results of abandoning Classical Chinese studies were already foreseen by Vietnamese intellectuals in the first half of the 20th century. Scholars such as Phạm Quỳnh (範瓊 , 1892-1945) who were well-versed in both Western and Classical Chinese studies saw clearly that ,although Western studies had to be adopted in order to advance the country, Classical Chinese studies were still essential to Vietnamese culture and the future of Vietnam. Before and during the period Vietnam  was divided between North and South (1954-1975), Chinese characters were still used on money, on advertisements in the marketplace, birth records, and could be seen around in various locations, as shown by the photo at the top of this post which shows Chinese characters in private homes, school classrooms, and libraries. Classical Chinese was also taught as a foreign language in the universities of South Vietnam. The position of the Communist North, which eventually conquered all of Vietnam, towards Classical Chinese has been mixed. The Communists, relying on the support of uneducated peasants and commoners as they did, in the past have been violently opposed to Classical Chinese, which they saw as foreign influence or something belonging to the upper class. Attempts to purge the Vietnamese language of Classical Chinese vocabulary in order to create a “pure Vietnamese” (純越 , thuần Việt) language had comical results that have since been abandoned in part. Today, this anti-Chinese vocabulary stance has been reversed and people in Vietnam use a great deal of sino-Vietnamese vocabulary, often incorrectly, as discussed in this brief television interview.

money

photo courtesy of Trần Quang Đức 

I mentioned in my newspaper interview that culture is not something to be merely  “preserved” (保存 , bảo tồn) , but that it must be “developed” (發展 , phát triển) as well. Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to meet and speak with Emmy award winning musician Võ Vân Ánh (武雲映). In our conversation, she mentioned that,  in studying traditional Vietnamese instruments and music, her goal is never to simply preserve traditional music, but rather to use traditional music as a foundation on which she can make creative contributions to Vietnamese musical culture. One criticism that I have often faced is that many people claim Classical Chinese studies to be a useless remnant of the past, irrelevant to the modern world. Today more than ever, Vietnamese people in Vietnam and abroad face many threats to their country and culture. If Vietnamese culture is to survive, the Vietnamese people must first have a firm understanding of what exactly it means to be Vietnamese in a rapidly changing modern world. This is impossible without a foundation in Classical Chinese studies and Vietnamese history. In promoting Classical Chinese studies, my goal is never simply a vain dream to return to an imagined “golden-age” from the distant past. If Vietnam is ever going stand level with countries like Japan and South Korea, the Vietnamese people must first learn to embrace and develop aspects of culture including those that received heavy Chinese influence. To be in constant denial and shame of Chinese elements in Vietnamese culture is childish and produces nothing but crackpot scholarship and a collective inferiority complex that leads to the Vietnamese youth, especially those born overseas, looking to other countries for authentic “Asian” culture.

As such, I will be taking a hiatus from translating poetry in order to translate prose written during the 20th century regarding the role of Classical Chinese studies in Vietnamese culture and literature. These works will be translated mainly from Vietnamese sources coming from major authors such as  Phạm Quỳnh (範瓊 , 1892-1945)  and Nguyễn Khắc Hiếu (阮克孝 , 1889-1939). These translations will serve a two-fold purpose. First, the selected works will show just how saturated Vietnamese culture really was with Classical Chinese learning. This is shown through the beautifully written prose, which often employs are large percentage of sino-Vietnamese vocabulary and references to Classical Chinese literature, and the arguments which the authors put forth. Secondly, I hope that by translating these works into English and also posting the original Vietnamese text (some of which is not necessarily easily accessible in most library systems), modern readers will be able to see that supporters of “old learning” (舊學 , cựu học) were actually very forward thinking intellectuals with concern for the country at heart, not a bunch of crusty Confucians prudes as they are often depicted as being. To Vietnamese readers of this blog: I hope that those who are not yet fluent in the Vietnamese language will be inspired to study our language and culture, to those who are already fluent in Vietnamese, I hope that you will undertake study of Classical Chinese or at least a deeper critical study of Vietnam’s history and culture. What our forefathers envisioned in the early 20th century was a future Vietnam that could keep pace with the West and at the same time preserve our distinctly Oriental culture. Today, the ease with which one can access learning resources has finally brought the ideal of a Vietnamese intellectual well-versed both in the ways of the West and the East within the reach of an overwhelming number of Vietnamese people. At this crucial juncture of Vietnamese history, I can only hope to lend a hand in what I dream will eventually be a resurgence of Classical Chinese learning and Vietnamese culture.

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