Phạm Quỳnh (范瓊 , 1892-1945) was a famous writer, scholar, and official of the Nguyễn dynasty. He went by the pen-names (號 , hiệu) Thượng Chi (尚之) and Hoa Đường (華堂). In addition to being well-versed in classical Chinese, he was also among one of the first Vietnamese to have an excellent command of French and delve deeply into European philosophy and culture (his French prose was praised by native French scholars). He is today remembered for his work with the intellectual newspaper Nam Phong tạp chí (南風雜誌), a trilingual publication (classical Chinese, Vietnamese, and French) aimed at Vietnamese intellectuals. He tirelessly promoted using the Vietnamese language to write newspaper, poetry, literature, etc. as opposed to solely using classical Chinese. In 1945 he was assassinated by members of the Việt Minh (precursors to the modern day Vietnamese Communist party) for allegedly being a traitor to the Vietnamese people. Today his works, despite being masterpieces of Vietnamese writing, are not well known in Vietnam. The following essay was translated from an unfinished collection of miscellaneous essays entitled Hoa Đường tùy bút (華堂隨筆), on which he was working when assassinated
The Elder Hoa Đường and the Younger Hoa Đường
Everybody knows the classical Chinese poem written about The Tale of Kiều:
Giai nhân bất thị đáo Tiền Đường
Bán thế yên hoa trái vị thường
Had the beauty not reached the Ch’ien T’ang river,
Half a lifetime’s debt of mists and flowers would not have been repaid
The scholar Chu Mạnh Trinh (朱孟楨 , 1862-1905) translated these lines into Vietnamese thusly:
Had the waters of the Ch’ien T’ang not washed way unjustness
Rosy cheeks would yet to have been clean the debt of wind and flowers
That Chinese poem was written by Phạm Quý Thích (范貴適 , 1760-1825), pen names (號 , hiệu) Lập Trai (立齋) and Hoa Đường (華堂), for he was a native of my very own home village of Lương Ngọc (良玉), formerly Lương Đường (良堂) , but known during the Lê dynasty as Hoa Đường (華堂). I admire the talented erudition, fame, and virtue of this scholar from a former generation, who was a true Confucian, meek of temperament and pure. Hence, I have gone to excess in also taking the pen-name of Hoa Đường, regarding him as the elder Hoa Đường and myself as the younger Hoa Đường.
He never wrote any Vietnamese poetry, however it is probable that he was acquainted with Nguyễn Du (阮攸, 1766-1820) from the village of Tiên Điền (仙田), who, in accordance with the propriety of famed scholars from the past, most likely presented him with the work “New Cry from a Broken Heart” (斷腸新聲 , Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh), asking him to write a preface and poems on its content, hence the existence of the above poem. And who knows? Perhaps he carefully read the work and made improvements and revisions here and there. Authors of former ages lacked the professional self-regard of writers belonging to this present day. They were always meek and humble, ever willing to adopt the aesthetic improvements and revisions suggested by writers of talent or elders renowned for their virtue.
Though Phạm Quý Thích did not write any Vietnamese poetry, his Chinese poetry is unparalleled in excellence. His Thảo Đường poetry collection (草堂詩集 , Thảo Đường thi tập) has over one-thousand extant poems, all of which are inscrutably profound and highly refined in tone. Filled with a spirit of overflowing concern and compassion, these poems show clearly the character of a loft scholar, who though having the bearing and air of a religious or immortal, ever dedicated his will to the affairs of the realm.
I still remember one of his poems entitled “Writing my feelings”, which I have had written out to hang in my study; after reading it again and again, I have found it so fitting with my own heart.
Hence, I have here excerpted and translated it:
Cố quốc san hà dĩ đại thù
Cố viên tùng cúc bán hoang vu
Mang mang thiên địa hoàn bô khách
Nhiễu nhiễu phong trần tự hủ nho
Bệnh cốt bình phân thu lĩnh sấu
Thần tâm nhưng bạn nguyệt luân cô
Hữu nhân khuyến ngã bôi trung thú
Vị vấn Tam Lư khẳng túy vô
Writing My Feelings
Mountains and rivers of the old realm have completely changed
In my old garden, the pines and chrysanthemums are half overrun with weeds
In the vastness of heaven and earth, I am once again a lone traveler
Amidst swirling wind and dust a single useless scholar
My sick bones are as haggard as the autumn mountaintop
A subject’s heart companion only to the lonely moon
Some recommend me to take pleasure in drink
I ask: Would San Lu ever consent to being drunk?
The elder Hoa Đường was born at the end of the Lê dynasty and the beginning of the Nguyễn dynasty; living in an age of chaos, he was self-aware that a useless Confucian could do nothing in the face of tumultuous times. Hence, in determining to live as a recluse, maintaining his own lofty and pure virtue, how much more exalted was he then this younger Hoa Đường here, who also being born into an age of disorder in which Asia and Europe are in conflict, has foolishly cast himself into the midst of a confused tempest, not knowing that in this dark age, a useless Confucian such as himself cannot shoulder the burdens of the times, unaware that in a society that chases after the latest trends and flatters the masses, there are none who still care or concern for literati and Confucian scholars. I only know to bring a refined Confucian air of meekness to face this roaring tempest, this utter confusion, this utter chaos…
Reading Lập Trai’s poetry, I am ashamed that I am not as resolute in my will as him. Clumsy and useless in both activity and retirement, I truly lag far behind the men of former generations.
However, being an old subject of the Lê dynasty, when the founding emperor of our own dynasty summoned him forth to serve as a minister, he was able to decline by claiming to be of ill-health. As for Nguyễn Du, who lived in the same period, not having any compelling reason to be spared of service, he was forced to follow the times, ultimately dying disappointed at having not fulfilled his will. Though his life was more tempestuous, the result was that he wrote a marvelous work of literature to leave for future generations. Was it not because of his pain of heart at the events which he witnessed that this achievement was completed? If so, there are multiple ways of activity and retirement, differing only in a single word – that being, “talent”.
However, the word for “talent” (才 , tài) rhymes with “disaster” (災 , tai), as Nguyễn Du himself has taught.
– “Mists and flowers” (煙花 , yên hoa) and “wind and flowers” (風花 , phong hoa) here refer to degradation from being forced into prostitution (central to the plot of The Tale of Kiều)
– San Lu (三閭, Tam Lư) is a reference to Qu-yuan (屈原, Khuất Nguyên, 343-278 B.C.) who famously said “The whole world is polluted, I alone am clean. All men are intoxicated, I alone am alert” (舉世皆濁我獨清眾人皆醉我獨醒, Cử thế giai trọc ngã đọc thanh, chúng nhân giai túy ngã độc tỉnh). He ended his life by drowning himself in a river rather than live unappreciated and useless in an age of chaos.