Having read a number of books published by what should be considered academic sources (i.e., universities, state-funded centers) in Vietnam, I can’t help but notice very unprofessional flaws in quite a few, if not the majority, of these publications. I’ve recently been researching Cao Bá Quát 高伯适 (1809-1885) , a scholar-official, poet, and unsuccessful rebel who lived during the Nguyen dynasty. Considered one of the greatest Vietnamese poets in the genre of Classical Chinese poetry, Cao Ba Quat has a unique and universally acclaimed place among the classical poets of the Nguyen dynasty. His poetry has been consistently taught in schools both in North and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and continues to make appearances in school curriculum to this day in Vietnam. One would think that such an important figure would be the subject of quite a few serious academic studies. Research on Cao Ba Quat and his poetry is doubly difficult because, as the leader of a failed rebellion, he was sentenced to death and his entire clan was exterminated 族誅. His writings were systematically destroyed and poems written by other scholars addressed to him, or mentioning him were suppressed. As such, despite being not too far removed from our own time, the materials researchers have to work with is scarce, incomplete, and often spurious. Publications like The Complete Works of Cao Ba Quat 高伯适全集 (Cao Bá Quát toàn tập）shown above are, by necessity, incomplete collections of his extant works. I just obtained a copy of Cao Ba Quat: Resources and Essays past and present (Cao Bá Quát: Tư liệu – bài viết từ trước tới nay) published by the Center for National Culture Studies (Trung Tâm Nghiên Cứu Quốc Học / 国学研究中心). The book contains the account of Cao Ba Quat’s life and death as recorded by Kiều Oánh Mậu 喬瑩懋 (1854-1912) in his Biographies of Rebels and Traitors against Our Dynasty 本朝叛逆列傳 (Bản triều phản nghịch liệt truyện). Here is an excerpt:
Duy-dong claimed to be a fourth generation descendant of Le Hien-tong. Having been captured alive by the officials and soldiers, he was taken back to the capital. When they arrived at a temple dedicated to Le Thai-to in Bo Ve district of Thanh Hoa province, he begged to be allowed to pay his respects. Then, he prepared the three sacrificial animals to offer and wrote a poem that went:
My life has not betrayed these rivers and mountains,
Heaven-and-earth are heartless, what more can be done?
Distant parting, a tune of the southern shore falls on sad ears,
Returning home, ashamed to sing the Ta-feng song.
A thousand years past, the sacred spirit of the old kingdom remains,
One journey and a hero is drunken with regret.
Bowing from afar, the temple courts fill with unending sorrow,
Unchanged, ancient trees blossom with fresh flowers.
After making veneration, he slit his own throat and died.
Now, this poem is obviously the work of Le Duy-dong, not Cao Ba Quat. Not only does this interpretation match the context of the passage (why would a poem by Cao Ba Quat be inserted into this passage without mentioning that he was the author?) but there are also clues within the text itself that support this argument. Cao Ba Quat was a native of Bac Ninh province 北寧省 , not Thanh Hoa 清化 – the ancestral homeland of the Le dynasty’s royal clan. The allusion to the Ta-feng song 大風歌 , a song celebrating imperial victory attributed to Liu Pang, founder of the Han dynasty also does not make sense if put in the mouth of Cao Ba Quat, who had no imperial ambitions. Despite this, there are several essays in contained within this anthology that attribute this poem to Cao Ba Quat and even call it his final poem. Also, a number of the essays incorrectly translate the fourth line of the poem:
The character 羞 is read /tu/ in Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation. A number of the essayists translate as it it was the character 須 ,also pronounced /tu/. When translated with this error, the line’s meaning becomes: “Returning home, one ought to sing a Ta-feng song”. That’s certainly a smug assertion for a failed rebel paying respects to his ancestors before being escorted to his death! The essayists who made this translation error (there was more than one) did not reprint the original Chinese characters in there essays.
It’s understandable that certain errors could creep into research on a subject as difficult as Cao Ba Quat. Furthermore, this publication is an anthology that contains essays written over a range of several decades. However, it seems like shoddy editing that so many contradictory and confused claims are all contained in the same book without any explanatory notes pointing to who has the more correct interpretation.