Hồ Xuân Hương Introduction

Hồ Xuân Hương was born at the end of the second Lê Dynasty (1592-1788), a period of calimity and social disintegration. Nearly 900 years had elapsed since Ngô Quyền had driven out the Chinese to establish an independent Vietnam, modeled on the Chinese court and its mandarinate. By the end of Lê period, the Confucian social order had calcified and was crumbling. In the North, the powerful Trịnh clan controlled the Le kings and their court at present- day Hà Nội. The Trịnh warred with the Nguyễn clan, whose southern Huế court was aided by Portuguese arms and French troops recruited by colonial missionaries. Finally, adding to decades of grim chaos, in 1771 three brothers known as the Tây Sơn began a populist rebellion that would vanquish the Trịnh, the Lê, and the Nguyễn rulers, seizing Hà Nội, Huế and Sài Gòn, and creating their own short-lived dynasty (1788-1802) that would soon fall to the Nguyễn.

This period of social collapse and ruin was, perhaps not surprisingly, also a high pint in the long tradition of Vietnamese poetry. As Dante says in his De vulgari eloquentia, “the proper subjects of poetry are love, virtue, and war.” The great poetry of this period – like Nguyễn Du’s famous Tale of Kiều- is filled with individual longing, with a sense of “ cruel fate”, and with a searching for something of permanence. Warfare, starvation, and corruption did not vanquish poets like Nguyễn Du and Hồ Xuân Hương, but deepened their work.

What is immediately surprising about Ho Xuan Huong’s writing is that she wrote at all – futher , that she earned immediate and continuing acclaim. After all, she was a woman writing poetry in a male, Confucian tradition. While women have always held high position in Vietnamese society- sometimes leading armies, often advising rulers, and always involved in the management of wealth- few were tutored in the rigorous literary studies given young men preparing to take the imperial exams in hopes of finding their places in the bureaucratic hierarchy that governed Vietnam from 939 AD into the twentieth century.(A visitor to Ha Noi can still see, in a courtyard of the Temple of Literature, the magnificent stone turtles with huge stelae set upon their backs and carved with the names of the highest-ranking scholars from 1442 to 1779. The last exam was in 1919.).

Also surprising is what she wrote about. At the end of the Le Dynasty, when the social status of women was sharply reduced, she constantly questioned the orders of things, especially male authority. The rigid feudalism of the later Le Dynasty took the 2000 year old Confucian Book of Rites as its fundamentalist guidebook in which a woman “ when unmarried, should obey her father; when married, her husband, and, if widowed, her son.”. Their were “ seven justifications for abandoning a woman: I, if she bears no child, 2, if she commits adultery, 3, if she does not respect her in-laws, 4, if she gossips, 5, if she steals, 6, if she is given to jealousy, and, 7, if she has an incurable disease.” To make matters worse, dowry and wedding rules had become so expensive and complicated by Ho Xuan Huong’s time that fewer women of her class were getting married; more were becoming concubines(Following Hoa Bang, Ho Xuan Huong, Nha Tho Cach Mang (Sai Gon: Nha Xuan Ban Bon Phuong, 1950), pp. 100 and 103)). While Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetic attacks on male authority might seem normal enough for fin de siècle Americans and other Westerners, for her time it was shocking and personally risky.

In addition, she chose to write in Nôm-a writing system that represented Vietnamese speech- rather than Chinese, the language of the mandarin elite. Her choosing to write poetry in Nôm, as Chaucer chose to write in English and Dante in Italian, gives her poetry a special Vietnamese dimension filled with the aphorisms and speech habits of the common people(Recent scholarship has also turned up poems that she wrote in Chinese. See Dao Thai Ton, Tho Ho Xuan Huong (Ha Noi: Nha Xuat Ban Giao Duc, 1996).). Indeed, the modern poet Xuan Dieu called her” the Queen of Nôm poetry.

But, finally, the most surprising fact is that the greater part of her poems- each a marvel in the sonnetlike lu-shih style- are double entendres: each has hidden within it an other poem with sexual meaning. In these poems we may be presented with a view of three cliffs, or a limestone grotto, or scenes of weaving or swinging, or objects such as a fan, some fruit, or even a river snail – but concealed within almost all of her perfect lu-shih is a sexual design that reveals itself by pun and imagistic double-take. No other poet dared this. As Huu Ngoc and others have pointed out, Confucianism even banished the nude from Vietnamese art(Huu Ngoc and Françoise Corrèze, Ho Xuan Huong, ou le voile deschiré (Ha Noi: Fleuve Rouge, 1984), p. 31.)). For her erotic attitudes, Hồ Xuân Hương turned to the common wisdom alive in peasant folk poetry and proverbs, attitudes that from her literary pen might be read more accurately as defiance rather than as a psychosexual malady, as some of her critics have changed.

So, in a time when death and destruction lay about, when the powerful held sway and disrespect was punished by the sword, how did she get away with the irreverence, the scorn, and the habitual indecency of her poetry? The answer lies in her excellence as a poet and in the paramount cultural esteem that Vietnamese have always placed on poetry, whether in the high tradition of the literati or the oral folk poetry of the common people. Quite simply, she survived because of her exquisite cleverness at poetry. Khen ai khéo vẽ cảnh tiên sơ, she sometimes writes in response to natural wonders: “ Praise whoever sketched this desolate scene.” It was her own skill in composing two poems at once, one hidden in the other, which captured her audiences – from common people who could hear in her verse echoes of their folk poetry, proverbs, and village common sense, to Sinophile court mandarins who bantered with her in verse, who valued her poetic skills, and who offers her their protection(Such as Chieu-Ho, fond of teasing her in poetry, who some scholars(but not all) identify as the high-ranking ifficial Pham Dinh Ho.). Her verbal play, her wicked humor, her native speech, her spiritual longing, her hunger for love, and her anger at corruption must have been tonic.

Her life and legend

Not much is factually known about her life. Actuarial records like those kept in the West even in Shakespeare’s time are recent to Vietnam. Most of her biography is derived from her poems. Indeed, given the lack of hard facts and the frequent improprieties of her verse, some readers have argued that she never existed but was the fictional creation of some literary man-of-letters, sort of an Earl of Oxford argument. But too much dense biographical evidence emerges from the poems for this to be true, along with her habitual way of looking at things and a unique range of diction.

Scholars generally agree she came from the ho family from Quỳnh Đôi village, Quỳnh Lưu district, Nghệ an province in North centre of Vietnam(For a full discussion see Hoang Xuan Han, "Ho Xuan Huong voi Vinh Ha Long," in his La Son Yen Ho (Ha Noi: Nha Xuan Ban Giao Duc, 1998), pp. 897ff. and 930.). They disagree on whether her father was the scholar Hồ Sỹ Danh ( 1706-1783) or Hồ Phi Diễn ( 1703-1786). Her mother, whose given name was Hà, was a vợ lẽ to her husband –ie., a second wife , or concubine, albeit a concubine of high rank. Ho Xuan Huong was probably born between 1775 and 1780, either in Quỳnh Lưu or Khán Xuân village, now buried in the suburban sprawl near the West Lake of present day Hà Nội.

She apparently received an education in classical literature. Her name, which may derive from the village in which she was raised, means “ spring essence”, as in “ perfume" or “ scent of spring”. Between 1815 and 1818, she seems to have made several visits to the picturesque Hạ Long Bay. In 1819, according to professor Nguyễn Huệ Chi of the Institution of Literature in Hà Nội , there is official reference to “ the concubine Hồ Xuân Hương” while another manuscript (“Xuân đường đàm thoại,” 1974) mentions a conversation in 1869 between literati in Bắc Ninh province, in which one of them, arriving late, says he “ just came from Hồ Xuân Hương’s funeral”. Indeed, the 1819 reference to part of the record of her husband’s execution for bribery. Her husband, Trần Phúc Hiển, the governor of Yên Quảng province, was executed by order of the emperor. The record notes “ the concubine of this man is named Hồ Xuân Hương. At that time she was well- know as a talented woman in literature and politic.”

But she was probably dead by the early 1820s. In 1842, we have the remarkable poem by Emperor Thiệu Trị’s brother during a royal visit to Hà Nội.

Here is the lake is filled with lotuses.
Tell the flowers girls to pick some
Not stepping on Hồ Xuân Hương’s grave.
In the Golden Springs beyond, she stills is angry about lost love
In the Golden Springs beyond, she stills is angry about lostlove
Lipstick dry, powder faded, tomb untended,
Xuân Hương is gone…

Whatever the facts of her life, a legend of rich cultural significance and consistency has emerged. The legend says that her father’s early death severely affected the family, in marriage. Legend has it that she sometimes ran a tea shop in Thăng Long, as Hà Nội was once called. Famous for her ability to compose perfectly structured poems off the top of her head, she would often be challenged by young men up for imperial exams. One day, a young scholar and his brother came to her shop and asked Hồ Xuân Hương ‘s maid to fetch her. Instead, Hồ Xuân Hương sent out a few lines of poetry for completion, but the verse was so difficult that on reading them the young scholar went into something like apoplectic shock and fainted. This was a potential family disgrace, so the younger brother dashed him with water and brought him to, whereupon he finished the poem and the maid took it back to Hồ Xuân Hương, still at the rear of her shop. “ Not bad”, she is supposed to have said, and married him, the future Pefect of Vĩnh- Tường. This marriage, if once accepts the sentiments in her “ Lament for the Prefect of Vĩnh- Tường”, was one of real affection, but lasting only twenty- seven months. Her second marriage was to an official, whom she mocks as “ Mr. Toad” in his funeral elegy, “ Lament for commissioner Coc”. Like her mother, Hồ Xuân Hương was a Vợ lẽ, or concubine, a condition she resented.

So runs the legend. Scholar like the late Hoàng Xuân Hãn suggest that, given he chronological evidence, she could not have actually been the wife of the Prefect of Vĩnh Tường. Others, like Đào Thái Tôn, suggest that many of the poems attributed to her were written others who simply did not dare to put their names on them. In this view, from her earliest recognition, Hồ Xuân Hương gave unique voice to issue for which the prevailing Confucianism forbade discussion.

Whatever the facts, in poem after poem we hear her complaints about marriage. Is she too forward, she wonder in one poem, too bold to get a husband? What she was looking for, and apparently never founded, was a marriage of equals that included something quite extraordinary and popular in the Vietnamese mind: duyên. Duyên is the romantic notion that Westerners call “ true love”. Duyên is “ fated love”, a bond created in heaven that is so strong that two lovers who “ have” duyên may go through successive incarnations until they are inevitably joined. Lacking this, Hồ Xuân Hương had to settle for shelter and sex, but even the latter was not reliable, if one takes as biographical the sentiments of “ On Sharing a Husband”.

Hồ Xuân Hương also writes forcefully about compassion, particularly in its Buddhist sense of an individual’s love and sacrifice for others. Like most Vietnamese, she would have been a Mahayana Buddhist of Amida School, where the main figure is the Buddha of the Western Peace, to whom one can travel by perfecting oneself in life so that at death one can live in the Western Paradise, visualized as a spiritual realm somewhere “ West” in the direction of India, from which Buddhism first arrived. Given her bad luck at marriage and her distaste at being a “ second wife”, entering a Buddhist nunnery might have given her both shelter and spiritual fulfillment. Instead, she saw corruption in the religious institutions of her time and cast some of her wickedest slurs on venal, lazy, or decadent clergy. At Trấn Quốc pagoda, she “aches” thinking of the heroes of Vietnam’s past and see the monks only as a ‘ flock of shaved heads”, “ neglecting their “ debt of love”. At Quán Sứ pagoda, “ The Ambassadors’s Pagoda,” she comes to meditate but finds the place deserted. Giving up on institutionalized region, but keeping Buddhist precepts, she takes to wandering the countryside to find in lonely landscapes in inspiration for a number of poems of intense spiritual lyricism and compassionate revelation("She traveled like a man in society where the woman was a recluse," Huu Ngoc and Françoise Corrèze write. In Febraury of 1999, I retraced some of her travels and was struck by the distances and rugged terrain she would have encountered jouneying by horse, boat, and foot.). “ Look, and love everyone”, she says in “ Autumn Landscape.”. Elsewhere, she declares that nirvana “ is here, nine times out of ten”, and that sometimes we can “ see heaven upside- down in sad puddles.”

Spring- watching pavilion
A gentle spring evening arrives
Airily, unclouded by worldly dust.
Three times, the belt tolls echoes like a wave.
We see heaven upside-down in sad puddles.
Love’s vast sea can not be emptied.
And spring of grace flow easily everywhere.
Where is nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten.

The poetry


In literal translation, “ Spring – Watching Pavilion” reads as follows:

Spring – Watching Pavilion

Êm ái chiều xuân tới Khán đài,
peaceful evening spring go pavilion

Lâng lâng chẳng bợn chút trần ai.
light light not dirty little world dust

Ba hồi chiêu mộ chuông gầm sóng,
three times watch bell tolls waves

Một vũng tang thương nước lộn trời,
one puddle mourning water turned over heaven

Bể ái nghìn trùng khôn tát cạn,

sea love 1,000 immense cannot splash out shallow

Nguồn ân muôn trượng dễ khơi vơi.
Source love 10,000 spans easy all over.

Nào nào cực lạc là đâu tá?
where nirvana is where us?

Cực lạc là đây chín rõ mười.
Nirvana is here, nine out of ten.

Vietnamese is a tonal language belonging to the Mon- Khmer family. ( Those diacritical marks around the vowels indicate the world “ pitch, “ or tone. Without those marks, a Vietnamese reader would find a text unreadable.) Word tone makes for a poetry of complex music and allusion, as well as a linguistic openness to poetic habits from Chinese, a structurally similar language. For a Westerner perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Vietnamese language and its poetry is just this aspect of word tone.

In Vietnamese, there are six quasi-musical tones or pitches. Every syllable in the language carries one of these tones, each establishing the meaning of the syllable. ( Most words in Vietnamese are monosyllables.) For example, the form /la/ can hold six separate meanings depending on the tone employed:

La: to shout( high level tone)
Là: to be ( low level tone)
Lả: tired ( falling- rising tone)
Lã: insipid (high-constricted, broken tone)
Lá: leaf ( high- rising tone)
Lạ: strange ( low- constructed tone)

In speech or prose, these tones fall at random; in poetry whether in the oral folk tradition or the high literary tradition-tones are regulated to fall at certain feet in the prosodic line. Rhymes usually fall only on words that have “ even” tones ( la and là, above). All other tones are considered “ sharp” and their placement is also regulated.

With a music of pitches inherent in every poem, an entire dynamic of sound – inoperable in English – comes into play. And since like-sounding words can mean vastly different things, a whole world of double meanings also is possible in any poem. These second meanings, and phrases reversals, or nói lái, are usually obscene. Take, as examples, “ the Lustful Monk” and “ Buddhist Nun” . In the former, đeo means “ to carry”, or “ bear”, but its tonal echo, đéo, means “ to copulate”. In the same poem, lộn lèo means “ to turn about”, “to be confused”, even “ twisted rigging,” but lẹo lồn, with different tones, means “ to copulate”. ( Actually, it is more graphic.) Similarly, in Buddhist Nun”, xuất thế means “ abandon the world”, a proper sentiment, but xuất thê means “ abandon a wife”. In some poems like “ The Pharmacist’s Widow Mourns His Death’, this kind of tonal play and echo is often the very heart of the poem, making translation almost impossible. In fact, one of the many dangers for a translator of Hồ Xuân Hương is driving any poem too far toward one pole of meaning – on the one hand, her landscapes are seldom innocent; on the other, the obscene secondary meanings must never appear obvious.

Part of Hồ Xuân Hương’s cover for thí subterfuge lay in the millennial propriety of the lu-shih tradition itseft, i.e., in the hundreds of thousands of poems written by Vietnamese and Chinese scholar-gentry since the form was borrowed from Chinese classical tradition. ( Both the borrowing and the prestige attached to this form are similar to our English borrowing and subsequent use of the Italian sonnet.) In fact, the lu-shih is similar in its tasks and cultural authority to the English sonnet. But the lu-shih is more compressed(Readers who want to know more about lu-shih should consult James J.Y. Liu, The Art of Chinese Poetry (University of Chicago, 1962), since Vietnamese poets followed T'ang style.): every poem must be eight lines long; every line has seven syllables . Rhymes usually occur at the end of the first, second, fourth, sixth, and eight lines. The internal four lines usually show some kinds of syntactic parallel structure. Rhyme words must be bình or “ even” tones. Sharp and even tones are regulated by where they fall in the poetic line. The variation on the lu-shih, the chueh-chu ( or “ broken-off lines” ), is especially a lu-shih cut in half. As daunting as these prosodic rules might seem, Hồ Xuân Hương usually exceeded them, often throwing in more rhymes than required and sometimes creating small subtexts with anagram-like constructions if words are read up and down as well as left to right, as in the “ Spring- Watching Pavilion” example above, where the verbal play is on “ dust” and “love” ( see also the endnote to the poem).

The text

Hồ Xuân Hương wrote in Nôm, a writing system devised by Vietnamese literati to represent the sound system of their language through a native, or “ southern”, calligraphic script. From above the tenth century and into the twentieth, this script was the repository of Vietnamese literature, political essays, and philosophy, as well as religious and medical treatises. During the twenty- four years of the Tây Sơn emperors through which Hồ Xuân Hương lived(Indeed, there is some evidence that she was cousin to emperor Nguyen Hue and of equal family rank; Hoang Xuan Han, op.cit, p.901.), Nôm rather than Chinese, became the official language of the government. But Nôm, while indeed the language of the people, nonetheless is twice as difficult to master as Chinese, since Nôm often takes Chinese characters and assigns them Vietnamese phonemic value while keeping other Chinese characters for their semantic value, thus doubling the total number of characters for any given expression. Today, out of seventy-six million Vietnamese, perhaps only a few dozen can read this thousand- year heritage in Nom, despite the fact that it is almost always around them – inscribed over old doorways, printed on the restaurant calendars, and incised on ancestral tombs that sit in all the rice fields. Nonetheless, Nôm died with the royal courts and the scholars – gentry class, giving away to Quốc-ngữ, “ the national script”, introduced by Alexandre de Rhodes in the seventeenth century and using a Latin alphabet immensely more accessible than Nôm and making it possible for the masses of Vietnamese to become literate.

No definitive, scholarly text exists for the poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương. Indeed, her poems did not see print until many decades after her death, with a Nôm woodblock publication in 1909, followed in 1914 by the woodblock edition Quốc Âm Thi Tuyển in Nôm with the quốc-ngữ transliterations directly beneath. Scholars disagree on the very number of poems that may be attributed to her; some limit her oeuvre to a mere twenty-five, others claim as many as 148. Many of the originals that follow here have several variants because Nôm was never really standardized. What is more, Hồ Xuân Hương ‘s poems were reproduced by hand, adding to further textual variations. Complicating the text still further, since the time of her writing in her northern dialect, Vietnamese itself has undergone shifts in sound and meaning. I have tried to find the most plausible versions, often relying on the late Maurice Durand’s L'(Euvre de la poétesse vietnamienne Hồ Xuân Hương(Paris: Adrien-Maisonneuve, 1968. From the Collection de Textes et Documents sur L'Indochine, IX, Textes Nôm No. 2.), a great work unfortunately left incomplete at Durand’s death.

In February 1999, I traveled to Hà Nội to consult with scholars, to find and verify the Nôm originals of the poems that follow. Thanks the help of Professors Đào Thái Tôn and Nguyễn Quang Hồng of the Hán-Nôm institute, and the remarkable work of Ngô Thanh Nhàn, a computational linguist at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, this is the first time that Nôm is being printed typographically, a crucial first step toward retrieving the vast heritage of Vietnamese literature in Nôm.

This book, the first sizable collection of Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry in a Western language, almost certainly contains inevitable errors of provenance as well as errors that are purely of my making, a foreigner, albeit a poet, swimming in waters way over his head although cheered by shouts from Vietnamese standing on the far shore. The forty-nine poems in this book represent most of Hồ Xuân Hương’s extant Nôm poetry. Others are not included here because they seems repetitious, or were almost certainly poems by others poets ( such as Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, a woman whose poetry is sometimes attributed to Hồ Xuân Hương), or because they seemed unretrievable in English, even with supportive footnoting.

For ten years I have pecked at these translations, often just giving up, but always returning. My persistence was sustained by admiration and awe, which I hope the reader will experience: for Hồ Xuân Hương’s lonely, intelligent life, for her exquisite poetry, her stubbornness, her sarcasm, her bravery, her irreverent humor, and her bodhisattva’s compassion. She is a world- class poet who can move us today as she has moved Vietnamese for 200 years.

John Balaban,
North Carolina State University