This historical essay on national imagination in Vietnamese poetry, and the modern poetry the essay accompanies, are the second installment in our series on Poetry and Identity. We thank the Lannan Foundation for supporting this project.

From 179 BCE until 938 CE, China ruled the country we now know as Viet Nam (then, Dai Viet). In 1077, during the Sung dynasty, the Chinese sought to reimpose their rule. When the Vietnamese forces, commanded by Marshal Ly Thuong Kiet, faced the superior Sung’s army along the Cau River, Marshal Kiet rallied his troops by composing the following poem:

The Southern Emperor is to reside in the Southern land
This has been clearly marked in the Book of Heaven
If unruly troops from afar dare to encroach
They will certainly face annihilation.

Asserting Viet Nam’s right to independence (“The Southern Emperor is to reside in the Southern land”), and claiming that right by Divine decree (“clearly marked in the Book of Heaven”), he proclaims an independent future for a country one-tenth the size and population of its giant neighbor. His words might seem like sheer bravado — except for the confident voice, and the unimpeachable grounds of that confidence. And his prediction of “annihilation” for future adversaries now seems prescient. We should not be surprised that a Vietnamese military commander would express himself in poetry. Throughout Vietnamese history, poetry has played a pre-eminent role in the culture. During the feudal period, from the 11th century until the early 20th, it was an essential part of the training of both the literati-scholar class and military strategists. Because mastery of the poetic craft was a requirement for all examinations, no one could aspire to an official position without it. Beyond this role as official qualification, poetry provided a means for articulating a sense of national identity, and for transmitting that identity to future generations. Ideas, feelings, images carried within Vietnamese poetry enabled the culture to recognize its deepest sense of self — to understand past suffering, and evoke an affirmative vision of future hopes.

Tam Giao Dong Nguyen

Marshal Kiet’s confidence about the Southern land has its roots in more than 4000 years of cultural evolution and differentiation, and, more immediately, in a unique form of Tam Giao Dong Nguyen — the One-Sourced Triple Teaching that unified Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. That teaching reached its fullest articulation in the Ly (1010-1225) and Tran (1225-1400) dynasties, when Buddhist views — alleged by detractors to be “other-worldly” and “life-denying” — formed the foundation for Viet Nam’s most activist, life-engaging, and illustrious period, marked by the flowering of Vietnamese poetry, national self-definition, military prowess, legal codification, and popular welfare. The foundation of the Triple Teaching was an account of human nature which assigned to human beings a privileged position in the universe, and advanced a heroic conception of human history. Only man could deliver himself from his own misery and penchant for self-delusion and self-destruction. This was the world-view of a warrior; but a warrior whose fight is with his own delusions, not with the world — which was ultimately part of himself.

China also developed a form of Tam Giao Dong Nguyen, but Viet Nam’s creation bore the stamp of its unique history and environment. In particular, the Vietnamese formulation was not preoccupied with theoretical concerns, available only to a comfortable elite enjoying long periods of uninterrupted peace. Instead, it is embedded in folk rhymes, stories, songs, and sayings, and incorporated the pragmatic and animistic outlook of the native tradition. Moreover, Buddhism played — and continues to play — a much larger role in the Vietnamese Tam Giao Dong Nguyen than in the predominantly Confucian Chinese variant — which explains the tolerant, relatively peaceful co-existence of the three philosophies in Viet Nam, in contrast to the Chinese persecution of Buddhism. Marking this important difference, a 14th-century Vietnamese Confucian scholar inscribed the following lines on a royal urn that represented the dynasty’s mandate from heaven:

The Chou’s urns are deities’; Viet’s urns are Buddha’s.
Deities are fickle; Buddha is joyful. Posterity ! Don’t cast it wrong !

The joyfulness of Buddhism is captured in the well-known poem, “Falling Ill, Telling Everyone,” by Zen master Man Giac (1052-1096):

Spring comes, flowers bloom
Spring’s gone, flowers fade
The world flies by like a breeze
Our head suddenly bristles white
When spring’s gone, fear no flower
In the yard last night a mai bud bloomed.

By the middle of the Tran dynasty, the elements of Tam Giao Dong Nguyen were substantially refigured, with Confucianism increasingly serving as the official
ideology of the ruling elite. In the Le dynasty, the Confucian literati-scholar took center stage in the nation’s political life. Apart from a few large, royally-sponsored pagodas, Buddhist monks and nuns returned to the village. They carried out their training quietly and unobtrusively in the local temples, and lived humbly among the common people.

Still, the One-Sourced Triple Teaching — and not simply its Confucian moment — remained the core of Vietnamese culture and poetry. An elite-scholar could use Confucianism in carrying out his official duties, but his view of the world, and sense of his own destiny, might remain essentially Buddhist. Eventually, he might decide to retire from worldly ambition, return to his village, and live out his life as a Taoist or Buddhist aspirant, and embark on a journey aimed at self-comprehension and self-command.

Nguyen Trai, one of five national defenders in Vietnamese history — Ly Thuong Kiet, Tran Hung Dao, Le Loi, Nguyen Trai, Nguyen Hue — embodies that quintessential harmony. A brilliant strategist who helped King Le Loi defeat the Ming dynasty’s 20-year occupying force in 1428, he then became the premier Confucian administrator. When he fell out of favor, he returned to his native village, spending his time as a poet and retired scholar. His poem, “Occasional Verse At Con Son After the War,” perfectly sums up this unified spirit:

Ten years away from hearth and home
On return pine trees and chrysanthemum are overgrown
Streams and forests wait, why haven’t I come ?
Head covered in dust and sand, I can only complain
Back home, the world is like a dream
After war, I’m still one piece
When can I build the house under the cloud mountain
Boil streamlet water for tea, sleep on stone pillow?

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Viet Nam suffered a period of internal division with the Trinh and Nguyen Lords occupying two halves of the country, nominally in support of the same king. During this period, Confucianism weakened, and became a convenient cloak for the unscrupulous and the ambitious. Disgusted with such naked power-seeking, genuine scholars withdrew to the villages, seeking to preserve their own integrity, and deepen their inner quest. Much of the classical poetry written in this period longs for the return of a wise and noble king, and a reassertion of the nation’s cultural ideals. And some take to task the ruling elite for failing to bring peace and prosperity to the over-taxed and under-nourished peasantry.

The last gasp of Confucianism as a political ideology came with the founding of the Nguyen dynasty in the 19th century. Aided by French missionaries and western weapons, the founder of the dynasty, Gia Long, defeated the short-lived Tay Son reign and unified the country. The period was rich with poetical forms, from the traditional seven-word, eight-line poem, to long elegiac or epic poems on love, social conditions, and the world. And in 1813, Nguyen Du completed “The Tale of Kieu” — the nation’s greatest masterpiece, and the most powerful interpretation of the Vietnamese ideal of Tam Giao Dong Nguyen as seen through the eyes of a man deeply troubled by the miseries and endless strife that had befallen his countrymen.

Struggle for Independence

On August 31, 1858, a French naval squadron under the command of Admiral Rigault de Genouilly lobbed cannon balls into the city of Da Nang, effectively marking the end of Vietnamese royal rule, and the beginning of a 100-year resistance to regain independence. The power of western technology, in the service of France’s divide-and-rule strategy, provided a severe test of the Vietnamese vision. It posed the question whether the age-old culture could survive, or whether Viet Nam would become a mere appendage to France, fully internalizing the French mission civilizatrice. But Viet Nam had survived because of an indelible sense of identity; Vietnamese poetry had always played a central role in deepening, preserving, and transmitting that identity. During the period of resistance to French rule, poetry returned to its root of patriotism and sacrifice. The Vietnamese people — except for a minority co-opted by French missionaries and provided with sumptuous privileges by the colonial regime — supported the national struggle. Tham Tam’s “Afternoon Rain On Route 5” captures the dominant ethos:

The lovely mountains and forests
Where we suffered cold and rain.
For two years we suffered.
In the afternoon rain a thousand
Mai flowers blossomed, their petals
Bringing the color of spring.
. . .
The day the soldiers left
The old mother fell silent,
Her eyes wet with tears.
Oh where are the people of the mountain?
Where are the guerrillas dressed
In torn clothes in the rain ?
Rifles shouldered, they climbed
The pass, breaking through enemy lines.

In torn clothes and with outdated rifles, suffering hunger and cold in the deep mountain hideouts, these bearers of the Vietnamese martial tradition were recreating past dramas — like that of Le Loi, who, in the 1420s, fled from superior Chinese forces and took refuge in caves and peaks, surviving on wild grasses and tree roots. Xuan Mien’s “Missing The Eastern Region” presents a soldier longing for his old mountain resistance base, as a young heart pining for his beloved:

How much I miss the eastern region,
Long to touch its hills and forests again,
To hear the Hoang bird’s song at dawn
The gibbons’ sad cry at night.

The poet does not idealize the struggle. He recognizes the life of want and back-breaking labor:

We shared a half bowl of rice to fight off hunger.
We cleared forests, our backs slashed by thorns.
Our sweat watered the ground, our hearts burned.
The rice and sweet potatoes greened and grew.

But the poem also pays tribute to the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose:

The Mangosteen leaves so bitter, but the yam roots so sweet.
Even eating bland rice, we laughed.
We swung in our hammocks, finding rest
in the half-smoked cigarette passed between us.

In the poetry of this period, the sense of rightness is nearly absolute; there is no doubt that resistance is necessary. That pathos continues through the next phase.

The Fight Continues

In the earliest stages of the US-Vietnamese conflict, from 1954 through the 1960s, the sense of national unity was palpable. Apart from an urban minority in South Viet Nam, the war struck the Vietnamese as a logical continuation of the French war — different players, but the same script. For people who had spent most of their youth struggling against a brutal colonial regime — where villages were required to consume a fixed quota of the state’s liquor, and opium dens were encouraged as a means of filling the state’s coffer — there was no historical discontinuity between the French conquest of Viet Nam, the United States support for France’s attempt to re-impose its rule, and the subsequent effort by the United States to create a separate, independent South Viet Nam. In those years, popular support for the war effort defied Pentagon calculations.
Despite the enormous number of casualties, anyone in North Viet Nam not accepted as recruits to B (the code name for South Viet Nam) would consider it a
personal and humiliating disgrace. In many villages, every eligible male volunteered
before being called.

The appearance of foreign troops on Viet Nam’s soil provoked the most arche- typal reactions in the Vietnamese psyche — stretching back to the beginning of Vietnamese history. The brutality of the French and Japanese occupation during 1944-45, in which over two million Vietnamese — 15 percent of the population — were deliberately starved to death so that rice and jute could be dedicated to the Japanese war efforts, left a searing psychic wound.

Nguyen My’s “The Red Farewell” marked a high point of national determination. Published in 1964, and instantly a major literary event, it uses the color “red” as a common thread to bind together all details about a soldier taking leave of his wife. Physically and symbolically, the poet succeeds in conveying the patriotism and ideological unity of the time.

But I know that red color.
That redness in the flaming red
Is like the fire-red of the banana blossom,
Like the redness of flames from the kitchen
Of a distant village on cold, windy nights . . .
And that redness will follow
As if there had been no farewell.

It was a world painted in red — the heat of sun, the color of the woman’s dress, the flowers in the park, kitchen flames at home, banana blossoms on the campaign trails. That redness would follow the warrior’s footsteps in all the cold days and nights ahead, as he followed the fluttering red flag into battles, keeping his home-sick heart warm.

By contrast, “White Circles” — written by Pham Tien Duat in 1971 and published in the Thanh Nien journal in 1973 — immediately created a firestorm. Because of its emphasis on the tragic consequences of the war, it was criticized for undermining the war effort. In a trip back to the rear in 1971, Pham Tien Duat stopped at a friend’s village. It was one of thousands of nondescript villages in the North whose special trade was to make mosquito nets for the army. Everywhere the village was covered with pieces of white cloth, left out to be dried in the sun, waiting to be dyed camouflage green. What deeply shocked Pham Tien Duat was that half of the young women and children in the villages wore white bands on their forehead — a sign of mourning for those who never returned from battle.


Bomb smoke rises in black circles
The ground — the circles are white
We walk in silence — my friend, I
The silence the night after battle
No greater loss than death
A white band shapes a zero
But inside that white circle
A head burns like fire.

This was the first sign of division in the previously total dedication to and identification with the national cause. A fissure had opened, but only slightly; in the post-war period, it would widen. There is no question, however, that during the war support for the fight was overwhelming. Pham Tien Duat’s own “The Fire in the Lamps” presents the fight as a natural consequence of an ancient identity:

Still, night after night
the lamps are lit on our land,
lamps to bring back the fire of a thousand years,
fire, from the time of our struggling life,
kept from generation to generation
in the rice husks and ashes of household fires.

These lines, like many other poems of resistance, resonate deeply in Viet Nam — they suggest the soul of a man who can find himself at home only after he has fought off his adversaries. They invoke a sense of selfless heroism and an iron determination that rises from unfathomable depths — an impassioned individual facing insurmountable odds with almost reckless abandon, not out of hatred, but love. They are calls to arms, not for themselves, but in defense of others, in defense of their own identity, in defense of their reasons for existence.

New Openings

In the post-war period, beginning in 1975, new questions arose that signaled the reemergence of earlier conflicts about politics and literary expression. In 1956-57, a dozen of Viet Nam’s most respected intellectuals had publicly opposed the party’s total control and supervision of all literary activities. In the name of intellectual integrity and literary freedom, they demanded the right to uncensored expression. The opposition was short-lived; their call was rejected; many were brought to trial and forced to recant. Some simply withdrew into obscurity. The cultural critic and poet Phan Khoi wrote at the time:

More years only make life a pot of lime
It gets worse with time
Growing smaller and smaller

Facing a similar dilemma in a different form, Nguyen Duy wrote in “Selling Gold” (1980):

Our soul — a slab of pure gold.
We’ll have to sell it piece by piece.
One piece for a son, one for a wife,
others for parents and friends.
. . .
Oh god, . . . yes, we had to sell our bit of gold
to make it through those bad days.
We had to survive that brutal time,
but what did it get us, a few clumps of fast passing clouds . . .

These fissures and protests suggest that the field of vision has, in a way, come full circle. With national integrity intact, elements of Vietnamese culture that are less concerned with communal-political life, and that had been ignored and set aside during the war, are now being explored again and demanding their rightful place. Although the writing of the past 40-year period is profoundly moving and genuine, it is single-minded. It lacks darkness, valleys, contrasts. Nguyen Minh Chau, a writer of short stories and novels, put it bluntly: “it’s ideologically correct.” Written at a time when unity took precedence over creativity and technological efficiency over hallowed traditions, when ideological myopia mistook itself for timeless truth, it ignores the tragic dimension of human life. But without a sense of the tragic, the heroic voice does not project.

Returning Home

In a war for independence that lasted 120 years, millions of Vietnamese perished or were displaced. Families were split. Brutal ideological clashes left bitter memories. Thousands disappeared at sea. The land is covered with unclaimed bones and unmarked graves. In “Father,” Nguyen Duy wrote:

In their place there are many
who spend half their life in the North, the other half in Truong Son
whose meals were bamboo shoots and roots
now make do with taro leaves and wild tendrils

Airy hopes have turned their heads bone white
their native village feels as far away as a distant season
a lifetime toils in the sun and rain

a lifetime walking, they’ve yet to reach home.

What new vision has sufficient depth and passion to reconcile that bitter legacy? What spirit of poetry with sufficient power and scope to make sense of a painful past and bring the wayward shipwrecks home? At the moment of his death, Van Hanh, an 11th century scholar-monk-poet-statesman, wrote that:

Our life is a lightning, here and gone
Spring plants blossom, to be bare in fall
Mind not the rise and fall of fortunes
They’re dewdrops twinkling on the grass

Whatever the renewed vision will be, Vietnamese poetry will play a central role in exploring and transmitting it. No one denies that the struggle was heroic, but the night was long and the darkness deep. Nguyen Duy speaks for all of Viet Nam when he writes:

let us return, let us come home
the white sheet remains unblemished
there’s still a flicker of something there
. . .
Whatever the case, the land lives within us always
the spiritual stream remains untainted
poetry still lives, the people still live
we are the people — we’ ll endure
–“Our Nation From a Distance” (1988)
Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review