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Grace and Flair: A Sample of Hồ Xuân Hương's Poetry

 

Grace and Flair

***

Three Vietnamese Poetesses

(A Sample of Hồ Xuân Hương’s Poetry)

 

Translated by Khoa Ngo

 

 

 

Translated and published by Khoa Ngo at Shakespir

English Translations Copyright © 2017 by Khoa Ngo

All rights reserved.

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

[]Contents

 

A Brief History of Vietnam in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries

 

Introduction

 

Hồ Xuân Hương

Translation Notes

Bánh Trôi Nước – A Cake Afloat in Water

Quả Mít – The Jackfruit

Con Cua – The Crab

Ốc Nhồi – The Snail

Mời Ăn Trầu – Offering Betel

Đồng Tiền Hoẻn – A Dented Coin

Dỗ Bạn Khóc Chồng – Soothing a Friend Crying for her Spouse

Vịnh Dương Vật – The Male Member

Trào Tăng – Mocking a Monk

Vịnh Sư Hoạch Dâm – The Lustful Monk

Vịnh Ni Sư – The Buddhist Nun

Chơi Hoa – Playing with Blooms

Đền Thái Thú – At a Tai-shou’s Shrine

Khóc Tổng Cóc – Mourning for Commissioner Cóc

Khóc Ông Phủ Vĩnh Tường – Mourning the Prefect of Vĩnh Tường

Vịnh Khách Đáo Gia – The Unwelcome Houseguest

Vịnh Miêu – The Cats

Phận Đàn Bà – A Woman’s Fate

Thương Thay Phận Gái – Pity a Woman’s Fate

Chửa Hoang – A Husbandless Pregnancy

Lấy Chồng Chung – Sharing a Husband

Thương – Love

Vô Âm Nữ – A Girl without Sex

Dệt Cửi – Weaving

Vịnh Quạt – The Folding Fan

Đánh Đu – Swinging

Giếng Nước – The Well

Đèo Ba Dội – Ba Dội Gorge

Hang Cắc Cớ – Cắc Cớ Cave

Vịnh Hàng ở Thanh – A Tavern in Thanh

Đề Tranh Tố Nữ – On a Painting of Beautiful Women

Cảnh Thu – Autumnal Scenery

Tự Tình (I) – Sharing One’s Thoughts with Oneself (I)

 

References

 

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A Brief History of Vietnam in the late 18^th^ and early 19^th^ Centuries

 

Overview:

 

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Vietnam were marked with a multitude of unrests, both inside and outside the country. Feudalism in Vietnam, having reached its prime back in the fifteenth century, began to show obvious signs of weakening throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the feudal systems of the country gradually and steadily descended into a state of complete chaos and turmoil, with multiple political powers, both domestic and foreign, fighting against one another in order to achieve dominance over the entire nation. Their seemingly endless fightings were further accompanied by a number of rebellions led by the angry people of the working class, the farmers who had long grown weary of how corrupted the central government had become, as well as of all the injustice and heavily imposed taxes they had been forced to endure.

 

The Later Lê Dynasty (1428 – 1788):

 

Nhà Hậu Lê (The Later Lê Dynasty) was recorded as the longest-lasting dynasty of feudal Vietnam, whose reign spanned more than three centuries, from 1428 up to 1788. The dynasty was given the name Hậu Lê in order to distinguish itself from the first Lê Dyansty, commonly referred to as the the Tiền Lê (The Earlier Lê), which had been founded by Lê Hoàn (later known as Lê Đại Hành) in 980 and which had lasted until the year 1009.

 

The Later Lê Dynasty was established when its founder, Lê Lợi, began a resistance movement against the Ming armies occupying the country at the time. Beginning from the year 1416, Lê Lợi along with the aid of his Lam Sơn fellow warriors and the tactician Nguyễn Trãi, with whom he had exchanged oaths, employed a variety of surprise and guerrilla attacks against the Ming armies, reaping multiple successes. By 1428, the Lam Sơn army had successfully liberated the entire country and chased the Ming out. Lê Lợi then ascended to the throne and proclaimed himself Emperor Lê Thái Tổ, the first ruler of the long-lasting Later Lê Dynasty. Under his rule, as well as the subsequent reigns of his descendants, the country flourished in every way. The people enjoyed the long years of peace and prosperity.

 

In 1471, Lê Thái Tổ’s descendant Lê Thánh Tông, considered to be the greatest of all the rulers of the Later Lê Dynasty, permanently subjugated Champa and carried out several significant reforms within the country.

 

He divided the nation into 13 provinces, an administrative model which was fashioned after that of China. Additionally, he established a tradition of the triennial Confucian civil service examination to recruit talented men from all over the nation to serve the court and, most importantly, the people. Lê Thánh Tông was also credited with the establishment of the Hồng Đức legal code, further changing the law of the country for the better. Despite being based on the Chinese law, the Hồng Đức legal code officially recognized and elevated the position of women in society. No longer was parental consent mandatory for marriage, and under the new law, daughters could enjoy the same inheritance rights as sons. The law represented a progressive and fair mindset. During his reign, Lê Thánh Tông continued to follow the teachings of Confucianism, maintaining a good central government as well as his personal morality.

 

The administrative system under Lê Thánh Tông’s reign, though influenced and inspired by the Chinese counterpart, included distinctly Vietnamese elements, further reinforcing the country’s independence from China. Under Lê Thánh Tông’s rule, the Later Lê Dynasty continued to prosper, ushering a golden age in feudal Vietnam. After his passing in 1497, his son Lê Hiến Tông continued to preserve his legacy throughout his reign, which ended with his own passing in 1504. The death of Lê Hiến Tông marked the beginning of turmoil in the sixteenth century.

 

In 1527, the throne of the Lê Dynasty was eventually usurped by Mạc Đăng Dung, a member of the powerful and influential Mạc family. Although a new Lê emperor would be crowned in 1533 with the help of the opposing Nguyễn family, the subsequent Lê rulers were reduced to nothing more than figureheads for manipulation. Real power at the time was divided between two families, the Trịnh clan in the north (based in Hà Nội) and the Nguyễn clan in the south (based in Huế). The two clans would inevitably wage a series of fierce and bloody civil wars for dominance over the country.

 

In the end, the seemingly endless fighting would ultimately leave the country divided into two regions when a truce was formed in 1673. During the peaceful time, the Nguyễn lords would mobilize their troops and wage wars with the weakened Khmer Empire and the state of Siam.

 

These wars, along with corruption and heavy taxes imposed upon the poor commoners, would further jeopardize their already declining popularity with the people under their rule. Among those who had grown to disdain the Nguyễn’s rule were the Tây Sơn brothers: Nguyễn Nhạc, Nguyễn Huệ and Nguyễn Lữ, who would eventually rise up, name themselves the champions of the people and stage one of the most famous rebellions in Vietnamese history.

 

The Tây Sơn Dynasty (1778 – 1802):

 

The Tây Sơn brothers, having won over the hearts and respect of the people, led the revolt. Under their leadership, the people won some battles against the Nguyễn. The Tây Sơn army, having grown in size and power, continued to enjoy a great deal of support not only from the poor farmers but also from some of the indigenous highland tribes. The second-oldest of the three brothers, Nguyễn Huệ, was renowned for being a skilled and charismatic military leader whose leadership proved pivotal in the later victories against the opposing forces.

 

In 1773, the Tây Sơn was able to capture the port of Qui Nhơn, where the merchants, who had grown dissatisfied of the Nguyễn’s reign due to the restrictive laws put in place, funded their army and cause with handsome financial support, which allowed the Tây Sơn army to expand their influence and a great threat.

 

The Nguyễn, finally recognizing the danger posted by the Tây Sơn rebels, formed a truce with the Siamese, giving up some of the lands they had conquered in the previous decades, in order to focus their efforts on quelling the rebellions. Unfortunately for the Nguyễn, their situation deteriorated when Trịnh Sâm, the active ruler of the Trịnh clan at the time, took advantage of the chaos in the south and deployed his army to the Nguyễn Lords’ capital, Phú Xuân (now Huế). The Trịnh army captured the city and forced the Nguyễn to escape to Gia Định.

 

The Trịnh army continued heading south while the Tây Sơn army proceeded with their conquest of other southern cities. In 1776, the Tây Sơn army finally captured the last Nguyễn stronghold in Gia Định. The entire Nguyễn family was killed at the end of the siege, except for one nephew, Nguyễn Ánh, who managed to escape to Siam. After defeating the Nguyễn, the oldest Tây Sơn brother, Nguyễn Nhạc, proclaimed himself Emperor in 1778. This declaration effectively led the newly established Tây Sơn dynasty to an inevitable confrontation with the Trịnh.

 

The Tây Sơn dynasty spent the next years consolidating their rule over the former Nguyễn territory, but their path to peace and stability was constantly challenged. The surviving Nguyễn Ánh managed to convince the King of Siam to support him and send his men to invade Vietnam. The Siamese army attacked the country in 1780, yet they were unable to completely subdue the Tây Sơn. In 1782, the Siamese king was slain in a revolt. As a result, Nguyễn Ánh’s weakened and divided forces were beaten and driven out of Vietnam’s soil. In 1785, Siam launched yet another invasion, which would eventually end in defeat at the hands of Nguyễn Huệ in the Battle of Rạch Gầm-Xoài Mút.

 

Having vanquished the Nguyễn clan, Nguyễn Huệ decided to get rid of the Trịnh in the north as well. He led his men northward in 1786 and, after a short campaign, succeeded in defeating the Trịnh army. The Trịnh clan at the time was also unpopular with the people. Taking advantage of this as well as the support they enjoyed, the Tây Sơn army seemed invincible.

 

A few months later, realising that his hope of retaining power had gone, Emperor Lê Chiêu Thống fled north to the Qing Empire of China, where he formally petition the Emperor for aid. The Emperor agreed to restore Lê Chiêu Thống to power as a puppet ruler, and in 1788, a large Qing army marched south into Vietnam and captured the capital Thăng Long. Their victory was doomed to end. In a surprise attack, while the Qing army was celebrating the Lunar New Year, Nguyễn Huệ’s army defeated them at the Battle of Ngọc Hồi-Đống Đa and forced them, along with Lê Chiêu Thống, to flee back to China.

 

Nguyễn Huệ’s success at defeating both the Trịnh and the Nguyễn Lords as well as the Qing effectively ended the division of the country after a hundred years of separation.

 

In 1788, Nguyễn Huệ officially became the Emperor of the new Tây Sơn dynasty, proclaiming himself Emperor Quang Trung, recognized by China as An Nam Quốc Vương. Emperor Quang Trung would rule the country until his early death in 1792.

 

One of the most significant changes implemented under the rule of Emperor Quang Trung’s reign was that Chữ Nôm (The Southern Scripts) was made the official language of business in the nation, replacing the traditional Chinese characters. This change was not only politically noteworthy, but it was also important for the culture and literature of the country during the Tây Sơn’s reign. Multiple timeless Nôm works of literary values were produced, with the most prominent example of the Nôm poetess Hồ Xuân Hương.

 

After Emperor Quang Trung’s death, his son Nguyễn Quang Toản was crowned as Emperor Cảnh Thịnh when he was only ten years old. Due to his young age, real political power was centralized in the hands of his uncle Bùi Đắc Tuyền, who enacted a massive political purge, executing many subjects who had served and sworn loyalty to the late Quang Trung. The Tây Sơn’s dynasty began to weaken.

 

The Nguyễn Dynasty:

 

The death of Emperor Quang Trung and the subsequent rift in the Tây Sơn’s inner circle effectively paved the way for Nguyễn Ánh to capture the entire country within 10 years, aided by the French military adventurers enlisted by bishop Pigneau de Behaine. In 1800, Nguyễn Ánh occupied Quy Nhơn citadel. In 1801, he occupied Phú Xuân, forcing Nguyễn Quang Toản to flee to Thăng Long. In 1802, Nguyễn Ánh launched an attack on Thăng Long. Nguyễn Quang Toản was captured soon afterwards and executed, thus ending the Tây Sơn dynasty after only 24 years.

 

Nguyễn Ánh took the throne for himself and became the Emperor Gia Long. He established the Nguyễn Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of Vietnam, in 1802. Emperor Gia Long repealed the reforms implemented by the Tây Sơn dynasty and rigidly reinstated the classical Confucian education and civil service system. He moved the capital from Ha Nội to Huế and built up fortresses and a palace in his new capital. Using the French’s expertise and knowledge, Gia Long modernized Vietnam’s defensive capabilities, turning the country into a major military power in the region. However, Gia Long was not fond of the westerners. In deference to the assistance of his French allies, Gia Long simply tolerated the activities of Roman Catholic missionaries. Such tolerance would become increasingly restricted under the reigns of his successors.

 

In 1820, Gia Long’s fourth son, Nguyễn Phúc Đảm, became the second Emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty after the former had passed away. Nguyễn Phúc Đảm proclaimed himself Emperor Minh Mạng, and with his power, he continued on his predecessor’s legacy by reinforcing the strict Confucian orthodoxy. He would vehemently oppose to the westerners’ involvements in the country, banning western missionaries from entering or preaching.

 

His firmness in dealing with missionaries and Christianity resulted in the deaths of multiple followers and preachers. Additionally, with his isolationist and conservative policies, Minh Mạng intensified his efforts to prevent Europeans from entering the country, refusing several attempts at starting commercial deals from various countries throughout his rule until his eventual passing in 1841.

 

His death would soon usher the way for the French to colonize the country, starting in 1858 with an attack on the port of Đà Nẵng by French Admiral Charles Rigault de Genouilly under the orders of Napoleon III.

 

Hence, a new chapter in Vietnam’s history would begin, one in which the nation would fall into the clutch of the French and one in which the existence of the Nguyễn Dynasty was reduced to nothing more than an empty, valueless title.

***

Introduction

 

In Response to the Northerners’ Query Regarding An Nam’s Customs

(Đáp Bắc Nhân Vấn An Nam Phong Tục)

 

By Hồ Quý Ly (1336 – 1407)

 

You wish to know the state of An Nam, yes?

An Nam’s customs are, in essence, refined.

Headwears and robes are not unlike the Tang’s,

Rites and music are the same as the Han’s.

Jade bottles pour just-distilled, fragrant wine,

Gold knives dissect exquisite smallscale carps.

Each year, when February or March comes,

Peaches and plums alike share the same spring.

 

The Vietnamese society, culture and literature, prior to the 20th century, had been largely influenced by the Chinese ever since Ngô Quyền successfully won the nation’s independence from the Northern power back in 938. After becoming a free country, however, the Vietnamese rulers at the time would impose upon themselves and their subjects the structures of political and social control fashioned after that of China in order to protect the nation from being forcefully taken by the Northerners, who had, for more than a thousand years, ruled over them. Instead of allowing the country to be sinicized completely and against their will, the Vietnamese leaders at the time willingly imposed sinicization upon themselves and established themselves as a subvervient country, all for the sake of peace.

 

The Vietnamese rulers adopted the rigid Confucian hierarchy and ideology from China as a result. Due to such implementations, the literary customs of the nation were heavily influenced by that of China in many ways: classical Chinese became the official language, the civil service examination systems were adopted and, as a result, literature rose to prominence to become one of the most important criteria for scholars aiming to become mandarins and serve the state.

 

Poetry, as a result, also rose to a paramount status. It was thus compulsory or scholars to be able to compose poems in any given situation and on any circumstance of life; scholars were expected to be able to produce works of great literary values in classical Chinese when the moment demanded, even for simple occasions such as a friendly reunion, a parting of friends or a social gathering. Poetry was the measure of a scholar’s, and by extension, a mandarin’s competence, used to evaluate whether or not he could be of service to the state and to the king. For centuries, the practice of poetry composition, along with the system of social service examination, would continue to persist until it would at last lose its prominence in the late 19th century, when the French invaded and eventually colonized Vietnam.

 

Unlike modern poets, who are given various choices and freedom regarding what types of poems they can compose, scholars who were considered qualified for bureaucratic positions at the time could only write verses in accordance to all of the strict and sophisticated rules of Chinese poetry, especially the Tang poetry known as Lüshi (an eight-line regulated verse). Lüshi became prominent as, in many ways, it rigidly embraced every virtue expected of a scholar wishing to join the governmental power: an absolute adherence, or submission, to higher authority and rules and a complete disdain for that which was not considered orthodox.

 

As time passed, the Vietnamese, using the classical Chinese script along with its semantic and phonemic similarities to Vietnamese words, developed their own writing, which they dubbed Chữ Nôm (The Southern Script). Believed to have originated in as early as the tenth century, Chữ Nôm eventually rose in popularity and importance, as it at long last allowed the Vietnamese people a means to record their sounds and speeches, one which they could proudly call their own. With its introduction, more and more poets would employ the Nôm script for their essays and literary works, finally breathing their own life and using their own voice instead of a borrowed one. However, Chữ Nôm, despite being created by and for the Vietnamese people, was in reality much more difficult than the classical Chinese characters on which the writing system was based. In terms of linguistics features, Chữ Nôm directly borrowed certain elements of the already complex Chinese characters and further added some new Vietnamese phonemic features to the characters. The resulting number of characters for an expression consequently became twice as much and twice as tricky to master in the end, rendering the reading and writing of the Nôm scripts inaccessible to the illiterate mass.

 

Still, it is undeniable that Chữ Nôm was a significant invention of the Vietnamese people, and it would continue to become more popular with the scholarly and the learned. While the traditionalists aiming for bureaucratic positions continued to compose verses in classical Chinese, those interested in the reading and writing poetry simply for the sake of doing so would produce verses and works written in the Southern script on topics of their own personal passions rather than purely for the service of the state or for the sake of attaining fame and fortune.

 

Along with the domestication of the classical Chinese to create Chữ Nôm, the Vietnamese poets would proceed to do the same with the regulated Tang poetry which had for so long been ingrained into their culture: the Lüshi. More and more works following the Lüshi’s rules were published, but the language was distinctly that of the Vietnamese. That transitional process from Chinese to Nôm in composition was not at all difficult, for Chữ Nôm and the classical Chinese script shared certain linguistic similarities.

 

Both the Nôm and Chinese are, in nature, monosyllabic languages, meaning each utterance in Vietnamese can indeed stand alone as a separate word. Additionally, in both languages, sentences need not contain purely functional words, allowing them brevity and vagueness of expressions, allowing for multiple interpretations at the same time – a feature which poets of the feudal eras took advantage of and utilized in the most masterful manners. Yet the most important feature which the Nôm and Chinese share is the presence of tones – bằng (flat) and trắc (sharp) – which make them sound pleasantly melodious to the ears when the poems are recited aloud, effectively enabling them to be memorized more easily and to be popularized more widely.

 

Following the gradual domestication of the Lüshi, the literature of Vietnam began to head towards a different direction. From works written soley for literary values or for sevice to the authority, Vietnamese poets began to compose works which diverted from the norms and from the Confucian ideology. Humor, wits, puns, satire and even delicate topics such as sex – elements which were avoided by the traditionalists – were incorporated into the compositions and popularized to the people through the purely Vietnamese poetic forms known as the Song thất lục bát (Double seven, six, eight) and Lục bát (Six-eight), both of which were commonly employed in folk poetry. Vietnamese folk poetry would be commonly sung and recited by the common and illiterate mass, and it was through those verses that the true, honest feelings of the people were shown through the simple yet captivating melodies as well as the various images associated with the rustic life at the countryside villages, such as the cranes, the bamboos, the buffalo and countless more.

 

Traditionally, the themes which poets usually wrote on were those which reflected the various aspects of the nation’s culture and society. Yet for a long time, most of those reflections were viewed mostly from the perspective of the ruling classes and the powerful: the royal families, the nobilities, the mandarins and bureaucrats. With the rise and popularity of folk poetry and its forms, the Vietnamese people slowly yet steadily broke away from the influences of the Tang poetry which had for so long constricted and bound them in inflexible frames and complicated rules. Several poems of great literary values were written in the Nôm script and passed down through generations, with the most exceptional examples being king Lê Thánh Tông’s Hồng Đức Quốc Âm Thi Tập (The Hồng Đức Anthology of Poems Written in the National Language) in the fifteenth century, Đoàn Thị Điểm’s Nôm translation of Đặng Trần Côn’s Chinese original of Chinh Phụ Ngâm (Lament of the Soldier’s Wife) in the eighteenth century, Hồ Xuân Hương’s various daring Nôm poems, and, most famously, Nguyễn Du’s Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kiều) in the nineteenth century, which was composed using the Lục Bát poetic form.

 

Under the reign of the Tây Sơn Dynasty, progressive reforms turned the Nôm script the country’s official language in the eighteenth century, and it was at this time that poetry written in Nôm flourished the most. Even women, after having been positioned at the bottom of society and denied formal education for so long according to the Confucian doctrine, were trained in the art of poetry composition, and many displayed their talents which rivaled or, in some cases, stunningly exceeded those of men. For instance, Đoàn Thị Điểm, a talented poetess, left the older scholars visiting her house speechless, rendering them unable to form a poetic response to her poems. Similarly, Hồ Xuân Hương, with her unique boldness and wits, scathingly exposed the social injustice and moral degradations of various classes of people which had for so long haunted the nation through her use of folk knowledge, proverbs and mythology as well as through her witty wordplay and sexual double entendres apparent in her compositions on seemingly mundane objects or topics found in people’s everyday life.

 

All the tumultuous events taking place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries – all the rises and falls of various dynasties, the cultural and social reforms implemented by the Tây Sơn and the Nguyễn Dynasties, and the appearance of western forces inside the nation – also greatly influenced the literature of the country in the time, serving as inspirations for the poets and poetesses.

 

The war-torn time and the sorrows caused by the splitting of family members, of husbands and wives were vividly illustrated in Đoàn Thị Điểm’s Nôm translation of Đặng Trần Côn’s Chinh Phụ Ngâm (Lament of a Soldier’s Wife). The years when the vernacular Nôm became the official language of all courtly affairs and literary practice were highlighted by various poets, with the prime examples being the works of Hồ Xuân Hương, many of which were aimed at cleverly exposing the inequality in the male-dominant society as well as expressing the thoughts and feelings of the females, and Nguyễn Du’s Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kiều), which not only told a woeful tale of trials and tribulations faced by the titular Kiều, but also reflected great details all aspects of society, including the turmoil of warfare, the degradation of morals and the oppressive, corrupted forces which trampled upon the lives of honest, peaceful people.

 

Under the reign of Emperor Minh Mạng, the hearts and minds of many scholars were still filled with nostalgia and laments for the golden age of the Lê Dynasty now long extinguished – powerful emotions which stir the heart and mind and serve as inspirations for poets such as Nguyễn Gia Thiều, Nguyễn Hành and Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, whose works were, though limited in number, deeply and artistically resounding compositions drenched in nostalgia.

 

Due to the aforementioned significance of the timeless works of Đoàn Thị Điểm, Hồ Xuân Hương and Bà Huyện Thanh Quan – three of the most famous poetesses in the history of Vietnam, I have decided to choose some of their most popular works and translate them into English while attempting to – to the best of my current ability – preserve some of the formal and musical qualities of the orginal poems while retaining, as much as possible, the message within the poems. Annotations will also be provided for details, allusions and cultural references which the translations fail to fully convey. As the translations in this book are the result of my own experimentations, any mistakes and inaccuracies present are, therefore, owing to my own shortcomings and mine alone.

 

 

***

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Hồ Xuân Hương

(1772 – 1822)

 

HỒ XUÂN HƯƠNG was born at the end of the later Lê Dynasty (1592-1788), a period of great unrests and turmoil. At the end of the Lê Dynasty, the Confucian hierarchy which had for centuries dominated society was on the verge of collapse. As a result, new powers arose to covet powers and influence for themselves.

 

Her Life and Legends:

 

Despite her fame and legacy, not much is actually known about Hồ Xuân Hương’s life, and what is known belongs mostly to the realm of speculations and is, as a result, subject to much debate. Obscure though her records were, most scholars and researchers generally agree that Hồ Xuân Hương was born in Quỳnh Đôi village, in Quỳnh Lưu district of Nghệ An province, located in the central northern region of Vietnam. However, that is where the agreement ends. Many scholars debate about her origin and parentage, with many claiming that she was the daughter of a concubine named Hà Thị, and her father was either Hồ Sỹ Danh (1706-1783) or Hồ Phi Diễn (1703-1786), both of whom were scholars.

 

In 1819, according to professor Nguyễn Huệ Chi of the Institution of Literature in Hà Nội, there is an official record which refers to “the concubine Hồ Xuân Hương” Such a reference was part of the record of an execution for bribery. One official named Trần Phúc Hiển, then the governor of Yên Quảng province, was executed by order of the emperor. The record in question mentions that the concubine of this man was a woman named Hồ Xuân Hương, who was at the time famous for her skills in both literature and politics.

 

Her past continues to be shrouded in debate and mysteries till this day. As a result, stories and legends of her life were popularized. There was a legend which talked about her occupation as an owner of a roadside tea shop in Thăng Long (the old name for Hà Nội in present day) who was famous for her ability to compose perfectly structured poems as effortlessly as the act of breathing. Hồ Xuân Hương, therefore, attracted lots of young men attending he civil service examinations, who would come to her to match wits and literary skills.

 

Whatever the facts may be, one undeniable truth is that Hồ Xuân Hương became well-known for her ability to compose poems which were filled with wits and humor and innuendoes. She even borrowed the earthly voice of the common people in her expressions, and incorporated images associated with the rustic countryside life into her works, turning them into beautiful, resounding and, in multiple cases, scathingly critical and ironic. As for her marital status, Hồ Xuân Hương is believed to have married twice, as her poems specifically mention two husbands: the prefect of Vĩnh Tường and Tổng Cóc (Commisioner Toad). Based on her poem “Mourning the Prefect of Vĩnh Tường” (p. 34), her relationship with the Prefect was based on true affection, and she deeply mourned his death, his talent as well as their brief relationship together, one which would only last twenty-seven months.

 

Her Works:

 

In the Northern region, the influential Trịnh clan effectively reduced the Lê kings into becoming their puppets and gathered power unto their hands, ruling the country as they pleased. The Trịnh, however, did not achieve total supremacy yet, as they were locked in a civil war with the Nguyễn clan in the south (whose court was situated in Huế). The Nguyễn clan was assisted by the Portuguese and the French troops recruited by colonial missionaries in the conflict, further and further splitting the country into pieces. However, the list of calamities did not end there. Wishing to unite the nation once more and overthrowing the rotten powers responsible for the country’s division, in 1771, the three Tây Sơn brothers rallied the people and led a rebellion, one which would result in the establishment of a new, yet short-lived dynasty of their own, from 1788 to 1802.

 

This time of chaos, warfare, instability and uncertainty was a fuel for the poetic minds and talents around the country, serving as their inspiration for their works. It is not, however, strange that such themes would be incorporated into poetry. Among those poets was Hồ Xuân Hương, a name that stood out above the rest, for she was, first and foremost, a woman. While it is true that women did hold prestigious positions in Vietnamese history, with the most prominent being the Trưng Sisters as the commanders of an army, women were not formally trained in literature, nor were they allowed to take part in national examinations to become officials in court. In a society dominated by ancient Confucian traditions and beliefs, that a woman would partake in the art of poet was unusual and unthinkable. Yet, with her talents with poetry, Hồ Xuân Hương produced works which would bring her timeless acclaim into the modern day.

 

The reasons for Hồ Xuân Hương’s fame were numerous, but one of the most prominent factors which made her name known was the themes which she chose to write about. When the Lê Dynasty was heading toward its inevitable ruination, women were being increasingly looked down upon, reduced to following the whims of men. A woman, according to the Confucian doctrine, existed solely for the sake of the men in her household, for her father, for her relatives, then for her husband, and later for her son, even after they had passed away. Women, banned from sitting in civil examinations, were only good for taking care of all the menial tasks in the house; their greatest honor was to be married off to whomever their parents dictated and to produce an heir. Confucianism had long been used as a guiding compass and law, which dictated that a woman must obey her father when unmarried, her husband when married and her son even when widowed. They had no freedom for themselves, and they lived only to serve the will of the men with whom she was affiliated. Additionally, tradition also dictated that women must keep their filial duty at all time; they were not allowed to divorce their husbands (even in when the husbands passed away), but the latter could divorce the former if needed.

 

Hồ Xuân Hương did not accept such a fate of servitude, much less one of a concubine. She instead constantly and rigorously questioned the orders of all things, and her focus of criticism was placed upon the authority which men held in society. Social and custom restraints were forced upon the women in the feudal era. Even Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetic defiance and challenge of the male authority was considered extremely risky to her own life. Her insolence could have easily been punished by death, yet she lived and flourished as a poet.

 

Another important nod to Hồ Xuân Hương’s defiance and daring nature is the fact that she chose to write her poems using the Nôm script rather than classical Chinese, which was at the time the language of the elite and the learned. As a result, Hồ Xuân Hương’s poetry is more closely connected with the daily language of the common people. Her verses came to life with the vivid imagery and were always filled with the allusions to proverbs, folklore and mythology.

 

Moreover, Hồ Xuân Hương further pushed her defiance and boldness into higher grounds with the inclusion of double entendres and sexual innuendos in a large number of her poems (many of which are included and translated in this book). She wrote on various commonplace objects such as a snail, a jackfruit, the traditional game of swinging, a folding fan, the act of sleeping, playing chess, a gorge… However, if one were to scrutinize more closely the clever wordplay, homonyms, puns, the various elements borrowed from folktales and proverbs she employed, one could detect the witty and stunning sexual references hidden therein. Sex was a topic few, if any, poets of the past had ever dared to touch upon, for sex and nudity were taboos in Confucianism.

 

And yet, in a time when such acts of defiance, such references to sex and nudity and indecency could easily land her a death sentence, Hồ Xuân Hương survived everything and thrived even more. It was ultimately her mastery and talent as a poet of the people, as well as of the folk culture in general, which gave her life, one which would be immortalized until this very day (some of her poems have even found their way into Vietnam’s literature textbook for students to learn).

 

All in all, her witty mastery at wordplay, her wicked sense of humor, her employment of the native speech, her loneliness and longing, her ever-present hunger for love and passion, her empathy with the women in society, her pride as a woman herself, and her anger at all the corruptions under the rule of men have made Hồ Xuân Hương a national poet and a literary and cultural icon. Her title as “The Queen of Nôm Poetry” (which was given to her by the modern poet Xuân Diệu) is one which she so rightfully deserves.

Translation Notes:

 

Most of Hồ Xuân Hương’s Nôm poems which I have chosen to translate in this book are written in the forms of Thất Ngôn Tứ Tuyệt (Seven Characters, Four Lines) and Thất Ngôn Bát Cú (Seven Characters, Eight Lines). These regulated poetic forms are collectively referred to as Đường Luật, a Vietnamese variant of the Tang poetry in China.

 

In Thất Ngôn Tứ Tuyệt, there are four lines in total, with each containing seven characters. Similarly, poems written in the Thất Ngôn Bát Cú form has eight lines of seven characters each. In addition to the limited lines and characters, there are several rules to which a poet must adhere, with the most important being the rules of bằng (flat) and trắc (sharp) tones. Take the first two lines of Hồ Xuân Hương’s Bánh Trôi Nước (A Cake Afloat in Water) for example:

 

Thân em vừa trắng lại vừa tròn,

……Flat……Sharp…..Flat

Bảy nổi ba chìm với nước non.

……Sharp…Flat…..Sharp

 

Rắn nát mặc dầu tay kẻ nặng

…..Sharp…..Flat….Sharp

em vẫn giữ tấm lòng son.

….Flat…..Sharp….Flat

 

In Thất Ngôn Tứ Tuyệt, the second, fourth and sixth syllables in a couplet must have opposite tones, while the seventh sounds of the first, second and fourth lines must rhyme with one another. The same tonal rules are applied in Thất Ngôn Bát Cú, whose number of lines is doubled. Additionally, in Thất Ngôn Bát Cú, the rule of rhyming is further extended as well: the end syllables of the first, second, fourth, sixth and eighth lines must rhyme with one another. These complex rules effectively create a musical quality to these poems, making them sound like songs when recited aloud. In addition to the formal rules, there are several others related to the contents of the poems, including the structure (the first two lines are the introduction; the next couplet are the descriptions, the fifth and sixth lines are inferences, and the last two lines are the conclusion) and the use of contrastive elements in lines three and four as well as in lines five and six (both in terms of tones and imagery). Such complexities are the reasons why these forms were only popular among scholars and the aristocrats, and why they are difficult for translators.

 

When translating these poems, as I have done in my previous book titled 101 Translated Ca Dao Songs, I have tried my best to translate the poems of Hồ Xuân Hương and Bà Huyện Thanh Quan (The Lady of Thanh Quan Prefecture) in a manner which could mimic the forms of the original as much as I possibly could, and all the translated poems here are the results of my personal experimentations. However, due to the differences of linguistic features, such a feat is extremely difficult or, in certain cases, impossible to perfectly translate. As for rhymes, due to the limited amount of pure rhymes available in English, I have opted for slant rhymes instead.

 

***

Bánh Trôi Nước

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

 

Thân em vừa trắng lại vừa tròn,

Bảy nổi ba chìm với nước non,

Rắn nát mặc dầu tay kẻ nặn,

Mà em vẫn giữ tấm lòng son.

 

 

 

The Cake Afloat in Water

 

My body is as white as it is round,

Like hills in water, now afloat, now drown’d.

I’m, firm or crumpling, made by kneading hands,

But still, my rouge-red heart I keep thus sound.

 

 

Quả Mít

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

 

Thân em như quả mít trên cây,

Da nó xù xì múi nó dày,

Quân tử có yêu xin đóng cọc,

Đừng mân mó nữa nhựa ra tay

 

 

 

The Jackfruit

 

I’m like a jack on a tree,

Its skin is rough, flesh chunky,

Should sir love me, drive the stake,

Don’t grope; your hands sap’ll sully.

 

Con Cua

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

 

Em có mai xanh, có yếm vàng,

Ba quân khiêng kiệu, kiệu nghêng ngang.

Xin theo ông Khổng về Đông Lỗ

Học thói Bàn Canh nấu chín Thang.

 

 

 

The Crab

 

I have blue shell, gold breastplate,

Troops lift the palanquin great,

Follow Kong (1) to Eastern Lu,

Learn Pan Geng’s way (2) to Thang (3) make.

 

 

 

(1) Kong: Confucius (Kong Zi)

 

(2) Pan Geng: The Chinese King of the Shang Dynasty. His name when spoken in Vietnamese sounds similar to Bàn Canh (noodles and soup).

 

(3) Thang: Thành Thang (Chen Tang), the first king of the Shang Dynasty whose footsteps Pan Geng wished to follow. This poem describes a crab and refers to the act of learning how to use the crab to make noodles and soup (Bàn Canh – Pan Geng). Additionally, in Vietnam, there is a dish called bún thang (Thang noodles), whose second sound sounds exactly the same as the Vietnamese pronunciation for the “Tang” in Chen Tang (Thành Thang). In short, the last line refers to the act of learning how to make bún thang with wordplay, playing with the names of prominent Chinese political figures.

Ốc Nhồi

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

 

Bác mẹ sinh ra phận ốc nhồi

Đêm ngày lăn lóc đám cỏ hôi,

Quân tử có thương thì bóc yếm (*)

Xin đừng ngó ngoáy lỗ trôn tôi.

 

 

 

The Snail

 

Parents give birth to a snail,

Day, night crawl midst grass’s foul smell,

Should sir love me, strip my lid (*),

Don’t prod my rear-hole as well.

 

 

 

(*) “Bóc yếm” means “removing the yếm” (a traditional kind of brassiere worn by women in the feudal era). However, the word “yếm” is an extremely clever wordplay with a double entendre, as it has a homonym which refers to the operculum (literally meaning “little lid”) which snails have. This pun is nigh-impossible to translate perfectly due to the differences between Vietnamese and English. In the end, I made the conscious choice to use “lid” (which, scientifically, can be used to refer to the operculum of gastropods). At the same time, “lid” is synonymous with the noun “cover,” which could, rather loosely, be understood as the garments which conceal the body.

Mời Ăn Trầu

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

 

Quả cau nho nhỏ miếng trầu hôi

Này của Xuân Hương mới quệt rồi

Có phải duyên nhau thì thắm lại

Đừng xanh như lá bạc như vôi.

 

 

Offering Betel

 

Small areca, bland betel,

Xuân Hương’s has been smeared, behold, (*)

If love’s destined, it’ll turn red,

Not leaf-green, lime-white like so.

 

 

 

(*) Quệt (smear): People smear, or apply, some lime onto the betel leaf before chewing.

 

Đồng Tiền Hoẻn

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

 

Cũng khuôn, cũng đúc, cũng lò gang,

Mở mặt vuông tròn với thế gian.

Kém cạnh cho nên mang tiếng hoẻn,

Đủ đồng, từng đã đóng nên quan.

 

 

 

A Dented Coin

 

Same frame, same shape, same furnace,

To life come round form, square face,

Dented, lesser though it’s deemed,

Saved up, a guàn (*) it shall make.

 

 

 

(*) A guàn: The old currency in the feudal era. One guan equals 100 coins.

 

Dỗ Bạn Khóc Chồng

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Văng vẳng tai nghe tiếng khóc chồng

Nín đi kẻo thẹn mấy non sông

Ai về nhắn nhủ đàn em nhé

Xấu máu thời khem miếng đỉnh chung.

 

 

Soothing a Friend Crying for her Spouse

 

Cries for spouse echo, it seems,

Quiet or shamed ‘fore hills, streams,

Tell the young ones, homebound one,

Bad blood craves not rare cuisines.

Vịnh Dương Vật

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Bác mẹ sinh ra vốn chẳng hèn

Tối tuy không mắt sáng hơn đèn

Đầu đội nón da loe chóp đỏ

Lưng đeo bị đạn rủ thao đen.

 

The Male Member

 

Parents birth not a low life,

Though blind, the lamp it’d outshine,

Wear leather hat tipped in red,

Hoist leads’ bag black, big in size.

Trào Tăng

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Nào mũ ni nào áo thâm,

Đi đâu chẳng đội để ong châm,

Đầu sư há phải chi bà cốt,

Bá ngọ con ong bé cái nhầm.

 

 

 

Mocking a Monk

 

With a monk’s hat and clothes brown,

Unworn – by bees stung when out,

Monk’s head is not a psychic’s,

Darn that mistaken bee now.

Vịnh Sư Hoạch Dâm

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Cái kiếp tu hành nặng đá đeo

Làm chi một chút tẻo tèo teo

Thuyền từ cũng muốn về Tây Trúc

Trái gió cho nên phải lộn lèo

 

 

 

The Lustful Monk

 

Ascetic life’s rock-heavy,

Owing to one thing bitsy,

The West (*) the boat longs to head,

Halyards tangle ‘gainst the wind.

 

 

 

(*) The West (Tây Trúc): the old name for India.

Vịnh Ni Sư

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Xuất thế hồng nhan kể cũng nhiều,

Lộn vòng phu phụ mấy là kiêu.

Gậy thần Địa Tạng khi chèo chống,

Tràng hạt Di Đà để đếm đeo.

Muốn dựng cột buồm sang bến giác,

Sợ cơn sóng cả lộn dây lèo.

Ví ai quả phúc mà tu được,

Cũng giốc một lòng để có theo.

 

 

 

The Buddhist Nun.

 

Many red-cheeked women this world renounce,

Times and again, vain husbands break their vows.

The Dì-zàng’s staff they at times lean upon (*),

Amida’s beads they bear to wear and count.

To Enlightenment shores, they hope to sail,

Yet fear huge waves that’d twist the halyards ‘round.

Those blessed enough to be ascetics then

Must be resolved so that success is found.

 

 

 

(*)Dì-zàng: The Chinese pronunciation for Ksitigarbha, a bodhisattva who, according to Buddhism, taken a vow to never ascend to Buddhahood until all hells have been emptied.

Chơi Hoa

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Đã trót chơi hoa phải có trèo,

Trèo lên chớ ngại mỏi xương nhèo,

Cành la cành bổng vin co vít,

Bông chín bông xanh để lộn phèo (*).

 

 

 

Playing with Blooms

 

To play with blooms, climb one must,

Climb and mind not bones that ache,

Low limbs, high limbs, pull and clutch,

Blossoms, green buds tangles make.

 

 

 

(*) “Lộn phèo” when read in reverse (nói lái) becomes “Phẹo lồn” which, true to Hồ Xuân Hương’s style of poetry, refers to the act of copulation. Again, this is a wordplay that is well nigh-impossible to translate into English satisfactorily.

Đền Thái Thú

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Ghé mắt trông ngang thấy bảng treo,

Kìa đền Thái Thú đứng cheo leo.

Ví đây đổi phận làm trai được,

Sự nghiệp anh hùng há bấy nhiêu.

 

 

 

At a Tai-shou’s Shrine

 

The glancing eye spots a sign,

On steep grounds stands Tai-shou’s shrine (*),

If I could live a man’s fate,

More gallant feats I’d realize.

 

 

 

(*) Tai-shou (太守): A bureaucratic position with the task of overseeing a zhou (châu) – an administrative unit in ancient China.

Khóc Tổng Cóc

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Hỡi chàng ôi, hỡi chàng ôi,

Thiếp bén duyên chàng có thế thôi.

Nòng nọc đứt đuôi từ đây nhé,

Nghìn vàng khôn chuộc dấu bôi vôi.

 

 

 

Mourning Commissioner Cóc

 

My man, oh, my dear man, oh,

Our love could but so far go,

Tadpole will hence lose its tail,

Lime mark shan’t be blurred by gold (*).

 

 

 

(*) According to a folktale, the Jade Emperor once opened an examination for all the fish to attend. The toad (cóc, which is also the name of Hồ Xuân Hương’s dead husband mentioned in this poem) also came to the examination site. However, due to not having any gills or fins like the other fish, the toad was not allowed entrance. The toad stubbornly protested, stating that it had once had a tail as a tadpole, but the tail had fallen off. The official in charge of the examination did not appreciate the toad’s stubbornness, and ordered his underlings to beat up the toad, smear its battered head with lime and kick it out of the site.

 

Khóc Ông Phủ Vĩnh Tường

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Trăm năm ông phủ Vĩnh Tường ôi!

Cái nợ ba sinh đã trả rồi,

Chôn chặt văn chương ba thước đất,

Tung hê hồ thỉ bốn phương trời.

Cán cân tạo hóa rơi đâu mất,

Miệng túi càn khôn khép lại rồi

Hăm bảy tháng trời đà mấy chốc,

Trăm năm ông phủ Vĩnh Tường ôi!

 

 

 

Mourning the Prefect of Vĩnh Tường

 

Lifetime! Vĩnh Tường Prefect, oh!

The debt of love, you’ve paid all,

Poems interred three feet deep,

Ambitions blown far by winds.

Creation’s scale, dropped, is lost,

Cosmos’s bag’s mouth, sealed, is closed.

Twenty-seven months was brief,

Lifetime! Vĩnh Tường Prefect, oh!

Vịnh Khách Đáo Gia

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Nhện sa cá nhẩy mấy hôm qua,

Uẩy uẩy hôm nay bác đến nhà,

Điếu thuốc quyến đàm mừng bác vậy,

Miếng trầu đỏ tuổi gọi chi là,

Ao sâu nước cả khôn tìm cá,

Vườn rộng rào thưa khó đuổi gà,

Bác đến chơi đây mừng bác vậy,

Nhà thì không có chợ thì xa.

 

 

 

The Unwelcome Houseguest

 

Spider’s spun, fish’s jumped for days,

Oh dear, you’ve come to my place,

Please have some tobacco spit,

The red betel here, please have,

I, in deep pond, can’t catch fish,

Midst yard’s sparse fence, cocks can’t chase.

Since you have come, you I’ll host,

With no house, nigh marketplace.

 

Vịnh Miêu

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Cũng thì nanh vuốt kém chi nao

Chưa biết mèo nào cắn miu nào

Xuống lệnh con hươu tài nhảy nhót

Ra uy hùng hổ tiếng bào hao

Co do cúi mặt leo từ dưới

Khúm núm thu hình thót nhẩy cao

Chí quyết phen này vồ lấy cống

Rồi lên đài các sẽ nghêu ngao.

 

 

 

The Cats

 

Like all with fangs, claws endow’d,

None know which cat bites which now,

Order skilled stags to go dance,

Roar like august tigers proud,

Shrink with face down, forward stalk,

Crouch the body, swiftly bounce.

Resolve to now catch the rat,

Then on high grounds stand and meow.

Phận Đàn Bà

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Hỡi chị em ơi có biết không?

Một bên con khóc một bên chồng.

Bố cu lổm ngồm bò trên bùng,

Thằng bé hu hơ khóc dưới hông,

Tất cả những là thu với vén,

Vội vàng nào những bống cùng bông.

Chồng con cái nợ là như thế,

Hỡi chị em ơi có biết không?

 

 

 

A Woman’s Fate

 

Hear, hear sisters, do you know?

Bawling child and husband both,

The spouse on the stomach crawls,

The child at the side wails so.

All things must be tidied up,

In haste take care of it all.

To husband, child thus obliged,

Hear, hear sisters, do you know?

 

Thương Thay Phận Gái

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Thương thay phận gái cũng là người,

Nỡ bỏ xuân xanh quá nửa đời,

Ông Nguyệt nỡ nào trêu quải mãi,

Chị Hằng khéo nhẽ éo le thôi,

Hoa còn phong nhụy ong ve vãy,

Gió đã phai hương bướm tả tơi,

Quá ngán thợ trời ghê gớm bấy,

Xuân xanh được mấy chút thương ôi.

 

 

 

Pity a Woman’s Fate

 

A woman is a human still – pity,

For half her life, wasted her youth has she,

Why must the Lunar Elder tease her so? (*)

Why must Chang-o only face misery?

Buzzing bees round flowers with pistils intact,

Battered butterflies on unfragrant winds.

Too weary of Heaven’s fearsome Schemer,

One’s prime spring only lasts so long – pity!

 

 

 

(*) The Lunar Elder: An elderly god who resides in the Moon and spins the red threads of love to make mortals fall in love according to Vietnamese and Chinese mythology.

Chửa Hoang

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Cả nể cho nên hoá dở dang,

Nỗi niềm nàng có biết chăng chàng.

Duyên thiên chưa thấy nhô đầu dọc (1)

Phận liễu sao đà nảy nét ngang. (2)

Cái nghĩa trăm năm chàng nhớ chửa?

Mảnh tình một khối thiếp xin mang,

Quản bao miệng thế lời chênh lệch,

Không có, nhưng mà có, mới ngoan!

 

 

 

A Husbandless Pregnancy

 

Yielding results in this mess,

My feelings, sir, can you guess?

Destined love its head yet lifts (1)

Willow-fate a flat line gets (2)

The lifelong bond, you recall?

I’ll bear this load of love, yes,

Despite rumors the world makes,

No spouse, but with child, that’s great!

 

 

 

(1) (2) In these two lines, the poet used a play on the strokes which make up the Chinese characters. “Destined love” is a translation of “duyên thiên” (literally “a match made in heaven”). “Thiên” is a Chinese-derived word meaning “heaven.” With one stroke upward, the Chinese character for “heaven” (天) becomes “husband” (夫). In line 4, the speaker is referring to the Chinese character for “finished,” (了), which is homophonous with “willow,” a classical symbol for “woman.” A bar across 了 turns it into 子, meaning “offspring” or “child.” Lines 3 and 4 describe the speaker’s condition of being pregnant without a husband.

Lấy Chồng Chung

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Kẻ đắp chăn bông kẻ lạnh lùng

Chém cha cái kiếp lấy chồng chung

Năm chừng mười họa chăng hay chớ

Một tháng đôi lần có cũng không

Cố đấm ăn xôi, xôi lại hỏng

Cầm bằng làm mướn mướn không công

Nỗi này ví biết dường này nhỉ

Thời trước thôi đành ở vậy xong.

 

 

 

Sharing a Husband

 

One’s cotton-blanket’d, one’s cold,

Spouse-sharing life, damn it all,

Once in a while, do or don’t,

Twice in one month, yes or no.

Take fists for rice (*), rice is spoilt,

Work like a slave, pay’s zero,

Had I known how it’d turn out,

I’d have been fine on my own.

 

 

 

(*) Take fists for rice: Translated from “Cố đấm ăn xôi” (lit. take punches for rice). It is a Vietnamese proverb which means that one must toil in order to obtain the reward one deserves.

Thương

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Há dám thương đâu kẻ có chồng,

Thương vì một nỗi hãy còn không.

Thương con cuốc rũ kêu mùa Hạ,

Thương cái bèo non giạt bể Ðông.

Thương cha mẹ nhện vương tơ lưới,

Thương vợ chồng Ngâu cách mặt sông.

Ấy thương quân tử thương là thế,

Há dám thương đâu kẻ có chồng.

 

 

 

Love

 

Love, one with a spouse dares not,

Yet laments the love yet lost,

Mourns the cuckoo’s summer cries,

Mourns the East Sea’s drifting weed,

Mourns parent-spiders spinning webs,

Mourns Cowherd pair the stream splits up (*),

Though loving the gentleman so,

Love, one with a spouse dares not.

 

 

 

(*) Cowherd pair: The Weaver Girl and the Cowherd is a Chinese folk tale about Zhi-nu (the Weaver Girl) and Niu-lang (the Cowherd). In Vietnam, the story is known as Ngưu Lang, Chức Nữ, with Ngưu (or Ngâu) meaning “cow.” For the story, see note (37) of Lament of the Soldier’s Wife (p. 36).

Vô Âm Nữ

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Mười hai bà mụ ghét chi nhau,

Đem cái xuân tình cắm ở đâu,

Rúc rích thây cha con chuột nhắt,

Vo ve mặc mẹ cái ong bầu,

Đố ai đố biết vông hay chóc,

Nào kẻ nào hay cuống với đầu,

Thôi thế thì thôi, thôi cũng được,

Nghìn năm càng khỏi tiếng nàng dâu.

 

 

 

A Girl without Sex

 

The twelve midwives had a cow (1),

Misplaced her maidenhood now.

Screw then the mouse squeaking there,

Screw then the bee buzzing round.

An aroid or coral tree? (2)

The stem and bud, who’d make out?

If that is so, then that’s fine,

By an in-law’s fate unbound.

 

 

 

(1) The twelve midwives: Twelve fairies in charge of the birth and appearance of a human

 

(2) The Vietnamese people use the images of different trees to describe the sitting posture: “Ngồi lá vông, chổng mông lá chóc, nằm dọc lá tre, tè he lá khế.” This could be loosely translated into English as, “Sitting down like a coral tree’s leaf; putting one’s bottom up like an aroid’s leaf; lying flat on one’s back like a bamboo’s leaf; kneeling like a starfruit tree’s leaf.”

 

Dệt Cửi

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Thắp ngọn đèn lên thấy trắng phau,

Con cò mấp máy suốt đêm thâu.

Hai chân đạp xuống năng năng nhắc,

Một suốt đâm ngang thích thích mau.

Rộng hẹp nhỏ to vừa vặn cả,

Ngắn dài khuôn khổ vẫn như nhau.

Cô nào muốn tốt ngâm cho kỹ,

Chờ đến ba thu mới dãi màu.

 

 

 

Weaving

 

In lit lamplight, it’s pure white,

The loom moves nonstop all night,

Both feet up, down, press, steady,

Shuttle back, forth slides, agile,

Wide, tight, small, big – all fitted,

Short, long, shapes, sizes alike.

Girls, for fine stuff, soak it well (1),

In three Fall’s months, let it dry (2).

 

 

 

(1) The act of soaking the fabric in a mixture of water and rice flour to make the fabric soft.

 

(2) During the three months in autumn, the sunlight is intense, which is perfect for dying the fabric and letting it dry.

Vịnh Quạt

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

 

Mười bẩy hay là mười tám đây,

Cho anh yêu dấu chẳng dời tay.

Mỏng dầy chừng ấy chành ba góc,

Rộng hẹp dường nào cắm một cay.

Càng nóng bao nhiêu thời càng mát,

Yêu đêm chưa phỉ lại yêu ngày.

Hồng hồng má phấn duyên vì cậy,

Chúa dấu vua yêu một cái này.

 

 

 

The Folding Fan

 

Seventeen or eighteen, say (*),

With this he thus shan’t part way,

Thick, thin – spread out three angles,

Wide, tight – the hole penetrate,

The more heated, the fresher,

He’ll love this all night and day,

With cheeks blushed by kaki’s juice,

All lords and kings this thing crave.

 

 

 

(*) Seventeen or eighteen: This refers to the number of ribs a fan may have. At the same time, it also refers to the age of a woman.

Đánh Đu

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

 

Bốn cột khen ai khéo khéo trồng,

Người thì lên đánh kẻ ngồi trông,

Trai co gối hạc khom khom cật

Gái uốn lưng ong ngửa ngửa lòng.

Bốn mảnh quần hồng bay phấp phới,

Hai hàng chân ngọc duỗi song song.

Chơi xuân đã biết xuân chăng tá.

Cọc nhổ đi rồi, lỗ bỏ không!

 

 

 

Swinging

 

Four posts are so deftly raised!

One swings while one to watch stays,

Boys bend lean knees, their backs hunch’d,

Girls arch lithe backs, chests displayed,

Ruby trousers gaily flap,

Par’llel jade legs stretch out straight,

Greet spring and taste spring’s ardor,

Pulled out, the posts holes forsake.

 

Giếng Nước

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Ngõ sâu thăm thẳm tới nhà ông,

Giếng ấy thanh tân giếng lạ lùng.

Cầu trắng phau phau đôi ván ghép,

Nuớc trong leo lẻo một dòng thông!

Cỏ gà lún phún leo quanh mép,

Cá giếc le te lách giữa dòng.

Giếng ấy thanh tân ai đã biết?

Đố ai dám thả nạ rồng rồng.

 

 

 

The Well

 

Long is the path to your place,

That well has pure water, strange,

A clear-white bridge twin planks form,

A pristine spring circulates.

Tufts of couch grass ‘round it sprout,

A carp midstream glides in haste,

That wholesome well who has found?

Who’d dare release snakeheads, nay? (*)

 

 

 

(*) Carps are rare, exquisite creatures whereas snakeheads are considered common and inferior.

Đèo Ba Dội

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Một đèo, một đèo, lại một đèo,

Khen ai khéo tạc cảnh cheo leo.

Cửa son đỏ loét tùm hum nóc,

Hòn đá xanh rì lún phún rêu.

Lắt lẻo cành thông cơn gió thốc,

Đầm đìa lá liễu giọt sương gieo.

Hiền nhân, quân tử, ai mà chẳng

Mỏi gối, chồn chân vẫn muốn trèo?

 

 

 

Ba Dội Gorge

 

A gorge, a gorge, another,

Praise to this steep sight’s maker,

Rouge-red entrance, bushy peak,

Leaf-green boulder, moss meager,

Wobbly pine’s limbs the wind shakes

Soaked willows’ leaves dews lower,

Righteous, saintly ones have tried,

Weak knees, drained feet still clamber?

 

Hang Cắc Cớ

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Trời đất sinh ra đá một chòm,

Nứt làm đôi mảnh hổng hòm hom,

Kẽ hầm rêu mọc trơ toen hoẻn,

Luồng gió thông reo vỗ phập phòm,

Giọt nước hữu tình rơi lõm bõm,

Con đường vô ngạn tối om om,

Khen ai đẽo đá tài xuyên tạc,

Khéo hớ hênh ra lắm kẻ dòm.

 

 

 

Cắc Cớ Cave

 

Heaven and Earth brought forth a rocky mass,

Split in half by an uneven crevasse,

Barren is the crack’s narrow moss-bound mouth,

Constant is the wind’s pine-whipping gush fast,

Enchanting water-drops here drip-drop drop,

Unending path here stretches dim and dark.

Praise whoever deftly sculpted these stones,

Then left it bare for many to look at.

 

Vịnh Hàng ở Thanh

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Đứng chéo trông theo cảnh hắt hiu,

Đường đi thiên thẹo quán cheo leo

Lợp lều mái cỏ gianh xơ xác

Xo kẽ kèo tre đốt khẳng khiu

Ba gạc cây xanh hình uốn éo

Một dòng nước biếc cỏ leo teo

Thú vui quên cả niềm lo cũ

Kìa cái diều ai nó lộn lèo.

 

 

 

A Tavern in Thanh

 

Leaning, viewing lonesome sight,

Paths wind t’wards the inn up high,

The hut’s thatch roof tatters, bare,

Gaunt bamboos’ knots intertwine.

Green trees with shapes contorted,

Clear stream with sparse grass nearby,

Current joy nulls worries old,

Whose kite’s string is in knots tied?

Đề Tranh Tố Nữ

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Hỏi bao nhiêu tuổi hỡ cô mình,

Chị cũng xinh mà em cũng xinh.

Trăm vẻ như in tờ giấy trắng.

Nghìn năm còn mãi cái xuân xanh.

Phiếu mai chi dám đường trăng gió,

Bồ liễu thôi đành phận mỏng manh.

Còn thú vui kia sao chẳng vẽ,

Trách người thợ ấy khéo vô tình.

 

 

 

On a Painting of Beautiful Women

 

How old are they, my lady?

The sisters are both pretty,

Like blank sheets are their features,

Their timeless youth’s evergreen.

Ripe plums shan’t tail wind and moon,

Willows, reeds live fates dainty,

Why not portray other joys?

Loveless artist, shame on ye.

 

Cảnh Thu

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Thánh thót tầu tiêu mấy hạt mưa,

Khen ai khéo vẽ cảnh tiêu sơ,

Xanh ôm cổ thụ tròn xoe tán,

Trắng xóa tràng giang phẳng lặng tờ.

Bầu dốc giang sơn say chấp rượu.

Túi lưng phong nguyệt nặng vì thơ.

Ơ hay, cảnh cũng ưa người nhỉ,

Ai thấy, ai mà chẳng ngẩn ngơ.

 

 

 

Autumnal Scenery

 

Drip-drops on banana leaves,

Praise one who sketched such bleak scenes,

Lush green old trees’ canopies,

Reticent long silver streams,

Wine gourd’s raised – drunk with streams, hills,

Poems droop bag with moonbeams,

I see, scenes love man as well,

Charmed is one who these perceives.

 

Tự Tình (I)

By Hồ Xuân Hương

 

Tiếng gà văng vẳng gáy trên bom,

Oán hận trông ra khắp mọi chòm.

Mõ thảm không khua mà cũng cốc,

Chuông sầu chẳng đánh cớ sao om.

Trước nghe những tiếng thêm rầu rỉ,

Sau giận vì duyên để mõm mòm.

Tài tử văn nhân ai đó tá?

Thân này đâu đã chịu già tom!

 

 

 

Sharing One’s Thoughts with Oneself (I)

 

Cock on the boat in string crows,

Loathsome, I gaze at all folds,

Glum muyu (*) untouched still sounds,

Woeful bell unstruck still tolls.

First at those sounds, dourer get,

Then at lone fate, angry grow.

Talents, scholars, where’re you at?

I’m yet resigned to grow old.

 

 

 

(*) Muyu: A Wooden Fish, also known as a Chinese temple block, which Buddhist monks use during rituals involving the recitation of the sutras.

 

References

 

Balaban, J. (2000). Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hồ Xuân Hương. Port Townsend, WA:

Copper Canyon Press.

Bà Huyện Thanh Quan (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.thivien.net/B%C3%A0-

huy%E1%BB%87n-Thanh-Quan/author-6azYVLxBQ7V-btKf3qVRNg.

Nguyễn Bá Thế and Nguyễn Quốc Thắng (2006). Từ Điển Nhân Vật Lịch Sử Việt Nam. Hồ Chí

Minh City: Tổng Hợp Publishing House.

Hồ Xuân Hương (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.thivien.net/H%E1%BB%93-Xu%C3%A2n-

H%C6%B0%C6%A1ng/author-PBy92bBuBMMs53v9tc9E0A.

Huỳnh Sanh Thông. (1996). An anthology of Vietnamese poems: from the eleventh through the

twentieth centuries. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Nguyễn Huệ Chi and Trần Hữu Tá (2005). Từ Điển Văn Học (Bộ Mới). Hồ Chí Minh City: Thế

Giới Publishing House.

Nguyễn Thạch Giang (2004). Văn học thế kỷ XVIII. Hồ Chí Minh City: Khoa học Xã hội

Publishing House.

Phạm Văn Sơn (1960). Việt Sử Toàn Thư. (n.p.).

Trần Trọng Kim (2005). Việt Nam Sử Lược. Hồ Chí Minh City: Hồ Chí Minh City General

Publishing House.

Tucker, S. (1999). Vietnam. Lexington, Ky: University Press of Kentucky.

 

 


Grace and Flair: A Sample of Hồ Xuân Hương's Poetry

This free ebook contains a sample of the famous Vietnamese poetess Hồ Xuân Hương's poetry, including the English translations of thirty-three out of the sixty-one Nôm poems extracted from my other book titled "Grace and Flair: Three Vietnamese Poetesses." The poems included here serve as an introduction to Hồ Xuân Hương's bold and defiant commentaries on various aspects of life and, most of all, the social injustice which women of the feudal era had to endure, as well as display to a certain extent her clever, punny, erudite and irreverent verses filled humorous wordplay and numerous innuendoes.

  • Author: Khoa Ngô
  • Published: 2017-05-19 17:05:23
  • Words: 10758
Grace and Flair: A Sample of Hồ Xuân Hương's Poetry Grace and Flair: A Sample of Hồ Xuân Hương's Poetry