Vietnamese Literature Essay - Critical Essays

Vietnamese Literature


Vietnamese Literature

Vietnamese literature in the twentieth century reflects centuries of Chinese occupation, eighty years of French rule, and America's presence during the conflict between communist North Vietnam and democratic South Vietnam. In addition, Roman Catholic missionary work in Asia during the nineteenth and early twentieth century increased Vietnamese literacy and resulted in a greater demand for literature. The twentieth century in Vietnam began under French rule, which, combined with the influence of Chinese culture, produced works of a heavily moralistic nature, as evidenced by the stories of Nguyen Ba Hoc. Poetry as practiced during the first half of the twentieth century by such writers as Tan-Da Nguyen Khac Hieu, A-nam Tran Tuan Khai, and Dong-ho Lam Tan Phat often is described as lyrically romantic. Other writers focused on patriotic themes, eventually becoming known as the Dong-king School of the Just Cause. The advent of Vietnamese literary criticism and journalism in the 1930s occurred concurrently with the Self-Reliance literary group, which consisted of several poets who consciously rejected Chinese writing styles in favor of an indigenous Vietnamese vernacular style and themes that advocated individual and women's rights. The writing of this era continued to focus on traditional themes while introducing new rhyme schemes and rhythms that further relied on the use of Vietnamese language rather than Chinese. In the latter part of the 1930s and continuing through the 1960s, Marxist themes became more prevalent. Social themes of poverty and unfair taxation of Vietnam's peasant population became increasingly popular subject matter for Vietnamese fiction writers.

In the 1950s France signed an armistice that divided the country into the southern Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the communist North Vietnam. France withdrew its colonial government in the 1950s, and the conflict between North and South escalated. The period between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, however, witnessed a flourishing of literary activity in both countries. Works of this period typically are divided among writers wishing to reunify Vietnam as one communist country, the social realism of South Vietnam, and the heavily political poetry of North Vietnam. The imprisonment of future North Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh prompted him to write a series of extremely popular poems, while writers in the South continued to advocate democracy and denounce communism. Many of these South Vietnamese writers were incarcerated or exiled for creating works considered “specimens of a depraved culture” after the United States withdrew its military support of the country in 1975, and North Vietnam reclaimed the South. The communist government of Vietnam, however, relaxed many of its restrictions on travel, trade, and culture during the late 1980s and 1990s, which increased the country's literary output and sparked new interest in Vietnamese drama, poetry, and fiction.

Representative Works

Ai Nhu
Bau tren co dan [The Misunderstood Devotion] (drama) 1996

Anh Duc
Hon Dat [The Clod of Earth] (novel) 1966

Bang Viet
Bep Lua [The Fireplace] (poetry) 1968

Che Lan Vien
Anh Sang Va Phu Sa [Light and Allusions] (poetry) 1960
Hai Theo Mua [Seasonal Picking] (poetry) 1977

Chu Van
Bao Bien [Storm on the Sea] (novel) 1968
Dat Man [Saltworks] (novel) 1973

Dao Vu
Cai San Gach [The Brickyard] (novel) 1959
Vu Lua Chiem [The Rice of the Fifth Moon] (novel) 1960

Doan Quoc Si
Dong Song Dinh Menh [The River of Destiny] (novel) 1959–1963
Ba Sinh Huong Lua [A Life of Love] (novel) 1962

Dong Ho
Trinh Trang [Virginity and Candour] (poetry) 1961

Duong Thi Minh Huong
Bong Hoa Rung [The Flower of the Woods] (poetry) 1970

Giang Nam
Que Huong [The Native Village] (poetry) 1964
Nguoi Anh Hung Dong Thap [The Hero of the Plain of Rushes] (poetry) 1969

Hang Phuong
Huong Xuan [The Odour of Spring] (poetry) 1942
Mua Gat [The Harvest] (poetry) 1961

Hoang Ngoc Phach
To Tam (novella)...

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Yuan Ying (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “The Voice of a Heroic People,” in Chinese Literature, No. 8, 1965, pp. 87–93.

[In the following essay. Ying depicts the poetry of Ho Chi Minh as representative of a heroic struggle against United States imperialism in Southeast Asia.]

Deep is the friendship between Viet Nam and China;
We are comrades as well as brothers.

This concise description of the close relationship between the Vietnamese and Chinese peoples was written by President Ho Chi Minh of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam. And this deep friendship between two peoples who have long been comrades-in-arms is vividly reflected in all fields of life, including art and literature.

The literary ties between China and Viet Nam go back to the thirteenth century or earlier. Many classical Vietnamese writers had a good knowledge of Chinese literature and sometimes even wrote in Chinese. Similar customs and social conditions as well as related languages facilitated learning from each other and cultural interchange, which reached unprecedented proportions after the Chinese people's liberation. There are now more contacts than ever before between Chinese and Vietnamese writers, and many Vietnamese works have been made available in translation to the Chinese reading public. I want, briefly, to give my impressions of some Vietnamese writing in Chinese translation I have recently read.

At the end of the eighteenth century Nguyen Du wrote a poem of more than 3,200 lines entitled Kim Van Kieu which was adapted from a Chinese novel. As soon as this was published in Chinese in 1959 by the People's Literature Publishing House, Peking, it aroused great interest among Chinese readers, who find its content and historical background familiar since it gives a picture of sixteenth-century China. It tells of a beautiful and talented girl named Thuy Kieu, who was kidnapped and sold to a brothel, but through all her sufferings and hardships her heart remained as innocent as a white lotus flower unstained by mud. Nguyen Du ruthlessly exposed the feudal rulers and voiced the people's longing for freedom and justice. This poem conveys his sympathy for the people and his admiration for virtue and pure love.

This long poem is still so popular in Viet Nam that when I visited the country with the Chinese Writers' Delegation in October 1956 I heard an old village woman and a young woman worker in town reciting some of the most moving stanzas. The poem is widely read in China too. To me it represents the union of Chinese and Vietnamese literature and is a monument to the close literary ties between our countries.

But the most popular Vietnamese poems in China are those written in Chinese by President Ho Chi Minh. I saw the original manuscripts in the Central Library in Hanoi in 1956, and they were published here in 1960 to celebrate the president's 70th birthday. Our Chinese Writers' Delegation was privileged to hear from Ho Chi Minh himself how these poems came to be written. Holding his hands together as if he were handcuffed, he told us that after his arrest by the Kuomintang reactionaries in the province of Kwangsi in 1942, he was imprisoned for a whole year, and during that time he put all his joy, anger and grief into the hundred short poems which make up this collection. At the beginning of the book he wrote:

My body is in prison
But my spirit roams free outside;
To achieve a great task
In spirit we must range wide.

These lines indicate the lofty tone of the whole book. Reading it, one forgets that these poems were written in prison but seems to hear a great revolutionary talking to his comrades. Here are three examples:

Every morning the sun rises over the wall
To shine on our locked cells;
The cells are still dark,
But ahead of us is light.
You are simply an ordinary cock
Yet how loudly you crow each day to announce the dawn;
And it is no little thing
To arouse men from their dreams.
Roses bloom, roses fade,
Bloom and fade relentlessly;
But their fragrance seeps into our cells
Conveying their sympathy for the men inside.

There is not a hint of gloom or sorrow in these poems which express high ideals and infinite faith in freedom, using homely yet poetic images to voice the confidence and optimism of a revolutionary.

President Ho Chi Minh was writing in dark days for the Vietnamese people under the rule of the French colonialists, but at the same time a resolute underground struggle was being waged under his leadership and that of the Communist Party. After the revolution of August 1945, the Vietnamese fought for...

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Stephen O’Harrow (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: “Some Background Notes on Nhat Linh,” in France-Asie/Asia, Vol. XXII, No. 2, 2nd Quarter, 1968, pp. 205–220.

[In the following excerpt, O’Harrow discusses the political and cultural changes during which Nhat Linh wrote and published.]

This brief essay is intended to shed some light on the early life of Nguyen Tuong Tam who was one of the most widely read authors of his day in Vietnam1. With the present upheaval in Vietnam, it is difficult to tell whether the works of Nguyen Tuong Tam will continue to enjoy the vast readership they had in the past; this apart, Tam was in many ways representative of his generation and for those of us who are...

(The entire section is 6988 words.)

David G. Marr (essay date 1978)

SOURCE: “Reflections From Captivity,” in Reflections From Captivity, translated by Christopher Jenkins, Tran Khanh Tuyet and Huynh Sanh Thong, edited by David G. Marr, Ohio University Press, 1978, pp. 3–8, 59–66.

[In the following excerpt, Marr introduces English translations of the prison writings of Ho Chi Minh and Phan Boi Chau.]


Phan Boi Chau is revered today as a Vietnamese patriot of the first order. Streets are named after him in all parts of Vietnam. His birthplace in Nghe An province is a national monument. His writings—at least those that managed to survive colonial proscription...

(The entire section is 4484 words.)

Nguyen Tran Huan (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: “The Literature of Vietnam, 1954–1973,” in Literature & Society in Southeast Asia, edited by Tham Seong Chee, Singapore University Press, 1981, pp. 321–345.

[In the following excerpt, Huan surveys the poetry, drama, and fiction of North and South Vietnam between 1945 and 1975.]

Before examining Vietnamese literature over the past twenty years, it would be interesting to take a closer look at the historical and geographical context of Vietnam over the two decades. The period was rich in events of considerable international importance which contributed to the evolution of its literature.

Above all, Vietnam should be considered in its...

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Maurice M. Durand and Nguyen Tran Huan (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Twentieth Century,” in An Introduction to Vietnamese Literature, translated from the French by D. M. Hawke, Columbia University Press, 1985, pp. 107–155

[In the following essay, which is a revised version of an essay originally published in French in 1969, Durand and Huan outline the history of Vietnamese literature.]

It is no exaggeration to say that in the period 1900–1975 Vietnamese literature reached heights unequalled in all its history. This flowering was no doubt due to a combination of factors—political, economic and social; but the most important single cause was the introduction of quoc-ngu (the system of writing literary and...

(The entire section is 15727 words.)

Lisa Lowe (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Literary Nomadics in Francophone Allegories of Postcolonialism: Pham Van Ky and Tahar Ben Jelloun,” in Yale French Studies, Vol. 1, No. 82, 1993, pp. 43–61.

[In the following excerpt, Lowe compares the literature of French colonialization of Vietnamese author Pham Van Ky and North African writer Tahar Ben Jelloun.]

Even upon first arriving, immigrants sense they have been for a long time traveling in the West.

—Teshome Gabriel

In discussing decolonization in Les Damnés de la terre (1961), Frantz Fanon argues that one of the challenges facing those movements seeking to...

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Catherine Diamond (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: “The Pandora's Box of ‘Doi Moi’: the Open-Door Policy and Contemporary Theatre in Vietnam,” in New Theatre Quarterly, Vol. XIII, No. 52, November, 1997, pp. 372–385.

[In the following essay. Diamond examines contemporary Vietnamese drama.]

Although the ‘open-door' policy, or doi moi, was largely adopted by the Vietnamese because other socialist and former socialist countries were encouraging free market economies, and Vietnam's own economy needed a radical opening-up to stimulate it, party leaders were not unaware of the risk posed by the policy to the traditional and developing national culture. A draft report of the Eighth Party Congress...

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Nguyen Ba Chung (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “The Field of Vision in Vietnamese Poetry,” in Mountain River, Kevin Bowen, Nguyen Ba Chung, Bruce Weigl, eds., University of Massachusetts Press, 1998, pp. xi–xvii.

[In the following excerpt, Chung discusses the importance of poetry to Vietnamese cultural identity through French colonialization and American involvement in the Vietnamese conflict to the early 1990s.]

From 179 B.C.E. until 938 C.E., China ruled Giao Chau—the country we now know as Viet Nam. 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 army along the Cau River, Marshal...

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Further Reading


Balaban, John. “Translating from Vietnamese.” Translation IV (Spring-Summer 1977): 91–101.

Discusses distinguishing features of the Vietnamese language and their manifestations in poetry, stressing the difficulty of rendering Vietnamese poetic wordplay into English.

Bich, Nguyen Ngoc. “The Poetry of Vietnam.” Asia, No. 14 (Spring 1969): 69–91.

Contains English translations of poems by six twentieth-century Vietnamese writers.

Burton, Eva. “Communication in Vietnamese Poetry.” Culture Monthly Review XIII, No. 9 (September 1964): 1265– 73.


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