Reading Between the Lines:
Ho Xuan Huong, the Queen of Nôm Poetry
by Pat Valdata
he poet Ho Xuan Huong (c. 1770-1822) is one of the most important literary figures of Vietnam. Her work was largely unknown in the United States until John Balaban's translation of her poems, Spring Essence, was published in 2000 by Copper Canyon Press. Although no records document her birth or death, clues in her poetry and references to her in other texts have allowed scholars to deduce that she was probably born in the Quynh Luu district of the Nghe An province (Tran, "Come on, Girls"). She grew up in what is now Hanoi.
Her father died when she was a young girl. Her mother remarried, but at the lower status of second wife or concubine. Some sources say that Ho Xuan Huong ran a tea shop where she composed impromptu poems when challenged. She certainly received an education in classical literature, because she is adept at using classical Chinese forms. She may have been briefly married to one man, or may had a love affair with him, according to one of her poems. She was concubine to another man she refers to as "Mr. Toad," which gives a clear impression of her side of that relationship. No one knows whether they had children. After her husband was executed for bribery, she traveled widely, and many of her poems reflect the landscapes of northern Vietnam. An official record of that time describes her as "well-known as a talented woman of literature and politics" (qtd. in Balaban, p.7).
Her writing is so good that she has been the target of sexist scholarship, with some claiming that she is a mythical figure and others that only a man could have written poems with such skill and so many sexual metaphors. But a substantial body of work has been identified as hers, and can even be dated to the early 19th century. However, it is very likely that other poets copied her style; of the more than 140 poems called Ho Xuan Huong poems, less than half may be confidently attributed directly to Ho Xuan Huong (Tran, "Come on, Girls").
Her style was copied by others because it allowed them to follow her example in voicing forbidden sentiments and themes. Not only did Ho Xuan Huong write openly about sexuality, she also criticized social institutions she saw as corrupt and hypocritical, including politicians, scholars, clergy, and the mistreatment of concubines. As Tran My-Van notes, "Her lyrics offer deep insight into the candid voice of a liberated female spirit in a traditional, male-dominated society....The defiance of convention and the embrace of individuality and sexual freedom evident in her poetry made her unique and solidified her reputation" (Tran, "Ho Xuan Huong").
A Historical Context for Her Work
A brief summary of the complicated political and social climate of Vietnam in the late 18th and early 19th centuries will help contemporary readers understand why Ho Xuan Huong's poetry was so radical. At the time of her birth, Vietnam was an independent country. The country had previously been ruled by the Chinese for over a thousand years, yet even after 800 years of independence, Chinese influences, including Buddhism and Confucianism, were still strong, especially in the cities. Among these influences were the civil service system, whose exams and positions were open only to upper-class men, and the practice of polygamy. In rural areas, folk traditions were more uniquely Vietnamese, with folk songs and poetry passed on orally, and less adherence to patriarchal, Confucian principles.
In the late 1700s, although an emperor nominally ruled the whole country, the North was actually ruled by the Trinh family and the South by the Nguyen family. In 1771, a third family, the Tay Son, rebelled and held power until 1802. During this period, writers and civil servants began using a Vietnamese form of writing called Nôm. Nôm imposed Vietnamese syllables onto Chinese ideograms, producing text that to Westerners looks Chinese, but it is sounded using Vietnamese phonemes. This revitalization of Vietnamese literary culture continued after Nguyen Anh, commonly referred to as the Gia Long emperor, unified the country and ruled until 1820.
Ho Xuan Huong wrote most of her poetry during the Gia Long period. She was so skilled at writing in Nôm that she has been called the Queen of Nôm Poetry (Tran, "Ho Xuan Huong"). This expertise is one reason why North Vietnamese scholars in the 1950s and 1960s insisted that Ho Xuan Huong was a poet of the Tay Son rebellion who wrote in protest of the repressive Confucian society (Wilcox 429). Thus, the North sees her as a revolutionary "of a continuous permissive Vietnameseness" whose poetry "can be linked to the purportedly enlightened policies of the modern Hanoi Government" (Wilcox432-433). This position persists despite evidence that Ho Xuan Huong not only wrote most of her poetry after the rebellion ended, but also that her work was as critical of the Tay Son era as it was of feudal Confucian values.
Despite the misguided scholarship, the popularity of Ho Xuan Huong in the North helped preserve her work. Before the 1960s, she was well known in Vietnam but not often studied in school because her work was considered vulgar by male critics. She became more widely read after her poetry was translated into French in 1968 by Maurice Durand. Several poems were translated into English in 1975 for a volume of Vietnamese poetry published by Knopf. But her work did not become widely read in English-speaking countries until John Balaban's book-length translation, Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, was published in 2000. Most recently, in 2008, Poetry magazine printed five poems that were translated by Marilyn Chin.
Sound, Form and Theme
Nôm assigns Vietnamese phonemes to traditional Chinese characters, but according to Balaban, other Chinese characters are retained for semantic value (13), so that Nôm uses about twice as many characters as Chinese. An additional complication is that Vietnamese is a tonal language, with six separate pitches for each vowel sound. Two of these pitches are even tones (high or low), and words using these tones may be rhymed. The other four pitches are considered "sharp" tones, where the pitch varies within the syllable (e.g., first rising and then falling), and these sounds are not rhymed. In the current Vietnamese script, which uses a Roman alphabet, diacritical markings indicate the proper pitch.
In addition to this tonal rhyme scheme, Ho Xuan Huong was known for using colloquial Vietnamese expressions. She was exceptionally good at including puns called doi, which employ the pitch changes to allow double meanings to be read into a given word. Balaban gives the example deo, which means to carry, but if pronounced as déo, the word means to copulate. In the same way, the phrase xuat the means "abandon the world" when pronounced one way, but when pronounced with a different pitch, it means "abandon the wife" (11).
Word inversions called noi lai are similarly used to create obscene double meanings. Lon leo means "to turn upside down" or "to be confused," but leo lon is a vulgar phrase describing how people are entwined when they copulate. Balaban writes that "this kind of tonal play and echo is often the very heart of the poem, making translation almost impossible" (11). Even a native speaker like Tran My-Van acknowledges that "she cannot fully do justice" to these poems in English ("Come on, Girls").
Ho Xuan Huong often wrote in a classical Chinese form called lu-shih that has strict rules. Each poem has eight lines; each line has seven syllables. Rhymes occur on lines 1,2,4,6, and 8. Only even tones may rhyme, and there are specific positions where sharp tones must be placed. The middle four lines usually are semantically parallel. She also wrote a four-line variation on this form, called chueh-chu. Balaban notes that Ho Xuan Huong often added even more rhymes than were required and sometimes structured her poems so that the first words on each line could be read vertically in a kind of anagram, with built-in word play (12).
Layered on these rules and puns are the themes that Ho Xuan Huong wrote about again and again: the corruption of politicians, the decadence of Buddhist monks and nuns; the foolishness of scholars, the woes of life as a concubine; the low status of women and their domestic labors; and the desire for duyen, fated love that is created in heaven and sought by the destined lovers through succeeding incarnations. She also wrote about Buddhist values of compassion and spiritual fulfillment, and poems about landscapes that reflect her loneliness.
The most notable—and notorious—aspect of Ho Xuan Huong's work is the sexual innuendo that until recently made her poems too racy for "good girls" to read. Probably her most famous poem is "Jackfruit":
My body is like the jackfruit on the branch:
my skin is coarse, my meat is thick.
Kind sir, if you love me, pierce me with your stick.
Caress me and sap will slicken your hands. [tr. Balaban 37]
Balaban's translation above shows on a literal sense the practice of impaling a jackfruit on a stick to ripen it, but it is impossible to read this poem without seeing the clear reference to the sexual act in the final two lines. Others translate the last two lines as follows:
Gentlemen, to love me, quickly stick the prick in
Avoid squeezing and touching lest the sap stain your hand [Tran My-Van]
But if it pleases you, drive the stake.
Don't just fondle, or the sap
Will stain your fingers. [Linh Dinh]
Dear prince, if you want me pierce me upon your stick
Don't squeeze, I'll ooze and stain your hands [Marilyn Chin]
Despite their obvious differences, each translator captures the ironic tone of the lines in which Ho Xuan Huong frankly notes the difference between being used for a man's pleasure versus receiving pleasure from the man. The class differences between the speaker and the men she addresses are also noted by three of the translators, who refer to the men as "kind sir," "gentlemen," or "dear prince." Although these forms of address may be read as courteous, they can be read with equal or stronger justification as sarcasm, since a truly kind gentleman or prince would not simply "pierce" a woman upon his "stick" to "ripen" her (make her pregnant?).
Many of Ho Xuan Huong's poems include similar innuendo, ranging from the obvious as in "Jackfruit" to more subtle references in other poems. For contemporary readers, all of these poems are erotic, funny and feminist, but not startling by any means. For a Vietnamese woman to write this way in the patriarchal society of early 19th century Vietnam was, however, both daring and innovative. Yet if we focus on the innuendo alone, we will miss many layers of metaphor and meaning.
For example, in the poem "The Floating Cake," which describes a small rice cake filled with red bean paste, the cake is not only a metaphor for the speaker, but also, because Ho Xuan Huong uses the phrase "mountains and streams"—a convention for the word "nation"—the cake may also refer to the country of Vietnam itself as having a heart that is "red and true" (Balaban 119). Red is considered a color of luck, worn at weddings, and in Ho Xuan Huong's time was also a color worn by nobility. Perhaps she was writing that the country was a noble one, no matter who was in power: "Whatever way hands may shape me" (Balaban 33).
Ho Xuan Huong included other conventional literary phrases in her work, such as a drifting boat, which means a woman living alone; willow trees, which stand for women; and pine trees, which stand for men, but she used these phrases in very unconventional poems, such as "Three Mountain Pass":
A cliff face. Another, And still a third.
Who was so skilled to carve this craggy scene:
The cavern's red door, the ridge's narrow cleft,
The black knoll bearded with little mosses?
A twisting pine bough plunges in the wind,
Showering a willow's leaves with glistening drops.
Gentlemen, lords, who could refuse, though weary
And shaky in his knees, to mount once more? [tr. Balaban 47]
Although this poem is certainly inspired by an actual landscape—the notes for this poem suggest that it refers to the Deo Tam-Diep range in northern Vietnam—Balaban is certainly correct when he explains that "the particular contours, the active pine and willow constitute a sexual landscape as well" (121). Ho Xuan Huong describes a similar sexual landscape in her poem "Viewing Cac-Co Cavern," in which she again describes the "crack's dark mouth shagged with moss/pines rocking in wind rush" (Balaban 89). However, Balaban concludes this poem with "praise whoever sculpted stone/then left it bare for all to see." Tran My-Van also translates the next-to-last line with a statement of praise "to the talent for cleverly carving such forms," but her concluding line has a very different tone: "Watch out, don't expose much, though—many peeping toms!" Tran's translation seems more in keeping with the sexual innuendo we expect from Ho Xuan Huong.
In fact, Ho Xuan Huong employs many metaphors for the sex act in addition to the pine and willow: a kite "struggling up" in "Tavern by a Mountain Stream"; a shuttle moving back and forth in a loom, in "Weaving at Night," which concludes "Girls who do it right, let it soak/then wait a while for the blush to show (Balaban 49); a boy and girl on a swing in "Swinging"; the moves of playing pieces in "The Chess Game." She is forthright about describing male anatomy in her poem "Male Member," and she uses many metaphors for female anatomy, including a paper fan, flowers, and a wellspring: "Finding this well, so virginal and clear/Who would put a catfish here?" (Balaban 65).
The humor of these poems is also evident in her poems about men of power, whether politicians, soldiers or scholars. She refers to her husband, the commissioner executed for bribery, with "All we had together came down to this:/the tadpole's lost his tail" ("Lament for Commissioner Cóc, tr. Balaban 29). She views the shrine of a general who committed suicide and wonders "couldn't I do better?" ("At the Chinese General's Tomb," tr. Balaban, 95). Her contempt for scholars is unmistakable in the poem "Young Scholars," in which she refers to them as "illiterate fools" who would be more productive if they used their brushes not for scholarship but to paint the pagoda walls (tr. Balaban 79).
Even Buddhist monks and nuns do not escape her wit. One poem is titled "The Lustful Monk"; another, "Mocking a Monk." Yet many of her poems about Buddhist clergy and temples also show nostalgia for a time when temples and their clergy were holy places, not corrupted by worldly desires. Quan Su Pagoda in the poem by that title is "desolate" (Tran) or "dead" (Balaban), with a missing abbot, no music, and unused prayer beads. The monk and nun should be at prayer but instead they are having sex, implied by the references to a gong and a mossy slit in lines 5 and 6, which makes the speaker even sadder. (In "Let's go, Girls," note 19, Tran suggests that the gong is made from jackfruit wood, or that it refers to small jackfruits (dai mit), which is slang for testicles.)
While many of her poems deal with political or religious hypocrisy, the overriding theme of her work is the low status of women in the urban Vietnamese society of her time. Ho Xuan Huong writes of the drudgery of housework, the loneliness of widows, the low status of concubines, the reduction of women to sex objects when they are young and crones when they are old. Her poem "Bailing Water" mocks the stereotype that love conquers all, or more harshly, that a little sex can make up for the hard work of homemaking, farming, and raising children:
We are enduring heat, no rain has come
Come on, girls, let's go bail water!
Dragging, dragging our three-cornered buckets
Drifting, drifting to that rich four-bordered field
Sway and swing our bodies to that deep, rippling water
Rock, rock our buttocks to that steep hard promontory
So engaged in hard work, we forget fatigue
Just spread our legs awhile, and we are fulfilled! [Tran]
Other well-known poems, including "The Condition of Women" and "On Sharing a Husband," also lament the difficulty of a woman's life. Yet, though she writes in the latter poem "If I had known how it would go/I think I would have lived alone" (tr. Balaban 35), in other poems she writes of loneliness and longing for love, the duyen that no one outside of legend seems to find. In "Confession (II)" she creates a poignant pun on her own name: "Sick with sadness, spring passes, spring returns./A bit of love shared, just the littlest bit" (tr. Balaban 25).
Even though an English translation cannot include every bit of her wordplay and wit, enough comes through to demonstrate the depth of her talent. Yet translations of her work have produced strong commentaries. First, Balaban was attacked in 2007 by poet Linh Dinh in the blog post "me so horny" on the International Exchange for Poetic Invention for what the author perceived as inaccuracies of scholarship. Linh Dinh wrote that "legends, myths, lies and general bullshit abound in Vietnam," accusing Balaban of poor ethnographic practices and mocking Balaban's pronunciation of Vietnamese. These assertions were refuted by an anonymous reader in the comments following this blog post (poeticinvention.blogspot.com).
The following year, after seeing Marilyn Chin's translations in the April issue of Poetry, Balaban's publisher, Joseph Bednarik, wrote to the editor: "I don't see how Chin's versions add depth or nuance to the work. Frankly, they read like someone noodling around in the margins of someone else's book" (Poetry, June 2008). In her response in the same issue, Chin then accused Bednarik of racism and cultural imperialism: "Perhaps Bednarik and his press believe that the white male patriarchy must forever colonize the translation of Asian poetry" (Poetry, June 2008). This response prompted Balaban to write his own letter critical of her translations and accusing her of cultural imperialism as well "[g]iven Vietnam's troubled ancient and recent history with China" (Poetry, July/August 2008). In the same issue, both Bednarik and Balaban's editor at Copper Canyon, Michael Weigers, continued the exchange, and another poet, Ankur Saha, sided with them (Poetry, July/August 2008). In September 2008, Poetry printed letters from John Poch, Barnaby Thieme, and Bruce Grant (all white males) decrying Chin's response to the initial criticism, and four letters defending her translations, all from people of color: Kimiko Hahn, Mitsuye Yamada, Aafa M. Weaver and Joy Harjo. The dispute also flared briefly in the blogosphere, with each poet having his and her supporters, but without resolution there or in Poetry. One can't help but imagine that Ho Xuan Huong would be delighted to know that her work still inspires heated debate.
Balaban, John. Letter. Poetry 191 (July/August 2008). Online. 7 Apr. 2010. http://www.poetryfoundation.org.
Bednarik, Joseph. Letter. Poetry 190 (June 2008). Online. 7 Apr. 2010. http://www.poetryfoundation.org.
Chin, Marilyn. Reply to letter of Joseph Bednarik. Poetry 190 (June 2008). Online. 7 Apr. 2010. http://www.poetryfoundation.org.
Dinh, Linh. "me so horny." International Exchange for Poetic Invention. Online. 11 Jan. 2010. http://poeticinvention.blogspot.com.
Ho, Xuan Huong. Spring Essence: The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong. Trans. John Balaban. Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2000.
Saha, Ankur. Letter. Poetry 191 (July/August 2008). Online. 7 Apr. 2010. http://www.poetryfoundation.org.
Tran, My-Van. " 'Come On, Girls, Let's Go Bail Water': Eroticism in Ho Xuan Huong's Vietnamese Poetry." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33 (2002) 471-495. Online. Galenet. 7 Apr. 2010.
Tran, My-Van. "Ho Xuan Huong." Oxford Encyclopedia of Women in World History. Online. 11 Jan. 2010. http://www.mywire.com.
Wilcox, Wynn. "Women and Mythology in Vietnamese History: Le Ngoc Han, Ho Xuan Huong, and the Production of Historical Continuity in Vietnam." Positions 13 (2005): 411-439.
1. Note that Vietnamese names and words written in the Romanized script called quoc ngu are properly printed using diacritical markings unavailable to this writer.