(ISSN: 1527-5467)
the magazine of Literature & Literature-in-translation.


JAN 2006













     An Introduction

     To the Vietnamese Classic





        Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc, or Complaints of an Odalisque, is considered one of the three masterpieces of classical Vietnamese literature.  Ranking right behind The Tale of Kiều, it can compete with the Lament of a Warrior's Wife (Chinh Phụ Ngâm Khúc) as one of the quintessential gems of a tradition that is known for its great poetic output.  If the Lament is the more popular one because of its universality, being the story of a woman whose husband has on account of a war long absented himself from home, a theme familiar enough until the twentieth century in Vietnam, the Complaints of an Odalisque are always a darling of the scholars and intelligentsia owing to its great beauty, sophistication and philosophical depth.


Philosophical Influences on Vietnamese Literature


Recorded Vietnamese literature dates back to at least 986 when Đỗ Pháp Thuận, a Buddhist priest, was sent by King Đại Hành, to meet with a Chinese ambassador, Li Jue.  Disguised as a boatman, Đỗ was ferrying the Chinese envoy across the river when the latter saw two wild geese.  To test the Vietnamese, Li made up two impromptu verses:

                        Nga nga, lưỡng nga nga

                        Ngưỡng diện hướng thiên-nha.

                        There: wild geese, two wild geese

                        swimming, staring up at the sky!

Realizing that the Chinese deliberately left the poem unfinished, Đỗ rejoined with another two verses to make it a quatrain:

                        Bạch-mao phô lục-thuỷ,

                        Hồng-trạo băi thanh-ba.

                        White feathers against a deep blue,

                        Red feet burning in green waves.

                              (Revised translation by NNB, with Burton Raffel)

The Chinese was duly impressed and upon returning to the Celestial Court, gave a very favorable report on the newly independent nation.

This first poem, which by the way is only half-Vietnamese (since the first couplet was given by the Chinese envoy), was to mark many of the characteristics of the classical Vietnamese tradition in literature.  It is a tradition at first schooled in the Chinese classics, which gave a common educational background to the scholars of the Far East, with China being the center and Vietnam, Korea and to a lesser extent, Japan, radiating from it.  The homogeneity of these four countries is comparable to the situation of medieval Europe when scholars of various lands, from Ireland in the Atlantic to Bohemia in Eastern Europe, from Denmark in northern Europe to the northern shores of Africa, all shared in the common heritage of classical and medieval Latin.

Being trained on possibly the same core curriculum (the Four Books and the Five Scriptural Writings), Đỗ Pháp Thuận may have been slightly different from his Chinese counterpart in the sense that he was a Buddhist priest, in fact the highest ranking Buddhist priest of the land since one of his title was “Khuông Việt Đại ”, the Great Monk Who Set Parameters for Vietnam.  In this way we may assume that he knew a great deal of the Buddhist doctrines of the day and was quite familiar with some of the major scriptures of that faith.  From early on, then, Vietnamese literature has been deeply influenced by Buddhist thought and concepts--so much so that even today, it is not at all uncommon to hear Vietnamese Christians refer to Buddhist concepts as if that were the most natural thing to do, despite the fact that such concepts, if examined closely, may be totally contrary to Christian doctrines.  For instance, in matters of love and marriage Vietnamese Christians feel no awkwardness whatsoever in referring to the idea of duyên nợ (an affinity or a debt incurred from a former existence that links two human beings).  Or if they saw something tragic worthy of one's pity, they would say, “Tội-nghiệp quá!”, which literally means, “It's his/her karma resulting from a mistake or crime (committed in a previous existence)!”

Two strands, therefore, came together and formed the moral and ethical foundation of the traditional Vietnamese.  And an interplay of these two strands is what makes up the moral compass of much of the traditional literature of Vietnam.  See, for instance, the tension caused by Hiếu, Filial Piety (Xiao in Chinese), the Confucian ideal that caused Kiều to sacrifice her love for Kim Trọng in order to save her father and brother, and T́nh, Love, a concept that Confucian ethics had almost no room for, something that only Buddhism had an explanation for.

A third strand is sometimes mentioned in terms of influences on Vietnamese literature.  Daoism, the philosophical school first enunciated by Laozi, then elaborated by Zhuangzi, came to Vietnam under two forms: a higher form as represented by the lofty conceits of the Dao De Jing (reportedly by Laozi) and the Nanhua Jing (authored by Zhuangzi), and a lower form which is no more than alchemy and magic (represented by the search for immortality and unconventional behavior).  In its popular form, Daoism is expressed in terms of drunkenness, a certain relaxed morality and a concern with nature, including the so-called natural appetites of mankind, since it believes in wu wei (Non-action, Non-interference, Laissez faire).  In this manner, Daoism also has its say in the monument we are studying, the Complaints of an Odalisque.

Finally, an indigenous strand, which may be the strongest, can also be detected in this work.  I am referring to the somewhat monotheistic belief of the ancient Vietnamese in a supreme deity which they call Ông Trời, August Heaven, a mildly anthropomorphic figure which is supposed to be just and impartial if somewhat laid back, later to be assimilated with such Chinese Daoist concepts as Tạo Hóa or Hóa Công, the Creator, sometimes represented as a whimsical child, Con Tạo or Hóa Nhi, Child Creator.  In the Complaints of an Odalisque one will notice that the main character, an imperial concubine, frequently calls on Ông Trời to be her witness and/or to dispute with him the poor treatment that He apparently reserves for her. 

Besides that supreme deity, for which there is no contest, the ancient Vietnamese also acknowledge a pantheon of divinities that may consist of anything from a tree spirit to a demon to various natural gods (the God of Fire or of the Hearth, a somewhat tamer version of the Indian Agni; the God of Thunder; the God of Lightning; the God of Rain; the God of Clouds, etc.).  Last but not least, in ancient times the Vietnamese are found to be worshippers of the Linga, the male energy symbol (in some localities called Ông Đùng or Cái in Vietnamese), and sex deities, especially fertility gods, not excluding the Yoni, the female energy symbol (sometimes called Đá or Cái Nường in Vietnamese).  In a somewhat veiled manner, this question, the attractiveness of sex, is a dominant theme in the Complaints of an Odalisque.  Even the sexual act is frankly acknowledged and beautifully described therein.

Next to the gods there are also supernatural beings, such as national, regional or local heroes who upon their death may become the objects of specific cults.  Ancestors, especially those believed to be watching after their descendants, also form the basis of a cult called ancestor worship.  However, these minor deities are not part of the discourse in the present work.


Indigenous Forms and the 7-7-6-8 Quatrain


The first four centuries of recorded Vietnamese literature are marked by the dominance of Chinese poetry forms: four-syllable verses (very rare), five-syllable verses (somewhat more common), seven-syllable verses (the most common kind) in poetry and the fu (phú in Vietnamese) or rhymed expository prose.  The language itself is classical Chinese but read in a Vietnamese pronunciation, hence the name of this language as Hán-Việt, Sino-Vietnamese.  The seven-syllable verses for the most part are written in couplets, quatrains (tứ tuyệt in Vietnamese, the preferred form used by Zen priests, especially on their death beds) or octets (thất ngơn bát in Vietnamese).  These last two forms, the (five- or seven-syllable) quatrains and octets are called lüshi (luật-thi in Vietnamese), “regulated poetry”, as they are strictly ruled by tonal combinations and rhyme schemes.

That was, however, the poetry and literature of the court, of the Buddhist monks and of the high classes which are impregnated with Chinese and Buddhist allusions as scions of that upper crust of society were raised on such a tradition.  This was not, as can be suspected, an expression of vọng ngoại (looking outside, aping the foreigners) so much as a necessity imposed on the leadership of the time, China being the overwhelming power to the north with which the country had to deal throughout its history.  The need for Vietnamese to learn and read Chinese, or at least Sino-Vietnamese (so that they could “converse with the pen”, bút-đàm in that language), was thus a necessity as much as it is nowadays an absolute requirement that one speak, read and write English if Vietnam is to communicate and trade with the rest of the world.

The common people, though, spoke Vietnamese and had their popular songs and poetry, that included forms more adapted to the Vietnamese language.  For instance, in contrast to the Chinese predilection for the impair beat (five syllables, seven syllables to a verse) the Vietnamese prefer the four, six or eight-syllabled verse.  That is why the most common verse in Vietnamese poetry is the 6-8 beat, by far the most popular form of the Vietnamese folksongs.

It is the impact of this “pair” reflex (since four, six or eight can all be reduced to a binary base) of the popular tradition which by the fifteenth century brought about the first transformation of the Vietnamese lüshi (luật-thi) into the so-called Hàn-thi when lüshi was adapted and applied to the Vietnamese language.  This hybrid form allows for some seven-syllable verses to be shortened to just six syllables without impairing the general structure of the quatrain or octet.  For instance, Nguyễn Trăi in the fifteenth century could write a poem like this:

                        Góc thành Nam lều một căn.

                        No nước uống, thiếu cơm ăn.

                        Con đ̣i trốn, dường ai quyến;

                        Bầy ngựa gầy, thiếu kẻ chăn.

                        Ao bởi hẹp ḥi khôn thả ;

                        Nhà quen thú thứa, ngại nuôi vằn.

                        Triều-quan chẳng phải, ẩn chăng phải.

                        Góc thành Nam lều một căn.


                        South of the City is my hut

                        With plenty to drink, not so much to eat.

                        The servant is gone, enticed away.

                        The horses are lean for want of a groom.

                        The pond is too small for fish.

                        And we simple folk do not keep brindled dogs.

                        Neither a courtier's or a hermit's--

                        South of the City is my hut.

                                                            (Revised translation by NNB)


In fact, this opening poem of Nguyễn Trăi's collection, Quốc-âm thi-tập (“Collection of Poems in the National Language”), is in itself a tour de force, an octet written almost entirely in six-syllable verses (5 out of 8)-a radical departure from the Chinese lüshi.

To this day, however, no one has been able to find out the rule (or rules) whereby some seven-syllable verses could be shortened to six syllables in a so-called Vietnamese  lüshi poem.  (That is probably why a scholar like Prof. Hữu Mục in Canada totally rejects the existence of the so-called Hàn-thi, poem in the Hàn-luật mold.  What is certain, however, is that a famous poet like Hồ Xuân Hương in late eighteenth or early nineteenth century still wrote several of her poems in this mode, witness her “Chàng Cóc ơi!  Chàng Cóc ơi! / Cong cóc đi đâu chẳng bảo tôi. / Ṇng nọc đứt đuôi từ đấy nhé! / Ngh́n năm không chuộc dấu bôi vôi”)

By the sixteenth century, a second hybrid form also made its way into Vietnamese poetry, what came to be known as the 7-7-6-8 form.  The first known recorded poem in this mold is one by tức Mao (1462-1529) but the internal rhyme scheme of this form was not yet quite set.  In its mature period, the final syllable of the first seven-syllable verse always rhymes with the fifth syllable of the following verse.  But in the seventeenth century, for instance, the final syllable of the first seven-syllable verse occasionally rhymes with the third syllable of the following verse.

By the second half of the eighteenth century, however, the 7-7-6-8 form was thoroughly domesticated to become one of the glories of the Vietnamese poetic tradition.  Thus, in a mere half century this form produced four minor classics of traditional Vietnamese literature, possibly in this sequence: Đ̣an Thị Điểm's Chinh Phụ Ngâm, Nguyễn Gia Thiều's Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc, Ngọc Hân's Ai Văn (“Dirge in Memory of Emperor Quang Trung”) and Nguyễn Du's Văn Tế Thập Loại Chúng Sinh (“Summons to the Souls of the Ten Categories of People”).  Despite its quatrain form, the 7-7-6-8 form lends itself very easily to a sequenced narrative, somewhat like the quatrain form used by Edward G. FitzGerald in his translation of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyát.

The Complaints of an Odalisque therefore were written while the form was at its peak development.  It is a thoroughly Vietnamese work, even more so than the Lament of a Warrior's Wife because the latter, especially in its premier form, a composition in Sino-Vietnamese by Đặng Trần Côn, was essentially a patchwork of classical Chinese figures and clichés that only impressed people owing to its timeliness and sincerity.  Ai Văn, Princess Ngọc Hân's dirge mourning the precocious death of her emperor-husband, is equally sincere and heart-wrenching, it is nonetheless a somewhat derivative work--parts of it copying the Lament.  Only Nguyễn Du's Summons is a Vietnamese original comparable to the Complaints of an Odalisque.  It is a more powerful work also because it describes a much broader canvas than the private sufferings of the concubine in the Complaints.



Musical Qualities of the 7-7-6-8 Form


What is little noticed, even in Vietnamese discussions of the 7-7-6-8 (song thất lục bát) form, is that, probably more than any other poetic form in Vietnamese literature, it is associated with music and known for its musical quality.  That is why many 7-7-6-8 poems have the word “khúc” attached to them, “khúc” meaning a “musical composition”, to wit:

Hồng Khải's Tứ Thời Khúc Vịnh (“The Four Seasons: A Composition in Interludes”), composed toward the end of the sixteenth century. (Cf. Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, written in the early 1700's.)

The Lament of a Warrior's Wife is referred to either as Chinh Phụ Ngâm or Chinh Phụ Ngâm Khúc, “ngâm” being the term that stresses the declamatory, incantatory aspect of the poetry.

The Complaints of an Odalisque's official name is Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc.

The “Dirge in Memory of Emperor Quang Trung” is named Ai Văn in Vietnamese, “văn” meaning “a dirge”, a funeral lament supposedly accompanied by a “phường bát âm’ (an ‘eight instrument orchestra”).

Nguyễn Du's “Summons to the Souls” does not carry the word “khúc” or “văn” in its Vietnamese title but the word “văn tế” in itself refers to “a funeral oration’, a ceremonial occasion requiring much solemnity and a formal kind of choreography marked by gongs and bells.

Even later, in the nineteenth century, Cao Nhạ, to disculpate himself and distance himself from the treasonable rebellion of his brother Cao Quát, wrote a Tự T́nh Khúc, “Self-confession”.

Since no one has studied this question--the relation of the 7-7-6-8 form to music or at least to a musical composition form called “khúc”--in some depth the following is only a hypothesis on my part, one which I believe however to be very creditable as it can be supported by features found in particular in the Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc.

To start with, a musical phrase is one that is regulated by a certain number of features:

For instance, it should have a beginning, a climax or development, and an ending.  Each verse of a 7-7-6-8 khúc has precisely just that.

Each musical phrase is usually divided into a definite amount of bars of equal time duration.  It is clear from the 6-8 form common to the folksongs that the basic bar in Vietnamese poetry is a two-beat bar, which normally gives:

                        --  --  /  +   +  /  --  --

                        --  --  /  +   +  /  --  --  /  +  --

                        --  --  /  +   +  /  --  --

                        --  --  /  +   +  /  --  --  /  +  --

(The hyphens correspond to bằng, or even-register, notes and the plus signs to trắc, uneven-register, notes.  In practical terms, an even-register monosyllabic word is one which carries an even-ngang-or down-huyền-tone and an uneven-register word is one which carries any of the four remaining tones of the language, namely sắc, hỏi, ngă, nặng.)

Now, how can a seven-syllable verse fit into this binary pattern?  I believe that if one looks closely at the structure of a 7-7-6-8 khúc, one would have the following:

                        Trải vách quế / gió vàng / hiu hắt

                        Mảnh -y / lạnh ngắt / như đồng.

                        Oán chi / những khách / tiêu-pḥng

                        xui / phận bạc / nằm trong / đào?

which translates, according to Dương Quảng Hàm (Văn-học Việt-nam, Saigon: Bộ Giáo-dục, n.d., reprint of 1939 edition, page 18) into:

                        O  +  +  /  --  --  /  +   +

                        O --  --  /  +   +  /  --  --

                        --  --  /  +   +  /  --  --

                        --  --  /  +   +  /  --  --  /  +  --

Looking at this structure, it is clear that the whole composition is quite regular with the exception of the three first syllables (or beats) of the two seven-syllable verses.  Since O is a neutral tone could it be then that these three-syllable groups are in actuality disguised two-beat bars?  In other words, that they are triplets in musical terms, meaning that they are the equivalent of a two-beat bar even though they are three notes?  And if this is the case, then a 7-7-6-8 composition (or khúc) is actually equivalent to a quatrain made up of two 6-8 syllable verses.


A Symphonic Composition


It is most unlikely--and it certainly is not my intention here to state any imaginary links--that the author of the Complaints, Nguyễn Gia Thiều (1741-1798), could ever meet Beethoven (1770-1827) even though they are rough contemporaries living on two opposite sides of the planet.  Nonetheless it is by no means far-fetched to claim that the two share a certain amount of techniques that can only be said to be musical. 

For instance, it is usually taboo in poetry to repeat the same words (and sometimes the same constructions) in contiguous verses.  But in music that is quite common as such a structure, when repeated, signals to the listeners that it is a motif that the composer wants to impress on them.  One is reminded here of Beethoven's famous “Destiny motif” with which he commences the Fifth Symphony in C Minor (1809), the so-called Fate Symphony.

Then it is also a common practice in music to develop a motif by varying it somewhat so that, while different, it still shows an air of familiarity that helps us to connect the variations with the original motif.

Finally, a motif is usually sustained throughout a movement in a major musical composition such as a symphony or a concerto. 

All three of these features can be found with no difficulty in the Complaints of an Odalisque.  Thus, the theme of Destiny is also a prominent theme in the Vietnamese work:

                        Oán chi những khách tiêu-pḥng

                        xui phận bạc nằm trong đào?

                        Duyên đă may cớ sao lại rủi?

                        Nghĩ nguồn cơn dở dĩi sao đang?

                        đâu nên nỗi dở dang?

                        Nghĩ ḿnh ḿnh lại thêm thương nỗi ḿnh!

O Heaven, why this relentless grudge towards us harem


Why bestow upon us a thin destiny under these rosy miens?

Lucky I had thought my love to be, then why this calamity?

Must a lucky love always end up bitter like this?

Why did the whole thing turn out to be such a disaster?

The more I think about it, the more I pity myself.

As Destiny is the motif of this opening passage, it should come as no surprise that “thin destiny” is repeated in at least three different ways, under three different variations in just four lines: “Lucky… then why this calamity?” “… lucky love end up bitter” “the whole thing turns out to be a disaster.”

Even the last verse has the appearance of a forceful musical phrase with the word “ḿnh” repeated three times to emphasize the sense of self-pity: “Nghĩ ḿnh ḿnh lại thêm thương nỗi ḿnh”, literally, “The more I think about myself, the more I pity myself”.

In terms of compositional structure, one can divide the Complaints into four sections, or movements, with an opening and a coda, all marked by clearly different moods:

The Opening (verses 1-8), somewhat objective, gives a broad statement of the issue.

The first movement (verses 9-44) is one of joy and pride--allegretto--as the main character discovers her own burgeoning beauty and great talents.

The second movement (verses 45-116) is like a rejoinder (a counterpoint), a reality check on life, one that is furnished by the wisdom of Buddhism.

An Interlude occurs here (verses 117-132) to reverse the thinking, leading to the inevitability of love and passion.

The third movement (verses 133-208), appassionata, is the climax of joy and sexual fulfilment when the main character knew all the favors of the King, now clearly biased towards her and she being his favorite.

The fourth movement (verses 209-324) is the letdown of love once it has known its peak.  Everything after this can only be downhill.

The Coda (verses 325-356) is a direct address to the King and to the Creator, lamenting their vicious, rotten treatment of her now that she is no longer young and beautiful, or simply because she is no longer the King's favorite.

The theme of Destiny is weaved throughout the work as can be seen in the following verses:

Human affairs, though, have strange ways to turn out. (verse 45)

Like a dream the world turned out to be

And the loom of creation has its mysterious ways. (verses 49-50)

O what a tragedy this floating life,

A mere bubble in the sea of suffering, a duckweed on the shore of illusion. (verses 67-68)

Life is a crucible constantly boiling in a furnace:

Pitiful the human condition as drawn and redrawn in the clouds. (verses 75-76)

Good fortune or misfortune, only Heaven has the prerogative to give,

It does not yield any of its power, no matter how small, to anyone.

A top is spun whimsically up there

And one's destiny appears but dimly, like someone walking in the night. (verses 89-92)

This must be then a debt from a former life

Or some anterior cause that now claims its denouement. (verses 121-122)

How we come together, that's Heaven-decreed:

One thing is sure, there is no escape from human love.

Let us then turn our faces away and keep silent,

See where the stroke of Fate will have us land. (verses 129-132)

So when it became my fate to serve my lord... (verse 183)

Yes, killing without a Ryukyu blade,

Killing simply with a personal tragedy--how cruel can that be. (verses 239-240)

A flower fallen from a branch, do I have any choice? (verse 292)

Thus, one can say with confidence that the theme of Destiny is the main motif of the symphonic poem known as the Complaints of an Odalisque.  It is, in other words, its leitmotiv although it is a motif of Fate as understood in the Buddhist tradition.


Buddhism v. Love and Sex


It has been said that Buddhism is a quietist faith marked by passivity.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Buddhism's drive for stilling human passion is precisely based on the recognition of the power of love, of desire.  It is the power of desire, Dục in Vietnamese, which is all-consuming and therefore could be destructive in its extreme forms such as passion.  Hence, the need to abate it (verse 48):

How I wish that Guanyin's poplar dew can abate my passion!

Until and unless one understands this one can never get into the spirit of the Complaints of an Odalisque or understand the tensions inherent in the poem.  Far from being a pessimistic faith, Buddhism can be a religion of wit and joy, even pranks, as can be seen in the spirit of Zen Buddhism, the major tradition in Vietnam.  And Tantric Buddhism, the major school of Buddhism followed by the Tibetans, is probably the major faith of mankind that delves in depth into the power of sex with its kundalini energy that proceeds through six centers of increasingly potent psychic power (chakra in Sanskrit) to blossom forth into a sahasrara, pictured as a lotus with a thousand petals.

With such a magnificent understanding and representation of love, it is no wonder that the third “movement” of the poem, especially in verses 135-152, contains some of the most candid expressions of sexual love found in traditional Far Eastern poetry:

... What a night, o what a night that was!

The sun wrapped itself around me, a camellia flower left tremulous.

A dahlia bud dreaming of a lucky downpour

Or a camellia sleeping and awake throughout the night,

I was like a flower that blossomed at the approach of spring

As the east wind caresses now the peach, and now the plum.

With the wind whistling my dancing outfit was soon in shreds

And my feathered coat discarded, barely visible in the moonlight.

An explosion of joy like an orchestra gone wild,

I hardly knew what to do...

The kingfisher mattress was redolent of musk,

And my body jangles twinkled in the pale moonlight.

A few love drops in the cloud-and-rain game,

And I locked you, peony twig, in my fragrant sandalwood urn.

In the pavilion next door the music was entrancing

And a flute--appassionata--came over from the royal quarters.

The more they played the more impassioned we became

And the more triumphant the music, the more benumbed we collapsed.


A female persona


The magnificence of the poetry found in the Complaints of an Odalisque has made it one of the three classic works taught in school in Vietnam.  But like The Tale of Kiều, there are passages that are best left to a more mature stage in life.  For how can one teach with equanimity to high schoolers scenes of seduction as found in Kiều or sex scenes like the above as found in the Complaints?

That is why passages like that are either passed over, ignored or given allegorical interpretations in the manner of what happened to the Song of Solomon (also called Song of Songs) found in the Old Testament.  For instance, in the Vietnamese case, the Complaints of an Odalisque is usually interpreted as Nguyễn Gia Thiều's veiled way of speaking on behalf of a courtier who, after reaching the pinnacle of power, say as a prime minister, loses the king's favor and therefore spends the rest of his life pining after a return to more glorious days.  But a close study of the author's life does not support such a reading.  For instance, in the biographical notice given by Professor Tơn Thất Lương in his well-known Tân Việt edition of Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc this was how Nguyễn Gia Thiều's career was described:

Nguyễn belonged to a family of learned scholars.  He was born in 1741 and known for his intelligence and good features.  In his youth, besides literary studies he also learned martial arts and became adept at military skills, for which reason at nineteen he was picked to serve at Court as a Cavalry Captain.  For his feats he was given the title of Lord of Ôn Như. 

“Thereafter he spent time studying and practicing literary skills, studied astronomy and geography, and devoted himself to Buddhist and Daoist research.  Calling himself Hy Tơn Tử (Rare Descendant) and Như Ư Thuyền (Tathagata Zen), he corresponded with philosophers and poetics experts, taking the leisurely life of an dilettante to be his ideal and spending time to write poetry about the wind and the moon, not caring in the least bit about court matters...  When the Tây Sơn took over the North, he went into hiding and did not want to be a mandarin [serving the new dynasty].  He took ill and died in 1798, at the age of 58.

“... He was a true expert in the art of poetry and led many in the Later period to become fine poets”.

It is thus clear that Nguyễn Gia Thiều was never a very high official at court and that he entertained very little ambition to become one, let alone regretting his days at court.  The belief that he “borrowed the fate of a concubine to describe his own situation” (page XVI of the same edition) does not stand very close scrutiny.  This is also the conclusion arrived at by Dương Quảng Hàm in his classic Việt-nam Văn-học Sử-yếu ("An Outline History of Vietnamese Literature," California: Sống Mới, 1979, being a reprint of the tenth printing, 1968, by the Ministry of Education in Saigon, page 322): "The topic chosen by the author in this work probably does not have anything to do with his life and the events in the country at the time."  This reading seems justified in view of the fact that together with Nguyễn Gia Thiều's work, other authors of the time also treated the same topic: Trinh (1759-1821) had a Cung Oán Thi Tập ("Complaints of an Odalisque, a Book of Poems"), and both Nguyễn Huy Lượng (? -1808) and Nguyễn Hữu Chỉnh (? -1787) each had a Cung Oán Thi of his own.  This seems to tell us that the topic was for some reason in vogue and that it did not reflect anyone's particular career or concerns.

What is more likely, according to Phạm Thế Ngũ's Việt Nam Văn Học Sử Giản Ước Tân Biên ("A Concise and Newly Written Literary History of Vietnam," Saigon: Quốc Học Tùng Thư, 1961, Volume II, page 175) is that in this work, "he has succeeded in speaking up on behalf of the imperial concubines their feelings of grudge and mortification”.  For that purpose the author has assumed a woman's voice to describe her situation--a true feat since to assume a female persona he had to throw overboard many distinct cultural habits of a male personality, including speech and thought patterns, in order to be convincing.  In this, however, Nguyễn Gia Thiều succeeded brilliantly.  The repetitive pattern of much of the poem, especially if one compares the quatrains among themselves, gives the impression that it is a woman's nagging, a woman obsessed, conscious of her beauty and talent (which make her fall especially dramatic, traumatic even), self-centered and very much in love with herself.  And confined to royal quarters now gone cold (in more than one sense), it is no wonder that she kept ruminating, alternating between despair and ever dwindling hope.


The Language of Symbols


Classical Vietnamese which, like most Southeast Asian languages, very much respects the hierarchies in society contains very few pronouns that are truly equal.  Even a word like "tơi" ("I" in modern Vietnamese) is considered insolent and almost never used in poetry when addressed to someone, even though the original meaning of the term was "[your] servant."  Except in the folksongs, the theater and modern poetry, even the milder term "ta" for "I" is avoided and almost never found in classical poetry.

Instead, relational terms are preferred such as "anh" ("older brother") and "em" ("younger sibling," with the connotation of "younger sister") in the folksongs and "chàng" (for a man) and "nàng" (for a woman) in situations when less intimacy is called for.  In classical poetry, "chàng" and "nàng" become "chàng" and "thiếp" ("minor wife") when both are married, and these are the terms used in a work like ?ồn Thị ?iểm's Chinh Phụ Ngâm, "Lament of a Warrior's Wife," which is probably contemporary with the Complaints of an Odalisque.

The case of the Complaints is different since it involves only two characters, the odalisque and her king or emperor.  A third character is sometimes addressed, to wit August Heaven, but he is like God Almighty and certainly not one's equal.  The Old Man of the Moon is the proverbial matchmaker, so he is addressed also, especially because he is known often to be a bumbler.  For the odalisque to address her king/emperor/lord she could not possibly call him "anh" or "chàng," hence the need for some more respectful way of marking their difference, their distance.  Nguyễn Gia Thiều has chosen to use a more impersonal language where both speaker (the odalisque) and addressee (her king/emperor/lord) are couched in symbolic language.  Thus, one can dress up a list of all the formulas that the speaker use to describe herself and her addressee as follows:


Speaker (the odalisque)           Addressee (the king/emperor/lord)

            (being a woman)                        (being a man)

            flower, blossom                          Lord, Supreme Lord

            camellia (flower)                       Spring, Spring Lord, Lord of


            dahlia                                         east wind, Lord of the East

            rose mallow                                nine tiers, nine steps, nine-

       graded lord

            rose features                               dragon features

            perfume                                      the Sun



Once we know this secret (this symbolism), the reading of the work becomes very simple and straightforward.


The Illustrations


In the present work, to illustrate the poetry of Nguyễn Gia Thiều, we are very fortunate to have the posthumous works of Mai Lân, the illustrious painter and sculptor who owned the Thế Hệ Painting and Sculpture Center in Saigon before 1975 and whose full name was ?ặng Trần Mai Lân (1927-2004).  Founder of the Mai Lân Gallery in Hanoi (1947), he had exhibited in almost all major cities of Vietnam (Hanoi, Hải Phịng, Hải Dương, Saigon, Huế, ?à Nẵng...) since the early 1950's.  His Center has trained several generations of Vietnamese plastic artists from 1956 to 1984.

After the communist takeover of South Vietnam, he went into semi-retirement and went around the country to study various historical sites such as the Old Quarters of Hanoi and other northern cultural relics, a habit that he had developed in the mid 1950's by studying the historical sites in Huế and Hội An - Đà Nẵng.  This results in a major project, a series of illustrations of Vietnamese classics that would consume the rest of his life.  Before he died in 2004, Mai Lân had completed the illustrations meant for six classical works of Vietnamese literature, namely:

            The Tale of Kiều (240 illustrative paintings)

            Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc (40 illustrations)

            Chinh Phụ Ngâm (71 illustrations)

            Bích Câu Kỳ Ngộ ("The Strange Encounter at Bích Câu") (54 illustrations)

            Lục Vân Tiên (name of the hero of a novel in verse) (124 illustrations)

            Thạch Sanh (name of the hero of an epic) (127 illustrations).

Unfortunately, Mai Lân died before he could see his works in print, for which he had prepared several manuscripts.  The present work is therefore a collaborative effort "beyond the grave" between the translator and the artist, thanks to the good office of Mrs. Mai Lân, the artist's widow.  For this kind intervention, which makes it possible now to offer this posthumous work of the great artist to the public, we sincerely thank Mrs. Mai Lân for agreeing to this collaboration.



A Word on the Translation


This is not the first time that Nguyễn Gia Thiều's Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc has been translated into English or another language.  Its very beauty, despite its being riddled with Chinese allusions, was seen as a challenge to many a translator into an European language.  First translated into French (Nordemann 1905, Phạm Gia Kính 1950, Huỳnh Khắc Dụng 1951), it was subsequently attempted into Russian and German (by Hubert Hohl, “Klagelied der Odalisque”, in Vietnam Culture Journal, 1982: Vol I, No 1, pp. 52-55, and 1983-1984: combined Vol II, Nos 1&2, and Vol III, No 1, pp. 125-128) among other European languages.  In English, partial translations can be found here and there but the first full translation is probably the one by V?n-Hà Trung Lập (The Complaints of an Odalisque, Saigon: Việt Tiến, 1967), followed by a more recent complete translation by Huỳnh Sanh Thơng ("A Song of Sorrow Inside the Royal Harem," in An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems, New Haven: Yale, 1996, pages 63-77).

The present translation is a reworking of an unpublished manuscript by the translator, completed as far back as 1965 in New York and meant for inclusion in the anthology A Thousand Years of Vietnamese Poetry (Nguyễn Ngọc Bích, ed., New York: Knopf, 1975).  However, because the earlier version was an uneven one and therefore unsatisfactory the translator has tried a whole new approach which this time he believes to be more successful.  This is because, in his opinion, Trung Lập strove to be fluent in English to the detriment of accuracy in a work noted for its erudition, startling imagery and linguistic fluency.  Professor Huỳnh Sanh Thơng's version reads a little better but he, too, despite his great command of the English language, sometimes departs too far from the original.  The opening sentence, for instance, with the exception of the "autumn wind," simply does not exist in the original: moonlight and sighing are found where the original talks about "spending time in cinnamon-bark walls."  Further down (verses 11-12), one runs into a contresens giving the exact opposite of what the original says.  Professor Huỳnh has:

  The flower has scarcely opened when it fades

              like Lady Pan's white silk in autumn chill.

whereas it should be:

            A flower, I scarcely had to smile, opening fully my pistils,

            When already Lady Ban's embroidery lost its famed glory.

It is because of considerations like these that I had thought it necessary to attempt yet another English version of this masterpiece of Vietnamese literature.  I have tried to be as close to the original as I can without losing too much of the poetry inherent in Nguyễn Gia Thiều's work.  Whether I have succeeded or not is a question that must be left, no doubt, to the discretion of the English reader.


                                                       NGUYEN NGOC BICH



The Writers Post
the magazine of literature

& literature-in-translation,

founded 1999, based in the US.




Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).

Copyright © Nguyen Ngoc Bich & The Writers Post 2006. Nothing in this magazine may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/  The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.


Return to Contents