Written poetry in Vietnam has been performed in three languages: chữ nho, chữ nôm và chữ quốc ngữ. Hard to admit, but nowadays, it is challenging to find somebody who can read an old book in chữ nôm. And young Vietnamese people can no longer read old written sources of their ancestors.
The following is a description of the three languages, found from an online source: http://thehuuvandan.org/chunom.html
“1. The chu Hán or chu nho (the script of the Hans or script of scholars): This is the Chinese writing system, which was imposed on the Vietnamese people by the Chinese conquerors as the official language. The Chinese characters took on a Vietnamese pronunciation, based on the Chinese speech of the 10th century. For almost nine centuries of independence between 938 and 1814, and even during to the first thirty years of French domination (1884-1917), Vietnamese kings continued to adopt the chu nho as the official script.
2. The chu nôm (the Vietnamese script, nôm = nam),called demotic script by some authors, was the script of the people. Derived from the Chinese stock and principles of word formation, the chu nôm was invented by scholars around the 13th century to reduce Vietnamese speech to writing.
3. The chu quôc ngu (the national script), created by Western missionaries to preach the Catholic religion to Vietnam during the 18th century, was a phonetic representation of Vietnamese speech using the Latin alphabet. From 1917 on, with the encouragement of French authorities, the chu quôc ngu and Vietnamese ascended to their rightful place as the official script and language of Vietnam.
In contrast to the chu nho, which was used to write Chinese sentences, the chu nôm and the chu quôc ngu represented the speech of the Vietnamese people. From this fact one can conclude that only the chu nôm and the chu quôc ngu are the true national scripts.
…It was only during the 15th century that chu nôm began to assert itself, notably with the Hong Duc Quoc Âm Thi Tap (Anthology of poetry in the national language in the Hong Duc period), and the Quoc Am Thi Tap (Anthology of poetry in the national language) by Nguyên Trai. During the 18th century the literature in chu nôm continued to perfect itself, and to develop in different genres: poetry, tales, and above all, novels in verse (truyen).”
Today I want to introduce a poem about the sorrows of war, seeing through a woman’s eyes (just because so many people that I met outside Vietnam can’t resist to ask me the question about Vietnam war). Just kidding, sorry!
“Chinh Phụ Ngâm”, or “Lament of a warrior’s wife” is a poem first written in Chinese by Dang Tran Con and was translated into Chữ Nôm by Doan Thi Diem at the end of 18th century. I can say that the poem is a happy wedding between Chinese and old Vietnamese languages. This is the first part of it.
“Thuở trời đất nổi cơn gió bụi,
Khách má hồng nhiều nỗi truân chuyên.
Xanh kia thăm thẳm tầng trên,
Vì ai gây dựng cho nên nỗi này ?
Trống Trường Thành lung lay bóng nguyệt,
Khói Cam Tuyền mờ mịt thức mây.
Chín tầng gươm báu trao tay,
Nửa đêm truyền hịch định ngày xuất chinh.
Nước thanh bình ba trăm năm cũ.
Áo nhung trao quan vũ từ đâỵ
Sứ trời sớm giục đường mây,
Phép công là trọng, niềm tây sá nào.
Đường giong ruổi lưng đeo cung tiễn,
Buổi tiễn đưa lòng bận thê noa.
Bóng cờ tiếng trống xa xa,
Sầu lên ngọn ải, oán ra cửa phòng.
Chàng tuổi trẻ vốn giòng hào kiệt,
Xếp bút nghiên theo việc đao cung.
Thành liền mong tiến bệ rồng,
Thước gươm đã quyết chẳng dung giặc trời.
Chí làm trai dặm nghìn da ngựa,
Gieo Thái Sơn nhẹ tựa hồng mao.
Giã nhà đeo bức chiến bào,
Thét roi cầu Vị, ào ào gió thu.”
And a good translation version by Borrowes William D.
“When dusty winds of war rise on the earth
Young wives' cheeks of rose are blanched with fear.
Oh sky above, so blue, so deep,
Tell me who is to blame for these misfortunes.
Beyond the Great Wall the war drums tremble in the moonlight ;
Over Cam-toan Mountain the signal fires redden the clouds.
Out through the nine Imperial gates the precious royal sword
Is brought to the hand of the general;
Late at night, the Imperial edict fixes the day of war.
Three hundred years our ancient land had peace,
But now the mandarins leave in battle dress
And early morning sees the royal envoy
Leading on the road into the distance.
When the people's sacred rights are threatened
Individual thoughts are disregarded.
Carrying bow and quiver, warriors hurry on the roads,
Wives and children accompanying them awhile with troubled hearts.
The fluttering banners and the rolling drums in the distance
Make poignant the sadness mounting to the frontiers ;
Make poignant the sadness awakening in the boudoirs.
You, my love, young and scion of a race of heros,
Put down your writing brush
To follow along the path of sword and bow.
You hope to offer the enemy fortress before the Dragon Throne ;
You resolve, mercilessly to destroy the barbarous
Enemy with your sword.
The noble ambitions of youth are these :
To be buried in a horse's skin one thousand leagues from home
To lift Thai-son Mountain and put it down again
As lightly as fall the feathers of the wild goose ;
To say goodbye to families and leave
Bearing armor and accoutrements of war.”