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Ho, Xuan Huong

Xuan Huong Ho

Late eighteenth-century Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong (fl. late 18th century-early 19th century) used her poetry to speak her mind against polygamy and the constraints on women in a male-dominated world.

Life or Legend?

While there is no record of Ho Xuan Huong's birth or death, scholars agree that she lived in a historically tumultuous time. In Spring Essence:The Poetry of Ho Xuan Huong, translator John Balaban wrote that Ho was “born at the end of the second Lê Dynasty (1592-1788), a period of calamity and social disintegration,” but that “warfare, starvation and corruption did not vanquish … [her], but deepened [her] work.” He added that “whatever the facts of her life, a legend of rich cultural significance and consistency has emerged.”

Ho is believed to have been born in the Nghe An province and raised in Thang Long (now Hanoi). Most assume she received a classical literary education at the hands of her mother (whose given name may have been Ha), and that her father was Ho Phi Dien (1703-1786), or Ho Si Danh (1706-1783). Both were noted and respected scholars. According to Balaban, Ho's name, Xuan Huong, “may derive from the village in which she was raised, [and] means ‘spring essence,’ as in ‘perfume’ or ‘scent of spring.’ ” The majority of details accepted as fact regarding Ho's life are pulled from the lines of her poetry or gleaned from verse written by her contemporaries. There are poems that mention her death, and various pieces of correspondence that link her with certain people at particular times. Some scholars have stated that she was not particularly attractive, that she was embarrassed by her relative poverty, and that she teased and taunted her husbands, but none of these assertions are proven.

Her father is thought to have died early, prompting the end of her attempts to educate herself and restricting her marriage choices. Most agree that she oversaw a popular tea shop, and was renowned for her wit and skill with words. Ho is said to have challenged a young man—identified as the Prefect of Vinh-Tuong—by giving him an intricate verse to finish. He completed it to her satisfaction, and she supposedly married him, taking the position of concubine or second wife. Upon her first husband's death, her second marriage was also as a second wife or concubine to an official whom she openly ridiculed in her poetry. Some scholars have produced chronological evidence that she could not have been married to the Prefect, while others, according to Balaban, have argued that “she never existed but was the fictional creation of some literary man-of-letters, sort of an Earl of Oxford argument.” But Balaban asserted that “too much dense biographical evidence emerges from the poems for this to be true, along with her habitual way of looking at things and a unique range of diction.”

A “Momentous Invention”

To understand the unique place Ho inhabits within the history of Vietnamese literature, one must look first at the script she wrote in, known as Nom, and described in Poetry for Students as a “nearly extinct ideographic Vietnamese script” that, today, can only be deciphered by a handful of people. In the Anthology of Vietnamese Poems From the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries, translator Huynh Sanh Thông explained that “Vietnamese scholars selected Chinese graphs for either their semantic equivalence or their phonetic similarity to Vietnamese words and, through various combinations, devised a writing system that they named the southern script …. As an instrument for representing the sounds of Vietnamese, [Nom] suffered from many limitations and defects …. It presupposed a considerable knowledge of Chinese graphs on the part of both writers and readers. Then, too, it was never rigorously standardized but remained dependent on the skill and whim of anyone who chose to write in it; its inconsistencies and obscurities bedeviled anyone who tried to decipher it. [But] for all its shortcomings, it was a momentous invention. It freed Vietnamese poets from complete reliance on an alien medium [Chinese] and allowed them to speak in their own voice at last.”

Poems as Riddles Wrapped in Enigmas

Ho's decision to compose and record her poetry in Nom was both spirited and unusual, considering that the majority of literature at the time was written in the dominant Chinese script, but it was perhaps not entirely unexpected, considering the pride Vietnamese culture places on its poetic heritage. As scholar Michael Wiegers suggested in American Poetry Review, “Centuries of war and invasion have seen physical art objects taken out of [Vietnam], and a harsh climate has made it difficult to preserve what remains. But poetry, portable and passed along by individual voices, has remained the most lasting of Vietnam's arts.” In the Journal of Asian Studies, scholar John Spragens Jr. explained, “Vietnam is a country where poems still appear regularly in the pages of daily newspapers and popular magazines. Poetry is not incidental to the literary tradition of the country but its very heart and soul. It is impossible to study either the literature or the intellectual history of Vietnam without delving into Vietnamese poetry.”

Vietnamese poetry, technically speaking, is a delicate and exacting practice and a demanding lyrical form. Balaban wrote that “with a music of pitches inherent in every poem, an entire dynamic of sound—inoperable in English—comes into play. And since like-sounding words can mean vastly different things, a whole world of double meanings also is possible in any poem.” This was particularly true in the case of Ho's work, which was infamous for its erotic duality. Ho even hid additional messages and allusions that could only be revealed by reading parts of the poem vertically as well as horizontally.

Thông described how Ho was believed to have composed her poem “Scolding Some Dunces” on the spot and “hurled” it “at some naughty students or young men to put them in their places.” He also noted, in Ho's poem “An Unwed Mother,” the interplay between the physical characters and each line's content, as well as the nuances between the Chinese and Vietnamese pronunciations.

Meant What She Said and Said What She Meant

Thông described how, historically, while “the Chinese regulated poem maintained its outward structure virtually unscathed … in the hands of Vietnamese poets, the very nature of the poem underwent changes so profound that they altered it beyond recognition. In its original habitat it remained an aristocratic medium, the embodiment of Confucian decorum and restraint …. In Vietnam, by contrast, the regulated poem shed its haughty reserve … and went native …. It lifted all taboos and welcomed any word, however vulgar, that circumstance might justify.” Ho seemed to possess a poetic skill that was unmatched by her male contemporaries. In An Introduction to Vietnamese Literature, authors Maurice M. Durand and Nguyen Tran Huan noted that Ho preached “free love, equality of the sexes and the cause of unmarried mothers; [and derided] social conventions, ignorant scholars and high officials, and impious monks. Her poems contain virtually no Chinese literary allusions, being essentially Vietnamese in inspiration and form.”

Ho's poems were often controversial for their sensual content. Balaban noted that “Traditionally, Vietnamese women wielded considerable economic and political power, but by 1800 the condition of women had deteriorated…. Many women could choose only between struggling alone and becoming concubines …. Men, meanwhile, could have many wives.” Confucian culture was rigidly patriarchal and morally conservative. Balaban posed the question, “So, in a time when death and destruction lay about, when the powerful held sway and disrespect was punished by the sword, how did [Ho] get away with the irreverence, the scorn, and the habitual indecency of her poetry? The answer lies in her excellence as a poet and in the paramount cultural esteem that Vietnamese have always placed on poetry. &hellip: Quite simply, she survived because of her exquisite cleverness at poetry.” While the quantity of Ho's poetry may not have matched that of her contemporaries, the quality of writing was so exceptional that she is always given a lofty position in the Vietnamese literary cannon.

Bawdy, Brilliant, or Both?

Ho seems to have defied a multitude of conventions. It was unusual that, as a woman in a man's world, she wrote at all, and it seems astonishing that her poetry spoke in such a bold voice. The general popularity of her poems has kept the contentious spirit of her work very much alive. Ho's poems are often found in high school texts, used as lessons in context and close reading. They are considered by most to be a vital part of the Vietnamese cultural and aesthetic tradition, although her work has also been prohibited and treated as pornographic.

Eternal Voices Do Not Fade

Opinions and discussions on the merit of different translations of Ho's poetry have strongly suggested that the challenge her work poses is as tantalizing today as it must have been in her time, perhaps more so. In The Heritage of Vietnamese Poetry she is called the “most remarkable woman poet in Vietnamese literature,” and her fame has enjoyed a broad reach, with a man-made lake in Dalat and a Hanoi street named after her. In 2004 a traditional operetta about Ho's life and legend was staged in Hanoi and broadcast on live television. The piece, which bears Ho's name as a title, was first staged in 1988 and has been a controversial production ever since. Balaban dedicated ten years of his life to the faithful representation of Ho's poetry, but as a reviewer in Booklist remarked, such achievements “pale in the presence of [her] saucy voice, vital imagery, and nimble, teasing, sexy, and wise protestations and philosophical observations.” Balaban himself praised Ho's “lonely, intelligent life, … her exquisite poetry, her stubbornness, her sarcasm, her bravery, her irreverent humor, and her bodhisattva's compassion. She is a world-class poet who can move us today as she has moved Vietnamese for two hundred years.” Celebrated or scorned, Ho can rest confident that her poems have truly left their mark on the world of words.

Books

An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems from the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries, edited and translated by Huynh Sanh Thông, Yale University Press, 1996.

Chambers Biographical Dictionary, edited by Melanie Parry, Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd., 1997.

Dictionary of Oriental Literatures: Volume II: South and South-East Asia, edited by Jaroslav Prusek, Basic Books Inc., 1974.

Durand, Maurice M., and Nguyen Tran Huan, An Introduction to Vietnamese Literature, Columbia University Press, 1985.

The Heritage of Vietnamese Poetry, edited and translated by Huynh Sanh Thông, Yale University Press, 1979.

Historical Dictionary of Vietnam, 2nd Edition, edited by William Duiker, Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998.

The Penguin Book of Women Poets, edited by Carol Cosman et al, Penguin Books, Ltd., 1978.

Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2003.

Spring Essence: The Poetry of Hô Xuân Huong, edited and translated by John Balaban, Copper Canyon Press, 2000.

Periodicals

The Advertiser, (Australia), January 13, 2007.

American Poetry Review, September 2000.

Booklist, October 1, 2000.

The Hudson Review, Autumn 1984.

International Herald Tribune, June 16, 2006.

Journal of Asian Studies, November 1980.

Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, October 2002.

New York Times, June 15, 2006.

Online

“The Cake That Drifts in Water,” Rice University, http://www.cs.rice.edu/#ssiyer/minstrels/poems/617.html (December 8, 2007).

“Ho Xuan Huong,” Dang Anh Tuan, http://perso.limsi.fr/dang/webvn/ehoxuan.htm (November 27, 2007).

“Ho Xuan Huong Biography,” Famous Poets and Poems, http://famouspoetsandpoems.com/poets/ho_xuan_huong/ biography (November 27, 2007).

“Live broadcast: Legendary poet takes screen,” Vietnam Net Bridge, http://english.vietnamnet.vn/features/2004/05/155464/ (December 8, 2007).

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