The Poem “Ông Đồ” by Vũ Đình Liên
Vinh-The Lam, M.L.S.
University of Saskatchewan, Canada
In 1936, the poem “Ông Đồ” (The Master) by poet Vũ Đình Liên, published for the first time on the periodical Tinh hoa (The Elitist), was an instant success, and has been enjoyed by several generations of Vietnamese poetry lovers until now. Vũ Đình Liên’s reputation as a poet was forever solidified by this unique one-hundred-word poem. This article tries to introduce this famous poem to the generation of English-fluent overseas Vietnamese youth.
Poet Vũ Đình Liên (1913-1996)
The Original Poem in Vietnamese
Mỗi năm hoa đào nở
Lại thấy ông đồ già
Bày mực tàu, giấy đỏ
Bên phố đông người quạ
Bao nhiêu người thuê viết
Tấm tắc ngợi khen tài
Hoa tay thảo những nét
Như phượng múa, rồng baỵ
Nhưng mỗi năm, mỗi vắng
Người thuê viết nay đâu
Giấy đỏ buồn không thắm
Mực đọng trong nghiên sầụ
Ông đồ vẫn ngồi đấy
Qua đường không ai hay
Lá vàng rơi trên giấy
Ngoài trời mưa bụi baỵ
Năm nay đào lại nở
Không thấy ông đồ xưa
Những người muôn năm cũ
Hồn ở đâu bây giờ?
English Translation of the Poem
Every year when the cherry blossoms
Again, the old master re-appears
Displaying his Chinese black ink and red writing paper
On the sidewalk of a crowded street.
Innumerable clients who hired him to write,
Smacking their tongue, all admired him for his calligraphic talent
His skillful hand has created artistic letters
As beautiful as the dancing phoenix, as the flying dragon.
But then, year after year, fewer and fewer clients
Where are they now?
Saddened unused red paper losing their brightness
Dried out ink depositing at the bottom of the blue untouched ink slab.
The old master still sitting there
Totally ignored by passers-by
Yellow leaves falling down on the paper
A drizzle falling down from the open sky.
This year the cherry blossoms again
The old master is not here
All these people of the old days
Where are their souls now?
Interpretation of the Poem
Vũ Đình Liên has borrowed Tang Poetry Wujue 五 絕  form to write this poem, which, instead of including just one quatrain of 4 lines of 5 words, contains exactly 100 words arranged in 5 quatrains, each having 4 lines of 5 words.
In the first quatrain, the author set the stage for Act I of this 5-act drama for the main cast, The Master, introducing the time and space of his working environment. The time was springtime and Tết, the greatest holiday of the year, was approaching with the cherry blossoming. The whole nation was in a festive mood and every house was preparing to welcome Tết. The indispensable decorative pieces for the house were the “câu đối đỏ”  (parallel sentences on red paper). And that was exactly what The Master could provide for a fee. The space for his working environment was the sidewalk of a crowded street where he displayed his working tools: red paper sheets and Chinese black ink. The Master was ready for action.
The Master on the Sidewalk – Source: Internet
In the second quatrain, or Act II, the author presented The Master In Action. Many passers-by stopped and asked for his services. Almost all sentences asked for were conventional, sometimes just the letter “Phúc = Happiness.” The valuable creative contribution of The Master was his calligraphic talent in providing “dancing phoenix, flying dragon” artistic parallel sentences or letters, all in Chinese characters, such as:
(The parallel sentences read, from right to left, and from top to bottom:
Lộc tiến vinh hoa gia đường thịnh = Wealth with honor and good things making family prosper
Phúc sinh phú quý tử tôn vinh = Good fortune bringing wealth and honor to the offspring
The character in the red diamond reads: Phúc = Happiness, Good fortune)
In the third quatrain, or Act III, the fortune of The Master started to be going down together with the beginning of the decline of the traditional Chinese-character-based national educational system replaced by the French-introduced Quốc-ngữ-based (with Roman alphabet as Vietnam having become a French colony) national educational system. People no longer needed these parallel sentences in Chinese characters. The Master’s client base dwindled. The unused red paper sheets were losing their brightness and the untouched Chinese black ink were dried out at the bottom of the ink slab.
In the fourth quatrain, or Act IV, The Master still tried to hang on, but the sad reality of the total collapse of the old system really set in. He was totally ignored by people, who no longer had needs for his services. The red paper sheets not only lost their brightness but also buried in yellow dead leaves. And his modest working place on the street sidewalk now became invisible by the drizzle falling down from the open sky.
In the fifth and last quatrain, or the Curtain Act of this 5-act drama, the author pointed out the indifference of Nature. The cherry blossomed again, just like the previous years. But this time The Master was nowhere to be found. He was gone, like his Chinese-character-educated generation. And so was that traditional cultural way of life. We could feel or hear the author’s sigh of regret for a time and a way of life forever lost: Where are their souls now?