A paradigm of Vietnamese responsive poetry: “Qua Đèo Ngang” by Bà Huyện Thanh Quan

A Paradigm of Vietnamese Responsive Poetry:

“Qua Đèo Ngang” by Bà Huyện Thanh Quan

By Thomas D. Le

One of the pleasures and challenges of writing Vietnamese poetry consists in a group project in which the participants, either in person or in absentia, each contribute a poem that must follow the same rhyme scheme as the lead poem, and treat more or less the same topic.

The preferred form is the bound verse form called thất ngôn bát cú (seven words in eight lines) structured in four couplets dating back to the Tang Dynasty. Its brevity and challenges are among some reasons why the form is enjoying popularity till the present day. The poet must set the tone and mood in the exposition of the setting, expand with details on the theme, discuss the theme, and wraps up, all in fifty-six words. A further challenge calls for the second couplet and the third couplet to be parallel for word for word in a way that satisfies both the tone patterns and the ideas behind the words themselves. This kind of word game is not for the faint of heart or the rank beginner. Talking about rules!

The poem could be in any kind of genre, narrative, epic, elegiac, lyrical, etc. and treat any kind of topic from the political, historical, satirical and allegorical to the humorous.

No other illustration of this seven-word meter can surpass Bà Huyện (Madame the Prefect) Thanh Quan’s Qua Đèo Ngang (Arriving at Ngang Pass) in popularity, which is a classic example any student of Vietnamese poetry is likely to learn. Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, née Nguyễn Thi Hinh, married to the Prefect of Thanh Quan Lưu Nghị (1804-1847), is a minor poet; yet, in my opinion, she occupies a prominent place in the literature because of this one poem, which a casual student of Vietnamese literature cannot fail to recognize.

Đèo Ngang (Transverse Pass) in the Hoành Sơn transverse mountain range marks the historical boundary between the North beginning with Hà Tĩnh Province and the South beginning with Quảng Bình Province during the civil war, which pitted the northern House of Trỉnh against the southern House of Nguyễn, both houses ostensibly pledging allegiance to the Lê King in Thăng Long (Hanoi). Further back, it was also the frontier between Vietnam and the Kingdom of Champa until the Vietnamese annexed it piecemeal. Đèo Ngang Pass figures prominently in Vietnamese literature, being an inspiration of so many poets and writers over the centuries.

Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, from her native Hanoi, was on the way to assume her official post in Huế when she reached Đèo Ngang Pass at the end of the day. The majestic landscape made such an impression on her that she composed an immortal poem to express the deep longing for her native land, and the melancholy she felt far from home. At this historical juncture, decades after the civil war, the nation was unified under the Nguyễn Dynasty. But memory of the contributions of the Posterior Lê Dynasty to the greatness of Vietnam was very much in the hearts and minds of the northerners despite the decline of the era. Bà Huyện Thanh Quan was one of those scholars who could not forget that glorious past, and her arrival at Đèo Ngang Pass triggered a chain of remembrances of times past of which her poem is the epitome.


Let us analyze it more closely to uncover its meaning. I will read the poem “Qua Đèo Ngang,” first historically, then in the present.

Structure and Literal Meaning of “Qua Đèo Ngang”

The poem’s structure is simple enough. It consists of four couplets with distinct functions. Each line comprises seven words. Since Vietnamese is largely a monosyllabic language, for most purposes each syllable is a word. However, one distinctive linguistic feature is that Vietnamese are fond of reduplication. A syllable with a structure CVC is repeated; the initial consonant C- is changed in the second syllable to form a new word whereas the sequence -VC remains unchanged to rhyme together. The result is C1VC + C2VC. Two examples are used in the poem: Lom khom and Lác đác. The combination thus obtained by reduplication may be considered a disyllabic word.

The rhyme pattern is simple too. There are end rhymes and no internal rhymes. The end rhymes occur in lines 1, 2, 4, 6 and 8.

We notice in passing that tone patterns of this verse form are strict, though. They are divided into two categories: the low tones called bình, the high tones called trắc. Since tone patterns are a complex topic, a discussion would take us too far afield. Tone patterns have been expertly treated by our sinologist Phi Minh Tam in intermitment issues of Firmament starting with July 2016.

Bước tới Đèo Ngang, bóng xế ,

Cỏ cây chen đá, lá chen hoa.

Lom khom dưới núi, tiều vài chú

Lác đác bên sông, chợ mấy nhà.

Nhớ nước đau lòng, con quốc quốc,

Thương nhà mỏi miệng, cái gia gia.

Dừng chân đứng lại trời, non, nước,

Một mảnh tình riêng, ta với ta.

The first couplet introduces the setting. The time is the end of day; the place is nature in its lush green where rocks vie with vegetation, and leaves vie with flowers for a place under the setting sun. The location is a mountain pass in the Hoành Sơn Range, which runs to the sea perpendicular to the north-south orientation of the Trường Sơn Range, which forms the backbone of the country. The time of day is important in that it evokes distinct moods. The waning sun, in its last gasp of light, is conducive to reverie and reflection more than any other time of day. Thus, in the fourteen words, the poet sets the mood and tone of the entire canvas of mental and emotional disposition on the sight of this corner of nature, still pristine due to minimal human touch.

Bước tới Đèo Ngang, bóng xế ,

Arrive Pass Ngang shadow decline twilight

Arriving at Ngang Pass at dusk,

Cỏ cây chen đá, lá chen hoa.

Grass trees mix with rocks leaves mix with flowers

(I behold) plants among rocks mix with leaves amid flowers

The second couplet provides details that will support the development of the topic or theme of the whole poem. Now the impersonal space of the ambiance gives way to wisps of human presence, which, like nature itself, marks it existence by feeble, insignificant traces of man and his barren creations. From the description it is apparent that the location is isolated with a scarce population of woodcutters still at work wrapping up the day’s labor, and a tiny marketplace of a few stands, trying to eek out a precarious living amid scarcity. The desolation of the area inspires awe of a melancholy sort, and though beautiful in many respects leads inevitably to homesickness and nostalgia. The rule of word-for-word parallelism is enforced in this couplet.

Lom khom dưới núi, tiều vài chú

hunched (reduplicative) below mountains woodcutters a couple men

Hunched below the foothills a handful of woodcutters

Lác đác bên sông, chợ mấy nhà.

Scattered (reduplicative) side river market a few houses

Scattered across the stream a couple of market stalls.

The next couplet is the development of the poem’s theme, yet it is virtually untranslatable. Here word-for-word parallelism aggravated by pun and identity of sound wreaks havoc with comprehension of meaning. Let’s see why.

Nhớ nước đau lòng, con quốc quốc,

Miss nation/country pain heart animal/bird (classifier) nation nation

Missing native land rends the heart of the quail (literal translation)

In the above line, nước means nation/country, and the poet misses her native country, which is Hanoi What does a bird have to do with the emotion of the poet here? By a play on words con quốc quốc, by reduplication to balance with the next line, is con cuốc (in some northern pronunciation), which is a bird, possibly a quail. The poet intentionally uses a pun to associate her native land (nước) with a bird called con quốc/cuốc, only because the word nước is synonymous with quốc, and because the word quốc is identical in sound with cuốc in the northern dialect. Thus, the bird metaphor serves to link her feeling of nostalgia to the poet’s own heart. Knowing that, we can interpret the verse as meaning

“my heart ached for missing my native land.”

We come now to the last line of the couplet, which is constructed on the same pattern to achieve perfect symmetry with the first line.

Thương nhà mỏi miệng, cái gia gia.

Love home tire mouth animal/bird (classifier) home home

Loving home tires the mouth of the partridge. (literal translation)

Similarly, in the above verse, nhà (home, house) is a synonym of gia. By playing on the word gia, the phrase cái gia gia evokes the bird named con đa đa (which is possibly a partridge). The classifier for things cái is often used to refer to animate beings such as a girl/woman or an animal in the northern dialect. The đa đa<gia gia relationship most likely has the derivation gia gia>da da>đa đa, as gi– and d – are pronounced [z] in the northern dialect, and d- can alternate with đ- as in dao/đao indifferently. Again the bird metaphor is continued to link the poet’s feeling to her mouth, which is grown weary for constantly crying out for home. Hence, we can interpret the verse as meaning

“my mouth grew weary of crying out for home.”

Thus, strict parallelism is preserved in the meanings of the couplet, albeit with the help of some mental and linguistic acrobatics.

The final couplet wraps up the emotional journey that the poet embarked on when confronted with a landscape that stunned her entire being with its isolation and beauty, which paradoxically inspires melancholy, longing for hearth and home, and yearning for native land, a supremely human emotion we saw expressed by Joachim du Bellay’s Regrets, Sonnet XXXI, which Phạm Trọng Lệ showcased above.

Dừng chân đứng lại: trời, non, nước,

Stop legs stand there; sky, mountains, water

Stopping (to see): sky, mountains, water.

The line begins with the redundant collocation dừng chân đứng lại (stop, stay there). But why the pleonasm here​? The landscape; it’s the landscape, which is so arresting and so compelling that it invites reflections and invokes the bond that all humans feel for the place where they first entered the world. The two words non and nước taken together also mean the country or nation. Additionally, where the poet came from there was living a great reservoir of pining and loyalty for the glory days of the Lê Dynasty. The passage of time and the present state of affairs only serve to accentuate the sentiment that lingered on tenaciously. That fact can only intensify the poet’s sense of regret and desolation for time gone by and cast a pall of melancholy and forlornness on the present. We should not fail to notice the motifs: nhà=gia, nước=quốc (home, country). In a parsimonious piece like this, the repetition is telling.

Một mảnh tình riêng, ta với ta.

One piece feeling private me and me

(I sense) a private feeling of utter lonesomeness.

The last line emphasizes the confidential nature of the poet’s sentiment by the repetition riêng ta với ta, (private to myself and to myself only) to signal she doesn’t want to share with anyone the deepest secret of her heart and mind. The poet seems stirred by a profound feeling that no one is allowed to know anything about, and prefers to keep it to herself to stay true to herself. Readers can speculate all they want, just as this translator ventures to do so with the characterization of “utter lonesomeness.” In the end, they must allow the poet to keep her private feeling forever private.

By way of conclusion let us put the poem back together again and appreciate both the artistry of Bà Huyện Thanh Quan in handling a very challenging poetic form and the emotional turmoil she experienced when placed face to face with a piece of the larger country, which she has yet to know intimately.

Arriving at Deo Ngang Pass

Arriving at Ngang Pass at dusk,

(I behold) plants among rocks mix with leaves amid flowers,

Hunched below the foothills a handful of woodcutters,

Scattered across the stream a couple of market stalls.

My heart ached for missing my native land,

My mouth grew weary of crying for home.

Stopping (to see): sky, mountains, water.

(I sense) a private feeling of utter lonesomeness.

Bà Huyện Thanh Quan has achieved a stroke of genius in that it convincingly encapsulates melancholy, nostalgia, homesickness, wistfulness and loneliness in just fifty-six well-chosen words. Her diction is precise and concise. The bound verse form imposes rules that the poet skillfully exploits with natural ease. Her mastery of the seven-word-in-eight-line poetic form with its exacting word-for-word symmetry speaks of accomplished art and rare talent.

Out of curiosity, I counted the number of words in the English version and found sixty-four, and although we can understand the gist of the poem, we pay the price of some loss of aesthetics, literary pleasure and semantics. The lesson here seems to be that to really appreciate poetry there is no substitute for the original language. But if we don’t know the language, there is no excuse not to experience vicariously the pleasure and knowledge obtained through translation. How else do we know so much about the world, ancient and modern, but for translated works?

Critical Approaches

Thanh Quan’s poem lends itself to several critical approaches. Two of the most popular is close reading (explication de texte), which is widely employed in schools, and reader-response prevalent in journals and magazines on print or online. I will take historicist and presentist approaches because a literary text, like all texts in social sciences such as history, human geography, politics, economics, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, etc, in the humanities such literature, languages, theology, law, religion, etc. with a great deal of overlapping between the two categories as well as texts in hard and soft sciences are historical. I consider the historicist and presentist viewpoints complementary rather than mutually exclusive; hence, I will examine both.

Reading Qua Đèo Ngang historically

Let us now read Qua Đèo Ngang historically. We place it in its original historical context, i.e, in roughly the same period as Truyện Kiều, a couple of decades after the beginning of the nineteenth century. The civil war was over. In 1802, Emperor Gia Long was firmly in control of the country, now reunified, and chose Phú Xuân (Huế) in Central Vietnam as capital.

Actually the country had been unified earlier by the Tay Son. They routed the Thanh (Qing) invaders, who came at the request of King Lê Chiêu Thong, his mother and his wife, and chased them back to China. The Thanh dynasty was founded by the Manchus, who had previously overrun China. This is the second time the Vietnamese defeated the “barbarians,” so-called by the Chinese, who had conquered their country. The first victory was in 1289, when Tran Hung Dao decisively destroyed the Mongolian invaders, who had occupied China and founded the Nguyên (Yuan) dynasty. Having defeated the Trinhs, protected the Lês in the North, and almost annihilated the Nguyens in the South, the Tay Son had in fact reunified the country.

Nguyễn Anh, the sole survivor, was forced to take refuge in Siam; he asked the Siamese for help to recover the Nguyen’s territory. The Tây Sơn crushed the Siamese. Nguyễn Anh sought help from France through the intermediary of French missionary Pierre Pigneau de Behaine (Ba Da Loc), Bishop of Adran. He entrusted his son Prince Cảnh to the Bishop, who now turned politician, to intercede with the court of Louis XVI on his behalf. The result was the Treaty of Versailles signed in November 1787 by the French Foreign Affairs Ministry and the Navy, and by Pigneau de Behaine, representing NguyễnAnh. Louis XVI promised to supply and equip four frigates and 1650 soldiers to aid Nguyễn Anh. In return, Nguyễn Anh agreed to cede Poulo Condore (Con Dao) Islands and Da Nang to France with exclusive trading rights. (Treaty of Versailles (1787), para. 4). Sound familiar?

However, on the eve of the French Revolution, France was in the throes of severe budget deficit and mounting popular discontent. The French governor of Pondichery, Count de Conway, charged with implementing the Treaty refused to do so. The Treaty had in fact become a dead letter.

Pigneau de Behaine decided to go it alone. Now he became a mercenary in all respects except in name. He was able to recruit mercenaries, deserters, and a number of French Navy officers. With funds raised from French merchants in India and France he created a contingent of soldiers and sailors and equipped them with modern weapons and ammunition. The French Governor of Pondichery furnished two ships, the captain of one of which deserted to Pigneau. The French contingent arrived in Vung Tau in July 1789, and quickly began to train Nguyễn Anh’s army in the use of modern weapons and tactics, and to fortify key cities in the South. After fourteen years of war Nguyễn Anh finally defeated the Tay Son with help from French volunteers and became Emperor Gia Long in 1802. In 1817 a naval vessel was sent by King Louis XVIII to Vietnam to demand the ceding of Da Nang and Poulo Condore Islands in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles concluded thirty years earlier. Gia Long replied that the assistance that Vietnam got was from French volunteers not from the French government.

Vietnamese history shows that leaders too often follow the tendency to seek foreign intervention whenever they fight among themselves, oblivious of the fact that foreigners have only their own, not Vietnamese, interests at heart.

To be fair, Vietnamese are not beyond reproach either. Even during the civil war, under the Posterior Les, the Nguyễn lords maintained a protectorate over Cambodia and continually had to defend it against the Siamese. The protectorate continued under Gia Long.

The move of the capital by Gia Long to Phú Xuân is not only symbolic but has actual consequences. Historically the North with Thăng Long as capital is the cradle of Vietnamese civilization. Thăng Long with its ancient buildings and traditional institutions reigns as the beacon of culture and the seat of power for the entire nation. With few exceptions all the dynasties were anchored in this ancient city. Throughout the vagaries of fortune of the nation, it is this city that claims primacy of position and prestige in national life. Now with the Imperial capital’s move to Phú Xuân, the city lost the glory that had been cultivated over the centuries. It wasn’t long after the demotion of its role before neglect and a certain of degree of decay set in. Prominent citizens in the Imperial Court of the Posterior Lês likewise suffered an egregious eclipse. Hence, there was a tremendous sentiment among the northerners for the loss of influence and wistfulness for the past, and resentment for the present.

Emperor Gia Long wasted no time in recruiting a number of intellectuals and former officials of the Lê Court from the North, which had a pool of talents from previous periods, to serve in his government. Gia Long offered Nguyễn Du (1765-1820) a high position as district governor, after some 3 years traveling in China as a young man, followed by a prolonged stint living in obscurity and at times near poverty. He succeeded in climbing the mandarinate ladder. In due time he was appointed Ambassador to the Chinese Thanh dynasty (Some sources say Minh dynasty. But this is erroneous, since Gia Long was recognized by the Thanhs in 1804, according to Trần Trọng Kim in Việt Nam Sử Lược (Brief History of Vietnam).).

Likewise Bà Huyện Thanh Quan (1805–1848) was offered a position by the Imperial Court of Emperor Minh Mạng (reigning 1820-1840) to serve as tutor to the royal princesses and concubines. The offer could be construed as an honor. Though she lived in a post-Lê period and did not benefit directly from the Lê royal court, her father served in the Lê government. Memories of the days in the service of the Lês were a family heritage.

The poem was a melancholy outburst of regret, of longing for a time gone by coupled with the interior turmoil of the poet, who cares not to share it with anyone. Why does the poet regret the past so? If her loyalty is for the Lês, it is because of some personal reason, which is inscrutable to the observer.

For all the contributions Gia Long brought to the reunification, reconstruction and peace of the country, he treated his most faithful followers with ingratitude and many of his appointees were corrupt. The poet must have looked past Gia Long and his successor Minh Mang to the Posterior Lês.

In several respects, Minh Mang’s reign was worse than that of his predecessor. Trần Trọng Kim, in an effort to be even-handed, praised his intelligence, his dedication to governance, his success in putting down all revolts that had sprung up across the country during most of his reign, his victories over Siam and his subjugation of Laos and Cambodia. The seemingly endless string of rebellions by some generals, the Lê loyalists, and sundry armed men was symptomatic of the atmosphere of general discontentment. A dyed-in-the-wool Confucianist, the king lived by the rigid Confucian code of ethics and imposed his code on the country. Consequently, he abhorred Christianity, which he deemed a false religion. He considered China the exemplar of civilization. In his view. no other nations could hold the candle to Vietnam’s traditional oppressor. He was authoritarian, yet tolerant of sycophancy in his Court. He turned a blind eye to the corruption of his mandarins. Such was his vindictiveness that he ordered the Tay Son emperors Nguyễn Nhac’s and Nguyễn Huệ’s bodies to be disinterred and decapitated, their graves obliterated and their heads thrown in a dungeon. He allowed cruel punishment such as quartering (ecartelement) and elephant crushing on his enemies. He was so benighted that he did not see superior European technology in the ships that visited Vietnam seeking trade relations (whereas the Japanese Emperor did). He rebuffed all attempts by the English and French trade envoys. Trần Trọng Kim acknowledged the king’s lack of vision, his myopia in matters of foreign relations and his persecution of French missionaries and Vietnamese converts. All these faults are among those that contributed directly to the colonization of Vietnam by the French.

Could it be that Thanh Quan is aware of all the ills of the time, continual wars, social instability, government corruption among other things that she yearns for a past where the world was more just and life was happier, at least in her imagination? Or must it be some vague, perhaps romantic, feeling that somehow the past is better than the present? Moreover, it is easier to glorify a paradise lost than a paradise regained, as distance in time confers prestige, and hence, regret that one was not there to enjoy it.

The sight of the nature scarcely touched by humans reinforces an emotion of dejection in her sensitive nature, which sees nothing cheery in the surroundings and nothing to relieve the Weltschmerz besetting her soul at twilight.

Then when the poet remembers her status of “expatriate” in a strange land, she is overwhelmed with regret. She never suspects the existence within the larger country of a corner so isolated, so desolate and so different from the native Thăng Long, which is still the seat of sweetness and light even in its diminished role in contemporary life. What are a couple of woodcutters, hunched over with labor into the near-dark of day at the foothills, compared with the genteel people back at her home town? The whole panorama from her high vantage point looks puny, almost insignificant. It incites no cheeriness, inspires no flights of fancy—just a sense of utter homesickness, to the point she begins to ask, why am I here?

Eyeing the river below in the twilight, she makes out an empty market with a few stalls abandoned to the encroachments of advancing night. The spot is bare, devoid of life. One has a hard time imagining what kind of place this is like when day comes around. The poverty is obvious. It certainly is a far cry from the bustle of her town since a couple of market stands in the middle of nowhere can only impart nostalgia for the land of one’s birth.

This land, forlorn and isolated, is part of the country wracked by intermittent clash of arms is what she claims as her land now. But there was once, under this sky, a period far away when the country was enjoying happiness, tranquility because of a better government. Thanh Quan never says when that time was. She just says, Một mảnh tình riêng, ta với ta, which I interpret as “(I sense) a private feeling of utter lonesomeness”. All I can say, taking her word at face value while inducing from the historical context, is that her “private feeling” is a feeling of paradise lost though never encountered or experienced by her. Yet her lonesomeness is real, an excruciating yearning for a world lost in time, whose echoes seem to still resonate in her sensitive soul as she contemplates the Đèo Ngang Pass at dusk.

Reading Qua Đèo Ngang in the Present

The questions of why and when Thanh Quan accepted the job assignment are intertwined. It is not possible for me, being hamstrung by the dearth of documents, to fathom what motivated Thanh Quan to take a job so far from home. But I can empathize with her, having experienced circumstances when I seized the opportunity, not once but twice, to take a job far from Saigon, the city I love. Both times the motives were self-advancement. Extrapolating. I ascribe the same motive in Thanh Quan. However, it is unlikely that women of her social standing sought self-fulfillment by accepting job offers. But when the job offer came from the king, it was an entirely different situation. Why did she accept the job? For pecuniary reasons, occasioned by her husband’s demotion? We have no evidence. We don’t know if the interval between demotion and rehabilitation was a protracted or short period. But we know that in nineteenth-century Vietnam educated women rarely held down an official employment, let alone employment far from home. In the those days women were either homemakers, or, if worked outside the home were engaged in agriculture, small business, and cottage industry. Educated women did not seek employment. Certainly, the timing is everything here. We know her husband suffered demotion by a corrupt superior and later rehabilitated to a low-level (civil service Grade 8) function at the Bộ Hình (Ministry of Justice) in the capital. He died in 1847 in the capital (Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, Tiểu sử Section, para. 2). We are uncertain as to the exact chronology. If he was rehabilitated and given a position at the capital from the provinces, why didn’t she join him on the trip? If she had to travel from Thăng Long to Phu Xuan, apparently unaccompanied by her husband, that means her husband was already in the capital. But why did she remain in Thăng Long while her husband already was in Phu Xuan? There are no plausible answers. It could be that the king sent for her with the job offer, knowing that her husband was already serving in his Court. If the king sent for her, he was most likely to provide an escort, in deference to her as the future tutor of his daughters and concubines. That would resolve the question of her safety en route. Without a safe and protected mode of travel, Thanh Quan would not have felt enough peace of mind necessary to pen great poetry, even though she may have written it some time later.

Any way we look at it, the question of why Thanh Quan accepted a job remained a mystery. It she had received the king’s job offer as an honor and should have looked forward to it, why did she feel so much sadness, almost to the point of regret?

One fact remains that the Les had enjoyed such overwhelming loyalty among the northerners that it seems no acts of reprehensible behavior by the Le royals could diminish it. For three hundred years the Les had the monopoly of power. Untold generations of northerners served the monarchy and benefited from their association with it. Even the common people knew no other kings than the Les. In its decline the dynasty retained sufficient soft power to give pause to the Trinh and the Nguyễn lords so that no one dared to depose the king when they all but destroyed his power to govern. When the king died or was killed, the Trinh lords made sure another Le succeeded his predecessor. If Thanh Quan missed her country, she most likely missed the country where the Le king reigned.

Corruption was rampant in Vietnamese society despite occasional admonition from the king. So Thanh Quan was unlikely to yearn for a past where society was freer from its curse. It may be harsh to say the corruption was systemic, but there is no escape from the conclusion, given the mentality of the people, and the value society placed on public service as a vehicle toward a comfortable living. The class hierarchy indicates how society viewed its value system: scholar, farmer, artisan, merchant. The productive classes of agriculture, manufacture and business yielded to the educated class. Unfortunately, education was not geared toward producing scientists, inventors, engineers, discoverers, but men skilled at discussing Chinese classical canons and Confucian teachings. Successful candidates at examinations held every three years generally joined the civil service as mandarins and other court officials. Public servants had the power to govern, but most were likely underpaid. To supplement their incomes many were tempted to accept bribes, especially when society condoned the practice as the price of dealing with the government. Even the justice system was perverted by corruption. Thanh Quan’s husband, himself a public servant, was demoted by a superior who accepted bribes. She most certainly did not miss this. But if she longed for a time past when government was cleaner, she may have to look to the beginning of each dynasty when the founder was upstanding citizen who generally governed with integrity. Even so the founding king owed so much to his close followers that some of them may be tempted to take advantage of the king.

One verse in Thanh Quan’s poem seems to me to carry the most weight, the main thesis.

Nhớ nước đau lòng, con quốc quốc,

My heart ached for missing my native land.

The native land here, I think, is for Thanh Quan more than Thăng Long and the North that it symbolizes; it encompasses not only space but time as well, the long past of centuries presided by the Les and other dynasties before them. The North with Thăng Long as the heart bears witness to the history of the people and as such represents Vietnam’s soul. When confronted with the present Thanh Quan is unsettled. She views her official appointment with resignation not glee. That helps to explain her gloomy mood. We could ascribe her feeling to female sensibility, but her tone, her mood, and her voice would suggest something more disturbing, concerning, and poignant than homesickness. Perhaps she feels alienated in an environment that ought to be her homeland, yet somehow doesn’t fit her idea of country. She gives the landscape a good look by stopping and taking time to observe the sky, the mountains, the river, and feel an immense love for her country and an equally immense sense of loss at the discrepancy between the present and the distant past as she likely conceived it. It is not clear how far that distant past could have been, but it could not be the past where life was stifled by abuse, violence, and corruption.

Dừng chân đứng lại: trời, non, nước,

Stopping (to see): sky, mountains, water.

Một mảnh tình riêng, ta với ta.

(I sense) a private feeling of utter lonesomeness.

Her lonesomeness can only be explained by the reason of her feeling, which she alone knows. I can hypothesize, speculate and conjecture based on scant evidence from the past, so my narrative is at best tentative and tainted by my preconceived ideas on the matter.


With just one poem, Qua Deo Ngang, Bà Huyện Thanh Quan sealed her reputation as one of the great Vietnamese poets of the nineteenth century. The bound form of the poem with strict rules on tone patterns, rhyme patterns, number of words within each verse and semantic parallelisms in a spare structure is a uniquely regulated paradigm which discourage all the but the hardiest of practitioners. Thanh Quan not only succeeds in taming the form but makes it admirably serve the purpose of expressing her feelings about her country, her home and above all her heart. Her poem additionally claims a role as exemplar of responsive poetry unique to Vietnamese literature.

Through this poem, Thanh Quan reveals her longing for some distant past, her lonesomeness, which could well be a tacit attachment to the Lês in spite of the fact both she and her husband are employed by the Nguyễns. Her homesickness is a manifestation of a deep feeling for the home town, not just her home. And the pain she feels is the pain caused by a sense of irretrievable loss of time past, loss of Shangri-la or some elysian land that perhaps never existed or vanished forever. ■

Thomas D. Le

14 May 2020


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[This article originally appeared in Firmament, issue of April 2020]