Chữ Nôm: The Early Script of Vietnam
A Movement of Emancipation from
Chinese Cultural Influence
By Võ Thu Tịnh
Translated by Thomas D. Le
From the beginnings of its history until the present, Vietnam has known three kinds of writing systems:
1. The chữ Hán or chữ 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 chữ nho as the official script.
2. The chữ 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 chữ nôm was invented by scholars around the 13th century to reduce Vietnamese speech to writing.
3. The chữ quôc ngữ (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 chữ quôc ngữ and Vietnamese ascended to their rightful place as the official script and language of Vietnam.
In contrast to the chữ nho, which was used to write Chinese sentences, the chữ nôm and the chữ quôc ngữ represented the speech of the Vietnamese people. From this fact one can conclude that only the chữ nôm and the chữ quôc ngữ are the true national scripts. Indeed, according to a widely accepted definition, “there must be a system of symbols for which the speech community established meanings and usage in advance,” and “which allow for the spoken language to be recorded.” (J. Février).
The origins of the Chữ Nôm: Chinese characters
To better understand the formation of the Chữ Nôm it is necessary to gain a general view of the principles governing Chinese characters. Lexicographers divided Chinese characters into six classes called liu shu or luc thu in Sino-Vietnamese. By the traditional theory, primitive elements were made of images and symbols from which all the other classes are formed by composition or by derivation.
1. The pictographs (xiang xing, in SVN: tượng hình) represent objects. For example, the iconic characters shan and mu represent the mountain and the tree.
2. The symbols (zhi shi, in SVN: chỉ sự) represent abstract ideas and actions. For example, the character shang (above, to ascend) is made up of a vertical stroke and an oblique tick above a horizontal stroke, as opposed to the character xia (below, to descend), which is composed of a vertical stroke and a oblique tick below the horizontal stroke.
3. The logical aggregate (hui y, in SVN: hoi y) is a combination of two components contributing to the sense, to express a new idea. For example, the character ming (to sing) is composed of niao (bird) and kou (mouth) : “bird” and “mouth” suggest the idea of singing.
4. The phonograms (xieng sheng, in SVN: tuong thanh) are formed from a phonetic element and another element that indicates the general class of objects or ideas to which the word refers. The first element is then the “phonetic,” and the second is the “key.” For example, the character ling (bell) is composed of the phonetic linh (to command) and of the key jïn (metal). The phonetic gives the word its pronunciation linh while the key “metal” indicates the nature of the bell, which is made of metal.
5. The translation of characters (jia jie, in SVN: chuyen chu). This process derives a new character by adding, removing or displacing certain strokes in an existing character. For example, to the character xiào (small) a descending leftward stroke is added to generate another character shào with the new meaning of “small in number, or provisional.”
6. The false loans (jîã jîê, in SVN: giả tá). These are derived characters obtained by a modification of the pronunciation of existing characters. For example, if the character xiàng (appearance, air), pronounced with the 4th tone, is pronounced with the 1st tone, the new character xiãng means “mutually, reciprocally.”
The rules of formation of the Chữ Nôm
From the Chinese elements and principles of word formation our scholars invented the chữ nôm with which to write the Vietnamese speech. Essentially, they devised a phonetic representation of the language by adopting the false loans and the phonograms.
A. The false loans (giả tá)
1. Transcription of Chinese borrowings
To transcribe Chinese loanwords (essentially religious, literary, administrative, technical terms…, which abound in the Vietnamese lexicon), both the Chinese graphic representation and the Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation are retained. For example, chủ tọa (to preside), đại lô (boulevard), minh bạch (clear), toán học (mathematics).
2. Transcription of Vietnamese words proper
By and large, the Chinese written form is borrowed whole, if its pronunciation more or less corresponds to a Vietnamese word regardless of meaning.
(a) Thus, a Chinese word is borrowed for its sound to transcribe a Vietnamese homophone. The Vietnamese pronunciation is actually the Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese loanword. For example. the Chinese character chi (personal pronoun used as a direct object) is borrowed to transcribe the Vietnamese chi (what); the Chinese character qua (an ancient weapon) to transcribe the Vietnamese qua (to traverse).
(b) A Chinese character is borrowed to transcribe a near-homophonous Vietnamese word. For example, the Chinese character biệt (to separate) is borrowed to transcribe the Vietnamese biết (to know), the Chinese character nữ (a female, a woman) to transcribe the Vietnamese nữa (more).
(c) A Chinese character is borrowed for its meaning to transcribe a Vietnamese synonym, which retains its Vietnamese pronunciation. This amounts to saying the Chinese word in Vietnamese, by the device of simultaneous translation (very much like the practice among the Japanese to read a Chinese text while simultaneously rendering it in spoken Japanese).
For example, the Chinese character kỷ (a chair) is read as ghế in Vietnamese, to mean ‘a chair’. And the element of a Chinese character vi (to do) is spoken as làm (to do) in Vietnamese.
B. The phonograms (hài thanh)
We have seen above that characters of this class are composed of the phonetic element and the semantic element. For example, the character cát (sand) is transcribed by using two Chinese characters, the phonetic cát (propitious) and the semantic thổ (earth). The phonetic component cát provides the pronunciation while the semantic ‘earth’ supplies the meaning, the general class of object to which the word ‘sand’ refers.
C. The logical aggregates (hội ý)
These are characters made up of two components both of which contribute to the denotation. For example, the character trùm (chief) is a combination of the Chinese characters nhân (a man) and
thượng (above). The ‘man’ and ‘above’ evoke the idea of the ‘chief.’
It has been observed that among the extant texts and inscriptions in chữ nôm, semantic combinations are extremely rare. Finally, there are distinctive signs that are added alongside a chữ nôm character to advise the reader to modify the pronunciation so as to conform to the tones and phonology of the Vietnamese language:
– either to the right of the character, such as the dấu cá (specific sign) written as
– or on the top left of the character, such as the sign, which is a reduced form of the character khẩu used as a diacritic and devoid of semantic content.
The chữ nôm is created principally according to the giả tá principle, i.e., the principle of false borrowing of homophones. Since there are many Vietnamese words for which Chinese homophones do not exist, one had to resort to borrowings with a close pronunciation. The upshot is that a chữ nôm character may be pronounced in several ways, and several different characters may have the same meaning. Often the Chinese character borrowed for its sound gives only an imperfect phonetic rendering. Furthermore, abbreviations of characters prove difficult to interpret and sometimes a word is written differently by different authors. There was no institution to standardize the writing of chữ nôm and allow Vietnamese to read and write it in the same way. Nevertheless, from the linguistic point of view, the chữ nôm serves a useful purpose for the Vietnamese language. The semantic elements called the ‘keys’ help to specify the meaning of homophones in quốc ngữ. For example, the sound sequence nam, spelled by three letters N-A-M in quốc ngữ, may mean ‘five’ or ‘year’; however, in chữ nôm these are transcribed differently depending on the sense:
(1) the key niên, which means ‘year’ + the phonetic nam (nam),
(2) the key ngũ, which signifies ‘five’ + the phonetic nam (nam).
It is easily seen that the first word ‘nam’ means ‘year’, and the second word means ‘five’. In numerous cases the chữ nôm helps distinguish between the initials d (z) and gi, ch and tr, and between the finals n and ng, c and t, etc.
In spite of the indifference, even the disdain, of scholars, after its birth sometime in the fourteenth century, the chữ nôm had gained a solid footing by the fifteenth century to finally establish itself firmly in the national literature by the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The first manifestations of the chữ nôm
We do not know precisely when the chữ nôm was created. As material proof of its earliest existence, one has often cited twenty or so nôm characters which represented names of Vietnamese communities in a stele which was identified by H. Maspero (in B.E.F.E.O., tome XII, no. 1) as dating to 1343 (under the reign de Trần Dụ Tông), on Mount Dục Thúy (province of Ninh Bình). Actually no one has found the stele, or the impression of its inscriptions.
In 1970, Đào Duy Anh announced the existence of another, more ancient stele, dating to 1210 (under the reign of Lý Cao Tông), at the Bảo Ân pagoda in the village of Thâp Miêu of the former province of Phúc Yên (now Vĩnh Phúc), on which were inscribed 21 names of persons, of villages, of hamlets in chữ nôm. In addition, according to Khâm Định Việt Sử Thông Giám Cương Mục (Annals of Vietnam), it was Nguyễn Thuyên alias Hàn Thuyên who, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, utilized this script for his literary works. Following his example were two other scholars Nguyên Sĩ Cố (second half of the 13th century) and Chu Văn An (14th century). Some novels in verse written in chữ nôm were also attributed to the same epoch: Trê Cóc (The Catfish and the Toad), Trinh Thử (The Virtuous Mouse). However, judging from certain details of form, they seemed to have dated subsequently to the 14th century.
The Le dynasty and the literary development in chữ nôm
It was only during the 15th century that chữ nôm began to assert itself, notably with the Hồng Đức Quốc Âm Thi Tập (Anthology of poetry in the national language in the Hong Duc period), and the Quốc Âm Thi Tập (Anthology of poetry in the national language) by Nguyễn Trãi. The latter is the oldest collection of poems in chữ nôm that has been preserved. Written in a simple and natural style, these poems manifested a profound love of country, a bitter disgust toward the corruption rampant at the Court, and a strong attachment to a simple way of life away from society. It was not until the 16th century that chữ nôm made great strides both in form and in substance. The greatest chữ nôm poet of this period was Nguyễn Bỉnh Khiêm. His collection Bạch Vân Quốc Ngu Thi Tap (Poems in the national language by Bach Van) extols the virtue of leisure, solitude, communion with nature, and confesses in more or less veiled terms his regrets for not being able to serve his country better.
During the 18th century the literature in chữ nôm continued to perfect itself, and to develop in different genres: poetry, tales, and above all, novels in verse (truyện). In poetry mention must be made of two women of great talent: Đoàn Thi Điểm, author of Chinh Phụ Ngâm (Plaint of a Warrior’s Wife), a famous translation into chữ nôm of Đặng Trần Côn’s oeuvre in Sino-Vietnamese; and Hồ Xuân Hương, who distinguished herself by the realism of her verses that drip with sexuality, and evoke without varnish or vulgarity the secrets of the female body.
Next came the flowering of tales, fables, folksongs (ca dao), humorous stories (chuyện tiếu lâm), anonymous works of satire and humor such as Trạng Quỳnh (History of Doctor Quynh), Trạng Lợn (History of Doctor Pig), Tú Xuất (History of Bachelor Xuât). Ba Giai (History of Mr. Ba Giai), which ridiculed the foibles of society as well as the abuses in the competitive examination system of their time.
Dynastic transition and the apogee of the literature in chữ nôm
However, the literature in chữ nôm reached its pinnacle only with the novels in verse of the end of the Le dynasty and the beginning of the Nguyễn (end of the 18th to the beginning of the 19th centuries). Among the most celebrated may be cited: Hoa Tîên (Flowery Letters) by Nguyên Huy Tu, amelioriated by Nguyên Thien; Kim Vân Kiêu (History of Kim, Van and Kieu) by Nguyễn Du ; Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc (The Plaint of an Odalisque) by Nguyên Gia Thiêu; Bích Câu Kỳ y Ngo (Wonderful Encounter at Bïch Cau), anonymous; Phan Tran (History of Phan and Tràn), anonymous; Nhi Do Mai (The Twice-Blossoming Apricot), anonymous; Luc Vân Tiên (History of Luc Van Tien) by Nguyên Dinh Chiëu, Thach Sanh (Young Thach), anonymous; Nu Tu Tài (The Woman Bachelor. The Bacheliere), anonymous…
Beside Nguyên Du’s Kim Van Kieu pale all other literary oeuvres, be they written in chữ nôm or in quoc ngu. By the beauty of its verses, by its admirable knowledge of human psychology, by its vivid and realistic depiction of the entire society, Kim Van Kieu has earned its place as the favorite bedside storybook of the Vietnamese people. It is the culmination of a long evolution of the national script of chữ nôm, the synthesis of the simple six-eight prosodic meter of the folk songs and the more sophisticated form already seen in Chinh Phu Ngâm and in Hoa Tien.
During the first half of the 19th century, the ca trù (poem-song composed by the scholars to be sung by professional female singers) was renovated and perfected by Nguyễn Cong Tru and Cao Ba Quát. Nguyễn Cong Tru, man of action and poet, was under-appreciated by the Kings Minh Menh and Thieu Tri. His checkered career in the mandarinate had seen moments of glory (as a minister, then a general) followed by a humiliating demotion (to a private sent to a frontier outpost). Thus his poems, especially in his ca trù, reflected a strange mixture of contradictory sentiments: an exaltation of extraordinary exploits of heroes alongside the aspiration for a withdrawal to the refuge of nature; a determination to conform to the norms and exigencies of Confucian ethics side by side with the propensity toward the enjoyment of life and its diversions and blessings. His language is simple, natural, flowing. His Sino-Vietnamese expressions are always explicated by popular locutions from everyday language.
As a Confucian Nguyễn Cong Tru made, through his poems, professions of loyalty to his sovereigns inspite of their lack of appreciation. In contrast, Cao Ba Quát in the name of the same Confucian ethos rebelled against the decadent monarchy of his time, intent on a complete makeover. He termed his insurrection a “Thăng Vo revolution” reusing the term by which the Chinese historian Tu Ma Thien characterized the overthrow of King Kiet by King Thanh Thăng and that of King Tru by King Vo Vuong. The king is but a holder of the heavenly mandate, charged with the responsibility of insuring the well-being of the people. Failure to accomplish this charge results in its being removed by the Celestial Emperor. The term “cách mệnh” (literally to relieve one of a mission) means the cancellation of the Mandate of Heaven, and is used today to translate the French word “revolution.”
Cao Ba Quát was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the greatest poets of his time. His poems reflected a sensibility toward the beauty of nature, and an awareness of the brevity of life and mostly of the people’s misery. He is the poet of libation. It was only wine that could dissipate his great distress before the ineluctable misfortunes of life. His ca trù are of unrivaled purity and charm. If Nguyễn Cong Tru was credited with renovating the genre of ca trù, it is Cao Ba Quát who won the glory of endowing the literature in chữ nôm with ca tru creations of utmost perfection.
Another poetess in chữ nôm of the nineteenth century, Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, pseudonym of Nguyễn Thi Hinh, owed her reputation as much to the purity and elegance of her verse, whose quatrains were fashioned as perfectly as those of Tang poets, as to her ill-hidden sentiments: a vague and discreet melancholy of loneliness, poignant regrets for a glorious Le period.
The Time of Decline
In 1858 France decided to conquer Vietnam. In the face of superior modern weapons, the Court at first adopted a policy of concession, only to end up with capitulation. But the Vietnamese people continued to wage a bitter struggle that lasted forty years, led by scholars and Kings Ham Nghi, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan, who, after their failure, were deposed and banished by the French authorities. The resistance had almost totally monopolized the chữ nôm literature of the period. Writers did not seek art for art’s sake: literature was an instrument to appeal to patriotism and to struggle for the independence of the country. Standing above all these known and unknown authors was the dominant stature of Nguyễn Đình Chieu.
A Southerner by birth, Nguyễn Dinh Chieu had witnessed from the beginning of the hostilities until his death in 1888 all the painful events that wrecked his country. He was the epitome of a scholar who dedicated his life to the defense of his country in danger and of the Way of the Sage, which was the fundamental principle of his life. Among his works in chữ nôm the most important are: Luc Van Tiên (History of Luc Van Tien), a novel in verse in which the hero stood firm on his Confucian principles against the vicissitudes of life; Duong Tu Ha Mau, a long poem that extols patriotism and Confucianism over the religions of foreign origin. In Van Te Nghia Si Can Giuoc (Funeral Oration in honor of the resistance fighters of Can Giuoc) and in Van Te Truong Công Dinh (Eulogy of Truong Công Dinh) Nguyễn Dinh Chieu paid tribute to the Can Giuoc resistance fighters and the prestigious resistance leader.
The dawn of the twentieth century was marked by the firm implantation of the colonial regime, by changes in the social structure, by the emergence of a new class of collaborators such as mandarins, civil servants, bourgeois, notables,… as well as by a new direction and new forms of national life. Still, numerous were those who, by virtue of their integrity, had refused to collaborate with the enemy, and had chosen a life of want. Realizing their impotence, they often resorted to satirical humor, which is a weapon suited to the weak in their struggle against a superior enemy. However, the laughs, ironies and sarcasms of their works were tinged with sadness, and ended up in tearful sobs. This form of literature was well represented by two notable authors: Nguyễn Khuyen and Tran Te Xương.
The illustrious Nguyễn Khuyen was three times Honor Laureate in the triennial competitive examinations and a highly respected mandarin at the time of the Court’s surrender. Under the pretext of an eye disease, he requested a much anticipated retirement. He had even declined a nomination to the post of province governor initiated by the French authorities. Living frugally in his native village, he began to write poems in chữ nôm thereby following the long tradition of satirical popular literature. Though his humor was full of subtleties and rich in veiled allusions, his criticisms were no less acerbic. Nguyễn Khuyen also wrote lyrical verse, in which he exhibited love of nature in the portrayal of an autumn scene or the flight of a migratory bird, meditated upon old friendships, and suffered before the misery of victims of natural disasters. His language is sincere, refined, picturesque and of the highest purity. Often he indulged in self-pity. What was the use of all his diplomas, his knowledge and professional honors when all he could do was sit idly by while his country was invaded by foreigners and his people suffered grievously?
Tran Te Xương, also known as Tu Xương (Bachelier Xương), is a very popular satirical poet. He failed several times at the triennial examinations, and for want of money, he was never able to secure a nomination to the mandarinate. His failures and poverty left him a very bitter man. Like Nguyễn Khuyen, he directed his attacks at the mandarins, civil servants, bourgeois, the conquerors’ domestics. His poetry spread like wildfire throughout the country. If Nguyễn Khuyen is subtle, veiled, implicit, Tran Te Xương revels in crude images, violent turns of phrase, even indecorum. However, when he dedicated his rare poems to Phan Boi Châu, a revolutionary for whom he had great admiration, his tone became serious and filled with tenderness. Tran Te Xương did not write in chữ nho (Sino-Vietnamese). His language is the vernacular, the everyday language of the people, devoid of literary or mythological allusions.
Nguyễn Khuyen and Tran Te Xương are the last poets of the period of the chữ nôm literature. Soon a new generation, schooled in Western ways, would pick up the torch from the scholars of Chinese culture.
Recapitulation of the chữ nôm period
In sum, the evolution of chữ nôm, with which the Vietnamese language identifies itself, lasted four hundred years. From the 18th century on numerous literary works written in “modern” chữ nôm gained solid recognition not only among the masses but among the scholars as well. The creation of the chữ nôm was initiated by the effort of individuals, who were motivated by the constant need of Vietnamese men to express themselves, and to confide on paper their intimate sentiments, and by the desire of the Vietnamese people to complete its independence. It is the reaction of an entire nation against foreign cultural domination. Thus the chữ nôm had achieved great strides every time a broad-based movement swept the country.
In the 14th century, when the country enjoyed the blissful days of independence, King Tran Anh Tong reminded officials responsible for disseminating royal ordinances and administrative documents to translate them into chữ nôm to allow the people to understand their content. Hồ Quí Ly (1400-1407), a king keenly jealous of the cultural independence of his country, had several volumes of Confucian literature translated into chữ nôm and encouraged the use of the new script in official communications. Nguyễn Huê (1788-1792), after repelling a Chinese invasion, decreed that the chữ nôm should be the language of administration as well as of the triennial examinations. At the end of the nineteenth century, a critical moment in our history, the scholar Nguyễn Truong To, former student in Rome and Paris, addressed no fewer than fifteen petitions to King Tu Duc asking for a radical reform of the country, in which the petition of 1867 proposed the replacement of Chinese characters by chữ nôm. Among others the petitions called for the renovation and standardization of this writing system, for the publication of a dictionary of chữ nôm to be used by the administration and in schools, so that everybody could read and write in the same way. At first Tu Duc loved the idea, but the gradually spreading occupation of the country by the French and the fanatic conservatism of his Court finally persuaded him to reject the proposals.
From chữ nôm to chữ quôc ngữ
We have reviewed the names of the greatest authors in chữ nôm literature. And they decidedly form a large part of the Vietnamese pantheon. They wrote their works in chữ nôm, and thanks to this script Vietnamese were able to produce a remarkable national literature, from the novels in verse by Nguyễn Du and Nguyễn Huy Tự, through the plaints of Chinh Phu Ngam and Cung Oan Ngam Khuc, to the poems of Nguyễn Cong Tru, Cao Bá Quát, Ho Xuan Huong, Bà Huyện Thanh Quan, Nguyễn Khuyen, Tran Te Xương, to cite only a few. Today since few people know how to decipher this script, the above works had to be transcribed into chữ quốc ngữ for use in libraries and schools.
Like Vietnam, countries under the cultural influence of China for centuries have adopted their own scripts, not only to transcribe Chinese loanwords, but also to reduce their national language to writing. Their effort resulted in composite systems that are more or less long-lasting. The Japanese devised a mixed system of syllabic symbols (kano) and Chinese characters; the Koreans nowadays have acquired a non-Phoenician alphabet. Still these scripts retain a large number of Chinese characters, especially in philosophical, literary and technical writings. Vietnamese alone has used nothing but the Latin alphabet.
Starting from 1917, the word-based nôm writing system has given way to the phonetic quôc ngữ. In the word-based writing system a considerable inventory of signs and characters is necessary as there must be as many signs as there are words in the language. Consequently one is required to have a very large memory to retain a sufficient amount of characters necessary for reading. In contrast, a sound-based script such as the quôc ngữ is far less cumbersome.
The great writers in chữ nôm have handed down a Vietnamese language already polished and refined. Since the chữ quôc ngữ is a system at once simple and easy to handle, it has the ability to render the spoken language faithfully, thereby facilitating the expression of the people’s sentiments and a widespread dissemination of newly imported Western ideas that help to shape the emergence of the new Vietnamese man and society in the periods to come. ■
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This article appeared in Firmament, issue of April 2020.