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Vietnam Literature

Vietnamese literature refers to a body of writing that has evolved over many centuries and is linked with the history, culture, and language of the Vietnamese people. Vietnamese history is marked by long periods of domination by foreign powers; Chinese rule stretched for nearly a millennium from the second century BCE to the tenth century CE. The efforts by Vietnamese kings and lords to regain territorial integrity was partly realized in the tenth century, making the unity of Vietnam an ideal for which to fight. In the modern period, Vietnam was colonized by the French, who withdrew only in the mid-twentieth century. More recently, the Vietnam War renewed the historical experience of protracted agony for the people of Vietnam. Understandably, Vietnamese poets, scholars, and writers have sought to record the impact of this troubled legacy on the national consciousness. Vietnamese literature owes its creative impulse and continued vitality to this sense of a shared destiny in the face of interruptions and invasions. Writings originating in the Vietnamese culture are realistic, communicating the human need to participate in life despite its harshness. A similar spirit is also evident in the folk literature of Vietnam, which is a rich storehouse of tales, proverbs, songs, and legends, providing ample evidence of the imaginative resources of the Vietnamese people.

Traditional Literature

Traditional Vietnamese literature is said to have its beginnings in the ancient period (tenth–fifteenth centuries) and to last until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The beginning of this literature was tied to the Chinese occupation of Vietnam, when poetry was the favored literary genre. Monks, kings, scholars, and civil servants were the first poets in Vietnam, and they wrote in a literary language called Han. While the script and style were distinctly Chinese, in subject matter and perspective the poems were Vietnamese. At the outset, the themes were religious and philosophical, written under the influence of Chan (Zen) Buddhism and Confucianism. Gradually, however, poetry came to reflect the secular and aesthetic aspects of human experience as well. Many of these early poems have been lost because of foreign invasions and (in some instances, such as after the Ming occupation of 1407–1427) a deliberate policy of destruction by the new rulers. The extant poems, however, express the transience of life and delineate themes of birth, aging, sickness, and death. There was also a strand in early poetry that depicted aspects of court life, as well as the simple joys of nature. With the assertion of a Vietnamese identity by rulers of the Ly (1010–1225), Tran (1225–1400), and Le (1427–1791) dynasties, the community life of Vietnam became the principal theme for poetic exploration, as illustrated in the life and achievement of Nguyen Trai (1380–1442). The form of the early poems mostly followed strict metrical patterns set by Chinese models and was restricted by notions of decorum deemed necessary for the practice of literary art. An interesting later development was writing in nomHan ideograms used to transcribe Vietnamese words. This type of writing became popular as a new mode of expression and paved the way for a vibrant vernacular literature that broke away from the elitist, imitative literature written in Chinese. In time, classical works were translated into a growing corpus of nom literature that was diffused among different strata of Vietnamese society. Prose forms for easy communication were devised. Verse narratives, a typical Vietnamese form, became popular, culminating in The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du (1765–1820), a poem of 3,254 lines considered to be Vietnam's national epic poem. The Tale of Kieu occupies a unique place in Vietnamese literature. It is the tale of a young woman of noble character who sacrifices everything out of loyalty to her family and for love. Her sufferings and resilience find an echo in every Vietnamese heart. In addition to long narratives in verse, short poems with eclectic forms were composed by poets from diverse backgrounds. A good example is the work of the woman poet Ho Xuan Huong (1768–1839), who in lines of power and beauty protested against traditional institutions. characters, a demotic version of Chinese

Modern Literature

Modern Vietnamese literature was written in the wake of Vietnam's contact with the West. This contact increased after the French began their formal occupation of Vietnam toward the end of the nineteenth century. For administrative reasons, the French favored the use of quoc ngu (the romanized Vietnamese script), which was instrumental in spreading literacy and culture. The rise of newspapers and magazines gave a new direction to Vietnamese cultural life, and the practice of literature was no longer restricted to the learned. With the growth of an educated Vietnamese public, circulation of innovative forms such as serialized novels increased rapidly. The nationalist resistance to the colonial regime used the quoc ngu script and writings to further its goal of forging a distinctive Vietnamese identity. Prose became a versatile medium of political and aesthetic expression, and ideas from other cultures stimulated the native intellectual climate. Literature in quoc ngu signaled a break with tradition and gave rise to novelty and experimentation. New journals like Dong Duong Tap Chi (The Indochina Review) in 1913 and Nam Phong (South Wind) in 1917, which were instigated by the colonial administration, prefigured publications by nationalist and progressive intellectuals. Traditional poetry was challenged by the individualistic efforts of poets like Nguyen Khac Hieu (1888–1939), who popularized a movement for the reform of poetry that culminated in the New Poetry Movement of the 1930s. The novel and short story utilized the emergent prose medium. Ho Bieu Chanh (1884–1958) in the south and Hoang Ngoc Phach (1896–1973) in the north introduced readers to new prose fictional forms. Phach's only novel To Tam (Pure Heart; 1925) is regarded as the first Vietnamese novel.

Since 1975, an attempt to redefine literary practice has raised methodological questions concerning the terms "social" and "socialist" as they were used to describe the outlook of writers in their efforts to portray the traumatic experiences of the Vietnamese people. Influential writers of the period were Duong Thu Huong (b. 1947), Bao Ninh (b. 1952), Nguyen Huy Thiep (b. 1950), and Pham Thi Hoai (b. 1960). Beginning with the innovative efforts of the Tu Luc Van Doan (Independent Literary Group) writers between 1930 and 1935 until the creative mediation of the diasporic writers of modern times, Vietnamese literature has come a long way in shaping its distinctive identity.


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