'Come on, Girls, Let's Go Bail Water': Eroticism in Ho Xuan Huong's Vietnamese Poetry

Article excerpt

For a small country, Vietnam has a remarkably long poetic tradition, including popular appreciation of good lyrics composed in constrained meters yet rich in double images and double meanings. Ho Xuan Hurong, who lived in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, was a talented female poet who presented a wide range of themes through a unique lens and occupies a high place in Vietnam's literary history. She brought to life the battles of the sexes and the power of the female body vis-a-vis male authority, human weakness and desire, and boldly discussed various aspects of religious life, social justice, and equality including sexual freedom, as well as a range of other issues and experiences potentially detrimental to the status and aspirations of women. On close scrutiny, her lyrics offer surprising insight into a private Vietnamese past: the candid voice of a liberal female in a male-dominated society. In many ways the poet had a sad life, influenced by powerful Confucian traditions and external fo rces which she could neither control nor reject. She expressed her innermost feelings in extraordinary lyrics, which on the surface describe simple scenes, fruits, cakes, women's rural activities and lives of individuals, but on another level reveal a rich eroticism that is commonly regarded as the hallmark of her writing. (2) The issues she raised are still of concern, particularly in the context of a surge in awareness of women's liberation movements and revolutionary thoughts within Vietnam in recent years, and the article will also consider the way Ho Xuan Huong's poetry of almost 200 years ago is viewed by present-day Vietnamese.

Social and political setting

Vietnam was ruled by its northern neighbour China from 111 BCE to 939 CE. After the Vietnamese gained independence in the tenth century, Chinese political institutions and social values coexisted under successive dynasties with important Buddhist and Taoist forces. A Chinese-style civil service gradually evolved that recruited men on merit by competitive examination, while the peasant masses remained oriented towards local customs and religious beliefs, in particular cults of folk heroes and guardian spirits. By the fifteenth century, under the long reign of the great emperor Le Thanh Tong (146097), neo-Confucian doctrines dominated Vietnamese ideology.

During this same period Vietnam began to seek more territory to the South. This expansion, coupled with the decline of the Le dynasty (1428-1788), produced a major political division lasting two centuries. Two rival families, the Trinh and the Nguyen, ruled separate areas of Vietnam: North and South were divided by the river Gianh, while the Le emperors remained nominal sovereigns over both. After this long period of internal conflict and social disintegration, the three Tay Son brothers emerged from an upland village in 1771 to begin a rebellion that eventually ousted both the Trjnh and the Nguyen, making the Tay Son overlords of all Vietnam. Their short-lived movement, sometimes called the 'Tay Son revolution' in Vietnamese history books, embodied the unrest of rural communities, the emergence of commercial sectors, religious heresies, and the resurgence of local tradition 'at the expense of borrowed elements in Vietnamese culture, especially Neo-Confucianism. (2) This period gave rise to two important deve lopments: nom (a local demotic script developed centuries earlier to complement the official Chinese writing system) became prevalent among literate Vietnamese, (3) and a revitalised cult of local heroes took shape, based in particular on the first-century Trung Sisters. It was during this time of political struggle, social disorder and institutional change that the poet Ho Xuan Huong is believed to have grown up.

In 1802, a dynamic leader named Nguyen Anh from the Nguyen clan unified the country from North to South and proclaimed himself Emperor Gia Long (r. …