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Tan Da: Vietnam's First Modern Poet

Portrait of the Artist

Portrait of the Artist

Portrait of the Artist Mr. Nguyen Khai Hieu teaches literature. "Professor Hieu: "The honored audience asked me the way to make poetry? There’s nothing to it—the wine goes in and the poems come out." Phong Hou, November 11, 1932, p. 3. (Tu Ly is a pseudonym for Nguyen Trong Long (Hoang Dao) Ngay Nay, December 10, 1938, p. 18. From: Ngay Nay, January 28, 1939, p. 18.

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In Vietnam, poetry is truly part of popular culture. Daily newspapers print poems, poetry books are prominently displayed in bookstores and there are radio and television shows of and about poetry. Poets have become important governmental and political figures and political leaders have written poetry (think of Ho Chi Minh). Vietnamese from all levels of society appreciate folk sayings, a beautifully turned phrase or a penetrating poetic image.

Early 20th century Vietnam is a fascinating time of modernization and westernization in all areas of Vietnamese cultural life. The poetry and literature of this time reflect the psychological strains and uncertainties as well as the enthusiasms of Vietnamese as they encountered western culture, yet also struggled with the difficulties of being colonial subjects with limited control of their own destinies.

One figure who lived through these challenging times and expressed all of their wonders and contradictions was the poet Tan Da. Born in 1889, he grew up in a Confucian family that emphasized study of the Chinese classics, but during a time when the traditional exams no longer had any meaning. As a result he also attended western schools where he learned the Vietnamese romanized script (quoc ngur) and French, but he encountered difficulties there as well. He deeply loved a woman from a high-class family, but knew that she and her family could only accept him if he passed tests to qualify for some governmental position and station in society. However he failed these tests on two occasions. The poem "Teasing Myself" sums up his bitterness at this rejection. The test evaluator commented that his writing was "too good.".

Teasing Myself
(After failing the test at Nam Dinh school)

Out of Son Tay soil there sprouted a man,
Who reached an age fecund with powerful verse.
The Da river, Tan mountain, who forged them?
A Saint's pen, a God's phrases, strewn all around.
Such syllables, such characters, are they inferior to any?
Encouragement, high marks, are they there or are they not?
Because you're too good, you didn't pass,
And in failure, you're even more extravagant.

Son Tay Province was the former name of poet's birthplace (it's part of present-day Ha Tay Province). His birth name was Nguyen Khac Hieu (khac means to engrave or set in stone and hieu means obedience and loyalty to one's parents and ancestors). As a poet he took the pen name Tan Da, reflecting a love of his place of birth near the Da or Black River and Tan Mountain also in the Son Tay region. As "Teasing Myself" shows, Tan Da's poems are full of biographical references. Further reading of his poems gives the reader a good sense of the poet and through the entire body of work one begins to see the poet's persona.

The following poem was written for Tet (the Vietnamese lunar New Year) of 1934 (the Year of the Dog).

A Poem to Chant for Myself
(The Eve of Tet Year of the Chicken passing to the Year of the Dog)

Who was forged by Da River and Tan Mountain,
For ages now, how many such people have there been?
Loyalty and fidelity, perfect like massive gems,
Nobility laid open, white like a plum blossom petal.
Money, the wind lightly strews - poems fill my pockets
Fame, like duckweed drifts - strong wine by the jar.
In the year of the dog, the heavens command the angel to come down.
Eternity, make an exception and prolong this spring.

Like the preceding "Teasing Myself" this poem expresses a combination of boasting and self-deprecation. The poet values and extols loyalty, fidelity and nobility, but eschews money, which is scattered by the wind to the benefit of his abundant poetry. Eschewing fame, which he compares to a weed drifting aimlessly on a pond, he chooses wine, seemingly never in short supply.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Tan Da's fame was never in doubt among lovers of literature. From the mid-1910s he was well known as a writer and editor for several newspapers. He wrote traditional plays (hat cheo), novels, instruction books for children and made translations from Chinese (mostly T'ang poetry as well as the Strange Tales of Liaozhai - Lieu Trai Chi Di). He wrote prolifically until his death in 1939.

In a memoir, the writer Nguyen Vy describes encountering, as an awe-inspired youth, the poet dressed in the old-fashioned manner of a Confucian scholar: " Tousled hair parted on one side, wearing a very long, old, black robe, slightly dirty white trousers and a pair of worn-out shoes. "His eyes flashed as he looked at me." Here we see a man of the older generation with a bohemian intensity. The poet speaks of his circumstances in the poem "Poverty."


Sure there are those better off than I,
But I outdo all at poverty.
My scenery includes mountains and rivers,
hamlets and alleys,
Houses without brick roofs, not even thatch.
My literature's cheap, unwanted, looking at it is a bore,
Fine living, passions,
I find thinking of them bland.
In a former life, I remember being born during the summer rain era,
When it rained gold three days, so I'm bored with spending coins.

Although Tan Da describes himself as poor, he apparently always had the means to enjoy tobacco, wine and delicious food, probably available to him in some part due to the camaraderie of the literary community. This poem shows the poet's appreciation for his humble surroundings among the ramshackle houses of the poor. He is disinterested in material accumulation--he must have gotten such ambitions out of his system in a previous life.

A theme common to Tan Da's work is the appreciation of natural beauty, particularly that rivers and mountain evoked by his nom de plume. As poet Gary Snyder notes, rivers and mountains in Asian literature represent the painted landscape. In countrysides like those of China and Vietnam nearly all land that could be was cultivated--mountains and rivers are the wild places away from society and its concerns. Snyder also describes how mountains and rivers are "the visible expression of cosmic principles." Tan Da's poem "The non nuoc," translated by Huynh Sang Thong in his Anthology of Vietnamese Poems as "The troth between the hill and the stream," evokes this ideal. The poem describes the complementary strengths of stone and water and their equilibrium the ages. Furthermore the phrase "non nuoc" in Vietnamese has the added meaning of "the homeland." Tan Da employs the description of Vietnam's natural beauty to evoke his homeland's permanence and to symbolically uphold his people's desire for their independence and autonomy.

As we have seen, the popular figure of Tan Da was always associated with drink and drunkenness. He wrote a trilogy of poems "Not Yet Drunk," "Drunk," and "Still Drunk" in hai noi form. These were poems written to be recited by co dau, or women singers in a geisha-like setting. These women sang to the accompaniment of the dan day, a three-stringed lute, in a musical form called hat a dao or ca tru. Male guests would visit the place of business of the co dau to eat, drink and be merry. They enjoyed poetry and singing and took turns playing a praise drum in response to the singer's performance.

Drunk Again

To be drunk I think spoils one's life,
It spoils the times, it's such a waste; being drunk
because of the times, I keep getting drunk.
The earth's drunk so the earth spins,
The sky's face is also burning red, who thinks that's funny?

I'm drunk and don't even knowing how many times it's been
I look at the green mountains and don't see a thing...that's drunk.
Odd! Why drunk? Forever drunk this way -
Drunk all night, by day all but unconscious.
My wife says being drunk on wine is truly useless:
But I desire to drown my sorrows and so be granted freedom.
Of this mortal world's affairs - who's awake, who's concerned,
Inebriated a little or a lot it's all the same.
Oh heaven and earth! Drunkenness is such pleasure.
Wives instruct husbands, if but it was easy then
wouldn't we give it up right away?
If I want to get drunk again, then I'll go ahead and get drunk.

As Huynh Sang Thong notes in the introduction to the aforementioned book, poets often used the hat noi form to escape the formalities of traditional poetry, and "with a singing-girl as his confidant, his kindred soul," truly express himself. His inability to favorably affect the "mortal world" leads him to find release in drunken pleasure. Many Vietnamese lovers of literature felt sympathy with such an attitude. Tan Da served as a sort of model to the next generation, known as the pre-war (tien chien) poets, as we as already seen with Nguyen Vy.

Another poet Tran Huyen Tran wrote a poem originally entitled "A Dream of Drinking with Tan Da."

With Tan Da by Tran Huyen Tran

Just warm up some more wine
This flask must have just about run dry
Then let's raise our cups and drink together
Pour one heartache into another
Am I drunk?
Sir, could we young ones have yet had our fill???
With this life's pain, what of this drunkenness?
Does the road really run far, old master?
I can brave this, for
To go near happiness, one must go far along the road
I'm sunlight, you're mist
Early in the day I suddenly awake, you linger into the heart of afternoon
Wind and rain, your hair has known much
Your heart still bears the heaviness of so many feelings.

Besides, the hair on my forehead is still black,
Yes, I've still thousands of waterfalls and rapids to go
With life a fleeting passion
This way is better than being bored, faulting life's daydreams
Pour it out, just pour, pour it out
Pour out for me all my life's opening decades
The wellspring of pain, let's pour it out for each another
Just these drunken words are a statement of sincerity.

Tan Da was for Tran Huyen Tran a model--a man who knew how to weather life's difficulties, but yet maintain a zest for life.

In "A Stroll at the Flower Nursery," also written in the four-line, seven-syllable structure, Tan Da shows fascination and enthusiasm as well as wistful despair about the lot of his country.

A Stroll at the Flower Nursery
(The Hanoi Botanical Gardens)

Its distance from Hanoi's streets is near, not far,
Could there be anything more delightful than the flower nursery?
Having a chance I stroll to cheer myself up,
Go up there at noon for some fresh air, sit and hum a tune.
Sitting, I sadly remember the stories of old:
The capitol Thang Long built long, long ago.
Were there castles, monuments, and palaces here,
Or just a few trees, patches of grass, and some flowers?
But it's certain that since the Westerners came,
We've gotten an iron cage to enclose and tend the animals:
Strange beasts, beautiful birds, and shade trees,
Wide, splendid roads, and pleasant views.
During the three months of summer, many people stroll through,
Especially on cool afternoons, there are crowds of all stripes.
Monsieur, Madame, Japanese, and Chinese,
Magistrates, secretaries, old scholars, servants and nursemaids.
Cars, horses, people all come by,
Standing here, going there, talking a little with a laugh.
Butterflies take to wing, the color of fluttering shirts,
The fragrance of magnolia spreads like a perfume.
The afternoon's late, the funlovers all have left,
At the tree's root, sighing, I sit alone.
Of the Ly, Tran, and Le kings, all is lost,
But the sight of deer leisurely taking their stroll.

This poem expresses a combination of the enjoyment, nostalgia, melancholy and bewilderment of the poet at the situation of his country seen through an afternoon at the Botanical Gardens. This garden also was a zoo and was located in the site of Thang Long, the former capital of Vietnam during the Ly, Tran and Le dynasties (from the 10th to the 16th centuries). This was a time of glory for Vietnam when the nation achieved its independence from China and fought off later Chinese invasions. Tan Da sits wondering about the place that he is enjoying. Were his surroundings the location of his nation's pride or were they merely trees, grass and flowers? That reflection is brought into focus in the above piece--this beautiful, cool place of his musing is only here as the result of the French, a new invader that one can not speak against directly. Not only have the French created this delightful place, but they have also locked up and are nurturing animals in iron cages--a not so thinly veiled allusion to the French "protectorate" and the collaborationist Vietnamese who were fed by them. He then describes the visitors to the park in two contrastive sentences that reflect the hierarchical reality he saw. One line describes foreigners in order of their rank--the French gentlemen and ladies, then the Chinese and Japanese. The second line of the pair begins with the indigenous bureaucrats of the new colonial order--magistrates and secretaries, followed by the old-style Confucian scholars and ending with the bottom rung of urban society--the house servants. To the poet, the whole lot are like exotic animals in cages, but he remains ambivalent because of his awareness of his own captivity. In the 19th and 20th lines he places in parallel two sentences that contrast the natural beauty of the butterfly and the magnolia with the artificiality of fashionable clothing and perfume. In the end he is discouraged by the entire spectacle. He witnesses deer enjoying themselves in the empty park. Could he see himself and his countrymen as harmless as these deer, unable or uninterested in doing anything except strolling within their confines?

"A Stroll at the Flower Garden" parallels the then contemporary situation of Vietnam. They had struggled against the French in the 19th century but found themselves powerless. They then marveled at the technology that the French brought, just as Tan Da marvels at the iron cage, and the wide, splendid roads. Thus while he was not appreciative of collaboration with the French, he realized that a return to the past was not an option as the following poem "Advice to Study" shows:

Advice to Study

"Now Chinese characters are in decline,
What's the use of continuing to study them!
Western characters are right for the times,
But know too much and you're unmarketable!"
Since those years it's been awhile,
I wrote a few sentences,
That looking over today
Truly aren't wrong in the least.
The old is now nearly gone,
As for the new, it's killed not a few.
As the economy gets worse,
The new and old get mixed and twisted together.
Those who manage to work for newspapers
Find a rocky climb to fame and wealth.
Life's road is hard enough to travel,
And the burden's heavier if you add a wife and children.
Even if your shoulders can support a family,
What's to be done about society?
Though the lengths of our lives have yet to be fully reckoned,
What's to be done for the motherland?
The days, then the months go past,
Every year the body is that much older.
Hides wear down, iron also rusts,
Of duties to society, oh, how to keep the will strong!
The sad autumn wind throughout the long night
Blows lightly on the dim lamp.
Who do I miss, oh far-off one,
Let's recall together a few words:
In life you have to indulge a bit,
Even a grudging smile beats tears.
The lives of we fathers haven't amounted to anything,
But if you have children, you must let them study!

This poem published in 1935 near the end of the poet's life expresses the futility that Tan Da and many of his fellow Vietnamese felt in their circumstances. Biographical details like his newspaper work and family responsibilities are mixed with his outlook on society. The "dutiesto society" still weighed heavily. There was so much to be done to improve the situation of their nation, yet he and his generation felt that had done so little to that end themselves. In his poem "TatteredMap" (in Huynh Sang Thong's Anthology) he similarly admits that his generation had not taken care of the "map" representing Vietnam that their forefathers had acquired and left to them. In "Advice to Study," all he could do was encourage the next generation to learn more. In the meantime he would "indulge a bit" and try to hold a smile in spiteof it all. Tan Da is a modern poet who acknowledged that Vietnam could not return to its past ways however full of apprehension he might have been about the future that they were being delivered.
Many of the poems I have selected are sardonic and autobiographic, but he also wrote a great deal of more serious and searching poetry. One such poem is entitled "Farewell."


Peach leaves fall, scattering on the path to T'ienT'ai mountain,
The brook sees you off, the oriole guides you and your sorrows!
Half a year in paradise,
One single step back tomortal life,
Old desires, overflowing love, that's all we had,
Stones wear down, moss uponthem fades
Waters flow, flowers driftpast,
The stork flies upward, surging all the way to thefirmament's end!
The cavern's entrance
The mountain's top
The olden path,
A thousand years sigh beneath the moon's shadowplay.

This poem is actually an aria from a hat cheo theater work that Tan Da wrote called "Thien Thai," meaning "T'ien T'ai Mountain," or "paradise." It's based on the story of two young Chinese scholars in the 1st century AD--Liu Chien and Juan Chao. They got lost while searching for medicinal plants in the vicinity of T'ien T'ai mountain. They followed the Peach Tree Spring and ended up in a paradise with beautiful fairy deities who became their lovers. After half a year they became homesick and although they knew they could never return to paradise, they decided to go back to the mortal realm. Upon returning they discovered that nearly three hundred years had elapsed. Tan Da's poem captures this multi-layered sense of time--the half year and single step contrast with the stones, moss and waters in their relentless natural processes with the thousand years of moonplay. Paradise ultimately becomes a beautiful memory that must be left behind as they return to the mortal world.

Tan Da was at home with the received forms and manner of the Chinese poetry that Vietnamese had emulated for centuries, but he also sought to express the realities of the Vietnam he was living in. Vietnamese readers admire both the playfulness and gravity of Tan Da's writing. His frustrations echoed theirs. He too had to adapt to a rapidly changing world, but died before the momentous changes that overcame his country in the following several decades. While he could not produce answers that were better than anyone else's to his nation's problems, he articulated a form of poetic patriotism, a love of his nation's history and natural beauty and a hope that Vietnam's children would succeed better than his generation.


An Anthology of Vietnamese Poems from the Eleventh through the Twentieth Centuries. Edited and translated by Huynh Sang Thong. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.)

Kieu Thu Hoach. "Tan Da - nguoi mo dau tho Viet Nam hien dai" originally in Tap chi Van hoa Nghe thuat, reprinted in Nhan Dan online (May 15, 1999)

Nguyen Tan Long, Nguyen Huu Trong. Viet Nam thi nhan tien chien. Vol. I (Los Alamitos, CA: Xuan Thu, n.d.).

Nguyen Vy. Van thi si tien chien. (Saigon: Nha sach Khai Tri, 1970).

Schafer, Edward H. Mirages on the Sea of Time: The Taoist Poetry of Ts'ao T'ang. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985).

Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. (New York: North Point Press, 1990).

Snyder, Gary. ""Wild" in China," The Co-Evolution Quarterly 19 (Fall 1978), 39-46.

Tan Da. "Khuyen hoc," Phong Hoa (December 6, 1935), p.4.

Tan Da van van. Vol. I (Paris: Institut de l'Asie du sud-est, 1986 (1944).

Tan Da van van. Vol. II (Fort Smith, AR: Song Moi, n.d. (1944)).

Vo Quan Phuong, Lang man Tan Da, Nhan Dan online (July 2, 1999),

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Comments [1]

Let asia and its people lead the way into a new century

Contributor: johnwesley [19] 11/15/04

1 of 2 people found this comment helpful.

it is so good that Tan da is leading the way for other poets to extend the possiblities of their expression, while at the same time in the western world censorship and other limitations of thought are on the increase, and in my opinion govt power is too much already. i fear the west will become a grim example of george orwells 1984, but this type of story shows hope for the world, and let asia lead the way into a new and better century, where war and greed become forgotten memories, like sand beneath the high tide mark, later to be washed deep into the forgiving seas.

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