modern Vietnamese literature emerged when the full development of quoc ngu as a medium enabled writing both in prose and in verse to depart from the traditional literature which was very much influenced by the Chinese classics

(This lecture was given at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, UCLA, on November 17, 1999.)

I have found that the most simple and logical way to define modern Vietnamese literature is to identify and describe the features marking its departure from traditional literature which had dominated the Vietnamese cultural sphere for centuries. To begin with, the obvious question is what traditional Vietnamese literature was like. Vietnam is blessed with a very rich corpus of oral literature which has persisted since before written literature made its appearance. However, I will not include it in this discussion, because modern Vietnamese literature represented mainly a breakaway from written literary tradition. For centuries, Vietnamese writers had depended on two systems of writing. The first is chu Han, also referred to as Han-Viet or Sino-Vietnamese script, which is written Chinese pronounced the Vietnamese way according to the Vietnamese pattern of sounds. It was learned during the Chinese occupation and continued to be used for official businesses until the early part of this century. The second is chu nom or vernacular script, adapted from Chinese characters to transcribe the spoken Vietnamese language. While it is difficult to determine when chu nom first made its appearance, historical records show that by the beginning of the 14th century it was widespread both at Court and in villages. It follows that there run two streams of literature: literature in chu Han and literature in chu nom, or Han literature and nom literature for short.

Han literature was considered “serious literature”created by the elite who had extensive scholarly training in classical Chinese literature. Apart from a small number of works in prose which were in the main written versions of oral literature, Han literature consisted predominantly of poetry embodying patriarchal Confucian values, all the while addressing concerns with ethnic and national identity vis-a-vis Chinas dominant influence. The literati composed poems in verse forms borrowed from Chinese literature, chiefly the Tang-style regulated eight-line poem with all manner of rules and regulations. This penchant is understandable given that they had spent the better part of their lives to learn and to practice writing poems in this form in preparation for the civil service examinations through which they sought to join the ruling establishment. The small number of works in prose were in the main written versions of oral literature.

In contrast to the elitist Han literature, nom literature was in the language every Vietnamese spoke, using a script considered vulgar by orthodox Confucian scholar-mandarins. The oldest known nom text dates from the 14th century. Nom literature enjoyed a large audience which Han literature was never able to command. However, the majority of this audience was illiterate, to whom a nom text was no less alien than a Han text. The nom script is very complicated to learn. Most nom characters are made up of two Chinese characters put together, one being the semantic component and the other phonetic representing the Vietnamese sound. To make it further troublesome, it is possible to write a single term in different ways in chu nom. In order to read and write this script, one has to be well-versed in chu Hanin the first place. It is small wonder that today, there are only about thirty people in the whole world who can read chu nom. Given this impasse, nom literature depended for diffusion largely on oral transmission. Verse as an effective mnemonic device facilitated memorization of texts for oral circulation among the mostly illiterate masses. It follows that this vernacular literature consisted almost entirely of verse. It dealt with the same topics Han literature was preoccupied with, as well as encompassing social satire and including a tremendously popular genre, the verse narrative, the most celebrated example of which was The Tale of Kieu, a 3,254-line work written by Nguyen Du in the early 19th century. This genre is referred to as truyen nom or narrative in chu nom. In its experimental stage before the seventeenth century, truyen nom was composed of a series of Tang-style poems. (One example is Truyen Vuong Tuong which has 35 eight-line poems and 10 quatrains.) As the genre developed, it adopted the familiar form of folk poetry called luc bat whose basic unit is a pair of lines, the first counting six syllables and the second eight, each pair being linked by an end-rhyme to the next one and the pattern is repeated until the story is told. Truyen nom features a male protagonist well-versed in literature or military arts or both, who is also a patriot loyal to the king, and a female protagonist of impeccable beauty and feminine virtues.

Now, the first complete departure from such literary tradition was in the use of the romanized script, known as chu quoc ngu (or script for national language), which, like chu nom, serves to record or transcribe the Vietnamese language. This writing system was introduced into Vietnam in the 17th century by Portuguese missionaries to help them in their own learning of spoken Vietnamese. It was subsequently developed by others to more closely approximate the spoken sounds of the Vietnamese language. After various changes and modifications, by the 1930s the script stabilized in the form we know today. The spread of chu quoc ngu, on the other hand, was closely connected with publishing and the printing press.

The French came to the southern part of Vietnam first. One of their primary concerns was to break off the cultural ties between Vietnam and China represented by a literary tradition deeply influenced by classical Chinese literature. To this end, the French established institutions to disseminate French civilization and to spread the quoc ngu script. One of these institutions was the press, and the first French-sponsored quoc ngu newspaper was Gia Dinh Bao, started in 1865 in the Saigon area and run by Truong Vinh Ky, also known as Petrus Ky (1837-1898), a multi-lingual scholar. Through this paper, Truong promoted the learning of chu quoc ngu, giving lessons in this new script. Truong also translated Chinese classics and transliterated works in chu nom into chu quoc ngu. The dissemination of news and literature by this paper was a novelty, which greatly encouraged people to learn how to read the script. After GDB, one saw other early periodicals contributing to the spread of quoc ngu: Nong Co Min Dam (1901), Nhut Bao Tinh( (1905), Dai Viet Tan Bao (1905). Another southern scholar who contributed to the standardization of chu quoc ngu was Huynh Tinh Cua, also known as Paulus Cua (1834-1907), author of the first dictionary of the Vietnamese language in two volumes called Viet Nam Quoc Am Tu Vi (600 pages each, published in 1895 and 1896).

Both Truong and Huynh produced popular prose works — mostly written versions of folk narratives — in this new script. Truongs collection Chuyen Doi Xua printed in Cochinchina in 1876 could be seen as the first attempt at modern prose writing. He wrote as one would normally speak, differing from the literary style used by Confucian scholars like himself. Truong applied Western ways of punctuation to make the colloquial language clearer, more precise. But he did not quite succeed. The resulting sentences showed untidiness and a tendency to be repetitive and obscure. In the same vein, Huynh produced Chuyen Giai Buon in 1880.

In Tonkin, the pioneer in journalism was Nguyen Van Vinh (1882-1936). Nguyen went to the French School for Interpreters in Hanoi. At the age of 16, after graduation, he worked as a clerk in a French administrative office. In 1906, when he was 24, Nguyen was sent to an exposition fair in Marseilles. He had been aware of the important role which the press could play in Vietnam in the modernizing process, so on this trip he intended to learn as much as he could about this subject. The Vietnamese pavilion was situated next to that of the local newspaper Le Petit Marseillais. Nguyen became fascinated with the activities evolving around the paper, and spent whatever spare time he could manage to learn all about them. Back to Vietnam, Nguyen resigned from his post and devoted himself to journalism. In 1907, he established the first printing house in Hanoi. Also in the same year, he founded Dang Co Tung Bao, a newspaper whose too small readership caused it to close two years later. Together with Gia Dinh Bao in the south, his paper essentially served as primers, coaching readers on how to read chu quoc ngu.

From the experiences and contributions of these two men, we can say then that publishing and journalism served to facilitate the development of quoc ngu script as the necessary medium for modern writing.

This leads us to the writing of prose fiction which marked another major departure from traditional literature. As mentioned before, the key issue behind the versifying of nom fiction was literacy or the lack of it. Various studies have noted that not more than 5% of the population was literate in the mid-1920s, but due to the fact that chu quoc ngu is a very easy script to learn, literacy increased to 10% by 1939, and grew steadily from then on. When the literate audience expanded and printed copies were more abundant and readily available, authors no longer had the need to render their works in verse, so as to have them easily committed to memory by a few persons who would pass them on to illiterate folk by word of mouth. Indeed, with the quoc ngu script as the standardized medium, and with the spread of printed texts to ensure transmission free of faulty memory, prose fiction gained a solid foothold for development. What it needed next was an audience ready for it. A potential new audience was found among the growing urban middle class who could pay for reading materials, whose penchant for stories was rooted in the tradition of folk and verse narratives, and whose appetite for prose fiction was stimulated by translations of foreign novels. Translations of Chinese novels like The Water Margin appeared in the south at the turn of the century. In the north, Nguyen Van Vinhs publishing house brought out in 1907 a translation in quoc ngu of the Chinese novel The Three Kingdoms. Subsequently, the two major major cultural journals, Dong Duong Tap Chi (1913-1919) and Nam Phong Tap Chi (1917-1934), published translations of both Chinese and French novels.

Dong Duong Tap Chi, the first journal in Vietnamese published in Hanoi, was founded by Nguyen Van Vinh in 1913. If before this date, it was a period of learning chu quoc ngu, one can say that with DDTC the second stage began when one learned to use that script to write literature. In fact, DDTC became a training school for aspiring authors where they practiced writing quoc ngu literature. A number of these writers later joined Nam Phong Tap Chi which appeared in 1917 and was run by Pham Quynh (1892-1945). NPTC, also based in Hanoi, was an elitist journal whose major contribution was also to provide a forum for writers to try out their art. Staffed by literati of good background and experience, the journal displayed the powerful lingering influence of Chinese literature. Its prose tended to be flowery and to exhibit rhythm and parallel sentence structure reminiscent of Tang-style poetry. For creative writing, attempts were made to borrow literary material from nom literature, vocabulary from The Tale of Kieu and from folksongs. But, in the main, the language was removed from everyday speech.

Appearing in those two popular forums were travelers notes, chronicles, occasional tales (random episodes which were used simply as a starting point for an exposition of the authors philosophical comments on life), and short stories, the last being fiction proper in my estimation. Recent studies have brought to light that the first novella ever written appeared in the south: Truyen Thay Lazaro Phien, written in quoc ngu by Nguyen Trong Quan and published in Saigon in 1887. This was followed in 1910 by Tran Chanh Chieu’s Hoang To Anh ham oan, and Trương Duy Toan’s Phan Yen ngoai su – Tiet phu gian truan, both novelettes. Decades later in the north, among the first writers of short stories were Nguyen Ba Hoc (1857-1921) and Pham Duy Ton (1883-1924), both published in Nam Phong in the late 1910s and the early 20s. Of the two, Pham showed a definite attempt to develop a straightforward narrative voice devoid of classical cliches and poetic rhythm.

With regard to dating the emergence of the novel, opinions may differ based on different ways of defining the genre. One should note that the Vietnamese use two separate terms truyen dai (long narrative) and truyen tieu thuyet (novel), which would seem to suggest a differentiation between narrative discourse and novelistic discourse. On this issue M. H. Abrams notes: “The term ‘novel’ is now applied to a great variety of writings that have in common only the attribute of being extended works of fiction written in prose.” (1) If one accepted this simple definition, one would oncur that the first novelist was a southern author named Ho Bieu Chanh. This author began writing fiction in 1912, but his first novel in prose, Ai Lam Duoc?was only serialized in 1919. His later novels were not published in book form until 1922, and then they were circulated only in the Saigon area, where they were very popular.(2) His name only came to be known to the northern literary audience in 1929, when one of his works appeared in Phu Nu Tan Van, which was the first influential women’s periodical, established in Saigon and run by women. Ho Bieu Chanhs popular works published before 1928 were inspired by, if not closely modeled after, French novels. For example, Ngon Co Gio Dua in 1926 was an adaptation of Victor Hugos Les Misrables, where the author uses the general story line of the French work but keeps the plot moving with Vietnamese characters and situations. After 1928, his works were entirely of his own creation. Ho brings in familiar social realities and local color; and he uses the dialects spoken in specific areas of the south. But the overall structure of each work is still not much different from the oral tradition of storytelling, events following one another in strict chronological order with rare detours for description of characters, feelings, or setting. When present, the description is rather monotonous, having no careful choice of details and no variation of sentence structures.

In the meantime, one of the first two novels which appeared in Hanoi was To Tam by Hoang Ngoc Phach, written in 1922 and published in 1925. The other was Qua Dua Do by Nguyen Trong Thuat. Hoang Ngoc Phach’s work approaches a true modern novel. It departs from the traditional and predictable plot development, so that it has the freedom to portray life in its unpredictability. The novel exhibits a probing of the individuals inner life, the subjective consciousness. Dialogue is colloquial. The language used to narrate events also comes close to everyday speech.

We see that the emerging modern fiction, while rejecting the traditional verse form, in content also displays a clear-cut departure from literary tradition. It no longer features heroic deeds of feudal lords and warriors or adventures of supremely talented Confucian scholars and women of supreme beauty and supreme virtues, but no longer relates stories happening only somewhere in China. Instead, it portrays average Vietnamese people who interact in the changed social and cultural environments of Viet Nam.

It should be noted that the full development of a satisfactory language for prose writing, particularly for prose fiction, had to wait until the 1930s when numerous short stories and novels displayed sophistication in the handling of vocabulary and syntactic structures. To this maturing process, most literary historians and critics have emphasized the great contribution made by Tu Luc Van Doan, the Self Reliance Literary Group, who advocated modernity of art and life through their popular weekly journals Phong Hoa (1932) and Ngay Nay (1935), both published in Hanoi. It would be fair, however, to acknowledge the equally important role played by their predecessor, Phu Nu Tan Van, the womens periodical mentioned before, which served as a significant forum for the development of modern literature in both content and form.

With all the fuss surrounding the development of quoc ngu writing and prose fiction, did it spell a decline for poetry writing? Not at all. Poetry is forever for Vietnamese. Modern poetry, commonly known as New Poetry, departed from traditional prosody and was accepted about a decade after the appearance of prose fiction. This is not surprising, since prose fiction was an entirely new genre, encountering no conflict with an existing counterpart. On the other hand, breaking away from a thousand-year-old poetic tradition could not be smooth sailing.

In July of 1933, a nineteen-year-old girl named Nguyen Thi Kiem gave a public lecture at the Association for the Promotion of Learning in Saigon, on the subject of new poetry. This was the first time in the twenty-five-year history of the organization that it had invited a woman to appear on its podium. In fact, this was also the first time that a woman had ever given a public talk on literature, the central core of Vietnamese cultural activity. One can picture the drama of the scene. Not only was the speaker a female, but she was hardly more than an adolescent. Nguyen Thi Kiem, who was also known by her pen name Nguyen Thi Manh Manh, talked for one and a half hours. After attacking the old forms of poetry whose strict rules prohibited truthful expression of new experiences, she presented a few poems of her own and of some other writers which were written in new forms. This was one of the more powerful moments in the history of modern Vietnamese literature: her talk brought into sharp focus the two-year-old battle in printed words between old and new poetry involving not only individuals but also the press. After her talk, the tempo of the conflict rapidly accelerated. In fact, her talk aroused tremendous emotional responses from members of the old school of poetry who worshiped the Tang prosody. It initiated a series of public lectures wherein arguments and counter arguments were vigorously displayed by the opposing schools. In examining her talk, one is incredulous to find hardly any justification for the strong negative affect that came to be focused on her person. The only insulting remark she made was her brief and mild rejection of old forms, especially the Tang-style poetry, which she judged too dated to be of use to poets attempting to interpret new realities.

Furthermore, she was neither the first nor the only one to be committed to the New Poetry movement. The movement was actually set in motion in March 1932, more than a year before her talk, with the publication in Phu Nu Tan Van of a new style poem by Phan Khoi, a male poet whose criticism of traditional poetry was far more severe than that of Nguyen Thi Kiem. He was supported by many male poets, some of whom after her controversial talk gave public lectures to promote new poetry, without suffering the humiliation accorded her. Her second lecture was a failure, not because she had nothing to say in favor of new poetry, but because she was not given a chance to speak her piece. The man who instigated the disruption of the talk actually installed himself on the stage and made fun of her as a modern woman, not as a new poetry writer, in a language filled with brash sexual innuendo. In view of these facts, her being singled out for attack could only be due to the circumstance that she was a woman, doing what a woman was not supposed to do. But that is another story.

In any event, the New Poetry movement proposed to get rid of rules like length of verse, parallel structures, allusions and clichs found in Tang poetry. This appeared to be a debate on form, but the issues went deeper than that. The search for new and different verse forms had its origin in the rapid changes occurring in all areas of social and cultural life which instilled in the younger generation feelings and sentiments unknown to their elders. The cry was thus for poetry that was new both in form and in ideas. Interestingly enough, if one looks closely, one can detect a hint of the tendency to break away from the elitist classical poetry further back, in the person of Tan Da (1888-1939), the early twentieth-century great poet who has been widely considered to be the link between old and new poetry. This poet composed more than 300 poems which discuss nature, earthly pleasures, love, disillusion with life. He attempted to explore all forms of folk poetry, and to experiment with irregular lengths of verse.After a long debate which lasted four years from 1932 to 1936, the old school of poetry gave ground, and writers of new poetry settled down to perfect their art. The leading figures in the movement, beside looking to French poetry for inspiration, also turned to folk poetry and were perfectly happy to compose a great number of their verses in folk prosody, notably the luc bat form previously used in verse narratives.

To round up, I would propose that modern Vietnamese literature emerged when the full development of quoc ngu as a medium enabled writing both in prose and in verse to depart from the traditional literature which was very much influenced by the Chinese classics. Viewed in this light, the emergence of modern literature in prose can be said to have begun in the south with Truong Vinh Kys written versions of folktales in 1876, with the novella by Nguyen Trong Quan published in 1887. Meanwhile, the beginning of modern poetry was marked by the New Poetry movement of the 1930s, which was set in motion by a poem published in the well-known Saigon periodical, Phu Nu Tan Van. Subsequently, both genres found effective channels for development and growth in a number of influential journals in the north.


  1. M.H. Abrams. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 5th edition. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1988, p. 117.
  2. John Schafer and The Uyen. “The Novel Emerges in Cochinchina.” Journal of Asian Studies 52, No.4 (1993), pp.854-884.


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