Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1822) was a Vietnamese woman poet born at the end of the Later Le Dynasty (Period 1428–1788: the greatest and longest lasting dynasty of traditional Vietnam) who wrote poems with unusual irreverence and shockingly erotic undertones for her time. She is considered as one of Vietnam's greatest poets, such that she is dubbed "the Queen of Nom Poetry” and has become a cultural symbol of Vietnam. I came across her name first in a travel guide where one of her poems was listed. It led me to search more of her poems. It was a sheer delight to read her poems in the book titled “Spring Essence”, which is what her name means in Vietnamese language.
The epoch she lived was marked by calamity and social disintegration. A concubine, although a high-ranking one, Ho Xuan followed Chinese classical styles in her poetry, but preferred to write poetry in an extinct ideographic script known as Nom, similar to Chinese but representing Vietnamese. And while her prosody followed traditional forms, her poems were anything but conventional: Whether mountain landscapes, or longings after love, or apparently about such common things as a fan, weaving, some fruit, or even a river snail, almost all her poems were double entendres with hidden sexual meaning.
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 a Confucian tradition that banished the nude from art, writing about sex was unheard of. And, if this were not enough to incur disfavor in a time when impropriety was punished by the sword, she wrote poems which ridiculed the authority of the decaying Buddhist church, the feudal state, and Confucian society. So, in a time when death and destruction lay about, when the powerful held sway and disrespect was punished by the sword, how did she get away with the irreverence, the scorn, and the habitual indecency of her poetry? The answer lies in her excellence as a poet and in the paramount cultural esteem that Vietnamese have always placed on poetry, whether in the high tradition of the literati or the oral folk poetry of the common people. Quite simply, she survived because of her exquisite cleverness at poetry.
Her poems were copied by hand for almost 100 years before they finally saw a woodblock printing in 1909.
Below are some samplers of her playful poetry. I am sure it will delight you as much as it did me. The reader will experience Ho Xuan Huong's lonely, intelligent life, her exquisite poetry, her stubbornness, her sarcasm, her bravery, her irreverent humor and her bodhisattva's compassion in these poems.
Praise whoever raised these poles
for some to swing while others watch
A boy pumps, then arcs his back.
The shapely girl shoves up her hips,
Four pink trousers flapping hard,
Two pairs of legs stretched side by side.
Spring games. Who hasn’t known them?
Swinging posts removed, the holes lie empty
New born, it wasn’t so vile. But, now, at night,
even blind it flares brighter than any lamp.
Soldier-like, it sports a reddish leather hat,
Musket balls sagging the bag down below
My body is like the jackfruit on the branch:
My skin coarse, my meat thick
Kind sir, if you love me, pierce me with your stick
Caress me and sap will slicken your hands
Weaving at Night
Lampwick turned up, the room glows white.
The loom moves easily all night long
As feet work and push below.
Nimbly the shuttle flies in and out,
Wide or narrow, big or small, sliding in snug.
Long or short, it glides smoothly.
Girls who do it right, let it soak
Then wait a while for the blush to show
The Man - and - Wife Mountain
A clever showpiece nature here displays
It shaped a man, then shaped a woman, too
Above some snowflakes dot his silver head.
Below, some dewdrops wet her rosy cheeks.
He flaunts his manhood underneath the moon.
She rubs her sex in view of hills and streams.
Even those aged boulders will make love.
Don’t blame us, human beings, if in youth….
(On a journey, the poetess saw two huge rocks, one poised on top of the other, resembling a couple engaged in sexual intercourse)
The Condition of Women
Sisters, do you know how it is? On one hand,
the bawling baby; on the other, your husband
sliding onto your stomach,
his little son still howling at your side.
Yet, everything must be put in order.
Rushing around all helter-skelter.
Husband and child, what obligations!
Sisters, do you know how it is?
(A very touching poem capturing the social issues of women)
On Sharing a Husband
Screw the fate that makes you share a man.
One cuddles under a cotton blanket, the other’s cold
Every now and then, well maybe or maybe not.
Once or twice a month, oh, it’s like nothing.
You try to stick to it like a fly on rice
but the rice is rotten. You slave like a maid,
but without pay. If I had known how it would go
I think I would have lived alone.
The Unwed Mother
Because I was too easy, this happened.
Can you guess the hollow in my heart?
Fate did not push out a bud
even though the willow grew.
(This poem is a classic gem of leaving unsaid everything but what is needed. A heart unfolding. In those times, for an upper class woman, pregnancy out of wedlock could be punished by being forced to lie down while an elephant trod on her stomach, killing both mother and unborn child.
For peasants, socially far more free in sexual encounters, there's a folk proverb:
"No husband, but pregnant, that's skillful.
Husband and pregnant, that's pretty ordinary.")
Questions for the Moon
How many thousands of years have you been there?
Why sometimes slender, why sometimes full?
Why do you circle the purple loneliness of night
and seldom blush before the sun?
Weary, past midnight, who are you searching for?
Are you in love with these rivers and hills?
Drop by drop the rain slaps the banana leaves.
Praise whoever’s skill sketched this desolate scene:
The lush dark canopies of the gnarled trees;
The long river, sliding smooth and white.
Tilting my wine flask, I am drunk with rivers and hills.
My bag , filled with wind and moonlight, weighs on my back,
Sags with poems. Look and love even men
Whoever sees this landscape is stunned
(What an amazingly beautiful sketch it is! ‘Look and love even men’ has a subtle sarcasm.)
Spring –Watching Pavilion
A gentle spring evening arrives
Airily, unclouded by worldly dust
Three times, the bell tolls echoes like a wave
We see heaven upside- down in sad puddles
Love’s vast sea cannot be emptied.
And spring of grace flow easily everywhere.
Where is Nirvana?
Nirvana is here, nine times out of ten
(This one is a masterpiece indeed. Seeking solitude in nature, she realizes that it is nature itself, not any organized religion or other construct of the human world, which holds the key to the search for nirvana and sometimes can see heaven upside- down in sad puddles ‘)