in Vietnamese Literature:
An Analysis of the Relationship
between Literature and Politics
A thesis submitted to
The School of Communication, Culture and Languages
Faculty of Arts
in fulfilment of the requirements of the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
Tuan Ngoc Nguyen
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Timeline of Key Events vii
Part 1: The Importation of Socialist Realism into Vietnam
1. Western influence on modern Vietnamese literature 29
2. The pen-war over the matter of art for art’s sake versus art for life’s sake 57
3. The first Marxist theorists and critics:
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa and Ðặ ng Thai Mai 86
Part 2: From Patriotism to Maoism
4. Between nationalism and socialism 119
5. Maoism and the culture of war 173
Part 3: Peace and Free Market: Enemies of Socialist Realism
6. The Nhân Vă n - Giai Phẩ m affair, a “peace crisis” 216
7. Ðổ i mớ i and the end of socialist realism 254
I, Tuấ n Ngọ c Nguyễ n, declare that the thesis entitled Socialist Realism in
Vietnamese Literature: an Analysis of the Relationship between Literature and
Politics is no more than 100,000 words in length, exclusive of references. This
thesis contains no material that has been submitted previously, in whole or in part,
for the award of any other academic degree or diploma. Except where otherwise
indicated, this thesis is my own work.
Tuấ n Ngọ c Nguyễ n
In the course of writing this thesis I received aid and support from many people. My
greatest debt is to my supervisor, Emeritus Professor John McLaren, who not only
carefully read and commented on my writing but also frequently motivated me to
continue, particularly when I was discouraged. Without his insights and patience, this
thesis could not have been completed. Others to whom I would like to express my
gratitude are: Associate Professor Richard Chauvel, Associate Professor Helen
Borland, Associate Professor Barbara Brooks, Professor Phillip Deery, Associate
Professor Marc Askew, Dr Mark Stevenson, Associate Professor Giưỡ ng Vă n Phan,
and Professor Desmond Cahill, for their support as great friends and colleagues; Mr
Mark Armstrong-Roper and the Victoria University librarians, who helped me to
search for the books, journals and magazines that I needed to use for my study. I am
appreciative of my friends, writers Võ Phiế n, Nguyễ n Phươ ng Linh and Hoàng Ngọ c-
Tuấ n for their encouragement, and Dr Bùi Doãn Khanh, who shared numerous
Vietnamese documents with me. I am also grateful for the helpful comments on some
parts of the manuscript given to me by Mr John F. Drennan, Ms Andrea Watson and in
particular, Ms Petre Santry, a wonderful friend whose help in teaching me English
when I first arrived in Australia has been the foundation of my present writing. I am
also indebted to all the writers, critics, historians and others who approached this
subject before I did, and whose research furnished me with information and ideas. Last,
but not least, I am grateful to my wife, Minh Nguyệ t, and my children, Natasha Trâm
Nguyễ n and Ben Pha Nguyễ n, for their love and support.
In this thesis, I argue that socialist realism is by nature more political than
literary; in the domain of politics, it is more nationalistic than socialistic; and in the
domain of literature, it is more neo-classical or romantic than realist. Over many
decades, writers were advised to represent reality as it ought to be; and in many cases,
in so doing, they had to sacrifice not only the truth but also their intellectual and artistic
status: their writing did not reflect what they really believed, felt or thought. As a
result, ideologically, socialist realism became doctrinaire-ism, and artistically, it
became an illustration of the Communist Party’s policies.
While other ‘isms’ in Western literature such as realism, romanticism and
symbolism took at least half a century to take hold in Vietnam, socialist realism did so
with record speed - in just one year. Promulgated at the first Congress of the Union of
Soviet Writers in 1934, the doctrine of socialist realism was appearing in Vietnamese
newspapers just one year later. However, it had been imported by revolutionaries
whose interest was mainly political, not literary: in their view, socialist realism was the
best way to transform literature into a political weapon. For writers who had not
divorced themselves from the Confucian aesthetics, which placed its particular
emphasis on the social and educational function of literature, socialist realism became
more acceptable because of the development of nationalism, especially during the
Second World War, when Vietnam was dominated simultaneously by two empires:
France and Japan.
Despite having been imported from France, the socialist realism which was
officially adopted in Vietnam was mainly that interpreted by China’s Maoists. The
profound impact of Mao Zedong’s theory of socialist realism in Vietnamese literary
thought and activity after the August 1945 Revolution can be explained by several
factors, geographical, political and cultural. But it is here argued the most important
factor was probably the war. Over three decades, from 1945 to 1975, Vietnam was
continually at war, first with the French and later with the Americans. It can be argued
that it is the very culture of war that helped to create the type of intellectual and
emotional environment necessary for the easy reception of Maoism, an ideology which
was originally born in wartime and aimed to serve the war. It can also be argued that,
together with Maoism, the war culture itself became one of the crucial factors in
shaping socialist realism in the anti-French resistance areas during 1945-54 and in
North Vietnam during 1954-1975.
The dominance of Maoism and the culture of war transformed socialist realism
into something like a para-religion in which the leaders of the Party all became
theorists of literature. These people had neither the time nor the knowledge to discuss
issues of literature in depth; and consequently, the so-called canonical texts of
Vietnamese socialist realism consisted only of several simple pronouncements on
literature by the leaders in various forms, including letters, speeches and resolutions.
As a result, Vietnamese socialist realism became a dogmatism and, in Vietnamese
writers’ words, a "doctrinaire realism".
This “doctrinaire realism”, which was consolidated during the wars against the
French and the Americans, was strongly challenged in peacetime - after the 1954
Geneva Agreements and after the 1975 victory by the two best known dissident
movements: the Nhân Vă n - Giai Phẩ m affair and the perestroika -styled đổ i mớ i
campaign. Both were finally suppressed by the government; but while the former
movement was harshly penalized, the latter is still fortunate to be witnessing the death
of socialist realism.
Although Vietnam is still a one-party ruled state, and the Vietnamese
government still holds a monopoly on publishing, forbidding independent presses and
journals, and trying to keep its strict control over literary life, socialist realism, both as
a doctrine and as a movement, has died. This death resulted not from the activities of
the dissidents but from two non-literary elements: globalization and the market-
oriented economy which has been adopted by the Vietnamese Communist Party and
government since the late 1980s. Now that publishers earned money solely from the
number of books sold or in circulation and writers lived solely by their royalties,
literary consumers played a decisive role in literary life, and writers were able to make
easy contact with the world, the partiinost principle became nonsense and as a result
socialist realism became a thing of the past.
In short, socialist realism was born of communism, nurtured by nationalism,
developed at war, challenged in peacetime, and killed by the force of a free economy
A TIMELINE OF KEY EVENTS
111 B.C. –
Vietnam ruled by China as the Province of Giao Chỉ .
Vietnamese overthrow Chinese rule.
French conquest begins.
Vietnam signs protectorate treaty with France.
Indochina Communist Party (VCP) is formed.
The New Poetry movement begins.
The Tự Lự c literary group launches their first newspaper Phong Hoá .
The Soviet Union of Writers is established; the concept of socialist realism is
The first Congress of Soviet Writers is held; and socialist realism is officially
The polemics on art for art's sake or art for human life.
The theory of socialist realism is first introduced to Vietnamese readers.
The Second World War.
Japan occupies Indochina but leaves the French officials in charge.
Việ t Minh is formed and controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Mao Zedong delivers two talks to the Yana’n Forum on Literature and Art.
Mao Zedong’s “Yana’n Talks on Literature and Art” is published in Chieh-
fang jih-pao .
The Cultural Association for National Salvation is formed and controlled by
Việ t Minh.
Việ t Minh’s Theses on Culture is launched.
The August 1945 Revolution: Hồ Chí Minh proclaims Vietnam’s
independence from the French.
The anti-French resistance breaks out.
The Hồ Chí Minh government and their supporters move to the countryside
and mountain areas in order to organize the guerrilla war.
Trườ ng Chinh, the Secretary General of VCP gives a speech on “Marxism
and Vietnamese Culture” at the Second National Conference on
The Association of Art and Literature is founded, replacing the Cultural
Association for National Salvation.
People’s Republic of China established.
Mao Zedong's “Yana’n Talks on Literature and Art” is translated and
published in Vietnam.
The Conference of Debate in Việ t Bắ c is held with a slogan “revolutionize
ideology and popularize activities”.
The campaign of political rectification starts.
1953 - 56
The land reform campaign.
French defeat at Ðiệ n Biên Phủ leads to cease-fire.
Geneva Agreements divide Vietnam into two parts: the North controlled by
the Hồ Chí Minh government; the South by American-sponsored Ngô
Ðình Diệ m government.
A group of writers and artists in the army demand creative freedom.
Some remarkable books are published:
Việ t Bắ c by Tố Hữ u
Ngườ i Ngườ i Lớ p Lớ p by Trầ n Dầ n
Vượ t Côn Ðả o by Phùng Quán.
The 1954-5 literary prize is announced.
Khrushchev delivers a secret report on Stalin.
The campaign of a Hundred Flowers is launched in China.
Giai Phẩ m publishes 5 issues:
Giai Phẩ m Mùa Xuân (Fine Works of Spring) (is confiscated)
Giai Phẩ m Mùa Thu (Fine Works of Autumn) vols. 1, 2 and 3
Giai Phẩ m Mùa Ðông (Fine Work of Winter).
Nhân Vă n (Humanism), 5 issues.
Other magazines relate to Nhân Vă n - Giai Phẩ m:
Tră m Hoa (Hundred flowers)
Vă n (Literature)
Nói Thậ t (Speaking openly)
The VCP launches a campaign against “saboteurs on the ideological and
A re-education course is organized for nearly 500 writers and artists in
Expelled from Writers' Association: Trươ ng Tử u, Phan Khôi, Thuỵ An.
Dismissed for three years: Trầ n Dầ n, Lê Ðạ t, Hoàng Cầ m, and Phùng Quán.
Writers and artists are sent to factories or to the countryside to reinforce their
In a trial held in Hanoi, several Nhân Vă n - Giai Phẩ m members are
condemned to 15 years (Nguyễ n Hữ u Ðang and Thuỵ An), 10 years
(Minh Ðứ c).
Hanoi openly rejects Khrushchev's policy of “peaceful coexistence” with the
American advisors begin active role in South Vietnam.
Several high-ranking cadres in Hanoi are arrested for being “revisionists”.
First American combat units land at Danang (South Vietnam).
The Cultural Revolution is launched in China.
Hồ Chí Minh dies.
Paris peace agreement is signed; and American troops withdraw.
North Vietnam conquers Saigon; war ends.
A massive exodus from Vietnam began with the change in government.
South Vietnam and North Vietnam are united in the new Socialist Republic
of Viet Nam.
Chinese leader Mao Zedong dies.
Vietnam invades Kampuchea, and instals a pro-Vietnam government.
China launches invasion of Vietnam.
Gorbachev's policies of glasnost and perestroika are adopted in the Soviet
Sixth Congress of the VCP, policy of đổ i mớ i (renovation; literally: change
for the new) adopted.
Dươ ng Thu Hươ ng's Beyond Illusion is published.
Secretary General Nguyễ n Vă n Linh meets Vietnamese writers, artists and
intellectuals in Hanoi to launch the policy of đổ i mớ i in the field of
literature and art.
Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p's short story “The General Retires” is published in Vă n
Nhân Vă n- Giai Phẩ m group's membership in the Writers' Association is
Phạ m Thị Hoài's The Crystal Messenger is published.
Trầ n Ðộ is forced off the VCP's Central Committee.
Nguyên Ngọ c is dismissed from Vă n Nghệ magazine and the executive board
of the Writers' Association.
Dươ ng Thu Hươ ng's Paradise of the Blind is published, and then banned.
Communism in Eastern Europe collapses.
Tiananmen massacre occurs in China.
The VCP's Central Committee issues the “three no's” policy:
• no calling into question the leadership of the communist party;
• no calling into question the correctness of the one-party state; and
• no movement towards pluralism or a multi-party democracy.
(Zachary Abuza, 2001: 80)
Dươ ng Thu Hươ ng is expelled from the Vietnam Communist Party.
Bả o Ninh's The Sorrow of War is published.
Contemporary Vietnamese literature is notable for its fissure along
ideological fault lines. From 1945 to 1954 this fissure marked the boundary
between the literature of those who participated in the anti-French resistance under
the Communist Party’s banner and those who did not. From 1954 to 1975 it was the
ideological divide between South and Communist North Vietnam; and from 1975
to the present, the divide, both ideological and emotional, between homeland and
exile. In this context of Vietnam's history, the relationship between literature and
politics is unequivocal. Nowhere is this relationship deeper and clearer than in
socialist realist literature, which openly advocates political commitment and has
been regarded as the only official literature in the North before 1975 and
throughout the country since then.
Despite its significance, the relationship between literature and politics in
Vietnam has never been studied in a systematic or comprehensive way. This study
addresses that gap.
In Vietnam, literary study and criticism began comparatively recently. In the
1920s, some brief sketches of Vietnamese literary history were written by Georges
Cordier (“Essai sur littérature Annamite”, 1920), Dươ ng Quả ng Hàm (“Hán Việ t
Vă n Biể u” - A Chart of Sino-Vietnamese Literature, 1925) and Lê Dư ( Nữ lư u vă n
họ c sử - History of Women Writers, 1929). All were oversimplified, concentrating
only on the issue of periodization and the listing of major figures in each period.
A monograph on Vietnamese literary history with a critical stance close to
that employed in the West was not published until 1944, when Việ t Nam vă n họ c sử
yế u (A Brief History of Vietnamese Literature) by Dươ ng Quả ng Hàm first
appeared and was used as a textbook in high schools. It was also in the 1940s that
first-hand works on literary criticism were published, including Thi nhân Việ t Nam
(Vietnamese Poets, 1942) by Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân, Nhà vă n hiệ n đạ i
(Modern Writers, 1944-45) by Vũ Ngọ c Phan, and Vă n chươ ng Truyệ n Kiề u (The
Literature of the Tale of Kieu, 1944) by Nguyễ n Bách Khoa. These works, along
with Dươ ng Quả ng Hàm’s Việ t Nam vă n họ c sử yế u , became the sourcebooks of
literary precedent that served later critics and historians.
Immediately after this brief blossoming period, the anti-French resistance
(1946-54) erupted. In 1954, as a result of the Geneva Agreements, Vietnam was
divided in two, South and North, each having a different political regime. This
division caused a long-lasting war which ended in 1975 when South Vietnam
The Vietnam War created a variety of difficulties for literary activities, the
most difficult being in terms of ideology and psychology. In the circumstances of
war and under the spell of political forces, writers and critics are often inclined to
accept a pragmatic theory of literature which asserts the priority of content over
form, stresses the social effect of writing and sees literature as a necessary means of
meeting political needs.
The study of socialist realism was even more influenced by war. In South
Vietnam during the period of 1954-75, only one anthology written by writers living
in the North was published. Entitled Tră m hoa đua nở trên đấ t Bắ c (A Hundred
Flowers Blossom in the North), it was edited and introduced by Mạ c Ðình Hoàng
Vă n Chí (1959), the head of the “Front for Protecting Freedom in the Realm of
Culture”. 1 All of the authors in this anthology participated in the Nhân Vă n - Giai
Phẩ m affair, a movement of intellectual dissidence in the North in the mid-1950s.
In the Vietnamese community-in-exile after 1975, the only published anthology of
works by writers living in Vietnam under the communist regime was Tră m hoa vẫ n
nở trên quê hươ ng (A Hundred Flowers Are Still Blossoming in Our Country,
1990). 2 This anthology comprised works written by those regarded as literary
1 Mạ c Ðình Hoàng Vă n Chí (1959), Tră m hoa đua nở trên đấ t Bắ c , Saigon; reprinted by Quê Mẹ in
Paris in 1983.
2 Published by Lê Trầ n in San Jose, California in 1990.
dissidents of the đổ i mớ i (renovation) movement in Vietnam, formed in 1987. Both
the emergence and the similarity in the titles of the two anthologies are significant:
in South Vietnam before 1975 and in exile after 1975, Vietnamese literary taste has
been predominantly politics-oriented.
In North Vietnam after 1954, and in Vietnam after 1975, the situation has
been identical. Apart from several textbooks, no systematic and thorough work on
contemporary Vietnamese literature as a whole has been produced. Publications in
this field consist of collections of articles written on politically significant
occasions such as the fiftieth anniversary of the Vietnamese Communist Party, the
fortieth anniversary of the August Revolution, and so forth. This political
orientation saw critics performing literary acrobatics in order to earn the
commendation for merit of the Party in the realm of literature rather than to
interpret or to study literature itself. Professor Trầ n Vă n Giàu, one of the most
highly respected historians and a writer of sharp intelligence and quick wit, argues:
How do we assess forty two years of literature of revolutionary resistance and
building socialism? There has been a lack of criticism and criticism of
criticism... We (and that includes me) assess each other’s work in order to
motivate one another, to please those above us, to further our personal
interests, and often we are dictatorial in our assessment without giving others
the right of reply, that is to say we have not had real literary criticism. 3
Professor Nguyễ n Huệ Chi, the head of the Department of Ancient and
Middle Ages Literature in the Institute of Literary Studies, and another researcher,
Vũ Tam Giang, had the same opinion as Professor Trầ n Vă n Giàu. Both cited
several examples of “the fact of hiding or distorting the truth” in many works of
historical and literary scholarship in order to prove that the phenomenon of
“haphazardly presenting the history of modern literature” had been popular in
Vietnam over the past decades. 4
3 Vă n Nghệ (Hanoi), September 19, 1987.
4 Nguyễ n Huệ Chi, “Ðổ i mớ i nhậ n thứ c lị ch sử trong nghiên cứ u khoa họ c xã hộ i nói chung, nghiên
cứ u vă n họ c nói riêng”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c no 6. (1990), pp. 1-9; and Vũ Tam Giang, “Bàn
thêm về đổ i mớ i nhậ n thứ c lị ch sử ”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c no. 3 (1991), pp. 1-5.
It may be said that the whole output of literary criticism and scholarship in
both South and North Vietnam before and even after 1975 on the topic of socialist
realism was very poor and lacked enduring scholarly value. Most, if not all, were
ideologically conditioned. They appeared as sub-texts of the political narratives.
Of the Western countries, France has the longest relationship with Vietnam.
Much Vietnamese literature, especially classical works, has been translated into
French, with several translated more than once, such as The Tale of Kiề u , Lụ c Vân
Tiên and Chinh Phụ Ngâm . France has also had many prominent Vietnamese
specialists. Henri Maspéro, Leopold Cadière, and André George Haudricourt have
contributed major discoveries on the origins and history of the Vietnamese
language. Early studies of Vietnamese literature began with Georges Cordier and
Maurice Durand. The first is the author of Essai sur la littérature annamite (1920),
La littérature annamite (1931), Etude sur la littérature annamite , two volumes
(1933 and 1934), and Poésie nouvelle (1935). Better-known than Georges Cordier,
Maurice Durand was the author of many translations and monographs on
Vietnamese literature and culture, the most notable being Introduction to
Vietnamese Literature , co-authored by Nguyễ n Trầ n Huân. 5
A special place in the research of modern Vietnamese literature in France is
now reserved for Georges Boudarel (1926-2003), the author of several articles,
chapters and monographs on this subject. Central to his research is the Nhân Vă n -
Giai Phẩ m affair. Boudarel’s works include an article entitled “Intellectual
dissidence in the 1950s: the Nhân Vă n - Giai Phẩ m affair”, published in The
Vietnam Forum , no. 13 (1990), a booklet entitled Dissidence intellectuelles au
Vietnam , published by Michel de Maule in Paris in 1989, and Cent fleurs écloses
dans la nuit du Vietnam: communisme et dissidence 1954-1956 , published by
Bertoin in 1991. In these, and other writings, Georges Boudarel’s concern has
always been political life as it is reflected in literature, not literature in itself.
In Russia, although the first publication on Vietnam can be traced to the
second half of the nineteenth century, active studies of Vietnam began
5 In the first edition of 1969, the book ended at the year 1945; in the revised edition, published after
Mr Durand’s death, it was expanded to 1975.
comparatively recently, in the early 1950s. As Anatoli Sokolov remarks, “[i]t can
be affirmed definitely that history is the strongest part of Soviet research on
Vietnam.” 6 In the sphere of literature, in Russia, the leading figures include M.
Tkachev, I. Zimonina, A. Sokolov, S. Toporishchev and N. Nikulin. Apart from
hundreds of essays, articles and translations, Nikulin published two monographs on
Vietnamese literature. Both focus on the history of Vietnamese literature as a
whole: Vietnam Literature, a Brief Sketch (1971), and Vietnamese Literature from
the Middle Ages to the Modern Period (1977). In the modern period, Nikulin has
written many essays on well-known authors, but most are only introductions and
none has theoretical significance. 7
In the last few decades, the topic of Vietnam has attracted several scholars
in the English-speaking world. Until the mid-1980s, however, interest in the study
of Vietnam was largely historical and political. Specialists in the field of literature
were rare. Most began to publish after the đổ i mớ i policies were adopted by the
Vietnamese Communist Party. Of these, the following authors must be mentioned:
John K. Whitmore, who has published an essay on the Tao Ðàn group; 8 O.W.
Wolters, who mentioned several works of Vietnamese classical literature while
discussing culture and literature in Southeast Asia; 9 John C. Schafer, the author and
co-author of several articles on Vietnamese literature at the turn of the century,
particularly the formation and growth of modern fiction; 10 J. A. Yeager, who is
6 Anatoli Sokolov, “Vietnamese Studies in the Soviet Union”, Journal of Vietnamese Studies , no. 5
(January 1992), p. 7.
7 Many of Nikulin's works were translated into Vietnamese and published in Vietnamese
magazines. An anthology of his works, Vă n họ c Việ t Nam và giao lư u quố c tế , edited by
Nguyễ n Hữ u Sơ n, was published by Nhà xuấ t bả n Giáo Dụ c in Hanoi in 2000.
8 John K. Whitmore, “The Tao Ðàn group: poetry, cosmology, and the State in the Hồ ng Ðứ c
period (1470-1497)”, Crossroads , vol. 7, no. 2 (1992), pp. 55-70.
9 O.W. Wolters (1999), History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives , Ithaca:
Cornell University, pp. 68-87.
10 John C. Schafer, “Phạ m Duy Tố n: Journalist, short story writer, collector of humorous stories”, in
The Vietnam Forum no. 14 (1993), pp. 103-124; “The collective and the individual in two
post-war Vietnamese novels”, in Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast
Asian Studies 14.2 (2000), pp. 13-48; “From Verse Narrative to Novel: the Development of
Prose Fiction in Vietnam”, co-authored by Cao Thị Như Quỳ nh, Journal of Asian Studies ,
no. 47, 1988; “The novel emerges in Cochinchina”, with Thế Uyên, The Journal of Asian
Studies 52, no. 4 (November 1993), pp. 854-884.
concerned with the Vietnamese novel in French; 11 Neil L. Jamieson on modern
literature; 12 Dana Healey on the đổ i mớ i movement; 13 and Keith. W. Taylor, 14 Peter
Zinoman 15 and Greg Lockhart 16 on Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p.
It is worth noting that, apart from those mentioned above, several
Vietnamese scholars now write in English: Công Huyề n Tôn Nữ Nha Trang with
her Ph.D. dissertation, The Traditional Roles of Women as Reflected in Oral and
Written Vietnamese Literature (1973), Hoàng Ngọ c Thành with his Ph.D.
dissertation at the University of Hawaii, Vietnam’s Social and Political
Development as Seen through the Modern Novel (1968); 17 Trầ n Mỹ Vân with her
book Scholar in Anguish: Nguyễ n Khuyế n and the Decline of the Confucian Order,
1884–1909 ; 18 Huệ -Tâm Hồ Tài with the chapter “Literature for the People: From
11 J. A. Yeager (1987), The Vietnamese Novel in French: a Literary Response to Colonialism ,
Hanover: University of New England.
12 Neil L. Jamieson (1993), Understanding Vietnam , Berkeley: University of California Press.
13 Dana Healy, “Literature in transition: an overview of Vietnamese writing of the Renovation
Period”, in David Smyth (ed.) (2000), The Canon in Southeast Asian Literatures ,
Richmond: Curzon, pp. 41-50.
14 Keith W. Taylor, “Locating and translating boundaries in Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p's short stories”,
Vietnam Review 1 (1998), pp. 439-465. Taylor has also published several essays on
classical literature such as “The poems of Ðoàn Vă n Khâm”, Crossroads , vol. 7, no. 2
(1992), pp. 39-53.
15 Peter Zinoman, “Declassifying Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p”, Positions 2:2 (Fall 1994), pp. 294-317;
“Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p's 'Vàng Lử a' and the nature of intellectual dissent in contemporary
Vietnam”, Viet Nam Generation , Inc 4:1-2 (Spring 1992), pp. 61-64.
16 Greg Lockhart, “Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p’s Writing: Post-Confucian or Post-Modern”, Journal of
Vietnamese Studies , no. 6, 1993; “Introduction: Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p and the faces of
Vietnamese literature”, in Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p (1992), The General Retires and Other
Stories , translated with an introduction by Greg Lockhart, Singapore: Oxford University
Press, pp. 1-38; “Tạ i sao tôi dị ch truyệ n ngắ n Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p ra tiế ng Anh” (Why I am
translating Nguyễ n Huy Thiệ p's short stories into English), Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c (Literary
Studies) (Hanoi) no. 4 (1989). Greg Lockhart also translated and wrote introductions to
other authors’ works in “Broken Journey: Nhấ t Linh’s ‘Going to France’”, East Asian
History, no. 8 (December 1994), pp. 73-134; (with Monique Lockhart), The Light of the
Capital: Three Modern Vietnamese Classics , Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press.
17 This dissertation was published in 1991 by Peter Llang (New York). A part of it was translated
into Vietnamese by the author and Thân Thị Nhân Ðứ c, entitled Nhữ ng phả n ả nh xã hộ i và
chính trị trong tiể u thuyế t miề n Bắ c, 1950-1967 , published by Quang Trung (San Jose) in
18 Published by the National University of Singapore in 1991. Trầ n Mỹ Vân was also the author of
“Eroticism in the poetry of Hồ Xuân Hươ ng in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies , October
2002, pp. 471-494.
Soviet Politics to Vietnamese Polemics” in Borrowings and Adaptations in
Vietnamese Culture , edited by Trươ ng Bử u Lâm (1987), 19 Huỳ nh Sanh Thông with
his article “Main Trends of Vietnamese Literature Between the Two World Wars”
published in The Vietnam Forum no. 3 (1984); and, more recently, Kim N.B. Ninh
with her thorough work A World Transformed , focusing on the politics of culture in
Vietnam between 1945 and 1965. 20
Most of the above English works concentrate either on a notable author or
on a particular event, and are written primarily from a historical perspective. None
have covered socialist realism as a literary theory or a literary movement. Thus, it
seems that the only monograph specifically dealing with the topic is my own book,
Vă n họ c Việ t Nam dướ i chế độ cộ ng sả n, 1945-90 (Vietnamese Literature under
Communism), published in California in 1991, and reprinted in 1996. 21 This
publication comprises three parts. Part one examines literary activities under the
communist regime, literary organizations, the system of censorship, the College of
Creative Writing of Nguyễ n Du and the “creative camps”, and the remuneration of
Vietnamese writers. Part two examines the history of Vietnamese socialist realism
during its three major periods: 1945-54, 1954-75 and 1975-90. Part three gives an
overview of the achievements of socialist realist literature in some genres and
fields: poetry, fiction, literary criticism and literary scholarship. At a glance, it is
clear that this book is a blend of the sociology of literature with literary history and
literary criticism. It aims to depict literary background rather than to study literature
In contrast, this thesis examines the relationship between literature and
politics rather than merely seeking a reflection of politics in literature. Furthermore,
it attempts to explore socialist realism in Vietnamese literature from a cross-cultural
perspective, particularly as it relates to Chinese and Soviet Russian literature.
19 Published by the Centre for Southeast Asia Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa (Honolulu) in
20 Published by The University of Michigan Press (Ann Harbor) in 2002.
21 Pubished by Vă n Nghệ , under the pen name Nguyễ n Hư ng Quố c.
In exploring the nexus between literature and politics in Vietnamese
socialist realism, this study aims to answer the following questions:
1. How did the Vietnamese intellectuals of the 1930s come to accept
socialist realism as well as the Marxist theory of literature?
2. How did the Vietnamese Communist Party introduce Marxist literary
theory into the context of Vietnam?
3. By what means did the Vietnamese Communist Party exercise its
leadership role and its control over writers and literary activities?
4. What impact did this leadership style and control have upon literary
In respect to literary theory, one of the theoretical outcomes of this study is
to determine whether Vietnamese socialist realism has contributed anything to the
enrichment of its original theory. Furthermore, as has been shown in literary history
in other parts of the world, the relationship between literature and politics is a
matter of continuing and constant debate over unresolvable issues. Each author in
each period unveils different answers and passes different messages on to younger
generations. In view of this relationship, the research aims to discover the lessons
that can be learnt from the experience of Vietnam.
In respect to literary history, most historians believe that the modern period
in the history of Vietnamese literature commenced in 1932 with the establishment
of the Tự Lự c vă n đoàn (Self-Reliant Literary Group) and the birth of the New
Poetry Movement. After fifty years, socialist realism is certainly the most durable
trend of this period. Consequently, one cannot fully understand modern Vietnamese
literature without a careful and thorough study of the socialist realist era.
In relation to the socio-political life of Vietnam, an American belonging to a
generation deeply involved in the Vietnam War, Neil L. Jamieson, the author of
Understanding Vietnam , asserts that “[t]o better understand ourselves, we must
understand the Vietnam War. To understand the war, we must understand the
Vietnamese.” 22 The study of literature is one of the most effective ways to
understand a national psychology and identity. This study offers (i) an
understanding of literary organizations, particularly as they manifested the mode of
thinking of the communist elite in Vietnam; and (ii) an understanding of the impact
of the communist ideology on writers and their literary activities.
The relationship between literature and politics is an age-old issue in the
history of world literature. It was one of the main concerns of the first theorists in
our civilization, including Confucius (551-479 B.C.) in China and Plato (circa 428
– c.347 B.C.) in Greece; both of whom have had a profound and decisive influence
on Western and Eastern cultures, including literature. Although primarily
philosophers, each was interested in literature, holding a shared view in two areas.
First, both paid particular attention to the relationship between literature and
politics; and second, in this relationship, both placed their main emphasis on the
influence of literature on politics rather than the reverse. Faced with this kind of
influence, Plato and Confucius had different responses. While Plato thought that
poetry was far removed from truth, Confucius saw poetry as a source of knowledge,
advising his son that “[i]f you do not study Poetry, you will not be able to speak
[properly]”. 23 Plato believed that literature had a negative impact on politics
because it nourished passions which ought to be controlled and disciplined, while
Confucius believed it to be good and necessary. Plato sought to exclude poets from
his ideal Republic after giving him/her a laurel wreath, 24 while Confucius tried to
use literature as an educational tool and also as a political one:
Young men, why do you not study Poetry? It can be used to inspire, to
22 Neil L. Jamieson (1993), op. cit., p. x.
23 Quoted in James J.Y. Liu (1975), Chinese Theories of Literature , Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, p. 109.
24 Plato’s view of literature can be found in his works, Ion , and Republic . About his review, see, for
example, David Daiches (1967), Critical Approaches to Literature , London: Longmans,
pp.1-22; William K. Wimsatt Jr. and Cleanth Brooks (1957), Literary Criticism, a Short
History , volume 1, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 3-20.
observe, to make you fit for company, to express grievances; near at hand [it
will teach you how] to serve your father, and, [looking] further, [how] to serve
your sovereign; it also enables you to learn the names of many birds, beasts,
plants, and trees. 25
Later, Plato's view of literature was adjusted and developed by Aristotle
(384-322 B.C.), who regarded literature as representing the universal through the
particular, and, therefore, more philosophical than historical; and as a “catharsis”
which not only provided “an outlet for pity and fear, but [also] to provide for them
a distinctively aesthetic satisfaction, to purify and clarify them by passing them
through the medium of art.” 26 The legacies of Confucius' and Aristotle's thoughts
are similar: literature was taken seriously; the educational, and therefore, moral and
political functions of literature were highly regarded; literature was used as a means
of maintaining order in a society in which traditions, canons, norms and the
previous generations were all respected and protected.
Although the relationship between literature and politics can be traced back
to the time of Confucius and Plato, a clear idea of literature as a political force and
the writer as the unacknowledged legislator of their age appeared only toward the
end of the eighteenth century. 27 This idea originated in the French Revolution,
when men of letters became the leaders of public opinion, who shaped the national
temperament and outlook on life. According to Walter Laqueur, “1848 was the
revolution of the intellectuals par excellence . This involvement did not proceed
everywhere in equal measure, and it was not to everyone’s liking.” 28 However,
since the early nineteenth century, with the rise of the Art for the Art’s Sake
Movement which put forward one of the strongest defenses of literature's autonomy
from politics, the literature - politics pendulum seems to have swung away from the
political. Almost contemporaneous with the deinstrumentalization of literature by
25 Quoted in James J.Y. Liu (1975), op. cit., p. 109.
26 S.H. Butcher (1951), Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art (with a critical text and translation
of The Poetics ), fourth edition, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., p. 255.
27 Walter Laqueur, “Literature and the historian”, in Walter Laqueur and George L. Mosse (eds.)
(1967), Literature and Politics in the Twentieth Century , New York: Harper Torchbooks, p.
art for art’s sake was the Marxist repoliticization of literature. 29 Since then,
Marxism has been the most politically engaged school of thought.
As widely acknowledged by Marxist as well as non-Marxist scholars,
neither Karl Marx nor Friedrich Engels produced a complete study of the problems
of literature. Their pronouncements on literature occur in various works but only
sparsely, mainly in the form of letters or “forewords”. However, they put forward
some points of view from which their followers have established a Marxist system
of aesthetics. Of these, the most important contend that a) literature as part of the
superstructure is ultimately determined by economic fundamentals; and b) an
“advanced literature, by a careful selection of truthful representation, has a positive
effect on the development of society.” 30 Taking these views as a strategic base, all
Marxist theorists and critics have focused their attention on literature as well as its
relation to politics, and have advocated the thesis that literature is an instrument of
political battle. As a result, in the field of literature, no school of thought can be
compared with Marxism in dealing with the relationship between literature and
politics. Even the existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, who has fervidly
advocated the theory of “engaged literature”, limits his theory to prose, not poetry,
because, as he argues, the prose writer is always looking toward the world beyond
words while the poet considers them primarily as object. According to Sartre, “[f]or
the former, they are useful conventions, tools which gradually wear out and which
one throws away when they are no longer serviceable; for the latter, they are natural
things which sprout naturally upon the earth like grass and trees.” 31 Marxism is
different. All Marxist theorists, regardless of their differences, agree that literature,
including prose and poetry, is by nature historical and political.
Of all Marxist movements of literature, socialist realism is certainly a
movement deeply involved in politics. At its core, socialist realism was not born
29 Salim Kemal and Ivan Gaskell (eds.) (2000), Politics and Aesthetics in the Arts , Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, pp. 228-230.
30 Douwe Fokkema, “Strength and weakness of the Marxist theory of literature with reference to
Marxist criticism in the People's Republic of China”, in John J. Deeney (1980), Chinese –
Western Comparative Literature Theory and Strategy , Hong Kong: The Chinese University
Press, p. 119.
31 Jean-Paul Sartre (1988), “What is Literature?” and Other Essays , Cambridge: Harvard
from an aesthetic and artistic drive as a reaction to some preceding literary
movements or as a response to some changes in the cultural world such as realism,
romanticism, symbolism, surrealism, dadaism or futurism. The emergence of
socialist realism, on the contrary, coincided with the establishment of the Soviet
Union of Writers 1932-34, a highly bureaucratized, or in Ronald Hingley's words,
“militarized” 32 organization, which was formed to control all writers and their
activities, even their non-creative activities. According to Irina Gutkin, “[t]he
purpose of the First Writers' Congress and the socialist realist aesthetic was to
define the artist's relationship to the general project: Writers became engineers of
human souls in the sense that they created models of the new men for imitation by
the masses.” 33 With these goals, socialist realism was based on three tenets: party-
mindedness, class-mindedness and popular-mindedness, of which party-
mindedness is the most important. It is obvious that socialist realism is more
political than literary. As a result, as Abram Tertz points out,
Most subjects of Soviet literature have in common a remarkable
purposefulness. They all develop in one direction, and a direction well known
in advance. This direction may exhibit variations in accordance with time,
place, conditions, etc., but it is invariable in its course and its destiny: to
remind the reader once more of the triumph of Communism. 34
From the Soviet Union, socialist realism expanded to other countries, even
some non-communist countries, resulting in phenomena labelled by J.E. Flower as
“socialist realism without socialist realist revolution.” 35 However, each country,
which has had a different culture, received and interpreted socialist realism
differently. In several countries such as the former German Democratic Republic,
Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and in all Western countries, which had
University Press, p. 29.
32 Ronald Hingley (1979), Russian Writers and Soviet Society 1917-1978 , New York: Random
House, p. 197.
33 Irina Gutkin (1999), The Cultural Origins of the Socialist Realist Aesthetic 1890-1934 , Evanston
(Illinois): Northwestern University Press, p. 57.
34 Abram Tertz (1960), On Socialist Realism , New York: Pantheon Books, p. 43.
35 J.E. Flower, “Socialist realism without a socialist revolution: the French experience”, in Michael
Scriven and Dennis Tate (eds.) (1988), European Socialist Realism , Oxford: Berg, pp. 99-
“experienced the Renaissance, albeit in various forms and to differing extents, and
had thrown aside medieval dogma in favor of the freedom of the individual
centuries before Russian literature came of age”, 36 socialist realism is less doctrinal.
In this regard, China and Vietnam are different. In the 1930s and 1940s, both
countries were still agricultural, semi-feudal, and strongly influenced by
Confucianism, which considers obedience, subordination and loyalty the highest
virtues: socialist realism became something of a para-religion.
Compared to China, Vietnam had several striking differences. First, while
China was partly and temporarily occupied by foreigners, especially the Japanese
during the Second World War, Vietnam was invaded and dominated by the French
for nearly a century (1862-1954) and by the Japanese for a number of years (1940-
45). The Vietnamese experience of colonialism was, therefore, felt more deeply and
bitterly than by its neighbour. Secondly, while the Chinese began their process of
literary modernization in the second half of the nineteenth century and had quite a
long and strong tradition of aestheticism, Vietnam began just a few years before the
importation of socialist realism and was unfamiliar with any literary trend other
than perspectives which regarded literature as a vehicle for the Dao and as a
weapon for fighting enemies. As a result, the para-religiousness seems to have been
more evident in the Vietnamese, rather than in the Chinese, acceptance of socialist
While socialist realism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern European
countries was mainly associated with socialism, it can be said that in China, and
particularly in Vietnam, it was mainly associated with anti-colonial nationalism,
and after 1975 with postcolonial nationalism. This is one of the primary reasons
why nationalism can be taken as a theoretical framework for this thesis. In other
words, socialist realism can be seen above all as a part of the nationalist project and
as a reflection of both anti-colonial and postcolonial nationalism.
Although the doctrine of nationalism, which was formed in the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries, did not become a subject of academic investigation until
36 Robert Porter, “Soviet Perspectives on Socialist Realism” in Michael Scriven and Dennis Tate
(eds.) (1988), op. cit., p. 54.
the first half of the twentieth century, as Umut Ozkirmli observes; 37 and “has never
produced its own grand thinkers”, as Benedict Anderson comments, 38 according to
several scholars, it has been more important in shaping the history of Europe and
the world than any other political ideas, including democracy and communism. 39
However, even in the twenty-first century, nationalism remains a confusing
historical phenomenon. Like most historians, Charles Taylor agrees that
nationalism is considered modern because it is a response to a modern predicament
and usually arises among “modernizing” elites. 40 Robert McKim and Jeff
McMahan, however, still believe that “nationalism is partly the expression of a
tribalism entrenched in our psychology”; 41 while primordialist theorists view
nationalism as a “natural” part of human beings. 42 If nationalism is a modern
phenomenon as most historians agree, according to John McLaren, there is another
problem: “[M]odernism, a product of the Enlightenment, is oriented to a future
controlled by reason, whereas nationalism appeals to an emotional attachment to
tradition.” 43 Edward W. Said insists that “[i]t is historical fact that nationalism –
restoration of community, assertion of identity, emergence of new cultural practices
– as a mobilized political force instigated and then advanced the struggle against
Western domination everywhere in the non-European world.” 44 Many others,
however, place their emphasis on the negative aspects of nationalism: Benedict
Anderson points out that national consciousness inevitably produces historical
amnesia, while Eric Hobsbawm remarks that “no serious historian of nations and
37 Umut Ozkirimli (2000), Theories of Nationalism, a Critical Introduction , Hampshire and
London: Macmillan, p. 12.
38 Benedict Anderson (1991), Imagined Communities , Reflections on the Origins and Spread of
Nationalism , London: Verso, p. 5.
39 Peter Alter (1994), Nationalism , second edition, London: Edward Arnold, p. 1.
40 Charles Taylor, “Nationalism and Modernity”, in Robert McKim and Jeff McMahan (eds.)
(1997), The Morality of Nationalism , New York: Oxford University Press, p. 45.
41 Robert McKim and Jeff McMahan (1997), op. cit., p. 25.
42 On Primordialism, see Umut Ozkirimli (2000), op. cit., pp. 64-84.; and Anthony D. Smith (2001),
Nationalism , Cambridge: Polity, pp. 51-7.
43 John McLaren (2001), States of Imagination, Nationalism and Multiculturalism in Australian and
Southern Asian Literature , New Delhi: Prestige Books, p.17.
44 Edward W. Said, (1993), Culture and Imperialism , London: Vintage, p. 263.
nationalism can be a committed political nationalist”. 45 Not surprisingly, Umut
Ozkirimli confesses that his Theories of Nationalism, a Critical Introduction was
written on a basis of several propositions, the first being that “[t]here can be no
'general' theory of nationalism”, followed by the second that “[t]here is no 'one'
nationalism; not only are there different types of nationalism, but different members
of the national or ethnic collectivities promote different constructions of
From this plethora of theories, Benedict Anderson's theory of nationalism
and Edward W. Said's theory of postcolonialism will be used as a framework for
this thesis, as they best explain the formation and development of socialist realism
The central theme of Anderson's theory of nationalism, which has been
highly influential in the study of nationalism in various disciplines, is the thesis that
nation is primarily a cultural artefact distinguished by the style of its imagining and
mode of representation. Accordingly, he maintains that nation is an “imagined
political community”. It is imagined because “the members of even the smallest
nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of
them, yet in the minds of each lives the images of their communion.” 47 Anderson
goes further in exploring the conditions which give rise to such imagined
communities. For him, these communities were formed mainly from the emergence
of linear conceptions of time, and especially of “print-capitalism”. It was the
invention of printing and the arrival of mass-produced vernacular books that made
it possible to imagine the communities we call “nations”. Unquestionably,
Anderson places a particular emphasis on the paramount importance of literature
which is considered one of the major factors in shaping a common imagination on
which the conception of “nation” is created. It is here that Anderson's theory of
nationalism is common to theories of postcolonialism which agree that Western
colonialists not only invaded non-European countries militarily, but they also
45 Quoted in John McLaren (2001), op. cit., p. 82.
46 Umut Ozkirimli (2000), op. cit., p. 10.
47 Benedict Anderson (1991), op. cit., p. 6.
practiced cultural and ideological invasions through their colonial modes of
discourse. If nations are narrations, as one critic suggested, 48 Western colonists
usually seized the power to narrate and create grand narratives of civilization and
history by, in Abdul R. JanMohamed's view, dehistoricizing and desocializing the
conquered world in order to present it as a metaphysical “fact of life” 49 or as an
“Otherness”. According to Edward W. Said, one of the variations of this
“Otherness” is the notion of Orientalism which is defined as “a style of thought
based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between the Orient
and (most of the time) the Occident.” 50 This dichotomy between the Occident and
the Orient was also the dichotomy between civilization and barbarism, centre and
periphery, strength and weakness, winners and losers. Frantz Fanon argues that, in
response to this cultural and ideological invasion, colonialized people tried to find a
voice, and in finding a voice, they had to claim their own past and, in doing so,
eroded the colonialist ideology by which that past had been devalued. 51 Following
this thesis of Frantz Fanon, Edward W. Said, in his essay on the Irish poet William
Butler Yeats, maintains that one of Yeats’ most ardent desires was to regain contact
with an earlier, mythical and nationalistic Ireland. He argues that it is also a
common desire of postcolonial writers. 52 In the preface to his book Culture and
Imperialism , Said concludes that
Along with armed resistance in places as diverse as nineteenth-century
Algeria, Ireland, and Indonesia, there also went considerable efforts in cultural
resistance almost everywhere, the assertions of nationalist identities, and, in
the political realm, the creation of associations and parties whose common
goal was self-determination and national independence. Never was it the case
that the imperial encounter pitted an active Western intruder against a supine
48 Homi K. Bhabha (ed.) (1990), Nation and Narration , London: Routledge.
49 Abdul R. JanMohamed, “The Economy of Manichean Allegory”, in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth
Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds.) (1997), The Post-colonial Studies Reader , London:
Routledge, p. 22.
50 Edward Said, “Orientalism”, in Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin (eds.) (1997), op.
cit., p. 88.
51 Frantz Fanon (1968), The Wretched of the Earth , translated by Charles Lam Markmann, New
52 This essay is reprinted in Edward W. Said (1993), op. cit., pp. 265-288.
or inert non-Western native; there was always some form of active resistance
and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the resistance finally won out. 53
Such a cultural resistance occurred in Vietnam in the twentieth century.
Since the early 1940s, ten years after its establishment, the Vietnamese Communist
Party confirmed that culture, including literature, was one of the three most
important fronts, other two being the military and the economy. Writers were
labelled as cultural soldiers. On the literary front, as Hồ Chí Minh espoused,
“poems should be tempered steel / And poets too should join the fight”, 54 or as
Sóng Hồ ng urged, poets should “seize the pen to cast down the world's tyrants /
Make rhymes into bombs and from verse make grenades.” 55 Writers and poets,
however, went further. They not only used their pen as a weapon to fight against
enemies, they also used literature to construct their own national discourse, which
was separate from that of colonialism. Along with music and traditional theatre,
literature existed as “codes” and “symbols” to support the idea of a uniform
national culture. This is one of the reasons why Xuân Diệ u, who graduated from the
French education system and had been deeply influenced by French romanticism,
sternly criticized modern French literature, claiming that it belonged to the petit
bourgeois and the decadent shortly after the August 1945 Revolution. 56 This may
be one of the reasons why Tố Hữ u, who was regarded as the leading figure in
Vietnamese revolutionary poetry, motioned to the East as a country of revolution:
“Come back to the East; and along with the West, we raise the red flag.” 57 This may
also be one of the reasons why Vietnamese communists, on the one hand,
advocated the new – a new regime, new era, new “human being”, and so forth; yet,
on the other, advocated the restoration of most traditional forms of literature and
53 Edward Said (1993), op. cit., p. xii.
54 Nguyễ n Khắ c Việ n and Hữ u Ngọ c (eds.) (n.d.), Vietnamese Literature , Hanoi: Foreign
Languages Publishing House, p. 506.
55 Ibid., p. 570.
56 See Lạ i Nguyên Ân, “Về đờ i số ng vă n nghệ nă m Cộ ng Hoà thứ nhấ t”, Vă n Nghệ magazine, no. 2
(September 1985), p. 15.
57 “Về phươ ng Ðông, ta về phươ ng Ðông / Cùng phươ ng Tây giươ ng ngọ n cờ hồ ng”, in the poem
“Theo chân Bác” (Following Uncle Ho Chi Minh), in Tố Hữ u (1994), Thơ , Hanoi: Nxb
Giáo Duc, p. 454.
This demonstrates that, at least during the wars against the French and
Americans, Vietnamese communists functioned as nationalists rather than
communists. Is there any contradiction here? The answer is: “yes”, and “no”.
Yes, because as most historians agree, Marxism, whose roots were in
Enlightenment rationalism, is basically internationalism. For Karl Marx, the
attribute of all social systems from ancient Greece to present times, was “class
struggle” in which socio-economic conditions are crucial and the mode and
relations of production are decisive. Furthermore, both Marx and Engels predicted
that under socialism, national boundaries would be replaced by solidarity across the
nation of working people. In this context, as Guibernau writes, nationalism was a
marginal phenomenon: “Marx’s emphasis upon the political sphere as
‘superstructure’ led him to downplay both the nation-state and nationalism as major
influences upon historical change.” 58 In Nations and Nationalism since 1780:
Programme, Myth, Reality , which was first published in 1990, Eric Hobsbawm still
supported the classic Marxist view of nationalism as “false consciousness” and a
“bourgeois” construction which would be extinguished along with that class. 59
On the other hand, there was no contradiction, because in practice,
politicians are more realistic than theorists. In the early nineteenth century, when
nationalism appeared to be a stronger political force than socialism in defeating the
Russian Empire, Lenin advocated the doctrine of nationalism. In the early 1920s, in
order to develop Soviet influence on the Third World, he reaffirmed the right of
subject peoples to self-determination and independent statehood. 60 Since then, as
Robert J. C. Young points out, “[t]he alliance between Marxism and nationalism in
the anti-colonial struggles has typically been regarded more as a form of
nationalism than of Marxism; Marxism is considered to have deviated into a form
of nationalism.” 61 In the case of Vietnam, in Huệ -Tâm Hồ Tài’s observation, “[t]he
58 Quoted in Umut Ozkirimli (2000), op. cit., p. 26.
59 Eric Hobsbawm (1992), Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality ,
(second edition), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
60 Ralph Milliban (1977), Marxism and Politics , Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 102-3.
61 Robert J.C. Young (2001), Postcolonialism, An Historical Introduction , Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers, p. 169.
spread of Marxist theory among Vietnamese émigrés in France and China
coincided with a shift in Comintern policy toward anticolonial movements in
general and Indochina more specifically.” 62 Among these “émigrés” was Hồ Chí
Minh (1890-1969), who, as historians have shown, first came into contact with
communism via Leninism. It is widely reported that it was Lenin’s famous “Theses
on National and Colonial Questions” which was presented to the Second Comintern
Congress in the summer of 1920, that, in William J. Duiker’s words, “set Nguyễ n
Ái Quố c 63 on the course that transformed him from a single patriot with socialist
leanings into a Marxist revolutionary.” 64 As Hồ Chí Minh revealed in an article
published in 1960 by the periodical L’Echo du Vietnam on his seventieth birthday:
A comrade gave me some essays of Lenin to read; they concerned the problem
of nationalities and colonial peoples and were published by L’Humanité.
Some political terms in them puzzled me. But by reading and re-reading the
pamphlets many times, I finally grasped the essential. And I was filled with a
great enthusiasm and a great faith that helped me to see the problems clearly. I
was so happy over this that I sometimes wept. Alone in my room I exclaimed
aloud, as if addressing a mass meeting: “Dear oppressed and unhappy
compatriots!” I cried, “Here is the road to your liberation!” 65
Jean Sainteny, a Free French Intelligence officer, who worked in Vietnam
for many years and had a very close relationship with Hồ Chí Minh, writes:
I have been asked countless times, “Was Hồ Chí Minh primarily a Nationalist
or a Communist?” My reply is always the same: Hồ Chí Minh was both. For
him nationalism and communism were, respectively, goal and the means to
attain that goal. The two complemented each other, merged. 66
Most of the first generation of Vietnamese communists who became
involved in politics before 1945 were similar to Hồ Chí Minh. They were originally
62 Huệ -Tâm Hồ Tài (1992), Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution , Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, p. 227.
63 One of the names Hồ Chí Minh used in the 1920s and 1930s.
64 William J. Duiker (2000), Ho Chi Minh , New York: Hyperion, p. 64.
65 Quoted in Jean Sainteny (1972), Hồ Chí Minh and his Vietnam, a Personal Memory , Chicago:
Cowles, p. 19.
66 Jean Sainteny (1972), op. cit., p. 20.
nationalists, who, in the aftermath of the First World War, were fascinated with the
success of the Russian Revolution, and turned to Marxism as a means of liberating
their homeland from colonial rule. In SarDesai’s view, most of these people, “like
Hồ Chí Minh, remained nationalist first and Communist second.” 67 After several
decades of revolution, did these people become communists first and nationalists
second? For Benedict Anderson, the answer seems to be “no”. He points to the
Vietnamese invasion and occupation of Cambodia in December 1978 and January
1979, and China's assault on Vietnam in February 1979 as evidence. These wars, he
serve to underline the fact that since World War 2 every successful revolution
has defined itself in national terms - the People's Republic of China, the
Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and so forth - and, in so doing, has grounded
itself firmly in a territorial and social space inherited from the pre-
revolutionary past. 68
Studying the communist movements in Asia, two French historians, Jean-
Louis Margolin and Pierre Rigoulout, reach the same conclusion:
Communism in Asia has in general been a national affair, with national
defense always the top priority (except in Laos), even though at times Chinese
or Soviet aid proved essential. Asia after all has seen intense wars between
Communist states, at the end of the 1970s between Vietnam and Cambodia,
and then between Vietnam and China. Where education, propaganda, and
historiography are concerned, it is hard to find more chauvinistic countries
anywhere else, perhaps partly because all these countries came into being as
the result of a struggle against foreign imperialism. That experience at least
gives them something in common. The problem is that the resulting
nationalism has often been turned against their neighbors. 69
67 D.R. SarDesai (1992), Vietnam, The Struggle for National Identity , Boulder: Westview Press, p.
68 Benedict Anderson (1991), op. cit., p. 2.
69 Jean-Louis Margolin and Pierre Rigoulot, “Communism in Asia: between re-education and
massacre” in Stéphane Courtois et al. (1991), The Black Book of Communism: Crimes,
Terror, Repression , translated by Jonathan Murphy and Mark Kramer, Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, p. 637.
Focusing mainly on the politics of culture in Vietnam during the period
between 1945 and 1965, in A World Transformed , Kim N.B. Ninh reaches a similar
In comparison with the tremendous upheavals in the Chinese case, the
Vietnamese revolution certainly seemed much more centered in and
comfortably connected to the nation’s history and cultural achievements. In
the works of such communist intellectuals as Nguyễ n Khắ c Việ n, which
became well known in the West, ideology seemed much less of a concern than
the ultimate goal of national independence. The image of the communists as
the rightful inheritors of the nationalist tradition and the most credible
guardians of the country’s history and culture came to coincide with later
communist efforts to ensconce the achievements of the anticolonial struggle
and the revolution within the state’s socialist narrative. 70
Thus, in terms of theoretical or historical accounts, there is no contradiction
in declaring that socialist realism in Vietnam was closely associated with
nationalism. It was nationalism which took a crucial part in receiving and shaping
socialist realism as a theory and as a movement.
Argument and Structure of the Thesis
In conclusion, the main contention of this thesis can be summarized as
follows: As a part of the nationalist project during the wars against the French and
Americans, socialist realism was politically constructed and functioned as a tool in
the political struggle against enemies. It not only emerged from a political
imperative to gather forces and place them under communist control but was also
determined by politics during its entire course of development.
The first part of this thesis contends that Marxist literary theory was
introduced to Vietnam relatively early when most intellectuals had not freed
themselves from the traditional literary frameworks of Vietnam. Theoretically,
Vietnamese traditional and Marxist literary perspectives have much in common,
such as the concept of the functions of literature and the writer’s role in society. It
70 Kim N.B. Ninh (2002), op. cit., p. 239.
may be said that, for writers of the 1930-45 period, Marxism provided the same
psychological satisfactions as Confucianism did for their ancestors: a love of the
holistic cosmological view, a sense of possessing the truth, and the conception of
literature as a weapon. Politically speaking, with the limited importation of French
books and other cultural materials into Vietnam during the Second World War
(1939-45), the main sources of literary knowledge in Vietnam came from China.
This helped the Chinese to maintain their predominant role in Vietnam. The
Marxist literary theory which was introduced into Vietnam in this period was the
theory that had been interpreted by the Chinese Communist Party.
This part of the thesis will include three chapters: a) Western influences on
modern Vietnamese literature; b) The polemics of “art for art’s sake” or “art for
life’s sake” during the period 1935-39; and c) the two first Marxist theorists in
Vietnam: Nguyễ n Bách Khoa, who approaches Marxism from Taine's sociology
and Freud's psychoanalysis; and Ðặ ng Thai Mai, who was educated in the French
education system but believed that the “light coming from the North” (China), with
his Vă n họ c khái luậ n (Outline of Literary Theory) (1944), to be the first work of
literary theory in Vietnam.
The second part of the thesis attempts to analyze the process of change by
Vietnamese writers and artists from patriotism to Marxism and then Maoism, using
it as a means of explaining the dominant position of Maoist-style socialist realism
in Vietnam. This part will point out that
(i) in 1945, when the war between France and Vietnam broke out, most
Vietnamese artists and writers participated in the resistance, and accepted
the leadership of the Viet Minh, a communist-led front, because of their
shared patriotism rather than the Marxist “enlightenment”;
(ii) in seeking a new writing method in a war situation, Vietnamese writers
encountered socialist realism which was officially endorsed by the
(iii) socialist realism came directly from China, as shown by Mao Zedong at
the Yan'n Forum on Literature and Art in 1942; and finally,
(iv) it was the very war culture which nurtured the Maoist-style socialist
realism, at least until 1975, when the Vietnamese war ended.
This part will include several chapters, focusing on three periods: the
August 1945 Revolution, the French War and the American War. During these
periods, the most influential factors affecting literary thinking were Maoism and the
culture of war. One of the most striking characteristics of these periods was the lack
of professional theorists. The top leaders of the Vietnamese Communist Party were
the chief proponents of literary discourse, issuing guidelines for discussion of all
literary problems. The canonical texts of literary theory underpinned the leaders'
pronouncements in conferences and meetings along with letters sent to writers and
artists. Of these leaders, there were two authoritative figures: Trườ ng Chinh (1907-
88) and Tố Hữ u (1920-2002).
The third part of the thesis examines the crisis and subsequent bankruptcy
of socialist realism in Vietnam. This part includes two chapters: the Nhân Vă n -
Giai Phẩ m affair in the mid-1950s and the đổ i mớ i movement in the mid-1980s
which have much in common: both emerged during peacetime; both called for
greater intellectual freedom and artistic expression and license; both were
constituted by the most fervent and gifted writers and artists of the age; both
paralleled the democratization movements in the socialist world; and finally, both
were criticized and restricted by the government. However, while the dissidents in
the first affair ended up in court and re-education camps, those in the đổ i mớ i
movement have continued to write and witness the death of socialist realism.
Socialist realism as a theory and as a creative method was at an end not
because of the dissidents' criticism or any more persuasive theory but mainly
because of the market economy which was adopted by the Vietnamese Communist
Party in its đổ i mớ i policies in the mid-1980s. It can be said that the enemy of
socialist realism is peace. The market economy is its real mortal enemy.
There are several terms used in this thesis which should be explained.
First, the names of the Vietnamese Communist Party. During more than
sixty years, the Vietnamese Communist Party changed its name twice. It was
initially known as the Indochinese Communist Party (1930-51), then as the
Vietnamese Workers' Party (1951-76), and finally as the Vietnamese Communist
Party (from December 1976 to the present). In this thesis, for the sake of brevity
and clarity, the party is referred to as Vietnamese Communist Party.
The term “socialist realism” should be distinguished from critical realism,
social realism, and realism in general. The key concept of each is realism, which
was first used in France in 1826 71 and in England from the 1850s. 72 Although
realism is seen by several theorists as a “notoriously tricky term,” 73 and one of
those words “whose range of possible meanings runs from the pedantically exact to
the cosmically vague”, 74 it can be defined in two respects. As a philosophical term,
realism usually means “a belief in the reality of ideas and was contrasted with
nominalism, which considered ideas only names or abstractions”. 75 As a literary
term, realism is used in two ways: (i) to identify a literary movement of the
nineteenth century, especially in prose fiction (beginning with Balzac in France,
George Eliot in England, and William Dean Howells in America); and (ii) to
indicate a creative method which, based on the assumption that the novel imitates
reality, and aims at depicting reality as it is. 76
71 F. W. J. Hemmings (ed.) (1974), The Age of Realism , Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 9.
72 René Wellek (1963), Concepts of Criticism , New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 1.
73 Pam Morris (2003), Realism , London: Routledge, p. 9.
74 Quoted in ibid., p. 2.
75 René Wellek (1963), ibid.
76 For further information on realism, see Pam Morris (2003), Realism , London: Routledge; Dario
Villanueva (1997), Theories of Literary Realism , translated by Mihai I. Spariosu and
Santiago Barcia-Castanon, New York: State University of New York Press; J.P. Stern
(1973), On Realism , London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Georg Lukacs (1978), Studies in
European Realism , translated by Edith Bone, London: The Merlin Press; Nicholas Boyle
and Martin Swales (eds.) (1986), Realism in European Literature. Essays in Honour of J.P.
Stern , Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; and Boris Suchkov (1973), A History of
Realism , Moscow: Progress Publishers; and Chapter “The concept of realism in literary
scholarship”, in René Wellek (1963), Concepts of Criticism , New Haven and London: Yale
University Press, pp. 222-255.
Realism includes a variety of modes: psychological realism, magical
realism, critical realism, social realism, socialist realism, etc. In contrast to
psychological realism, which concentrates on the depth and complexity of human
inner life, socialist realism concentrates on the historical development of modern
societies. Magical realism focuses on seizing the paradox of the union of opposites:
the real and the fantastic, the pre-colonial past and the post-industrial present, the
rational view of reality and the acceptance of the supernatural as prosaic reality.
Socialist realism, however, focuses on representing the economic and political
relationships between classes and the necessity of revolution. In contrast to social
realism, which, as C. Vaughan James remarks, “refer[s] to the artist's concern with
social themes”, and is “mainly a nineteenth century phenomenon”, socialist realism
is a twentieth century development, devoting itself primarily to political
Socialist realism is also different from critical realism. It should, however,
be noted at the outset that the term ‘critical realism’ is used differently in different
disciplines. As a philosophical term, critical realism, which is associated with the
British philosopher Roy Bhaskar, was born of a critique of the positivist approach
which had dominated many of the social sciences since the 1930s. 78 It is concerned
with the interplay of mental perception and external reality: in the critical realist
view, “there exists both an external world independently of human consciousness,
and at the same time a dimension which includes our socially determined
knowledge about reality.” 79 However, as José López and Garry Potter emphasize,
this philosophical and scientific [critical] realism bears no relation to ‘[critical]
realism’ as the term has sometimes been used with respect to literature. 80 As a
literary term, critical realism is often used as a synonym for ‘realism’, the
nineteenth century literary movement, including such great writers as Honoré de
77 C. Vaughan James (1973 ), Soviet Socialist Realism, Origins and Theory , London: Macmillan, p.
78 Berth Danermark et al. (1997), Explaining Society, Critical Realism in the Social Sciences ,
London: Routledge, pp. 4-5.
80 José López and Garry Potter (2001), After Postmodernism, an Introduction to Critical Realism ,
London: Athlone Press, p. 181.
Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Emile Zola in France, George Eliot, Anthony
Trollope, and George Gissing in England, Ivan Tourgenev and Leo Tolstoy in
Russia, and Henry James and Theodore Dreiser in the United States. This critical
realism aims only to reflect and criticize reality whereas socialist realism seeks to
change reality and glorify every achievement in the process of socialist formation.
Georg Lukács recognizes another difference between critical realism and socialist
realism: while critical realists attempt to describe socialism from the outside,
socialist realists, based on a concrete socialist perspective, describe “the forces
working towards socialism from the inside.” 81
In other words, socialist realism is a product of communism, formulated in
1932 and officially adopted in the Soviet Union in 1934, on the promise that a
reflection of reality always combines an expression of communist ideals with the
struggle for the victory of communism.
To avoid confusion and possible misunderstandings, all Vietnamese names
and words used throughout this thesis have been written with their accents and full
typographical marks, as used in Vietnam. For example, without tone-marks,
Trườ ng Chinh (the theorist and Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist
Party in the 1940s and 1950s) and Trươ ng Chính (a Marxist scholar) would appear
as “Truong Chinh”.
For the sake of consistency, all Chinese names and places are written using
the Pinyin romanization system which was officially adopted by the People’s
Republic of Chinese government in 1979 and has come to be widely used by the
world media and publishers: Dao (instead of Tao), Mao Zedong (instead of Mao
Tse-tung), Du Fu (instead of Tu Fu), Li Bai (instead of Li Po), Song dynasty
(instead of Sung), and Yan’an (instead of Yenan) and so forth.
81 Georg Lukács (1963), The Meaning of Contemporary Realism , translated from the German by
John and Necke Mander, London: Merlin Press, p. 93.
Titles of Vietnamese and French books are written according to Vietnamese
and French conventions: with some exceptions (e.g. proper nouns), only the first
letter of the first word is written in capitals. For example, Vă n họ c Việ t Nam dướ i
chế độ cộ ng sả n whereas its equivalent English will be Vietnamese Literature
under the Communist Regime .
The Importation of Socialist Realism into Vietnam
Western Influence on Modern Vietnamese Literature
The history of relations between Vietnam and Western countries may be traced
back to the middle of the sixteenth century, when the first Portuguese merchants
arrived in Faifo, now Hộ i An, a coastal village about thirty kilometers south of Đ à
Nẵ ng, where they established a station to trade with Macao. During the following
centuries many other Westerners, including Dutch, British, Italian, Spanish and French,
frequently visited Vietnam in order to do business or propagate the Christian faith. 1
Most merchants failed to make a profit as they had done in other Asian countries, and
so, by the seventeenth century, they closed their offices and moved elsewhere. Only the
Christian missionaries remained, disregarding the menacing stance and terrorizing
practices of the authorities, who regarded Christianity as paganism and the foreigners'
presence as a threat which might portend Western encroachment. But those very
missionaries left deep imprints on Vietnamese history and culture, especially through
the importation of Christianity and the creation of quố c ngữ , the roman transliteration
of the Vietnamese spoken language. 2 However, this contact had no significant impact
in the realm of literature, apart from bringing new inspiration to a few poets who had
embraced the new faith but unfortunately had no first-rate talent. 3
Western influence on Vietnamese literature became noticeable only in the final
years of the nineteenth century, when French rule, which had been imposed on the
1 See Ralph B. Smith (1968), Vietnam and the West , London: Heinemann.
2 Phan Phát Huồ n (1962 and 1965), Việ t Nam giáo sử , two vols., Saigon: Cứ u Thế tùng thư ; Trươ ng Bá
Cầ n (1992), Công giáo Đ àng Trong thờ i Giám mụ c Pigneau , Ho Chi Minh City: Tủ sách Đạ i
Đ oàn kế t; Đỗ Quang Chính (1972), Lị ch sử chữ quố c ngữ 1620-1659 , Saigon: Tủ sách Ra
3 See Võ Long Tê (1965), Lị ch sử vă n họ c công giáo Việ t Nam , Saigon: Tư Duy; and N.I. Niculin
(2000), Vă n họ c Việ t Nam và giao lư u quố c tế , Hanoi: Nxb Giáo Dụ c, pp. 540-559.
country, brought greater changes than any that had taken place during the preceding
two thousand years. 4 Under French pressure, the traditional system of education, based
on the old Chinese pattern, was abolished; quố c ngữ gradually became dominant; 5
and a new intelligentsia emerged, replacing the old Confucian scholar-gentry class and
assuming the role of intellectual leaders in society. These three factors acted strongly
and effectively upon Vietnamese literature and opened it up to new horizons:
developments in this period are conventionally credited with taking Vietnamese
literature from the Middle Ages to modernity.
Owing to the strong influence of Chinese culture, particularly during the Tang
and Song dynasties, the closed-door policy of most feudal states, and the stability of
the socio-cultural and economic pattern, pre-colonial Vietnamese literature was almost
at a standstill, with no significant development or innovation, so that the problem of
periodization has always been a complex challenge. After some trials and failures,
most literary historians came to the view that nine whole centuries, from the tenth to
the end of the nineteenth, constitute only one period, which they named either
“ancient” (cổ ), “classical” (cổ điể n), “feudal” (phong kiế n), “successive dynasties”
(lị ch triề u), or more recently, “Middle-Ages” (trung đạ i). 6 According to some scholars,
Vietnamese Middle-Ages literature can be characterized by one distinct feature:
4 Peter A. DeCaro (2003), Rhetoric of Revolt. Ho Chi Minh’s Discourse for Revolution , Westport:
Praeger, p. 1.
5 For a detailed description of this, see Hoàng Ngọ c Thành, “Quố c ngữ and the Development of the
Modern Vietnamese Literature”, in W. F. Vella (ed.) (1973), Aspects of Vietnamese History ,
Honolulu: Asian Studies at Hawaii 8, pp. 191-236; J. DeFrancis (1977), Colonialism and
Language Policy in Vietnam , The Hague: Mouton Publishers; Nguyễ n Vă n Trung (1975), Chữ ,
vă n quố c ngữ thờ i kỳ đầ u Pháp thuộ c , Saigon: Nam Sơ n; Nguyễ n Phú Phong, “L'avènement de
quố c ngữ et l'évolution de la littérature vietnamienne”, Cahiers d'études vietnamiennes , no. 9
(1987), pp. 3-18; reprinted in The Vietnam Forum , no. 13 (1990), pp. 77-90.
6 Several scholars used the term “trung đạ i” (Middle-Ages) to indicate pre-colonial literature in Vietnam.
These include Lê Trí Viễ n, “Mộ t đặ c trư ng củ a vă n họ c Trung đạ i Việ t Nam: vô ngã”, Tạ p chí
Khoa họ c Xã hộ i , no. 9 (1991), pp. 70-76; Đặ ng Thanh Lê, “Nho giáo và vă n họ c Trung đạ i
Việ t Nam” in Vũ Khiêu (ed.) (1990), Nho giáo xư a và nay , Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã Hộ i, pp.
138-146; Trầ n Thị Bă ng Thanh, “Thử phân đị nh hai mạ ch cả m hứ ng trong dòng vă n họ c Việ t
Nam mang đậ m dấ u ấ n Phậ t giáo thờ i Trung đạ i”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c ( Hanoi), no. 4 (1992), pp.
30-35; and Bùi Duy Tân, “Đặ ng Thai Mai vớ i nề n vă n họ c trung đạ i Việ t Nam”, in Đặ ng Thanh
Lê et al. (eds.), Đặ ng Thai Mai và vă n họ c , Nghệ An: Nxb Nghệ An, 1994, pp. 142-155.
impersonality. 7 It can be argued, however, that together with that feature, two others
must be mentioned: its syncretism and its normativeness.
From the syncretic perspective, literature was not seen as an independent entity,
as something to be considered in its own right - subject to its own laws and its own
reason for being - and differentiated from historical, philosophical or administrative
and regulated examination writings. In this view, aesthetic consciousness was not
divorced from moral consciousness; art was not divorced from erudition; literature was
not recognized as a pure belle-lettristic type. 8
Moreover, based on the psychology of the ancestral cult and on the Confucian
assumption that all ideal examples belong to the past, Vietnamese writers in the Middle
Ages regarded all age-old achievements as standards of perfection, according to which
they wrote and as the basis on which they evaluated contemporary talents. These
attitudes resulted in normativeness, which had four main manifestations: in the field of
literary theory, the dominant view of literature was as a vehicle of the Way (Dao), a
product of Song neo-Confucianism; in respect to literary genres, preferential treatment
was given to poetry rather than to prose; in prose, preferential treatment was given to
functional rather than imaginative writings; and in respect to literary conventions, the
traditional, cliché-ridden allusions, motifs, themes, poetic dictions and symmetries of
structure were fashionable.
All those norms contributed to limiting the expression of the poet's self.
However, impersonality was not only a corollary of normativeness but also a
manifestation of traditional oriental ideologies and the product of an enduring feudal
system and a backward agricultural economy. The three major philosophical schools
which profoundly influenced Vietnamese thinking were Confucianism, Daoism and
Buddhism: all of which devalue, if not deny, individuality. Buddhism regards the
7 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), Thi nhân Việ t Nam , Saigon: Thiề u Quang, (originally published in
1942), p. 34; and Lê Trí Viễ n, ibid.
8 For more details, see Trầ n Đ ình Hượ u, “Thự c tạ i, cái thự c và vấ n đề chủ nghĩ a hiệ n thự c trong vă n họ c
Việ t Nam” in Phong Lê (ed.) (1990), Vă n họ c và hiệ n thự c , Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã Hộ i, pp.
individual as ephemeral, being comprised of a transitory aggregate of the five skandhas
(form, sensation, perception, emotional state and consciousness), which are in a
constant state of flux. Daoism sees the individual as “a transient creature whose nature
is to change, to develop from the Ultimate Source and to return thereto at death”. 9
Confucianism perceives the individual as part of a social structure: preference is given
to the relationship between the individual and others in the community but not to the
individual himself or herself, hence it highly values ritual behavior ( lễ in Vietnamese
and li in Chinese), which regulates the expression of human feelings, integrates the
individual into the social context, and provides a continuous link between the present
and the past. “In each of these functions, ritual serves to make human behavior
predictable and uniform, more expressive of the common social role than of the
temperament and values of any one individual.” 10 The foundation of feudalism was the
consciousness of the order of precedence, a morality-centered tendency and a
predominance of the common over the particular. A backward agricultural economy on
the one hand encouraged and nourished the system of the extended family because the
family was the basic economic unit in society, and on the other hand made human
beings totally dependent on nature. People feared and hence revered nature, regarding
it as the symbol of greatness and sublimity. Both Confucianism and Daoism
encouraged people to imitate nature: to Daoists, heroes are those who have become
self-contained in the Dao (Way) of their own minds; to Confucians, human society
should be structured parallel to the hierarchical order of the cosmos and in order to
achieve this goal, everyone must study Nature's virtues. This is why, in respect to
social life, the traditional poets usually secluded themselves in nature, and in respect to
creative activities, they preferred to write about nature. It may be said that both
feudalism and the agricultural economy, in support of the great philosophies, played
their part in preventing the development of individual consciousness. As a result, in
contrast to the romantic notion of the individual self in nineteenth-century Western
literature, which stressed sentimentality and the authenticity of personal feelings,
9 Robert E. Hegel, “An Exploration of the Chinese Literary Self”, in R.E. Hegel and R.C. Hessney (eds.)
(1985), Expressions of Self in Chinese Literature , New York: Columbia University Press, p. 9.
10 Ibid., p. 8.
Vietnamese traditional poets were conditioned to think that poetry was a mere chorus
of the cosmos resounding in their souls. Consequently, all poets attempted to
maximally objectivize their feelings: there was no ‘I’, not even an individualized
persona in Vietnamese Middle-Ages literature. 11
In the second part of the nineteenth century, the awkward, perplexed and
sometimes pusillanimous reactions of the Court of Huế to the French invasion made
the Confucian literati at first puzzled and later extremely discontented. 12 Traditionally,
according to common beliefs, they had considered the nation and the King as identical.
Loyalty to the King (trung quân) was synonymous with patriotism (ái quố c). They then
faced a terrible dilemma: if they executed the King's order and ceased struggling
against French aggression, they would be traitors to their country; if they protested
against the King and sought to defend the country's sovereignty, they would be
convicted of rebellion. Most literati oscillated between these two political poles.
Eventually, many people such as Trươ ng Đị nh (1820-64), Phan Tòng (?-1868),
Nguyễ n Đ ình Chiể u (1822-88), and Phan Vă n Trị (1830-1910), just to name a few,
decided to fight the enemy to the bitter end without regard to the King's desires. For
them, it was the first time in Vietnamese history that the concepts of nation and king
were consciously and drastically separated from each other. Consequently, the subject
status of the people became that of a citizen. While subjects (thầ n dân) were attached to
the King, citizens (công dân) were attached to the nation-state; while subjects were
passive people who merely awaited and obeyed the King's orders, citizens were active
11 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op. cit., pp. 52-54.
12 For historical accounts of the Hue Court's reaction to the French aggression, see Phan Khoang (1971),
Việ t Nam Pháp thuộ c sử , Saigon: Phủ Quố c Vụ Khanh đặ c trách vă n hoá,; David G. Marr
(1971), Vietnamese Anticolonialism 1885-1925 , Berkeley: University of California, pp. 22-43;
M.W. McLeod (1991), The Vietnamese Response to French Intervention 1862-1874 ,
particularly Chapter 4, pp. 61-75; Trươ ng Bử u Lâm (1967), Patterns of Vietnamese Response to
Foreign Intervention, 1858-1900 , New Haven: Yale University Southeast Asian Studies;
Charles Fourniau (1989), Annam-Tonkin, 1885-1896: Lettrés et paysans vietnamiens face à la
conquête coloniale , Paris: Editions l'Harmattan; and Yoshiharu Tsuboi (1993), Nướ c Ðạ i Nam
đố i diệ n vớ i Pháp và Trung Hoa , translated from the French , L’Empire Vietnamien face à la
France et à la Chine 1847-1885 , by Nguyễ n Ðình Ðầ u, Hanoi: Hộ i Sử Họ c Việ t Nam..
people who were involved in finding the best way to save their country. 13 As citizens,
people had enough self-confidence to lampoon the mandarins' mistakes and even
criticize those of the King; and thus, satirical writings appeared. In struggling for
independence they had the need to gather force and encourage their comrades and
fellow-countrymen; and thus, political literature came into being.
The development of satirical and political trends in Vietnamese literature at the
turn of the century, represented by such great poets as Nguyễ n Khuyế n (1835-1909),
Trầ n Tế Xươ ng (1870-1907), Nguyễ n Đ ình Chiể u, Phan Bộ i Châu (1867-1940), and
Phan Chu Trinh (1872-1926), was a new and very remarkable phenomenon. 14 Both
trends could be seen as indirect impacts of the French invasion.
Satirical and political trends, in their turn, deeply affected the development of
Vietnamese literature. In order to be effective, political poetry had to concern itself
with the issue of persuading the populace, and therefore it adopted vernacular forms of
writing, which led to a campaign for the renovation of the literary language in the first
two decades of the twentieth century. 15 So too was the concern of satirical poetry: it
required currency in subject-matter, concreteness in description, and a close
relationship between the author and his/her audience. These led to many important
changes in literature. The first was the change in content: the Dao and the static natural
landscapes were replaced by realistically observed phenomena. The second was the
change in the mode of expression: the classical mode - inclining to generalization,
emphasizing the immutable principles of the universe, and the permanent innermost
13 Trầ n Vă n Giàu (1983), Trong dòng chủ lư u củ a vă n họ c Việ t Nam: Tư tưở ng yêu nướ c , Ho Chi Minh
City: Nxb thành phố HCM, pp. 187-230.
14 Prior to 1862, there were several satirical and political poems but these were too scattered to form a
literary trend. More details about the satirical and political literature of this period can be found
in Trầ n Ðình Hượ u and Lê Chí Dũ ng (1988), Vă n họ c Việ t Nam giai đoạ n giao thờ i 1900-1930 ,
Hanoi: Nxb Ðạ i Họ c và Trung Họ c Chuyên Nghiệ p; and Ðặ ng Thai Mai (1974), Vă n thơ cách
mạ ng Việ t Nam đầ u thế kỷ 20 , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c.
15 For example, the Đ ông Kinh Free School movement between 1907 and 1908. Details of this
movement can be found in Nguyễ n Hiế n Lê (1974), Đ ông Kinh nghĩ a thụ c , Saigon: Lá Bố i; Vũ
Đứ c Bằ ng, “The Dong Kinh Free School Movement 1907-1908”, in W. F. Vella (ed.) (1973),
op. cit., pp. 30-45; and Nguyễ n Vă n Xuân (1970), Phong trào Duy Tân , Saigon: Lá Bố i, pp.
feelings of human beings - was replaced by the new mode, which required the ability
of observation and imagination as well as the creation of comic characters and
situations. The third was the aesthetic criterion: for classical poets, the high artistic
quality had been a polished, stylized and allusive-ridden expression; for satirical and
political poets, it was a simple, rustic and colloquial one, which was able to elicit an
immediate response in the readers' minds. It is not surprising that in Vietnamese
literature, realism appeared in the late nineteenth-century satirical poetry before it
flowered in the works of modern Western-influenced writers following the decade of
the 1930s. 16 This also explains the main renovating role of Trầ n Tế Xươ ng, one of the
last and most unlucky of the Confucian scholars. 17
Apart from the above indirect impacts, there were other more direct and
decisive Western influences on Vietnamese literature. First of all, Western thought
shifted the writers' attitude from a China-oriented perspective to a West-oriented one.
In the traditional era, Vietnamese literati knew almost nothing but Chinese culture,
which was regarded as a perfect model. The bitter contact with modern and powerful
France made people question all the old idols. Early in 1905, when attempting to go
abroad in order to seek outside support for his revolutionary activities, Phan Bộ i Châu,
an outstanding Confucian scholar and one of the most eminent revolutionaries of the
following decades, considered his journey primarily as a search for new idols
following the “death” of Confucian deities. He wrote in “Xuấ t dươ ng lư u biệ t”
(Farewell before Going Overseas): “Hiề n thánh lư u nhiên, tụ ng diệ c si” (The sages
died long ago; to read their books would cause us to become more and more
besotted). 18 Other men of letters in Phan Bộ i Châu's generation, because of their
ignorance of French, continued to read Chinese books, being particularly interested in
“New Books” (Tân Thư ), a series of works that introduced Western currents of
16 Đỗ Đứ c Dụ c (1989), Về chủ nghĩ a hiệ n thự c thờ i đạ i Nguyễ n Du , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 165; and Trầ n
Đ ình Hượ u in Phong Lê (ed.) (1990), op. cit., pp. 72 and 78.
17 See Thanh Tâm Tuyề n, “Xuân nhớ Tú Xươ ng”, Thờ i Tậ p , số xuân Giáp Dầ n (1974); and Nguyễ n
Hư ng Quố c, “120 nă m sinh Tú Xươ ng”, Vă n (California), no. 93 (March 1990), pp. 37-42.
18 Quoted in Nguyễ n Huệ Chi (1983), Mấ y vẻ mặ t thi ca Việ t Nam , Hanoi: Tác Phẩ m Mớ i, p. 241.
thought. They preferred Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929)
because, apart from their exquisite literary talents, these two writers helped them
understand some of the great Western thinkers such as Charles-Louis de Montesquieu,
Voltaire (pseudonym of Francois-Marie Arouet) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. 19 It was
these very Confucian scholars who initiated and led the “European Rain and American
Wind” (Mư a Âu gió Mỹ ) movement in the first decades of the twentieth century. 20
Huỳ nh Thúc Kháng (1876-1947) revealed in his Phan Châu Trinh niên biể u đồ
Châu Trinh's Chronology) that, owing to the “New Books”, Phan Châu Trinh, who
knew no French, was able to deeply understand Western thought as early as 1903,
when he was serving in the imperial Ministry of Rites in Huế . 21 After coming home
from France (1925), Phan Châu Trinh's admiration for French eighteenth-century
philosophers became more profound. In Trầ n Huy Liệ u's reminiscence, when first
meeting someone, Phan Châu Trinh always asked the question: “Have you read
Rousseau's Contrat Social or Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois ?” 22
Western-educated intellectuals were more enthusiastic about reading and
translating Western and especially French books into Vietnamese. It may be said that,
along with the appearance and development of satirical and political writings,
translation was a striking phenomenon in the period between 1862 and 1932. During
the previous nine centuries, only a few dozen works had been translated and most were
short poems. Translations of works in prose were very rare, and of these, Nguyễ n Thế
Nghi's sixteenth-century translation of Nguyễ n Dữ 's Truyề n kỳ mạ n lụ c (Vast Record
of Strange Tales) was the earliest preserved. In both verse and prose, these works were
translations from the original Chinese. 23 There were perhaps only two translations from
19 Trươ ng Chính (1997), Tuyể n tậ p , vol. 1, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, pp. 135-170.
20 Trầ n Huy Liệ u (1991), Hồ i ký , Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã Hộ i, p. 29.
21 Quoted in Nguyễ n Q. Thắ ng (1992), Phan Châu Trinh, cuộ c đờ i và tác phẩ m , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 41.
22 Trầ n Huy Liệ u (1991), op. cit., p. 453.
23 Việ n Nghiên cứ u Hán Nôm (1982), Dị ch từ Hán sang Việ t, mộ t khoa họ c, mộ t nghệ thuậ t , Hanoi: Nxb
Khoa Họ c Xã Hộ i; particularly the chapter “Mấ y vấ n đề về lị ch sử và lý thuyế t dị ch củ a việ c
dị ch Hán – Việ t” by Mai Quố c Liên, pp. 46-55.
a Western language: one was Phép giả ng tám ngày cho kẻ muố n chị u phép rử a tộ i mà
beào đạ o thánh Đứ c Chúa Blờ i (Cathechismus) by Alexandre de Rhodes, published in
Rome in the seventeenth century; 24 and the other was a versified translation of an
episode in the Bible by Trị nh Tráng's sister, which, according to historian E. O. Berzin,
though as yet unpublished, was sung by many believers in the streets. 25 From the end
of the nineteenth century and particularly from the beginning of the twentieth century,
the number of translations from both Chinese and French increased considerably.
Several people became famous as professional translators. 26 The nation's two most
noted scholars were also committed and productive translators: Phạ m Quỳ nh (1892-
1945) and Nguyễ n Vă n Vĩ nh (1892-1936). While Nguyễ n Vă n Vĩ nh mainly translated
romantic novels such as Alexandre Dumas' Les trois mousquetaires , Abbé Prévost's
Manon Lescaut , J. Swift's Gulliver's Travels (through the French-translation, Les
voyages de Gulliver ) or Molière's comedies, Phạ m Quỳ nh concentrated on translating
and introducing philosophical works such as Descartes' Discours de la méthode , Paul
Gardon's La vie sage , Pascal's Les pensées , etc. In general, while Confucian scholars,
through Chinese translations, devoted themselves to adopting new social and political
theories for their revolutionary activities, Western-educated intellectuals seemed to be
more interested in Western literary and philosophical values. While the former only
sought to understand French eighteenth-century thinkers, the latter, after a short period
of acquaintance with seventeenth and eighteenth-century literature, quickly absorbed
nineteenth-century writers such as François René de Chateaubriand, Alphonse de
Lamartine, Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. The first translations from French were
literary, and of these, the earliest and perhaps most favorite was La Fontaine's Fables ,
which had at least five translations prior to 1928. 27
24 Nguyễ n Khắ c Kham (1966) , The Acceptance of Western Cultures in Vietnam , Saigon: Ministry of
Cultural and Social Affairs, p. 32; and Đỗ Quang Chính (1972), op. cit., pp. 87-90.
25 Quoted in Đ inh Gia Khánh, Bùi Duy Tân and Mai Cao Chươ ng (1979), Vă n họ c Việ t Nam thế kỷ X -
nử a đầ u thế kỷ XVIII , vol. 2, Hanoi: Nxb Đạ i Họ c và Trung Họ c Chuyên Nghiệ p, p.39.
26 See Bằ ng Giang (1992), Vă n họ c quố c ngữ ở Nam Kỳ 1865-1930 , Ho Chi Minh City: Trẻ , pp. 236-
27 These translations are: (i) Truyệ n Phan Sa diễ n ra quố c ngữ by Trươ ng Minh Ký (Guilland et
For Vietnamese writers of the first three decades of the twentieth century,
translation was the best way of developing their writing skill. In ‘La poèsie annamite’
(Vietnamese Poetry) which he wrote in French in 1931, Phạ m Quỳ nh stated:
At a time when language and human mind keep changing, Vietnamese writers
cannot build a career on originality ... What they can do now to be of use is to
translate Chinese and French masterpieces in order to enrich their own language
and literature. 28
The second impact of the West on Vietnamese literature is partly due to the
above mentioned translation practices. Indeed, thanks to translation, Vietnamese “will
transform itself and become more refined. Harmonious, rhythmical and musical by
nature, it will become charming because it will benefit greatly from French prose,
whose features are precision, clarity and logical coherence.” 29
Until the French conquest, the Vietnamese had extremely few works of
vernacular literature in prose. 30 The Vietnamese language was mainly used in the
writing of poems. Consequently it was soft, subtle and musical, but had many defects.
For example, it lacked abstract words, had few prefixes and suffixes in order to
produce derivatives except for duplicative patterns. Moreover, it had no passive
structure and only occasionally made use of noun and verb phrases because it
contained very few classifiers, articles and prepositions; and as a result, its ability to
expand sentences was limited. In Vietnamese traditional writings, sentences were often
short. The relationship between the main and subordinate clauses was not clear, partly
because there was no copulative and partly because writers were not used to using
punctuation. Contact with Western literature, particularly through translation tasks,
Martinon, Saigon, 1884) (ii); Truyệ n Tây dị ch ra tiế ng Nôm by Đỗ Thậ n (Imprimerie F.H.
Schneider, Hanoi, 1906); (iii) Fables de La Fontaine by G. Cordier (Imprimerie d'Extrême
Orient, Hanoi, 1910); (iv) Truyệ n Phan Sa diễ n ca quôc âm by Đỗ Quang Đẩ u (Imprimerie de
l'Union Nguyễ n Vă n Củ a, Saigon, 1919); and (v) Thơ ngụ ngôn củ a La Fontaine by Nguyễ n
Vă n Vĩ nh (Trung Bắ c Tân Vă n, Hanoi, 1928).
28 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1967), Bả ng lượ c đồ vă n họ c Việ t Nam , vol. 2, Saigon: Trình Bày, p. 202.
29 Ibid., p. 201.
30 Trươ ng Chính (1997), op. cit., pp. 90-112.
helped Vietnamese writers discover many serious shortcomings in their language and
hence make an effort to learn from French, not only with respect to vocabulary but also
in the domain of syntax.
The quantity of scientific and technological terms increased rapidly from
almost none at the turn of the century to about 40,000 words in 1945. 31 However, the
most crucial change was in syntax. After many trials and experiments, the Vietnamese
gradually differentiated nouns from adjectives and verbs, graded adjectives by using
particles denoting degree ( hơ i : a little, khá : fairly, rấ t : very) and words denoting
comparison ( bằ ng : as... as, hơ n : more... than, kém : less... than, nhấ t : the most...), and
built para-predicate structures in order to write complex sentences, sometimes very
long but always coherent. 32 If the sentences in Nguyễ n Vă n Vĩ nh's writings had been
quite jerky and clumsy, those in Phạ m Quỳ nh's became polished and refined, even
though his style was still rather laborious because of a tendency to abuse Sino-
Vietnamese terms. From 1932 onwards, thanks to the intelligent and effective reform
effort of Tự Lự c Vă n Ðoàn (the Self-Reliant Literary Group), Vietnamese syntax
became not only more coherent but also so soft and clear that it could express subtle
feelings as well as abstract thoughts. 33 With respect to syntax, the extent of change
from Đ ông Dươ ng tạ p chí (Indochina Magazine, 1913-19) to Phong Hoá (Mores
Weekly, 1932-36) was greater than that recorded over the next sixty years.
The third Western impact on Vietnamese literature resulted in the formation
and completion of the genre system. Prior to 1862, in Vietnamese literature, poetry was
regarded as superior to all other genres. Writings in prose, both in Sino-Vietnamese
and the demotic script (chữ Nôm), were very few; if Sino-Vietnamese works are
excluded, almost nothing is left. Through translation, writers gradually practiced some
new genres and came up with new styles. Short stories in quố c ngữ made their
31 Nguyễ n Khánh Toàn, “The Vietnamese Language”, Vietnam Courrier no. 49 (June 1976), p. 21.
32 For further details, see Phan Ngọ c and Phạ m Đứ c Dươ ng (1983), Tiế p xúc ngôn ngữ ở Đ ông Nam Á ,
Hanoi: Việ n Đ ông Nam Á, particularly pp. 201-350.
33 Nguyễ n Trác and Ðái Xuân Ninh (1989), Về Tự Lự c vă n đoàn , Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố
HCM, pp. 143-193.
appearance with Nguyễ n Trọ ng Quả n's (1865-1911) Thầ y Larazo Phiề n (Master
Lazaro Phiề n), which was published in 1887, 34 and provided an encouraging model to
the brilliant generation of writers that was to follow. In the two hundred and ten issues
of Nam Phong tạ p chí (South Wind Magazine) from 1917 to 1934, there were thirty
four short stories by seventeen authors, 35 the most prolific and gifted of whom were
Phạ m Duy Tố n (1883-1924) and Nguyễ n Bá Họ c (1857-1921). The first two novels,
Hoàng Tố Anh hàm oan (Hoang To Anh Suffers Injustice) by Trầ n Chánh Chiế u
(1867-1919) and Phan Yên ngoạ i sử tiế t phụ gian truân (The Miserable Life of a
Chaste Widow in Phan Yen) by Trươ ng Duy Toả n (1885-1957), were both published
in 1910, although the term roman (novel) first appeared on the cover of Hà Hươ ng
phong nguyệ t (The Love Story of Ha Huong) by Lê Hoằ ng Mư u (? - 1941?) later in
1915, and the term kim thờ i tiể u thuyế t (modern fiction) in Nghĩ a hiệ p kỳ duyên (A
Tale of Chivalrous Love) by Nguyễ n Chánh Sắ t (1869-1947) in 1919. 36 Chronicles and
essays, nascent in the eighteenth century with Vũ trung tuỳ bút (Notes Written in the
Rain) by Phạ m Đ ình Hổ (1768-1839), Tang thươ ng ngẫ u lụ c (Record of Vicissitudes)
by Phạ m Đ ình Hổ and Nguyễ n Án (1770-1815), Công dư tiệ p ký (Quick Writings in
Spare Time) by Vũ Phươ ng Đề (1697- ?), Thượ ng kinh ký sự (Chronicle of a Visit to
the Capital) by Lê Hữ u Trác (1720-1792), and Thượ ng kinh phong vậ t chí (Description
of the Landscapes and Personalities of the Capital) by an anonymous author at the end
of the eighteenth century, developed and flourished after 1862, pioneered by Trươ ng
Vĩ nh Ký (1837-98) in his Chuyế n đi Bắ c kỳ nă m Ấ t Hợ i (Voyage to Tonking in the
34 For critical introductions to this short story, see Thế Uyên, “Truyệ n ngắ n quố c ngữ đầ u tiên củ a Việ t
Nam: Thầ y Lazaro Phiề n củ a Nguyễ n Trọ ng Quả n”, Vă n Lang (California) no. 2 (December
1991), pp. 93-119; Bằ ng Giang (1992), Vă n họ c quố c ngữ ở Nam kỳ 1865-1930 , Ho Chi Minh
City: Trẻ , pp. 124-128; Bùi Đứ c Tị nh (1992), Nhữ ng bướ c đầ u củ a báo chí, tiể u thuyế t và thơ
mớ i , Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, pp. 197-207; Nguyễ n Vă n Trung (1987),
Thầ y Phiề n , Ho Chi Minh City: Đạ i họ c Sư phạ m thành phố Hồ Chí Minh; Nguyễ n Q. Thắ ng
(1990), Tiế n trình vă n nghệ miề n Nam , An Giang: Nxb Tổ ng Hợ p, pp. 265-268; and Trầ n Vă n
Giàu et al. (eds.) (1988), Đị a lý vă n hoá thành phố Hồ Chí Minh , vol. 2, Ho Chi Minh City:
Nxb thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, pp. 233-234.
35 Lạ i Vă n Hùng (ed. with an introduction) (1989), Truyệ n ngắ n Nam Phong , Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã
Hộ i, p. 20.
36 Trầ n Vă n Giàu et al. (eds.) (1988), op. cit., p. 224.
Year At Hoi), which was published in 1876. 37 Modern drama first appeared in Hanoi in
1920 with Le malade imaginaire by Molière, translated by Nguyễ n Vă n Vĩ nh and then
Chén thuố c độ c (The Cup of Poison) by Vũ Đ ình Long (1901-60), performed and
published in 1921.
Aside from creative writings, writers gradually learned to pay close attention to
literary criticism. In the traditional era, no works of literary criticism, theory or history
were written. 38 Writers and poets, in some rare cases, expressed their thoughts about
literature in general, or certain works of art in particular, in the form of a preface, an
epilogue, a poem or a letter sent to a friend: all were brief and oversimplified. 39 The
term “literary history” first appeared in Lê Dư 's Nữ lư u vă n họ c sử , published in 1929,
but this book was only an anthology of women writers with a brief biography of each
poet. Pioneering in the study of Vietnamese literary history was Dươ ng Quả ng Hàm
(1898-1946), who, in the “Chronicle Chart of Sino-Vietnamese Literature” of his Quố c
vă n trích diễ m (Excerpts from National Literature), published in 1925, attempted to
give an overview of the growth of Vietnamese literature. However, it was only a short
chapter in which Dươ ng Quả ng Hàm limited his task to periodization and listing
typical authors for each period. Based on this sketch, Dươ ng Quả ng Hàm continued his
research and, sixteen years later, published his major work, Việ t Nam vă n họ c sử yế u
(Outline History of Vietnamese Literature), which was used as a textbook in high
schools throughout the forties and fifties and became itself a sourcebook of literary
precedent that served later critics and historians down to the present day. During the
period between 1925 and 1941, apart from Dươ ng Quả ng Hàm, other scholars also
concentrated their efforts on studying Vietnamese literary history, mostly focusing on
certain classical authors. Here, mention must be made of Nguyễ n Hữ u Tiế n (1874-
1941) with his Giai nhân dị mặ c (An Extraordinary Woman Writer, 1926) and Lê
37 This book was translated into English by P.J. Honey (1982), Voyage to Tonking in the Year At Hoi
(1876), London: School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
38 Lạ i Nguyên Ân (1998), Ðọ c lạ i ngườ i trướ c, đọ c lạ i ngườ i xư a , Hanoi: Nxb Hộ i Nhà Vă n, pp. 304-6.
39 See Nguyễ n Minh Tấ n et al. (eds.) (1981), Từ trong di sả n , Hanoi: Tác Phẩ m Mớ i; Đỗ Vă n Hỷ
(1993), Ngườ i xư a bàn về vă n chươ ng , vol. 1, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã Hộ i; and Phươ ng Lự u
(1985), Về mộ t quan niệ m vă n chươ ng cổ Việ t Nam , Hanoi: Giáo Dụ c.
Thướ c (1890-1975) with his Sự nghiệ p và thơ vă n củ a Uy Viễ n tướ ng công Nguyễ n
Công Trứ (Nguyễ n Công Trứ , his Career and Literary Works, 1928).
In the field of literary criticism, the first work was published in 1933: Phê bình
cả o luậ n (Criticism and Essays) by Thiế u Sơ n (1907-77). However, before that date, in
Đ ông Dươ ng tạ p chí , issues one to fifty, there had been eighteen book reviews by
eleven authors. 40 In Nam Phong tạ p chí , Phạ m Quỳ nh wrote critical assessments of
Nguyễ n Du's Truyệ n Kiề u, 41 Đ oàn Như Khuê's Mộ t tấ m lòng , 42 Nguyễ n Khắ c Hiế u's
Giấ c mộ ng con , 43 Nguyễ n Vă n Thành's Vă n tế trậ n vong tướ ng sĩ , 44 and Phạ m Duy
Tố n's Số ng chế t mặ c bay. 45 Besides these, some critical articles on the Tale of Kiề u
were also written by Vũ Đ ình Long, 46 Nguyễ n Tườ ng Tam, 47 Ngô Đứ c Kế , 48 and
Huỳ nh Thúc Kháng. 49 None of these articles really constitute literary criticism in the
strict sense of the term. All were dogmatic, inclined to criticize the contents of the art
works, particularly their moral and ethical significance, rather than to evaluate their
aesthetic values. Most of these writers were still heavily influenced by neo-
40 Thanh Lãng (1967), op. cit., p. 299.
41 Phạ m Quỳ nh, “Truyệ n Kiề u”, Nam Phong 1919; reprinted in Thượ ng Chi vă n tậ p , vol. 3, Hanoi:
Éditions Alexandre de Rhodes, 1943, pp. 91-149.
42 “Phê bình thơ vă n mớ i: Mộ t tấ m lòng củ a Đ oàn Như Khuê”, Nam Phong 1918; reprinted in Thượ ng
Chi vă n tậ p , vol. 2, Hanoi: Éditions Alexandre de Rhodes, 1943, pp. 65-71.
43 “Phê bình Giấ c mộ ng con củ a Tả n Đ à”, Nam Phong no. 7 (1917).
44 “Tự a bài Tế tướ ng sĩ vă n”, Nam Phong 1918, reprinted in Thượ ng Chi vă n tậ p , vol. 2, pp. 61-63.
45 “Phê bình truyệ n Số ng chế t mặ c bay ”, Nam Phong no. 18 (1918).
46 Vũ Đ ình Long, “Nhân vậ t Truyệ n Kiề u”, Nam Phong nos. 68, 69 and 70 (1923); “Triế t lý và luân lý
Truyệ n Kiề u”, Nam Phong , no. 71 (1923), and “Vă n chươ ng Truyệ n Kiề u”, nos. 81, 83, 85 and
47 “Mấ y lờ i bình luậ n về vă n chươ ng Truyệ n Kiề u”, Nam Phong , no. 79 (January 1924), pp. 30-37.
48 “Chánh họ c cùng tà thuyế t ”, Hữ u Thanh, no. 21 (September 1, 1924).
49 “Chánh họ c cùng tà thuyế t có phả i là vấ n đề quan hệ chung không?”, Tiế ng Dân, no. 317 (1930),
reprinted in Nguyễ n Vă n Trung (n.d.), Vụ án Truyệ n Kiề u , Los Alamitos: Xuân Thu, pp. 57-62;
“Lạ i vấ n đề chính họ c cùng tà thuyế t”, Tiế ng Dân , nos. 326, 327 and 328 (1930).
The fourth Western factor impacting strongly on Vietnamese literature was the
advent of writing as a profession. Although the Vietnamese have traditionally been
proud of their so-called “land of poesy” (nướ c thơ ), where almost everyone enjoyed
writing and reading poetry, no one was able to live by his/her pen in the pre-colonial
period. Literature was attached to education and regarded as a traditional route into the
bureaucracy. People attended school, practiced their literary skills in order to pass the
civil service examinations, received their bachelor's or doctor's degrees, and then
became imperial officials; and commonly known as mandarins, they would live a
prosperous life thanks to the salary and perquisites (bổ ng lộ c) given them by the Court.
That is why, upon failing his examination, Trầ n Tế Xươ ng (1870-1907), a great poet at
the turn of the century, moaned in grief:
Mộ t việ c vă n chươ ng thôi cũ ng nhả m
Tră m nă m thân thế có ra gì. 50
(The literary path becomes a cul-de-sac
My life has not been worth much!)
Beyond the triennial examination, literature was merely a kind of gentle
entertainment or, as some believed, a way of “carrying” the Dao in order to educate
people and “leave a good name for thousands of generations” (Lư u danh thiên cổ ). It
did not matter whether writers received any recognition from society. If there was any,
it was very rare. In some lucky cases, they would get a reward of a few bars of ten
liang of silver and one or two rolls of silk from the king, as in the cases of Lê Quí Đ ôn
(1726-84) under King Lê Hiế n Tông, Phan Huy Chú (1782-1840) under Emperor Minh
Mạ ng and Lê Ngô Cát (1827-75) under Emperor Tự Đứ c. 51 But the reward was so
pitiful that Lê Ngô Cát, after receiving it, allegedly felt depressed and wrote:
Vua khen thằ ng Cát có tài
Ban cho cái khố vớ i hai đồ ng tiề n. 52
50 Tú Xươ ng (1987), Tác phẩ m và giai thoạ i , Hà Nam Ninh: Hộ i vă n nghệ Hà Nam Ninh, p. 91.
51 Nguyễ n Hiế n Lê (986), Mườ i câu chuyệ n vă n chươ ng , California: Vă n Nghệ , p. 115.
52 Hoàng Ngọ c Phách and Kiề u Thu Hoạ ch (1988), Giai thoạ i vă n họ c Việ t Nam , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p.
(In praising Cat as a talented poet
The King bestowed on him a loin-cloth and two piastres.)
After 1862, some printers were brought from France to Vietnam. 53 In addition,
quố c ngữ was relatively easy to learn, and a new middle-class emerged in the cities and
townships. These were favorable conditions that pushed forward press and publishing
operations, 54 and together with these, writers' professionalism in literary activity. The
number of writers living by their pens gradually increased. Tả n Đ à (pen name of
Nguyễ n Khắ c Hiế u, 1889-1939) was a typical case. After failing his examination,
instead of returning to his native place and earning his living by teaching, he went to
Hanoi and Saigon to work as a journalist and writer. In his Đề khố i tình con thứ nhấ t
(Prologue to My Small Love, Volume 1), published in 1919, he wrote:
Chữ nghĩ a Tây Tàu trót dở dang
Nôm na phá nghiệ p kiế m ă n xoàng
Còn non còn nướ c còn tră ng gió
Còn có thơ ca bán phố phườ ng. 55
(Having a half-baked learning of Chinese and French
I only hope to earn a meagre living by writing in the vernacular .
As long as the mountain, the river, the moon and the wind still are
I still have poems to sell in the street.)
In his Giấ c mộ ng con (Small Dream, Volume 2), Tả n Đ à presented himself as a
bread-winner through his writing. 56 At that time, of course, this occupation was not
very lucrative. In a colony where writers were hampered by censure and repression,
53 Huỳ nh Vă n Tòng (2000 ), Báo chí Việ t Nam, từ khở i thuỷ đế n 1945 , Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố
HCM, p. 55; and Ðỗ Quang Hư ng (2001), Lị ch sử báo chí Việ t Nam, 1865 - 1945 , Hanoi: Nxb
Ðạ i Họ c Quố c Gia Hà Nộ i, pp. 14-16.
54 For further details on Vietnamese journalism and publishing operations, see Huỳ nh Vă n Tòng (2000),
op. cit.; Bùi Đứ c Tị nh (1992), op. cit.; Trầ n Vă n Giáp, Nguyễ n Tườ ng Phượ ng, Nguyễ n Vă n
Phú and Tạ Phong Châu (1972), Lượ c truyệ n các tác gia Việ t Nam , vol. 2, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa
Họ c Xã Hộ i, pp. 21-63.
55 Tả n Ðà (1986), Tuyể n tậ p , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 73.
56 Quoted in Vă n Tâm (1991), Góp lờ i thiên cổ sự , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 47.
where illiteracy was very high, with only ten percent of school-aged children attending
school, 57 and where the circulation figure of books was very low, averaging 1,000 to
3,000 copies per edition, 58 writers generally eked out a meagre existence. Nevertheless,
this new occupation was quite attractive because it brought freedom, a good reputation
and respect from the readers. By the beginning of the 1940s the number of writers and
journalists as well living completely by their pens rose to approximately 1,000. 59
Literary activities, once they became professional, not only contributed to an
increase in book production but also brought some changes in the artists' viewpoints
and techniques. Writers were now influenced by a new factor: their readers. As a result
of the implicit pressure of readers, writers had, on the one hand, to make their works
attractive by considering their topics, subjects and stories; and on the other hand, they
were forced to find their own style. In the past, the ideal was that they should try to
achieve artistic perfection, but now they also aimed at achieving variety and richness.
Tả n Đ à mentioned this when he evaluated his own career as follows: “My literary
works are not only many in quantity but also varied in style.” 60
All the four factors mentioned above played an important role in pushing
Vietnamese literature away from the orbit of the Middle-Ages culture. However, for
many reasons, the literary period between 1862 and 1932 was only a transitional phase.
Firstly, the time in which the Vietnamese elite had been in contact with the West was
so short that they could hardly be expected to change their old ways of thinking and
feeling. Most of them were undecided: on the one hand, they longed for the new; on
the other hand, they regretted losing the old. Before 1932, most wanted to reconcile the
57 Huệ -Tâm Hồ Tài (1992), Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution , Cambridge:
Harvard University Press, p. 35.
58 For more details, see David G. Marr (1981), Vietnamese on Trial, 1920-1945 , Berkeley: University of
California, pp. 46-52.
59 Phan Cự Đệ , Hà Vă n Đứ c and Nguyễ n Hoành Khung (1988), Vă n họ c Việ t Nam 1930-1945 , vol.1,
Hanoi: Nxb Đạ i Họ c và Trung Họ c Chuyên Nghiệ p, p. 71.
60 Nguyễ n Khắ c Xươ ng (ed.) (1986), Tuyể n tậ p Tả n Đ à , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 153.
old with the new, Eastern tradition with Western civilization. 61 Accordingly, their
renovation efforts were on a middle path, as expressed in the slogan: “The guideline
for contemporary poets is to use old forms to express new ideas.” 62 Secondly, writers
had many things to concern themselves with other than the issue of “pure” literature:
patriotic literati were busy with ideological problems and Western-educated
intellectuals concerned themselves with the matter of how to cope with the huge
amount of knowledge represented by Western culture. Thirdly, Western culture was
spread rather unequally. Writers were divided into two large groups: the scholar-
gentry, who mostly lived in the countryside, continued to read Chinese books and write
in the Sino-Vietnamese or demotic script; Western-educated intellectuals, who lived in
the cities, read French books and wrote in quố c ngữ . This characteristic was embodied
in Nam Phong Tạ p chí : about one hundred pages thick, this magazine consisted of
three parts, each written in a different language: French, Chinese and quố c ngữ .
Because of this transitional character, the majority of literary achievements in
this period seem to have been left unfinished. The novels of Trầ n Chánh Chiế u,
Nguyễ n Chánh Sắ t, Hồ Biể u Chánh (1865-1958), and even those of Hoàng Ngọ c
Phách (1896-1973), who was praised for being in the avant-garde and pioneering new
genres, while containing some elements borrowed from French literature, retained to a
certain extent such traditional characteristics as verbal parallelism, episodic plot,
conventionality in presentation, and singsong rhythm, or a mixture of some or all of
these four characteristics which hark back to traditional Chinese models. Also, the
framework for literary criticism at this time was not really solid: critics paid more
attention to writers than to their works; in the work of art, the content was given more
attention than the form; in the content, the ethical aspect was given more attention than
reflected reality, and in that realistic aspect, truthfulness was given more attention than
creativeness. No one lifted literary criticism from the level of the particular observation
to the level of general aesthetic consideration. Poetry, because of its burdens of a long
61 See Huệ -Tâm Hồ Tài (1992), op. cit., pp. 46-52.
62 Chấ t Hằ ng, “Thơ Mớ i”, Vă n Họ c tạ p chí , no. 22 (August 1, 1933), quoted in Thanh Lãng (1972), Phê
bình vă n họ c thế hệ 1932 , vol. 1, Saigon: Phong trào vă n hoá, p. 339.
tradition, changed very slowly and with great difficulty. Trầ n Tế Xươ ng's renovative
efforts at the turn of the century were left unfinished. Apart from Tả n Đ à, most poets
were still immersed in obsolete topics, feelings, forms and language. Since the end of
the 1910s, some scholars, including Phạ m Quỳ nh, who had discovered the narrowness
and unnaturalness of traditional poetic conventions, advised poets to imitate the French
model. But, like the vast majority of poets and writers of that time, he was unable to
visualize what should be learned from it. 63 The prolonged torment experienced with
renovation made some poets, like Phan Khôi (1887-1960), feel an impasse, so that they
could not write anything for a long time. 64 Vietnamese poetry did not really reach a
new stage until 1932, when Phan Khôi's “Tình già” (Old Love) was published in Phụ
nữ tân vă n (Women News), Number 122 of 10 th March.
From the 1930s onwards, barring the four influences mentioned above, there
appeared two new factors influencing Vietnamese writers: individualism and
rationalism. Both of these had long traditions in the West. Being nascent in ancient
Greek philosophy and Christianity, they were resuscitated in the Renaissance,
developed strongly in the eighteenth century, and became popular from the nineteenth
century onwards. 65 However, both were quite novel in the eyes of Vietnamese imbued
with traditional culture, which emphasized commonality rather than individuality,
interpersonal relationships rather than the division between the ego and the non-ego,
righteousness (nghĩ a) rather than benefits (lợ i), and which always encouraged
obedience: within the nation, one had to be loyal to the king; within society, young
people had to respect the authority of their elders; within a family, the children had to
obey their parents, and the wife her husband. 66
63 Phạ m Quỳ nh, “Bàn về thơ Nôm”, Nam Phong, no. 5 (November 1917).
64 Phan Khôi, “Mộ t lố i thơ mớ i trình chánh giữ a làng thơ ”, Phụ nữ tân vă n , no. 122 (March 10, 1932).
65 See Richard Tarnes (1991), The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have
Shaped our World View , New York: Ballantine Books.
66 See, for example, Phan Ngọ c (1994), Vă n hoá Việ t nam và cách tiế p cậ n mớ i , Hanoi: Nxb Vă n Hoá
Thông Tin; Vũ Khiêu (ed.) (1994), Nho giáo xư a và nay , Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã Hộ i; and
Trầ n Quố c Vượ ng (1993), Trong cõi , Garden Grove: Tră m Hoa.
Being trained in French schools 67 and in direct and regular contact with French
literature, the generation of writers who started their career after 1932 were able to free
themselves from the shackles of their traditional culture. They were no longer content
with the middle-of-the-road attitude of their predecessors and totally embraced the new
approach. “Follow the new means to Westernize.” 68 And to Westernize, according to
them, primarily meant “to choose the essentials of Western culture in order to apply
them to our lives.” 69 Among what was called these “essentials”, the most important
was rationalism. “In the past, we did not live according to reason but according to
prejudices and the undebatable orders of our ancestors”, 70 now, on the way to being
Westernized, “before doing anything, we have to deliberate in order to act as a modern
person. After having acted that way, we must consider whether in that procedure the
dregs of conservative-mindedness still remain so that we can exclude them
With respect to literature, one of the main principles that the Tự Lự c Group,
when first established, put forward was: “Apply Western methods to Vietnamese
literature.” 72 In the preface of Hồ n bướ m mơ tiên (Butterfly Heart Dreaming of a
Fairy), Khái Hư ng's first work and also the Tự Lự c Group's first publication, Nhấ t Linh
pointed out two characteristics he regarded as being intelligent applications of Western
methods to fiction writing: firstly, nature was only carefully chosen to be depicted in
accordance with the mood of the characters; secondly, the author described subtle
developments in his characters' psychological lives by using appropriate details instead
of prolix analysis. 73
67 The French system of education completely replaced the old Chinese-based system in 1918.
68 Hoàng Đạ o (1989), Mườ i điề u tâm niệ m , Los Alamitos: Xuân Thu. (Originally published about 1938).
70 Hoàng Đạ o, “Theo mớ i”, Ngày Nay , no. 33 (November 8, 1936).
71 Hoàng Đạ o (1989), op. cit., p. 22.
72 Quoted in Nhậ t Thị nh (n.d.), Chân dung Nhấ t Linh , Glendale: Đạ i Nam, p. 131.
73 Khái Hư ng (1970), Hồ n bướ m mơ tiên , Saigon: Đờ i Nay. (Originally published in 1933), pp. 5-6.
Rationalism also affected poetry: the cohesion requirement led to the adoption
of enjambment, a great reliance on words rarely used in traditional poetry such as
conjunctions and articles, and the imitation of certain French sentence structures. 74
Furthermore, rationalism resulted in a flourish of literary criticism in the period
between 1932 and 1945. All of the first critical works came into being in this period
and among these, Thi nhân Việ t Nam (Vietnamese Poets) by Hoài Thanh (real name
Nguyễ n Đứ c Nguyên, 1909-82) and Hoài Chân (real name Nguyễ n Đứ c Phiên, the
younger brother of Hoài Thanh) and Nhà vă n hiệ n đạ i (Modern Writers) by Vũ Ngọ c
Phan (1902-87) have been hailed as the two most significant.
The second requirement of Westernization was “how to reconcile individualism
with socialism, and how to act in order to help the individual develop his/her
knowledge, values, and characteristics in society.” 75
Critics are virtually unanimous in acclaiming individualism as the essential
characteristic of Vietnamese literature in the period between 1932 and 1945. According
to Hoài Thanh, “in general, the entire spirit of ancient times - or the old poetry - and
the present time - or the new poetry - may be summed up in two words: ‘I’ and ‘We’.
The past is the time of the ‘We’ and the present is that of the ‘I’.” 76 Nguyễ n Vă n Trung
considers the Tự Lự c Group's works as typical of the ‘conscience de soi’ period in the
history of Vietnamese literature. “Self-consciousness is the starting point of
awakening, of becoming aware of oneself as a person.” 77 It can be argued that not only
this period, but also Vietnamese modern literature as a whole, is a continuing process
of development of individualism with some variations. In the period between 1932 and
74 See Nam Chi, “Nhữ ng đóng góp củ a Thế Lữ vào trong thơ Mớ i”, Đ oàn Kế t (Paris), no. 420 (January
1990), pp. 25-29, reprinted in Hoài Việ t (ed.) (1991), Thế Lữ , cuộ c đờ i trong nghệ thuậ t , Hanoi:
Nxb Hộ i Nhà Vă n, pp. 22-40; and also Đặ ng Anh Đ ào, “Vă n họ c Pháp và sự gặ p gỡ vớ i vă n
họ c Việ t Nam, 1930-45”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c (Hanoi) no. 7 (1994), pp. 1-5.
75 Hoàng Đạ o, “Theo mớ i”, Ngày Nay, no. 33 (November 8, 1936).
76 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), Thi nhân Việ t Nam , op. cit., p. 52.
77 Nguyễ n Vă n Trung (n.d.), Xây dự ng tác phẩ m tiể u thuyế t , Los Alamitos: Xuân Thu, pp. 75-76.
(Originally published in 1962).
1945, the ‘I’ was exploited essentially in its emotional aspect, in relation to nature and
one’s fellow man. In the period between 1945 and 1954, that is, throughout the anti-
French resistance war, it was essentially exploited in its political aspect, in relation to
the nation and the writers' comrades-in-arms. In the period between 1954 and 1975,
particularly in Southern Vietnam, it was exploited from the epistemological viewpoint,
in its relation to history and human destiny. From 1975 onwards, in overseas
Vietnamese literature, it was exploited as a common destiny associated with drastic
historical changes. 78
All major manifestations of individualism in the 1932-45 period reflected
aspirations for sincerity and freedom, and as a result, most Vietnamese writers became
distinctive individuals both in their writings and in their lives. Dropping all reserve,
they began to express deep-felt thoughts and emotions.
Poets not only appeared in their writings as subjects and individuals but also
asserted their ‘ego’ as something quite personal and unique. Thế Lữ (1907-89) was a
passionate lover, Xuân Diệ u (1917-85), “the bird from a strange fountain”, Huy Cậ n
(born 1919) “a tiny soul with immense, age-old sadness”, Vũ Hoàng Chươ ng (1916-
76) an inebriate, Lư u Trọ ng Lư (1911-91) an adventurer, Trầ n Huyề n Trân (1913-88) a
lonely traveller, and so on. 79 Each had his own countenance, his own style. Never
before had Vietnamese poetry flourished as it did.
More positive than poets, prose writers not only expressed their ego in their
writings but they also explicitly called for a struggle for individual liberation. This was
first limited to the domain of culture: it aimed at freeing individuals from the strict ties
of the extended family system and obsolete Confucian ethics; it required that young
people should be free to choose their lovers and marriage partners, that women could
78 For more details, see Nguyễ n Hư ng Quố c, “15 nă m vă n họ c lư u vong, bả n chấ t và đặ c điể m”, Vă n
Họ c (California), nos. 47-48 (January 1990), pp. 9-26; translated into English by Hoài An and
published in Journal of Vietnamese Studies , no. 5 (under the title ‘The Vietnamese Literature in
Exile’, pp. 24-34); and also in Nguyễ n Xuân Thu (ed.) (1994), Vietnamese Studies in a
Multicultural World , Melbourne: Vietnamese Language and Cultural Publications, pp. 144-157.
79 These poets’ works and the comments on them can be found in Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op.
remarry after their husband's death, and that everyone should have the freedom to
pursue their ideals. After a while, owing to the influence of the Popular Front in France
(1936-39), many writers went further by extending the struggle to the social domain:
they advocated liberating individuals from outdated customs, backward organizations
and social injustice, oppression and exploitation by landlords as well as by village
It may be said that Western influence on Vietnamese literature reached its peak
in the period between 1932 and 1945. It was so strong that in Thi nhân Việ t Nam , when
writing about the New Poetry movement, Hoài Thanh sometimes felt an unbearable
burden: “It seems that each Vietnamese poet carries five or seven French poets in
his/her head.” 80 Thế Lữ was influenced by Alphonse de Lamartine; Huy Thông (1916-
88) by Victor Hugo; Huy Cậ n by Paul Verlaine; Xuân Diệ u by Charles Baudelaire,
Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and de Noailles; Hàn Mặ c Tử (1912-40) and Bích Khê
(1915-46) by Charles Baudelaire and through Baudelaire, by Edgar Poe and later by
Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry. Some poets at times did not hesitate to “borrow”
ideas or images or adopt some poetic expressions from their French idols. 81 In the
realm of fiction, the situation was the same. The Tự Lự c Group's works were first
influenced by Lamartine, Chateaubriand and later, André Gide, Anatole France and
Marcel Proust. Writers who were later labelled realists, such as Nguyễ n Công Hoan
(1903-77) and Vũ Trọ ng Phụ ng (1911-39), were influenced by Honoré de Balzac,
Stendhal (pseudonym of Henri Beyle), Emile Zola, and so on. 82 Tô Hoài (born 1920)
80 Ibid., p. 34.
81 See Xuân Diệ u, “Apport de la poésie francaise dans la poésie vietnamienne moderne”, The Vietnam
Forum , no. 5 (Winter - Spring 1985), pp. 146-163; and Nguyễ n Vỹ (1994), Vă n thi sĩ tiề n
chiế n , Hanoi: Nxb Hộ i Nhà Vă n, pp. 115-118.
82 For a brief discussion of French influence on Vietnamese writers of this period, see Phan Ngọ c (1993),
“Ả nh hưở ng củ a vă n họ c Pháp tớ i vă n họ c Việ t Nam trong giai đoạ n 1932-40”, Tạ p chí Vă n
Họ c (Hanoi), no. 4 (1993), pp. 25-27; Công Huyề n Tôn Nữ Nha Trang, “The Role of French
Romanticism in the New Poetry Movement in Vietnam”, in Trươ ng Bử u Lâm (ed.) (1987),
Borrowings and Adaptions in Vietnamese Culture , Honolulu: Centre for Southeast Asian
Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, pp. 52-62; Bùi Xuân Bào (1972), Le roman vietnamien
contemporain , Saigon: Tủ sách Nhân vă n Xã hộ i; and Phan Cự Đệ (ed.) (1970), Tự Lự c vă n
đoàn, con ngườ i và vă n chươ ng , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, pp. 37-43.
was influenced by Guy de Maupassant, Alphonse Daudet and Maurice Maeterlinck. As
Tô Hoài himself admitted, his Dế mèn phiêu lư u ký , published in 1941, was influenced
by Don Quixote , Gulliver's Travels and Les Adventures de Télemaque, which he had
read in translations in the “Âu Tây tư tưở ng” series, edited and published by Nguyễ n
Vă n Vĩ nh. 83
Generally speaking, in the literary period between 1932 and 1945, Baudelaire
and Gide were the two most admired French figures. It may be said that most
Vietnamese poets were to some extent, in Hoài Thanh's words, “obsessed by
Baudelaire”, 84 whereas most writers were more or less influenced by André Gide,
mainly through his “acte gratuit” (free act) concept, his quest for happiness and for
liberation from the dead weight of his upbringing and heredity, and his taste for
spiritual restlessness for its own sake. Gide's stamp was more or less visible in the
works of Nhấ t Linh (1905-63), Khái Hư ng (1896-47) and Nguyễ n Tuân (1910-87). 85
The process of Westernization of literature had great significance. Firstly, it
helped Vietnamese literature blossom and led to changes in all aspects, from language
to genre, and from aesthetical thought to artistic style. Secondly, it contributed to
speeding up the process of integration of Vietnamese literature into world literature.
According to a number of critics, in nearly fifteen years - between 1932 and 1945 -
Vietnamese poets and writers reflected most of the literary tendencies which had come
into being and developed in France during the nineteenth century: romanticism,
Parnassianism and symbolism in poetry, and romanticism, realism and naturalism in
83 Tô Hoài, “Nhữ ng quãng đườ ng”, Tác Phẩ m Mớ i , no. 16 (November and December 1971), p. 7.
84 Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op. cit., p. 34.
85 See Phan Ngọ c (1993), ibid.; and Đặ ng Tiế n, “Hạ nh phúc trong tác phẩ m Nhấ t Linh”, Vă n (Saigon),
no. 37 (1 July 1965).
86 See, for instance, Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân (1967), op. cit., pp. 33-34; and Phan Cự Đệ , Hà Vă n
Đứ c and Nguyễ n Hoành Khung (1988), op. cit., p. 66.
However, even in its heyday, Western influence on the literature of Vietnam,
compared with other Asian countries, was very limited. Indeed, while at the turn of the
century, Chinese poets and writers could fully appreciate modern trends in the
literature of France, Germany, England, America, Russia, Poland, Greece and Japan, 87
Vietnamese literati, up to the 1930s, apart from the Chinese classics, knew only French
literature. Non-Chinese and non-French authors whose works were translated into
Vietnamese or even read in Vietnam were very few: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Swift,
Stevenson and Walter Scott. Moreover, the vast majority of Vietnamese poets and
writers only had a limited knowledge of French literature through the educational
system, mainly in high schools, where curricula centered on classical literature. French
books and literary journals were rarely imported and people generally could not afford
them. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that Vietnamese writers' knowledge
about French or world literature in general was limited and not updated. While their
Chinese colleagues understood profoundly American and British imagism, German
impressionism, French dadaism and many other avant-garde movements, 88 Phạ m
Quỳ nh, who was regarded as the most erudite scholar of the 1920s, seems to have been
only well acquainted with French seventeenth-century literature. In his fifty-page
treatise on French literary history, the second half of the nineteenth century was
presented in just one sentence: “Following realism, there were many other schools such
as symbolism, Parnassianism etc. in which flags were many but good generals (tướ ng
giỏ i) were very few.” 89
In the following decades, Vietnamese writers' knowledge of French literature
was becoming more up-to-date partly because the number of students being educated
in France increased greatly, and partly because in the Popular Front period, the cultural
87 See B.S. McDougall (1981), The Introduction of Western Literary Theories into Modern China ,
Tokyo: The Centre for East Asian Cultural Studies; Marián Gálik (1980), The Genesis of
Modern Chinese Literary Criticism (1917-1930 ), London: Curzon Press; and Merle Goldman
(ed.) (1974), Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era , Cambridge: Harvard
89 Phạ m Quỳ nh (1943), Thượ ng Chi vă n tậ p , vol. 5, Hanoi: Edition Alexandre de Rhodes, p. 130.
closed-door policy of the colonial authorities was becoming less strict. 90 Anyhow,
Đặ ng Thai Mai (1902-84), who was largely regarded as a highly qualified expert in
modern Chinese literature and who first translated Lu Xun into Vietnamese, only heard
of Lu after Lu's death in 1936 and read his works three years later. 91 Nearly a century
after its blossoming in France, realism and romanticism appeared in Vietnam; nearly
half a century after its birth, symbolism was only weakly nascent in the works of a few
Vietnamese poets, including Bích Khê, Xuân Sanh (born 1920), Xuân Diệ u, Hàn Mặ c
Tử and Chế Lan Viên.
The artists and writers' late and limited exposure to Western literature resulted
in the unsettled nature of Vietnamese literature, even at its acme. Creative writing
developed rapidly, whereas literary thought still marked time. Until the end of the
nineteen-thirties, no work of literary theory had been published. In the first three
decades of the twentieth century, most writers pursued their creative careers while
slighting literature. For Nguyễ n Bá Họ c (1857-1921), “only novels, reports, essays and
public speeches are useful literature, while poetry and folk song are not worth a cent in
spite of their beautiful forms.” 92 Echoing him, Phạ m Quỳ nh considered that apart from
essays and public speeches, all literary genres, from fiction to poetry and drama, were
“recreational literature” (vă n chươ ng chơ i), useless for disseminating knowledge. 93
Such attitudes were indeed understandable, however. Since the beginning of the
twentieth century, along with the discovery that underdevelopment would lead to loss
of national independence, Vietnamese literati understood that the cause of that
underdevelopment lay in the cult of the “empty” belletrism (hư vă n) which had
remained in vogue in literary circles for a thousand years: instead of studying the
sciences in order to advance technology, develop the economy and enrich the country,
all of the most intelligent young people were completely wrapped up in the learning of
90 Trươ ng Chính, “Nhìn lạ i vă n họ c Ngũ tứ củ a Trung Quố c”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c (Hanoi), no. 3 (1989), p.
91 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1969), Trên đườ ng họ c tậ p và nghiên cứ u , vol. 2, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, pp. 199-201.
92 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., p. 80; and ibid., p. 81.
93 Ibid., p. 81.
Chinese classics and then engrossed in writing poems. When the country faced the
threat of foreign aggression, nobody knew what to do and finally everyone resigned
themselves to servitude. This is one reason why the modernization campaign was
carried out simultaneously with the campaign against belletrism. Phan Châu Trinh
began to win nation-wide fame with his poem “Chí thành thông thánh”, in which there
is a doleful couplet: “Vạ n dân nô lệ cườ ng quyề n hạ / Bát cổ vă n chươ ng tuý mộ ng
trung” (While tens of thousands of our countrymen are exploited by cruel powers,
intellectuals are still dead drunk in the “eight-legged” essay). 94 This psychological
profile was visible for decades, making the prevailing literary thought seriously
pragmatic. Among the nine guiding principles of the Tự Lự c Literary Group, only two
were about literature: (i) adopting Western creative methods and (ii) using a simple
style with few Sino-Vietnamese words. The rest of these principles aimed at reforming
Vietnamese culture and society. 95 In Hoàng Đạ o's
Mườ i điề u tâm niệ m (Ten
Commandments), which is conventionally regarded as the Tự Lự c Literary Group's
theoretical platform, none had anything to do with literature. A number of writers and
poets created some manifesto-like writings, such as Thế Lữ in “Cây đàn muôn điệ u”
(The Lyre of Myriad Tunes), Xuân Diệ u in “Cả m xúc” (Feelings and Emotions) and
“Lờ i vào tậ p Gử i hươ ng” (Prologue to Gử i hươ ng cho gió ), Nam Cao (1917-51) in his
short story “Tră ng sáng” (Bright Moonlight); but all were mere perceptions through
feelings. Only the Xuân Thu Nhã Tậ p Group had its own manifesto, but regretfully
none of its members were gifted poets or clear-thinking theorists. It appeared that in
their reading of French literature, Vietnamese writers and poets only concerned
themselves with imaginative writings without delving into the theoretical foundations
of each author and each school. The result of this weakness was instability in their own
Some time ago, Vietnamese scholars, particularly those in the North, had the
habit of dividing the literature of the 1932-1945 period into three categories: romantic,
realistic and revolutionary. But recently they have come to realize that this division is
94 Huỳ nh Lý (ed.) (1983), Thơ vă n Phan Châu Trinh , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 58.
95 Phong Hoá, no. 87 (March 2, 1934); reprinted in Nhậ t Thị nh (n.d.), op. cit., p. 131.
quite inappropriate. 96 Indeed, theoretically the boundaries between the above trends
were not as clear-cut as they had thought, and practically speaking, no Vietnamese
writer or poet was really unmixed in his/her style. Most had been both romantic and
realistic, or romantic in one work but realistic in another. Members of the Tự Lự c
Literary Group are considered to be romantic whilst Thạ ch Lam's Gió đầ u mùa (First
Seasonal Wind) and Khái Hư ng's Thoát ly (Escape) and Thừ a tự
realistic. In contrast, Nguyễ n Công Hoan and Vũ Trọ ng Phụ ng, who are considered to
be masters of Vietnamese realism, wrote some romantic novels such as Tắ t lử a lòng
(End of Passion) and Dứ t tình (Divorce).
With such a poor and unstable theoretical heritage, Vietnamese writers and
poets in 1935 started a “pen-war” over the matter of “art for art's sake” or “art for
human life's sake” 97 and through this process became familiar with Marxist literary
thinking, which was to become a dominant factor in the shaping of current Vietnamese
96 See Nguyễ n Đă ng Mạ nh, “Hiệ n thự c và lãng mạ n”, Vă n Nghệ , no. 31 (August 1, 1992), p. 7; and Phan
Cự Đệ , Hà Vă n Đứ c and Nguyễ n Hoành Khung (1988), op. cit., p. 66.
97 See Huệ -Tâm Hồ Tài, “Literature for the People: from Soviet Policies to Vietnamese Polemics”, in
Trươ ng Bử u Lâm (ed.) (1987), op. cit., pp. 63-83.
The Pen-War over the Matter
of Art for Art’s Sake versus Art for Human Life’s Sake
The polemic between proponents of art for art's sake and art for human life's
sake first broke out early in 1935 between Thiế u Sơ n (1907-78), and then Hoài Thanh
(1909-82) on the one side, and Hả i Triề u (1908-54) on the other. From the beginning
of 1936 to the middle of 1939, the defenders of each side became more and more
numerous: on the "pure art" side, Lư u Trọ ng Lư , Lê Tràng Kiề u and Lan Khai replaced
Hoài Thanh, who dropped out early; the art for human life's sake side was more
crowded and noisy: its advocates formed what they called ‘a united front’ consisting
of, apart from Hả i Triề u, many minor and almost unknown journalists such as Hồ
Xanh, Hả i Thanh, Hả i Khách (pen name of Trầ n Huy Liệ u), Hả i Âu, Sơ n Trà, Thạ ch
Độ ng, Hoa Sơ n, Lâm Mộ ng Quang, Hoàng Tân Dân, Phan Vă n Hùm, Bùi Công Trừ ng,
Cao Vă n Chánh and Khươ ng Hữ u Tài.
Two points should be mentioned here. First, the polemic in fact did not last
continuously from 1935 to 1939 as Huệ Tâm Hồ Tài asserted: “... begun in 1935, it was
waged fitfully over the next ten years, and might have gone longer had not war
intervened.” 1 In 1937 and 1938, surprisingly and almost without reason, the voices on
both sides fell silent. The debate, therefore, actually lasted only two and a half years.
However, it was certainly one of the most protracted and heated polemics in
Vietnamese literary history. Second, it mobilized a large number of participants, most
1 Huệ -Tâm Hồ Tài (1987), “Literature for the People: From Soviet Policies to Vietnamese Polemics”, in
Trươ ng Bử u Lâm (ed.), Borrowings and Adaptions in Vietnamese Culture , Honolulu: Center
for Southeast Asia Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa, pp. 63-82.
of whom, especially on the side of art for human life's sake, were not professional
writers and poets but political agitators, either Trotskyists or Vietnamese Communist
Party members, who saw their involvement in the debate as a chance to propagate their
party's policies, and as an exercise in revolutionary activity. Behaving like contenders
in a civil war, their manner of speech was political rather than literary. Aesthetic
culture was either ignored or viewed as a battleground secondary to the class struggle.
This explains some odd, and sometimes paradoxical, phenomena with which, until
now, few historians have concerned themselves. For example, during and after the
polemic, all defenders of art for art's sake always refused the label applied to them.
Hoài Thanh declared several times that he had no theory, 2 and that his view as well as
his friends' “are not similar to that of advocates of the pure art view in French literary
history.” 3 This was true. As Frances FitzGerald rightly notes, “[a]s Confucians, the
Vietnamese had never been interested in diversity or originality for its own sake. From
their intellectuals they required only what was ‘morally enlightening’, or in Communist
language ‘socially useful’.” 4 Under such an influence, which is by nature a practical
and pragmatic philosophy, emphasizing responsibility and sacrifice, asserting the
priority of content over form, the Vietnamese found it hard to accept the purely artistic
view of French nineteenth-century writers.
This “pure art” viewpoint, which first came into being in Kant's and Schiller's
aesthetics, was imported into France in the early nineteenth century through Benjamin
Diary in 1804 and Mme de Stael's De l'Allemagne in 1813, more
particularly through Victor Cousin' s lectures at the Sorbonne from 1816 to 1818 and
Théodore Jouffroy’s course on aesthetics in 1828. It was finally formalized into a
doctrine by Théophile Gautier (1811-72) in the 1830s. 5
2 Hoài Thanh (1999), Toàn tậ p , vol. 1, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 43.
3 Hoài Thanh (1960), “Nhìn lạ i cuộ c tranh luậ n về vă n nghệ hồ i 1935-1936”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c (Hanoi),
no. 1 (1960), reprinted in Hoài Thanh (1982), Tuyể n tậ p , vol. 2, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, pp. 257-293.
4 Frances FitzGerald (1972), Fire in the Lake, the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam , New York:
Vintage, p. 272.
5 See René Wellek (1965), A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 , vol. 3: ‘The Age of Transition’,
Identifying the beautiful with the good, placing it on an equal footing with God,
Gautier expressed his cult of beauty sporadically in many different works, particularly
in the prefaces to Poésie (1830), his first collection of poems, and Mademoiselle de
Maupin (1834), a novel of erotic passion and pagan beauty. Differently from the
realists, Gautier claimed that the goal of art was not to mirror some external reality or
truth but to present a microcosm of the artist's soul. He wrote in 1841: “When M.
Delacroix paints a picture, he looks within himself rather than looking out of the
window.” 6 Unlike the romantic artists, who emphasized sincerity and spontaneity of
emotion over formal writing technique, Gautier asserted that for poets, “[t]he words
should have, in themselves and beyond the meaning they denote, a proper beauty and
value.” 7 And unlike the neo-classical writers, who overemphasized the didactic
function of literature, Gautier insisted that literature was not a means but an end in
itself, and that “any artist who aims to anything other than the beautiful is not an artist
in our view.” 8 As a would-be painter, Gautier wanted to transpose beauty into words
or, in another words, to make poetry - and literature in general - a plastic art. As an
extreme aesthete, Gautier thought that literature should not be expected to be useful.
He writes in the preface to his novel Mademoiselle de Maupin :
Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it
expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting, like his poor
weak nature. The most useful place in a house is the latrine. For myself… I am
among those to whom the superfluous is necessary… I prefer to a certain useful
pot a Chinese pot which is sprinkled with mandarins and dragons. 9
Although Théophile Gautier was not recognized as a great theorist or critic, his
doctrine had a paramountly important impact in Western literary thought. It directly
London: Jonathan Cape, pp. 29-33; and W. K. Wimsatt and C. Brooks (1957), Literary
Criticism, a Short History , London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 475-498.
6 Quoted in R. B. Grant (1975), Theophile Gautier , Boston: Twayne Publishers, p. 46.
7 Quoted in P. E. Tennant (1975), Theophile Gautier , London: The Athlone Press, p. 27.
8 Ibid., p. 14.
9 Theophile Gautier (1981), Mademoiselle de Maupin , translated by Joanna Richardson,
Harmondsworth: Penguin, p. 39.
encouraged the cult of artistic perfection and the emphasis on plastic beauty in
Parnassianism. Traces of it can be seen in French dadaism in the late 1910s, Russian
formalism in the 1920s, and structuralism in the 1960s. However, in Vietnam, its
influence was very weak. In the polemic of 1935-39, no defenders of the pure art side
were to adapt Gautier's stand completely. In fact, it is not sure that they had the
opportunity of reading and understanding very much of Gautier's aesthetic doctrine.
More than twenty years after the debate, in 1960, in his article “Nhìn lạ i cuộ c tranh
luậ n về nghệ thuậ t hồ i 1935-1936” (Looking back on the debate about art in 1935 and
1936), Hoài Thanh still asserted that he himself and his friends:
are different from Theophile Gautier, who brought forward the art for art's sake
doctrine in French literary history, and who maintained that poets should be
impassive to nature and look for visual art-like beauty. 10
Hoài Thanh was mistaken because the above two characteristics in fact
belonged to the Parnassians. Although the Parnassian poets were quite deeply
influenced by Gautier, their viewpoints showed some differences: According to René
Wellek, Gautier “did not share their [the Parnassians'] objectivity and never felt
impassibilité himself.” 11
Both Thiế u Sơ n and Hoài Thanh were self-taught intellectuals. In the mid-
1930s, after finishing high school, Hoài Thanh worked in a printing house and taught at
a local school in Huế , 12 whereas Thiế u Sơ n was a staff member at the Gia Ðị nh Post
Office. 13 They were never trained in theory, and in fact they were not interested in
theory. As Hoài Thanh confessed: “I am scared of theory.” 14 Owing to their haphazard
contact with different Western movements, and to their weakness in theoretical
10 Hoài Thanh (1982), Tuyể n tậ p , vol. 2, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, pp. 261-262.
11 René Wellek (1965), op. cit., p. 32. See further P. E. Tennant (1975), op. cit., p. 126.
12 Từ Sơ n and Phan Hồ ng Giang (eds.) (2000), Hoài Thanh vớ i khát vọ ng Chân - Thiệ n - Mỹ , Hanoi:
Nxb Hộ i Nhà Vă n, pp.31-2.
13 Thiế u Sơ n (1993), Nhữ ng vă n nhân chính khách mộ t thờ i , Hanoi: Lao Ðộ ng, p. 287.
14 Hoài Thanh (1999), op. cit., p. 42.
knowledge, Thiế u Sơ n, Hoài Thanh and other writers on the pure art side developed a
literary standpoint consisting of one common characteristic: eclecticism. In their
thoughts, there was at the same time a little of everything - neo-classicism, realism,
romanticism, aestheticism and a little modernism, mainly under the influence of André
Gide - not to mention that they were also influenced by Chinese and Vietnamese
traditional literary theories, which were not easy for them to ignore.
The polemic came to light when Thiế u Sơ n’s articles entitled “Two Views on
Literature” and “Art and Life” were published in Tiể u Thuyế t Thứ Bả y (Saturday
Fiction) no. 38, February 1, 1935 and no. 41, March 9, 1935. In his first article, after
criticizing what he claimed to be the narrow and erroneous concepts of Nguyễ n Bá Họ c
(1857-1921) and Phạ m Quỳ nh (1892-1945) as well as of most Confucian scholars who
regarded literature as a means to achieve educational, ethical or scientific goals, Thiế u
Sơ n declared that “literature has to set art or beauty as its main goal”. 15 In his second
article, after commending French writers' objective attitudes towards literature and art
evaluation, he wrote:
... literature only needs one ism, which is looking for and describing the beauty of
things... Those who want to live with literature first have to liberate their hearts
from all moral, social, political and religious prejudices, and then concern
themselves with nothing but art. 16
Basing their criticism mainly on these two pronouncements, Hả i Triề u, and
later a large number of Marxist writers, claimed that Thiế u Sơ n was an advocate of the
pure art doctrine. In fact, that was not the case. In his two articles, Thiế u Sơ n had
aimed at (i) differentiating belles-lettres from academic writings; (ii) praising the
former for its great creative value and (iii) insisting that belles-lettres should be artful
and first evaluated from aesthetic standards rather than from moral principles and party
or class interests.
15 Thiế u Sơ n, “Hai cái quan niệ m về vă n họ c”, Tiể u thuyế t Thứ Bả y , no. 37 (1935), reprinted in Thanh
Lãng (1973), Phê bình vă n họ c thế hệ 1932 , Saigon: Phong trào vă n hoá, p. 81.
16 Thiế u Sơ n, “Nghệ thuậ t vớ i đờ i ngườ i”, Tiể u thuyế t Thứ Bả y , no. 41 (1935), reprinted in Thanh Lãng
(1973), op. cit., p. 86.
Thiế u Sơ n’s view was fairly novel. At that time, apart from him, Võ Liêm Sơ n
(1888-1949), in his article “Vă n họ c vớ i xã hộ i” (Literature and Society) written in
1927 and published in 1934, expressed the same view, stating that only belles-lettres
were in the realm of art, whereas technical writings belonged to the field of science. 17
It may be said that in the domain of creation, syncreticism as one of the characteristics
of Vietnamese classical literature was abolished quite early, at the beginning of the
twentieth century; and in the field of theory, it was completely abandoned in the early
1930s with Thiế u Sơ n’s and Võ Liêm Sơ n’s articles.
However, it is hard to say that Thiế u Sơ n was a theorist, for he merely chose a
quite popular viewpoint in French literature as an assumption from which to draw
some applications to the creation, appreciation and evaluation of literature, but he did
not delve into any specific issue. In his own works, he never expressed his view on
what might constitute Beauty. Certainly, it was not formal beauty. Reading Nguyễ n
Công Hoan’s Kép Tư Bề n (Actor Tư Bề n), he discovered that:
Hoan's outstanding characteristic is that he can purposefully observe everything
around him, find out funny details, depict his characters in his extraordinarily
quaint ways, ask and answer in an interesting tone and structure his stories into
Finally, he concluded:
All short stories in this book are interesting movies, but each has its own
distinctiveness because their author's art changes and varies according to life. 19
It appears that, with respect to aesthetics, Thiế u Sơ n was very close to the
realists: for him, an interesting work was a work reflecting life as lively and varied as
life itself; one of the most important writing requisites was the ability to observe and
choose details in order to represent reality through words. From this view, Thiế u Sơ n
17 Võ Liêm Sơ n, “Vă n họ c vớ i xã hộ i”, reprinted in Nguyễ n Đă ng Mạ nh (ed.) (1987), Hợ p tuyể n thơ
vă n Việ t Nam , tome 5, vol. 1, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 398. Originally published in 1934.
18 Thiế u Sơ n, “Phê bình Kép Tư Bề n củ a Nguyễ n Công Hoan” , Tiể u thuyế t Thứ Bả y , 27 July 1935,
reprinted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 115-6.
once defined novelists as “those who are in life to talk about the life stories to
people”. 20 He always paid attention to the topic because he emphasized the role of
‘stories of life’ - or reality. In his opinion, any society was divided into two classes: the
upper class and the lower class. If “writers only mention the first and ignore the
second, literature will have many deficiencies for it cannot picture all forms of human
lives.” 21 He then concluded that once “the masses have a place in literature, literature
will become complete and perfect as it will portray all kinds of people and be a mirror
reflecting totally the true nature of society.” 22
Hoài Thanh is undoubtedly more talented and clever than Thiế u Sơ n. While
Thiế u Sơ n was a journalist who engaged at times in general reflection on literature and
commenting in a leisurely way, Hoài Thanh was a professional critic of considerable
reputation and influence, who, about seven years after the polemic, published his major
critical collection, co-authored by Hoài Chân, Thi nhân Việ t Nam (Vietnamese Poets)
(1942), which has been widely seen as one of the finest production, or even the finest,
of Vietnamese literary criticism in the twentieth century. However, like Thiế u Sơ n,
Hoài Thanh was a self-taught scholar. His view of literature was entangled in
contradictions. Like Thiế u Sơ n, he insisted that “One can have any kind of literature
one likes but first it must be literature.” 23 ‘It must be literature’ means that it must be
aesthetic. But what needs to be aesthetic? The object depicted or the way of depicting
it? It is not certain whether it was unintentional or deliberate that Hoài Thanh always
stressed the first factor:
The landscape and human heart are similar to a thick forest covered with fragrant
and oddly colored flowers which, when visiting them, people generally fail to
notice, thereby missing a lot of picturesque sights and phenomena because they
20 Thiế u Sơ n, “Nhà viế t tiể u thuyế t”, Tiể u thuyế t Thứ Bả y , no. 73 (19 October 1935), reprinted in
Thanh Lãng (1973), ibid., 125.
21 Thiế u Sơ n, “Vă n họ c bình dân”, Tiể u thuyế t Thứ Bả y , no. 43 (23 March1935), reprinted in Thanh
Lãng (1973), ibid., p. 92.
22 Ibid., p. 92.
23 Hoài Thanh, “Vă n chươ ng là vă n chươ ng”, Tràng An , 15 August 1935; reprinted in Thanh Lãng
(1974), op. cit., p. 119.
are too busy plucking bamboo shoots and digging up tubers. Physical activities are
like a black curtain separating our perception from the profound truth. The
responsibility of art as well as of literature is to draw up that curtain - to find out
what is interesting, beautiful and extraordinary in nature and in the human soul,
and then use words or a stone, or a painting in order to share feelings. 24
Thus, according to Hoài Thanh, writers and poets had a simple task: that of
discovering the beauty of life; and in order to achieve this task, the most important
requirement was to be sensitive and know how to throb naturally with emotions. 25 That
is why Hoài Thanh required that writers and poets should be sincere and freed not only
from political despotism but also from the restraints of society, public opinion and
narrow and rigid literary conventions, which were regarded as ideals of beauty. 26
Unlike Thiế u Sơ n, Hoài Thanh usually emphasized the “human heart” factor, or the
emotion factor in literature. He considered “the source of literature as feelings and
philanthropy.” 27 And the functions of literature, if there were any, were also limited to
the emotional aspect: "Literature brings us feelings that we have not had and those we
have experienced. Thanks to it, our cramped and superficial lives become much deeper
and broader." 28
The special point of Hoài Thanh's view on literature is that he - perhaps the first
in Vietnam - discovered the relative autonomy of literature: the world in a literary work
was independent from the real world. “A thief who is brought into a work of art is no
longer a thief. He is a person, and his miseries as a Person (Person with a capital letter)
have an eternal quality.” 29 Taking this standpoint, Hoài Thanh overcame the tendency
of identifying authors and their works, a popular practice often found in Vietnamese
24 Hoài Thanh, “Ý nghĩ a và công dụ ng củ a vă n chươ ng”, Tao Đ àn , no. 7 (1 June 1939); quoted in Hoài
Thanh (1982), op. cit., p. 261; excerpted in Thanh Lãng (1974), op. cit., p. 187.
25 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 108-9.
26 Ibid., pp. 182-6.
27 Ibid., p. 188.
28 Ibid., p. 188.
29 Ibid., p. 120.
traditional literary views. In this, Hoài Thanh had come round to a position similar to
that of W.K. Wimsatt, the author of “The Intentional Fallacy”, 30 who believed that the
writer's intention did not have any effect on his work once it was already
accomplished, and that therefore we should not use it to evaluate any work.
The Italian writer, Dante Alighieri, published his Divine Comedy with the
intention of attacking his enemies. But reading it nowadays, we no longer take any
interest in that attack. A large number of people who do not have a passion for
Christianity like to read Chateaubriand's Atala and René . We do not care about the
theme and are merely interested in literature. 31
However, within and forevermore after the debate, Hoài Thanh did not become
a romanticist or a formalist. The sense of responsibility for the community and society
which he had received in the Vietnamese cultural and educational environment held
him back. It was not without reason that he chose the pen name "Hoài Thanh": he
aimed to remember (hoài) the name of his teacher and comrade (Thanh), who had
guided him to an anti-French Revolutionary stand. 32 It is understandable why, although
he did not highly value Tam Lang's report Tôi kéo xe (I Drive a Rickshaw), he
introduced it with alacrity and commended it favorably in his newspaper as "a deed of
great moral and social value" with the hope that
... if among people who read that report, there were a person who is concerned
with the gloomy world of a rickshaw driver, is moved to pity by his sufferings and
is lenient when riding on a rickshaw, Tam Lang's task would have become very
The altercation between the sense of responsibility and the formalist aesthetic
viewpoint resulted in many contradictions in Hoài Thanh's article. On the one hand, he
30 W.K. Wimsatt (1946), ‘The Intentional Fallacy’, reprinted in The Verbal Icon: Studies in the
Meaning of Poetry , London: Methuen, pp. 3-18.
31 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., p. 181.
32 Hoài Chân, “Kỷ niệ m về anh Hoài Thanh và Thi nhân Việ t Nam ” in Từ Sơ n (ed.) (1993), Hoài
Thanh, di bút và di cả o , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 179.
33 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., p. 126.
compared "literary production with a flower"; 34 on the other, he declared that
"literature - I do not mean writers - has no right to stand in the high clouds, watching
indifferently the violent vicissitudes of life". 35 On the one hand, Hoài Thanh now
encouraged writers "to develop their identities"; 36 on the other, he complained about
Vietnamese writers' nonchalance in describing the miserable life and obsolete customs
of the peasants. 37 On the one hand, he praised Gide's view - "an aesthetic work is
useful for readers" 38 - and demanded that "art must help people to react against natural
situations and their nature", for only by doing so does art fulfill the requirements of
present-day living; 39 on the other, he wrote:
A writer is a person who lives within a society. Of course he should fulfill his
social duty as best as he can. I want to insist that a writer sometimes has to defend
the weak by opposing the rich and powerful, but at that juncture he no longer
creates but merely does his duty as a writer. 40
Thus neither Thiế u Sơ n nor Hoài Thanh really advocated art for art's sake.
Furthermore, they asserted that “in the final analysis, any art is for human life's sake,
be it in the material or the spiritual realm”. 41 It is hard to say that these were just empty
words. It should be mentioned that Vă n chươ ng và hành độ ng (Literature and Action),
a collection of Hoài Thanh's articles on literature in the debating period, was
confiscated by the Secret Police Bureau before it was distributed in 1936, and at the
34 Ibid., p. 120.
35 Ibid., p. 110.
36 Ibid., p. 130.
37 Ibid., pp. 132-133.
38 Ibid., p. 121.
39 Ibid., p. 110.
40 Ibid., p. 120.
41 Quoted in Hoài Thanh (1982), op. cit., p. 261.
same time Hoài Thanh himself was forbidden to write in the Tràng An newspaper
because of his anti-French writings. 42
A question must be asked: Why were Thiế u Sơ n and Hoài Thanh labelled
defenders of pure art and attacked by Marxist writers when they did not advocate this
There are probably many reasons. Firstly, Marxist writers at that time perhaps
did not have a clear view of what was art for art's sake and what was art for human
life's sake. According to Hả i Triề u, all those who did not regard literature as a weapon
for social struggle were supporters of pure art. 43 Even Hoài Thanh, twenty years later,
upon becoming a Marxist critic and a high-ranking cadre in the Communist Party's
domain of literature and art, changed his way of thinking and asserted that any writer
who divorced himself/herself from politics and had no consideration for it was for pure
art. 44 While their understanding of the ‘pure art’ concept was too broad, their
understanding of art for human life's sake was too limited: in Hả i Triề u’s vocabulary
throughout the debate, the term ‘art for human life's sake’ is synonymous with ‘art for
the sake of the common people's life’. Although Hả i Triề u later rectified this mistake
and insisted that it should be ‘art for human life's sake’, 45 Hoài Thanh proved that the
term “art for the sake of the common people's life” expressed correctly the ideas of Hả i
Triề u as well as those of the Marxist writers, because for them “art must help the
common people in their daily life activities”. By the expression "the common people's
life" he probably meant plebeian activity as we usually understand it, whereas "human
42 Ibid., p. 259.
43 Hả i Triề u, “Sự tiế n hoá củ a vă n họ c và sự tiế n hoá củ a nhân sinh”, Đ ông Phươ ng, no. 872 (12
August 1933) and no. 873 (19 August 1933); “Nghệ thuậ t vị nghệ thuậ t hay nghệ thuậ t vị nhân
sinh”, Đờ i Mớ i , March 1935 and 7 April 1935. Both articles were reprinted in Hả i Triề u (1969),
Về vă n họ c nghệ thuậ t , Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, pp. 10-28.
44 Ibid., p. 261.
45 Hả i Triề u, “Nghệ thuậ t và sinh hoạ t xã hộ i”, Tin Vă n in 1935, reprinted in Trầ n Thanh Đạ m and
Hoàng Nhân (eds.) (1991), Tuyể n tậ p thơ vă n Huế Bình Trị Thiên , Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb
Thành phố HCM, pp. 229-240.
life" had a broader meaning”. 46 Secondly, it seems that the real target of Marxist
writers was the whole romantic literature of that time. In the communists' eyes, this
very soft and poetic literature was a source of great dangers as it lulled the masses into
a dream and hampered their process of growing aware of revolutionary ideals.
However, Marxist writers had more than enough cleverness not to directly face the Tự
Lự c Group, which was very famous and influential: indeed this group owned a
publishing company ( Đờ i Nay ) and two magazines ( Phong Hoá and Ngày Nay ) with
the highest circulation of that time. 47 Therefore, possibly because of one simple and
tactical reason, Thiế u Sơ n was chosen as a target: he was a young writer who as yet did
not have a wide reputation and more particularly did not have any means to defend
himself. As Trầ n Huy Liệ u later wrote in his posthumous Hồ i ký (Autobiography),
published in 1991, for Marxist writers in the period of 1930-45, when Vietnam was
under French colonialism, the last factor was extremely important because they
understood the weakness of their position: most newspapers they contributed to were in
a precarious financial situation and could be easily shut down, and their circulation was
usually limited to one region. 48
Thus both Hoài Thanh and Thiế u Sơ n constituted only a pretext for Marxist
writers to launch a pen-war by which they introduced and propagandized their party's
views on art and literature as well as those on political and social issues. This resulted
in the second characteristic of the debate: it was a series of monologues rather than a
debate. The so-called polemical writings were seldom related to one another. Writers
rarely analyzed and criticized the arguments of their rivals. Their articles generally
concentrated on three issues: (i) to continue to develop the Marxist view of art and
46 Quoted in Nguyễ n Phúc, “Nhìn lạ i cái gọ i là thuyế t vị nghệ thuậ t củ a Hoài Thanh”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c
(Hanoi), no. 2 (1993), p. 29.
47 For more details on the Tự Lự c Literary Group, see Phạ m Thế Ngũ (n.d.), Việ t Nam vă n họ c sử giả n
ướ c tân biên , vol. 3, Glendale (California): Ðạ i Nam, pp. 430-500; Tú Mỡ (1996), Toàn tậ p ,
vol. 1, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, pp. 561-601; Nhậ t Thị nh (n.d.), Chân dung Nhấ t Linh , Glendale: Ðạ i
Nam: Lạ i Nguyên Ân (1998), Ðọ c lạ i ngườ i trướ c, đọ c lạ i ngườ i xư a , Hanoi: Nxb Hộ i Nhà
Vă n, pp. 211-224; Phan Cự Ðệ (ed.) (1990), Tự Lự c vă n đoàn, con ngườ i và vă n chươ ng ,
Hanoi: Vă n Họ c; and Nguyễ n Trác and Ðái Xuân Ninh (1989), Về Tự Lự c vă n đoàn , Ho Chi
Minh City: Nxb thành phố HCM.
48 See Trầ n Huy Liệ u (1991), Hồ i ký , Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã Hộ i, pp. 167-217.
literature, which they had just found at random because of their lack of material
sources; (ii) to continue to affirm its pre-eminence, with a tendency to develop the new
literature which they called popular, progressive or proletarian, and in 1936, social
realistic literature; (iii) to continue to condemn, and even smear, not only debaters but
also petty bourgeois writers and contemporary romantic literature in general.
Thiế u Sơ n almost refused to participate in the debate, probably because he
understood quite early the Marxist writers' political device. Hoài Thanh also withdrew
rapidly after some altercations. In “Nhà viế t tiể u thuyế t” (The Novelist) published in
Tiể u thuyế t Thứ Bả y (Saturday Fiction), no. 73, October 19, 1935, Thiế u Sơ n declared
that he had not read the article entitled “Nghệ thuậ t vị nghệ thuậ t hay nghệ thuậ t vị
nhân sinh” (Art for art's sake or art for human life's sake) in which Hả i Triề u strongly
criticized him. 49 It seems that he did not bother to find that article. Afterwards he wrote
an article entitled “Câu chuyệ n vă n chươ ng tả chân chủ nghĩ a” (Stories of realist
literature) as a general introduction to a literary movement in the West. 50 Thus it is
hard to accept the claim of some researchers that Thiế u Sơ n “struggled heatedly and
persistently against the art for human life's sake side... and was determined to defend
his view in newspapers at that time”, as a critic has remarked. 51 Hoài Thanh first
enthusiastically took part in the debate but this did not last long. On 29 October, two
months after writing the article “Vă n chươ ng là vă n chươ ng” (Literature is Literature) -
which was published in Tràng An on 15 August 1935 - declaring war on Hả i Triề u and
his vulgar literary viewpoint, Hoài Thanh announced that he had brought the battle to
an end. Nevertheless, because he was labelled and smeared most rudely, he later wrote
another article entitled “Mộ t lờ i vu cáo đê hèn” (A vicious calumny) in Tràng An on 3
December 1935 and then stopped participating in the debate. He then began writing
49 Thiế u Sơ n, “Nhà viế t tiể u thuyế t”, Tiể u thuyế t Thứ Bả y, no. 73 (19 October 1935), p. 417, reprinted in
Nguyễ n Ngọ c Thiệ n, Nguyễ n Thị Kiề u Oanh and Phạ m Hồ ng Toàn (eds.) (1997), Tuyể n tậ p
phê bình, nghiên cứ u vă n họ c Việ t Nam (1900-1945), vol. 2, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, pp. 346-9.
50 Thiế u Sơ n, “Câu chuyệ n vă n chươ ng tả chân chủ nghĩ a”, Tiể u thuyế t Thứ Bả y, no. 77 (16 November
1935), reprinted in Nguyễ n Ngọ c Thiệ n et al. (eds.) (1997), op. cit., pp. 350-2.
51 Trầ n Thị Việ t Trung, “Thiế u Sơ n và công trình phê bình lý luậ n đầ u tiên trong vă n họ c Việ t Nam
hiệ n đạ i: Phê bình và Cả o luậ n”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c (Hanoi), no. 6 (1992), p. 30.
books in order to be able to express all his ideas and not to be misunderstood. 52 Thus
Hoài Thanh participated in the polemic merely for four months.
Throughout 1936 and the first half of 1939, the debate continued between Lư u
Trọ ng Lư , Lê Tràng Kiề u and Lan Khai, who were considered as representatives of the
pure art side, and Hả i Triề u together with Marxist and Trotskyist writers. However, the
debate gradually inclined towards politics and its literary merits faded away.
There were thus no winners or losers in this monologue of a debate. However,
to the extent of what they sought to achieve, the Marxist writers were more or less
successful. First of all, they succeeded in stirring public opinion to such an extent that
their presence came to be noticed by the general public: many writers made their
names because of the fact that they had participated in the polemic and not because of
their works. Furthermore, because of the debate, they had a great opportunity to
propagate Marxist views on literature as well as Marxism in general.
Of Marxist participants in the debate, Hả i Triề u, although later seen by his
comrades as “not always a profound thinker”, 53 or “with respect to theory, ... a writer
who still had many shortcomings”, 54 was anyway one of the most outstanding Marxist
literary theorists and critics of the 1930s. He had two marked characteristics: great
fondness for argument and great interest in literature. In 1933, he himself started the
debate on idealism and materialism in newspapers, mainly with Phan Khôi. 55 In his
52 Hoài Thanh (1982), op. cit., p. 259.
53 Hoàng Trung Thông, “Hả i Triề u, ngườ i đấ u tranh cho quan điể m vă n nghệ mác xít”, Sông Hươ ng ,
no. 16 (December 1985), p. 62.
54 Phong Lê (1980), Vă n xuôi Việ t Nam trên con đuờ ng hiệ n thự c xã hộ i chủ nghĩ a , Hanoi: Nxb Khoa
Họ c Xã Hộ i, pp. 17-18.
55 See Trầ n Vă n Giàu (1988), Triế t họ c và tư tưở ng , Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb Thành phố HCM, pp. 431-
8; and Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 10-77.
will, written in 1954, he expressed his passion for literature and admitted that all his
life he “fought for revolutionary art and literature”. 56
Before that debate broke out, Hả i Triề u wrote two articles on art and literature:
“Sự tiế n hoá củ a vă n họ c và sự tiế n hoá củ a nhân sinh” (The evolution of literature and
human life) 57 and “Cụ Sào Nam giả i thích chữ vă n họ c thế là sai lắ m” (Mr Sao Nam's
explanation of the word ‘literature’ is very incorrect), which were published in Đ ông
Phươ ng in August and November 1933. 58
In the first article, it was the first time that Hả i Triề u had used dialectic
materialism to explain the relationship between literature and politics. Starting from the
assumption that literature belonged to the superstructure and was affected by the base,
Hả i Triề u advocated the view that: (i) literature develops in accordance with the
evolutionary trend of society; (ii) each economic system has its own literature, which
propagates and defends that system in ideological terms; (iii) the relationship between
literature and economics must become the criterion for evaluating literature: literature
must be considered as backward and reactionary if it tries to maintain an old and
outdated economic system, and, correspondingly, it must be regarded as progressive
and revolutionary if it keeps pace with economic changes.
Moreover, Hả i Triề u believed that romanticism, which came into being as a
weapon of the serf and burgher classes to struggle against the aristocracy and the
clergy, was valued as positive, rational and free at that juncture. 59 But in the middle of
the nineteenth century, a new social class had emerged: the proletariat. A proletarian
literature appeared and developed, replacing romanticism, which then became
reactionary because it was determined to defend the decadent existing system.
56 Hả i Triề u (1969), Về vă n họ c nghệ thuậ t (second edition), Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 102.
57 Hả i Triề u (1983), Về vă n họ c nghệ thuậ t , third edition, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, pp. 40-8.
58 Ibid., pp. 49-54.
59 Ibid., p. 46.
Hả i Triề u did not say anything more about proletarian literature. He merely
focused on criticizing the current romantic literature and its ‘allies’ such as naturalism,
symbolism and aestheticism, which he lumped together as frivolous. He especially
lashed out at the defenders of pure art, whom he considered to be very popular in
Vietnam with their policy of “putting literature out of Man's evolutionary process”. 60
Hả i Triề u’s second article aimed at discussing the meaning of the word
‘literature’ with Phan Bộ i Châu. In an article “So sánh vă n họ c Ðông Phươ ng vớ i Tây
phươ ng” (A comparison between Eastern and Western literatures), based on the
traditional Chinese concept of literature (“wen” in Chinese), Phan Bộ i Châu stated that
“wen”, which in Chinese originally meant “criss-cross lines”, and then, “aesthetic
pattern”, consisted of three categories: “sky patterns” (thiên vă n), “earth patterns” (đị a
vă n) and “human patterns” (nhân vă n). Literature (wen) belonged to “human patterns”
(“ren wen” in Chinese), and was therefore a part of the orderly cosmos, a realization
through which the natural order of things becomes visible and known, so that doing
literature meant following the natural cosmos (“sky patterns” and “earth patterns”).
According to Hả i Triề u, Phan Bộ i Châu’s viewpoint was not only idealistic and
incorrect but also dangerous. Literature was a reflection of reality, a representation of
human life and not a mere imitation of nature. Stating that literature originates from
nature meant advocating that literature was divorced from life and should not be held
responsible for it. And this was a manifestation of the pure art doctrine. 61
The most oft-quoted author in Hả i Triề u’s two articles was Plekhanov (1857-
1918), the first Russian Marxist of any importance, who introduced the term
‘dialectical materialism’. According to Trầ n Vă n Giàu, Plekhanov's work Art and
Social Activities , in the French translation, was imported and circulated in Vietnam in
the early 1930s, especially in the two large cities of Saigon and Hanoi. 62 However,
during that period, Hả i Triề u’s ability to understand literary theory was probably very
60 Hả i Triề u (1969), op. cit., p. 14.
61 Ibid., pp. 48-52.
62 Trầ n Vă n Giàu (1988), op. cit., p. 440.
limited. For example, he claimed that Romanticism was the literature of the serf and
burgher classes 63 and “literature should be deeply and directly affected by social
economy”. 64 Hả i Triề u’s first mistake was corrected a few months later: “Romanticism
is a kind of literature of the capitalist class.” 65 His second mistake lasted much longer.
Two years later, in his article “Nghệ thuậ t vị nghệ thuậ t hay nghệ thuậ t vị nhân sinh”
(Art for art's sake or art for human life's sake), Hả i Triề u became more cautious and
tried to correct himself: “economic activities directly or indirectly affect literature”. 66
Nevertheless, since 1933, Hả i Triề u had learnt from Plekhanov at least two things: the
dialectical materialistic view of literature and resentment towards the pure art doctrine.
Apart from Plekhanov, Hả i Triề u was later influenced by Guo Moruo (1892-
1978) and Chen Duxiu (1979-1942), two Marxist scholars and outstanding writers of
the 1919 May Fourth movement in China, by Tolstoy through his book What Is Art?
and more especially by Bukharin (1888-1938), Romain Rolland (1866-1944) and
Maxim Gorky (1868-1936). Moreover, like most members of the Vietnamese
intelligentsia at that time, it was hard for Hả i Triề u not to fall under André Gide's
influence, particularly when Gide had not officially raised his voice to criticize
communism in his Retour de l'URSS (Return from the USSR) (1936). During the first
period of the debate, sometimes Hả i Triề u or a certain writer on his side would write to
Gide to ask his opinion, but in his reply Gide tended to incline towards the pure art
From the very beginning of the debate, Hả i Triề u maintained that he took the
same standpoint as the materialists.
The materialists base their rationale on the physical activities and economic
63 Hả i Triề u (1969), op. cit., p. 16.
64 Ibid., pp. 13-4.
65 Ibid., p. 50.
66 Ibid., pp. 23-38.
67 Hoài Thanh (1982), op. cit., p. 259.
changes within society to explain past and present art trends, from their causes to
their development and destruction. These trends can only be correctly explained
from the materialistic standpoint. 68
Combining Bukharin's and Tolstoy's views, Hả i Triề u stated that “art socializes
human feelings and then transmits those feelings to humanity; therefore its origin is in
society and its end is also in society.” 69 Thus literature and art, from their essence, were
the products of society or, in Guo Moruo's words, quoted in Hả i Triề u, “a mere
expression of human nature”. 70 A genuine literature was always for human life's sake.
The writers' task was “systematizing feelings [of society], clearly distinguishing and
expressing them in words”. 71 Even when writers only focused on expressing their ego,
they also expressed human life because “their ego is only a product of innumerable
social egos”. 72 However, the value of the works which inclined towards the ‘I’ was
often not high. “The more an art or aesthetic achievement expresses clearly social
characters, the more it is of great value.” 73
Nevertheless, as human social history always evolves, “the value of art is
relative and limited because a work may be of great value for a certain class, in a
certain age or country, but it can be worthless for another class, in an other age or
country.” 74 According to Hả i Triề u, “the value of an artistic or literary work depends
on the needs and fads of each class at each time and place”. 75 Hả i Triề u did not explain
why he was still very fond of, and sometimes quoted from, Homer's ancient works, and
Rousseau's, Diderot's and Montesquieu's eighteenth-century French works. Probably he
68 Hả i Triề u (1969), op. cit., p. 39.
69 Ibid., p. 20.
70 Ibid., p. 23.
71 Ibid., p. 33.
72 Ibid., p. 34.
73 Ibid., p. 34.
74 Ibid., p. 34.
75 Ibid., p. 35.
had not read Marx's introduction in the Economic Manuscripts of 1857-58 and did not
know that the founder of historical and dialectical materialism had a more flexible and
accurate view: after thousands of years, Greek art and epics still attracted many
admirers as they provided models which were very hard to surpass.
Later, although Hả i Triề u still used the expression ‘for human life's sake’, his
pro-class stand became clearer. Literature was no more a human life manifestation but
rather a class manifestation. “The literature of an era is only a reflection of class
struggle. Each trend in literature and art is only an interpretation of feelings and
thoughts prevalent in a certain social class.” 76
The term ‘socialist realism’ appeared for the first time in a speech of 20 May
1932 by Ivan Gronsky, chairperson of the Organizing Committee of the Union of
Writers, then in process of formation. Gronsky spoke to leading writers in Moscow:
“The basic demand that we make on the writer is: write the truth, portray truthfully our
reality that is in itself dialectic. Therefore the basic method of Soviet literature is the
method of socialist realism.” 77 This statement was quoted in the Literary Gazette three
days later and became well known among Moscow’s literary circle. Three months
later, this term was used by Stalin at a meeting with several writers in Maxim Gorky’s
apartment. However, socialist realism as a doctrine was only promulgated at the first
Congress of Soviet Writers by Andrei Zhdanov (1888-1948), a member of the Political
Bureau of the Party’s Central Committee, who was entrusted with leadership of
propaganda and agitational work. Zhdanov declared:
Comrade Stalin has called our writers, “engineers of the human soul”. What does
this mean? What obligations does such an appellation put upon you?
It means, in the first place, that you must know life to be able to depict it truthfully
in artistic creations, to depict it neither “scholastically” nor lifelessly, nor simply
as “objective reality”, but rather as reality in its revolutionary development. The
truthfulness and historical exactitude of the artistic image must be linked with the
76 Ibid., p. 42.
77 Herman Ermolaev (1977), Soviet Literary Theories 1917-1934: The Genesis of Socialist Realism , New
York: Octagon Books, p. 144.
task of ideological transformation, of the education of the working people in the
spirit of socialism. This method in fiction and literary criticism is what we call the
method of socialist realism. 78
Attending this Congress, there were a number of “international guests”,
including several French communist or leftist writers such as Louis Aragon, Elsa
Triolet, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, and André Gide. While Gide, Rolland,
Barbusse and others voiced objections to the doctrine of socialist realism, Louis
Aragon firmly believed that this doctrine could be imported into France. 79 Returning to
France, Aragon became the most frequent commentor on, and practitioner of, socialist
realism. He published accounts of the Moscow Congress and a number of articles on
the subject of socialist realism in Commune and European journals. 80 In addition to
these, at the end of 1934, he published a novel, Les Cloches de Bâle , which was
unquestionably inspired by socialist realism. In the following year, he published a
collection of lectures, Pour un réalisme socialiste , in which he outlined the main
principles of socialist realism for a French audience. It can be guessed that some, if not
all, of these works, written in French and published in France, were sent to Vietnam.
This is a reason why, just one year later, the term “socialist realism” appeared in Hả i
Triề u’s article on Kép Tư Bề n . 81 In the following year, in his article on Maxim Gorky,
Hả i Triề u gave a definition of socialist realism which was clearly copied from
Zhdanow’s statement: “Socialist realism essentially aims to depict honestly and clearly
past and present phenomena, so that these descriptions of reality can lead the masses to
enlightenment and to the struggle to build socialism.” 82 He also saw the difference
between social realism and nineteenth-century critical realism in Europe: the former
was inclined to assertion and positiveness whereas the latter stopped at the level of
78 A.A. Zhdanov (1950), On Literature, Music and Philosophy , London: Lawrence and Wishart, p. 15.
79 Angela Kimyongur (1995), Socialist Realism in Louis Aragon’s Le Monde Réel , Elloughton: The
University of Hull, p. 5.
81 Hả i Triề u (1969), op. cit., p. 56.
82 Ibid., p. 77.
accusation and complaint. 83 In the social realistic works, a new character was given
considerable prominence: the workers. “When the heroes and genuine creators of new
life play key roles in literary and artistic works, literature becomes up-to-date.” 84
It seems that Hả i Triề u read Marx and Engels' ideas on art and literature quite
late. It was not until 1939, in his article “Đ i tớ i chủ nghĩ a tả thự c trong vă n chươ ng:
nhữ ng khuynh huớ ng trong tiể u thuyế t” (To reach realism in literature: trends in
novels) that he mentioned ‘tendentiousness’ in literature for the first time. This was
understandable. Although both Marx and Engels displayed a great love for literature
and made extensive use of the treasures of world literature in their own work, they, in
René Wellek's words, “were not literary critics by profession”. 85 They neither devoted
any particular work exclusively to literature and art, nor attempted to build a
comprehensive system of literary theory. Their ideas on those issues were scattered in
their different writings, especially in letters to friends. What we now call the Marxist
literary theory was first formulated by Franz Mehring (1846-1919) and Georgi V.
Plekhanov (1856-1918), 86 and the first brief anthology of Marx's and Engels's casual
pronouncements on the subject in German was not published until 1933, edited by M.
Lifshitz and F.P. Schiller, 87 and in French in 1936, edited by Jean Fréville. 88 According
to Vietnamese historians, the work of Jean Fréville was circulated in Vietnam by the
end of the 1930s. 89 Undoubtedly Hả i Triề u read this book, and as a result of this, his
83 Hả i Triề u, “Vă n họ c Liên bang Nga Xô Viế t”, Hồ n Trẻ , no. 8 (25 July 1935), quoted in Hồ ng
Chươ ng, “Hả i Triề u, mộ t nhà lý luậ n phê bình xuấ t sắ c”, Thép Mớ i , no. 1 (10 October 1949),
reprinted in Vă n họ c Việ t Nam sau Cách mạ ng tháng Tám, Tiể u luậ n và phê bình , Vă n Họ c,
Hanoi, 1993, p. 64.
84 Ibid., p. 65.
85 René Wellek (1966), A History of Modern Criticism: 1750 - 1950 , vol. 3 (The Age of Transition),
London: Jonathan Cape, p. 233.
86 T. Battomre (ed.) (1991), A Dictionary of Marxist Thought , Cambridge: Blackwell, pp. 317-318.
88 Jean Fréville (ed.) (1936), Les grands texts du marxisme sur la littérature et l'art , Paris: Editions
89 See Phan Cự Đệ , “Ả nh hưở ng củ a tư tưở ng mác xít và sự phát triể n củ a vă n xuôi hiệ n thự c phê phán
Việ t Nam 1930-1945”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c (Hanoi), no. 6 (1982), pp. 61-70; and Hả i Triề u
view became less rigid. He paid attention not only to the content but also to the artistic
aspect of literary works. Echoing Engels, he wrote:
... socialist realism always recognizes that each work has a tendency, but it strives
to avoid subjective, arbitrary, mechanistic tendencies, fixed thoughts and
immutable creeds that writers awkwardly assemble in their stories... A work is
interesting (I use the word ‘interesting’ in its relative sense) not only because it is
to the contemporary taste of readers, but also because the way the author arranges
the landscape and feelings is secretive and attractive. His view is expressed by
main and minor characters' activities as well as the arrangement and the end of the
work and he does not need to declare it. 90
Also thanks to Engels, Hả i Triề u’s attitude towards Balzac was more generous
and reasonable. In 1936, when comparing Balzac and Zola with Gorky, he contended
that Balzac's and Zola's works “aim to patch up the ragged coat of the wealthy and save
the corrupt capitalist regime”. 91 In 1939, Hả i Triề u realized that, even though writing
between the two rays of light of monarchy and religion, in his Human Comedy , Balzac
“described all the vileness and depravity of the society in which he was living”.
Therefore, Balzac was hailed as the greatest realist writer of humanity. 92 Hả i Triề u here
paraphrased what Engels wrote in his famous letter to Miss Harkness in 1888:
Balzac was politically a Legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the
irretrievable decay of good society, his sympathies are all with the class doomed
to extinction. But for all that his satire is never keener, his irony never more bitter,
than when he sets in motion the very men and women with whom he sympathizes
most deeply - the nobles. [...]. That Balzac thus was compelled to go against his
own class sympathies and political prejudices, [...] that I consider the greatest
triumphs of Realism and one of the grandest features in old Balzac. 93
(1969), op. cit., p. 65.
90 Hả i Triề u (1969), op. cit., p. 65.
91 Ibid., p.72
92 Ibid., p. 66.
93 Marx and Engels (1978), On Literature and Art , Moscow: Progress Publishers, pp. 91-92.
In paraphrasing Engels, Hả i Triề u did not know that Engels himself had
reproduced Emile Zola's argument. In his article “Le naturalisme” published in 1882,
Zola (1840-1902) wrote that Balzac “could openly profess Catholic and monarchical
opinions, while his work is nevertheless scientific and democratic, in the broad sense
of the word.” 94 René Wellek believes that “Engels must have known these passages (or
some of them) when he wrote his famous letter to Miss Harkness,” 95 and he comments:
“It seems a quirk of history that Zola's idea has become a standard doctrine of Marxist
criticism while Zola's naturalism is condemned by authoritative Marxist critics.” 96
As a theorist, Hả i Triề u was handicapped by the lack of a wide knowledge base,
and as a critic, he lacked sensitive perception. This rendered him a polemicist more
than a theorist or a critic. Indeed, during the polemic that raged in Vietnam during the
nineteen-thirties and forties, his writings displayed a sense of uncertainty and a lack of
authority when dealing with any specific literary work. All of what he called
‘masterpieces’ are now completely forgotten. The two novels which he considered as
pioneer works of socialist realist trends in Vietnam, Kép Tư Bề n and Lầ m than, are
indeed ‘para-realistic’ in the sense that both depicted pauperism in society with a
romantic inspiration. This misconception was generally explained by the fact that Hả i
Triề u “does not have the opportunity to be based on the reality of revolutionary
literature or use critical realist literature as a basis”. 97
As a polemicist and a pioneer in introducing Marxist literary theory to Vietnam,
Hả i Triề u was a non-Zhdanoized Marxist. Compared with the paucity of the new
Soviet material on matters relating to the art and literature which was translated into
French after the establishment of the Union of Soviet Writers, the amount Hả i Triề u
94 Quoted in René Wellek (1965), A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950 , vol. 4 (The Late 19th
Century), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 18.
97 Phong Lê (1980), op. cit., p. 17. See further Phan Trọ ng Thưở ng, “Sự phát triể n củ a tư tưở ng lý luậ n
vă n nghệ mác xít từ thờ i Mặ t trậ n Dân chủ đế n Đề cươ ng vă n hoá”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c (Hanoi),
no. 6 (1993), pp. 3-5.
could have read must have been much smaller. He did not know the basic requirements
of socialist realist works such as truthfulness and historical concreteness when
depicting reality in its process of revolutionary development. Moreover, he did not
grasp extremely important concepts in socialist realism as it developed under Stalin
such as party-mindedness (partiinost), mass-mindedness (naródnost), and class-
mindedness (klássovost). 98 Hả i Triề u’s knowledge of Marxist literary theory was
mainly gained from certain works by Plekhanov, Bukharin and Engels. These theories
were illustrated by the lives and works of some writers including Maxim Gorky,
Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse (1873-1935), and even André Gide, over a long
period of time. Perhaps Hả i Triề u did not read all the works of these authors. However,
the most important thing is that none of these authors, including Engels, was very
dogmatic. All advocated that (i) literature and art should be closely connected with
social, economic and political conditions; and (ii) literature and art should be a weapon
of political struggle; but all agreed that (iii) literature and art had relative
characteristics of autonomy. Furthermore, all of Hả i Triề u’s material - wherever they
derived from - were French versions. This is very important, because the speeches on
literature, art and music by Zhdanov, the Minister of Culture under Stalin and the
person notorious for his extremism and ruthlessness, were not translated into French
until 1948, when they opened a period of increased dogmatism in the literary thoughts
of French Marxist intellectuals. 99 Because of all these factors, Hả i Triề u, although
mainly a copyist, became much more broad-minded.
The debate about art and literature ended suddenly in the middle of 1939, when
the Second World War broke out, and the French colonial authorities tightened up their
censorship policy and conducted a campaign to repress Vietnamese revolutionary
98 See A. Tertz (1960), On Socialist Realism , New York: Pantheon Books; C. V. James (1973), Soviet
Socialist Realism, Origin and Theory , London: Macmillan; Porter, R. (1988), “Soviet
Perspectives on Socialist Realism”, in M. Seriven and D. Tate (eds.) (1988), European Socialist
Realism , Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 49-59.
99 J. E. Flower, “Socialist Realism without a Socialist Revolution: the French Experience”, in M.
Seriven and D. Tate (eds.) (1988), op. cit., pp. 99-110.
parties. As a result, Marxist writers were either arrested or forced to engage in
Interestingly, the closing article of the debate was an article on Karl Marx
written by an unacknowledged foreign writer in which Marx was highly commended
for his passion and wide knowledge of literature as well as for his liberal views. He
liked reading writers of different trends: from Aeschylus and Cervantes to
Shakespeare, Balzac and Walter Scott. The translator of this article was Lư u Trọ ng Lư ,
a defender of pure art. 100
Certainly, when translating that article, Lư u Trọ ng Lư , by praising Marx, aimed
to direct numerous reproaches at banal Marxists in Vietnam, who “hold narrow views
on literature.” 101
Lư u Trọ ng Lư pointed out that narrow-mindedness was the basic shortcoming
of the Marxist writers in Vietnam. It may be said that this was also a common
assessment by writers in general at the time: some, implicitly or explicitly, opposed the
view that considered literature to be a weapon of class struggle; others disagreed with
the way the problem was raised, for the controversy itself was considered to be narrow-
minded, and the participants’ ensuing choice of either side or the other was deemed to
be even more narrow-minded. The Tự Lự c Literary Group's attitude was very typical:
they did not participate in the debate from the beginning to the end, sometimes relating
sneeringly some events of the debate, always accompanying them with cartoons and
captions such as: “We were informed that Hoài Thanh, Hả i Triề u etc. are falling into a
very dangerous ditch, which is the ditch of ‘art for art's sake’ or ‘art for human’s sake’”
or “The latest news that we have received is that Hoài Thanh, Hả i Triề u etc... are
bickering in the ditch of ‘art for art's sake’ and cannot climb out.” 102
100 Lư u Trọ ng Lư , “Cái khiế u vă n chươ ng củ a Karl Marx”, Tao Đ àn, no. 8 (16 June1939), reprinted in
Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 197-199.
101 Quoted in Thanh Lãng (1973), ibid., p. 197.
102 Ibid., pp. 149-150.
The significance of the debate, therefore, was not great. Phan Cự Đệ ’s assertion
that the debate “initially rolls back the influences of passive, aimless and romantic
literature, and encourages critical realistic literature” must be regarded as an
exaggeration. 103 In fact, the literary situation since 1939, the final year of the debate,
proved the contrary: critical realistic literature was breathing its dying breath, while
romantic literature was not only developing strongly but also tending to choose the
pure art path, because the Xuân Thu Nhã Tậ p Group had come into being, with its
poetic style more or less consisting of the symbolic characteristics of Hàn Mặ c Tử and
Bích Khê or the decadent features of Vũ Hoàng Chươ ng and Đ inh Hùng, with a new
source of inspiration inclining towards religion or the metaphysical world in Huy Cậ n’s
and Chế Lan Viên’s poetry. Along with all this there was the fact that Khái Hư ng and
Nhấ t Linh abandoned the "roman à thèse" and delved into psychological novels, and
the appearance of Nguyễ n Tuân, an outstanding but totally self-centered essayist who
only liked ‘to play his own solo instrument’. 104
It appears that the debate had two remarkable effects. Firstly, it encouraged and
incited writers to delve into theoretical issues on literature, which was a new and
attractive domain. While in the early 1930s writers and poets merely created
spontaneously, without much theoretical awareness, from 1938 onwards they started
becoming self-conscious of their writing task. Many manifesto-like poems and short
stories in which the authors introduced their aesthetic and social views came into
being. Critics did not base their praise and criticism merely on their own feelings, but
rather they began to base their stand on certain positions or methods they had learnt
from French literature. For example, Hoài Thanh and Hoài Chân, in their Thi nhân Việ t
Nam (Vietnamese Poets), published in 1942, used the expressionist approach of Jules
Lemaitre (1853-1914), and particularly that of Anatole France (1844-1924), who had
followed Renan's skepticism and dilettantism and expressed complete relativism in
literary appreciation and interpretation by arguing that aesthetics is delusion, that a
103 Phan Cự Đệ , Hà Vă n Đứ c and Nguyễ n Hoành Khung (1988), Vă n họ c Việ t Nam 1930-45 , vol. 1,
Hanoi: Nxb Đạ i Họ c và Trung Họ c Chuyên Nghiệ p, p. 53.
104 Nguyễ n Tuân (1981), Tuyể n tậ p , vol. 1, Hanoi: Vă n Họ c, p. 269.
work of art always changes with the eyes that see it, and that “the good critic tells the
adventures of his soul among masterpieces”. 105 Dươ ng Quả ng Hàm, Trầ n Thanh Mạ i,
Nguyễ n Đổ ng Chi and Lê Thanh adopted ‘la critique de l'université’ of Ferdinand
Brunetière (1849-1906) and Gustave Lanson (1857-1934), a method involving a
scrupulous and disciplined study of sources, chronology and bibliography. In 1939,
Thạ ch Lam started his series of articles on literature which were later assembled in
Theo dòng . Trươ ng Tử u was initially a mediocre novelist and a superficial critic in the
1930s, but he became an outstanding and original critic in the 1940s, using his pen
name Nguyễ n Bách Khoa, since he concentrated on researching Western theories and
approaches to criticism.
Marxist writers generally continued to delve into their views, and in 1944 Đặ ng
Thai Mai completed and published the first Vietnamese literary theoretical book
entitled Vă n họ c khái luậ n (An Outline of Literature).
The second effect of this debate is that, through it, some basic theoretical points
of socialist realism and particularly of Russian and Soviet literatures, were first
introduced to Vietnamese readers. This was very important because Vietnamese artists,
writers and intellectuals generally knew only Chinese, French and a little of English
literature. In the 1930s, as a result of Gide's warm introduction, they became
acquainted with two colossi of Russian literature: Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. 106 Of these
two writers, Dostoevsky had a great impact on Nhấ t Linh, Nguyên Hồ ng and other
Vietnamese writers, and was highly valued by Thạ ch Lam as “the most worthy novelist
of the century”. 107 Soviet literature was gradually noticed because of sporadic
quotations from Marxist writings and especially because of Hả i Triề u’s two articles. 108
105 René Wellek (1965), op. cit., p. 24.
106 See André Gide (1967), Dostoevsky (with an introduction by Arnold Bennett), Harmondsworth:
Penguin. (First published in Paris in 1923.)
107 Thạ ch Lam (1968), Theo dòng , Saigon: Ðờ i Nay, p. 71.
108 The article “Maxim Gorky, nhà đạ i vă n hào củ a Liên bang Xô Viế t và củ a thế giớ i đã qua đờ i”,
published in Hồ n Trẻ magazine, no. 5 (4 July 1936), reprinted in Hả i Triề u (1969), op. cit., pp.
68-78; and the article “Vă n họ c Liên bang Nga Xô Viế t” (co-author by Hả i Thanh), in Hồ n Trẻ
The first Soviet writer whose works were translated into Vietnamese was
Maxim Gorky: in 1936, Vũ Ngọ c Phan translated a part of the novel Childhood, which
was published in the French-Vietnamese magazine on the day Gorky passed away. In
1938, Nguyễ n Thườ ng Khanh (1917-47) finished his translation of the novel Mother,
which was published in the following year in Dân Mớ i magazine, continuing until this
magazine was closed down. The impression of those contacts lingered in Vietnamese
hearts. After the 1945 August Revolution, the first books translated into Vietnamese
included some Gorky translations: Cultural Chieftains (Các ông trùm vă n hoá) and
Torments (Dằ n vặ t). After 1954, in North Vietnam, the first translation of the
Vietnamese Writers Association’s Publishing House was also Gorky's work: Selected
Short Stories (Tuyể n tậ p truyệ n ngắ n) (1957). Gorky's Mother (Ngườ i mẹ ) was
translated into Vietnamese by four translators: Nguyễ n Thườ ng Khanh, Thiề u Phụ ng,
Lê Tam and Phan Thao.
However, the effects of these writers should not be exaggerated. Certainly, only
a few people followed the debate. Several years later, in Vă n họ c khái luậ n (An Outline
of Literary Theory), Đặ ng Thai Mai reminisced about the debate as follows: “our
people are still very indifferent”. 109 The most important reason was that nearly all
newspapers which inserted the polemic articles were minor journals which circulated
only in one region and did not have many readers. Six months after Hả i Triề u had
criticized Thiế u Sơ n bitterly in his article entitled “Art for art sake or art for human
life's sake”, published in Đờ i Mớ i in March 1935, Thiế u Sơ n did not know anything
about it. 110 This shows that the circulation of Đờ i Mớ i was very limited and that this
newspaper had no serious repercussions on the inquisitive section of Vietnamese
society at that time. Moreover, it was very hard for people who followed the debate to
sympathize with Marxist writers, especially because they gave the impression of being
too ‘xenophile’ by, on the one hand, extolling foreign writers such as Maxim Gorky,
Romain Rolland and Henry Barbusse, and on the other hand, disparaging and slighting,
magazine, no. 8 (25 July 1936).
109 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), Vă n họ c khái luậ n , Hanoi: Liên Hiệ p, p. 34.
110 Thanh Lãng (1973), op. cit., pp. 124-5.
sometimes ruthlessly, Vietnamese writers including Nguyễ n Du (1766-1820), the
national icon and pride. This was such a serious shortcoming of the Vietnamese
Communist Party at that time that in 1939, at a conference of the Communist Party's
Central Committee, they realized their mistake and changed their main fighting slogan
from class struggle to national liberation. 111
111 See Huỳ nh Kim Khánh (1982), Vietnamese Communism 1925-45 , Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
pp. 251-2, and Tonnesson, S. (1991), The Vietnamese Revolution of 1945 , London: Sage
Publications, p. 115.
The First Marxist Theorists and Critics:
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa and Ðặ ng Thai Mai
While Hả i Triề u (1908-54) was the first writer to introduce Marxist literary
theory to Vietnam, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa (real name Trươ ng Tử u, 1908-2002) was the
first critic to apply this theory to interpret specific works and evaluate specific authors;
and Ðặ ng Thai Mai (1902-84) was the first scholar to develop it, in a monograph which
was hailed as the first work of literary theory written in Vietnamese.
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa, the First Marxist Critic
Surpassing Hả i Triề u in knowledge, and Ðặ ng Thai Mai in talent, Nguyễ n Bách
Khoa was such an original and professional writer that even his opponents admitted:
“If literature is only an original thing, Trươ ng Tử u is an original writer. He is
distinguishable from other writers.” 1 Being the first to free himself from criticism
based on feeling and the first to rely on a relatively systematic literary theory, Nguyễ n
Bách Khoa “opened a new era of criticism in Vietnam”. 2 Besides, his highly
sophisticated style was extraordinarily attractive. Many of his works, “especially since
1947, have become bed-side books for the younger generation. At schools, teachers as
well as students echoed Nguyễ n Bách Khoa when criticizing. This movement spreads
like wildfire”. 3 Even now, his works continue to have a strong impact on a wide range
1 Hoài Thanh (1958), “Thự c chấ t củ a tư tưở ng Trươ ng Tử u”, Vă n Nghệ (Hanoi), no. 11 (April 1958), p.
2 Thanh Lãng (1973), Phê bình vă n họ c thế hệ 1932 , Saigon: Phong trào vă n hoá, p. 389.
3 Ibid., p. 395
of people, especially among the old. Since 1975, some of his books have been
reprinted many times by Vietnamese refugees living overseas.
However, it should be stressed that Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was not recognized as a
Marxist by everybody. All literary researchers in South Vietnam prior to 1975 regarded
him not only as a Marxist critic but also as one of the most eminent representatives of
Marxist trends in Vietnamese literary criticism; in the North, under the communist
regime, especially after the Nhân Vă n - Giai Phẩ m affair (1956), he was condemned as
a pseudo-Marxist, a mechanical materialist and a vulgar sociologist. This phenomenon
may be attributed to two main causes: first, some political issues relating to his life,
and second, the complexity of his works.
Prior to the August Revolution of 1945, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa had not been
involved in any political activities, but his thoughts were tending towards Trotskyism
rather than Bolshevism. During the period of 1941 to 1945, he founded both the Vă n
Mớ i journal and the Hàn Thuyên group, which consisted of many socialist writers,
most of whom were Trotskyists. Moreover, he often opposed the Vietnamese
Communist Party's cultural policy. While Trườ ng Chinh, the Secretary General of the
Vietnamese Communist Party, put forward three principles for the new culture,
“national, popular and scientific”, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa advocated four other factors:
revolution, the masses, socialism and science. 4 While the Communist Party strove to
gather writers into the ranks led by the Party, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa kept repeating Gide's
statement advising writers to “spread unsubmissive and rebellious enzymes widely into
people's minds”. 5 While the Communist Party tried to propagate their first achievement
of revolutionary literature, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa assessed straightforwardly: “From the
previous autumn to this autumn, the Revolution has reaped good harvests, whereas
literature has gathered bad crops.” 6 His provocative attitude towards the Communist
Party only stopped when the anti-French resistance broke out in December 1946.
4 Quoted in Hoài Thanh (1958), op. cit., p. 19.
5 Ibid., p. 18.
6 Ibid., p. 19.
However, after the 1954 Geneva Agreements, in the Nhân Vă n - Giai Phẩ m affair he
urged the Communist Party to respect freedom and democracy, to stop regarding arts
as the “bond maiden” of politics. As a result of this, together with many other writers,
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was stripped by the Party of his right to write. 7 All his literary
achievements were obliterated as he was considered reactionary and a betrayer of the
Party. No literary document published after 1957 in North Vietnam mentioned him as a
critic or writer.
Moreover, the literary thoughts of Nguyễ n Bách Khoa prior to 1945 were quite
complex and unstable. They were like a journey full of experiments and adventures.
Before becoming a Marxist literary critic, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa tried to apply different
approaches such as sociology and psychoanalysis to literary study. Focusing merely on
his first works, his opponents could pick up innumerable specific items of evidence
condemning him as an idealist or a mechanical materialist, or even, according to Lê
Đ ình Kỵ , an orthodox Marxist critic, as a “vulgar and foolish” sociologist. 8 However,
in so doing, these critics were unfair, for two reasons. Firstly, they attempted to ignore
the many research achievements in which Nguyễ n Bách Khoa had skillfully applied
purely dialectical materialistic viewpoints. Secondly, they denied the fact that even
when Nguyễ n Bách Khoa mixed Marxism with psychoanalysis or sociology, the
Marxist view was still the major point.
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa had certain characteristics which brought many political
disasters to his life: a fondness for inquiry and a frequently changing mood. Within just
a few months his way of evaluating a specific literary event might completely change.
He liked venturing into new domains. Under his real name, Trươ ng Tử u, he began
participating in literary circles in the 1930s with a series of critical writings published
in the Loa newspaper, whose editor-in-chief was Lan Khai. He was unsuccessful for a
7 The Nhân Vă n – Giai Phẩ m affair will be discussed in Chapter Six of this thesis. For further details of
this affair, see Georges Boudarel, “Intellectual dissidence in the 1950s: the Nhân Vă n - Giai
Phẩ m affair”, The Vietnam Forum, no. 13 (1990), pp. 154-174, and Hoàng Giang, “La révolte
des intellectuels au Vietnam en 1956”, The Vietnam Forum, no. 13 (1990), pp. 144-153.
8 Lê Đ ình Kỵ (1987), Nhìn lạ i tư tưở ng vă n nghệ thờ i Mỹ Nguỵ , Ho Chi Minh City: Nxb thành phố
HCM, p. 87.
number of reasons: his literary taste was not refined enough, his critical approach was
almost out of date and his style was overstated. In his Nhà vă n hiệ n đạ i (Modern
Writers), Vũ Ngọ c Phan criticized Trươ ng Tử u without sympathy: “He used big words
to comment on tiny matters in a book. It may be said that he used a knife for killing
buffaloes when killing chickens.” 9 Nguyễ n Bách Khoa then started writing novels but
was again unsuccessful. None of his eight novels published between 1937 and 1941
was really interesting. 10 He was seen as a third- or fourth-class writer. Eventually he
decided to return to his critical career. This time his voice was more confident and his
standpoint more unequivocal: he became a materialist. As a critic, he focused
particularly on the classical authors such as Nguyễ n Du (1766-1820) and Nguyễ n Công
Trứ (1778-1858), whose literary merits are beyond question.
One of Nguyễ n Bách Khoa's works which opened this period was Kinh thi Việ t
Nam (Vietnamese Book of Poetry), published in 1940, in which he examined
Vietnamese folk poetry from a sociological point of view. He asserted that Vietnamese
folk poems had two high values: firstly, they reflected people's thoughts and feelings
from previous generations; secondly, they recorded social customs, religious rituals
and the ways of living of the ancients. In this sense, folk poems were precious material
for sociology: “We can use popular poems to find out the common psychology of the
past and activities which may never come back.” 11 The Vietnamese Book of Poetry ,
therefore, was a mere work on Vietnamese cultural history rather than on literary
criticism: instead of using his sociological knowledge and technique to analyze folk
poetry, on the contrary, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa chose some appropriate lines in the folk
poems to illustrate his theoretical points. According to him, the most salient feature of
9 Vũ Ngọ c Phan (1960), Nhà vă n hiệ n đạ i , vol. 4, tome 2, Saigon: Thă ng Long, pp. 1125-26. (Originally
published in 1944.)
10 These novels are: Thanh niên S.O.S . (1937), Mộ t chiế n sĩ (1939), Khi chiế c yế m rơ i xuố ng (1939), Khi
ngườ i ta đói (1940), Mộ t cổ đôi ba tròng (1940), Trái tim nổ i loạ n (1940), Đụ c nướ c béo cò
(1940), and Mộ t kiế p đoạ đày (1941).
11 Trươ ng Tử u (1940), Kinh thi Việ t Nam , Hanoi: Hàn Thuyên; Xuân Thu reprinted in Los Alanitos
Vietnamese spiritual life in the past was the struggle against the assimilation
conspiracy of the Chinese, at first against Confucianism and later against masculinism:
Vietnamese women do not accept male chauvinism; our hearts do not
accept Confucius’ and Mencius’ rational philosophy; our instincts do not
comply with Confucianist ritual-oriented organization: these are three
distinct social and psychological characteristics of Vietnam. All of these
result from special features of Vietnamese geography and history. 12
Let us pay attention to the last sentence of the above quotation, particularly the
term “geography”, which reminds us of Hippolyte Taine’s thoughts. Taine (1828-93)
was mainly a psychologist and historian, but his lasting contribution has been as a
literary theorist and critic He is regarded as the founder of the modern sociology of
literature, who, in his Histoire de la littérature anglaise (1863), advocated a
deterministic theory of literature. According to this theory, all great writers are the
result of a variety of causes: firstly, their race; secondly, their environment; and thirdly,
the circumstances in which they were placed while their talents were developing.
Hence, race, milieu and moment are the most important factors which determine the
character of a writer and his/her work, and are the sources of what Taine calls the
master faculties, the “soul” of a nation. For Taine, race is the hereditary dispositions
that we bring with us into the world; milieu is the physical or social circumstances that
influence the shaping of our character; and moment is the accumulation of all past
Although influenced by Taine, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was not his disciple. Of
Taine’s triad, the race and milieu factors were ignored. Furthermore, “milieu”, in
Taine's view, included not only the physical environment such as soil and climate, but
also political and social conditions. 14 In Nguyễ n Bách Khoa's view, it was almost
12 Ibid., pp. 170-171.
13 For a brief introduction to Hippolyte Taine (1828-93), see René Wellek (1965), A History of Modern
Criticism 1750-1950 , vol. 4, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 27-57.
identical to history. On the one hand, being close to the great might of China, the
Vietnamese had had to resist violent invasions from the North, and on the other, they
had to find ways to fight against the Champa and others in order to expand their
territory in the South. Thus, war seemed to be interminable. Most men were sent to
war, whereas women assumed the responsibility for agricultural and commercial works
to feed their families. As a result, Vietnamese women at that time gained a high
position in society, and even if they were not equal to men, at least they were not
treated with contempt as were women in China. Nguyễ n Bách Khoa's explanation was
clearly influenced by Marx. It is not accidental that his book includes a whole chapter
(Chapter 11), entitled “Social reality termines consciousness”, in which he declares
that “Philosophy or political system are not things that drop from the sky but are
inevitable results of the economic conditions of a given country in a given historical
period.” 15 However, when using the concept of “social reality” or “economic
conditions”, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa focuses only on the mode of production but does not
mention another important aspect in Marxist thought - the production relationship
whose emphasis is on class struggle.
After 1942, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa's thoughts changed once more. This time he
seemed to be very decisive, abandoning his real name (Trươ ng Tử u) and using a new
pen name, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa. It may be said that Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was a negation
of Trươ ng Tử u: in one note in the references in his Vă n chươ ng Truyệ n Kiề u (The
Literature of the Tale of Kieu), when mentioning Trươ ng Tử u, he regarded him as a
friend. 16 Of the many differences between Nguyễ n Bách Khoa and Trươ ng Tử u, the
most important was: while Trươ ng Tử u was merely a person who was in the process of
finding a way, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was confident of holding the truth in his hands.
Previously, his style had been relatively equitable and modest, showing respect for his
predecessors and contemporaries, but later it became more and more confident and
sharp. He provoked hostility with everybody and even declared war on the whole
tradition of Vietnamese literary criticism. In his The Literature of the Tale of Kieu , he
15 Ibid., 163.
16 Nguyễ n Bách Khoa (1953), Vă n chươ ng Truyệ n Kiề u , third edition, Hanoi: Thế Giớ i, p. 151.
stated that “all critiques of The Tale of Kieu exposed the critics' subjective mistakes
rather than explained the quintessence of the work-work”. 17 He divided these so-called
“subjective mistakes” into two kinds: a frivolous critical approach and an idealistic
view on arts and artists. He claimed that neither approach could explain the good and
the beautiful of literary works because critics were at pains either to analyze every
small and petty detail, such as the way of depicting the landscape, feelings, characters,
the ways of using words and choosing rhymes, or to resign themselves to a purely
His book, The Literature of the Tale of Kieu , aimed to “justify those mistakes”
and his ambition was “to establish a solid system of principles used as a lodestar of
literary criticism rather than to waste time discussing some good details in The Tale of
Kieu . Based on this system, readers can understand the beauty of The Tale of Kieu by
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was very interested in using the word “system”. According
to Nguyễ n Vă n Trung, “systematicalness” is one of the most distinctive features of
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa. 19 The cult of systematization was in fact a manifestation of the
cult of science. This was the second difference between Nguyễ n Bách Khoa and
Trươ ng Tử u: while Trươ ng Tử u was a mere materialist, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was
materialist-cum-scientist. It may be said that nobody in Vietnamese literary history has
ever worshipped science as much as Nguyễ n Bách Khoa. Affected by late nineteenth-
century French positivism and scientism, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa believed that there was
only one way of knowing, that of science, and there was only one way of living, that of
thinking and acting according to science. Based on Auguste Comte's Law of the Three
Stages, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa asserted that those relying on aesthetic intuition were only
17 Ibid., p. 17.
18 Ibid., pp. vii-ix.
19 Nguyễ n Vă n Trung (1990), Lượ c khả o vă n họ c , vol. 3, Xuân Thu reprinted in Los Alanitos, pp. 190-2.
(Originally published in Saigon in 1968.)
“backward people who could not break completely with remaining perceptions from
ancient times”. 20
In his view, science had the “all-purpose” to enlighten and explain everything,
including the most vague and abstract issues, such as the concepts of beauty, poetic
quality, soul and genius. Furthermore, skepticism about science was a reactionary
He especially gave the dialectical materialistic method considerable
prominence, as it was extremely efficient, and with it, he believed “numerous secrets of
the spiritual world” would sooner or later be discovered because the complexity and
the evolution of this world have a materialistic root which can be measured, looked at,
weighed, calculated and controlled by using scientific instruments. 22
Although having a passion for dialecticalal materialism, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa's
knowledge of philosophy in general, as illustrated in his Nguyễ n Du và Truyệ n Kiề u
(Nguyễ n Du and the Tale of Kieu) (1942) and Vă n chươ ng Truyệ n Kiề u (The
Literature of the Tale of Kieu) (1945), seems to have been very limited. In these books,
he puts forward five basic dialectical principles for the study of humans, as follows:
“In spite of their mysterious nature, all biographical phenomena lie in the
realm of a cause-effect rule” (Claude Bernard).
“Thinking is an attribute of a human body” (Feuerbach).
(iii) “Spiritual life is rooted in physiological factors but is developed in
society” (T. Ribot).
“The human spirit is the crystallization of social correlation” (K. Marx).
“The law of all progresses is that qualitative changes are proportionate to
changes in quantity” (Hégel). 23
20 Nguyễ n Bách Khoa (1953), op. cit., p. 95.
21 Ibid., p. 81.
22 Ibid., p. 81.
23 Ibid., p. 71.
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa's way of synthesizing was strange: he did not hesitate to put
completely different, or even contradictory, viewpoints side by side. Probably he did
not carefully read the works of the writers mentioned above, with the result that he did
not know that Hegel was an idealist philosopher, that Claude Bernard, in spite of
advocating determinism and experimentalism, was ready to accept the necessity of
metaphysics and opposed the application of the methods of natural science to the social
sciences, 24 that Feuerbach was a sensualist rather than a materialist - or if he was a
materialist, his materialism was very different from Marx's. The last point was
indicated by Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach written in 1845 and published in 1888
by Engels. 25
In another paragraph in his The Literature of the Tale of Kieu , Nguyễ n Bách
Khoa combines genetics with characteriology, psychoanalysis and Marxism into a
general view of studying and criticizing literature:
To understand an artist's character, we should examine the class and the
social, historical, geographical, and hereditary traits which take part in
forming their psychological structure. We should also study the ability of
operation, reaction and suitability of his/her body and nervous system, as
well as the reciprocal effect between the individual artist and his
If we know the structure of an artist's body, his heredity, his educational
background and his social class in a given historical period, we can predict
his ideological system (thoughts and psychology) and his career in the
24 See W. Simon (1963), European Positivism in the 19th Century: An Essay in Intellectual History , Port
Washington: Kennikent Press, pp. 115-6.
25 See Marx and Engels (1973), Feuerbach, Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlooks ,
London: Lawrence and Wishart; and Eugen Kameka (1970), The Philosophy of Ludwig
Feuerbach , London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
26 Nguyễ n Bách Khoa (1953), op. cit., p. 74.
In spite of his intention to reconcile discrepant opinions in a unique system,
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa never raised the following issues: What was the relationship of
such factors as physiology, psychology and society in the creation of human
personality? Which one was the most important? He attempted to apply Freud's and
Marx's views at his convenience in his works. He was not aware of the fact that in the
Soviet Union, in order to ensure the unity of Marxism, from the late 1920s to the late
1950s, Freud's psychoanalysis was criticized for being biologistic, idealist, pessimistic,
bourgeois, and inherently tied to the capitalist ideology, which could not have a place
in Soviet society. For several decades, it was completely abandoned because one could
not, on the one hand, call for social reform which causes human transformation, and on
the other, believe that human personality is determined by haphazard factors within the
subconscious. 27 According to V.N. Volosinov, in his book, Freudianism: a Marxist
Critique , first published in the Soviet Union in 1927, Freud presented humans in “an
inherently false, individualistic, asocial, and ahistorical setting”, and as a result, his
ideas were “totally unacceptable from an objective materialistic point of view.” 28 It
would be wrong to state, like Nguyễ n Vă n Trung, that Nguyễ n Bách Khoa knew how
to systematically apply literary theories in criticism and scholarship. 29 The reason is
that Nguyễ n Bách Khoa's knowledge was quite patchy. He frequently contradicted
himself: only in his The Literature of the Tale of Kieu did he assert that human
personality was constituted by physiological and genetic factors; 30 later he considered
that “all an individual's feelings, thoughts and creative abilities are provided by society
and class”, 31 and after that maintained that “literature is a class instrument, an indirect
27 Martin A. Miller (1998), Freud and the Bolsheviks: Psychoanalysis in Imperial Russia and the Soviet
Union , New Haven: Yale University Press.
28 V.N. Volosinov (1976), Freudianism: A Marxist Critique , translated by I. R. Titunik, New York:
Academic Press, pp. vii and 1.
29 Nguyễ n Vă n Trung (1990), Lượ c khả o vă n họ c , vol. 3, Xuân Thu reprinted in Los Alanitos, pp. 190-
192. (Originally published in 1968.)
30 Nguyễ n Bách Khoa (1953), op. cit., p. 72.
31 Ibid., p. 102.
political means”, 32 and finally he pointed out that “each work is a manifestation of an
artist's personality” or, in psychological terms, “an expression of repressed passion”. 33
We know that Trotsky was in sympathy with Freud. Opposing Lenin's
viewpoint, Trotsky believed that Freud's psychoanalytical approach was materialistic
and it was not a mistake when a Marxist acknowledged psychoanalysis as well as
Pavlov's theory. 34 However, for several reasons, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was probably not
influenced by Trotsky. Firstly, despite Nguyễ n Bách Khoa's tendency to incline
towards a Trotskyist rather than a Bolshevist standpoint, he never mentioned Trotsky
in his critical writings. Two points should be mentioned here. Firstly, on the one hand,
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was very fond of quoting foreign books, and on the other, Trotsky
wrote lots of books and articles on arts and literature issues. 35 Secondly, immediately
after his The Literature of the Tale of Kieu (1945), Nguyễ n Bách Khoa abandoned
Freud's influence and merely wrote from his Marxist standpoint in Tâm lý và tư tưở ng
Nguyễ n Công Trứ (Nguyễ n Công Trứ 's Psychology and Thoughts), which was
published in 1945. This ideological change did not accompany any change in his
political attitude. It is believed that it was purely an intellectual change. Nguyễ n Bách
Khoa probably recognized that he had been contradicting himself and that the marriage
he had jokingly forced between Freud and Marx was utopian.
In fact, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa first shows himself as a Marxist in his Nguyễ n
Công Trứ 's Psychology and Thoughts , a systematic critical work which tries to follow
a successfully dialectical materialist approach. In the preface of this book, Nguyễ n
Bách Khoa criticizes Lê Thướ c, the author of the first critical work on Nguyễ n Công
32 Ibid., p. 22.
33 Ibid., p. 127.
34 See Leon Trotsky (1973), Problems of Everyday Life and Other Writings on Culture and Science ,
New York: Moned, p. 234.
35 See Leon Trotsky (1968), Literature and Revolution , Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
The Vietnamese version, Vă n họ c và cách mạ ng , translated by Hoàng Nguyễ n (2000),
published in Paris by Tủ sách nghiên cứ u.
Trứ in Vietnam, 36 for failing to explain the numerous contradictions in Nguyễ n Công
Trứ 's life and thoughts, for three main reasons: (i) he did not recognize that
contradiction is the nature of things, (ii) he held an abstract view on individuals; and
(iii) he had a “feudal ideology” of talent. Nguyễ n Bách Khoa also criticized Taine, who
was his previous idol, for being a vulgar and mechanical materialist. According to
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa, Taine explained a literary phenomenon through the psychological
attributes of the writer but forgot that these attributes themselves need to be explained.
Moreover, Taine did not acknowledge any genius, and believed that a genius was a
person who thought and felt according to his/her era's inspirations. Finally, Taine's
understanding of the cause - effect rule was too rigid while all elements had a
dialectical relationship: an element might be at this time and place a cause, but it might
be at another place and in another time an effect, and vice versa. 37
Based on Marx's definition of human beings as “an outcome of social
relationship”, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa drew up three principles: (i) human spiritual life is a
product of physiological and social life; (ii) human genetic and psychological nature
changes in accordance with social changes; (iii) after being determined by society,
human beings also affect that society, although this re-effect is then, in turn,
determined by social circumstances. From these principles, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa
concluded that “although a genius, an individual is also a product of his/her society”. 38
Thus, to understand an individual, especially a genius, we should study carefully: (i)
the social circumstances in which he or she was born and shaped; (ii) the ideology, the
psychology and historical role of the class of which he/she is a member; and (iii) the
influences of the class struggle on that individual. To sum up, “one must study the
whole social system in which that individual, from his/her class standpoint, is affected
by and reacts to his/her circumstances.” According to Nguyễ n Bách Khoa, this
36 Lê Thướ c (1928), Sự nghiệ p và thi vă n củ a Uy Viễ n tướ ng công Nguyễ n Công Trứ , Hanoi: Ấ n quán
Lê Vă n Tân.
37 Nguyễ n Bách Khoa (1951), Tâm lý và tư tưở ng Nguyễ n Công Trứ , second edition, Hanoi: Thế Giớ i,
pp. xii-xiii. (First edition was printed in 1945.)
38 Ibid., p. xvi.
approach is dialectical materialism, “the highest and the most effective method in
modern thought”. 39
Based on the above principles, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa examines the age, class and
biography of Nguyễ n Công Trứ , one of the greatest poets of the nineteenth century. In
his view, Nguyễ n Công Trứ was primarily a Confucian scholar. Different from Chinese
Confucian literati who emerged from the struggle between the clergy and the landlords
in the Spring and Autumn period (770-476 B.C.), the Vietnamese literati were merely a
kind of imported product at the time Vietnam was invaded by China. Due to their stock
conditions, Vietnamese literati often lacked theoretical ability. They just borrowed
available Chinese ideologies and often defended the clergy and the landlords' interests.
Nguyễ n Công Trứ 's era was one of endless wars. This had several consequences: (i) in
terms of politics, the nation was unified and its territory was extended, but the masses
were at a low ebb and exhausted; (ii) in terms of society, trade developed and led to the
creation of wealthy urban merchant classes, whereas the imperial scholars were in
difficulty and sinking into decay; (iii) in terms of psychology, all humans aspired to
peace, worshiped heroes towering above their contemporaries, and believed in their
The above characteristics of Nguyễ n Công Trứ 's class and era had a tremendous
impact on his psychology and thoughts. When he was young, Nguyễ n Công Trứ was
very poor, but instead of “peaceful living in the poor conditions” (an bầ n lạ c đạ o) like
the scholars of the previous centuries, Nguyễ n Công Trứ , on the contrary, was
indignant in a society where trade economy resulted in great importance being attached
to money. On the one hand, he cursed poverty and always dreamt of one day passing
examinations and becoming a rich and powerful mandarin; on the other, he was deeply
resentful of the supercilious wealthy with little schooling who had emerged. Before the
nineteenth century, reacting to their class enemies, Vietnamese literati often haughtily
regarded themselves as the representatives of ethics as well as of benevolence and
righteousness; they were highly placed in society. However, after that, because of their
39 Ibid., p. xix.
loss of self-confidence, the literati chose hedonism in order to prove their aristocratic
style of living. The most typical of this style was the image of an “amorous and
talented man” (tài tử ), which was clearly depicted in Nguyễ n Công Trứ 's poetry.
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa reached the conclusion that Nguyễ n Công Trứ 's psychology
and thoughts reflected the nature and situation of the Vietnamese Confucian literati of
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He labelled Nguyễ n Công Trứ as “a witness of
his era.” 40
The Nguyễ n Công Trứ 's Psychology and Thoughts is regarded as an excellent
monograph, in which Nguyễ n Bách Khoa successfully applied the orthodox Marxist
view on literary criticism which was widely accepted in the socialist countries. In
criticizing Nguyễ n Bách Khoa for being a false Marxist, and a vulgar and mechanical
materialist, orthodox Marxist critics intentionally ignored his writing on Nguyễ n Công
Trứ . Up till now, there has not been any work in Vietnam on Nguyễ n Công Trứ which
surpasses that of Nguyễ n Bách Khoa. Moreover, several of the creative discoveries in
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa's book on Nguyễ n Công Trứ are paraphrased in many later works
written by the orthodox Marxist critics. His influence remains strong, even today. For
example, the image of the “amorous and talented writers” (tài tử ), the attitude of
Nguyễ n Công Trứ towards poverty, the effects of trade economy and the merchants on
Vietnamese culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the hedonistic trend
in Vietnamese literature of the nineteenth century, which were first revealed by
Nguyễ n Bách Khoa, reappear later with more detail and more profound interpretation
in Nguyễ n Lộ c's and Phan Ngọ c's works. 41
By 1945, Nguyễ n Công Trứ 's Psychology and Thoughts was the sole work
which applied Marxist literary criticism in Vietnam. This work also shows Nguyễ n
Bách Khoa's strength: his wide knowledge of Vietnamese history and culture, his acute
40 Ibid., pp. 216-217.
41 See Nguyễ n Lộ c (1977), Vă n họ c Việ t Nam nử a cuố i thế kỷ XVIII - nử a đầ u thế kỷ XIX , vol. 1, Hanoi:
Nxb Đạ i Họ c và Trung Họ c Chuyên Nghiệ p; and Phan Ngọ c (1985), Tìm hiể u phong cách nghệ
thuậ t củ a Nguyễ n Du trong Truyệ n Kiề u , Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã Hộ i.
arguments, and his attractive style. Thanks to these characteristics, his work was
warmly welcomed by readers, especially the youth, who were in an eager bustle for
something new and who worshipped science because of their inferiority complex based
on living in a poor and backward country. It may be said that while Hả i Triề u merely
gave a sketchy introduction of a Marxist literary viewpoint to a minority of
intellectuals, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was the first scholar who practiced the Marxist
criticism and won the hearts and minds of dozens of thousands of readers. While Hả i
Triề u was primarily a polemicist, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa rightly held the place of
originator of practical Marxist criticism in Vietnamese literature.
One point needs to be mentioned here: while Hả i Triề u's thinking itinerary
extended from Plekhanov, Tolstoy and Kuo Mojo to the 1930s socialist realism of the
Soviet Union, then went back to Engels, the thinking of Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was more
complex, stemming from Taine, Freud and Durkheim, and extending to Marx, Engels
and Plekhanov. Although they had different itineraries, both were limited to the
Marxist literary viewpoint of the turn of the century. Also, because they derived their
Marxism from various sources, including some non-Marxist ones, their thoughts were
quite eclectic. They were a medley of radical ideology, economic determinism and
Ðặ ng Thai Mai and his Outline of Literary Theory
While Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was attempting to apply Marxist aesthetics to
practical criticism, another man, Đặ ng Thai Mai (1902-1984), was attempting to solve
several theoretical issues of literature within a Marxist framework. However, the
creative personalities, literary contributions and even destinies of both of them are
completely different. Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was changeable, slightly eccentric and a
fearless thinker who was greatly interested in originality, loved to experiment in
theories and words, and with all the idealism of a non-communist left intellectual,
could not accept deposition and pretence. As a result of this, Nguyễ n Bách Khoa was
eventually condemned to silence. From 1957 onwards, not a single one of his books
was printed in North Vietnam, and only one of his articles made a brief appearance in
an anthology published in 1994, as an outcome of the đổ i mớ i (Renovation)
Movement. 42 In contrast, Đặ ng Thai Mai always remained loyal to Marxism and the
Communist Party. For this reason, he was always well-treated by the Communist
Party: in 1939 he was nominated as a candidate to the Chamber of People’s Deputies
of Central Vietnam; after the August 1945 Revolution, he was appointed as Minister of
Education (1945-46); and in the anti-French resistance, he became the chairperson of
the Resistant Administrative Committee of Thanh Hoá province (1947-48), the
president of the Cultural Association for National Salvation (1948-49), and the director
of the Faculty of Arts in the Fifth Inter-zones (Liên khu 5). His success continued, and
following the 1954 Geneva Agreements, he was appointed rector of the Hanoi School
of Education (1956-59), and later held three important positions almost at the same
time: President of the Vietnamese Union of Writers and Artists (1957-84), Head of the
Institute of Literature (1959-76) and Publisher of the Vă n Họ c journal (1959-76).
Đặ ng Thai Mai was admired by most Marxist writers for his great talent and
erudite scholarship. Huy Cậ n, a great poet and successor of Đặ ng Thai Mai in the
position of president of the Vietnamese Union of Writers and Artists, considered him
as “an encyclopedia of literature, arts, culture, and present and past global
civilizations”. 43 According to Lữ Huy Nguyên, a poet and director of the Publishing
House of the Vietnamese Writers’ Association, one might attribute all the honorable
titles of the writing profession to Đặ ng Thai Mai: scholar, literary researcher, theorist,
critic and writer. 44 Nguyễ n Huệ Chi, an expert in Vietnamese classical literature,
regarded Đặ ng Thai Mai as a combination of talents: “He does not limit his writings to
any special domain. He totally controls his subject with all his available strength of
42 The full title of this anthology is Vă n họ c Việ t Nam sau Cách mạ ng Tháng Tám: Tiể u luậ n Phê bình ,
edited by Nguyên Ngọ c, Hà Minh Đứ c, Vă n Tâm, Lữ Huy Nguyên, Nguyễ n Bao and Thuý
Toàn, published by Vă n Họ c, Hanoi, 1993. Trươ ng Tử u’s article which was chosen for it is
“Truyệ n Thạ ch Sanh”, pp. 489-501.
43 Quoted in Nguyễ n Thạ ch Giang (1992), “Đặ ng Thai Mai, bả n nhạ c không lờ i về đạ o lý làm ngườ i”,
Vă n Nghệ , no. 51 (19 December 1992), p. 7.
44 Lữ Huy Nguyên (1982), “Tác phẩ m củ a Đặ ng Thai Mai”, Nhân Dân, 19 September 1982, p. 2.
mind, of feeling, great knowledge, practical experience, and sophisticated as well as
sharp-witted thoughts.” 45 However, it seems that Phan Cự Đệ ’s appraisal was more
accurate and reasonable: in his opinion, Đặ ng Thai Mai was a literary researcher rather
than a theorist or a critic. 46
Đặ ng Thai Mai only produced a few critical essays, which, apart from a booklet
entitled Giả ng vă n Chinh phụ ngâm (Interpreting the Ballad of a Warrior’s Wife),
published in 1950, reprinted in 1992, focused on the two most powerful people within
the communist regime: Hồ Chí Minh, the President of Vietnam and of the Vietnamese
Communist Party, and Tố Hữ u, Head of the Department of Propaganda and Ideological
Training of the Party’s Central Committee. 47
It is not without reason to think that Đặ ng Thai Mai wrote these critical essays
with a political rather than a literary motivation. Furthermore, in his writings, Đặ ng
Thai Mai’s first concern was with historical and biographical details and linguistic
problems rather than with the aesthetical aspects of the text. He was a researcher who
was greatly interested in collecting and explaining material rather than a critic who
loved to appreciate, interpret and evaluate works of art. In respect of criticism, it is
obvious that Đặ ng Thai Mai was deeply influenced by the famous French critic
Gustave Lanson (1857-1934), 48 who believed that a scientific approach to literary
history must be based on a scrupulous study of sources, chronology and bliography.
Echoing Lanson, Đặ ng Thai Mai asserted that “today, in order to fully appreciate our
predecessors’ works of literature, we must firstly understand their lives and historical
45 Việ n Vă n Họ c (ed.) (1986), Tác gia lý luậ n phê bình nghiên cứ u vă n họ c Việ t Nam 1945-1975 , vol. 1,
Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã hộ i, pp. 18-9.
46 Phan Cự Đệ and Hà Minh Đứ c (1979), Nhà vă n Việ t Nam , vol. 1, Hanoi: Nxb Đạ i Họ c và Trung Họ c
Chuyên Nghiệ p, pp. 479-480.
47 Most of Đặ ng Thai Mai’s critical writings were collected in his Trên đườ ng họ c tậ p và nghiên cứ u , 3
vols.: volume 1 (292 pages) and volume 2 (356 pages) were published by Vă n Họ c (Hanoi) in
1969, and volume 3 (214 pages) in 1973.
48 Gustave Lanson (1857-1934) was a professor at the Sorbonne, director of the École Normale
Supérieure. He is also the author of several reference works such as Histoire de la littérature
francaise (1894), and Manuel bibliographique de la littérature francaise (1909), among others,
which had a lasting influence on many university scholars.
conditions.” 49 Therefore, a researcher’s first task is “to collect, arrange and review
documents. It is important to research writers’ lives and works as well as the social,
political and literary activities of their era, and to have a clear viewpoint on the general
development law of world culture and literature. It is also important to have an
accurate knowledge of rhetoric, linguistics and phonetics.” 50 Surprisingly, Đặ ng Thai
Mai rarely provided this kind of stylistic and grammatical analysis and commentary in
Vă n thơ Phan Bộ i Châu (Phan Boi Chau’s Literature) (1958) and Vă n thơ cách
mạ ng đầ u thế kỷ XX (Revolutionary Literature of the Beginning of the Twentieth
Century) (1961) were Đặ ng Thai Mai’s two most significant achievements, in which he
used all his intellectual strengths, wide knowledge, abundant resources, and heartfelt
style. He reconstructed the historical and cultural background of the beginning of the
twentieth century, highlighting many colourful and interesting details, most of which
are anecdotes collected from a lifetime of rich experience and wide reading. Thus,
reading his books, we are able to enjoy them as if we were listening to an erudite and
charming storyteller. However, because Đặ ng Thai Mai had an avid interest in
anecdotes, his books are at times not well-constructed. It may be said that Đặ ng Thai
Mai wrote his research work as an artist rather than an academic scholar.
This may be a reason why, having been praised and even extolled to the skies,
Đặ ng Thai Mai did not write much and did not produce any outstanding work. He
failed both as a critic and as a scholar. He conducted literary criticism as a scholar, but
wrote scholarly writing with an artistic inspiration. His personality was greater than his
work. He had a wonderful memory. Allegedly he could quote many French classics by
49 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), Vă n họ c khái luậ n , Saigon: Liên Hiệ p xuấ t bả n cụ c. (Originally published by
Hàn Thuyên, Hanoi in 1944.)
50 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1992), Giả ng vă n Chinh phụ ngâm , Hanoi: Trườ ng Đạ i họ c Sư phạ m Hà Nộ i 1,
(originally published in 1950), p. 10.
heart. 51 This wonderful memory made him famous as a living encyclopedia; however,
it made him merely a gossip in his own writings.
A scholar by education, an artist by instinct, a writer by choice, oddly enough,
Đặ ng Thai Mai devoted himself to the field of literary theory and finally gained a
reputation mainly through his achievements in that area. Today, even in Vietnam,
when remembering Đặ ng Thai Mai, people mainly mention his activities of the period
of 1943-48, when he played a role as “one of the typical theorists” of the Communist
Party 52 and “one of those who laid the first foundations of Marxist literary theory” in
It is worth noting that Đặ ng Thai Mai played the theorist role unexpectedly.
Although he had sprung from the stock of Confucian scholars and was fond of
literature, he did not think of writing until he was thirty years old. He said that he had
even sworn not to become a writer as long as French censorship remained in
Vietnam. 54 However, in the period of the French Popular Front (1936-39), Đặ ng Thai
Mai broke his promise and often published essays and short stories in the Vietnamese
and French newspapers controlled by the Vietnamese Communist Party such as Tin tứ c
(News), Le Travail, Rassemblement, Notre Voix and En Avant . At the end of 1943,
thanks to two communist cultural cadres, Họ c Phi and Trầ n Quố c Hươ ng, he was
allowed to read the then strictly censored Đề cươ ng vă n hoá (Theses on Culture),
which was compiled by Trườ ng Chinh, the prevailing Secretary General of the
Vietnamese Communist Party. 55 According to Đặ ng Thai Mai, this pamphlet made a
tremendous impact on him: “Firstly, there was a great need for a struggle for literary
theory; and secondly, literary theory cannot be separated from history, politics, and
51 See Đặ ng Thanh Lê et al. (eds.) (1994), Đặ ng Thai Mai và vă n họ c , Nghệ An: Nhà xuấ t bả n Nghệ An;
and Để nhớ Đặ ng Thai Mai , edited by Đặ ng Thai Mai’s children, published by Nhà xuấ t bả n
Hộ i Nhà Vă n, Hanoi, 1992.
52 Phan Cự Đệ and Hà Minh Đứ c (1979), op. cit., p. 471.
53 Ibid, p. 470.
54 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1985), Hồ i ký , Hanoi: Tác Phẩ m Mớ i, p. 341.
society, but needs to be put into the national revolution.” 56 It may be said that Đặ ng
Thai Mai only began his concentration on literary theory after reading this pamphlet.
This explains why he had not become a participant of the polemic on “art for art’s
sake” versus “art for human life’s sake” which lasted from 1935 to 1939, and
furthermore, was indifferent to it. Thus, in his An Outline of Literary Theory (Vă n họ c
khái luậ n), which was published by Hàn Thuyên in 1944, and reprinted by Ngày Nay
in 1950, he made some surprising mistakes. He maintained that the polemic broke out
“about fifteen years” earlier, 57 which meant in the years 1929-30. With such a
misunderstanding, he then tried to explain readers’ indifferent attitudes to the polemic
using two main reasons: firstly, “the economic and political crisis which still haunted
people like a ghost” 58 - he probably meant the Great Depression; and secondly, he
asserted that the polemic only lasted a few months, 59 whereas in fact it lasted a few
years. Moreover, he mentioned in his notes on page 167 that he did not have Bùi Công
Trừ ng’s articles, in spite of Bùi Công Trừ ng being one of his comrades and Trừ ng’s
articles being one of the most crucial contribution to the polemic of 1935-39.
Đặ ng Thai Mai’s An Outline of Literary Theory was widely regarded as “the
first work systematically presenting literary theory issues from the Marxist-Leninist
viewpoint” 60 as well as the first work of literary theory in general in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, this first theoretical work was written for political motivation, not
literary. Like Hả i Triề u, Đặ ng Thai Mai wrote his book as a soldier rather than a
scholar, although at that time he was merely a party sympathizer and not a party
member. However, unlike Hả i Triề u, Đặ ng Thai Mai was a highly cultured and widely
read intellectual, and therefore able to avoid childish mistakes in knowledge and
55 Nguyễ n Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), Mộ t chặ ng đườ ng vă n hoá , Hanoi: Tác Phẩ m Mớ i, p. 83.
56 Ibid., pp. 52 and 84.
57 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 34.
60 Phan Cự Đệ and Hà Minh Đứ c (1979), op. cit., p. 470.
argument. Đặ ng Thai Mai possessed that which Hả i Triề u lacked, immense erudition;
he also had that which Nguyễ n Bách Khoa completely ignored, intellectual caution.
For political rather than academic reasons, Đặ ng Thai Mai aimed to propagate
revolutionary ideals and gather comrades, neglecting the exploration of the nature of
literature itself. Thus he missed many basic and important issues such as that of the
origin, characteristics and functions of literature, the development of literary genres,
literary and trends, relationships between text and author, text and reality, and
differences between literature and non-literature. Nguyễ n Huệ Chi tried to explain the
choices of Đặ ng Thai Mai, saying:
Đặ ng Thai Mai does not need to cover all his bases, because he knows in
his heart that his first goal is not to explain basic theory but to use that
theory to wage a war of words about the literary path for that period, and to
struggle against outdated art viewpoints. Therefore, he chooses issues
which are of foremost concern to writers, that is, those which need hard
thinking, which should be clearly differentiated in the literary life, or which
suggest a new direction to help writers extricate themselves from a fix. 61
If Nguyễ n Huệ Chi’s explanation was correct, Đặ ng Thai Mai’s choice would
be a dangerous adventure, as he accepted the role of “suggesting a new direction”
while he did not know where he was. This shortcoming may be seen clearly in Đặ ng
Thai Mai’s An Outline of Literary Theory as well as in the Vietnamese Marxist literary
history, which lasted until half a century later.
In his book, Đặ ng Thai Mai raised some important issues such as the goal of
literary creation, freedom in literature, class consciousness and the inherited-ness (tính
kế thừ a) of literature, as well as the relationship between content and form, personality
and typification, and nationality and internationality.
61 Việ n Vă n Họ c (ed.) (1986), op. cit., p. 32.
First of all, Đặ ng Thai Mai claims that the term “literature” has two meanings:
(i) it is an area in the cultural domain, containing all of the works written in prose and
verse; and (ii) it is also a science which studies those works. 62
In the second meaning, literature (more correctly, literary studies), which is a
science, has two major characteristics: first, it uses objective method and second, it
aims to discover general laws; that is, it “is similar to history, philosophy, mathematics,
and physics, etc”. 63 Đặ ng Thai Mai emphasizes that this view is a very new one in
modern scholarship. 64
In the first meaning, (creative) literature is “a form of ideology”, which, like
politics, religion, laws and morals, is established on the ground of the economic base,
directly or indirectly influenced by the economic activities in society. 65 Đặ ng Thai Mai
distinguished literature from the other ideological forms by claiming that only
literature is able to use language as a means of depicting human life, thoughts, feelings
and will. Using language as a criterion to separate literature from other forms of
discourse, Đặ ng Thai Mai seemed to be perplexed when he differentiated literature
from philosophy, history and other social sciences, as all these disciplines use similar
means. He solved that problem by vaguely stating that “the difference between
literature and philosophy or science is not in their content, but in the forms and the
areas that each subject covers”. 66 However, Đặ ng Thai Mai did not provide any further
analysis. We can ask: How does the area and form of literature differ from other
subjects? How does literary language differ from scientific and everyday language? In
another paragraph, Đặ ng Thai Mai states that the scope of literature is quite broad, and
includes not only lyric prose or verse, but also epic, comedy, novel, essay and
miscellaneous writings (tạ p vă n). He reminded us that the authors who were mentioned
62 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 13.
63 Ibid., p. 12.
64 Ibid., pp. 14-5.
65 Ibid., p. 25.
66 Ibid., p. 24.
and criticized in all of the books on French literary history were not only writers and
poets, like Ronsard, Lamartine and Victor Hugo, but also several philosophers such as
Descartes and Victor Cousin. Similarly, in books on Chinese literary history, along
with Du Fu (712-770) and Li Bai (701-762), there were also a great number of pages
written on historians, philosophers and orators. 67 But Đặ ng Thai Mai never put forward
the questions: Why have many famous philosophers, historians and other social
scientists not had their names mentioned in books of literary history whereas others
have? Why, for example, does nineteenth-century English literature usually include
Lamb but not Bentham, Macaulay but not Marx, and Mill but not Darwin or Herbert
Spencer? Đặ ng Thai Mai did not go the whole way into theory to discover - as Terry
Eagleton did later in his Literary Theory, An Introduction, which was first published
in 1983 - that the term “literature” is ambiguous: it usually denotes “belles letters”, a
sort of writing which is generally highly regarded, while the so-called “highly
regarded” depends on particular criteria, laid down by certain persons in specific
situations and in the light of given purposes; as a result of which, the term is merely an
empty concept which does not have an “essence” of its own. 68
Completely satisfied with his unfinished definition of literature, Đặ ng Thai Mai
tried to look for literature’s goal, by first rejecting the “art for art’s sake” standpoint of
“capitalist” writers. He stated that “the art for art’s sake view was impossible because
no artist can practice his art just for art’s sake. It is impossible for him not to feel
hungry for more when looking at the half loaf of bread that he has made. Similarly, his
thirst cannot be satisfied by only reading his work”. 69 Even when people wrote just for
fun, “having fun is not art; it is an aspect of life”. 70 Surprisingly, it seems that Đặ ng
Thai Mai’s understanding of the concept “art for art’s sake” was quite queer. In spite of
advocating that art must have no end but itself, no one on the art for art’s sake side
67 Ibid., pp. 22-3.
68 Terry Eagleton (1983), Literary Theory: An Introduction , Oxford: Basil Blackwell, p. 9.
69 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 38.
70 Ibid., p. 39.
would ever want to uproot literature from its essential soil - human life. Aestheticism
was first and foremost a reaction against romanticism in order to pursue an impersonal
and plastic ideal of beauty.
Đặ ng Thai Mai’s aesthetic view was basically neo-classicist. He conceded that
all masterpieces have two paramount features: usefulness and pleasure. 71 This is an
echo of the seventeenth-century neo-classicists who held that “the end of literature is to
teach and delight; pleasure is the immediate, and instruction the ultimate end”, 72 as
John Dennis claimed:
Poetry then is an art by which a poet excites passion (and for that very cause
entertains sense) in order to satisfy and improve, to delight and reform the mind,
and so to make mankind happier and better: from which it appears that poetry has
two ends, a subordinate, and a final one; the subordinate one is pleasure, and the
final one is instruction. 73
However, Đặ ng Thai Mai went further into the Marxist vein by stating that
these two features have always born the imprint of class consciousness. In feudal
society, writers and poets were only jesters or singers dancing around the crowned
heads of the aristocracy. In capitalist society, the role of writers was no better: they
were only a gang of pen-prostitutes (lũ đĩ bút mự c) serving the rich. In this respect,
Đặ ng Thai Mai was more extreme than Karl Marx, his ideological ancestor. While
Marx, in his Economic Manuscripts of 1857-1858 , believed that art and literature were
relatively independent and might develop without being in accordance with political or
social events, 74 Đặ ng Thai Mai contended that “the periods in which a society
experiences great change are generally those in which literature is developing rapidly
and progressing to a higher level.” 75 Applying this principle to Chinese literary history,
71 Ibid., p. 31.
72 Irene Simon (ed.) (1971), Neo-Classical Criticism 1660-1800 , London: Edward Arnold, p.40.
73 Ibid., p. 42.
74 See Marx and Engels (1978 ), On Literature and Art , Moscow: Progress Publishers, p. 82.
75 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 58.
he asserted that the whole history of Chinese literature contains two glorious periods:
first, that of Zhou (circa 1122-249 B.C.) and Qin (221-207 B.C.), when China adopted
feudalism, and second, that of the period following the end of the nineteenth century,
when China became a capitalist country. Apart from these two golden periods, during
its very long history, Chinese society changed little, and as a result of this, thought and
literature remained stagnant. Surprisingly, Đặ ng Thai Mai did not highly value the
poetic achievements of the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties.
Furthermore, he states that the poetry of Li Bai (701-762) and Du Fu (712-770) “have
nothing creative in respect of aesthetics, contain no thoughts worth researching, and are
not a valid manifestation of human life and society”. 76 These announcements are very
strange. To most literary critics and historians, the Tang and Song dynasties,
especially the first, possess a unique aura of splendor in the history of Chinese
literature. Tang poetry has almost been identified with the two poets, Li Bai and Du Fu.
While the first “would probably be close to the top on almost anyone’s list of the
greatest Chinese poets of premodern times”, 77 the latter is generally recognized as “the
greatest Chinese poet”, whose “greatness rests on the consensus of more than a
millennium of readers and on the rare coincidence of Chinese and Western literary
values”. 78 Both became the apogee of all Chinese poetry, whom no later poet could
entirely ignore. 79
The above incorrect evaluation resulted from Đặ ng Thai Mai’s slanted
viewpoint on literature in which he identified literature with ideology. Moreover, he
believed that the first goal of literature was to participate in the class struggle.
Therefore, politics would be the most important criterion for evaluating literature.
From this standpoint, Đặ ng Thai Mai drew a number of corollaries: first, a writer
should improve his outlook on life and the world in order to discover the laws of
76 Ibid., p. 60.
77 Burton Watson (trans. and ed.) (1984), The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry, from Early Times to
the Thirteenth Century , New York: Columbia University Press, p. 205.
78 Stephen Owen (1981), The Great Age of Chinese Poetry: The High T’ang , New Haven: Yale
University Press, p. 183.
historical development; second, he must participate actively in the “front line of the
era”, “take the pioneer responsibility” and “realize that his mission is to write for a
specific class”. 80
Đặ ng Thai Mai summed up his views in the following principle:
If a writer’s mind does not have waves of discontent, if his soul does not
feel the miseries and deficiencies of human life as well as the eager
expectation of the era, if he does not understand an ever-changing world
and human life, if he does not have any request or any hope for the present
and the future, his cajolery writing will just be plump like a slab of meat
and slippery like the bald forehead of a bourgeois, merely a kind of
“literature of entertainment” (vă n chơ i), and not containing any literary
The viewpoint that saw literature as a language of human discontent was not
novel. The funny thing is, one year later, Trươ ng Tử u, in his Tươ ng lai vă n nghệ Việ t
Nam (The Future of Vietnamese Literature and Art), repeated this idea in another form:
“Art is nothing but a constant protest against reality and the present time”. 82 This,
however, was strongly criticized by Marxist critics, including Đặ ng Thai Mai, under
the pen name Thanh Bình. 83 The simple reason for this puzzling event was that Trươ ng
Tử u’s book was published after the August Revolution (although it had been finished
long before), when the Communist Party had just seized power. In such a new political
situation, calling upon writers to protest was considered reactionary.
79 See Paulam Varsano (2003), Tracking the Banished Immortal , Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
80 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit. , p. 65.
81 Ibid., p. 62.
82 Trươ ng Tử u (1945), Tươ ng lai vă n nghệ Việ t Nam , Hanoi: Hàn Thuyên, p. 23.
83 Thanh Bình (the pen name of Đặ ng Thai Mai) (1945 and 1946), “Phê bình Tươ ng lai vă n nghệ Việ t
Nam”, Tiên Phong, no. 2 (1 December 1945), no. 3 (16 December 1945) and no. 6 (16
February 1946), reprinted in Nguyễ n Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), op. cit., pp. 197-205.
Đặ ng Thai Mai advised writers to apply the socialist realist method in order to
subvert idealistic, romantic, and mechanical sociological viewpoints in literature. 84
However, he never clearly defined what he meant by “socialist realist method”.
Nguyễ n Huệ Chi, in his entry in Từ điể n vă n họ c (Dictionary of Literature), explained
that the cause of this shortcoming was “the strict censorship of the Japanese-French
ruling system at that time”. 85 In fact, this may be far from the truth. In several of Đặ ng
Thai Mai’s sayings quoted above, we can see that he often urged writers to rise up
against the French colonial government, calling for equity and democracy. It is
unbelievable that while so doing, he was not allowed to analyze such academic
concepts as socialist realism. Besides, Đặ ng Thai Mai himself once revealed that all the
paragraphs cut out of his book related to politics, and to the relationship between
nationalism and internationalism, but not to academic concepts. 86 The main reason for
this is probably that although Đặ ng Thai Mai had had the opportunity of reading the
Chinese translations of a number of documents of the Russian Communist party after
its 1925 Congress, as well as those of the first congress of the Association of Soviet
Writers in 1934, he had not fully comprehended the issue of socialist realism. In his
chapter on socialist realist literature, he was only able to address the two following
questions: Do social characteristics repress personality? and, do realist characteristics
kill imagination? To both questions, Đặ ng Thai Mai’s answer was: No. He did not
explain why the social characteristics of socialist realism did not repress personality,
but called upon writers to rely on the masses’ opinions and evaluations: “In a society
where mass education reaches the writers’ level, writers have no reason to be skeptical.
Moreover, this is a necessary social precondition for genius; not to be trampled under
the foot of the cruel by the might of money”. 87 Đặ ng Thai Mai then elaborated the
second question. According to him, there was no contradiction between reality and
imagination, because any imagination is based on a certain reality. Socialist realist
84 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 68.
85 Ðỗ Ðứ c Hiể u et al. (eds.) (1984), Từ điể n vă n họ c , vol. 2, Hanoi: Nxb Khoa Họ c Xã Hộ i, p. 518.
86 Nguyễ n Phúc et al. (eds.) (1985), op. cit., p. 84.
87 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 89.
literature only opposed the abuse of imagination , and “flatly rejected the disheartened
and cowardly attitude of weak souls which dared not look at the truth, live with it and
vigorously abolish false images used in romantic styles which embellish in order to
ignore the true nature of social events.” 88
It seems that Đặ ng Thai Mai did not clearly distinguish the difference between
critical realism and socialist realism. Sometimes he named the realism of the
nineteenth-century French writers as the first-period realism, to distinguish it from the
second-period realism, which is officially termed socialist realism. However, in his
expression, both trends had the same features, truthfully reflecting reality, and “for the
present, they would reveal the true nature of a society and the miseries and the
discontent of the era; for the future, they would be a halo projecting the true and subtle
aspects of the past to the following generations”. 89 Đặ ng Thai Mai did not mention any
fundamental characteristic of socialist realism, such as “klassovost” (class-
mindedness), “narodnost” (people-mindedness), and more particularly “partiinost”
(party-mindedness), included with requirements of truthful, historically concrete
representations of reality in its revolutionary development, etc. It seems that he vaguely
realized the last point as he wrote: “Society needs writers who depict daily experiences
of different generations. However, what it needs most is that writers, through their
imagination, foresee tendencies of social contradictions and depict their present lack,
which is in fact the truth of the future.” 90 This is just his vague recognition, from an
orthodox Marxist viewpoint, of the developmental tendency of history as the task of
consciousness, not of the imagination.
When analyzing the relationship between content and form in a work of art,
Đặ ng Thai Mai admitted that these two factors were closely connected and sometimes
overlapped, but immediately after this pronouncement he stated that he believed that
content itself would determine form. Therefore “when striving for self-improvement in
88 Ibid., p. 95.
89 Ibid., p. 138.
90 Ibid., pp. 98-9.
literature, living and observing are the first steps and the major issues of literature and
art, whereas high techniques are just a minor one.” 91 Furthermore, he indicated that in
the history of literature there were some periods in which the content overwhelmed the
form, and vice versa. Therefore, the perfect literature was one in which these two
factors were unified and harmonious.
It is more surprising that Đặ ng Thai Mai seemed to ignore Engels’ definition of
the concept of realism: “Realism, to my mind, implies, besides truth of detail, the
truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances”. 92 On the issue
of typification, Đặ ng Thai Mai merely gave a general comment: “A typical character is
a character which represents a whole generation, an association or a social class”. 93 He
did not mention the concept of “typical circumstances”, which was later emphasized by
Marxist literary theorists.
Obviously, although famous for his erudition, Đặ ng Thai Mai did not keep
himself well-informed on the debates of socialist realism and on general Marxist theory
as did Hả i Triề u. He had a wide knowledge of French and Chinese literature, but,
because of his feeble theoretical framework, his citations and examples drawn from
French and Chinese literature became dispersed and did not prove anything. He rarely
scrutinized any issue thoroughly, giving it enough analysis to be convincing. When he
needed to persuade readers, he used the emotional style of a missionary to appeal to
their responsibility and patriotism.
At heart, Đặ ng Thai Mai was a Marxist. Although not always successful, he
was very conscious of using dialectical and historical materialism as the framework for
his thinking. When dealing with any literary phenomenon, he usually tried to explain
them through the lens of economic, political and social events. He liked to put concepts
into categories in opposition in order to compare, and especially to find out reciprocal
91 Ibid., p. 106.
92 Marx and Engels (1978), op. cit., p. 10.
93 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., p. 126.
actions and influences. Discussing the relationship between nationality and
internationality, he made a correct but not novel comment: “No work deserves to
represent national traits while at the same time it does not consist of the common and
deep characteristics of humanity”. 94 Moreover, he was bold enough to reshape Stalin’s
mechanical view on socialist realism as “socialist in content and national in form”: “In
order to build a socialist realist literature, we should first of all depict our society
through our national language.” 95 In other words, the so-called “people-mindedness” of
socialist realism was not only of form, but also of content. Surprisingly, the cadres of
the Vietnamese Communist Party who were specialized in and were responsible for the
“cultural front” discovered Đặ ng Thai Mai’s subtle efforts to reshape Stalin’s view
very late. The term of “national form” was not changed into “national traits” in official
documents until the third congress of the Central Committee of the Vietnamese
Communist Party in 1960.
This independent attitude of Đặ ng Thai Mai can be explained by the fact that he
was just a non-communist left intellectual at that time. In his An Outline of Literary
Theory , there was a deep imprint of André Gide’s thoughts. Đặ ng Thai Mai quoted
Gide frequently and obviously admired him greatly despite the fact that Gide was
being condemned and strongly criticized by communist parties everywhere. Đặ ng Thai
Mai regarded Gide as a symbol of the freedom and sincerity of a true artist. 96 He
particularly sympathized with Gide’s ideas on artistic freedom, and on the relationship
between literature and life, between originality and popularity. It may be said that
Gide’s thoughts on literature inspired Đặ ng Thai Mai to write Chapter Six on “The
issue of freedom on literature and art” in his book, An Outline of Literary Theory .
Đặ ng Thai Mai’s independence of the Soviet formula “people-mindedness”
may also be explained by his limited knowledge of the issue. As an immensely erudite
scholar, he had a wide acquaintance not only with literature but also with history and
94 Ibid., pp. 196-197.
95 Ibid., p. 190.
96 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1950), op. cit., pp. 157 and 162.
philosophy. However, in the field of literature, his interests were in classical but not
contemporary, French and Chinese - but not Russian and Vietnamese. Like most
intellectuals of that age, he was well-informed on sixteenth and seventeenth century
French literature. He did not know anything about Chinese modern literature until
1939, when he discovered Lu Xun for the first time by accident. About Vietnamese
literature, he once confessed to Thiế u Mai:
When I was young, I was very busy and did not have much time to read
other writers’ works. Therefore, at present, I am not sure if I have a good
grasp of Vietnamese modern literature or not. I have not even read all the
works of Nguyễ n Đ ình Thi, whom I love very much and have close
contact with. I have read other authors even less, including Nguyên Hồ ng,
Tô Hoài and the younger generation writers such as Nguyễ n Khả i, Nguyên
Ngọ c and Nguyễ n Minh Châu. 97
Moreover, at the time of writing his An Outline of Literary Theory , because of a
terrible stomach-ache, Đặ ng Thai Mai went to Thanh Hoá, a small and isolated
province in Central Vietnam, to convalesce. The Communist Party decided to limit
their contact with him for his own safety. 98 Thus, it was not surprising that Đặ ng Thai
Mai was sometimes off the Party line, particularly when it concerned concrete issues
such as evaluating specific writers and their work.
However, we cannot deny the influence of the Vietnamese Communist Party on
Đặ ng Thai Mai’s literary thoughts. Nguyễ n Huệ Chi commented that Đặ ng Thai Mai’s
An Outline of Literary Theory was “the result of his effort to ponder on the party’s
Theses on Culture. ” 99 In fact, in An Outline of Literary Theory , Đặ ng Thai Mai
discreetly developed and popularized three principles of establishing a new culture in
the Theses on Culture : literature must be national, popular and scientific.
97 Thiế u Mai (1992), “Họ c giả Đặ ng Thai Mai, đôi nét đờ i thườ ng”, Vă n Nghệ , no. 51 (19 December
98 Nguyễ n Phúc et al. (eds.), Mộ t chặ ng đườ ng vă n hoá , Hanoi: Nxb Tác Phẩ m Mớ i, p. 84.
99 Việ n Vă n Họ c (ed.) (1986), op. cit., p. 32.
Although at that time Đặ ng Thai Mai was not a member of the Vietnamese
Communist Party, and although his knowledge of socialist realism was not up-to-date
and was poorly informed, his An Outline of Literary Theory rests ultimately upon the
theoretical foundations of Marxism-Leninism, especially of Leninism. He was a
Leninist in his hostile attitude to the so-called “capitalist literary trends” such as
romanticism and surrealism, and in his view regarding the pen as a weapon in the
cultural field, which was termed “the third front line”, along with the political and
economic front lines.
Differently from other Marxist contemporaries such as Hả i Triề u and Nguyễ n
Bách Khoa, who had learnt Marxism through French materials, Đặ ng Thai Mai studied
Marxism mainly through Chinese materials. This occurred for two reasons: firstly,
Đặ ng Thai Mai started his study of literary theory quite late, during the Second World
War years when only a very small number of books and newspapers in French,
especially those relating to Marxism and Communism, could be imported to Vietnam.
Secondly, during that time, Đặ ng Thai Mai was keen to read and translate Lu Xun’s
works into Vietnamese: most of his understanding of socialist realism came from this
Chinese realist writer. In his memoir published in 1967, Đặ ng Thai Mai wrote:
Many writers of my age learn about Russian literature and art through
roads full of twists and turns: Moscow - Paris - Saigon - Hanoi, or Moscow
- Shanghai - Hanoi - Saigon. For myself, the light has actually come from
the North. 100
The “North”, in this context, means China.
100 Đặ ng Thai Mai (1967), “Ánh sáng là từ phươ ng Bắ c dọ i tớ i”, Tạ p chí Vă n Họ c (Hanoi), no. 11
(1967), reprinted in Đặ ng Thai Mai (1985), op. cit., pp. 306-333.
From Patriotism to Maoism
Between Nationalism and Socialism
Of the three writers who introduced Marxist literary thought into Vietnam
between the two world wars, Hả i Triề u was the only one who created a little furore in
public, especially through the pen-war on the matter of art for art’s sake versus art for
human life’s sake, which lasted from 1935 to 1939, and which received a vast amount
of critical attention. Đặ ng Thai Mai and Nguyễ n Bách Khoa, whose talent and
knowledge were much better than Hả i Triề u’s, in contrast, did not have any remarkable
impact on their contemporaries. Before the August 1945 Revolution, the first was
widely regarded as a well-known teacher and a serious translator rather than as a
scholar, whereas the latter was primarily regarded as a writer who had a fondness for
neologisms and an overblown style, but lacked a highly skilful literary performance. In
Nhà vă n hiệ n đạ i (Modern Writers), a much-lauded work of criticism of the period, Vũ
Ngọ c Phan ranked Nguyễ n Bách Khoa as a social novelist, not a critic. 1
This paradoxical phenomenon is not without reason. Hả i Triề u was a lucky man
who appeared in the mid-1930s, a period which has been widely hailed as a great
efflorescence in the history of Vietnamese literature, when many Vietnamese were
interested in literature and yearn