A case of identity creation for modern Vietnamese poetry in 1939 - Tran Nho Thin


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Tran Nho Thin (2023), A case of identity creation for modern Vietnamese poetry in 1939, Universum: Philology and Art criticism, № 3(105), pp. 10-13, DOI: 10.32743/UniPhil.2023.105.3.15142, ISSN 2311-2859.


DOI - 10.32743/UniPhil.2023.105.3.15142


Our article approaches the problem of “telling history with interpreting the past and constructing identity” by analyzing the perspective of a new poet (period 1930-1945) towards Chinese Tang poetry that once dominated medieval times but continues to develop in modern times, to build the “identity” of new poetry. Accordingly, criticizing old poetry and praising Tan Da’s poetry are considered the identitybuilding of modern Vietnamese poetry.


В статье затрагивается проблема “рассказывания истории с интерпретацией прошлого и формированием идентичности”, анализируя точку зрения нового поэта (1930-1945) на китайскую поэзию эпохи Тан, которая когда-то доминировала в средневековье, и которая продолжает развиваться на сегодняшний день, создавая “идентичность” новой поэзии. Соответственно, критика старой поэзии и восхваление поэзии Тан Да считается формированием идентичности современной вьетнамской поэзии.

Ключевые слова: современная вьетнамская поэзия, китайская поэзия эпохи Тан, литературная критика, история литературы.

Keywords: modern Vietnamese poetry, Chinese Tang poetry, literary criticism, literary history


Poet Tan Da died on June 7, 1939. Ten days later, in the Ngày Nay Newspaper, poet Xuan Dieu, 23 years old, a member of the Tu Luc Van Doan (Self-reliance Literature Group), published the article Merit of poet Tan Da [12]. More importantly, we did this research because we realized that this young poet had lived in the period of literary modernization in the 1930s, contributed to creating a new poetry movement, and expressed opinions on old and new poetry via Tan Da. Features of Xuan Dieu’s article can be found in contemporary critiques, such as that of Hoai Thanh [6].

A work of literary criticism cannot be adequately understood if it is separated from the defined social and literary environment. In contrast, when analyzing a literary criticism work in a specific context, we understand the problems of literary history at that time more deeply.

Xuan Dieu’s article not only reflects and summarizes the changing reality of Vietnamese poetry through his point of view but also contributes to shaping the way of thinking about medieval poetry of researchers and critics and have a specific impact on the new poet’s conception of poetry.

Important content in the article Merit of poet Tan Da

Xuan Dieu affirmed that Tan Da was the forerunner of modern Vietnamese poetry. There were two significant ideas in the opening sentence. Firstly, Tan Da opened the way for modern Vietnamese poetry. Xuan Dieu identified the poems that preceded Tan Da’s poems as old poetry that was about to end. Secondly, Tan Da, a modern Vietnamese poet, had an ego. Xuan Dieu believed that the ego was “an honest heart.” In the context of the transition between old poetry and new poetry, that ego was expressed in a dignified and robust way. Tan Da dared to let his heart and soul live according to their right. Xuan Dieu emphasized these qualities because he realized that in old poetry, “the heart was suppressed and dared not beat, and life narrowed down to discipline,” that was, the medieval poets controlled their emotions. Xuan Dieu’s point of view can be understood as follows: True emotion makes Tan Da’s poetry evaluated as the opening for new poetry.

Xuan Dieu mentioned another important content: The context of Vietnamese poetry when Tan Da appeared. “Tan Da was born when old poetry was about to end, and new poetry was about to be born.” Poetry published in popular newspapers in the first decade of the century had lost its vitality. Tan Da appeared “when arid Vietnamese poetry was in the old way, when the “Nam Phong poetry” reigned majestically, using loud voices to say small things, expressing clichés in much more cliché, and in the time of emptiness and sadness.”

Xuan Dieu sternly assessed emotions in old poems: “Since ancient times, Vietnamese poetry has been confined within the framework of rites and ethics.” Because of being forced into the framework of rites, the poets’ hearts were suppressed, confined, unnatural, and lacking in authenticity. Tan Da ended the existence of old poetry, paved the way for new poetry, expressed a world of true emotions and an “honest heart,” and dared to give the heart and soul the right to live a free spirit. Besides the free, honest, and ego, there were the liberal poetic form and gentle voice. From this basis, Xuan Dieu saw the free, bohemian, extravagant, dreamy, and wandering nature in Tan Da’s poetry, which had the power to break old poetry and advance new poetry. Truthfulness and impartiality were considered outstanding standards of ego in poetry. Hoai Thanh has further analyzed this: Thanks to Tan Da, the new poets are not considered monsters or losers who have no contact with the past of the race.

Therefore, Xuan Dieu concluded: “Although we now have a concise soul, aiming for a poetic style suitable to new emotions, we still love and respect the first poet who gave us the talented first verses of new poetry.”

Commenting on Xuan Dieu’s comments

Firstly, Xuan Dieu’s comments on contemporary newspapers and magazines such as Đông Dương tạp chí (Journal of the Indochina) and Nam Phong tạp chí (South Wind Magazine) are not objective, which may cause misunderstanding that these are two conservative magazines. In fact, these two publications are products of the literary transitional period, aiming at old readers, promoting a new style of composition, translating many Western poems, essays, and novels, and not only printing old-fashioned works. South Wind Magazine published poetic compositions of some medieval poets and poems written in medieval poetry, and it also printed many translations of French poetry to suggest new poetry. Many French romantic poems have been translated. For instance, Dong Ho translated three French poems [1]. The modern and romantic lyric poems of Dong Ho [2] and Tuong Pho [9] also appeared in this magazine.

This nature was also present in South Wind Magazine, edited by Tan Da. Tan Da published nearly 150 Tang poems by about 40 authors.

In the Phong Hoa Newspaper of the Tu Luc Van Doan, a group of Western-educated writers of which Xuan Dieu was a member, still published old-fashioned poetry, such as poetry on history. Tan Da also wrote and printed a few dozen Tang poems. During the transition period, newspapers published both new and old poetry because they considered both old and new readers and business needs.

Thus, it could be understood that Xuan Dieu chose a biased and extreme interpretation to only emphasize the newness of Tan Da but ignore his old elements.

Secondly, regarding form, it was true that rites and morality largely bound medieval poetry. “Rites and ethics bound Vietnamese people for a long time. Poetic soul suffocated in the shackles. The heart was crushed, unable to beat. Life was shrunk in the middle of an inhuman form.” The most obvious example was that: Medieval writers often avoided writing poems expressing their love.

From the outside, the medieval poet’s mind was hidden. But in essence, it was necessary to see the difference in authors in medieval literature. They were Zen masters and Confucianists who had conceptions of the ideal person very different from that of authors in the first half of the twentieth century.

Confucians were not professional poets. They were unlike writers and poets of the early twentieth century. They were free from the ideals of the sublime personality of the saint, the gentleman, and the Buddha. The model of the ideal person required a way of feeling and thinking different from the normal person. The saints forgot love not because they did not have a heart that could vibrate like other people but because they used their wisdom and understanding of the laws of life to neutralize love. Zen masters understood the reasons for birth, old age, sickness, and death, so they were calm and at ease before death.

In 1939, Xuan Dieu was still very young, only 23 years old, so he had not profoundly studied medieval literature. The impressions of the old poetry he received were mainly from the old poems printed in the sections of literary supplement, old poetry, etc., in the contemporary national language press. In fact, in the Middle Ages, the Confucianists were august when expressing their ideals of self-cultivation, family harmony, governance of the country, and peace of the world. Nevertheless, they still reserved a separate space for true feelings.

Xuan Dieu harshly criticized old poetry because he only looked at the existence of medieval Tang poetry when the social class and psychology of the readers had changed rather than paying attention to the achievements of Tang poetry in the Middle Ages.

Xuan Dieu’s comment on Tan Da’s poems

To promote new poetry, that is, modern poetry, Xuan Dieu honored Tan Da and considered him the forerunner of modern Vietnamese poetry. The criterion repeated by Xuan Dieu in the article was the authenticity of emotions. He emphasized that Tan Da brought a new poetic soul with a bold personality.

Xuan Dieu highly appreciated Tan Da for his “honest heart” revealed in his poems. Tan Da let the ego spill out of the frame. Passion, extravagance, and dreaminess made his poetry light, free, and egoistic.

Xuan Dieu associated the “honest heart,” passion, extravagance, and dreaminess with the self, called the “ego,” a creative personality. Tan Da’s ego was simply to break out of all the framework of rites and morality and dare to be himself. Accordingly, for the first time (in the history of poetry), Tan Da dared to dream, wander, and give the heart and soul the right to live their own life. Life was like the wind, the moon, the clouds, and the water. Xuan Dieu repeated this to show that it was the most critical expression of Tan Da’s ego.

Pham Quynh was the first to criticize Tan Da’s works and said that Tan Da put his ego in his poetry too patently: “No matter how extravagant people are, they never take off their clothes and walk on the street. So are bookmakers. They don’t use their identity to make stories for people. Especially, it’s hard to accept self-praise” [6]. Xuan Dieu seemed to want to refute this opinion.

Other critics had a different interpretation than Xuan Dieu. Nguyen Vy looked at Tan Da’s poetry from the perspective of regional culture, specifically northern rural culture, which had not been influenced by Western poetry [11].

Tran Ngoc Vuong emphasized the talent in Tan Da’s poetry. According to him, one of the vital contributions of the Confucianists to perception and art was that they expanded the dimension of the world of sentiment, both quantitatively and qualitatively. To do that, they had to dare to show their feelings. Although limited to the scope of his love affairs in the virtual world, poet Tan Da brought readers unusual richness and subtlety in other mundane emotions [4]. That is, Tan Da is still a Confucianist, an amateur Confucianist who dares to live with his affair but has not been included in the category of modern and new poetry.

The world in Tan Da’s poetry was very complex, not purely the kind of poetry that paved the way for modern Vietnamese poetry like Xuan Dieu’s interpretation. Xuan Dieu did not mention Tan Da’s old compositions but only emphasized the new thing he brought to modern poetry, new poetry.

Does Tan Da contribute to new poetry? If yes, to what extent? It’s not easy to scale. We thought that Xuan Dieu wanted to borrow the name of Tan Da, a person who had just passed away and was loved by the whole world, to talk about himself and to express his new conception of poetry, a kind of poetry filled with the state of undefined vague with water and clouds. Thanks to praising Tan Da, Xuan Dieu wanted to affirm a conception of poetry, which was also clearly revealed in new poems of his and others poets of the time. In many of the poems of Xuan Dieu and other contemporary poets, dreaminess was elevated to a maxim. Xuan Dieu loved dreamlike states, disinterested, aimless, and art for art’s sake, which could be drawn from Tan Da’s poems.

Xuan Dieu highly appreciated Tan Da to affirm his conception of composition as a poet. Readers should accept and honor the slightest vibes, forget the social significance, and give the ego the right to live and be expressed.

Xuan Dieu wrote about Tan Da to refute the poetry that spoke of the will and rites in medieval times. For him, beauty had to be carefree and unselfish. The true poet had a sensitive heart and moved before the natural world without reason.

The new poets’ aesthetic conception has changed. Due to the emphasis on personal categories, the emotional world becomes rich and diverse. New Vietnamese poetry from 1932 to 1945 is an encyclopedia of a thousand moods. Perhaps Xuan Dieu borrowed Tan Da to express that literary concept. Xuan Dieu’s article profoundly influenced other critics of new poetry. If we compare this article with that of Hoai Thanh, who selects new poems for the book Vietnamese poets, it is easy to see a certain influence of Xuan Dieu. Hoai Thanh put the article about Tan Da at the beginning of the book, similar to Xuan Dieu’s affirmation about Tan Da: The first person, the initiator of modern poetry. Hoai Thanh wrote: “He has played the opening pieces for a new contemporary concert that is about to happen” [3]. Hoai Thanh commented that Tan Da shared with us “a desire to escape from the bondage, the falsehood, the aridity of the cliché. Since then, Hoai Thanh concluded: “The desire to untie poetry is just the desire to clarify the secrets, the desire to be honest” [3].

The cultural and literary atmosphere of the 1930s was incredibly active, including the significant contribution of the press. This was a time of conflict between the old literary and poetic conceptions and the new concepts asserting human and the new poetic system. There was a typical case of Phan Ke Binh, who both promoted the new and spread the old [7; 8].

Phong Hoa Newspaper, formed in 1932, received the mission of “bringing down all generations of seniors” (Thanh Lang’s words). A new generation stepped onto the literary stage to replace the old generations and was determined to make a new culture and literature [10]. Xuan Dieu lived in that context and was inclined to fight for the new victory.


Xuan Dieu’s short critique of Tan Da’s poetry contains interesting features of theoretical and critical discourse. To receive this kind of discourse, it is imperative to put the phenomenon of criticism in the context of the times and analyze the discourse’s purpose and effects on contemporary compositions and reviews. Any new era in literary history accompanies an interpretation of the previous literature. And this understanding may not be truly objective and comprehensive due to the need to establish a new identity for modern Vietnamese poetry.


Dong Ho (translated). A une mariée (V. Hugo); Marie (Th. Jiracc); Le soir (Lamartine); Aux paysans (Autran) // Nam Phong Magazine. 1928. No. 128, April 1928.
Dong Ho. Linh Phuong - The Book of Poems of Lam Trac Chi// Nam Phong Magazine. 1928. No. 128, April 1928.
Hoai Thanh & Hoai Chan. Vietnamese poets. Hanoi: Nguyen Duc Phien Printing House, 1942.
Nguyen Van Vinh translated The Fables of La Fontaine. The Cicada and the ant// Journal of the Indochina. 1914. No. 40.
Pham Quynh. Dreamy or sentimental // Nam Phong Magazine. 1918. No. 7, January 1918.
Pham Quynh. Talking about Nom poetry // Nam Phong Magazine. 1917. No. 5, November 1917.
Phan Ke Binh. Hu nho tu trao (poem) // Journal of the Indochina. 1914. Issued on 11/5/1914.
Phan Ke Binh. Sino-Vietnamese literature. Hanoi: Trung Bac Tan Van printing house, 1930.
Tang poetry in Nghe An nowadays (collected, edited, and introduced). Hanoi: Vietnam National University, Hanoi, 2001.
Thanh Lang. The literary criticism of the 1932 generation. Volume 1. Saigon: Cultural Movement Publishing House, 1972, p. 109.
Tran Ngoc Vuong & Mai Thu Huyen (edited). (2019). Anthology: Tan Da. Volume 1. Hanoi Publishing House, 2019. p. 45.
Xuan Dieu. Merit of poet Tan Da. Ngày nay Newspaper. 1939. No. 167, June 17, 1939.

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