HUNG NGUYEN MANH1
According to custom in days of yore, when one is a poet, each time when Tết comes, one must have a few poems, either an extempore one under the inspiration of the sight, or a poem on oneself or a narrative…This is to examine things in the past, a look cast back on the way one has gone by in the past.
Among the typical poets toward the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, Tế Xương is a poet we can provisorily call a “frustrated” one; this is because he had to lead a poor and miserable existence and was constantly hanging about his native place, while the highest university degree, he could obtain was only a bachelor one, and he was moreover suffering from the sadness of his country being lost in the hands of the French invaders. That “frustrated” man has left behind many typical verses bearing a clear-cut “realistic and criticizing” nature, and the Tết days constitute an excellent occasion for him to ridicule and laugh at the destitution, the ludicrous showing off, the insipidity of customs and habits…1
First of all is the people’s habit, though rich or poor, to compete in buying things jubilantly. On the one hand many people wish to show off or spread their wealth, on the other hand, other people wish they would not be remarked and laughed at as families having only “incense ashes and cold smoke”. At such a time, Tế Xương not only remained idle but also ridiculed his abject poverty:
“Don’t think, my friends, that in this Tết time, I am poor,
I only have not yet drawn from my chest the money I shall spend.
I’ve ordered chrysanthsemum wine, but the seller deferred bringing it.
I’ve asked someone to buy me some lotus, but its price is still too high,
I got ready to pack up my sugared cakes, but I was afraid the monsoon might cause them to run.
I wanted to prepare some pork-pie, but I was afraid it might rot because of the heat,
This is sufficient, that’s that, let’s reserve all this for the next Tết,
Don’t think, my friends, that in this Tết time, I’m poor.”
Ever since the time Vietnam fell under the French domination, the Vietnamese people have to celebrate two Tết days. These are the lunar Tết day or Vietnamese Tết and the calendar Tết day or the French Tết day. At that time, the Confucian scholars, loyal to the King, used to wait for the Huế Court to proclaim the day that begins the new year and the lunar calendar before recognizing their Tết.
“Springtime was recently proclaimed by the Huế Court,
Springtime is not for everyone in particular, but it’s for everybody.”
From the Court means from Huế, the City in which the Court still exists. But, how was Tết greeted by everybody? Let’s hear Tú Xương describing it to us:
“Popping sporadically and dully is a salvo of tiny crackers,
So noisy on the wall is the folk-sketch showing a rooster.
The shoes and sandals make of clanging sounds, lot of girls with black coal and inky complexions are also well- clad in their silk tunics…”
That sight had caused people who felt deep concern in their native country and were melancholic and nostalgic to chirp out a sigh and moan like Tú Xương :
“We dare ask those who feel deep concern in their native country,
That Spring had come and shall come forever but do they feel anything enthusiastic?”
The customs and habits were like that, the ludicrous show-offs were also abundant, our poet laughed at other people, then came back to laugh at himself:
“People shrewdly converse with one another about new and modern,
Those in rags are not listened to by anybody.
The silk turban of that man is as big as a pot pad,
The glossy black silk skirt of that girl sweeps the whole sidewalk.
With his services rendered to monkhood, that monk has a parasol,
His pockets filled up with cents and dimes, a Maùn montagnard tribeman in North Vietnam rides on a rickshaw.
Though not a refine-mannered person, one still has to celebrate the three Tết days,
Though stone-broke, one can still afford indulging in drinks”.
While people are competing in preparing and buying, in making preserves and cakes, the stone-broke Confucian scholar must also try to do something in order to avoid being laughed at by his congeners… The only thing Tú Xương had done was taking off his tunic to catch the lice and use them to make a kind of preserve which he tasted to see whether it was better than the sweets of the Triều Châu Chinese, or was it also better than the cakes Mrs. Hành Tụ sold downtown?
“This year the shopping is quite shrewd?
A tray of lice preserve is recently displayed?
Boiled with water and sugar inside a copper frying-pan, it looks glossily black,
Crawling out from the tunic, the lice are genuinely fat?
How can the sweets of the Trieàu Chaâu Chinese compete with it.
The cakes of Mrs. Haønh Tuï are also much inferior to it?
Next year, I’m determined to open a lice preserve shop And sprinkle some additional perfume on it?”
Taking that kind of lice preserve, sprinkling some perfume on it, then displaying it in the shop… Tú Xương really had reached the height of impertinence. From Tú Xương’s stock of thoughts, people can still pick up the poem entitled “Borrowing money from Heaven” to spend at Tết – as it’s not easy for the rich folk to give up their bowels (i.e. to spend their money) on these days3
Seeing that the Creator’s stock is still full,
I then wish to ask Heaven to loan me some cash.
Upon asking the Moon, the Moon lies,
When asking the Wind, the Wind is quite haughty.
As for the coulds, when asked, they flew away,
Upon asking the thunder, the thunder turns talkative.
I wouldn’t spend more time to ask continually,
And I would ask Heaven for a loan to have plenty to spend.
The “loan” mentioned by Tú Xương is nothing less than “literature” displayed for sale at the open air market – a place where, at that time “the girl selling books drowzed”.
On Tết days, the rich people have silk fabrics, brocade and satin, as for the poor ones, they have brown trousers and tunics made of cloth, no one fails to have a new dress to embellish himself – parti – cularly the children in their earlier youth:
“Old people have a bowl of soup,
Young children have a new dress”
Poet Tú Xương himself throughly understands the telling and bristling value of that outer cover:
Cleverly telling one another that it’s recent and new,
Anyone with tattered clothes wouldn’t be listened to.
1 Associate Professor HUNG NGUYEN MANH, Doctor of Phylosophy in History.
2 According to TRẦN THANH MAI – On the Vị river – Trần Tế Xương’s literature and life – Tân Việt publishing house – 4th printing 1973. pp.56 to 59.
3 Compiled NGÔ THI – A Tết poem by Tú Xương – Liberated Saigon – Đinh Sửu Springtime issue, 1997 – page 7.
BAN TU THU
◊ Source: Vietnamese Lunar New Year – Major Festival – Asso. Prof. HUNG NGUYEN MANH, Doctor of Phylosophy in History.
◊ Bold text and sepia images has been set by Ban Tu Thu – thanhdiavietnamhoc.com
◊ From Sketches in early 20th century to traditional rituals and festival.
◊ Signification of the term “Tết”
◊ Lunar New Year Festival
◊ Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for KITCHEN and CAKES
◊ Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for MARKETING – Section 1
◊ Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for MARKETING – Section 2
◊ Concerns of PROVIDENT PEOPLE – Concerns for Dept payment
◊ In SOUTHERN PART of the COUNTRY: a HOST of PARALLEL CONCERNS
◊ The tray of Five fruits
◊ The Arrival of New Year
◊ SPRING SCROLLS – Section 1
◊ The Cult of The Deities of the Kitchen – Section 1
◊ The Cult of The Deities of the Kitchen – Section 2
◊ The Cult of The Deities of the Kitchen – Section 3
◊ Waiting for the NEW YEAR – Section 1
◊ Before BEGINNING to WORK
◊ Paying the last honours to CÔ KÍ” (The clerk’s wife) on the second Day of TẾT
◊ Vietnam Lunar New Year – vi-VersiGoo