Nghia M. Vo
HO XUAN HUONG'S REBELLION
         The rarity of educated women in Vietnam up to the twentieth century reflected the fact that Confucian education was throughout that period reserved for males. Local, regional, and state exams were given at regular intervals to select those (males) who would be eligible to become mandarins and to serve as the backbone of the Confucian bureaucracy. Women's education, if it did happen, was mainly the product of home schooling by educated parents who took the chance and initiative to teach their own daughters. Since the mandarins were usually busy with civic duties, they rarely had the time or commitment to teach their daughters; therefore, the number of educated women was negligible.

         By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Vietnam counted only two poetesses: Bui Thi Xuan and Doan Thi Diem who were both home schooled by their mandarin fathers. Both wrote simple classic poetry and Thi Diem once translated Dang Tran Con's Chinh Phu Ngam from Chinese Han into Vietnamese Nom. Since women were not educated, they did not write either and no one knew exactly what women thought about their lives and themselves in a Confucian world until Ho Xuan Huong arrived on the scene.

         Ho Xuan Huong
         She sprung out of nowhere and dominated the female poetry scenery of the nineteenth century Vietnam because of her wit and sexual innuendos. She was also the first to explicitly write about sexual matters that were taboo in a Confucian world. She was so anti-conformist and anti-Confucian that she would have been simply silenced had she lived in China. Only Vietnam with its tamed society could tolerate her (1).

         As of recently, people were not even sure she had really existed. Studies have suggested she was born around 1780 and died in 1820. Her literary jousts with scholar Pham Dinh Ho, who lived from 1768 to 1839, placed her within this period. Unlike women of her time who were mainly housewives and went nowhere, she traveled widely and made many visits to the Halong Bay, North Vietnam. Her poetry thus bore witness to her travels and dealt mostly with local fauna, flora as well as natural landscapes.

         In a society in which men and women rarely, if ever, mixed together in public places and in which women walked two and a half feet behind men, she was able to move freely and mingle successfully among men. In a society in which formal education was reserved for men who prepared for the triennial examination, she turned out to be one of the best poetesses of the era. That spectacular achievement brought about by an informal schooling spoke highly of her literary skills and common knowledge. She did it not only through her own will, but also through a rare and unusual talent.

         She, like other educated daughters at the time, learned letters from her father and was able to write in nom, a writing system that represented Vietnamese-rather than Chinese, the language of the mandarin elite. In imperial Vietnam, where common people were ignorant of the Chinese language, her writing in nom sparked an interest in Vietnamese poetry and opened the literary world to commoners. They acclaimed her for her wit, humor, iconoclastic words, and down-to-earth expressions. They saw in her a person who spoke the language and lived the life of the masses, not that of a remote mandarin. They at least felt she championed their feelings of anger and frustration against the corrupt and decaying imperial system. Her influence was so far reaching that she had been named the "Queen of Nom poetry" (2).

        Please read the rest of the story in REMEMBERING SAIGON.
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