A Man's Ambition
Nguyen Cong Tru, Hien V. Ho
         Nguyễn Công Trứ (1778-1858) is the prototype of the traditional Vietnamese man of letters; he was an accomplished administrator, a successful warrior, a poet, and even a composer of traditional Vietnamese music for geishas (ca trù). The son of a mandarin, he was a late bloomer. He passed his civil service examination only after the third trial, at the age of 42, having to wait for six years after each failed attempt. He eventually got his Giải Nguyên (master's degree) and had an illustrious career in public service until his retirement in 1848, at the age of seventy.

         However, his poetry in Sinitic Vietnamese (Hán Việt) and in Nôm (colloquial Vietnamese) appears to be the most important and enduring part of his legacy. It reflects his different moods and philosophic considerations as he belatedly achieved his academic goals, experienced the extreme upheavals of his career and finally found contentment and playfulness in the art of growing old. There was the initial youthful enthusiasm with the ideal of the Confucian-learned gentleman (kẻ sĩ):

         "Nhân sinh tự cổ thùy vô tử
         Lưu thủ đan tâm chiếu hãn thanh."

         (Since antiquity, has any human escaped death?
         Leave a red heart that shines through history!)

         It was followed by indifference and disillusionment with "honors and privileges" (danh lợi). When demoted to the lowest rank in the army (lính thú), he remarked "there is no glory in being a general, so there is no shame in being a private." His retirement from "the busy and gaudy places" (chốn phồn hoa) allowed him to appreciate nature and "simple" pleasures in life like riding an ox instead of a horse and marrying a young concubine when he was seventy-three (when his bride asked him about his age, he famously replied: "fifty years ago, I was twenty three.")

        Please read the rest of the story in THE MEN OF VIETNAM.