Women in Nom Poetry
Bac sy Nguyen Le Hieu
         Men dominated arts and literature for centuries in Vietnam. Looking from a western perspective, this fact may underline the sexism of the past, with roots within the male dominance in social structure. However, for ages, Vietnamese culture accepted this differentiation in interest and vocation as part of natural inclination and not necessarily as a sign of discrimination.

         In the 18th and 19th centuries, the situation changed with the appearance of three poetesses: Đoàn-Thị-Điểm, Hồ-Xuân-Hương and Bà Huyện Thanh-Quan in Nôm Literature. Those poetesses changed the literary landscape, each one in her personal way. This essay will briefly describe their lives and works then compare the nature of their contribution to the Feminist cause.

         Social and cultural background

         In the 18th and 19th centuries, the country was divided into two political entities: the North "Đàng-ngoài" and the South "Đàng-trong."

         Following the gradual but more aggressive advance of the Vietnamese into the sparsely populated southern territory, there was an expansion of southern land ownership. Foreign merchants' investments in the country brought about by a rapidly growing mercantile economy resulted in an increase in private ownership of businesses. There was a shift of the population from the countryside to more urban areas. Foreign investments increased awareness in Europe about the Indo-Chinese kingdoms and their non-Christian population; this in turn, opened the country to overzealous missionaries eager to fulfill their evangelical mission. War sent men to the front; the country was devastated; women had to assume most of the positions vacated by men. The decadent feudal bureaucracy in both regions fell behind the rapid changes in the socio-economic life, causing social disturbances and political crises; they also challenged the leadership which proved unable to respond to crises. The war between the two regions, as well as internal troubles in each region itself led to the destruction of both Houses, Trinh in the North and Nguyen in the South. It was followed by the short reign of the Tây-Sơn.

         During the latter part of the division era, two feminine voices embraced opposite and complementary views. One sang feminine qualities and lamented the sorrows of lonely women left to take care of families and society: it was a feminine voice. The other, more belligerent criticized male dominance and attacked society sexism: it was a true feminist voice.


         Poetess Đoàn-thị-Điểm (1705-1748) translated from Chinese to Nom the Chinh-phụ ngâm-khúc (Ballad of a soldier's wife), a 477-line poem originally written by Đặng-Trần-Côn (1710-1745). Her rendition remained one of the four most well known translations in Nom poetry. More recently, a new thesis has suggested the masterpiece was the work of Phan-Huy-Ích (1750-1822) although the argument has not been totally convincing (9). In this essay, we stay with the traditional thesis and attribute the translation to Đoàn-Thị-Điểm.

         Her mother was a "wife-of-second rank." Her brother, six years older than Điểm, was awarded the Tiến-sỹ (Doctorate) degree. She was home-schooled-as classical education was reserved to men-and was very talented. She was married to a mandarin as a second wife and taught literature to women of the royal harem.

         In her time, war raged between the North and the South. The infighting brought husbands to the front and left wives alone. Điểm described the sorrows of separation in these well known verses which were lyrically beautiful because of the rhythm of verses and the repetition of ideas and words.

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