Archive for August 20, 2010

The Poem That Mobilized an Entire Nation: Nguyễn Trãi’s “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo”

Posted in Dynastic History, Poetry with tags , , on August 20, 2010 by Ian Pham

Nguyễn Trãi (1380-1442)
When the Ming Dynasty invaded Vietnam in 1408, two formidable leaders rose to liberate the country and chase them back to China.  The first leader was a military expert and excellent warrior by the name of Lê Lợi, the second was a poet, intellectual, and political genius by the name of Nguyễn Trãi.  Together, Lê Lợi and Nguyễn Trãi mobilized the Vietnamese people and obliterated the Ming occupants, establishing the Lê Dynasty.

The two leaders achieved this objective by uniting the people of Vietnam, rallying everyone for the good of the nation.  This was not, by any means, an easy task to accomplish.  It took enormous efforts, blood, sweat, and tears to make the people believe.  One of the pivotal pieces of writing that incited the patriotism inside the hearts of the Vietnamese people was the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo”, a poem/political essay written by Nguyễn Trãi in 1428.

In his delicately written essay, Nguyễn Trãi outlined the reasons why Vietnam will prevail in face of foreign aggression, raising the spirits of the Vietnamese people, and ultimately leading them to victory.  Using the heroes of the past, Nguyễn Trãi showed the resilience of the Vietnamese people and their refusal to give up.  In a bold statement, he clarified that Vietnam has been independent of China since antiquity, and that Vietnam will continue to be free from China.  Not only that, Nguyễn Trãi also made clear that both countries stood on equal ground, regardless of strengths and weaknesses.

One of the famous lines in his poem says that, “Tuy mạnh yếu từng lúc khác nhau, song hào kiệt thời nào cũng có.”  This line literally states that, “Whether weak or strong at different times, a nation’s hero will always rise.”  I have used this quote in several articles, paraphrasing it into, “It is true that our nation has sometimes been weak and sometimes been strong, but never in time have we suffered from a lack of heroes.”

The poem’s title, “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo,” is somewhat difficult to translate into english, since each character has it’s own significant meaning.  In Vietnamese, “Bình” means “Peace,” “Ngô” means “Idiots,” “Đại” means “Great,” and “Cáo” means “to inform or proclaim.”  If we put this together, the essay can be called “Great Proclamation For Peace From the Idiots.”  However, this is just a rough translation, since the context of these words have to be taken into consideration.

In the Vietnamese language, four simple words can be used to convey a powerful, complicated message.  Nguyễn Trãi used these four simple characters as the title of his poetic declaration.  The word “Ngô,” in this context, has more meaning than just “idiots,” it can be perceived as “troublemaker,” “disruptor,” or most fitting of all, “the invader.”  Taking this into consideration, “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” can translate into “The Great Declaration to Achieve Peace and Defeat the Invaders.”  Even so, this is still not the precise meaning of the poem.

In Vietnamese, the words “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” makes perfect sense, but in English… well that’s a whole different story. If I were to go deeper into this particular subject, it would take very long, much too long for a quick read.  All I want to do, for now, is bring to light the significance of this beautiful poetic achievement and the role it played in conclusively vanquishing the Ming invaders.

The name “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” can be interpreted in many different ways, as I have just demonstrated.  Believe it or not, I was only scratching the surface.  Of the many translations, I’ve decided, for now, to go with the “Great Declaration on the Victory Over China.”  Though it doesn’t 100% reflect the meaning of its Vietnamese counterpart, “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo,” it covers the basic aim of the original, to signify the defeat of the invaders and bring peace to the nation.   Also, it is easy to understand.

***For further reading, check out the article, “Nguyễn Trãi’s Bình Ngô Đại Cáo of 1428: The Development of a Vietnamese National Identity” by Stephen O’Harrow: