Archive for Nguyen Trai

Lê Lai: The Warrior Who Saved The Emperor

Posted in Dynastic History with tags , , , , on January 5, 2012 by Ian Pham

Anyone familiar with the history of Vietnam is likely familiar with the story of Lê Lợi and Nguyễn Trãi.  When the Ming Dynasty of China invaded Vietnam (Đại Việt) and overtook the country in the 15th century, the duo of Lê Lợi and Nguyễn Trãi rallied the population in Vietnam in a struggle against the Ming, effectively destroying the invaders in a ten year war (1418-1427).  After the revolt, Lê Lợi would become the new emperor of Đại Việt, found the Lê Dynasty, and lead the country through an era of prosperity.

It is commonly understood that Nguyễn Trãi, Lê Lợi’s advisor, played a major role in the success of the rebellion.  However, the duo was also supported by a loyal team of warriors who fought and died for them.  Among these group of warriors was a man named Lê Lai, one of Lê Lợi’s subordinate commanders.

During the early phases of the rebellion against China (1421), the forces of Lê Lợi and Nguyễn Trãi were not yet strong enough to confront the Ming head on.  One mountaintop battle saw the forces of Lê Lợi surrounded and on the verge of defeat.  The Ming forces had trapped the Việt rebels, and were waiting to move in for the kill.

Faced with the possibility of a crushing defeat, not only for the soldiers, but for the rebellion as a whole, the rebels had to come up with a plan, and fast.  Lê Lai, the warrior of Lê Lợi, wanted to create a diversion.  In an act of courage, loyalty, and patriotism, Lê Lai volunteered to hold off the Ming forces while Lê Lợi and the majority of the forces escaped.

Lai fooled the Ming forces by dressing up in Lê Lợi’s uniform.  He then assembled a small squad among the rebels who were also willing to die, playing the chief role in their suicide mission against the Chinese forces.  Lê Lai, along with a small company of Vietnamese rebels, launched an assault on the forces of Ming, knowing full well that it would get them killed.  Thus, Lê Lợi, the leader of the revolution, and the future emperor of Đại Việt, was narrowly able to escape the Chinese’s grasp.

The unsung hero, Lê Lai, saved not only the future emperor, but the revolution as a whole.  If Lê Lợi were captured by the forces of Ming, the revolution, the spirit of the people, and all hopes of breaking free from the stranglehold of the Ming Dynasty would be resoundingly crushed.  In giving up his life, Lê Lai would forever be remembered as the warrior who saved the emperor, and the man who preserved a nation.

Lê Lai is fairly well known in Vietnamese history.  He has been immortalized as a selfless and heroic figure who gave his life for the national hero, Lê Lợi, the emperor himself.  Before his death, Emperor Lê Lợi saw to it that Lê Lai’s memorial be held one day before his own.  In Vietnam, the memorial day of Lê Lai is August 21, while the emperor’s is on August 22.

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Listening to the Rain

Posted in Dynastic History, Poetry with tags , , on November 12, 2010 by Ian Pham

A Poem by Nguyễn Trãi

With all the tensions in the world, one should remember to take a break once in a while and ease the mind with a little poetry.  This is “Listening to the Rain,” composed by Nguyễn Trãi, great poet and political genious of the 15th century.  Translated by contemporaries, Do Nguyen and Paul Hoover.

Jouissez!

“Alone in a dark, silent room.

Listening to the rain fall the whole night long.

The somber sound is a shock to the pillow.

Drop by drop falling melodiously, endlessly.

The sound of bamboo tapping on the window

And a ringing bell melt gently into my peaceful dream.

Mumbled some poems but can’t fall asleep,

Continually listening, drop by drop, until sunrise.”

Hoover, Paul & Do Nguyen. Beyond the Court Gate: Selected Poems of Nguyễn Trãi. Denver, Colorado: Counterpath Press. 2010.

Update: Nguyễn Trãi’s “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo”

Posted in Announcements, Poetry with tags , , on September 14, 2010 by Ian Pham

Not too long ago, I told you readers that I was going to translate the poem “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” by Nguyễn Trãi from Vietnamese into English.  This project, to my surprise, is much harder than anticipated.  The poetic style of Nguyễn Trãi’s writing, combined with the complexity of the metaphors and wordplay in the Vietnamese language, is quite a challenge to translate fluently.  Though I speak both Vietnamese and English, it is still a tough task to convert one language to the other while still maintaining the same poetic integrity of the original.  As of this time, with the help of an excellent advisor, I have succeeded in translating about half of the poem.  If one wanted a realistic timeframe for when the poem will be completed, my best guess would be two weeks from now.  For anyone who is really waiting on this poem: don’t worry, it will be worth the wait.

Coming Soon: Nguyễn Trãi’s “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo,” the English Translation

Posted in Announcements, Dynastic History, Poetry with tags , , on August 27, 2010 by Ian Pham

The “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” is a famous poem composed by the brilliant strategist Nguyễn Trãi in 1428.  It is a very inspirational piece of writing and an important piece of Vietnamese  history.  I have been trying to find a complete English translation, but with little luck.  However, I can find it in Vietnamese, which isn’t very helpful for what I am trying to do here.

I originally wanted to find the English version of the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” and share it with you readers.  Sadly, it is nowhere to be found.  For that reason, I’ve decided to translate the poem myself, using the version provided in the history book Việt Nam Sử Lược by Trần Trọng Kim, a respected Vietnamese historian.  It just so happens that I have a copy of that book lying around.

Expect a full, accurate, and concise translation of Nguyễn Trãi’s “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” sometime in the near future.  I well reference my sources and make it as academic as possible.  It will be correct, it will be inspirational, and it will be worth the read.

– Ian Pham

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:
https://freedomforvietnam.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/nguyen-trais-binh-ngo-dai-cao-200702752.pdf.

Lê Lợi, Nguyễn Trãi, and the Defeat of the Ming Dynasty

Posted in Dynastic History, Heroes of Vietnam Week with tags , , , , , , on July 24, 2010 by Ian Pham

The Lê Dynasty (1428-1788)

“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.”

– Nguyễn Trãi, 1428 (Great Declaration on the Victory Over China)

Fallen to the Ming

After the fall of the Trần Dynasty in 1400, the nation of Vietnam (Đại Việt) descended into a period of civil chaos.  Like the fall of other dynasties in the past, a time of violence and power struggle plagued the country following the end of the Trần.  Hồ Quý Ly, a government official in the Trần government, had just taken power from the last emperor of the Trần Dynasty, establishing a new dynasty under his own family name, the Hồ.

The Hồ Dynasty only reigned for a short time however, from 1400 to 1407.  Civil disorder and numerous revolts among the population of Vietnam put the Hồ Dynasty in a weak governing position.  Recognizing the vulnerable state of the country, the Ming Dynasty of China quickly rushed their army into Vietnam, smashing the Hồ, and capturing the entire country.  Once again, for a short time, the nation of Vietnam had fallen into the hands of the Chinese.

When the Ming Dynasty invaded Vietnam, they kidnapped many Vietnamese talents, such as architects, generals, poets, etc., and brought them back to China.  One of these skilled individuals happened to be the father of Nguyễn Trãi, the man who would play a pivotal role in the expulsion of the Ming in the years to come.  As the Ming army took his father to the border, young Nguyễn Trãi followed them, tearfully pleading that they not take him away.  His father responded by telling him not to cry, that the best way to avenge him was to rebuild the nation, and restore freedom to the Vietnamese people.

The Warrior

As his father left sight, Nguyễn Trãi took these words to heart, and embarked on a mission to defeat the Ming.  In order for him to drive out the invaders, Nguyễn Trãi needed to find others who would support his cause.  The young man’s search for military muscle eventually led him to Lê Lợi, a rebel leader in Thanh Hoa province.  Like Nguyễn Trãi, Lê Lợi also wanted to kick out the Ming, and had the fighting capabilities to help.  At that time, the Chinese forces greatly outnumbered that of Lê Lợi, therefore he needed to raise an army with enough strength to resist them.

As a talented intellectual, poet, and strategist, Nguyễn Trãi had the capability to help Lê Lợi build his army.  With his political and strategic wisdom, the young Nguyễn Trãi created a plan to mobilize the population of Vietnam and unite them against the forces of Ming.  Through different methods of propaganda, Nguyễn Trãi managed to attract many followers who were willing to join Lê Lợi’s army.

One of Nguyễn Trãi’s most clever methods for catching peoples’ attention was his idea of writing a message that said “Join Lê Lợi, Defeat the Ming” on thousands of leaves and letting them wash down the river.  As the leaves reached the villages, the people would see the message on them and perceive that as a sign from heaven.  Nguyễn Trãi’s main goal in orchestrating these ingenious recruitment strategies was to generate immense support for Lê Lợi among the population, characterizing him as the real “Son of Heaven,”  who’s destiny was to liberate the Vietnamese people and lead them to prosperity.

The Mastermind

His plan worked perfectly, as they were able to recruit a steady stream of fighters into their army.  Finally, with enough military strength, Lê Lợi and Nguyễn Trãi were ready to take on the Ming.  Since the Chinese still greatly outnumbered the Vietnamese, Lê Lợi would use guerilla warfare as his main tactic.  In the fight against the Ming, Lê Lợi would command the military, Nguyễn Trãi would be his main advisor, strategist, and propagandist.

In war, Nguyễn Trãi motivated the soldiers, giving them the drive to fight for what is right.  One brilliant strategy of Nguyễn Trãi was to incite his own forces, at the same time damaging the morale of his enemies by convincing them that what they are doing is wrong.  He would send messages to the enemy camps, shaming them for occupying another’s homeland.

Using the patriotism and determination of his soldiers, referring to Trần Hưng Đạo, Lý Thường Kiệt, and the heroes of the past, Nguyễn Trãi reminded them that with enough determination, anything was possible.  With Nguyễn Trãi’s strategic genious and Lê Lợi’s military expertise, their army was successful against the Ming on many fronts, drawing more allies as their fight goes deeper.

The Victory Over China

Finally, after ten years of rebellion, from 1418-1427, Nguyễn Trãi and Lê Lợi were victorious, firmly defeating the army of the Ming Dynasty and driving them out of Vietnam.  With this hard-fought victory, General Lê Lợi became the next emperor of Vietnam, declaring the establishment of the Lê Dynasty.  Nguyễn Trãi would become his chief advisor, penning a great declaration on the victory over the Ming and the crimes they’ve committed in Vietnam.  The name of this declaration came to be known as the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo (Great Declaration on the Victory Over China)” and is still one of the most famous poetic works in Vietnamese culture today.

It is possible to argue that without Lê Lợi, Nguyễn Trãi would never have had the manpower to eliminate the Ming.  On the other hand, it is almost certain that without Nguyễn Trãi, there was no way Lê Lợi could have mobilized the Vietnamese people into a powerful army such as theirs.  Nguyễn Trãi was the brain of the operation and Lê Lợi was the muscle.  They were a formidable team, expelling the Ming and restoring independence to the Vietnamese people after a brief period of Ming occupation.