Chu Nom, The Early Script of Vietnam
Historical Development .A Movement of Emancipation
from Chinese Cultural Influence
- Võ Thu Tinh
Translated by Thomas D. Le
From the beginnings of its history until the present, Vietnam has known three kinds of writing systems:
1. The chu Hán or chu nho (the script of the Hans or script of scholars): This is the Chinese writing system, which was imposed on the Vietnamese people by the Chinese conquerors as the official language. The Chinese characters took on a Vietnamese pronunciation, based on the Chinese speech of the 10th century. For almost nine centuries of independence between 938 and 1814, and even during to the first thirty years of French domination (1884-1917), Vietnamese kings continued to adopt the chu nho as the official script.
2. The chu nôm (the Vietnamemse script, nôm = nam),called demotic script by some authors, was the script of the people. Derived from the Chinese stock and principles of word formation, the chu nôm was invented by scholars around the 13th century to reduce Vietnamese speech to writing.
3. The chu quôc ngu (the national script), created by Western missionaries to preach the Catholic religion to Vietnam during the 18th century, was a phonetic representation of Vietnamese speech using the Latin alphabet. From 1917 on, with the encouragement of French authorities, the chu quôc ngu and Vietnamese ascended to their rightful place as the official script and language of Vietnam.
In contrast to the chu nho, which was used to write Chinese sentences, the chu nôm and the chu quôc ngu represented the speech of the Vietnamese people. From this fact one can conclude that only the chu nôm and the chu quôc ngu are the true national scripts. Indeed, according to a widely accepted definition, "there must be a system of symbols for which the speech community established meanings and usage in advance," and "which allow for the spoken language to be recorded." (J. Février).
A. The origins of the Chu Nôm: Chinese characters
To better understand the formation of the Chu Nôm it is necessary to gain a general view of the principles governing Chinese characters. Lexicographers divided Chinese characters into six classes called liu shu or luc thu in Sino-Vietnamese. By the traditional theory, primitive elements were made of images and symbols from which all the other classes are formed by composition or by derivation.
1. The pictographs (xiang xing, in SVN: tuong hinh) represent objects.
For example, the iconic characters shan and mu represent the mountain and the tree.
2. The symbols (zhi shi, in SVN: chi su) represent abstract ideas and actions.
For example, the character shang (above, to ascend) is made up of a vertical stroke and an oblique tick above a horizontal stroke, as opposed to the character xia (below, to descend), which is composed of a vertical stroke and a oblique tick below the horizontal stroke.
shan mu shang xia
( mountain) ( tree) ( up, go up) ( down, go down)
3. The logical aggregate (hui y, in SVN: hoi y) is a combination of two components contributing to the sense, to express a new idea. For example, the character ming (to sing) is composed of niao (bird) and kou (mouth) : "bird" and "mouth" suggest the idea of singing.
4. The phonograms (xieng sheng, in SVN: tuong thanh) are formed from a phonetic element and another element that indicates the general class of objects or ideas to which the word refers. The first element is then the "phonetic," and the second is the "key." For example, the character ling (bell) is composed of the phonetic linh (to command) and of the key jïn (metal). The phonetic gives the word its pronunciation linh while the key "metal" indicates the nature of the bell, which is made of metal.
mouth bird sing metal (chin) command (ling) bell ( ling)
logical aggregate Phonogram
5. The translation of characters (jia jie, in SVN: chuyen chu). This process derives a new character by adding, removing or displacing certain strokes in an existing character. For example, to the character xiào (small) a descending leftward stroke is added to generate another character shào with the new meaning of "small in number, or provisional."
6. The false loans (jîã jîê, in SVN: gia tá). These are derived characters obtained by a modification of the pronunciation of existing characters. For example, if the character xiàng (appearance, air), pronounced with the 4th tone, is pronounced with the 1st tone, the new character xiãng means "mutually, reciprocally."
Xiăo shao xiàng ( 4è ton) xiáng ( 1er ton)
little small (in number) appearance, air mutually, reciprocally
B. The rules of formation of the Chu Nôm
From the Chinese elements and principles of word formation our scholars invented the chu nôm with which to write the Vietnamese speech. Essentially they devised a phonetic representation of the language by adopting the false loans and the phonograms.
a. The false loans (gia tá)
1. Transcription of Chinese borrowings
To transcribe Chinese loanwords (essentially religious, literary, administrative, technical terms..., which abound in the Vietnamese lexicon), both the Chinese graphic representation and the Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation are retained. For example, chu toa (to preside), dai lô (boulevard), minh bach (clear), toán hoc (mathematics).
chủ tọa đại lộ minh bạch toán học
to preside boulevard clear mathematics
2. Transcription of Vietnamese words proper
By and large, the Chinese written form is borrowed whole, if its pronunciation more or less corresponds to a Vietnamese word regardless of meaning.
(a) Thus a Chinese word is borrowed for its sound to transcribe a Vietnamese homophone. The Vietnamese pronunciation is actually the Sino-Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese loanword. For example. the Chinese character chi (personal pronoun used as a direct object) is borrowed to transcribe the Vietnamese chi (what); the Chinese character qua (an ancient weapon) to transcribe the Vietnamese qua (to traverse).
chi ( Svn: pronoun ) / chi (Vn:What?) qua(Svn:weapon)/ qua (Vn:to traverse)
(b) A Chinese character is borrowed to transcribe a near-homophonous Vietnamese word. For example, the Chinese character biêt (to separate) is borrowed to transcribe the Vietnamese biêt (to know), the Chinese character nu (a female, a woman) to transcribe the Vietnamese nua (more).
biệt biết nử nữa
(Svn: to separate) (Vn: to know) ( Svn: woman) (Vn: more)
(c) A Chinese character is borrowed for its meaning to transcribe a Vietnamese synonym, which retains its Vietnamese pronunciation. This amounts to saying the Chinese word in Vietnamese, by the device of simultaneous translation (very much like the practice among the Japanese to read a Chinese text while simultaneously rendering it in spoken Japanese).
For example, the Chinese character ky (a chair) is read as ghé in Vietnamese, to mean 'a chair'. And the element of a Chinese character vi (to do) is spoken as làm (to do) in Vietnamese.
kỷ ( Svn: chair) ghế ( Vn : chair) vi ( Svn : to do) làm ( Vn: to do)
b. The phonograms (hài thanh)
We have seen above that characters of this class are composed of the phonetic element and the semantic element. For example, the character cát (sand) is transcribed by using two Chinese characters, the phonetic cát (propitious) and the semantic thô (earth). The phonetic component cát provides the pronunciation while the semantic 'earth' supplies the meaning, the general class of object to which the word 'sand' refers.
thổ ( earth) cát ( propitious) => cát ( sand)
C. The logical aggregates (hôi ý)
These are characters made up of two components both of which contribute to the denotation. For example, the character trùm (chief) is a combination of the Chinese characters nhân (a man) and thuong (above). The 'man' and 'above' evoke the idea of the 'chief.'
nhân ( man) + thượng ( above) = trùm ( chief)
It has been observed that among the extant texts and inscriptions in chu nôm, semantic combinations are extremely rare. Finally, there are distinctive signs that are added alongside a chu nôm character to advise the reader to modify the pronunciation so as to conform to the tones and phonology of the Vietnamese language:
- either to the right of the character, such as the dâu cá (specific sign) written as or as , and the dâu nhâp nháy (blinking sign) . The latter, invented after the dâu cá, is found only among the chu nôm texts and inscriptions of the second half of the nineteenth century.
- or on the top left of the character, such as the sign , which is a reduced form of the character khâu used as a diacritic and devoid of semantic content.
lộ (svn :road) lọ (Vn: small bottle) la ( Svn: trickle) ra (Vn: go out)
The chu nôm is created principally according to the gia ta principle, i.e., the principle of false borrowing of homophones. Since there are many Vietnamese words for which Chinese homophones do not exist, one had to resort to borrowings with a close pronunciation. The upshot is that a chu nôm character may be pronounced in several ways, and several different characters may have the same meaning. Often the Chinese character borrowed for its sound gives only an imperfect phonetic rendering. Furthermore, abbreviations of characters prove difficult to interpret and sometimes a word is written differently by different authors. There was no institution to standardize the writing of chu nôm and allow Vietnamese to read and write it in the same way. Nevertheless from the linguistic point of view, the chu nôm serves a useful purpose for the Vietnamese language. The semantic elements called the 'keys' help to specify the meaning of homophones in quoc ngu. For example, the sound sequence nam, spelled by three letters N-A-M in quoc ngu, may mean 'five' or 'year'; however, in chu nôm these are transcribed differently depending on the sense:
(1) the key niên, which means 'year' + the phonetic nam (nam),
(2) the key ngu, which signifies 'five' + the phonetic nam (nam).
It is easily seen that the first word 'nam' means 'year', and the second word means 'five'. In numerous cases the chu nôm helps distinguish between the initials d (z) and gi, ch and tr, and between the finals n and ng, c and t, etc.
In spite of the indifference, even the disdain, of scholars, after its birth sometime in the fourteenth century, the chu nôm had gained a solid footing by the fifteenth century to finally establish itself firmly in the national literature by the end of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The first manifestations of the chu nôm
We do not know precisely when the chu nôm was created. As material proof of its earliest existence, one has often cited twenty or so nôm characters which represented names of Vietnamese communities in a stele which was identified by H. Maspero (in B.E.F.E.O., tome XII, no. 1) as dating to 1343 (under the reign de Tran Du Tông), on Mount Duc Thúy (province of Ninh Binh). Actually no one has found the stele, or the impression of its inscriptions.
In 1970, Dào Duy Anh announced the existence of another, more ancient stele, dating to 1210 (under the reign of Ly Cao Tông), at the Bao An pagoda in the village of Thâp Miêu of the former province of Phúc Yên (now Vinh Phuc), on which were inscribed 21 names of persons, of villages, of hamlets in chu nôm. In addition, according to Kham Dinh Viet Su Thong Giam Cuong Muc (Annals of Vietnam), it was Nguyên Thuyên alias Hàn Thuyên who, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, utilized this script for his literary works. Following his example were two other scholars Nguyên Si Cô (second half of the 13th century) and Chu Van An (14th century). Some novels in verse written in chu nôm were also attributed to the same epoch: Trê Coc (The Catfish and the Toad), Trinh Thu (The Virtuous Mouse). However, judging from certain details of form, they seemed to have dated subsequently to the 14th century.
The Le dynasty and the literary development in chu nôm
It was only during the 15th century that chu nôm began to assert itself, notably with the Hong Duc Quoc Âm Thi Tap (Anthology of poetry in the national language in the Hong Duc period), and the Quoc Am Thi Tap (Anthology of poetry in the national language) by Nguyên Trai. The latter is the oldest collection of poems in chu nôm that has been preserved. Written in a simple and natural style, these poems manifested a profound love of country, a bitter disgust toward the corruption rampant at the Court, and a strong attachment to a simple way of life away from society. It was not until the 16th century that chu nôm made great strides both in form and in substance. The greatest chu nôm poet of this period was Nguyen Binh Khiem. His collection Bach Van Quoc Ngu Thi Tap (Poems in the national language by Bach Van) extols the virtue of leisure, solitude, communion with nature, and confesses in more or less veiled terms his regrets for not being able to serve his country better.
During the 18th century the literature in chu nôm continued to perfect itself, and to develop in different genres: poetry, tales, and above all, novels in verse (truyen). In poetry mention must be made of two women of great talent: Doàn Thi Diêm, author of Chinh Phu Ngâm (Plaint of a Warrior's Wife), a famous translation into chu nôm of Dang Tran Côn's oeuvre in Sino-Vietnamese; and Ho Xuân Huong, who distinguished herself by the realism of her verses that drip with sexuality, and evoke without varnish or vulgarity the secrets of the female body.
Next came the flowering of tales, fables, folksongs (ca dao), humorous stories (chuyen tiêu lâm), anonymous works of satire and humor such as Trang Quynh (History of Docteur Quynh), Trang Lon (History of Docteur Pig), Tu Xuat (History of Bachelor Xuât). Ba Giai (History of Mr. Ba Giai), which ridiculed the foibles of society as well as the abuses in the competitive examination system of their time.
Dynastic transition and the apogee of the literature in chu nôm
However, the literature in chu nôm reached its pinnacle only with the novels in verse of the end of the Le dynasty and the beginning of the Nguyen (end of the 18th to the beginning of the 19th centuries). Among the most celebrated may be cited: Hoa Tîên (Flowery Letters) by Nguyên Huy Tu, amelioriated by Nguyên Thien; Kim Van Kiêu (History of Kim, Van and Kieu) by Nguyên Du ; Cung Oán Ngâm Khúc (The Plaint of an Odalisque) by Nguyên Gia Thiêu; Bích Câu Ky Ngo (Wonderful Encounter at Bïch Cau), anonymous; Phan Tran (History of Phan and Tràn), anonymous; Nhi Do Mai (The Twice-Blossoming Apricot), anonymous; Luc Vân Tiên (History of Luc Van Tien) by Nguyên Dinh Chiëu, Thach Sanh (Young Thach), anonymous; Nu Tu Tài (The Woman Bachelor), anonymous.
Beside Nguyên Du's Kim Van Kieu pale all other literary oeuvres, be they written in chu nôm or in quoc ngu. By the beauty of its verses, by its admirable knowledge of human psychology, by its vivid and realistic depiction of the entire society, Kim Van Kieu has earned its place as the favorite bedside storybook of the Vietnamese people. It is the culmination of a long evolution of the national script of chu nôm, the synthesis of the simple six-eight prosodic meter of the folksong and the more sophisticated form already seen in Chinh Phu Ngâm and in Hoa Tien..
During the first half of the 19th century, the ca trù (poem-song composed by the scholars to be sung by professional female singers) was renovated and perfected by Nguyen Cong Tru and Cao Ba Quat. Nguyen Cong Tru, man of action and poet, was under-appreciated by the Kings Minh Menh and Thieu Tri. His checkered career in the mandarinate had seen moments of glory (as a minister, then a general) followed by humiliating demotions (to a private sent to a frontier outpost). Thus his poems, especially in his ca trù, reflected a strange mixture of contradictory sentiments: an exaltation of extraordinary exploits of heroes alongside the aspiration for a withdrawal to the refuge of nature; a determination to conform to the norms and exigencies of Confucian ethics side by side with the propensity toward the enjoyment of life and its diversions and blessings. His language is simple, natural, flowing. His Sino-Vietnamese expressions are always explicated by popular locutions from everyday language.
As a Confucian Nguyen Cong Tru made, through his poems, professions of loyalty to his sovereigns inspite of their lack of appreciation. In contrast, Cao Ba Quat in the name of the same Confucian ethos rebelled against the decadent monarchy of his time, intent on a complete makeover. He termed his insurrection a "Thang Vo revolution" reusing the term by which the Chinese historian Tu Ma Thien characterized the overthrow of King Kiet by King Thanh Thang and that of King Tru by King Vo Vuong. The king is but a holder of the heavenly mandate, charged with the responsibility of insuring the well-being of the people. Failure to accomplish this charge results in its being removed by the Celestial Emperor. The term "cach menh" (literally to relieve one of a mission) means the cancellation of the Mandate of Heaven, and is used today to translate the French word "revolution."
Cao Ba Quat was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the greatest poets of his time. His poems reflected a sensibility toward the beauty of nature, and an awareness of the brevity of life and mostly of the people's misery. He is the poet of libation. It was only wine that could disssipate his great distress before the ineluctable misfortunes of life. His ca tru are of unrivalled purity and charm. If Nguyen Cong Tru was credited with renovating the genre of ca tru, it is Cao Ba Quat who won the glory of endowing the literature in chu nôm with ca tru creations of utmost perfection.
Another poetess in chu nôm of the nineteenth century, Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, pseudonym of Nguyen Thi Hinh, owed her reputation as much to the purity and elegance of her verse, whose quatrains were fashioned as perfectly as those of Tang poets, as to her ill-hidden sentiments: a vague and discreet melancholy of loniless, poignant regrets for a glorious period.
The times of decline
In 1858 France decided to conquer Vietnam. In the face of superior modern weapons, the Court at first adopted a policy of concession, only to end up with capitulation. But the Vietnamese people continued to wage a bitter struggle that lasted forty years, led by scholars and Kings Ham Nghi, Thanh Thai and Duy Tan. (who, after their failure, were deposed and banished by the French authorities). The resistance had almost totally monopolized the chu nôm literature of the period. Writers did not seek art for art's sake: literature was an instrument to appeal to patriotism and to struggle for the independence of the country. Standing above all these known and unknown authors was the dominant stature of Nguyen Dinh Chieu.
A Southerner by birth, Nguyen Dinh Chieu had witnessed from the beginning of the hostilities until his death in 1888 all the painful events that wrecked his country. He was the epitome of a scholar who dedicated his life to the defense of his country in danger and of the Way of the Sage, which was the fundamental principle of his life. Among his works in chu nôm the most important are: Luc Van Tiên (History of Luc Van Tien), a novel in verse in which the hero stood firm on his Confucian principles against the vicissitudes of life; Duong Tu Ha Mau, a long poem that extols patriotism and Confucianism over the religions of foreign origin. In Van Te Nghia Si Can Giuoc (Funeral Oration in honor of the resistance fighters of Can Giuoc) and in Van Te Truong Công Dinh (Eulogy of Truong Công Dinh) Nguyen Dinh Chieu paid tribute to the Can Giuoc resistance fighters and the prestigious resistance leader.
The dawn of the twentieth century was marked by the firm implantation of the colonial regime, by changes in the social structure, by the emergence of a new class of collaborators such as mandarins, civil servants, bourgeois, notables,... as well as by a new direction and new forms of national life. Still, numerous were those who, by virtue of their integrity, had refused to collaborate with the enemy, and had chosen a life of want. Realizing their impotence, they often resorted to satirical humor, which is a weapon suited to the weak in their struggle against a superior enemy. However, the laughs, ironies and sarcasms of their works were tinged with sadness, and ended up in tearful sobs. This form of literature was well represented by two notable authors: Nguyen Khuyen and Tran Te Xuong.
The illustrious Nguyen Khuyen was three times Honor Laureate in the triennial contests and a highly respected mandarin at the time of the Court's surrender. Under the pretext of an eye disease, he requested a much anticipated retirement. He had even declined a nomination to the post of province governor initiated by the French authorities. Living frugally in his native village, he began to write poems in chu nôm thereby following the long tradition of satirical popular literature. Though his humor was full of subtleties and rich in veiled allusions, his criticisms were no less acerbic. Nguyen Khuyen also wrote lyrical verse, in which he exhibited love of nature in the portrayal of an autumn scene or the flight of a migratory bird, meditated upon old friendships, and suffered before the misery of victims of natural disasters. His language is sincere, refined, picturesque and of the highest purity. Often he indulged in self-pity. What was the use of all his diplomas, his knowledge and professional honors when all he could do was sit idly by while his country was invaded by foreigners and his people suffered grievously?
Tran Te Xuong, also known as Tu Xuong (Bachelier Xuong), is a very popular satirical poet. He failed several times at the triennial examinations, and for want of money, he was never able to secure a nomination to the mandarinate. His failures and poverty left him a very bitter man. Like Nguyen Khuyen, he directed his attacks on the mandarins, civil servants, bourgeois, the conquerors' domestics. His poetry spread like wildfire throughout the country. If Nguyen Khuyen is subtle, veiled, implicit, Tran Te Xuong revels in crude images, violent turns of phrase, even indecorum. However, when he dedicated his rare poems to Phan Boi Chau, a revolutionary for whom he had great admiration, his tone became serious and filled with tenderness. Tran Te Xuong did not write in chu nho (Sino-Vietnamese). His language is the vernacular, the everyday language of the people, devoid of literary or mythological allusions.
Nguyen Khuyen and Tran Te Xuong are the last poets of the period of the chu nôm literature. Soon a new generation, schooled in Western ways, would pick up the torch from the scholars of Chinese culture.
In sum, the evolution of chu nôm, with which the Vietnamese language identifies itself, lasted four hundred years. From the 18th century on numerous literary works written in "modern" chu nôm gained solid recognition not only among the masses but among the scholars as well. The creation of the chu nôm was initiated by the effort of individuals, who were motivated by the constant need of Vietnamese men to express themselves, and to confide on paper their intimate sentiments, and by the desire of the Vietnamese people to complete its independence. It is the reaction of an entire nation against foreign cultural domination. Thus the chu nôm had achieved great strides every time a broad-based movement swept the country.
In the 14th century, when the country enjoyed the blissful days of independence, King Tran Anh Tong reminded officials responsible for disseminating royal ordinances and administrative documents to translate them into chu nôm to allow the people to understand their content. Ho Qui Ly (1400-1407), a king keenly jealous of the cultural independence of his country, had several volumes of Confucian literature translated into chu nôm and encouraged the use of the new script in official communications. Nguyên Huê (1788-1792), after repelling a Chinese invasion, decreed that the chu nôm should be the language of administration as well as of the triennial examinations. At the end of the nineteenth century, a critical moment in our history, the scholar Nguyen Truong To, former student in Rome and Paris, addressed no fewer than fifteen petitions to King Tu Duc asking for a radical reform of the country, of which the petition of 1867 proposed the replacement of Chinese characters by chu nôm. Among others the petitions called for the renovation and standardization of this writing system, for the publication of a dictionary of chu nôm to be used by the administration and in schools, so that everybody could read and write in the same way. At first Tu Duc loved the idea, but the gradually spreading occupation of the country by the French and the fanatic conservatism of his Court finally persuaded him to reject the proposals.
From chu nôm to chu quôc ngu
We have reviewed the names of the greatest authors in chu nôm literature. And they decidedly form a large part of the Vietnamese pantheon. They wrote their works in chu nôm, and thanks to this script Vietnamese were able to produce a remarkable national literature, from the novels in verse by Nguyen Du and Nguyen Huy Tu, through the plaints of Chinh Phu Ngam and Cung Oan Ngam Khuc, to the the poems of Nguyen Cong Tru, Cao Ba Quat, Ho Xuan Huong, Ba Huyen Thanh Quan, Nguyen Khuyen, Tran Te Xuong, to cite only a few. Today since few people know how to decipher this script, the above works had to be transcribed into chu quoc ngu for use in libraries and schools.
Like Vietnam, countries under the cultural influence of China for centuries have adopted their own scripts, not only to transcribe Chinese loanwords, but also to reduce their national language to writing. Their effort resulted in composite systems that are more or less long-lasting. The Japanese devised a mixed system of syllabic symbols (kano) and Chinese characters; the Koreans nowadays have acquired a non-Phoenician alphabet. Still these scripts retain a large number of Chinese characters, especially in philosophical, literary and technical writings. Vietnamese alone has used nothing but the Latin alphabet.
Starting from 1917, the word-based nôm writing system has given way to the phonetic quôc ngu. In the word-based writing system a considerable inventory of signs and characters is necessary as there must be as many signs as there are words in the language. Consequently one is required to have a very large memory to retain a sufficient amount of characters necessary for reading. In contrast, a sound-based script such as the quôc ngu is far less cumbersome.
The great writers in chu nôm have handed down a Vietnamese language already polished and refined. Since the chu quôc ngu is a system at once simple and easy to handle, it has the ability to render the spoken language faithfully, thereby facilitating the expression of the people's sentiments and a widespead dissemination of newly imported Western ideas that help to shape the emergence of the new Vietnamese man and society in the periods to come.
Alleton, Viviane, L'Ecriture Chinoise (The Chinese Script), Pans, P.U.K, 1970.
Bui Quang Tung & Nguyen Huong, Le Dai Viet et ses voisins (The Dai Viet and its Neighbors), Paris, L'Harmattan, 1990.
Higounet, Charles, L'Ecriture (The Writing System), Paris, P.U.F., 1955.
Le Thành Khôi, Histoire du Vietnam (A History of Vietnam), Paris, S.E.A., 1982.
Buu Cam, Uu va khuyet diem cua Chu Nôm (The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Chu Nom), Khao Co Tâp San (Review of Archaelogy), Sàigon, 1960.
Dao Duy Anh, Chu Nôm, Paris.S.E.A., 1979.
Duong Quang Hàm, Viet Nam Van Hoc Su Yeu (A Short History of Vietnamese Literature), Pans, A.S.E., 1986.
Nguyen Ta Nhi, “Loi dánh dâu cá trong chu nôm” (The Dau Ca Sign in Chu Nom), Tap Chi Han Nôm (The Chinese-Nom Journal), so 1+2, Ha Noi, 1987.