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Language and writing

Vietnam’s national language is a pure product of the country’s history and its faculty of assimilating other races and cultures. Linguists agree that it broadly falls within the Austro-Asian family of languages, but this foundation also features many other influences, borrowed notably from Thai and, to an even greater extent, Chinese. In common with these neighbours, Vietnamese is a tonal language whose tiniest vocal unit is a syllable associated with a tone, and a monosyllabic language, meaning that each concept can be restricted to a single syllable (as a word can be restricted to a Chinese character). These are however the only common factors between these languages of different families, each of which has its own distinctive syntax.

The other feature of Vietnamese is its relatively recent adoption of a Romanised script, while the other nations of the Southeast Asian peninsula, with the exception of Malaysia, employ alphabets derived from the Indian model. Equally interesting is the fact that the nation’s linguistic diversity has found almost no outlets in its written literature. Vietnam’s many languages are all spoken, but they are not always written. The Khmer, Cham and Tai still sometimes use an Indian-based alphabet, while the Tay, Nung and Dao resort to Chinese ideograms, in particular in their rites, where the Muong and the Pa Then also employ archaic pictograms.

Spoken Vietnamese and written Chinese

Up until the early 20C, literature, governmental and legal bodies used only written Chinese, albeit pronounced with a Vietnamese accent. Vietnam had for centuries fallen under the influence of the Chinese Empire, and like Japan and Korea, had also relied for writing on the bank of thousands of Chinese characters. An embryonic alphabet may have existed in protohistoric (prior to writing) times, but Chinese characters were introduced at such an early stage, even before the Empire began its colonisation, that such a system never had a chance to develop. Even after the nation’s emancipation in the 10C, Chinese remained not only the language of diplomacy and government, but also of literature and religion. It thus continued to convey classical Chinese culture, in parallel with a developing Vietnamese which was essentially an oral language. This duality played a significant role in forging Vietnam’s rich cultural diversity, based as it was on two different languages whose pronunciation and founding concepts differed so radically. The legacy of this Sino-Vietnamese culture is immense. It is estimated that some 50 % of Chinese-based words coexist in today’s vocabulary with Vietnamese words meaning the same thing but with a different pronunciation. Thus, “water” is thuy in Sino-Vietnamese (shui in mandarin), as in Thuy Tin (the Water Spirit), and nuoc in Vietnamese as in nuoc mam. Many northern place names are Sino-Vietnamese. The Song Hong takes its red from the Chinese (hong) and not from the Vietnamese (do), and Hanoi is the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Chinese Henei (“heart of the river”). This borrowing tradition has been pursued in today’s speech and many Chinese terms are used to translate concepts such as “customs” (hai quan in Vietnamese, haiguan in Chinese, which literally means “pushed towards the sea”), or “police” (cong an in Vietnamese, gong’an in Chinese, which literally means “public safety”). Of late, the country is experiencing a revival of this Sino-Vietnamese tradition, particularly in the religious sphere.

Nom, a demotic but not very democratic system of writing

A brief exception to the use of Chinese in the Imperial administration occurred in the late 18C under the reign of the Tay Son, who imposed the use of Vietnamese, written with a hybrid system of Chinese characters and phonetics, called chu nom. Gradually evolved since the 10C, it was a clever composition of Chinese characters with meanings (ideograms and pictograms) and phonetic characters with meaning in the Vietnamese language (quoc am, “sounds of the country”). It required a perfect mastery of both classical Chinese and vernacular Vietnamese. Nom was a demotic system of writing, based on the vernacular language, which was why, despite its complexity, it was always rejected by the country’s literary circles as common. Few ever stooped to use it, with the notable ­ex­ception of one of the ­nation’s heroes, the scholar Nguyen Trai. The system was never harmonised and it varied considerably over time and from place to place, gradually ­becoming ­illegible.

Quoc-ngu, a made-to-measure writing system

In the early 20C, a nationalist and patriotic movement, symbolised by the Free School of Tonkin led by Luong Van Can (1847-1925), rejected Chinese writing in favour of quoc-ngu, a Romanised version of vernacular Vietnamese devised by 17C missionaries. The birth of this script can be traced to the publication of a trilingual dictionary (Vietnamese-Latin-Portuguese) by Father Alexandre de Rhodes in 1651. The alphabet is made up of 12 vowels and 17 consonants, fashioned after phonetic Portuguese, to which are added diphthongs or double consonants whose sound changes depending on the vowel which precedes them. As this breakdown of syllables was not sufficient to deal with the language’s vocal diversity, quoc-ngu also has accents which indicate the high and low registers of its six tones. These accents take the form of diacritical marks which are placed either over or under the vowels to indicate whether they are long or short, open or closed.

Devised for religious purposes, for three centuries quoc-ngu remained the exclusive prerogative of Catholicism. In fact, before it became a symbol of nationalism, it was updated by two Catholic Vietnamese, Paulus Cua and Truong Vin Ky, in the second half of the 19C. It was used to translate Western literary and philosophical works, before being declared the official language of the Indochinese government in 1910. Quoc-ngu facilitates the assimilation of foreign terms on a purely phonetic basis. During the French occupation, this led to the emergence of terms such as ca phe (coffee), banh mi (bread, from the French “pain de mie”) or xi mang (cement) and nowadays, it can be noted that the population wears quan jeans (jeans).


It might seem paradoxical in a country which appears to have made so little effort to maintain its architectural heritage over the passing centuries, that such pains have been taken to preserve the written word. The written word is however felt to be the expression of the national soul and identity, be it in opposition to Chinese or French invaders, an autocratic regime or, as today, censorship. Nonetheless it would be incorrect to place Vietnamese literature under the sole banner of militant patriotism. Although the desire for independence may have inspired many writers, a more in-depth examination reveals a common ancestral attachment to their roots and a subtle approach to emotions, be they individual or collective. Due to the nation’s large expatriate population – mainly in the United States and France – many Vietnamese authors have been translated and have enjoyed wide critical acclaim. Of late, Vietnamese literature is increasingly able to express these paradoxes, giving rise to a battle of words between the disillusioned northern victors and the defeated expatriates from the South.

Literary heritage

Vietnam’s ancient literature was, with a very few exceptions, written in Chinese. Political works, such as proclamations, archives, edicts (the oldest known of which was that of the transfer of the capital to Thang Long in the 11C), pamphlets and political or moral essays on the exercise of power make up the major part of this heritage. Poetry, particularly from the 14C, has also played a prominent role.

Nguyen Trai (1380-1442) was one of the first major authors to emerge onto the li­terary scene. The archetypal scholar steeped in Confucian culture (he was made Doctor in 1400), his deep belief in its humanist virtues led him to offer his services to King Le Loi, thereby helping to free the country of Chinese domination. In addition to a major work in classical Chinese, Nguyen Trai was one of the first to express himself in nom or Vietnamese in his Collection of poems in the national language (Quoc Am Thi Tap). However the collection’s tribute to honesty and the simple way of life was ill-received and the author, who has since become one of the nation’s heroes, was tortured to death with his family in 1442. Such an end was perhaps not a surprise to the man who concluded one of his poems with the line: “Only the human heart remains impenetrable”.

Nguyen Binh Khiem (1491-1585), a great poet who lived during the time when the Mac dynasty attempted to seize power, extolled the virtues of solitary life in his poems in Chinese and Vietnamese. “I never grow weary of the country pleasures of solitude.” His disciple, Nguyen Du (16C), expressed similar sentiments in his Great Collection of Fantastic Tales (Truyen Ky Man Luc), which relates his contempor­aries’ failings through allegories.

Doan Thi Diem (1705-48), nicknamed the “Red River’s woman of letters”, was the first renowned woman author. She translated into nom a long epic, Grievances of a woman whose husband has left for the war (Chinh phu ngam) whose painful echo was to resound even in modern Vietnam. Another woman writer, Ho Xuan Huong adopted a ­totally different style which mischievously blended images and sounds into only very thinly veiled erotic poems.

There cannot be a single Vietnamese alive today who has not heard the epic poem Kim Van Kieu by Nguyen Du (1765-1820). This 3 524-verse story features themes which continue to prevail among contemporary novelists. The hopelessness of fate and the lucidity of the characters endow it with a timeless tragic quality. The beautiful Kieu is in love with the scholar Kim, but must prostitute herself to help her father. Kim marries Van, Kieu’s sister and their three entangled fates serve as a pretext for an examination of the inherent contradictions between talent and fate, love and war or virtue and vice.

Contemporary voices

Scholars played a significant role in the anti-French resistance movement, but the colonial government dealt them a decisive blow when it imposed the Latinisation of the Vietnamese language instead of Chinese. However quoc-ngu was rapidly adopted and gave rise to a literary explosion between 1925 and 1945 which featured all the main currents of Western literature, dominated by a realism which denounced colonial exploitation and the archaism of traditional society. The satirical works of Nguyen Cong Hoan (1903-77) and the biting irony of Nam Cao (1917-51) mercilessly related the weaknesses of a society whose fall they sought. Some Vietnamese authors even wrote directly in French (Pham Quynh and Pham Duy Khiem). Many writers joined the revolutionary cause and took to the jungle, in support of Ho Chi Minh.

In the mid-1950s, propaganda began to replace revolutionary ideals and became the only form of expression allowed, provoking nonetheless a few isolated anti-establishment movements, such as Nhan Van-Giai Pham. This opposition group was, however, gagged and all artistic creation muzzled, with, as a result, total silence up until the 1980s. In 1989, encouraged by Doi Moi, the 4th Congress of the Union of Writers refused to follow party guidelines, thereby indicating the return of individual expression, the spokesman of which is Nguyen Huy Thiep. In A General Retires, published in 1987, he launched a Kafkaesque debate on the grotesque nature of fate in a world without meaning. In opposition to this cruel, muffled style, the novelist Duong Thu Huong proposes a sensual, passionate and only very barely concealed criticism of the absurdity of her nation’s government (Beyond Illusions). This rebirth of literature in Vietnam is also echoed in the painful works of those in exile, personified by young writers born out of the boat people generation, such as Nguyen Khanh Truong who lives in the United States (Do you love me?, 1997), or Tran Vu, who has taken refuge in France since 1980 (Under a Rain of Thorns, 1989).

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