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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cao Ba Quat - the "Sain" of "eccentric poems"

In the 19th century, the couple of “Sieu Deity” (Nguyen Van Sieu) and “Saint Quat” (Cao Ba Quat) was very famous in Thang Long-Hanoi literature. Their literature talents won a lot of praise from Tu Duc King:

Van nhu Sieu, Quat vo Tien Han
Thi Dao Tung, Tuy that Thinh Duong
(As compared with literary style of Nguyen Van Sieu and Cao Ba Quat, Tien Han’s literature is not remarkable; as compared with poetry of Tung Thien Vuong and Tuy Ly Vuong, Thinh Duong’s poetry is nothing).
Cao Ba Quat was born in 1809 in Phu Thi village (now Phu Thi village, Phu Thi commune, Gia Lam district, Hanoi) and grew up in Dinh Ngang area, the Southern part of Thang Long. His family has a long tradition of competition-examination, with great mandarins holding various important positions in the court such as Minister Cao Duong Trac in Le Trung Hung’s time and Deputy Headmaster Cao Huy Dieu in Gia Long King’s time. However his father, Cao Tuu Chieu, was only a knowledgeable Confucian and teacher.
When he was small, Cao Ba Quat was famous for his intelligence and excellence. In 1832, Cao Ba Quat attended Hoi examination for many times but he could not pass because of violating examination regulations. Legend has it that, in an examination paper of Cao Ba Quat, there were often 4 forms of writing as Chan, Thao, Trien, Le, so he often failed.
After 10 years of unsuccessful examinations, until 1841 Cao Ba Quat was recalled to Hue capital and appointed as a low-ranking mandarin in the Ministry of Rites. In August, 1841 he was appointed to be the mandarin of primary examination in Thua Thien Examination Compound. While being an examiner, he found some exam papers which were good but profanated tabooed names. So he and his friends tried to help correct them. This was disclosed and Cao Ba Quat was sentenced to death. Later the case was re-considered and he was dismissed and imprisoned for 3 years.
In 1847, Cao Ba Quat was invited to work in the Academy of Hue Court and focused on collecting literature. So moved by the support of two royal members, namely Tung Thien Vuong and Tuy Ly Vuong, he took part in Mac Van thi xa, a literary association established by these 2 men.
Although taking part in the mandarinate, Cao Ba Quat was still poor and he lived in a cottage with worn-out clothes. He was truly sympathized with down-and-out people:
Please keep the tears inside
Have a meal with me to be happy
People’s life lasts long as in a boarding house
No one dares to say his peacefulness all life.
With very upright, chivalrous and intelligent personality, Cao Ba Quat chose for himself the “eccentric” lifestyle, which was against flatters and humbles of many mandarins at the time.
Legend has it that Cao Ba Quat used his poetry talents to sharply insult a village mayor who always take advantage of the poor:
It’s a good that the elephant statues are made
With the head, tail and trunk all in place
But there is something missing still...
Is it because the village mayor cuts it out?
There is an interesting folk story about Cao Ba Quat. On a certain Tet holiday, 2 people asked Cao Ba Quat for 2 parallel sentences to hang in their house: the person who made coffin came first, and a pregnant woman came later. He gave the man a pair of parallel sentences as follows:
Thien thiem tue nguyet, nhan thiem THO
Xuan man can khon, phuc man DUONG
(The more months and years fly away, the older people get
Spring is all over the universe, good fortune is with all families.)
These parallel sentences were very unique, sophisticated and skilful because in the past old people often used "co Tho Duong" to call the coffin.
Then Cao Ba Quat also gave the pregnant woman the same parallel sentences, with only the last word of each sentence deleted.
Thien thiem tue nguyet, nhan thiem
Xuan mãn can khon, phuc mãn
(The more months and years fly away, more people live
Spring is all over the universe, good fortune is full for the family.)
Regarding his talents in making parallel sentences, Tu Duc King was also ashamed by Cao Ba Quat. One day, Tu Duc King thought of a couple of parallel sentences:
Tu nang thua phu nghiep
Than kha bao quan an
(Children should follow their parents
Subjects must be grateful to the King)
The King was very pleased with these sentences, and requested to write them and hang up in Can Chanh palace in Hue citadel and showed them to mandarins in the court. All the mandarins looked at them and highly appreciated, except for Cao Ba Quat, who after reading the sentences also praised “Toi hao! Toi hao!” (Very good! Very good!), and then turned away and mumbled “(but) shifty constant obligations of morality!”
Tu Duc King heard that and was very angry. He called Cao Ba Quat in to question about his comments. Cao Ba Quat explained: “In the first sentence, the word “tu” (child) stood before the word “phu” (father), it sounds like the child is at a higher level than the father. In the second sentence, the word “than” (subject) stood before the word “quan” (King), it also seems that the subject is at a higher level than the King. Moreover, the 2 words of phu and tu were wrote before the 2 words of quan and than, which went against rules and order. Thus, were the constant obligations of morality shifty? (the parallel sentences were written from the top to the bottom and from the right to the left).
The argument of Cao Ba Quat was right so Tu Duc King couldn’t accuse him. The King asked him to correct the parallel sentences, so he immediately rearranged the order of these words and had new parallel sentences:
Quan an, than kha bao
Phu nghiep, tu nang thua
(King’s favor: subjects should be grateful
Family’s tradition: children should succeed).
Only by reversing the position of the 2 sentences and words in each sentence, Cao Ba Quat could correct the King’s parallel sentences to the right order in constant obligations of morality. Tu Duc King was very displeased with Cao Ba Quat but he must “recognize” his talents, since the constant obligations of morality were ensured and the King’s ideas were kept unchanged in the sentences revised by Cao Ba Quat.
Tu Duc was a knowledgeable King who liked literature and often showed off his poems to mandarins in the court. One day at the end of an audience, Tu Duc King told his subjects: “Last night, I had a dream of making 2 strange poetry sentences, let me read for you.” Then he cited:
Vien trung oanh chuyen "khe kha" ngu
Da ngoai Dao hoa "lam tam" khai
(In the garden, oriole “drunken” sings
Outside, peach blossom “bead” blooms)
This poetry style was am mixture of both Han and Nom languages so all mandarins felt very strange, except for Cao Bao Quat who was there and calmly said: “I already heard these sentence since I was a small boy. However, I heard all 8 sentences, and if permitted I would read them all for you.”
Tu Duc King was so proud of the 2 strange poetry sentences that he composed himself that he was taken aback by Cao Ba Quat. Tu Duc King then ordered Cao Ba Quat to read the whole poem, and if he couldn’t, he would be strictly punished for having disgraced the King and the court.
Cao Ba Quat thought for a while as to remember  a poet which he hadn’t read for a long time and recited:
Bao ma tay phuong huech hoac lai,
Huenh hoang nhan tu thac De hoi.
Vien trung oanh chuyen khe kha ngu,
Da ngoai Dao hoa lam tam khai.
Xuan nhat bat van suong lop bop,
Thu thien chi kien vu bai nhai.
Khu kho thi tu Da nhan thuc,
Khenh khang tuong lai van tu tai.
(A  precious horse returning from the West
People grandiloquently come back.
In the garden, oriole “drunken” sings
Outside, peach blossom “bead” blooms
In spring but there is no clapping dew
In autumn, there is only sprinkling rain
Foolish poems, many people know
It’s awkward to ask whether students know)
The poem was completely recited, and the mandarins looked at one another in surprise. Tu Duc King knew that Cao Ba Quat played a trick on him but he was also surprised and admired Cao Ba Quat. The King immediately rewarded him tea and cinnamon, but he was forced to tell the truth that he made up the additional 6 sentences.
In 1851, after several times of expressing his little and scorn thoughts about the court and defied Tu Duc King, Cao Ba Quat was sent into exile and taught in Quoc Oai (formerly Ha Tay, now Hanoi). So repressed and deposed, Cao Ba Quat wrote a couple of parallel sentences and hung up in front of his door:
An empty house with 3 rooms
One teacher, one woman, one female dog
Several students
Half human, half idiot, and half ape.
After that, Cao Ba Quat sent his resignation letter and lived in seclusion. He later took part in the uprising of Le Duy Cu, who belonged to Le descent, against the Nguyen dynasty in 1854, as a teacher of princes. The uprising occurred in My Luong (Ha Tay, now Hanoi), and later expanded to Ung Hoa and Thanh Oai districts. In Ha Nam, the insurgent army occupied Kim Bang district. At the beginning of 1855, Cao Ba Quat commanded the insurgent army to fight in Yen Son district and died in the battle. Tu Duc King punished him by ordering to  kill 3 generations of his family.
After Cao Ba Quat’s families were killed, his works were banned to publish, withdrawn and destroyed. However, until now Cao Ba Quat’s works still were preserved, including Cao Ba Quat poem collection,Cao Chu than posthumous manuscriptCao Chu than poem collectionMan Hien poem collection
Cao Ba Quat didn’t accept to “rely on his wife and children until death”, and didn’t follow old people to live in seclusion as Nguyen Binh Khiem either, nor didn’t let evil people harm himself as Nguyen Trai. He stood up against evils and dared do things which famous scholars never thought of. All his life, this chivalrous person, a “sage poet”, only hung his head before apricot blossoms (nhat sinh De thu bai mai hoa).
It can be said that during their time Nguyen Van Sieu and Cao Ba Quat were totally different. The life of “Saint Quat” was a long and pathetic story. People loved, admired and called him a “Sage poet”. Maybe, Cao Ba Quat was one of the most eccentric sage poets in Hanoi.


This article looks interesting, thank you.

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