Hồ Xuân Hương – changing hearts and minds


Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong was born at the end of the Later Le Dynasty, growing up within a social and political disorder. Her formative years occurred during the Tay Son Rebellion, and the 30-year civil war that saw Nguyen Anh seize power as Emperor. Huong is among Vietnam’s greatest classical bards, writing poems in chu nom, a trait that got her posthumously declared as the Queen of Nom Poetry. Her Nom-based works elevated Vietnamese into a literary language, a legacy that is still appreciated today. In fact, if one visits Vietnam they will notice at least one major street in each of its cities named for Ho Xuan Huong.


Although the conservation of history was not as strong in Huong’s day as today, researches have been able to pinpoint her place of birth. Ho Xuan Huong entered this world in the Nghe An Province at some point near the culmination of the Trinh Lords rule. Some researches claim Ho Xuan as the youngest daughter of Ho Phi Dien. Dien was an educated man with a baccalaureate degree, who for reasons of poverty had to work as a tutor in Hai Hung. Ho Xuan was the result of a love affair her father had with a concubine he cohabitated with, a woman from Bac Ninh. According to these researchers Ho Xuan was born in the Quynh Doi Village of the Quynh Luu District. Unfortunately finding evidence of her origin is difficult, and other researches have different claims. Although they all agree on the place and time of her birth, the other story is that Ho Xuan is the daughter of a Ho Si Dahn.


Regardless of her exact beginning, later in life Ho Xuan Huong would gain a strong reputation as a poet. Her witty and subtle writing would be enjoyed by many, earning her local fame. It is thought that she was married twice, as the subject of some of her poems allude to two different husbands. The first is thought to be Vinh Tuong, a local official, and the second a higher-ranking official named Tong Coc. Huong was Coc’s second-rank wife, which placed her on the level of a concubine. According to her writing she was not happy with this distinction at all. Her marriage to Coc turned out to be brief, as he would die six months after their wedding. For the rest of her life Ho Xuan lived near West Lake of Hanoi, in a small house where she received regular visitors. Often those visitors would be fellow poets, some even of note. She worked as a teacher and apparently travelled a lot. Many of her poems feature different places throughout Northern Vietnam. She never remarried and spent the rest of her life single. Following the tone of her poems, Huong is considered to be independently-minded and rebellious to Confucian social traditions. Her poems function as socio-political commentaries and use guileless expression and sexual humor. They contain many double-entendres, irreverent points of view, and well-educated thought.


Ho Xuan Huong remains an inspiration for modern Vietnamese poets today, spawning the creation of many great talents. Nguyen Du, a writer who aided in the foundation of Vietnam’s National Literature, is considered a contemporary of Huongs. Chu nom is presently considered a dead language, but recent efforts have rediscovered Huong’s works. Many poems have been converted to classical Chinese, with others translated into English. John Balaban’s Spring Essence contains a collection of Huong’s works. Her writings remain relevant today, still finding an inspired audience, and representing the artistry of the Vietnamese people.


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