Nguyễn Tuân: A Biography Part I (1910 – 1940)


Nguyễn Tuân was born on July 10, 1910 at number 29, Rue des Changeurs (Hàng Bạc), Hà Nội 1 2 to a family with a longstanding tradition of Confucian studies.

Rue des Changeurs

His father is Nguyễn An Lan, a junior bachelor (tú tài, who passed three out of four rounds of the provincial examination, or thi hương) that served as the mandarin in the French protectorate Tonkin. From his father, Nguyễn Tuân learned about the literature and the traditions of the 19th century’s Vietnam, which inspired him to write his magnum opus Echoes and Shadows of a Bygone Time [Vang bóng một thời]. And thanks to his father’s constant business travel across the Northern and Central provinces of Vietnam, Nguyễn Tuân had the chance to visit several places, from Khánh Hòa, Phú Yên, Hà Tĩnh, Huế, to Thanh Hóa at the very young age 3.

From 1921 to 1924, he studied at Trương Minh Sang Primary School, Rue de la Chaux (Hàng Vôi) 4 5. In 1925, his family moved to Nam Định, so he had to continue his primary education in “Ca-rô” Primary School 6 before attending Nam Định Secondary School, now known as Lê Hồng Phong High School for the Gifted in Nam Định. The Nam Định Secondary School was founded in 1920 under the decree issued by the governor-general of French Indochina Maurice Long. Many well-known politicians and writers used to be the students of this school, among them Trường Chinh, Nguyễn Cơ Thạch, Lê Đức Thọ, Mai Chí Thọ, Nguyễn Đức Cảnh, and Nam Cao. Moreover, Dương Quảng Hàm, a respectable scholar, and Phạm Cao Bạt, the father of the famous detective fiction author Phạm Cao Củng, were also working here as the lecturers. 

Trường Thành Chung Nam Định

While studying the second year at this school, obeying his father’s will, Nguyễn Tuân got married to Vũ Thị Tuệ 7, a woman one year older than him 8. In 1928, Nguyễn Tuân travelled to Myanmar with 5 schoolmates including Nguyễn Trịnh Bảo, Vũ Tiến Lữ, Lê Trọng Quy, Nguyễn Đình Chung, and Lương Đức Thiệp, who later became a Trotskyist scholar. Earlier on, they reportedly participated in the strike against the French lecturers who had casted racial slurs on Vietnamese students. Nguyễn Tuân was said to be one member of the Nationalist Party of Vietnam led by Nguyễn Thái Học, together with Nghiêm Tử Trình, but they soon broke away 9. Although many people claimed that the purpose of their trip to Myanmar was to seek a way to liberate the nation, Nguyễn Tuân said that, to him, it was merely to satisfy his dream of a bohemian lifestyle 10. Before the trip, Nguyễn Tuân took his wife’s gold earrings as travel expenses 11. However, since he and his friends travelled without passports, they were captured by the police in Bangkok and extradited back to Vietnam. On December 18, 1928, the governor-general Réne Robin issued decree no.5438 pronouncing that the 6 offenders must not be recruited by any governmental bodies 12, and Nguyễn Tuân must be put behind bars for 1 year, followed by some time under house arrest in Thanh Hóa province 13

After being released from prison, he worked as the warehouse staff for a local power plant. One day, the manager caught Nguyễn Tuân typing something using the typewriter, but it’s not part of his job. The manager got enraged and threw the typewriter over his head. Luckily, he dodged successfully, yet after such an incident, he quit the job 14.

Circa 1931, Vũ Bằng and Nguyễn Doãn Vượng visited Thanh Hóa to recruit Nguyễn Tuân to be a reporter for the daily newspaper Trung Bắc Tân Văn 15. This newspaper had once been owned by François-Henri Schneider, then he handed it over to Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh. In the following years, Nguyễn Văn Vĩnh went bankrupt and had to hand over the newspaper to Nguyễn Văn Luận and the printing house Trung Bắc to Đỗ Văn, a close friend of Hoàng Tích Chu, who was at the time famous for being the managing editor of the weekly newspaper Đông Tây Tuần Báo. Hoàng Tích Chu and his company including Đỗ Văn and Đặng Trọng Duyệt, had transformed Vietnamese journalism with modern techniques, made Đông Tây Tuần Báo the most successful newspaper at the beginning of 1930s, before the emergence of the weekly Phong Hóa by Tự Lực Văn Đoàn [Union Littéraire Autonome] 16 17. Đông Tây Tuần Báo attracted many talented writers and artists, namely Phùng Tất Đắc, Phùng Bảo Thạch, Vi Huyền Đắc, Đái Đức Tuấn, Trịnh Đình Rư, Hoàng Ngọc Phách, Nguyễn Doãn Vượng, Vũ Bằng, Nguyễn Vỹ, Lan Khai, Lê Dư, Lê Phổ, Nguyễn Tiến Lãng, Phan Khôi, Phan Trần Chúc, Tạ Đình Bính, Tô Ngọc Vân, Trần Tuấn Khải, Trúc Khê Ngô Văn Triện, Vũ Đình Chí, Vũ Trọng Phụng, and, of course, Nguyễn Tuân 18. Perhaps Hoàng Tích Chu had certain impact on Nguyễn Tuân’s writing career, which is why at the beginning of his book A Voyage [Một chuyến đi], Nguyễn Tuân put down the dedication “in memory of Hoàng Tích Chu”.

1935’s article “Hà Triều Nguyệt, ông hoàng tử của rừng xanh”

During the time living in Thanh Hóa, Nguyễn Tuân also met and became friends with the revolutionary Hà Công Nguyệt, who later became the subject of his 1935’s article “Hà Triều Nguyệt, the Prince of the Jungle” [Hà Triều Nguyệt, ông hoàng tử của rừng xanh] on the newspaper Thanh Nghệ Tĩnh, under the pseudonym Tuấn Không Sắc [“Tuấn” without the acute tone mark]. Many people say that the revolutionary is one source of inspiration for Nguyễn Tuân’s later stories, including The Temple of the Lute [Chùa Đàn] and The Executioner [Chém treo ngành] 19. Nguyễn Tuân also befriended Thông Phu, the owner of a cô đầu singing inns (a house for singing ca trù), and wrote about it in his book The Crab-eyed Copper Censer [Chiếc lư đồng mắt cua].

Within about 2 years (circa 1933-1934) with the money given by his parents, Nguyễn Tuân opened a bookstore. He became the newsagent for Trung Bắc Tân Văn, Thanh Nghệ Tĩnh, Tiểu thuyết thứ Bảy, Ích Hữu, Tao Đàn, An Nam Tạp Chí, Thời vụ, Bạn đường and also worked as a reporter for these newspaper and magazines, with various pen names, such as Tuấn Thừa Sắc, Ngột Lôi Quật, Nguyễn Nhất Lang, or Ân Ngũ Tuyên 20. Unfortunately, his business failed and had to be shut down. Nguyễn Tuân subsequently brought his wife and children back to Thanh Hóa to live with his parents. 

However, in 1937, Nguyễn Tuân moved to Hanoi again, probably on his own and lived here until 1946 21. He traveled back and forth regularly between Thanh Hóa and Hanoi to visit his family. By 1944, his mother traveled to Hanoi to build him a house in Hà Đông. Such an event was recorded in The House of Nguyễn [Nhà Nguyễn].

In his late twenties, Nguyễn Tuân revealed his talent in acting. He used to play in the dramas Money [Kim tiền] written by Vi Huyền Đắc and Poison [Thuốc độc] by Đoàn Phú Tứ 22. According to Vi Huyền Đắc, Nguyễn Tuân is a diligent and perfectionist actor. Every single action on stage was meticulously calculated by him beforehand. There’s one strange thing, though, that Nguyễn Tuân can not recite poetry the way Confucian mandarins often do, whereas he knew a lot about their lifestyles 23

The Vietnamese film crew to Hong Kong.

By January 1938, Nguyễn Tuân was on a voyage to Hong Kong with a film crew. He was invited by Đàm Quang Thiện and Nguyễn Doãn Vượng to play the role of a nurse in the horror movie The Ghost Field [Cánh đồng ma], produced by the South China Motion Picture. Among his companions, there were Nguyễn Doãn Vượng, Đàm Quang Thiện, Nguyễn Dương, Hoàng Văn Dư, Lê Huyên, and Tùng Hiệp. As Nguyễn Doãn Vượng remarked, although Nguyễn Tuân played just a small role, he assiduously researched and brilliantly got under the skin of the character. Tuân’s acting skills reminded Vượng of the French actor Sacha Guitry. Nguyễn Tuân’s recollections of this filming trip were later assembled in the travel memoir A Voyage [Một chuyến đi], printed in July 1941 by the publishing house Tân Dân. Also, to commemorate this special event, he named his newborn daughter Nguyễn Thị Hương Cảng [meaning ‘a woman named Hong Kong’]. 

The Ghost Field was perhaps one of the very first movies starring Vietnamese actors. Although the movie was not a huge success, it attracted the attention of some French filmmakers including Georges Faure and Thomasset from Pathé Nathan Picture. They met and discussed the production plan for the two movies called Le sampanier de la baie d’Along and Postes Frontières in which Nguyễn Tuân was supposed to play the main character. Nonetheless, due to World War II, the plan was never put forward 24.

During his years in Hanoi, preceding the outbreak of the First Indochina War, Nguyễn Tuân was friends with almost everyone in the literary circle of Vietnam: Lưu Trọng Lư25, Lê Tràng Kiều, Nguyễn Xuân Huy, Nguyễn Triệu Luật, Lan Khai26, Nguyễn Vỹ27, Nguyễn Nhược Pháp, Vũ Trọng Phụng28, to name but a few. Together with Vũ Bằng, he stayed beside Tản Đà’s death bed on his very last hours 29. He often played chess with Tchya Đái Đức Tuấn 30. Through his arrangement, Vũ Hoàng Chương met Phan Khôi for the first time 31. Vũ Hoàng Chương even named his adopted son after Nguyễn Tuân 32. Mộng Tuyết and Đông Hồ, the reputable couple of poets living in Hà Tiên also had a good rapport with Nguyễn Tuân. They had come to Hanoi to visit him and left by November 2, 1939. Nguyễn Tuân wrote about this encounter on the newspaper Bạn đường 33 34. The poet Đinh Hùng, in his memoir Let’s burn that old censer [Đốt lò hương cũ], recalled the time when Nguyễn Tuân met and hung out with the members of Tự Lực Văn Đoàn including Nhất Linh, Khái Hưng, and Thạch Lam 35. Thạch Lam wrote a favorable review of Nguyễn Tuân’s Echoes and Shadows of a Bygone Time on the weekly newspaper Ngày nay, and Nguyễn Tuân, in return, gave him a valuable porcelain tea set 36.

On January 13, 1940, he had his first book published by Tân Dân publishing house, Echoes and Shadows of a Bygone Time. This book later became his most famous literary work that has been reprinted no less than 10 times and attracted a wide range of readers. The literary critic Vũ Ngọc Phan, in his lifetime work Modern Vietnamese Writers [Nhà văn hiện đại] regarded such book as bordering on perfection37. One story from this book, The Letters Given by a Death-row Prisoner [Chữ người tử tù] is now taught in Vietnam’s public schools. From that publication onwards, Nguyễn Tuân secured his position in the literary scene of the pre-war Vietnam.


[1] Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, Nguyễn Tuân Toàn Tập: Tập I, Văn Học, 2000

[2] Tô Hoài, Cát bụi chân ai, Hội Nhà Văn, 1992 [“Nguyễn Tuân ghi lại như thế ở mép một quyển sách Hướng dẫn du lịch Ba Lan, có lẽ vì đương đọc chợt nghĩ đến một kỷ niệm”]

[3] Ngô Minh, “Mệ Huế Nguyễn Tuân,” An Ninh Thế Giới, 2018

[4] Tô Hoài, sđd.

[5] Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, sđd.

[6] Tô Hoài, sđd.

[7] Lê Minh Quốc, “Chuyện tình người nổi tiếng: Tình đầu là tình cuối của Nguyễn Tuân,” Thanh Niên, 2016

[8] Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, sđd.

[9] Lịch sử hình thành và phát triển của trường THPT chuyên Lê Hồng Phong, Nam Định

[10] Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, Hồi ký Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, 2008

[11] Tô Hoài, sđd.

[12] Lịch sử hình thành và phát triển của trường THPT chuyên Lê Hồng Phong, Nam Định

[13] Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, Nguyễn Tuân Toàn Tập: Tập I

[14] Lê Minh Quốc, “Chuyện tình người nổi tiếng: Tình đầu là tình cuối của Nguyễn Tuân,” Thanh Niên, 2016

[15] Vũ Bằng, “Nguyễn Tuân: Đứa con nuông của thiên thần và ác quỷ,” Văn Học 105, April 15, 1970. [Later printed in Mười chín chân dung nhà văn cùng thời]

[16] Dương Thiệu Thanh, Mấy chàng “trai-thế-hệ” trước

[17] Tôn Thảo Miên, Hà Công Tài, Trương Tửu tự bạch, Viện Văn học – Viện Hàn lâm Khoa học Xã hội Việt Nam, 2013.

[18] Lý Đăng Thạnh, Nền báo chí Việt Nam thời thuộc Pháp (1858-1945)

[19] Lê Quân, “Nguyên mẫu phóng sự của Nguyễn Tuân và nghi án chưa có lời giải,” An Ninh Thế Giới, 2020

[20] Vũ Bằng, “Nguyễn Tuân: Đứa con nuông của thiên thần và ác quỷ,” Văn Học 105

[21] Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, Nguyễn Tuân Toàn Tập: Tập I

[22] Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh, Hồi ký Nguyễn Đăng Mạnh

[23] Thiên Tướng, “Khi Tuân vẽ nhọ”, Văn Học 106

[24] Thiên Tướng, “Khi Tuân vẽ nhọ”, Văn Học 106

[25] Lưu Trọng Lư, Nửa đêm sực tỉnh, Thuận Hóa, 1989

[26] Lan Phương, “Cha tôi – nhà văn Lan Khai”, Tạp chí Sông Hương, 2014

[27] Nguyễn Vỹ, Văn thi sĩ tiền chiến, Khai Trí, 1970

[28] Nguyễn Tuân, Một đêm họp đưa ma Phụng

[29] Nguyễn Tham Thiện Kế, “Nguyễn Tuân với con trai trưởng Tản Đà,” Báo Xây Dựng, 2014

[30] Vũ Bằng, “Nguyễn Tuân: Đứa con nuông của thiên thần và ác quỷ,” Văn Học 105

[31] Vũ Hoàng Chương, Ta đã làm chi đời ta

[32] Mai Thảo, Mấy tháng cuối cùng với Vũ Hoàng Chương

[33] Tô Hoài, Cát bụi chân ai

[34] Mộng Tuyết, “Lần đầu tiên gặp Nguyễn Tuân”, Văn Học 105

[35] Đinh Hùng, Đốt lò hương cũ, Lửa Thiêng, 1971

[36] Nguyễn Tường Giang, Cái ấm đất và bộ chén trà Nguyễn Tuân tặng Thạch Lam

[37] Vũ Ngọc Phan, Nhà văn hiện đại, Tân Dân (1942, 1943, 1945)

See also:

Nguyễn Tuân: A Biography Part II (1941 – 1960)

Danh mục tác phẩm của Nguyễn Tuân


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