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


Check out this blog post to read about the writer’s life from 1910 to 1940: Nguyễn Tuân: A Biography Part I (1910 – 1940)

In 1940, Nguyễn Tuân met Nguyên Hồng for the first time on a train to Nam Định after Nguyên Hồng had just been set free from prison in Bắc Mê district. A few months later, Nguyễn Tuân was arrested by the French colonial government 1. He was sent to the prison camp in Vụ Bản district, probably at the same time as Khái Hưng, Hoàng Đạo, Nguyễn Gia Trí and other members of the Political Party of Great Vietnam’s People [Đại Việt Dân chính đảng] being captured2. However, it seemed that he only had to stay in jail for some months and was released by June 19413. Regrading the reason for this confinement, Vũ Bằng insisted that Nguyễn Tuân joined Dương Tự Giáp, Phùng Bảo Thạch, Vũ Chung, and Lưu Văn Phụng in making the political newspaper Văn Hóa [Culture]4, headquartered in Hàng Đẫy; this newspaper was considered affiliated with the Japanese military that had entered Indochina in September 1940.

Nonetheless, according to Tô Hoài, during this time, Nguyễn Tuân often visited the office building of Văn Hóa, sometimes stayed overnight but he didn’t get involved in any political activities. Members of the Nationalist Party of Greater Vietnam [Đại Việt Quốc dân đảng] including Đào Trinh Nhất, Nguyễn Triệu Luật, Phùng Bảo Thạch often came to that building to prepare for the upcoming political changes, and Đỗ Xuân Mai, the director of Mai Lĩnh publishing house, even convinced Nguyễn Tuân to join them in military training, but Nguyễn Tuân didn’t bother. He came there just because he loved the attic of that building, and would like to enjoy the feeling of living in such an attic. However, one day, the police informers reported the activities of this group to the government, inducing those involved to be arrested. Phùng Bảo Thạch said that Nguyễn Tuân was one of them, which caused him to be imprisoned for some months before getting released5. The experience he got from this event was later depicted in the short note The Horn Sound in the Forest Prison Camp [Kèn rừng tù], published in Vui sống newspaper in 1946. 

Getting back to his normal life in Hanoi, within just a few months, Nguyễn Tuân had several books printed perhaps because he was in need of money. It was said that he tried to borrow money from the literary critic Vũ Ngọc Phan, but Vũ Ngọc Phan turned down as he didn’t want to be involved with a former convict6. On June 5, 1941, The Crab-eyed Copper Censer was published by Hàn Thuyên. Hàn Thuyên, founded by Trương Tửu, was one of the reputable publishers at the time. Since many Trotskyist scholars, namely Hồ Hữu Tường, Lương Đức Thiệp, and Nguyễn Đức Quỳnh had their books published here, writers who used to be associated with Hàn Thuyên were later misinterpreted as Trotskyists. Although Nguyễn Tuân said that he was influenced by Trotskyist ideology7, he didn’t participate in any political activities of the Trotskyists.

On July 7, 1941, Nguyễn Tuân’s Notes [Tùy bút] was published by Cộng Lực, followed by A Voyage [Một chuyến đi], on July 20, 1941, by Tân Dân (director: Vũ Đình Long). The peanut-oil lamplight [Ngọn đèn dầu lạc] and The dying peanut-oil lamplight [Tàn đèn dầu lạc] were published in 1941; their publishing dates are uncertain, though. Nguyễn Tuân started to write for Thanh Nghị, a popular newspaper of the period 1941-1945. On April 1, 1943, Nguyễn Tuân’s Miss Hoài’s Hair [Tóc chị Hoài] was published by Lượm Lúa Vàng (director: Hà Văn Thực), followed by Giai Phẩm [Beautiful Works] on April 20, 1943. Giai Phẩm is a collection of selected works from various writers, poets, and painters, including Nguyễn Tuân, Trần Tiêu, Bùi Hiển, Thanh Tịnh, Hồ Dzếnh, Thế Lữ, Tú Mỡ, Nguyễn Tường Bách, Vũ Hoàng Chương, Huyền Kiêu, Đinh Hùng, and Tô Ngọc Vân. It was published by Đời Nay publishing house (owned by Tự Lực Văn Đoàn). In May 1943, he had his Notes II [Tùy bút II] published by Lượm Lúa Vàng, and shortly after that, Homeland [Quê hương], also known as Without Homeland [Thiếu quê hương], was also published by Anh Hoa.


On January 12, 1944, Nguyễn Tuân’s work was once again printed in a collection called Thơ văn mùa xuân [Poetry and Prose for Spring], together with the works from Thế Lữ, Vân Đài, Tú Mỡ, Lê Ta, Nguyễn Xuân Khoát, Vũ Hoàng Chương, Phan Trần Chúc, Đào Trinh Nhất, Chu Thiên, Huyền Kiêu, Phạm Văn Đôn, Nguyễn Thị Kim, Nguyễn Văn Tỵ, Nguyễn Khắc Mẫn, Phan Lộc, Nguyễn Đình Lạp, Văn Chung, and Đinh Hùng. It was published by Đại La.

The work Nguyễn had received the publishing license since February 8, 1944, but only until 1945 was the book released by Thời Đại. 

Even though Như Phong Nguyễn Đình Thạc had approached Nguyễn Tuân to recruit him to the Cultural Association of Liberating the Nation [Hội Văn Hóa Cứu Quốc] as early as it was established in 1943, Nguyễn Tuân refused to join. According to Tô Hoài, Như Phong tried convincing Nguyễn Tuân by sending him Charles Plisnier’s Faux passeports (1937), yet Như Phong didn’t know that Plisnier was actually a Trotskyist8. Nguyễn Tuân refused to join the revolution probably because he didn’t want to go to jail again.

Yet in 1945, it seemed that Nguyễn Tuân had renewed his faith in revolution, which is evident in his article Untitled [Vô đề], published in the newspaper Văn Mới. In that writing, he expressed his desire to cease his debauched and dissipated living; he longed for ending his exhausting days of smoking opium, wandering without any purpose, excessively drinking, and indulging in hát cô đầu all the time. The August Revolution was in fact an opportunity for him to refresh his life. 

But even though he had joined Việt Minh, the national coalition that led the struggle for Vietnamese independence from French rule, he still remained his anarchist lifestyle. According to Hồ Hữu Tường, at the end of 1945 or the beginning of 1946, Nguyễn Tuân often hung out with the writers that had not belonged to any political forces, including Tú Mỡ, Thế Lữ, Tô Ngọc Vân, Nguyễn Văn Luyện, Nguyễn Xuân Khoát, Đoàn Phú Tứ, Phạm Ngọc Khuê, Phan Khôi, Đồ Phồn, and sometimes Khái Hưng and Vi Huyền Đắc during the events hosted by Trần Thiếu Bảo, director of Minh Đức publishing house9. And on August 1946, together with Nguyễn Đỗ Cung, Xuân Diệu, Hồ Hữu Tường, Trương Tửu, Nguyễn Đăng Thục, Bùi Công Trừng, and Tô Ngọc Vân, Nguyễn Tuân had a piece of writing printed in Culture and Revolution [Văn hóa và cách mệnh] published by the Vietnamese Publishing Union [Đoàn Xuất bản Việt Nam], but this work is a little too immature in terms of political ideology. Perhaps throughout the days before the outbreak of the First Indochina War, the revolution against colonialism was to him something half serious, half playful, and the ideology that mainly drove his actions was patriotism, not communism.

He was somewhat in the process of self-negotiation, too. Even though he knew that he had to change, such change was not an overnight success. His very last work of the pre-war era, The Temple of the Lute [Chùa Đàn], revealed his dissonance between “art for art’s sake”, his previous outlook about writing, and “art for life’s sake”, the sort of outlook that he must take up if he would join the revolutionaries. It was not until the 19th of December, 1946, did he wholeheartedly commit to Việt Minh.

A photograph taken by Trần Văn Lưu at the hamlet Chòi (Đại Từ, Thái Nguyên) in 1949. From left to right: Ngô Tất Tố, Nguyễn Xuân Sanh, Tố Hữu, Xuân Diệu, Thế Lữ, Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, Nguyễn Tuân.

In 1950, Nguyễn Tuân and Xuân Diệu were officially admitted to be members of the communist party, as introduced by Nguyễn Huy Tưởng and Tố Hữu. Of all the writers in the pre-war era, the first person that Tố Hữu wanted to see when he was delegated to be the leader of all literary and art activities in wartime was Nguyễn Tuân. In an interview, Tố Hữu said that he had always respected and learned from Nguyễn Tuân. Because of this support from Tố Hữu, Nguyễn Tuân often send him a card and a branch of violet flowers on each occasion of Lunar New Year. Nevertheless, since Tố Hữu led the denunciation against Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm, this friendship started to fade out.

From 1947 to 1954, Nguyễn Tuân traveled across the military zones controlled by Việt Minh to observe and write about how Vietnamese people lived and fought during wartime. From zone I where he met with the Capital’s Regiment and an old acquaintance, the soldier Nguyễn Đắc Két10 11, Nguyễn Tuân moved to zone V and IV to spend the Lunar New Year with soldiers and civilians. From Vĩnh Phúc, he traveled to Bắc Kạn, then he snuck into Hanoi, which was under the control of the French at the time, just to look for some materials for his writing. Nguyễn Tuân’s unyielding journey throughout the first years of the war was collected and printed in his book, Joyful Roads [Đường vui], published by the Association of Vietnamese Literature and Arts [Hội văn nghệ Việt Nam]. Compared with his works in the prewar era, Joyful Roads is less about the author and more about the world surrounding him. His writing style also became less fanatic and more welcoming. One year later, he published Love during the war operations [Tình chiến dịch] in which he wrote about the lives in the war, especially the friendship between the comrades in tough times. Although Nguyễn Tuân’s stories revolve around nonliving things (the roads, the wind, the bamboo trees, or the river), he indeed made use of these objects to refer to human lives. That is one unique feature of his writing style.

Trần Đăng, a soldier and a writer, whom Nguyễn Tuân wrote about in his work Cháy bản thảo, printed in Tình chiến dịch, Hội Văn Nghệ, 1950

In July 1948, Nguyễn Tuân came to Việt Bắc to join the National Conference of Literature and Arts [Hội nghị văn nghệ toàn quốc] where he was nominated to be the first Secretary-General of the Association of Vietnamese Literature and Arts12, and he served in this position until 1957. During this period of 1948-1957, apart from Joyful Roads and Love during the war operations, Nguyễn Tuân also published Over-victory [Thắng càn] in 1953, Uncle Giao from the village Seo [Chú Giao làng SEO] in 1953, A visit to China [Bút ký đi thăm Trung Hoa] in 1955, Wartime Notes [Tùy bút kháng chiến] in 1955, and War and peace notes [Tùy bút kháng chiến và hòa bình] in 1956.

Although Nguyễn Tuân wrote some criticism on the landlords13, as part of the propaganda for the Land Reform 1954-1956, there’s a story being told about the time he came to an event where Võ Nguyên Giáp gave a speech about the rectification of errors in the Land Reform. It is said that Võ Nguyên Giáp made jokes about the mistakes and appeared to be unrepentant at all. Nguyễn Tuân was totally annoyed by it, lamented “terrible”, and went home immediately14

In 1955, Nguyễn Tuân was delegated as one of the representatives from North Vietnam to join the World Peace Congress in Helsinki, Finland. After this trip, he wrote the short note called Phở, which is about the Vietnamese traditional rice-noodle soup dish, and had it published on the first two issues of the weekly newspaper Văn (1957-58). This piece of writing received harsh criticism from Thế Toàn (Trịnh Xuân An), a writer from Học Tập newspaper. Together with Nguyên Hồng, Nguyễn Tuân argued against the writers of Học Tập, asking for eradicating the manipulation and intimidation from the party’s critics. However, since Học Tập was the official voice of the Vietnam’s Communist Party, other papers, such as Văn Nghệ, Nhân Dân, Cứu Quốc, and Thống Nhất, quickly joined it in criticizing Văn. They condemned Văn’s writers as being corrupted by the troubling spirit of Nhân Văn and Giai Phẩm, the two journals that went against the Party’s direction and administration, which are now widely known as the Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm affair

At the beginning of 1958, attending the meetings on rectifying the corrupted mindset of some writers from Nhân Văn and Giai Phẩm, Nguyễn Tuân was reported to have expressed his anger publicly, reminded the audience of the land reform errors, and posed his concern that this denunciation against Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm might be another mistake. He loudly argued against the meeting hosts: “I disagree with imposing this measure of punishment on Nhân Văn Giai Phẩm”. Having said that, knowing that he couldn’t change the party leaders’ decision, he ended up being one of those signing the judgment against Nhân Văn – Giai Phẩm, and in May 1958, his self-criticism Nguyễn Tuân tự phê bình was published on Văn Nghệ. According to Vũ Thư Hiên, Nguyễn Tuân and Văn Cao were also summoned to Trường Chinh’s office to talk about their dissent, where Nguyễn Tuân didn’t even bother holding back his disrespectful yawn15

Due to his minor “wrongdoing” in the period of 1957-58, Nguyễn Tuân was sent to the farms in Điện Biên for “re-education”, together with Nguyễn Huy Tưởng, Huỳnh Văn Gấm, Văn Cao, Nguyễn Văn Tý, and Lưu Quang Thuận (father of Lưu Quang Vũ)16. Thanks to this period of living in the Northwest region of Vietnam, Nguyễn Tuân gained new experiences and put them down in another beautiful work called The Đà River [Sông Đà], published by Văn Học publishing house in 1960.

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