Hồ Biểu Chánh and the early development of the Vietnamese novel


The novel – tentatively defined as a long work of prose fiction – did not appear in Vietnam until the first quarter of this century, much later than in China. There were several reasons for its late arrival, the most important having to do with the nature of chữ nôm, or ‘Southern script’, an inconsistent and complicated method of writing the Vietnamese language using Chinese characters. Until the early twentieth century, Vietnamese scholar-gentry and court officials either wrote in Chinese using, of course, Chinese characters, or, if they wished to write in the vernacular for their compatriots, most of whom were not literate in Chinese or Vietnamese, they wrote in chữ nôm. If they wrote a story in chữ nôm, they wrote it in verse not prose because verse contained the mnemonic aids of rhyme, parallelism, and rhythm that facilitated memorization and oral dissemination among non-literate members of the society. This is why, when chữ nôm, was the only writing system available, Vietnamese wrote truyện thơ nôm, verse narratives in nôm, not long prose novels. The novel emerged in Vietnam when quốc-ngữ, or ‘the national script’, the new alphabetical writing system using roman letters, replaced the old chữ nôm. [1] Changes in the socio-economic situation – namely the growth of cities, the development of a petty-bourgeois class, a weakening of traditional communal values, the rrise of individualism – also prepared the way for the novel. These changes have accompanied, and perhaps caused, the rise of the novel in other countries. [2]

Storytelling is an ancient art in Vietnam as in other countries. To discuss the beginnings of the novel, one must decide when narrative discourse becomes novelistic discourse and to do that, one needs a definition that distinguishes the novel from other types of narrative. One cannot rely on labels because labels are rarely applied to literary works in a precise way. Some Vietnamese, for example, use the term ‘tiểu-thuyết’, literally ‘a small story’, to refer to both nineteenth-century verse narratives and modern works of prose fiction. [3] We assume that a novel has to be long and in prose. In contrast to romance, a genre that preceded the novel in both Vietnam and England, a novel is set in recent times, usually in the country of the author, not in some “distant, idealized past”. [4] A romance, which has affinities with the epic, does not stress verisimilitude. A novel, however, aims to give an authentic account of individual lives – to record life as it is – and thus it resembles history and journalism. To achieve verisimilitude, novelists often use less ornate language than that used by romance writers; they have their narrators and characters speak as people commonly speak in everyday life. [5] Novels tend to be more “middle-class in scope”: usually they present middle-class, not aristocratic, characters and are intended for a middle-class readership. While romances “value the preservation of virtual and chastity”, novels “tend to focus on illegal doings and forbidden passions”. [6]

Finding a definition of the novel was relatively easy. A more difficult problem arose when we tried to square what many critics were saying about its early development in Vietnam with what we were learning about a southern writer named Hồ Văn Trung, who wrote under the pen name Hồ Biểu Chánh. Most Vietnamese literary historians and textbook writers identify either Hoàng Ngọc PháchTố Tâm [Pure Heart] or Nguyễn Trọng Thuật’s Quả dưa đỏ [The Red Melon] as being the first modern novel in Vietnam. [7] Both works were published in 1925 in Hanoi, but they are completely different kinds of stories. Tố Tâm is a love story which became a cause célèbre in part because it breaks with tradition by ending tragically, with the death of the heroine. Quả dưa đỏ, in contrast, is a greatly expanded and embellished version of an old Vietnamese folk tale about a loyal subject who is bvanished to an unihabited island by the king who has judged him wrongly. After he turns the island into a center for watermelon production, he is pardoned by the king and reinstated on the mainland. We could easily see why Tố Tâm has been considered a modern novel, and although we would classify Quả dưa đỏ as only a quasi-novel – as part novel, part romance, part didactic prose fiction along the lines of Gulliver’s Travels [8] – still, it is written in prose and it is long, and so we could see why Vietnamese scholars have also called it a novel. What we had trouble understanding was why Hồ Biểu Chánh was so rarely mentioned in discussions of the early novel.

Hồ Biểu Chánh was born in Gò-công province in the Mekong Delta area of southern Vietnam. In 1912, when he was 27 years old and an official in the French colonial administration, he volunteered to be transferred to Cà-mau at the southern tip of Vietnam. Before moving to Cà-mau, he had assisted the translation of a collection of Chinese stories and had written some poetry, including a narrative titled U tình lục [A Story of Sad Love], which he composed in the traditional six-eight verse form. After finishing it, he decided he could reach his readers more effectively in another genre. He had read some prose narratives written by other Vietnamese living in the Delta region, [9] including one by Trần Chánh Chiếu titled Hoàng Tố-Anh hàm oan [The Unjust Suffereing of Hoàng Tố Anh], a work which he later reffered to as “the first novel in the six provinces [the Delta region], a love story which depicted local characters and was written in prose”. After reading this work, he decided that “it was easier to move people in prose” than in verse and so, inspired by Trần Chánh Chiếu’ example and by the poetic scenery of Cà-mau, he tried his hand at prose narrative. [10] The result was a work titled Ai làm được? [Who can do it?], a story set in Cà-mau which tells about a girl’s struggle to escape the treachery of an evil stepmother.

Hồ Biểu Chánh wrote Ai làm được? in 1912. This 1912 version was serialized in the southern weekly newspaper Nông cổ mín đàm [Discussions of Agriculture and Commerce] beginning on March 20, 1919. In 1922, Hồ Biểu Chánh rewrote Ai làm được? and published it in book form. [11] Hoàng Ngọc Phách wrote Tố Tâm in 1922 and published it in 1925, [12] the same year Quả dưa đỏ appeared. Therefore, Ai làm được? definitely predates both these works. And this was only the beginning of a long career as a novelist. By 1925, Hồ Biểu Chánh had already written six novels – we would call them novels – and he went on to write over 60 novels and was still writing when he died in 1958. In contrast, botth Hoàng Ngọc Phách and Nguyễn Trọng Thuật wrote only one long fictional work in prose. So why do some literary historians, including the respected Dương Quảng Hàm, not even mention Hồ Biểu Chánh’s contributions to the novel?

Seeking answers, we turned first to Hồ Biểu Chánh’s early works. Ai làm được? is about a girl named Bạch Tuyết, the daughter of a district chief, whose real mother is poisoned by her father’s concubine when Bạch Tuyết is six years old. Bạch Tuyết later learns from a faithful servant of the family the circumstances of her mother’s death. When she is seventeen, a man named Chí Đại comes to Cà-mau looking for work. He meets Bạch Tuyết’s grandfather, a wealthy man, who recognizes his talent and honesty and finds him a job as a clerk in his son (Bạch Tuyết’s father’s) office. In order to obtain Bạch Tuyết’s grandfather’s money when he dies, the stepmother plans to have Bạch Tuyết marry her nephew. Worried that Bạch Tuyết’s grandfather may arrange a marriage instead with the personable and talented Chí Đại, she gets him fired; and after he has left Cà-mau, she triess to rush Bạch Tuyết into a marriage with her nephew. To avoid this match, Bạch Tuyết runs away in search of Chí Đại. She finds him and they endure a miserable existence in Saigon: he works as an office messenger, then as a rickshaw driver; Bạch Tuyết gets pregnant, then sick, the baby dies. Finally Bạch Tuyết’s grandfather finds them, gives them money, arranges for them to be formally married, and finds Chí Đại a job on an expedition going to the Indian Ocean to dive for pearls. Bạch Tuyết returns to Cà-mau. The stepmother, still after the grandfather’s fortune, tries to poison Bạch Tuyết, but Chí Đại returns just in time to rescue her. In the end, the stepmother is sent to prison, and Bạch Tuyết and Chí Đại have two children and become one of the richest families in Cà-mau.

Some critics argue that Ai làm được? is modeled on Paul Bourget’s André Cornélis, a French psychological novel about a boy who suspects and later proves that his stepfather murdered his father. [13] Paul Bourget was a popular author in Vietnam. [14] Hồ Biểu Chánh may have read André Cornélis and received from this French novel the idea of writing a story about a child who has a parent killed by a stepparent. But Ai làm được? is clearly not modeled on André Cornélis; the stories are completely different in plot, form, tone, and theme. André Cornélis unfolds like a detective story: André, a young man, begins with only a vague suspicion that his stepfather killed his father; the novel is the story of how, through careful detective work, he turns his suspicion into proof. Ai làm được? completely lacks this detective-story quality: at the beginning of the story, Bạch Tuyết and the reader already know that Bạch Tuyết’ stepmother poisoned her real mother. Bạch Tuyết and Chí Đại’s struggle to eke out an honorable living in Saigon takes up a large part of Ai làm được?. There is nothing comparable in André Cornélis to this love story between Bạch Tuyết and Chí Đại: André is too obsessed with revenge to have any romantic interests. André Cornélis is written in the first person: it is André‘s written confession. Ai làm được?, however, is written in the third person and there is nothing confessional about its tone. Bourget’s work is a psychological novel that explores the effects of suspicion, vengeance, and guilt on the mind of a young man. Ai làm được?, on the other hand, is a moral tale about the wickedness of greed and the value of righteousness.

Further evidence that Ai làm được? is not modeled on André Cornélis is found in Hồ Biểu Chánh’s autobiography in which he includes a list of the twelve works that he says were modeled on French novels. [15] Ai làm được? is not on this list. Ai làm được? probably would have been a better work if Hồ Biểu Chánh had modeled it on André Cornélis. It exhibits the weaknesses of what Phạm Quỳnh in 1921 called the đường thẳng [straight road] method of narration: [16] events in Ai làm được? are narrated one after the other with no detours for descriptions of characters, feelings, or setting. This was the traditional method of narration, the method used in Chinese romances like The Three Kingdoms and Vietnamese verse narratives like Lục Vân Tiên. Since Ai làm được? was Hồ Biểu Chánh’s first novel, it is not surprising that it contains weaknesses. His later works reveal that he learned new and more complex methods of narration, probably by reading French novels and by writing Vietnamese novels modeled on French novels. Nevertheless, Ai làm được? fits most of our criteria for novelistic discourse: it is a long work written in prose; it is set in the time and country of the sauthor; it portrays ordinary people who might have lived in south Vietnam around the turn of the century; and its characters speak naturally in the southern dialect of Cà-mau.

Hồ Biểu Chánh’s next two prose narratives are on the author’s list of works modeled on French novels: Chúa tàu Kim Qui [The Captain of the Golden Turtle] (1922), modeled after Alexdander Dumas père’s Comte de Monte-Cristo, and Cay đắng mùi đời [The Bitterness of Life] (1922), modeled after Hector Malot’s Sans Famille, a very popular work in Vietnam. Although the plots of these novels roughly follow the plots of the French works, the characters and situations are completely Vietnamized. The Count of Monte-Cristo becomes a Vietnamese living during the reign of Minh Mạng (1820-40) who is imprisoned when he breaks the arm of the man who has seduced his younger sister. The Abbé who tells Edmond Dantes of the hidden treasure becomes in Hồ Biểu Chánh’s work a descedant of a Chinese lord who controlled parts of Cambodia and South Vietnam in the seventeenth century. Signor Vitalis, the leader of a traveling trick dog show who adopts the familyless Rémi in Hector Malot’s novel, becomes in Cay đắng mùi đời a Vietnamese interpreter in the French colonial administration who, after a falling out with his mandarin boss, takes to the road with the hero, an orphan youth named Được. They perform as singers and guitar players rather than as animal trainers. Most importantly, Hồ Biểu Chánh’s characters espouse traditional Confucian values. When a rich lady wants to raise Được, Thầy Đàng, the ex-interpreter, explains that he must raise him himself so he will – by experiencing the bitterness of life – learn to respect nhân-nghĩa [benevolent love and righteousness]. a common Sino-Vietnamese phrase used to suggest the Confucian moral code.

Tỉnh mộng [Awakening from a Dream] (1923) [17], Hồ Biểu Chánh’s fourth prose narrative and the first that no critics has suggested is modeled on a French novel, concerns Yến Tuyết, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a prefect’s wife, who is seduced by her first cousin, Trường Xuân. The fact that Trường Xuân is already married and was raised by Yến Tuyết’s mother, becoming therefore like a brother to Yến Tuyết, makes his action even more scandalous. Yến Tuyết becomes pregnant and so her mother and Trường Xuân must quickly hire someone to marry Yến Tuyết so that family hổn will be protected and Trường Xuân’s career chances preserved. They find a husband in the person of Kỳ Tâm, an ex-student thrown on hard times by financial setbacks suffered by his father. The wedding scene is remarkable because it reveals Hồ Biểu Chánh’s dealing ironically with the talent-meets-beauty motif at a time when his nothern counterpart were unable or unwilling to do so. Striving to keep up appearances, a relative of Trường Xuân gives a speech in which he refers to the groom as a tài-tử [talented youth] and the bride as a giai-nhân [beautiful girl]. Since the bride is already pregnant and the groom hastily rented for the occasion, this is definitely not the kind of ideal match one might find in a verse romance. Kỳ Tâm is, however, a talented and principled young man. He refuses all money for becoming a rent-a-husband, taking on the assignment to help Yến Tuyết’s mother and to examine at first hand the hypocrisy of the rich. Eventually he earns the respect of Yến Tuyết and the story ends with them agreeing to become husband and wife in fact as well as name.

All four of these stories by Hồ Biểu Chánh are long narratives. All are written in prose. All, expect perhaps Chúa tàu Kim Qui, satisfy the criterion of recentness. All take place in southern Vietnam in the provinces where Hồ Biểu Chánh worked as an administrator for the colonial government. They are not about kings and queens or high court oficials but ordinary civil servants and farmers that one would meet in south Vietnam during the first quarter of this century. In short, these early narratives of Hồ Biểu chánh appear not only to be novels, but to be novels in some respects more modern than Tố Tâm.

One modern feature concerns the social class of the characters. Although like Hoàng Ngọc Phách, he makes representatives of the middle and upper class his major characters, he also populates his works with characters drawn from lower levels of Vietnamese society. Two particularly successful characters are the peasant woman (Ba Thời), who raises the abandoned child named Được, and her no-good husband (Hữu) from Cay đắng mùi đời. These two characters converse in very realistic dialogue which reveals character and cultural attitudes as it advances the plot.

A second modern feature is Hồ Biểu Chánh’s frank subject matter. Ai làm được? contain a murder and a premarital sexual relationship, Chúa tàu Kim Qui includes a rape scene, and in Tỉnh mộng, a young unwed girl becomes pregnant after being seduced by a married man who is also her first coussin. In comparison to these actions, the transgression of Hoàng Ngọc Phách’s characters in Tố Tâm seem hardly worth worrying about. Hồ Biểu Chánh was less afraid than his northern counterparts to deal with the “illegal doings and forbidden passions” that Lennard J. Davis and others have identified as common topics in the modern novel.

A third feature rwlates to plot construction. Although Ai làm được? had, as we explained, a simple linear plot, Hồ Biểu Chánh’s next three novels are more intricately constructed. His works focus on the social relations of rural middle- and upper-class Vietnamese; in this sense they are novels of manners – exposés of the hypocritical lives led by provincial officials and landowners and their families. Usually, however, his works contain a love story also and often, as in Chúa tàu Kim Qui and Cay đắng mùi đời, add elements of the adventure story. By combining these different types of novel, Hồ Biểu Chánh produced plots less psychological than the plot of Tố Tâm but more intricate in terms of the way different elements are blended into a whole.

Hồ Biểu Chánh’s style represents another innovation. He was the first Vietnamese novelist to experiment with realistic dialogue, [18] the first to write close to the way people spoke. The literary critic Thanh Lãng points out that it is in the novels of Hồ Biểu Chánh that we first hear the characters refer to each other using the vulgar pronouns mầy and tao. [19] Like narrators in Tố Tâm and Quả dưa đỏ, the narrator in Hồ Biểu Chánh’s novels often speaks in the balanced parallel phrases of the Chinese style (lối Hán văn) but Hồ Biểu Chánh has his other characters employ the colloquial rhythms and diction of their southern dialect. At a time when nothern writers stilled favored a more formal, literary style, Hồ Biểu Chánh pioneered a very different, a more realistic approach to representing speech in prose.

Why do some Vietnamese critics overlook Hồ Biểu Chánh’s contributions to the Vietnamese novel? We have concluded that there are at least four reasons, two primarily textual and two primarily extra-textual.

The first textual reason is the fact that Hồ Biểu Chánh’s first novels – two of his first three novels and eight of his first fiffteen – were modeled on French works. Although critics may point out that Hồ Biểu Chánh completely Vietnamized the characters and scenes and that all writers in the early 1920s were, to some degree, imitating French works, still one senses that his reliance on French novels for plots and situations has hurt its reputaion. [20]

The second textual reason has to do with the themes of Hồ Biểu Chánh’s novels. Although he was innovative in the use of certain novelistic techniques, and although he dared to focus on forbidden passions and illegal doings – murder, premarital sex, adultery, etc. – he was very old-fashioned in his morality. He wrote his works to support Confucian valuies, the three bonds and five principles. [21] Despirte his more complexx plots, his works – from 1912 to 1958 – have the traditional happy ending, a ‘hậu’, in which the virtuous are rewarded and the wicked punished. In this sense, his works are closer to the romance than the novel: they follow the romance rule of bienséance, or decorum, that demands that good characters ultimnately be rewarded for their virtue.

Nhất Linh and other writers began in the 1930s to write novels as part of a program to smash the traditional family and Confucian values, [22] but Hồ Biểu Chánh continued to support both. In some works, he may reveal the bad consequences of arranged marriages, but through wisdom and flexibility, he suggests, a solution can be found. There was no need to destroy the netire moral system. Hồ Biểu Chánh was by no means a revolutionary. He exposes the cruelty, greed, and selfishness of mandarins and landowners but he does not want to overthrow them, only reform them. The distinctions that interest him are not class distinctions but moral distinctions: those who have nhân nghĩa and those who lack it. If only, he laments, more people would trọng nghĩa khinh tài [honor righteousness and despise riches], the lục tỉnh [six delta provinces] would be a better place to live. By continuing to write works that espouses traditional Confucian morality when other writers were advocating more radical solutions, he made it easier for later critics to reject his works as dated – as lying outside the main line of development of Vietnamese prose fiction.

There are, however, extra-textual as well as textual reasons why Hoàng Ngọc Phách or Nguyễn Trọng Thuật, not Hồ Biểu Chánh, is usually mentioned as the first Vietnamese novelist.

The first has to do with the isolation of the south from the central and nothern regions. This isolation led northern literary historians like Dương Quảng Hàm to, in effect, write literary histories that were histories of the north and central regions, not of the whole country. The southern writer and scholar Bình Nguyên Lộc told us that he is convinced Dương Quảng Hàm failed to mention southern novelists in his well-known school textbook (1941) [24] for the simple reason that he had not read their works. [25] Until they began to be serialized in the popular magazine Phụ nữ Tân văn [Women’s News] in 1929, few readers in the North were acquainted with the works of Hồ Biểu Chánh. [26] When this periodical was shut down by the colonial authorities in 1934, northerners forgot about him. The literary historian Vũ Ngọc Phan, writing in 1942, says that “there are not many people in the North who rremember [Hồ Biểu Chánh] anymore”. [27] He learns from reading a book by a southern critic that Hồ Biểu Chánh is also the author of other works besides those printed in Phụ nữ Tân văn, including Ai làm được?, but Vũ Ngọc Phan admits that he has not seen them. This unfamiliarity with Hồ Biểu Chánh’s earliest works no doubt explains why he says Nguyễn Trọng Thuật, not Hồ Biểu Chánh, was the first Vietnamese to write a long narrative in prose. [28]

But even if Hồ Biểu Chánh’s works had been more readily available to northern and central readers, one doubts whether northerners would have considered them as on a par with Tố Tâm and Quả dưa đỏ. Hanoi was the ancient capital of Vietnam whereas parts of the South had not been acquired from Cambodia until the second half of the eighteenth century. Education in Chinese characters never was as developed in the South as it was in the northern and central regions. Because the Mekong Delta is a fertile rice-growing area, life was easier in the South. Partly for these reasons, northerners regarded (and the attitude persists today) southerners as simpler and less affected – less culturally sophisticated – and these impressions of southern personality undoubtedly influenced their judgements of southern literature. “People from Hanoi,” Bình Nguyên Lộc points out, were like the Chinese who thought of themselves as living in the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and regarded all the peoples to the south as barbarians.” [29]

This second extra-textual reason why Hồ Biểu Chánh contributions to the novel have not, in our opinion been sufficiently recognized cannot be separated from textual features of his novels. By letting his characters speak naturally as they spoke in real life, Hồ Biểu Chánh, in the view of notherners, was only demonstrating the typical southern preference for simplicity and informality. Northerners, especially northern intellectuals associated with the review Nam Phong, preffered a more formal style. Both Hoàng Ngọc Phách and Nguyễn Trọng Thuật wrote for Nam Phong. It is true that, when he wrote Tố Tâm, Honagf Ngọc Phách wished to create a style different from the rhythmic parallel prose referred to as the Chinese style. He states in a 1942 interview with Lê Thanh that the Chinese style was one extreme he wanted to avoid. But, he adds, he did not want to go to the other extreme and write awkwardly. “Especially in a novel,” he say, “in which one has to describe feelings a great deal, it is always better to write in a style that sounds pleasing when read out loud.” [30] Characters in the novels of Hoàng Ngọc Phách and Nguyễn Trọng Thuật speak in voices close to poetry and indeed they sometimes abandon prose completely and recite their own or someone else’s verse.

Characters in Hồ Biểu Chánh’s novels, on the other hand, speak as people typically talk and do not suddenly begin to recite verse. Northerners clung tightly – much more tightly than southerners like Hồ Biểu Chánh – to the notion of linguistic ornateness, to the notion that language was not a purely referential medium, not simply a tool to tell a story, but was itself  source of aesthetic interest. Therefore one should not write exactly as one spoke but should dress up one’s language with parallel structure and Chinese loan words. This hesitation to give up a more ornate style is partially a result of the lingering prestige of the Chinese style, partially a result of the Vietnamese passion for poertry – of their feeling that anything that deserves to be called liuterature should please the ear when read aloud. This passion for poetic language led northern critics to underestimate Hồ Biểu Chánh’s accomplishments. Writing in 1967, the literary critic Thanh Lãng asks: “Have those in literary circles in the North not paid attention to Hồ Biểu Chánh’s novels because he adopted the position that one should write Vietnamese as one speaks?” [31] It seems likely this is exactly what happened.

We conclude, first of all, that the first Vietnamese novels were written in the Mekong Delta region, by southern writers. The most prominent of these writers was Hồ Biểu Chánh. Although his works do uphold traditional Confucian virtues – especially filial piety (hiếu) and benevolent righteousness (nhân nghĩa), themes associated with earlier verse romances like Lục Vân Tiên – they are not only novels but modern novels. Their accurate depiction of middle-class life, frank subject matter, more complex plots, and colloquial language make Hồ Biểu Chánh’s works more modern certainly than Quả dưa đỏ and as modern as Tố Tâm. BY calling attention to Hồ Biểu Chánh’s achievements, we do not mean to minimize the impact of Hoàng Ngọc Phách’s Tố Tâm. Its psychological structure, its analytical/descriptive prose style, and most importantly its bold presentation of the temptation of individual freedom, especially in matters of the heart, made it an important precursor of later works by writers associated with the Self-Strength Literary Group (Tự Lực Văn Đoàn). [33] We would agree, however, that it was not the first novel and that Hồ Biểu Chánh, too, has inspired later writers, especially southerners like Bình Nguyên Lộc and Sơn Nam.

Our second conclusion relates to how literary judgements are made. Until recently readers, including professors of literature, have assumed, without much reflection, that the selection of literary texts for honors and for inclusion in anthologies and for discussion in scholarly works was based primarily on purely literary criteria. The treatment of Hồ Biểu Chánh by Vietnamese critics provides an interesting example – a case study – of what scholars investigating the formation of the Anglo American literary canon have found: namely, the purely literary judgements do not exists – that all judhements are influenced by socio-politrical and cultural factors.

This article was written by John C. Schafer and his wife, Cao-thị Như-Quỳnh in 1988

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