Ăn cỗ đầu người

translated and annotated

Dr. Đàm Trung Pháp
Professor Emeritus
Texas Woman’s University


“Ăn Cỗ Đầu Người”

Nguyễn Biểu


Nguyễn Biểu (1350-1413) was a brave righteous man who was born in Hà Tĩnh Province during the wane of the Trần dynasty. He was a ngự sử (a mandarin whose duty was to prevent the king from making wrong decisions) when Hồ Quý Ly was usurping the throne and the Ming (Minh) troops from China were invading Vietnam under the guise of defeating the usurper and restoring the Trần dynasty. Nguyễn Biểu decided to join King Trần Trùng Quang to defeat the invaders.

In early 1413, after the loss of Nghệ An, the king retreated to Hóa Châu. To buy time, the king asked Nguyễn Biểu to negotiate for peace with the Ming general Zhang Fu (Trương Phụ). After the meeting, however, Zhang Fu did not allow Nguyễn Biểu to leave. Infuriated, Nguyễn Biểu said to Zhang Fu and his subordinates: “You brutes, you only pretend that out of love and righteousness you have brought your troops to aid the Trần dynasty, but you are actually invading my country and robbing and oppressing my innocent people. You are truly a bunch of atrocious robbers” (Nguyễn Huyền Anh 1990, page 217). Stunned by the daring denunciation, the wicked Zhang Fu wanted to ascertain Nguyễn Biểu’s fearlessness by serving him a meal of human head, with the promise that after he finished it, he would be set free [1].

Without batting an eye, Nguyễn Biểu sat down, gouged the eyes from the human head and put them in his mouth while reciting a poem whose wit and sarcasm scorned the enemy from the North [2].  This eight-line sonnet titled Ăn cỗ đầu người (Enjoying a human-head feast) appears below with its translation into English:

Ngọc thiện trân tu đã đủ mùi,
Gia hào thêm có cỗ đầu người.
Nem cuông, chả phượng còn thua béo,
Thịt gụ, gan lân hẳn kém tươi.
Ca lối lộc minh so cũng một,
Vật bày thỏ thủ bội gấp mười.
Kìa kìa ngon ngọt tày vai lợn,
Tráng sĩ như Phàn tiếng để đời.

I have savored enough precious delicacies,
My gastronomy now adds the human-head feast.
Richer than even peacock sausage and phoenix roll,
Bear meat, unicorn liver hardly compare in freshness.
The belling-deer style song is on the same par [3],
The object displayed on the rabbit head is ten times more.
Hey, hey, it is as delicious as a pork shoulder [4]
Brave men like Phàn enjoy eternal fame. [5]

Zhang Fu swallowed his pride and released Nguyễn Biểu when the macabre meal was finished.  But later, urged by his subordinates and the sycophantic surrendered Vietnamese generals, Zhang Fu had the fearless Nguyễn Biểu captured and tied to a post of a bridge. He drowned when the tide rose.

King Trần Trùng Quang bestowed upon Nguyễn Biểu the posthumous title of Nghĩa Vương (Prince of Righteousness).



[1] This fearless spirit was also displayed by general Trần Bình Trọng in 1285, when he was captured by the invading Yuan (Nguyên) troops commanded by Togan (Thoát Hoan). To no avail, Togan urged this valiant general to surrender, with promise of copious rewards. Finally, the captured general was asked if he would consider a royal title in the North, whereupon he shouted, “I would rather be a devil in the South than a king in the North” (Trần Trọng Kim 1971, page 144). Togan had him beheaded.

[2] This satire is a regulated poem (luật thi) observing the strict rules of Tang prosody (Đường luật). These rules were a touchstone for literati’s versificatory expertise. Like other Vietnamese poets of the old days, the erudite Nguyễn Biểu made use of literary allusions (điển tích) to Chinese culture and history. He created this biting satire by equating the disgust of a gruesome human-head meal with prized delicacies served and uplifting music played during imperial banquets mentioned in the Shi Jing (Kinh Thi).

[3] Nguyễn Biểu alluded to China’s revered Shi Jing, one of the five classics compiled by Confucius (Khổng Tử). “Lộc minh” (The deer is belling) is a poem sung during banquets in the imperial court, the goal of which was for the emperor to bond with his subjects.

[4] This verse alluded to the moment when the voracious reveler Fan Kuai was simultaneously dancing, fencing, and chewing on a whole pork shoulder at a banquet, an intentional act to show off his physical strength.

[5] Fan Kuai (Phàn Khoái), of humble origin, was married to a younger sister of Lu Hou (Lữ Hậu), the cruel and lascivious wife of Liu Bang (Lưu Bang). Fan Kuai helped him vanquish the Qin (Tần) dynasty. As the founder of the Han dynasty, the notoriously arrogant Liu Bang ruled it from 202 BC to 195 BC. With numerous military victories, Fan Kuai became a famous general.



Đào Duy Anh (1957). Hán-Việt từ điển. Saigon: Trường Thi.

Hook, Brian (1991). The Cambridge encyclopedia of China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nguyễn Hiến Lê (2003). Sử Trung Quốc. Westminster, CA: Văn Nghệ.

Tạ Quang Phát (1969). Thi Kinh tập truyện (Tập II). Saigon: Bộ Giáo Dục.

Trần Trọng Kim (1971). Việt Nam sử lược (Quyển I). Saigon: Bộ Giáo Dục.

Wilkinson, Endymion (2000). Chinese history: A manual. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series, 52. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.