Vịnh tranh gà lợn

translated and annotated

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


“Vịnh tranh gà lợn”

Vũ Hoàng Chương

According to Mencius, a defining quality of a great man is his fearless adhesion to his principles in the face of threats and the use of force. This crown-jewel element of moral character is expressed in Sino-Vietnamese as “uy vũ bất năng khuất.” Vũ Hoàng Chương (1915-1976),  South Vietnam’s poet laureate, proved this quality by penning the poem “Vịnh tranh gà lợn” or “Ode to a Painting of Chickens and Pigs” to satirize the victors of the Vietnam War, while ushering in the Lunar New Year of the Dragon (Bính Thìn) in early 1976. The prosodically regulated eight-line sonnet in Vietnamese is given below, followed by my translation of it into English.

Sáng chưa sáng hẳn tối không đành

Gà lợn om xòm rối bức tranh

Rằng vách có tai thơ có họa

Biết lòng ai đỏ mắt ai xanh

Mắt gà huynh đệ bao lần quáng

Lòng lợn âm dương một tấc thành

Cục tác nữa chi ngừng ủn ỉn

Nghe rồng ngâm váng khúc tân thanh

Dawn it’s clearly not, yet dusk too soon

Boisterous chickens and pigs stir up the painting

Walls have ears, poetry runs risks

How are we to tell whose heart is red and whose eyes blue

Brotherly chicken eyes have oftentimes been blinded

Pig guts have stayed true in matter of death and life
It’s about time to stop your crows and your oinks
To listen to the dragon sonorously declaim a new song

As anticipated, the poet’s public defiance of the new regime landed him in jail, from which he was released when he was near death. Five days later, on September 6, 1976, the undaunted poet died at home.

Vũ Hoàng Chương’s poetic genius graces the poem with profound allegories, apt metaphors, delightful collocations, amazing expressions capable of double interpretations, and masterful syntactical and semantic parallelism in the two middle couplets (i.e., verses 3-4 and 5-6). Unfortunately, these poetic felicities have been lost in the translation. Wishing to somehow compensate for this huge injustice, I humbly provide the following notes for the original poem. Needless to say, I will be grateful for constructive comments from our readers.

The poem’s title suggests that it is about the celebration of the arrival of a lunar new year (tết) in  Vietnam.  On this occasion, paintings that are bright, showy and simple in content and form (tranh dân gian)  are on display to entertain, educate, or express New Year’s wishes to visitors. Paintings expressing good wishes often contain chickens and pigs in them, as well as generals (tướng quân) and doctors of literature (tiến sĩ). Those focused on entertaining feature such comical themes as the rat that finished first in an imperial examination to select doctors of literature (chuột đỗ trạng nguyên). And among paintings praising the value of education, a popular one shows a toad going to school (cóc đi học).

Verses 1 and 2 allude to a most daunting time of uncertainty in the nation’s history, with rampant lawlessness and utter political chaos, after South Vietnam had to surrender to the invading North Vietnamese military force in the spring of 1975. Chickens and pigs are introduced as the main characters of the painting. They also serve as the metaphors for the new victors of the war, who were indeed boisterous and caused upheavals in the South Vietnamese society.

Verses 3 and 4 make up a splendid syntactical and semantic parallelism graced by a number of popular proverbs depicting the insecure feeling of being surrounded by spies. The phrase “thơ có họa” in verse 3 can be understood as either “poetry with paintings in it” or  “(writing) poetry runs risks.”  The implied meaning of verse 4 is that it is impossible to distinguish friends (whose eyes are blue) from foes (whose hearts are red).

Verses 5 and 6 make up another superb syntactical and semantic parallelism  adorned by a number of delightful collocations joining such words as “mắt” (eye) and “gà” (chicken) to invoke the vision disorder known as nyctalopia (bệnh quáng gà)  and “lòng” (gut) and “lợn” (pig)  to refer to a Vietnamese delicacy often served on festive occasions. While verse 5 is an admission that people in the South have often been duped by communist propagandas, verse 6 extols the unfailing truthfulness in the hearts of these same people.

Verses 7 and 8, the powerful final couplet, clinch the poem with a strong message which scolds the gloating victors and tells them to stop crowing and oinking in order to listen to a sonorous declamation of a new song by the dragon. I surmise the dragon here is the metaphor for the poet himself, and his “new song” (khúc tân thanh) reminds readers of “Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh,” the original title that Nguyễn Du had given to his Truyện Kiều, Vietnam’s poetic magnum opus. And that original title can be translated as “New song of the severed gut.”