Poetic Transformations: Eighteenth-Century Cultural Projects on the Mekong Plains by Claudine Ang (review)

pp. 493-499 Article
Poetic Transformations: Eighteenth-Century Cultural Projects on the Mekong Plains by Claudine Ang. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2019. Pp. Xvi + 291. $49.95 cloth.

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Nguyễn Cư Trinh 阮居貞 (1716–1767) & Mạc Thiên Tứ 鄚天賜 (Ch. Mo Tianci; ca. 1710–1780) are two outstanding figures in Vietnam’s southward expansion history. In contrast lớn the notable Vietnamese general Nguyễn Cư Trinh, whose effort in southern border protection was acknowledged as his great contribution lớn this enterprise of the Nguyễn lords (who ruled central and southern Vietnam 1558–1777), Mạc Thiên Tứ received và developed a heritage from his father Mạc Cửu 鄚玖 (Ch. Mo Jiu; 1655–1735), a Chinese Ming loyalist who pledged allegiance to the Nguyễn lords and established Hà Tiên as a prosperous town in the far southern territory of present-day Vietnam. Although Nguyễn’s Sãi vãi (A monk và a nun), a long satirical conversation in verse, & Mạc’s Hà tiên thập vịnh 河仙十詠 (Ten songs of Hà Tiên), a collection of poems, have been studied separately by several scholars since the 1880s, Ang’s work is the first monograph connecting their literary writings. Ang convincingly treats these works as “cultural projects” of the two pioneers in the political and cultural contexts of Vietnam’s southern expansion in the eighteenth century.

Ang’s work consists of two main parts, which follow an introduction. Titled “Cultural Projects on the Southern Vietnamese Frontier,” the introduction lays out the geopolitical và historical contexts of the “two political actors” (p. 6) and presents her research approach. Part 1, “Drama on the Frontier,” is reserved for in-depth analysis of Nguyễn Cư Trinh’s Sãi vãi. Part 2, “Lyrics & Landscapes,” giao dịch exclusively with Mạc Thiên Tứ’s Hà tiên thập vịnh và Nguyễn Cư Trinh’s response poems.

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In the introduction, Ang cites a passage from Xiao Tong’s 蕭統 (501–531) preface of Wenxuan 文選 (Selections of refined literature): “observe the patterns <wen 文; lit. Writing> of man to transform the world” (p. 16). Although she acknowledges that the word “patterns” can mean both culture and writing, Ang decides to lớn focus on patterns as writing to emphasize the transformative power of language: “through writing, humans are able khổng lồ refashion & give structure khổng lồ the unpatterned parts of the world” (p. 17). Ang goes on to treat the writings of the two chosen Confucian literati as “cultural projects bring writing khổng lồ bear on the people & the landscape of the peripheral regions in their care” (p. 17). As for Mạc Thiên Tứ, his cultural project consists of a series of landscape poems written in Chinese script, khổng lồ which thirty-one poets from đài loan trung quốc and Vietnam responded.

In chapter 1, “Frontier Humor & the Inadequacies of Orthodoxy,” Ang liên kết Sãi vãi to lớn a memorial that Nguyễn Cư Trinh submitted to the Nguyễn lord in 1751 (about one year after he wrote Sãi vãi). She suggests that Nguyễn composed these two pieces of writing in order lớn find a solution for burning issues in the southern Vietnamese frontier society. Ang divides her close reading of Sãi vãi as a drama into eight sections. She delicately indicates that during the course of the play, the monk continuously changes his roles, moving “from an errant religious figure, to lớn a dubious Confucian gentleman, to a reluctant village bard, to lớn a perfected Confucian official, & finally to a terrified villager” (p. 34). Based on her reading of the first three sections of this literary work, Ang believes that, through satire and a formal petition, Nguyễn Cư Trinh endeavors to lớn address local villagers, nguồn holders, and the Nguyễn lord about the pressing problems of errant monks and incompetent officers on the frontier: he expects khổng lồ figure out a solution.

In chapter 2, “The Classical in the Vernacular,” Ang shows how a Nôm (Vietnamese vernacular) text...