Con Nhà Nho Giáo – Children of the Grapes

grapes girl.

Con Nhà Nho Giáo

Everybody has heard this saying and everyone thinks it means a person who is from a well-educated family.  That is true, to a certain extent, but it does not describe the statement fully.

In the old days (oh some thousands of years in the past, all the way up to about a hundred years ago), the kids who could read ancient Việt language were called Con Nhà Nho Giáo (Children Educated in the Ancient Court Việt Language).  For some inexplicable reason, the word Nho also means grapes in Vietnamese, so I always thought it meant Children of the Grapes.  As a naturally curious little child, I asked my Daddy what Children of the Grapes meant.  He threw me a desultory look and said, “Haven’t you ever heard of a ‘homonym’?  Honestly, you are con nhà nho giáo—children of family educated in the court language, you shouldn’t let people hear you asking such silly questions or they will think you crawled out of the jungles.”

Psshhh!  Out of the jungles indeed.  Isn’t that better than being known as Children of the Grapes?

Methinks Daddy is so silly.  Why should I keep calling it Chử Nho?  It sounds so dumb.  To call it Ancient Vietnamese Court Language (which is what it actually is) is just as pompous and formal.  I would rather just keep it short and simple.  I kinda like Grapes Words myself, to be honest, and since this is my blog, I’m going to call it whatever I wish.

Grapes Words it is

So here I am, using ancient Grapes Words to transcribe out each word from the Three-Words-Book into Quốc Ngữ, the modern-day written Việt alphabet.  Keep in mind that the Chinese pronunciation of each character will be different from its Việt counterpart, but the character and the meaning will remain the same.  Also keep in mind that this is ancient Việt which is very different from modern-day Việt.

Nobody talks like this or write like this any more.  Most can’t even understand it without translations because the days when folks were actually taught to read this is long gone.  The Tam Tự Kinh (Three-Word Book) was meant to be a primer for school age children to learn the Hanzi script which is the script used by the courts.  Everyone else used either Nôm characters (which is similar yet has a separate set of different characters) or they didn’t write at all.  Grapes characters look just like the modern-day Chinese character script but it is spoken differently.  This is similar to the Run Spot Run, Go Jane Go book, only much less fun, much more difficult.

Before I go into the actual translation, I need to explain a few things:

Tam Tự Kinh

When I speak the title of this book out loud, it sounds so mystical and magical.  To my ears, it sounds like an incantation or ancient spell, ready to burst forth, sparkling with magic and energy.  Alas.  It is merely the sound of three mundane words.

That’s right.  Just three words.

The Three-Word-Book is called Three-Word-Book because each line of this book consists of only three words that are written in Grapes Characters (Hanzi).  As an example, I am going to take the first two sentences of this book and write it out as it was originally written in the book.


If we could read Grapes Characters, this would need no translation.  Sad to say, both myself and most of my readers need a little bit of translation help.  To translate these four lines, I have to combine the characters into two lines of six characters each, separated by a comma followed by a semi-colon (or a period), so that a two-sentence phrase can be created to form a single complex idea.

 人之初, 性本善;
性相近, 習相遠.
苟不教, 性乃遷;
教之道, 貴以專.

Once the lines have been separated correctly, I then have to phonetically write out each character into the alphabetized Grapes Words.

Here is how the Grapes Words look and sound like when it has been written out phonetically.  Notice that each green Grapes word corresponds with each individual red Hanzi character:

Nhân chi sơ, tính bổn thiện;
Tính tương cận, tập tương viễn.
Cẩu bất giáo, tính nãi thiên;
Giáo chi đạo, quí dĩ chuyên.

Afterwards, I will translate each individual word into English.  Since the translation needs to be as accurate as possible, where appropriate, I will deviate away from the three-letter format for accuracy and ease of understanding.

The two sentences above break down to this English translation:

People are born naturally good;
Similar in nature, yet dissimilar in life experiences.
Lacking in teachings, their character traits deteriorate;
Teach them the way, pass on the value of diligence.

Obviously, I must use many more English words in each sentence to fully express the idea that the Grapes Words can express in twelve succinct words each sentence.  I will try to keep the English words to a minimum while still maintaining the clearest translation that I am able to.

(…to be continued)

Tát Nước Đầu Đình

hoa sen

Tát Nước Đầu Đình  is an ancient Vietnamese folk poem whose author has disappeared into the smoky haze of the ages. We know only that it came out of the area around the Gulf of Tonkin (Vịnh Bắc Bộ 北部湾 ) due to the language used.  

It is ageless, timeless, and exquisite in its portrayal of life in the days of gold and glory.  The words are beautiful when read, the sounds are beautiful when uttered, the imagery is beautiful when visualized.  I wanted to share it with everyone.

Tát Nước Đầu Đình

Hôm qua tát nước đầu đình
Bỏ quên cái áo trên cành hoa sen
Em được thì cho anh xin
Hay là em để làm tin trong nhà?
Áo anh sứt chỉ đường tà
Vợ anh chưa có, mẹ già chưa khâu.
Áo anh sứt chỉ đã lâu
Mai mượn cô ấy về khâu cho cùng
Khâu rồi anh sẽ trả công
Ít nữa lấy chồng anh lại giúp cho
Giúp em một thúng xôi vò
Một con lợn béo một vò rượu tăm
Giúp em đôi chiếu em nằm
Đôi chăn em đắp, đôi trằm em đeo
Giúp em quan tám tiền cheo
Quan năm tiền cưới lại đèo buồng cau. ~ anon

Now, I know I do have non-Vietnamese readers out there.  In fact, I am quite certain that 99% of my fair readers are not able to read the Vietnamese language, so I sought to translate the poem as literally as I could because I always feel that the best translations should be the most straightforward and literal translation.  This allows for as little misunderstanding as possible.

Unfortunately, when I poured the entire poem into the Google Translate masher, this is the goey result that came out the other end.

Referred to the First Water

Yesterday referred to the first water
Left a coat on a lotus flower
You are for me please
Or are they to believe in?
Shirt cleft wrong directions
Mother and his wife not yet sewn.
Shirt cleft only long
Mai borrowed her on stage for the same
Stage then he will pay
At least marry him to help
Help me a basket of sticky rice you
A fat pig a martial alcohol
Help you compare me lie
Raising them up, sometimes hundreds of children wearing
Help me cross currency interest
Year wedding money cau chamber Pass.

It was impressive, how awkward and intelligible the translation was.  No choice, I was going to have to try and translate it somehow.  It could not be a literal translation because that is what Google Translate does best, and its best is by no means acceptable when it comes to a poem.  So here goes, a test to how well I can translate context and depth of brevity without sacrificing too much of the literal meaning behind the work of art.

anime girl 78


Water Fetching

Last night when fetching water
I left my shirt on a lotus flower                               (1)
If you should find it, please return
Unless you make it your concern                             (2)
My shirt, it has a tear
For lack of wife, or mother to repair                        (3)
My shirt, still torn, and still I wear
Would that I find someone who cares                      (4) 
Repay the debt, on this I swear
That when she marries I will send
To help her with a ton of sweet rice
With suckling pig, and jugs of wine                     (5)
To help her get to bed and then
with coverlets for her body,
and jewels for her hair
I’ll Help her with her dowry fare
With wedding costs, areca nuts and betel ware         (6) 


laughing girl


What a horrid translation!!!

I do understand, believe me, the oddness of the wording.  Given today’s standards of courtship and how the modern world utilizes the tools at hand to convey romance, it would seem then, that the most romantic thing a modern girl can get is a text message in the early morning that she is beautiful.

Well, they didn’t have cell phones back then.  In fact, as this poem indicates, they didn’t even have running water.

1)  Back in the old days, folks to to a well or a spring to fetch water for the next day’s use.  This is why we know this poem is really ancient because by mid-twentieth century, pretty much everyone had running water and a sewage system.

That’s not what’s interesting about this line however, but rather that the guy in question has left his shirt on a lotus flower.  This means he’s either the village idiot or he’s telling the girl a whopping tale, because who in the world puts a shirt on a lotus flower?  The flower head is fragile, easily bent, which would dump the shirt into the water pronto, and moreover, lotus pads are often free-floating, which means you would lose your shirt to any old random current.  It obviously had to be a fictitious shirt.

2)  So, this fictitious shirt now has a fictitious tear, which, if she should find it, to please return it to him.  But if she wishes (and only if she wishes) she could keep it for a price.

3)  Here is where he spells out the price he is willing to pay for a seamstress (and he stresses that it does not necessarily mean her if she chooses not to do so) to mend the darn thing.  This gives her an out, just in case she truly does not want to have anything to do with the fellow.  In fact, it gives each of them a gracious out.  He also lets her know without any doubt that he is footloose and fancy free, single as a lark.

4)  And here is where he alludes to the fact that nobody cares about him enough to help him mend his poor fictitious shirt, the poor fob.

5)  But then the ‘poor’ fob all of a sudden reveals that he is actually quite well off.  The poorer guys back in those days could not afford the kinds of things he is promising this girl.  Suckling pigs, barrels of wine, bags of sweet rice, even  jewelry for her hair, not to mention a hefty dowry for her hand.  Of course, this means she is stuck, not just with the fictitious shirt but also the guy who purportedly wore it to rags, as this is a roundabout way of asking the girl to marry him.

I have to admit, it is rather plucky of the both of them.  Back in those days, folks believed in love at first sight.  Not even twenty-four hours have passed and he’s convinced she’s wifely material, never mind the fact that they hadn’t really met and talked about much of anything of substance.

6)  And last but not least, it may seem as if I just threw in the areca nuts on a whim, but I swear, it’s part of the wedding ceremony (and it’s in the original poem too).  I have to admit, the areca nuts and quid of betel leaves don’t sound all that enticing, but trust me, it was all the rage back then and made for a very socially accepted chewing tobacco for women.  If a guy wanted to get married, he basically had to gift the mother of the bride a whole bushel of this stuff.

So there we go.  My very poor translation of the meaning behind this poem.  In my defense, it is quite difficult to translate a piece of writing that is ancient and still allow a decent flow to the words.  Try as I might, I just can’t get areca and betel to flow at all.  If anyone would like to help, either in part or the entirety of this poem, I would love to pass this challenge on.

As for this post…ah well—I’ll just chalk this post up to one of those that kinda didn’t make the grade, but because it’s fun, I didn’t delete it immediately but rather left it up for laughs.  😀

Ancient Việt Dynasty

ao_dai Linh NguyenPicture credit:  Linh Nguyen

We are an ancient people.

Việt history goes back far, far beyond what is the current accepted history of what Vietnam is suppose to be, spanning over four thousand years into the murky past.  Unfortunately, much of it was destroyed by the Han dynasty during the third (as well as the fourth) invasion and domination, to be eventually replaced by Chinese customs and traditions.  But it wasn’t just the massive book burnings that occurred during that time.  There was also great bronze melting back in 42 AD, when all of the bronze drums that could be found were melted down and turned into a giant pillar with the words “Bronze Pillar Collapses, Giao Chi Destroyed”.  Since the drums had our history and writings imprinted on the bronze work itself, we lost much of our documented history.

That was a very hard century for us Vietnamese.  We lost most of our history, our culture, and our writing within the span of one-hundred years.  The Chinese imported their writing system into Vietnam to replace the writing system that was already there.  It was known as the Từ Hán-Việt 詞漢越 (Vietnamese Hanzi) and looks familiar to any Chinese literate because it was based from the Chinese characters.

Of course, circa two-hundred years ago, we lost even that vestige of writing to the French colonists who wholesale wiped out the Vietnamese written Từ Hán, to be replaced by what is now currently used as our national written language, Việt Ngữ which is basically the French alphabet, written in phonetics so that it can be vocally uttered without even the need to know what the words mean.

I found out how this worked to my advantage when, at the age of three, to the amazement of my mother, I started reading Vietnamese words right off of newspapers and magazines that my parents had around the house.  She could hear me read the words out loud, not knowing that I didn’t know what half the words meant.  She thought I was smart, but Ha!  I fooled her.  All I did was apply my understanding of what the letters were suppose to sound like when they were placed together.  Thinking that I was gifted in literature, she got me lots of things to read.

Funny thing is, the more I read, the more I learned, and the more I learned, the more vocabulary I gained just by seeing the same words over and over again, in different contexts.  By the time I was six, I had read every book in my house, including my parents’ novels and nonfiction books.  One of my favorite books belonging to my father was The Story of Helen Keller.  Another was Norman Vincent Peale’s You Can if You Think You Can.

anime girl 65

Hardly the stuff that children would like to read, but at the time, kids stories bored me with their shallowness and their lack of substance.  I was only able to delve into children’s books when I came to the USA and found a completely new language that I could not understand.  Since I knew absolutely zero English at the time, I had to go back to the very start and relearn a whole new alphabet.  It took a couple of years, but once I figured out how the grammar structure was laid out, it was fairly smooth sailing.

Given my love of the written language, I would have given so much to be able to read in my people’s original ancient writings.  Good news is, a few exceptional works were buried deep underground, which saved them from being destroyed by the Han.  Various ancient artifacts were finally uncovered, one as recently as January of 2012, when an ancient bronze drum was uncovered by a farmer near Ru Than Mountain in Thanh Hoa Province.

ancient drum

We know what these drums look like because we have many many other surviving drums that have the same carvings on the tops and sides.  Here is Ngọc Lũ, a perfect, intact drum, dated to circa 2,500 years ago.

ancient bronze drum

Here is the drum face, complete with the pictograms and symbols, some of which denote—you guessed it—a complex lunar calendar system of the ancient Việt.

ancient bronze drum 2

The images on the calendar are fairly clean and simple.  There is much fascinating wisdom and knowledge buried within the pictures and symbols, but on the surface, it is a basic lunar calendar.

There are 354 days, divided into twelve months with six months having 29 days and six months having 30 days.  Within each five year periods, there are two years within that five year epoch that would have an extra month.  After the 18th year, and on the 19th year, the calendar reverts back to having 12 months.

Ngoc Lu bronze drum

If we look at the calendar face, it shows up as various animals and people.

Counting from the perimeter towards the center, the outermost ring of the calendar shows 18 birds with long beaks.  Each bird is a single year.

The next ring, going from outside towards the center, shows six chickens, ten deer, eight chickens, and ten deer.  There is a simple reason for these animals.  Chickens eat only during the day when there is no moon.  Deer eat only at night when there is a full moon.  Any month that starts with a chicken will have no moon at the start of the month.  There are six nights at the beginning of the month, from 1 to 6 when there is no moon.  There is also eight nights at the end of the month between 22 and 30 with no moon.  During these times, there should be no nightly hunting activities.  Any other times, when the moon shines bright at night, hunting can be organized.

The third ring shows six well-dressed royal members on each side of the circle, representing each month of the year.  There is a shorter royal member on one side, denoting the leap month to which an extra day must be added.

In the center, the rays of the sun or sunburst symbolizes day and night.  There are 14 rays (or nights) which land in between two days (those round sacs with the dots in the center).  It also denotes the six dragons of heaven (I wrote about the six dragons of heaven in an earlier posting) as well as a complete understanding of the Early I Ching diagram (I will be detailing this information in my next posting, as this post is getting rather too long).

This calendar system has been a part of my people for circa four-thousand years.  With the unearthing of these artifacts, we not only found our sacred instruments, now called Đông Sơn drums, and our sacred calendar system, we also found our long lost writing.

ancient viet script 6

My people’s ancient writing system was called Văn Khoa Đầu  文蝌蚪, literally translated as ‘tadpole script’.  Here are some examples.

ancient viet script 4ancient viet script 3ancient viet script 2

This writing was everywhere.  It was found on various Đông Sơn artifacts including the famous drums, on cave walls, on over 200 Sapa boulders (which by the way, has traces of I Ching divinations similar to that found on oracle bones!), and of course on paper.  At the height of our ancient civilization, there were 74,988 books written in Văn Khoa Đầu  from the library of Princess Phùng Vĩnh Hoa who lived during the times of the two Trưng sisters (more about them in a later post).  We know about these books because many of them were referred to by title from many other sources.

After the books had been burned and all those who were literate had been wiped out, it seemed a dark time indeed, and for a very long time, we lost our writing system.  We still had our spoken language, but our written language was gone.  Lucky for us, Princess Bình Dương, who was the daughter of King Lý Thái Tông, was one of a small group of people who still knew how to read and write in Văn Khoa Đầu.  She single handedly kept the spark alive by writing in the script and then spreading the script outward to others.  (As an aside, I am starting to see a huge connection amongst the Việt women who lived in that turbulent time.  It is quite amazing to me to realize that the most powerful Việt people at that time were women!  Definitely, there will be more explorations of these ancient Việt Babes in future postings).

Since the script is a phonetic script, once we understand how the sounds are being recorded, we can literally read the script out loud and from the sound of the script, we can pick out the meaning of the words.  This was how I was able to read complex literature at such a young age.  I didn’t need to learn individual words, I only needed to learn the sounds that the groupings of letters made.

This script is being resurrected today by professor Lê Trọng Khánh, leader in the field of ancient Vietnamese writings.  This is of great interest to me because I would love to learn a new (old) language, especially if I can utilize it to rewrite some of the ancient Việt history using Văn Khoa Đầu.  That would surely be a labor worth doing.

ancient viet script

He was able to crack the codes of the language after intense study of the Sapa rocks of which only one boulder had anything that resembled words.

ancient viet script 7

There were originally only 30 letters that could be deciphered, many of which were difficult to read due to the weathering of the rocks.  The letters to that rock in Sapa had these words written on them.  Công lao của tổ tiên đã xây dựng đất nước. Muôn đời sau con cháu phải bảo vệ lấy non sông của mình ~ Unknown Viet Ancestor  (translation:  Our ancestors have labored to build this land.  Future generations (you) must protect these lands of ours.)

Mémoire of the Denizens of Spacefarers


Thus were the stars of heaven created like a golden chain
To bind the Body of Man to heaven from falling into the Abyss.
Each took his station and his course began with sorrow & care

In sevens & tens & fifties, hundreds, thousands, number’d all
According to their various powers, subordinate to Urizen
And to his sons in their degrees & to his beauteous daughters,
Travelling in silent majesty along their order’d ways
In right lined paths outmeasur’d by proportions of number, weight
And measure, mathematic motions wondrous along the deep,
In fiery pyramid, or Cube, or unornamented pillar square
Of fire, far shining, travelling along even to its destin’d end;
Then falling down a terrible space, recovering in winter dire
Its wasted strength, it back returns upon a nether course,
Till fir’d with ardour fresh recruited in its humble season,
It rises up on high all summer, till its wearied course
Turns into autumn. Such the period of many worlds.
Others triangular, right angled course maintain. Others obtuse
Acute, Scalene, in simple paths; others move
In intricate ways, biquadrate, Trapeziums, Rhombs, Rhomboids,
Parallelograms triple & quadruple, polygonic,
In their amazing hard subdu’d course in the vast deep.

~ William Blake