Finally I have a chance to write about Vietnamese folk poems, or ca dao. These are poems straight from the oral tradition: we don’t know their authors (if they have authors), and we don’t know their history.

Ca Dao: Vietnamese Folk Poetry

Cao Dao: A Gorgeous Book Which I Do Not Own

Interestingly, the folk poems I’ve come across are very different from Vietnamese folktales. Vietnamese folklore – as well as much Asian folklore in general – has always impressed me with its strong female protagonists. Yet the ca dao has a different view of women, one more simplified and directly tied to romantic love. Take this poem, for example, which first appeared in English in 1995 and was translated by Linda Dinh:

Wobbly, like a hat without a strap,
Like a boat without a rudder
Like a woman without a husband.
A married woman, like a shackle around the neck.
An unmarried woman, like a board with a loose nail.
A board with a loose nail a man can fix.
The unmarried woman runs this way, runs that way.
It is miserable to be without a husband, Sisters!

Now what are we to make of this? Obviously, the poem reflects very conservative ideas of womanhood. Women: if you’re unmarried, you’re broken. Go get fixed! However, married women might be whole and happy, but they’re like a lock you just can’t get out of. Yick. Yet the poem reflects a certain truth about rural-based, traditionalist life: women without husbands were often considered to be economic burdens on their families. They were considered unsuccessful, and sometimes even disgraceful. In such a society, being an unmarried woman (outside a Buddhist nunnery) often meant accepting less independence than one could get from a marriage. This seems counter intuitive today, and I don’t mean to undermine the extent to which women were forced into difficult situations by male-dominated societies. Yet marriage at least meant the ability to run one’s own home and not be dependent on parents.

Of course, sometimes things didn’t work out so well, post-marriage. This next poem was also translated by Linda Dinh (in 1997), and shows the downside of the economic independence which comes with marriage: child bearing.

The little palm nuts are streaked by veins.
You are studying close to home now, but soon,
You’ll be studying far away.
I married you when I was thirteen.
By eighteen, I already had five children.
In public, I’m still considered to be a pretty woman,
But at home I already have five children by you.

I love the image of the little palm nuts being streaked by veins. It seems to be a very delicate image of aging; I can see a woman’s veins growing harder and more visible under her skin.

Anyway, this poem shows that, though a scholar-husband could free a woman up to run her own home, his absence meant that she was left to care for all their offspring by herself. In public she might be considered to be a pretty or even very lucky woman: her husband doesn’t bother her much, she runs her own home, and is probably well of (since scholars often worked well-paying, clerical or governmental jobs). Still, home is a turbulent place to manage on one’s own.

Ca dao is often occupied with giving voice to everyday experiences that are not portrayed in “higher” literature, which might focus on history, Confucian moral conduct, highly complex verse, nature, etc. Yet at the same time, ca dao also has room for touching love poems as beautiful as any from the scholarly tradition. This one is from Mythology and Folklore of South-East Asia, edited by Jan Knappert.

The night is deep, the stars shining brightly
mist covers the rice fields
the bamboo rustles in the wind
the crickets chirp in all the corners
the monks are reciting hymns in the temple.

We hear the drums and singing in a distant village
the river flows by silently
sitting close to each other
we are talking softly
Life is wonderful!

Do you see above the hills
the pink moon rising?
It looks like a fire in the woods
the strong and beautiful trees.

There is a star of the north
scintillating like a glow-worm
there comes the breeze, refreshing our faces
A stone will be worn by the river,
but our love will stay all our lives.

Lovely, isn’t it? I like it’s simplicity, and the direct imagery. Incidentally, the moon is very much associated with love in Vietnamese poetry. Not that that’s very surprising: the moon is associated with femininity all over the world. Still, the moon imagery enhances the poem’s gentle touch. Especially that “pink moon” bit. Though it is important to note that, although the moon is associated with love, it isn’t always feminine; another ca dao poems is written from the perspective of a young girl, who asks “Mr. Moon” to come and “hang out” with her. No matter what gender it is connected to, the moon seems to represent longing, a hope for connection with someone or something far away.

Though I’ve read a good deal of it, I hope to explore ca dao even more in the future. I’m still not comfortable saying that I know a lot about the subject. I’m never comfortable saying this about a subject when there exist books on the topic which I haven’t read. Which means I really only know about three things: the Brothers Grimm, Vladimir Nabokov, and vegan cupcakes.