June, 29 2010 14:15:15

Folk poetry preservation a labour of love

Researching: Nguyen Xuan Kinh (right) studies folklore with a village elder. — VNS Photo
by Minh Huong

Doctor Nguyen Xuan Kinh, 58, has a sprightliness that belies his age. His ruddy face beams at me as he leads the way to his office. Inside, three bookshelves running the length of one wall, are stacked high with books. He takes out two volumes entitled Treasure of Vietnamese Folk Poetry and looks at them relish and says: "Folk poetry is the soul of the Vietnamese."

When Kinh graduated from university in 1974, he went to work at the Institute of Folk Culture in Ha Noi. At the time he says the prospect of studying folk art filled him with anything but joy. "I wanted to learn about modern culture, which was something far more attractive to a young 22-year-old," Kinh says.

But that all changed very quickly. "I grew to love folk poetry, which is also loved by thousands of Vietnamese," Kinh says.

Ca dao, or folk poetry, is traditionally passed down orally from generation to generation. It mostly tells the stories of the daily lives of ordinary Vietnamese people.

Ca dao dates back hundreds of years but it was only in the 18th century that scholars began to write it down. Now, about 13,000 original lines of poetry have been recorded.

The term ca dao can be loosely translated as "unaccompanied songs". Ca: to sing; dao: to sing without music. The oral tradition of passing on ca dao poems, sustained and nourished the Vietnamese language through its centuries of domination and influence by China. Up until the beginning of the 19th century, the literate class - a distinct minority - preferred to compose their poems, with few exceptions, in classical Chinese, which was inaccessible to the masses.

"It is the reason why folklore, especially folk poetry, played such a very important role in people's lives."

He says that ca dao is not written in its pure form but has been modified to suit local dialects.

"This makes ca dao more interesting as it often leads to differences of opinion."

Kinh says ca dao was always beautiful but that printing a collection of ca dao works was a nightmare because of the cost.

He says that in the 1980s, Kinh was forced to scrap plans to publish thousands of typed pages of ca dao because of a shortage of funds.

"My collection had to remain unpublished in manuscript form because we only had enough money to get it typed. My boss then asked me to make the collection smaller to cut printing costs.

"My work might have died on the shelf if a friend of mine had not covered the printing costs," he says. "His loan in 1995 meant that nearly 5,000 books with 2,779 pages of ca dao were published in Viet Nam." Then in 2001, he says they were re-edited and published in 700 versions to meet readers' growing demand.

Despite the fact that each book had a cover price of VND1.1 million ($60), they sold out very quickly. Since then, as the economy improved, authors found they could live quite comfortably on the money they made from writing ca dao.

Kinh's books of ca dao are now even available in the National Library of Australia.

Kinh's work is also used as reference material by under-graduate and post-graduate students.

As a result, there is a lively debate about the origins and meaning of obscure verses.

For instance, he says, the verse Ech thang ba, ga thang bay or "Frog in March, chicken in July" has been explained by a famous professor as meaning that it was better to eat frogs in March and chickens in July when they were at their most delicious.

But a teacher in the province of Bac Giang, who knew a lot about farming, said the lunar months of March and July fell when there were no crops, and that people and animals often went hungry. He argued therefore that frogs and chickens would be at their thinnest and far from their best to eat - a view that was supported by many others.

Kinh says there are several ca dao collectors, old and young, in Viet Nam.

Author John Balaban from the United States, who is well-known for his translation of Vietnamese folk literature, has expressed his love of ca dao, which he first encountered when in Viet Nam during the American war in 1971-72. The author taped the ca dao sung in the south and translated it into English.

Ha Phuong Hoai, 70, a Vietnamese who lives in the United States, has posted more than 30,000 verses on his ca dao websites.

Kinh says he is delighted that so many people love ca dao, but he is saddened by the fact that it is not popular among young people. "Some of my students fall asleep at their desks when they are taught about ca dao," he says regretfully.

"My youngest daughter neither understands nor cares about the poetry. She prefers American films and foreign literature."

Kinh however remains an avid fan.

"I love Vietnamese folklore so I can't stop collecting poetry and teaching it to my students."

And he is confident it will never die out.

"Ca dao will live on, even as Viet Nam develops. My nephew, 3, like a lot of children her age, loves the poetry very much. He falls blissfully asleep very quickly because of its rhythm when being read to at night." — VNS

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