Nguyen Cong Tru Tomb

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Nguyen Cong Tru 1778-1858 was a famous member of the Nguyen Clan in Vinh, Vietnam, and also a poet of note.

For Nguyen Cong Tru, poetry can serve as a vehicle or means for redirecting or neutralizing the tension by demonstrating tension management thus allowing the traveler to live through and learn from the tension.

Nguyen Cong Tru, who was also known as Hy Van, was born in December 1778, in the village of Uy Vien, Nghi Xuan District, Ha Tinh Province, northern Vietnam. His father, Nguyen Cong Tan, was a respected mandarin who served the Le Dynasty in its fight against the power-usurping Tay Son family. In 1807, Nguyen Cong Tru failed his first civil service examination, and, after having to wait another six years to retake the test, failed again. He then had to wait until 1819 to try a third time. Now 42 years old, he finally succeeded in passing the examination and was subsequently awarded his Giai nguyen (the equivalent of a Master’s Degree).

Upon entering public service, Nguyen Cong Tru was first appointed to serve as a civil servant official in charge of preparing imperial historical documents. During the reign of Minh Mang (1827), he was appointed a magistrate of Thua Thien Province, and later became the governor of Thanh Hoa Province. Spending more than 20 years in public service, he served the Nguyen Dynasty well by promoting both education and the economy. In 1848, at the age of 71, Nguyen Cong Tru retired from public service, and a decade later,1858, he passed away in his village.

More than anyone, Nguyen Cong Tru experienced first hand that the socialization process almost inherently involves frustration, despair, and disillusionment because the world is not perfect, and one’s attempts to actualize such an ideal can fall far short of perfection. Because man is imperfect and his imperfection contributes to his sense of incompleteness and his inability to fully fulfill his responsibilities and duties, basing one’s process of becoming human on the ability to embrace the world without selfish or self-satisfying desires is almost impossible.

Nguyen Cong Tru’s frustrations, quandaries, and suggested modes of response, as well as his exploration and experience of joy and balance, are delved into and expressed in his poetry. Within the metaphors and images of his poetry, Nguyen Cong Tru expresses his concerns and feelings about his present day conditions while sketching a way of life where the tension between political tyranny and disillusionment and a sincere commitment to the service of humanity can be in balance. His approach is based on his belief that one’s communal acts carry with them cosmic import. Nguyen’s poetry expresses this moral vision and also serves to resolve the tensions he identifies. He chose poetry as his medium of expression because poetry encourages self-expression while allowing the author/reader to envision ways of overcoming the contradictions humans face in balancing multiple demands and opportunities in the struggle to live a meaningful and creative life.

A Poetic Response to Man’s Temporality

For Nguyen Cong Tru, poetry can serve as a neutralizer or as a way to redirect one’s attention away from tensions concerning one’s temporality and temporal limits and towards engagement in life by opening up or offering the reader an aesthetic awareness of life. Poetry thus helps create an aesthetic response to tension and to redirect attention from moments of frustration to moments where self-cultivation becomes possible. The reduction or removal of the tension occurs because the poet is able to develop a broader focus or context than his current misfortune, and having a broader perspective helps him intuit a path through the tensions.

Nguyen Cong Tru recognizes the tension that results when trying to maintain a balance between socio-political commitments and personal enrichment. He acknowledges a need to pay attention to how far an individual can extend himself in either direction without causing harm to his individuality. By identifying solely with the human community and thus committing oneself to the goals and values of that community, the individual will follow the same plan of action and lifestyle as his community, with no personal influence brought to bear on the direction of his life’s path. To follow such a path, however, is to deny the unique energy each individual possesses and most certainly would eventually lead to disillusionment. Undeniably Nguyen’s commitment to the values and goals of his society does not prevent him from recognizing and experiencing despair, disillusion, and frustration. Nguyen laments, “Anguish and disillusion—how can I express?/At night, I cannot sleep—what can I do?” (“In Anguish”). His poetry tells frequently of these feelings that are a bi-product of his political pursuits, so Nguyen experiences first hand the downside of committing too strongly to the socio-political arena. Nguyen asks himself and his readers as a result of his personal experiences to consider how one can stay a dedicated member of the socio-political community without being reduced to a set of social roles and functions. Nguyen forces his readers to ask themselves: How should one prioritize one’s life so that harmony and balance between a socio-political life and a personal life can be attained?

Thus he is faced with a tension, an unresolvable dilemma. Since he is limited and has shortcomings, he cannot accomplish all of the communal demands and expectations. He can feel that his failure to fulfill his debts to the world is caused by his shortcomings, and thus he feels that he is at fault. Moreover, attention to political duties would entail neglecting other aspects of personal development. However, there are activities that are nonsocial in character but are important to personal development. Indeed, Nguyen seems to express the frustration of being caught up in social demands and constraints that impede his ability to engage in certain cultural activities. Even the question of whether one should choose to pursue political goals (Hanh or engagement) or to remain in hiding (Tang or disengagement) is a difficult decision to make. In fact, it is hard to insist that one’s duties to communal demands are the only duties that should define one as a human being. No philosophical solution to these problems appears to exist, but these tensions need some resolution so that a life can be lived that creates and expresses balance and harmony.

For Nguyen, poetry can provide some of that resolution. Here we must consider the concept of time, which plays a key role in Nguyen’s poetry and in his sense of becoming human. His expression of man’s temporality is an attempt to frame a point of view, poetic situation, perspective, or rhetorical context.[i] Man’s temporality and limits can cause disillusionment and despair, but Nguyen urges his reader to allow poetry to bring about a new experience and serve as a guide through tension. The poet reminds his audience of man’s temporality but this temporality should not be read as a reason for denying life but, rather, as a reason for engaging life – as a call to live life joyously. His references to biological time urge the reader to take seriously the time he has been allotted and to manage that time to achieve his greatest potentiality. Because the goal of one’s life is to develop the self, and the development of the self involves time, which for humans is limited, one must live his existential moment artfully and with full awareness.

So, to find the balance that is needed to be an artist in action, one has to free oneself from the bondage of boredom and temporality. The poet’s reference to his nakedness before his temporality is intended to persuade the reader to be aware of his condition and to participate or to extend himself so that he welcomes with open arms his temporality and extends himself by engagement in an aesthetic life. But Nguyen laments:

A few know but cannot wake up
No matter how urgent the alarm sounds, they remain asleep
How agonizing for me
(“Creator’s Scale”)

The poet clearly feels pain and frustration at the inability of those around him to “wake up” and see clearly the world and its options. Nguyen notices that human existence is fragile, short, and fraught many choices and demands, including the need to make a living and serve a role in the community (“profit and fame, glory and shame”). The activities devoted to survival and community are necessary, and they use precious time. So it would seem that the poet is pointing out that a person will often fulfill his duties and then believe that time will exist to pursue leisure. But, if leisure is not sought, the requirements or duties of one’s life, as they change over the years, can capture and use all the time available. The poet laments the passing of time and dreads the approach of the inevitable end.

Accepting one’s temporality and limits while seeking to live life aesthetically and cultivating one’s character are signs of courage and creativity. James Liu, in The Art of Chinese Poetry, explains that because man’s life is temporal and short it seems all the more precious and worth living.[ii] Nguyen echoes this sentiment concerning man’s fascination with his temporality and the urge to participate. While bemoaning the transience of time, the poet determines that since life is finite and short, one must live his life to the maximum and commit to self-cultivation. But according to the language of this poem, joy is not sought at the expense of other activities but as a response to the limited amount of time humans have.

Playfulness and Drunkenness

Nguyen’s poetry uses the language of drunkenness or being rapt by wine, a “deliberately induced state of intoxication,” as a metaphor for play. The poet suggests that by extending oneself beyond one’s normal limits, identity, and preoccupations with life’s daily entanglements, the tensions of life can be dampened or overcame, and an attitude of playfulness can be developed. The many ways poetry can present the reader with interesting and enlightening ways of viewing everyday events and activities helps set the stage for insights unavailable in other formats. Poetry creates a space for such novel expression and presentation by opening new ways of looking at the fixed principles, rigid patterns, and formal constraints that can dominate life.

For Nguyen, playfulness, allows room for laughter and dance, and can elicit joy. Play offers the basis for aesthetic enjoyment. Nguyen’s poetry often gives the sense that one is in a play and is, at the same time, playful. The playful nature of his poetry is most evident in the wine poems. These poems help the reader envision a new way of seeing the world that helps provide an aesthetic perspective or experience, removing one temporarily from the conflicts or tensions of life. Play seduces and mesmerizes the reader into making an identification with the poet’s fantasies. Poetry can turn a moment of ”lyric awareness” into a moment of cultural and personal moral development. Living life is in a sense like playing music. The artist participates in aesthetic and creative activities and finds joy in the participation with harmony (hoa) as the result.

To play, one has to play skillfully
Play with grace and elegance—that is how one should play
How many talents are there in the past and present?
(“Music, Chess, Poetry, and Wine”)

Nguyen’s poetry makes room for, illuminates, and encourages flexibility, laughter, and creativity. It points towards an attempt to do away with our habit of perceiving the world as fixed, rigid, and narrow. Nguyen’s poetry regularly makes references to drinking and drunkenness.

A leisure day waking up, the sun was high
Crossing my legs singing with friends
In this gathering, sobriety and drunkenness, a wine gourd, a cup of tea
In a good mood, I played the drum
(“The Joy of Leisure”)

Nguyen’s poetry on wine and drunkenness help transform the reader’s way of seeing life by adding color and perspective to an otherwise fixed, black and white world. Experiencing the images of drunkenness help the reader–at least for a time–overcome the bounds of temporality or a sense of insignificance and seriousness or attention to details. Nguyen confesses,

Yesterday, as usual I came here to play
Wrestling with the dragon god, with my arms
Sober, who would dare?
(“Hitting the Dragon God While Drunk”)

Drunkenness allows the poet to take on “the dragon god,” a force he would never contend with sober; the sacred and the secular are no longer distinguishable. In a state of intoxication or absorption, one’s mental judgment and emotional state are altered. And drunkenness can account for expressing impulsive or inappropriate behavior. Nguyen is not urging the reader to over-indulge in wine or to be motivated by alcohol consumption. Rather, he uses the metaphor of drunkenness and its ability to induce an altered state as a way of opening up a new way of experiencing the world.

With this metaphor, Nguyen hints of one’s ability to experience the world in a wholly different way and experience joy and the ability to take on seemingly impossible tasks when freed from the entanglements of the worldly life. In a state of drunkenness, one is not in a position to focus on order. The poet’s experience offers the reader an opportunity to view the world in the absence of discrimination and rigidity – to view life from a place of bliss and acceptance, even revelry in its multitudinous contradictions and frustrations. Nguyen, through the drunkenness metaphor, reminds us to allow ourselves to engage fully in life, taking on challenges, without holding back so that we can break free from some of the rigidity of conventionality.

In a state of intoxication, one can act in an unobstructed, free, self-absorped manner. One’s behavior, speech, movements, and expressions are uninhibited.[iii] Wine drinking or intoxication is used by the Vietnamese poets such as Nguyen Binh Khiem and Nguyen Khuyen to express the sense of being free and detached from social concerns and entanglements. One’s sense of appropriateness and mental judgment are impaired while being intoxicated. Even bodily movements and language are affected by the intake of alcohol. In an altered state, one does not pay attention or have any concern for appropriateness. In a state of intoxication, a person may sing, dance, laugh, speak, move, or cry in an unrestrained manner. People of the world are concerned with the delight or pleasure of worldly fame but a drunk person is without care and is not bothered by worldly concerns. Nguyen says, “Have use for the company of wine/Turn a deaf ear to criticism and praises” (“On Drinking Wine”). Nguyen uses the state of drunkenness as metaphor for stepping outside the bounds of convention and socio-political achievement. Nguyen further expresses his belief that to develop fully as a human being one must step outside the demands of the world:

Contemplating about things at hand and afar, how despiteful
Things in life turn like a hand
Look at the examples of the past still there
And understand the human heart is thin as a cloud
Fighting for attention and favor, I’m sick
Competing for profit, I’m more frustrated
To live, one must think of the consequences
Heaven is still high and the Earth is thick
(“On the Reality of Life”)

The “human heart is thin as a cloud” and easily destroyed by the competition for attention and profits. The poet advises to keep this always in mind and to stand apart from the world. One way of standing apart is to identify with the attributes of wine and drunkenness. In so doing, the poet or reader is identifying himself with the experience or delight of being drunk on the experiences of life; hence, drunkenness is to be taken metaphorically. The speaker’s attitude of resentment and disenchantment are neutralized and his and the reader’s focus are redirected to self-cultivation or to life and living.

Being rapt with wine can then be seen as an induced state of intoxication used to help express one’s ability to let go of things. In such a state, a person’s attitude and actions are so at ease and spontaneous that the tensions of life become meaningless. As Nguyen says, “In this gathering, sobriety and drunkenness, a wine gourd, a cup of tea/In a good mood, I played the drum.” He adds:

The sounds of the lute
In delight, I have no worries
Peacetime, spring is everywhere
One hundred years of enjoyment, how rare!
(“The Joy of Leisure”)

In another poem, the speaker further explains his drunken state, “Drink three cups of wine, I take a nap/Recite a verse, I clap my belly with laughter.” (“Engagement and Detachment”) He is not consumed by any worldly activity, and he is not constrained by the things of the world in his existential moment. He enjoys himself through the drinking of wine and experience of poetry. “I clap my belly with laughter” depicts someone in an absolute state of freedom and happiness. Intoxication induces playfulness and spontaneity. The laughter denotes satisfaction and fulfillment in aesthetic activities and also can be taken to mean that the speaker “laughs” at the people of the world who “consider themselves wise” and who allow themselves to be trapped by fame and profit.

The laughter is about one’s awareness of self and others. One laughs because one is “woken up” from a dream, and also one laughs because “dream” and “awake,” “sobriety” and “intoxication” have been confused, and there is not need for discernment. In the tuong or classical play The Drunk, Nguyen writes, “In fact, I use wine to see who is drunk, who is sober/But you use drunk to see who is wise, who is foolish.”[iv] Drunkenness and laughter are expressions of ultimate freedom and joy. Laughter speaks for itself. Fame and profit are just a dream, and there is no reason for the speaker to be concerned with the consequences of a dream. As Nguyen says:

Have use for the company of wine
Turn a deaf ear to other’s criticism and praises
Outside by the gate, the scent of the chrysanthemum mingled.
(“On Drinking Wine”)

Nguyen’s drunken speaker is so absorbed in wine (the nectar of life) that he loses all consciousness of his individuality, his sense of separateness and can experience life from a different, altered state.[v] He detaches himself from his daily preoccupation with worldly concerns to the extent that he feels almost immortal; because he has no concerns about self, merits, profit, and name.

A bag of poems, good verses
Three cups of wine, delight in solitude
The joy of detachment from the world, I am a fairy, what else?
(“Music, Chess, Poetry, and Wine”)

Being intoxicated, for Nguyen, is also a way of mentally and emotionally detaching from the worldly realm, of stepping back from socio-political activities. Nguyen, through his drunken speaker, ridicules the officials who think they are sober, because they don’t see that they are being trapped by intense concern with fame and profit rather than enjoying the present moment in aesthetic activities. A drunk has no concerns or care about what other think him. His sense of identity transcends his individuality to encompass the whole that is presented to him in that particular moment.

Nguyen also used wine drinking as a means of separating a quan tu from a small person. Nguyen remarks

Enter the realm of duties and obligations, one’s feet are not stuck
Coming to the dusty place, no need to fold one’s sleeve
Being able to live like this
Only the Banh Trach and Thanh Lien [immortals] can.
(“On Drinking Wine”)

Indeed, Victor Mair, in “Chuang–tzu and Erasmus,” characterizes drunkenness as “an artificially induced play condition.”[vi] Mair points out that Chuang Tzu advocates an uninterrupted and genuine attitude toward play. For Chuang Tzu, the “path to political peace begins with the cultivation of natural lucid tendencies in individuals.”[vii] This correlates with vo-vi (spontaneous living) and a more flexible attitude toward life so that one’s actions are spontaneous and without forethought. Nguyen says,

Singing to the wind and the moon a few verses
Settle with mountains and rivers a little business
is more delightful than playing
An instrument, a game of chess, a bag of poetry, a gourd of wine
When he in a good mood: embarks on an excursion, what a good idea.
(“Joyous Excursion”)

This flexible attitude matches Nguyen’s view that human life is nothing more than play, and one should aim at “being playful” and at playing skillfully.

Play and playfulness, for Nguyen, are means of neutralizing conflicting interests and tensions. Poetry has the ability to create laughter, and laughter is magical in the sense that it redirects one’s attention from intense preoccupation with tensions to occupation with joy. Poetry turns tension into moments of positive living and aesthetic appreciation.

In the poem “Ngat Nguong” (“Exaltation”), the speaker is so absorbed in play, whether political career, duties, poverty, retirement, or seclusion, that the speaker “loses” himself and has no sense of self because he is so immersed in the flow. Nguyen says,

Poetry and wine, music and chess—guests
Wind and clouds, snow and moon—Heaven
The pleasure play he roams in delight
Why Worry Not Having Time to Play”)

In play there is a sense of effortlessness like a drunk who acts spontaneously, without a sense of restraint or discomfort. One acts with the rhythm of nature, the yin and yang. With this attitude, fame and profit become a game. Nguyen fulfills his political activities while playing. This does not mean that he removes himself or avoids political affairs, but he does possess a playful attitude so that he can preserve himself and resolve contradictions, thus avoiding pain and suffering.

Nguyen advises his audience to develop a spirit of playfulness in life so that life can be more colorful and interesting. In the same manner, poetry has the magical power to redirect the mind to what is temporal and particular, to poeticize and beautify the very movements of our struggles and tensions. The drunk does not take himself seriously, as Nguyen says, “Intoxicated, Heaven and Earth turns upside down/Reciting poetry, past and present change places.” (“A Person of Leisure”). A spirit of playfulness enables one to loosen up and to entertain different perspective. The rules are no longer rigid, and there is a possibility for changing the rules of the game. One is allowed to invent new rules or to abolish old ones. New perspectives offer the reader new experiences and knowledge.


Nguyen’s poetry invites us to develop a playful attitude and spirit. With a spirit of playfulness, one can entertain different ways of going about life and one can be able to cultivate life to the fullest. Poetry provides the reader with a rhetorical context for his temporality and invites the reader to begin with an understanding and acceptance of his finiteness and limits. By paying attention to life and seeing life as magical and beautiful, one can genuinely and wholeheartedly participate in life and experience joy. Poetry carries the reader through frustration and tension, negotiating among multiple needs and interests. By redirecting one’s focus to playfulness, one can experience transformation. In addition, poetry offers a sense of playfulness which gives rise to novel expressions and identities. By embracing the tensions rather than denying them, poetry helps lighten-up and mesmerize the reader into seeing from different points of view.

The above article quoted from IVCE, The International Institute for Vietnamese Culture and Education at

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