Flowers in the Vietnamese culture (Những loài hoa trong nền văn hóa Việtnam)

French version
Vietnamese versionimg_6909


In their cultural tradition, the Vietnamese attach a great importance to flowers. One notes their marked preference for the names of the flowers in the choice of the feminine first names . There is even an anecdote on the first name that great king Lý Thánh Tôn of the dynasty of Lý has chosen for his imperial concubine Ỷ Lan known later under the name Linh Nhân Hoàng Hậu. One day, on his way back to the capital, the king was greeted by jubilant villagers. He realized that there was a young country girl of extraordinary beauty who kept looking timidly at him while leaning against a magnolia. Desirous of knowing her, he made her come in front of him. Taken by her beauty and intelligence, the king asked her to marry him and gave her the name « Ỷ Lan » (Ỷ Lan means leaning against a magnolia). She was known later in the history of Vietnam as one of the greatest queens to take up several social projects for disinherited and women.

Những loại hoa được yêu trong nền văn hóa Việt Nam

To immortalize the affliction they continue to bear for their daughter-in-law, from then on, they forbade their close relations and subjects to use the word Hoa not only in the choice of given names but also in the naming of public buildings. Because of that prohibition, the Ðông Hoa market in Hue became the central market Ðông Ba. The province Thanh Hoá was from then on called Thanh Hoa. The bridge stretching across the Thi Nghe river in Saigon changed its name to Cầu Bông from the name Hoa Bắc. However « Hoa » is the word the most used in Nguyễn Du’s Kim Vân Kiều, the masterpiece of Vietnamese literature. Without counting the name of the flowers evoked, one can come up with an inventory of at least 130 verses containing the word « Hoa ». Moreover, this word appears in a great number of terms having the connotation of flower in the Vietnamese literature.

Hoa diện, mặt hoa : blossoming face ( To have a beautiful face )
Hoa chúc: Flower of the torch ( the lamp in the nuptial room)
Hoa niên: Flower of Age ( youth )
Hoa tay: To have the pulp of the fingers in the form of a flower ( To be very adroit )
Số đào hoa: To be born under the peach flower star ( To be liked by women )
Ngừơi tài hoa: Man of talent to the image of a flower ( To be talented and distinguished)
Hoa tai : Flower of the ear ( Earring )
Hoa đèn: Flower of the lamp ( coal of the wick of an oil lamp)
Hoa khôi: Flower of first rank (To be the most beautiful girl, also attributed to the plum flower or that of a lotus )
Hoa đá: Stone flower ( Coral )
Hoa vương: Queen of flowers ( Peony)

Concerning the stone flower, there is an anecdote recalling the episode when Vietnam was troubled by ceaseless internal wars between the two ruling families, the Trinh and the Nguyễn. It was one of the practical jokes of a mandarin named Trạng Quỳnh serving lord Trinh Cương and frequently known under the pseudonym Cống Quỳnh or Trạng Quỳnh. Lord Trịnh Cương was very greedy. He only thought of living in opulence and debauchery. That was why Cống Quỳnh tried to bring him back to reason and wisdom. He told him that he knew how to prepare a very delicious little dish called Hoa đá (Stone flower).

Lord Trinh Cương asked him to prepare it. But he told the lord that he must wait for at least two days to be able to taste that dish because he had to simmer it during that time. Lord Trinh Cương accepted this proposal. Back home, he ordered his servants to go to the store and get edible algaes and simmer them in water. Famished by this long wait, the lord Trinh recognized that the dish prepared by Cống Quỳnh was delicious even though it only contained vegetables after having tasted it.

One found some classical famous novels bearing the name of flowers. It is the case of Nhị Ðộ Mai (Twice blossoming plum tree) and Hoa Tiên (Flowery Loose Sheets). The first one was written in Nôm with two thousand eight hundred twenty Six-Eight verses and adapted from a Chinese work. It is the story about king fidelity, filial piety, loyalty, gratitude and love. As for the second novel, it was composed by the learned Nguyễn Huy Tự.This novel comprises more than eight hundred verses written in Six-Eight feet (lục bát). It is the first Vietnamese romantic poem and still remaining within the Confucian thought.

Despite a great variety of flower species found on this land of legends, the Vietnamese do not hide their preference to certain plants. They do not hesitate to classify some in the category of noble plants. Among those, one can quote:

Lan (Magnolia)
Cúc (Chrysanthemum)
Sen (Lotus)
Mẫu đơn (Peony)
Hoa hồng (Rose)

These plants or their flowers have each one a particular and ethical signification and the Vietnamese tradition. The plum tree ( mai ) is the symbol of a superior man. It succeeds in resisting the cold and bad weather and continues to bloom in February, which allows it to symbolize the Spring in the representation of the four seasons (Tứ Thì). At the occasion of Têt, for a Vietnamese, there is never a lack on the altar of some branches of plum trees (or cherry) in bloom that are selected so that the flowers hatch during the festival. The plum flower is very much adored by learned and intellectual Vietnamese. An independent man of character like Cao Bá Quát who did not bow to mandarinal servitude had to admit to only bending his head before the plum flower during his lifetime.

Nhất sinh đê thủ bái hoa mai
Suốt đời chỉ cúi đầu trước hoa mai

All my life, I curve only my head in front of the flower of plum tree.

Another learned man Ðào Tấn, the father of stage productions of the Bình Ðịnh region in Central Vietnam, also nourished the hope to die one day near plum trees. That is why, while living, he chose (Mộng Mai) (Dream of Plum Flowers) as his pseudonym and had the occasion to reveal his state of heart in the two verses found in one of his poems:

Núi mai rồi giữ xương Mai nhé
Uớc mộng hồn ta là đóa Mai

It is the mountain of the plum trees where will be buried my skeleton of plum tree.
I continue to dream that my soul would be the flower of plum tree.

It was not an utopia for him because at his death (July 1907), he was buried at mount Huynh Mai, not too far from a plum garden which is a few kilometers away. Contrary to the Chinese, they are the plum and lotus flowers which are more appreciated than the peony. That’s why they are called Hoa Khôi (Flowers of first rank)
One has a preference for the plum tree because the lotus is rather reserved to Buddhism although it is also the symbol of a man of Confucian quality (junzi). It was the plant chosen by the learned Mạc Ðỉnh Chi to reveal his extraordinary talent and genius when king Trần Anh Tôn hesitated to appoint him « First Doctor » finding him too ugly at the time of diploma delivery. To convince the king, he compared himself to a lotus in a jade well by composing in front of the king the poem entitled «  Ngọc Liên Tỉnh Phú  » (Lotus in a a jade well) ».

Giống quý ấy ta đây có sẳn
Tay áo nầy ta chứa đã lâu
Phải đâu đào, lý thô màu
Phải đâu mai, trúc dãi dầu tuyết sương
Cũng không phải tăng phường câu kỷ
Cũng không là Lạc Thủy mẫu đan
Cũng không là cúc, là lan
Chính là sen ở giếng vàng đầu non

That precious species I already possess
In this coat sleeve I kept it for a long time
It is neither peach nor cherry whose color is gross
It is neither plum tree nor bamboo exposed to snow and dew
It is even not berry whose scent is to be avoided
It is not the peony from Lac Thủy(1)
It is neither chrysanthemum nor magnolia
But it is the lotus in the golden well on top of the mountain.

Mạc Ðỉnh Chi had the occasion to compose a funeral oration in honor of disappearance of a Mongol princess when he was sent to China as the Ambassador of Vietnam. That day, before the imperial court, one gave him a sheet of paper on which there were four lines, each one began with a single word « one » (một ). It was up to him to compose a poem by completing the lines to render a great homage in memory of that princess. Imperturbable, he succeeded in doing it with the surprise and admiration of all the Mongol imperial court by designating the princess like a flower:

Lò hồng môt giọt tuyết
Vườn thượng uyển môt cành hoa
Cung quảng hàn (2) một vầng nguyệt
Than ôi! Mây tan! Tuyết tiêu!
Hoa tàn! Trăng khuyết !

One cluster of clouds in the blue sky
One flake of snow on the rose beam
One flower in the imperial garden
One lunar disk in the Moon palace
Alas! Cloud disappears! Snow melts!
The flower wilts! The moon is incomplete !

As for the chrysanthemum, it is not only the monopoly of the Autumn but also the symbol of serenity and the indifference of people to honors and glory. Analogous to the flower of plum tree, the magnolia is the symbol of feminine beauty. It often designates a young girl in poetical compositions. Although the peony is seen as a noble flower, it does not have a significant range than it continues to have in China. Probably because of the Chinese influence, one continues to keep that custom. The peony is often evoked in Vietnamese ornamental art or in legends (The story of the mandarin Từ Thức and the fairy Giáng Hương for example).

As for the rose, it is the symbol of love and affection. To understand the value and the range of significance that the Vietnamese give to this flower, we should read the novel « Bông Hô`ng Cài A’o ( A rose pinned on the coat ) » of the Vietnamese zen monk Thi’ch Nhâ’t Hạnh. He attempts to remind us through his narration that everyone of us has a unique mother that we neglect to think of because of the ups and downs in life. We often forget that if everyone of us still has a mother today, that is because God has left an invaluable treasure with us. We still have the chance to be able to love her and show her our affection. For that, we can continue to pin a rose on our coats because we alone still have that immense, intimate and indescribable joy that lots of people no longer had long time ago.

Not long ago on this land of legends, one could not see white myrtle flowers (Hoa Sim) laid by young girls on the tomb of their lovers who had fallen valiantly in the defense of their ideal and fatherland. They did not have the chance to see peace coming back some day. They did not have the occasion to pin a rose on their coats even when their mothers were still alive. It is for these valiant people that all the Vietnamese want to offer a rose for the love they have always had for this land. They want to show them their sincere affection and profound gratitude. Without the bravery, sacrifice, and the nobility of soul of these people, Vietnam would not have been able to retain its independence, its cultural identity, its millennial traditions.

(1) Lạc Thủy: a river known in China.
(2) Cung quảng hàn : the  mythical  Chinese palace  found on the moon.
(3): An anecdote on the chrysanthemum of Luoyang  with  Wu Ze Tian empress ( Võ Tắc Thiên) of  Tang dynasty.

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