Parallel sentences (Doanh thiếp)

Doanh Thiếp

French version

One of the charms of Vietnamese poetry lies in the usage of paralell sentences. Not only is found there the opposite of ideas or words used but also the relevance of the practice of parallelism. That is why parallel sentences constitute one of the major difficulties for novices but nevertheless they become one of the indisputable appeals for known Vietnamese poets such as Hồ Xuân Hương, Tự Ðức, Cao Bá Quát, Ðoàn Thị Ðiểm, Nguyễn Ðỉnh Chiễu etc… who had the opportunity to use them wisely. They have given us sentences showing their unprecedented talent and always serving as reference in the Vietnamese poetry.

Thanks to the contrast of the words or ideas in a verse or from stanza to stanza, the poet succeeded in stressing a reason or a crtitique and reinforcing the vigor of his thought. He composes these sentences based on prosodic rules established essentially on the alternation of equal (or bằng ) and oblique ( or trắc ) tones while leaning on the power of melodious and harmonious combinations of words used that are reinforced by the musicality of the Vietnamese language and the contrast of ideas.

© Đặng Anh Tuấn

Parallel sentences constitute a kind of intellectual pastime, an art that renowned poets found it hard to do without. They have succeeded in practicing this art with an astonishing ease and a remarkable ingenuity.

Parallel sentences reflect exactly what the poet saw and felt in his daily life. It is not surprising to see the Vietnamese’s infatuation of this subtle prosody for generations. It has become not only the pleasure of the people but also an efficient weapon against oppression, obscurantism and provocation.
Parallel sentences are a part of what every Vietnamese cannot miss on the occasion of Tết. The following two sentences:

Thịt mỡ, dưa hành câu đối đỏ,
Cây nêu, tràng pháo, bánh chưng xanh

Fatty meats, pickled shallots, red parallel sentences.
Tet poles, firecracker strings, green sweet rice cakes.

witness to the familiarity and profound attachment that the Vietnamese love to reserve to this popular prosody during the new year time. Rich or poor, poet or not, everyone try to have these sentences hung at the entrance to their homes. They compose them themselves or have them composed by learned people who would write them to best express their personal aspirations.

Parallel sentences probably found their root in Chinese literature. They are known in Vietnamese as « Doanh Thiếp » ( manuscript hung on the housepost ). They comprise two parts that are called upper part ( vế trên ) and lower part ( vế dưới ). They are also called given statement ( vế ra ) and cross statement ( vế đối ) when one is composed by a person and the other by another. One finds some characteristics common to those two parts:

· The number of words must be the same;
· The content must be suitable at the level of significance when it comes to antithesis or parallelism of ideas.
· The form must be respected when it comes to contrast of words used (respect of placement order of nouns, adjectives and verbs, observance of opposition rules and registered sounds bằng and trắc).
In the example cited below,
Gia bần tri hiếu tử
Quốc loạn thức trung thần.
Poor homes discern their pious children
Troubled nation recognizes its loyal citizens.
It is noted that there is the same number of words used ( 5 in each part, 6 in English ), the parallelism of ideas and the strict observance of registered sounds bằng and trắc used in both parts. At the position of the bang tone (Bần) in the upper verse one finds the trac tone (Loạn) at the same place in the lower verse. Likewise, the remaining trac tones in the upper verse hiếu and tử are respectively crossed by the two bằng tones trung and thần in the lower verse.

Parallel sentences made up of one to three words for each of the parts are called little parallel sentences ( or tieu doi in Vietnamese ). When they contain four to seven words and follow prosodic rules of poetry, they are called « poetic parallel sentences » ( câu đối thơ ). It is the case cited above. In the case of parallelism of ideas which is called doi xuoi in Vietnamese, no opposition of ideas is detected; on the contrary, the is an intimate relation between the two parts, which we find in the following sentences:

Vũ vô kiềm tỏa năng lưu khách
Sắc bất ba đào dị nịch nhân.
Rain though not restraining, is retaining
Feminine beauty being no big waves, can easily be drowning.
In the opposite case they are called đối ngược in Vietnamese. 

The parallelism of ideas is frequently used by poet Cao Bá Quát. There is an anecdote about him during the passage of emperor Minh Mạng in his village when he was still a young boy. Instead of hiding, he threw himself in a pond to take a bath. His absurd attitude caused him to be tied and brought before Minh Mạng under the exhausting sun. Minh Mang, who was surprised by his boldness and young age offered to free him at the only condition that he succeed in composing the appropiate cross sentence in response to the emperor’s given statement. Seeing a bigger fish chasing a smaller one in the pond, the emperor began to say:

Nước trong leo lẽo, cá đóp cá
In clear water, fish eating fish.
Without hesitation, Cao Bá Quát replied with astonishing ease:
Trời nắng chan chan, người trói người

Under scorching sun, man tying man.

Marveled by his promptness and unprecedented talent, the emperor was obliged to set him free. Cao Bá Quát, known for his independence, presumption and contempt of the mandarinal system, often stood up against challenges launched by his adversaries. One day, while participating in a talk on poetry hosted by a mandarin, he did not stop making fun of the mandarin when this one gave simplistic explanations to questions made by the public. Annoyed by his continuing provocation, the mandarin challenged him with the intention of punishing him immediately by asking him to give a cross sentence appropriate to the statement given by the mandarin himself:

Nhi tiểu sinh hà cứ đác lai, cảm thuyết Trình, Chu sự nghiệp
Mầy là gả học trò ở đâu đến mà dám nói đến sự nghiệp của Trương Công và Chu Công?

You little student coming from nowhere dare to critique the works of Trinh and Chu?
Without hesitation, he replied with impertinence:
Ngã quân tử kiên cơ nhi tác, dục ai Nghiêu Thuấn quân dân
Ta là bậc quân tử, thấy cơ mà dấy, muốn làm vua dân trở nên vua dân đời vua Nghiêu vua Thuấn.

I the gentleman taking opportunity for action want to turn king and subjects to those of Nghiêu and Thuấn.

In the old days parallel sentences constituted a favorite place where Chinese and Vietnamese loved to affront publicly. The cross statement of the learned Giang Văn Minh, anchored in the memory of a whole people and perpetuated for several generations

Ðằng giang tự cồ huyết do hồng.

The Ðằng River is from ancient time still red of blood .
continues to illustrate its infallible determination to the provocation of the Ming emperor with its following given statement:

Ðồng trụ chí kim đài dĩ lục

The Bronze Pole is up until now covered with green of moss

There are also anonymous poets who left us memorable parallel sentences. It is those found on the altar of Nguyễn Biểu at the Bình Hồ commune ( North Vietnam )
Năng diệm nhơn đầu năng diệm Phụ
Thượng tồn ngô thiệt thượng tôn Trần
Ăn được đầu người thì co’ thể ăn cả Trương Phụ
Còn lưỡi của ta thì còn nhà Trần

Capable of eating a human head is capable of eating Trương Phụ
Having still my tongue is having remain the dynasty of Trần.

Thanks to these two sentences, the anonymous poet wanted to render a vibrant homage to the national hero. He was drowned by the Chinese generalissimo Trương Phụ who had hosted a somptuous banquet in his honor. To intimidate Nguyen Bieu, Truong Phu did not hesitate to present him a plate on which sit the head of a decapitated adversary. Instead of being afraid of this presentation, Nguyen Bieu remained impassible, took the chopsticks, picked out the eyes and ate them savorily.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, an anonymous composed the following parallel sentences:
Nam Kì Khởi Nghĩa tiêu Công Lý
Ðồng Khởi vùng lên mất Tự Do.

Nam Ki Uprising wiped out Justice
Ðồng Khởi Revolt took away Freedom

because the names of the bouvevards Công Lý and Tự Do were replaced by Nam Ki Khởi Nghĩa and Ðồng Khởi in this teeming city of the South.

By means of parallel sentences, the anonymous poet wanted to stress his caustic criticism with regard to the regime.
Taking advantage of the subtleness found in parallel sentences and of the figurative meaning of the Vietnamese language, Vietnamese politicians, emperor Duy Tân in particular, have often had the opportunity to probe and be ironical of their adversary.
Brooding on the idea of fomenting for a long time an insurrection against the colonial authorities, Duy Tân, taking advantage of a coastal excursion with his prime minister Nguyễn Hữu Bài at the beach of Cửa Tủng ( Quảng Trị ), requested of the latter a cross statement to his given sentence:

Ngồi trên nước không ngăn được nước
Trót buôn câu đã lỡ phải lần
Sitting on water, but one is incapable of retaining it
Throwing out the fishing line, yet we can only pull it back slowly
Since Nước also means country in Vietnamese, Duy Tân in his given statement wanted to express the idea that he was on top of the country, yet he could not govern it.

He also wanted to probe Nguyễn Hữu Bài’s political intention to see if the latter was with his opinion or paid by the French colonialists. Knowing the political conjuncture and being close to the colonial authorities, Nguyễn Hữu Bài preferred immobilism and a politics of dialogue in the following reply:

Ngẫm việc đời mà ngán cho đời
Liệu nhắm mắt đến đâu hay đó

Thinking of life, one becomes fed up with it
Closing our eyes, we will take whatever happens

To be ironical of his adversary, Ðặng Trần Thường, who had judged him wrong for being a partisan of emperor Quang Trung, with the following sentence:
Thế Chiến Quốc, thế Xuân Thu, gặp thời thế, thế thời phải thế
At the time of Chiến Quốc and Xuân Thu, whoever had the opportunity would grab it.

Ngô Thời Nhiệm succeeded in giving a perfect reply to the given statement by his adversary Ðặng Trần Thường, a partisan of emperor Gia Long.
Ai Công hầu, ai Khanh tướng, trên trần ai,
ai dễ biết ai
For the titles of Duke and Minister, who is who in society to know them.

He succeeded to show not only his bravery but also his contempt with regards to go-getters such as Ðặng Trần Thường. Annoyed by these vexing words, the latter ordered his subordinates to flog him to death in front of the temple of literature. Ngô Thời Nhiệm was not wrong to recall Ðặng Trần Thường of this remark because he was later condemned to death by emperor Gia Long.
Phú, it is the noun in Vietnamese attributed to parallel sentences having a large number of words or parts. It is the case of sentences used by Ngô Thời Nhiệm and Đặng Trần Thường. When they are made of several parts of sentences, three ( in the example cited above ) or more, in the middle of which is inserted a very short part, one calls them gối hạc ( the kneecap of the crane ) in Vietnamese because it looks like the two parts of the crane’s leg separated by the kneecap.

Parallel sentences become with the flow of time the true popular expression of the whole people in the permanent struggle against obscurantism and oppression. By giving the people the opportunity to show their character, temperament and soul, parallel sentences succeed in justifying

what novelist Staël has put:

By learning the prosody of a language, one intimately enters the spirit of the nation that speaks it. It is with parallel sentences that one can understand and feel better about Vietnam. One would then be closer to its people and culture.

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