The Sacred Willow: Four Generations in the Life of a Vietnamese Familyby Duong Van Mai Elliott
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Duong Van Mai Elliott's The Sacred Willow, an extraordinary narrative woven from the lives of four generations of her family, illuminates fascinating--and until now unexplored--strands of Vietnamese history. Beginning with her great-grandfather, who rose from rural poverty to become an influential mandarin, and continuing to the present, Mai Elliott traces her family's journey through an era of tumultuous change. She tells us of childhood hours in her grandmother's silk shop--and of hiding while French troops torched her village, watching blossoms torn by fire from the trees flutter "like hundreds of butterflies" overhead. She reveals the agonizing choices that split Vietnamese families: her eldest sister left her staunchly anti-communist home to join the Viet Minh, and spent months sleeping with her infant son in jungle camps, fearing air raids by day and tigers by night. And she follows several family members through the last, desperate hours of the fall of Saigon--including one nephew who tried to escape by grabbing the skid of a departing American helicopter. Based on family papers, dozens of interviews, and a wealth of other research, this is not only a memorable family saga, but a record of how the Vietnamese themselves have experienced their times. At times haunting, at times heartbreaking--it is always mesmerizing--The Sacred Willow will forever change how we view the history of Vietnam and our own role in it.
Steven I. Levine, University of Montana, Missoula
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A Burial in the Night
My family owes our good fortune to a mysterious man. What he did one night changed my ancestors's destiny, leading them from poverty to social prominence.
When this enigmatic figure appeared in my family's story toward the end of the eighteenth century, Vietnam was still in the throes of a civil war that would erupt intermittently and last over 200 years. It was an unsettled time, with several clans backed by armies vying for domination. After their province in the central region of the country had turned into a raging battlefield, my ancestors fled. But there was no safe haven in the next province, or the next, as the opposing armies swept back and forth destroying everything in their path. So, along with thousands of other desperate peasants, my ancestors kept moving further and further north, trying to escape warfare, drought, and hunger. The trek finally took them to Van Dinh, where they settled down. This village is located on the bank of the Day River, about forty kilometers south of Hanoi. People here earned their livelihood by growing rice. They also grew vegetables in the soil along the bank of the river and sugar cane on higher ground. For extra food, they caught fish, shrimp, and freshwater clams, as well as crabs and snails that became plentiful in the flooded rice fields during the rainy season. The industrious villagers also sold bricks, cooking pots, and toys that they made by using clay scooped from the river bank.
The Day is a branch of the mighty Red River, which irrigates and nourishes the delta of north Vietnam with its rich silt. From its source in the mountain range in southern China, the Red River flows for hundreds of miles before pouring into the sea. As it penetrated into the flat delta, this river, enlarged by tributaries, began to course in a bed that was higher than the surrounding plain. During the monsoon, especially in July and August, the river would become menacing. Swollen by the incessant and torrential rainfall, it raged its way to the sea, frequently overflowing its banks and threatening to drown the surrounding land. To tame the floodwaters, an elaborate network of dikes had been constructed centuries before. But the dikes, built with wooden pillars, bamboo poles, and compacted earth, could not always contain the river and its branches. Inundations continued to occur almost every year, killing people and animals, and destroying crops and houses. Bandits usually emerged after the most disastrous inundations, as destitute peasants resorted to armed robbery for survival.
For villages like Van Dinh, the Day River was both a blessing and a bane, providing water to irrigate their lands, but also threatening them with flooding. The river drew the villagers to its rich alluvial soil, but also compelled them to keep their distance, shielded by the dike or safely perched on the higher ground near the market place. The thirteen-foot-tall dike, whose flat and wide top also served as the main road into the village, dominated Van Dinh's landscape. When my ancestors arrived, all the desirable housing spots had been taken, so they built their hut near the river's edge, on the "wrong side" of the dike. Whenever the water level rose, the river overflowed into their back yard and occasionally even into their house. As outsiders, my ancestors were viewed with suspicion and discriminated against by the clannish villagers. Most of the rice fields were the communal property of the village and were distributed only to the indigenous residents for cultivation. Migrants who came to settle like my ancestors were not entitled to a part of the land, and so were deprived of this main source of income. Some of the migrants earned their living by making clay pots, while others survived by doing odd jobs, fishing in the river, and by catching crabs and snails in the rice fields. The only hope for them to escape their lowly status and poverty was to produce sons who could become mandarinsofficials in the imperial bureaucracy and the elite of society at the time.
Scholars who aspired to become mandarins had to spend years mastering classical Chinese, introduced when China ruled the country from 111 B.C. to A.D. 939, and thereafter retained by the royal court, even after independence had been achieved, as the official language for all its documents. In addition, these scholars had to digest a daunting body of Chinese writings, learn how to compose elegant prose and poetry, and memorize Vietnamese and Chinese history, in order to pass a series of progressively more difficult exams. The goal of this education was not to encourage original thinking, but to produce men of culture who could master the wisdom of Confucius and his disciples and apply it to protect the welfare of the people. The higher the degree earned, the higher the potential appointment would be within the imperial bureaucracy and the faster the rise to the top. Only a relatively small number of people had the ambition and the persistence to pursue this career path.
My ancestors, who descended from scholars, were determined to continue their family's tradition, in spite of their poverty. The men focused on their studies and did odd jobs on the side. They survived mainly because their wives were able to contribute to the meager income by buying and selling goods at the various local markets. Every three years, the men tried their chances at the civil service exams, hoping to pass and to earn a position in the bureaucracy. If they succeeded, they would have power and prestige, though they certainly would not become rich, as the court paid mandarins only a low salary, supplemented with a rice ration sufficient to feed their families. Joining the imperial bureaucracy was, in fact, like joining the priesthood, as mandarins were expected to dedicate themselves to a life of virtue and duty and to accept a standard of living that was only slightly above that of the people they governed. In the view of the court, when it made a scholar a mandarin, it gave him such an honoranointing him as one of the country's most wise, most educated, and most virtuous menthat it did not need to pay him generously as well.
The mysterious man's connection with my family began with his friendship with Duc Thang, my ancestor of six generations ago. By this time, my family had lived in Van Dinh for about a hundred years. Three generations had come and gone, without achieving any noticeable success. The family had escaped poverty at one point, when one of the men married into a rich household. But by Duc Thang's generation, the family had once again fallen into abject poverty, victimized by the bandits that were taking advantage of the unsettled situation in the countryside. In their forays into Van Dinh, they had ransacked and burned down Duc Thang's hutnot once, but several times. Instead of destroying his spirit, this motivated him to study harder to pass his exam and escape his predicament.
At this time, most people could not read or write. Whenever illiterate people needed to have something recorded, they would go to students, scholars, or retired mandarins for help. In exchange, they would pay them a small sum or, since barter was common, give them betel leaves, areca nuts, rice wine, tea, or a combination of these. Duc Thang used to sit outside the gate of a pagoda near his village and hire himself out to the faithful, writing prayers in Chinese characters in exchange for a small fee. When worshipers had a big favor to ask of the deities, they would burn such messages in a special trough inside the pagoda courtyard to convey their pleas to the gods.
It was at this pagoda that the mysterious man met Duc Thang, and liked him immediately. They became friends, but after Duc Thang stopped visiting the pagoda, the man lost contact with him. Several years later, he decided to look for him in Van Dinh. When he arrived, disguised as a poor traveler, he learned that the scholar had been dead for many years. He found Duc Thang's house as evening fell. The poverty he saw was appalling. Without telling her who he was, he asked Duc Thang's widow for some water to wash his dusty feet. Although he looked poor, she greeted him with kindness and hospitality. He thought she was worthy of help and revealed that he was a geomancer, someone who could read signs in the earth and identify auspicious spots for burial sites to ensure the good fortune of future generations. He said, "I can show you where to put your husband's grave so that your descendants will have a better life. But you must tell me first whether you want them to be rich or to become successful scholars and mandarins." She answered, "I want them to have success and prestige, not wealth." Her choice made sense because, during the time in which she lived, scholars and mandarins were the most respected social classes. The wealthy, on the other hand, were despised because people believed that commerce, the usual source of money for the rich, was a parasiticif not dishonestoccupation. Over time, as social values changed, my relatives would come to regret the widow's selection. In my generation, many of my relatives would rather have traded their academic successes and poorly paid government jobs for wealth. And in my family, whenever we had money problems, my siblings and I would half-jokingly condemn Duc Thang's widow for her bad judgment.
After the widow told him what she wanted, the man said, "I'll help you get your wish. I know of a very good location for a grave in the village. I want you to dig up your husband's bones and rebury them there." But she protested. Exhumation was out of the question; she did not have the money to buy a clay pot in which to put the bones for reburial, as required by custom. The stranger reassured her, "Don't worry, just use a bamboo basket, if you can't afford to buy a clay pot." At exactly midnight, the man asked Duc Thang's widow and son to take him to the grave. After the bones had been dug up and placed in the basket, he told them to follow him. Guided only by starlight, they made their way to the new site the man had chosen. It turned out to be located in the middle of a common graveyard, where only wretched people without relatives or descendants to take care of their graves were buried. Wandering souls resided here, forever disconsolate because no one was burning joss sticks or making offerings to their spirits. Duc Thang's widow wept with disappointment and clung to the basket, refusing to bury the bones here. The stranger soothed her, "Don't worry. This is an auspicious site. In three years, all the other graves will be relocated. With them gone, the earth's currents will be unblocked and will flow directly into your husband's grave." Before leaving, he told the widow not to build a tomb over the grave. He also wrote a cryptic poem predicting the successes of future generations:
First, a member of the Royal Academy
Second, two governors
Every twenty years, a generation of scholars
Every twenty years, a generation of mandarins
Earth termites later built up the mound so that the grave, unrestricted by construction, kept growing year by year, an encouraging sign that it had been placed in powerful earth currents. It is said that if you stood on high ground and looked down at the grave, you would see that the contours of the earth around it formed the shape of an ink slab and a brush, the writing implements used by a scholar. You would also see the shape of a horse, the animal that a scholar rode on his triumphant return to his village, after winning the tien si, or doctorate degreethe pinnacle of academic achievement and a door-opener to a high position in the government. When I visited Duc Thang's grave in October 1993, I was astonished to find that, after almost 200 years, the mound had not been leveled by the passage of time. While all the old graves in the vicinity had disappeared, Duc Thang's burial site could still be seen protruding over the rice fields surrounding it. The ink slab and the brush had, unfortunately, been turned into rice fields, and the horse had had his left foot clipped when a nearby road was built. Because of this injury to the horse's left foot, people in my clan have become prone to accidents involving the left leg. When I fell and broke my left kneecap in 1981, I became another casualty of the carelessness of those road builders.
For about a hundred years after he first appeared in our history, we did not know who the mysterious stranger was. Then, one night, my great-grandfather spoke to the god of Tan Vien Mountain, Vietnam's most sacred peak, through a medium. This spirit, a mythical figure associated with the origins of our people, told him that this enigmatic figure was a monk who had taken the ordained name of Thanh Tinh Thien Su, or Master of Purity and Serenity. From that day onward, my great-grandfather began to worship the monk as if he were one of our ancestors. On the anniversaries of their deaths and at Tet, our lunar new year, when he prayed to their departed souls, he would also thank this holy man for his deed. This became a tradition for my clan. The predictions came true one by one. Duc Thang's son received the honorific title of royal academician upon his retirement as the mandarin in charge of education for Son Tay Province, and launched the family on the path of success and better fortune. The two governors foretold by the monk, Duong Lam and Duong Khue, my great-grandfather and great-granduncle, did not appear until three generations later. Every twenty yearsor so runs my family's beliefone or several relatives should achieve prominence in government service or as scholars, just as the monk predicted.
Duong Lam, my great-grandfather, was born in 1851, the third year of Emperor Tu Duc's reign during the Nguyen dynasty, the one that had emerged triumphant from the long civil war and that would be the last to exist. Considering the tradition in Duong Lam's family, there was no question that he would train to become a scholar and an official. So he immersed himself for years in the study of philosophy, history, and poetry, under his father's tutelage. He wanted success for himself; to earn fame as a scholar and prestige as a mandarin. But he also wanted success for his parents, who had great hopes for him, and whom he wanted to repay with the honor that society would bestow on them if he triumphed. He excelled in his studies, and mastered the art of writing prose and poetry. But scholastic brilliance could not always guarantee success. As is the case with any exam anywhere in the world, luckor fatehas much to do with passing or failing. The Vietnamese also believed that justice beyond the grave was at work during exams. The souls of those that had been wronged would come back to seek revenge against the perpetrators, while those that owed a debt to those still living would return to help their benefactors.
The first-level examination consisted of three to four sessions. Candidates who passed all of them received what can be called a master's degreeor cu nhanand those who passed all but one earned a tu taior a bachelor's degreethe lowest in the system. The examination was extremely competitive, and only a few candidates were chosen out of a field of thousands, with usually twenty to twenty-five master's degrees and seventy to seventy-five bachelor's degrees at each site. Seven major categories of complex if not incomprehensible rules governed all the exams, and an infraction could result in disqualification or even imprisonment, depending on the seriousness of the oversight or offense. A careless juxtaposition of words unintentionally implying a criticism of the throne was considered lèse-majesté and could land the candidate in jail.
The exam tested not only a candidate's intellect but also his mental and physical endurance. Due to the huge number of candidates at each site, there were no permanent exam rooms. Instead, each candidate had to bring his own tent, a portable bamboo couch that also served as a writing table, paper, brushes, ink, water, and food, as each session lasted all day and candidates were not allowed to leave the site. On exam day, the candidates had to arrive before daybreak and submit themselves to a thorough search by the guards before being allowed inside, to make sure they were not smuggling in any written materials along with their paraphernalia.
Strict measures were taken to prevent cheating. Sentinels standing guard in watchtowers and soldiers patrolling on horseback kept vigil to prevent candidates from sneaking into one another's tent and offering help. To make sure that the papers submitted by the candidate had been composed at the site and not prepared beforehand and smuggled in, the first ten or so pages used by each candidate were stamped with an official seal, and the manuscript had to be stamped again at noon on the exam day. An elaborate procedure for selecting the examiners and for grading was observed to prevent cheating. Mandarins appointed as examiners were chosen from outside the region where the exam was to be held. At the site, they were put in cramped quarters, and held virtually like prisoners until the sessions were over, completely cut off from the outside world, and even unable to communicate among themselves. The manuscripts submitted to them for grading were anonymous, with the candidates' names removed and bearing only coded numbers. Two sets of examiners independently graded each manuscript, and the cumulative grade stood as the final grade, to ensure objectivity and avoid favoritism or cheating. As an added precaution, a military mandarin with no ties to the examiners was put in charge of keeping watch over them and enforcing order at the site.
In his first try at the regional examination in 1867 at age sixteen, my great-grandfather did not succeed completely, getting only the bachelor's degree. If he was disappointed, he would also have felt comforted by the fact that he had done better than thousands of other scholars who never managed to earn even this degree, and spent their youth making repeated but fruitless attempts. Brilliant scholars who failed were not despised but simply pitied because fate did not reward their talent, and hoc tai thi phanAlearning depends on one's ability, but succeeding at the exams depends on one's fate"became the common lament for those cursed with bad luck at the exam site.
In normal times, my great-grandfather would have focused his energy only on succeeding in the next exam. But he was not living in normal times. In 1873, French troops bombarded and stormed Hanoi's citadel. This attack was France's first salvo in its war to take over the northern part of Vietnam following its conquest of the southern region in 1867. Outgunned, the governor of Hanoi felt he had only one honorable response. Wounded and taken prisoner, he ripped off his bandages and committed suicide by starving himself to death. After taking over Hanoi, French forces moved out to conquer the surrounding area. The campaign gave my great-grandfather the opportunity to prove himself. He recruited and trained militiamen to defend a citadel in his native district that stood in the way of the French advance. Under his leadership, the citadel resisted the enemy siege for two months. It was ultimately spared when the invaders withdrew from the north following their commander's death in a skirmish in Hanoi. For his achievement, Duong Lam was later cited by the court in its official account of those events.
With the departure of the French, things returned to normal. In 1878, Duong Lam took the mandarin exam again and not only earned the cu nhan degree, but took the highest honor as the valedictorian. In a country that revered learning, Duong Lam's success won him instant fame. After that, there was only one thing left for him to do: pursue the most prized degreethe tien, si, equivalent to the doctorate. But first, he would have to make the arduous trip to Hue, the imperial capital, where this series of exams was held. Hundreds of miles lay between Van Dinh and Hue. He would have to get there and back on foot and by boat, sailing along the shore of the South China Seas, then making his way by land through jungles and mountains. The trip took over a month
The imperial exam, held every three years, was extremely competitive. Each time, only ten scholars out of a field of 150 to 200 candidates would be chosen. The exam would begin with three rigorous sessions. Those that passed would sit for a fourth, held in the Imperial Palace, with subjects chosen by the emperor himself. Sometimes, an emperor would even grade the exams personally. If the candidates succeeded, they would earn the doctorate degree. If not, they would become "candidate doctors." My great-grandfather entered the first round of exams with great confidence. But although he turned in brilliant papers, he was disqualified because of a minor infraction. For the rest of his life, this twist of fate would nag at him. When his oldest son, my grandfather, also failed the same exam years later, it was like rubbing salt in the wound. The family was finally vindicated in 1919 when my oldest uncle Tuong earned the doctorate degree, in the last tien si exam to be held in Vietnam.
The failure rankled even more because Duong Lam's older brother Duong Khue, whom he measured himself against, had taken and passed this exam in 1868, and had received many honors. My great-granduncle could easily have failed as well. When Duong Khue sat for the palace exam, he and the other candidates were asked to write an essay on a topic Emperor Tu Duc had chosen himself: "Make War or Make Peace." The imperial Council of Ministers was then hotly debating this issue. The court was split. On one side were those that wanted to make peace with the French. On the other side were those that wanted to go to war to get back the southern provinces that the emperor had been forced to cede to France. The emperor took the opportunity of the exam to test the best minds in the country on this issue. For the candidates, it was a loaded topic, because they had no way of knowing what the emperor himself was thinking. However they came down on the issue, they might run the risk of offending the throne.
Duong Khue couched his essay in such diplomatic language that the emperor did not take offense. In it, my great-granduncle opposed the concession the emperor had made, but avoided criticizing the throne directly. He said simply that as a loyal subject he had wept upon reading the royal edict announcing the loss of territory to the French. Then he went on to recommend that the court go to war to expel the foreigners. The emperor liked the composition, but did not agree with this suggestion, and wrote the comment "Not appropriate to the situation" in vermillion ink in the margin. That was not the last time my great-granduncle recommended going to war. He would do this two more times in petitions he addressed to the throne. This audacity could have cost him his career, if not his freedom or even his head.
If my great-grandafather had passed the tien si exam, he would have enjoyed the many honors that his older brother had experienced. After earning the doctorate degree, Duong Khue was granted an audience with the emperor, entertained at a royal banquet, given a robe and a hat adorned with a silver flower design of his own choosing, and invited to stroll the imperial garden. The emperor also gave Duong Khue a gift of precious cinnamon bark that had been presented to the court as tribute, observing, "We notice that tien si Duong Khue does not look well. We instruct him to take care of his health so that he can serve the country." This was a great honor, since this cinnamona kind found on only a few trees out of thousands growing in a cinnamon forestwas believed to be a wonder drug, capable of curing innumerable diseases, and even of bringing the dying back to life.
My great-grandfather, however, did not have the luxury of indulging in anger and disappointment. The French were back. After a third attempt, they occupied Hanoi in 1883. Although it would take France twelve years to pacify the north, this date marked the end of Vietnamese independence. Sporadic and localized armed resistance against French domination would continue until the last band of rebels was subdued in 1913. But it had become clear to most people after 1883 that military struggle would be futile and would bring only further death and destruction to the people. For the mandarins, the choice was either to accept the situation and collaborate, or to resist passively by resigning or refusing to take up their posts when appointed. Most had to adapt and to cooperate, to avoid retaliation against themselves and their families. Most were also driven to cooperation because government work, the only career they were trained for, was the most viable means for them to support their families.
Following the conquest, the north became a French protectorate and assumed the name of Tonkin. The emperor would continue to rule this region through a viceroy, but all the latter's decisions had to be presented to and approved by the French official representative, called a résident supérieur. In addition, French officials were placed at the head of each province to oversee the mandarins who, however, were allowed to retain most of their autonomy. From that date onward, my great-grandfather's life and career would be drastically changed by the French presence.
In 1884 when the French consolidated their hold over the north, my great-grandfather had just begun his mandarin career, having become district magistrate in Ha Dong province in 1883. The goal he had struggled for was finally within his grasp. Yet, as fate would have it, the moment of triumph would become clouded only months later by the loss of independence. He stayed in this position for three years, but his heart was not in it. He resigned in 1886, using his mother's illness as an excuse, the first of many resignations during his career. Although he was forced to resume government service time and again, either in response to official summonses that he could not turn down, to meet his family's heavy financial burdens, or to do whatever good he could as a mandarin for a country in its hour of need, my great-grandfather did so with reluctance.
For the rest of his life, until his retirement, he would feel the conflicting pull of what scholars at the time called "engagement" and "withdrawal." Should he, as a scholar trained to serve the court and the country, join the government and risk getting stigmatized by collaborating with the French? Or should he abstain from dealing with affairs of state, even if he could make some difference, and keep his reputation intact? He would also struggle with the issue of loyalty, a value that scholars considered central to their lives. Could he, in "engaging," separate loyalty to the court from loyalty to France, which controlled it? And could he, as a mandarin, be loyal to the people and their welfare, without also furthering the interests of France? Despite his frequent discomfort and discouragement at "engaging" himself, he always met his mandarin responsibilities head-on, for he was a man of honor and took his duties seriously. He knew he could not singlehandedly change the situation, so he carried on as best he could and bided his time, waiting for the opportunity to reverse his country's fate. Unfortunately, this opportunity never came during his lifetime.
A year after he resigned as district magistrate, the dilemma presented itself in the form of a summons. Nguyen Huu Do, the first viceroy of Tonkin following the French conquest, appointed my great-grandfather as his assistant. It was an honor and a demand that Duong Lam could not have rejected. If he had refused, the court and the French would have viewed his decision as an act of opposition. Besides, by this time, he had a large family to support: a wife, three children, and two parents without an income of their own. So this appointment, giving him a sizable salary, was too attractive to turn down. Thus began a long period of "engagement" for my great-grandfather, one that would last for ten years.
His new position was a double-edged sword. The viceroy admired and trusted him, but Duong Lam's power created enemies. Complaints that he was using his influence to put his friends in key positions soon reached the ears of the French. They became alarmed and suspected that my great-grandfather was trying to create a political network. There was perhaps some substance to the charges. But more probably Duong Lam was simply fulfilling his personal obligations. In Vietnam there was a saying that "when one man becomes a mandarin, the whole clan can benefit from his position." So my great-grandfather must have been under intense pressure from relatives as well as friends to give them jobs in the government. If he had refused to help, he would have been accused of failing to meet his obligationsa serious criticism in a society that prized good personal relationships.
Duong Lam's influence continued to rise even after the death of the viceroy at the end of 1888. Tran Luu Hue, the new viceroy, admired and trusted him as much as the previous one, and even promoted him to a higher grade. This official came to rely on my great-grandfather so much that Duong Lam's jealous colleagues began to complain that he was the real viceroy of Tonkin. Hanoi, as the seat of power for north Vietnam, was full of intrigues, where the more unscrupulous mandarins jockeyed for positions and influence, tried to curry favors with the new French masters, and did not hesitate to resort to slander and anonymous denunciations to bring down their rivals. Even jealous relatives could turn into enemies, such as the one in Van Dinh who denounced Duong Lam and his older brother to the French in 1888, accusing them of seditious activities. This was a serious allegation that could have cost Duong Lam and his brother their freedom, if not their lives, and ruined their families.
Duong Lam's colleagues' complaints about him became more vociferous. This time, the French reaction was more serious. One high-ranking official, a member of the résident supérieur's cabinet, expressed his uneasiness over Duong Lam in a memo, in which he called my great-grandfather brilliant but too arrogant, and advocated removing him from the viceroy's circle. When the viceroy and Duong Lam became personally linked by the marriage of their childrenmy grandfather and grandmotherthey had to inform the authorities of this relationship, in conformity with a law that the French had established to prevent collusion among high officials. My great-grandfather had to request a transfer, and the French gladly complied, transferring him in 1889 to Hung Hoa, a distant province.
The year 1889 was a trying one for my great-grandfather. His first wife died, and he had to pull up stakes and move from the capital of Hanoi to a trouble spot. Duong Lam had married his first wife, the daughter of a governor, when she was thirteen years old, a very acceptable age considering that girls past the age of sixteen were already considered too old to marry. My family's chronicle did not say much about my great-grandmother (or any of my female ancestors, for that matter) except to praise her virtues, in particular her filial piety, her devotion to her husband and children, and her harmonious relationship with everyone. Family records were not written to reveal the truth, but to inspire awe and respect for ancestors. So my great-grandmother was held up as the model of a "great and virtuous lady."
When she fell ill, my great-grandfather took a month-long leave of absence to care for her at their residence in Hanoi. But his ministrations and those of the doctor failed. At her death, my great-grandmother left five children, the youngest newly born. Still reeling from this tragedy, my great-grandfather received the order to leave the comfort and security of Hanoi for troubled Hung Hoa province, where he had been appointed judge, one of several assistants to the mandarin in charge of a province, called a governor in the case of a small province, or a governor general in the case of a large one. Hung Hoa was located in the hilly region above the flat delta plain, and its main town, bearing the same name, controlled navigation on the Red River. Occupying such a strategic point on the water route leading into the vital delta, the town was a fortified citadel topped with an observation tower famous for its attractive design. The province of Hung Hoa at this time was plagued by the Black Flags, members of the T'aiping Rebellion in China who had fled to Vietnam. For a while, the Vietnamese court had used them to fight the French. But like guests that refuse to leave after a party, the Black Flags stayed on when they were no longer needed and began to resort to banditry. They were reinforced by Vietnamese bandits who joined them to pillage, kidnap, and sow terror among the villages.
There were daring attacks on the Hung Hoa citadel during the time my great-grandfather served as judge in this province. Most nights, the citadel echoed with the sound of cannon fire, rifle shots, and war drums, as the government forces fought these roving bands. After such assaults, government troops would launch counter-expeditions; returning with captured suspects to throw into the provincial jail. As the judge, my great-grandfather had to try each case. He believed in justice and in the ideal that mandarins should be humane toward their subjects. During his tenure, he ordered the release of hundreds of these prisoners once he determined they were innocent. His performance impressed the French official overseeing the province, who gave him a flattering annual appraisal, calling him an "active, intelligent and erudite man" and observing that he "appeared" loyal. It also earned him a promotion three months later, as chief judge and chief administrator of another important province closer to the delta. But his rejoicing was cut short. Hoang Cao Khai, the new viceroy and a former colleague who had watched Duong Lam's swift rise with resentment, now used his power to banish my great-grandfather to Luc Nam, a province tucked deeper into the mountains near the border with China.
In this posting, he would have to display the conflicting qualities that the court looked for in its mandarins: He would have to be a ruthless military commander to maintain law and order, and he would have to be a benign administrator, a "father and mother" figure, that the people he governed aspired to have. Luc Nam was a pestilential region surrounded by thick forests and plagued by Chinese and Vietnamese bandits who engaged in pillage and in opium and arms smuggling. The night after he assumed his position, he heard explosions around the citadel and, looking out from his window, he saw the sky aflame. He could hear the yells of the bandits, who fought their way to the gate of the citadel before the defenders' cannon fire and bullets drove them away.
As the mandarin in charge of the province, my great-grandfather was responsible for maintaining peace and security within his territory. So, after this brazen attack, he began leading expeditions against the Chinese bandits and their Vietnamese allies. The rugged territory favored the bandits, who were encamped on the high points controlling the passes. Logistics and troop movements were slow and arduous. In this terrain where soldiers had to scale cliffs or march single-file, hacking their way through the forest's thick growth, my great-grandfather could not deploy massive forces to overwhelm the bandits or take them by surprise. The French later would face the same problem here against the Communists and their allies, as would the Americans in similar rugged terrain in South Vietnam.
Once, the bandits came close to capturing and killing my great-grandfather. They had routed his forces and surrounded him in a forest clearing. Duong Lam jumped on his horse, tugged at the reins, and shouted, "Don't fail me now!" The horse took off instantly, scattering the bandits. Duong Lam knew they could track him from the hoofprints, so when he approached his residence, he dismounted and set the animal loose to return to the [Illegible] on its own. Then he smeared his face and clothes with mud and hid in a culvert under the road. From his hiding place, he could hear the bandits' feet thundering over his head as they charged headlong in pursuit.
That experience did not deter my great-grandfather from continuing his operations. He eventually succeeded in subduing the bandits, capturing their leadersone of whom he beheadedand destroying their lair. Peace would finally come to the border region when the Chinese bandits retreated back into their country. During his expeditions, my great-grandfather also released a large number of women that the bandits had kidnaped and held in their stronghold. At the end of his life, he would look back on this liberation of innocent villagers with pride, as an example of the good that he was able to achieve as a mandarin. His success in ridding the villages of the bandits' scourge earned him the gratitude of the local people, who built a small temple in Quynh Village to worship him. Although the temple was later destroyed by the French during 1945 to 1954, two pillars praising Duong Lam's accomplishment are still standing.
My great-grandfather knew that Hoang Cao Khai, his enemy in Hanoi who had dispatched him to Luc Nam, expected him to be ravaged physically and mentally by the experience. So he wrote a poem, ostensibly to give news of himself, but in fact to mock this mandarin. In it, he said that, far from being destroyed, hea good man enjoying divine protectionhad prevailed. He also painted the picture of himself as a man who refused to let the stress unnerve him and who could still take his ease amidst the turbulence to enjoy music and an occasional cup of wine, relaxations that scholars considered refined and worthy of their time.
As I look up at the blue Tan Mountain
I send you, my friends, my best wishes.
These mountains and rivers are all part of our country
Wherever I go, heaven protects me.
My confidence sustains me as I strike.
In 1891, Hoang Cao Khai acknowledged Duong Lam's competence by summoning him back to Hanoi to serve as his assistant. The viceroy, who had resented Duong Lam's rising star, now realized he needed my great-grandfather's literary talent to fulfill a task the French had given him: to start an official journal that would disseminate news and communicate official policies to the mandarins. Being a scholar known for his learning and writing style, my great-grandfather was considered the most qualified man to serve as editor of this journal. With its elegant and erudite writing, the journal quickly became a favorite among scholars and mandarins. Khai was a learned and very capable man, but also a ruthless and authoritarian mandarin who did not hesitate to use his power to crush those that dared to defy him. He enjoyed the complete confidence of the French, which he had earned after quelling the last armed resistance movement in the delta of Tonkin. This suppression made him the most controversial figure in Tonkin at the time. But he was such a dangerous man that no one dared to cross or oppose him openly. And so began my great-grandfather's uneasy relationship with the viceroy, whom he fearedas did everyone else at that timebut did not admire. Duong Lam tarried in Luc Nam after his appointment and did not report immediately to Hanoi, until the viceroy sent him a peremptory cable commanding him to do so.
To reward him for the success of the journal, the viceroy appointed Duong Lam governor of Thai Binh province in 1892, when this position became vacant. Thai Binh was an important province and the home of many scholars. The viceroy knew that my great-grandfather, with his reputation as both a brilliant scholar and an able mandarin, would be not only accepted but also respected by the local population. The year my great-grandfather assumed his new function, the Tonkin delta was flooded when the Red River overflowed its banks. The maintenance of the dike network was one of the most critical duties of the mandarins, and required enormous expenses of money and labor. Each year, mandarins had to conduct frequent inspections and supervise the maintenance work performed by conscripted villagers, who lived in the vicinity of the dikes and benefited from their protection. For reinforcement, the villagers would add compacted earth to the top and sides of the dikes. This work usually began in October, right after the rainy season, and had to be completed by the end of March. After reinforcement was completed, the mandarins would direct the villagers to plant rows of bamboo on the river-side base of the dikes, to lessen the force of the water flow and to facilitate silt deposit.
When a dike broke, local mandarins were held responsible and punished with demotion of one or several gradesdepending on their rankif they had failed to predict or prevent the rupture. Occasionally, villagers could see signs that a dike was about to break, and could warn the authorities in time. Once a dike was destroyed at its base, the entire structure collapsed with a thunderous soundlike cannon fireand water spread rapidly over the surrounding land. Even if a breach could be detected in time, repair work could not always prevent a collapse in stormy weather. The swollen river would sweep away the woven bamboo mats and poles from the sodden ground in which they were planteda heart-breaking sight for the tired and cold villagers and mandarins, toiling under a threatening sky. When a rupture became imminent, a mandarin would have to rely on his military commander to keep the conscripted villagers from running away and to force them to continue working. Once a section broke, the water would begin to tear away section after section of the remaining dike.
In 1892, my great-grandfather was faced with the task of containing the might of the Red River in Thai Binh province. He spent days and nights on the dikes, braving the heavy rain, inspecting, supervising, praying to the river god, and exhorting the workers to redouble their efforts. His tireless work saved the province, the only one to escape unscathed in the general inundation of the delta. At the end of his life, my great-grandfather would look back and feel extremely proud of having saved so many lives in Thai Binh. The French high authorities commanded Duong Lam for his courage and leadership, awarded him a gold medal, and made him a "knight" of the Dragon of Annam order. In addition, the emperor awarded him a blue robe made of the finest brocade. As a sign of my great-grandfather's ambivalent attitude toward the French, he accepted the gold medal but hung it in his pigsty in a gesture of contempt.
Three years later, Duong Lam was recalled to the viceroy's office to serve once again as his assistant. In 1897, the viceroy gave him the title of War Minister. It was only an honorific title, but it signaled that my great-grandfather was now just a few rungs from the top level in the mandarin hierarchy. Not long after this promotion, however, the French eliminated the function of viceroy, which had served as the last link between Tonkin and the court in Hue. The résident supérieur in Hanoi now assumed direct control. In the provinces, the mandarins lost the last shreds of autonomy and were reduced to mere figureheads. True power was now concentrated in the hands of French officials at all levels. After this happened, my great-grandfather transferred to the court in Hue, where he assumed the title of Minister for Public Works and, at the same time, fulfilled the function of Deputy Director of the Imperial Historical Records. The French annexation of Tonkin had distressed Duong Lam. So he welcomed the transfer, which, he thought, would give him the chance to take refuge in the last bastion of Vietnamese autonomy.
But the autonomy did not last long. After sweeping royal authority away in Tonkin, the French proceeded to emasculate the court in Hue. The emperor became only a figurehead. The royal decrees might bear his name but the French were behind the decisions. In the case of my great-grandfather, they were the ones that approved his promotion to governor general, and they were the ones that told the emperor to grant him the title of Baron of Khanh Van. The court was powerless. The French now held the purse strings. Instead of controlling the country's treasury, the emperor received a monthly stipend for himself and his family. After pushing the anemic court to the side, the French set out to create a new and more modern government apparatus, with agencies like customs and management of state monopolies (of opium, salt, and alcohol), public works, agriculture, commerce, postal service, and communication. Vietnam was no longer a nation, but three distinct parts: the colony of Cochinchina and the protectorates of Annam and Tonkin. Then all three were merged with Laos and Cambodia to form the Union of Indochina. The French governor general, headquartered in Saigon, became the ruler of this forced union.
Although my great-grandfather's career was not immediately damaged by the French annexation, he viewed this turning point in his country's history as one of the saddest periods in his life. In the autobiographical poem he wrote for his family two years before his death to review his experiences and teach his descendants how to live by the same traditional values he had obeyed, he compared the situation in 1897 when the French swept away royal authority to the end of a chess gamewith the Hue court checkmatedand to a withering flower about to die. For a man who admired his country's achievement and tradition, the annexation was a blow to national pride. He also took it as a blow to his own pride. In the same poem, he expressed his feeling of impotence in stopping the decline and chided himself for his failure.
But as much as he resented this foreign yoke, he had to suppress his hostility and maintain a facade of civility toward the French, with whom he corresponded in the traditional flowery language of the scholar and official, full of exaggerated courtesy ("You are like a star in the firmament") and humble references to himself ("I am but dust and ashes"). In truth, he did not dislike all the colonial officials he met, and seemed to have been friendly with some of them, such as the résident in Hung Yen Province, whom he asked to look after his oldest son before he left for his post in central Vietnam. For their part, the French also had an ambivalent attitude toward him. Most of the colonial officials he dealt with recognized his intelligence and leadership and were anxious not to alienate him. But because of the continuing opposition among many mandarins, they never completely relaxed their vigilance over him.
As my great-grandfather must have known when he decided to "engage" himself, this relationship with the French authoritieshowever ambivalent and reluctantcould tarnish his reputation not only during this lifetime but also in the verdict of history. Through the good he accomplished, he managed to retain the respect of his contemporaries in a very difficult situation and at a time when the public was quick to condemn mandarins who collaborated with the French. My family still retains the text of an anonymous poem that was posted to the gate of the Hoang Cao Khai, the last viceroy of Tonkin, on the occasion of one of his birthdays. Each year, on the viceroy's birthday, all the high-ranking mandarins had to troop to his residence to pay their respects. The poem's anonymous author took this opportunity to express his contempt and hatred for several of the officials present at the celebration, condemning them for their venality and cruelty, but praising Duong Lam and his brother Duong Khue for their filial piety and detachment from the unscrupulous activities of their colleagues. It was a tacit recognition that they had not abused their power.
As for the verdict of history, it remains critical. Although collaboration would become widespread over the eighty years of colonial rule, leaving few of the elite untouched, modern historians in general continue to condemn high-ranking mandarins of Duong Lam's generation for their association with the French. In my great-grandfather's case, there was an undercurrent of criticism that sometimes erupted into print after his death. He was usually attacked not for anything specific, but for pursuing power and prestige when he should have withdrawn from service.
My great-grandfather did not let his concern over his country's state of affairs or his anxiety over whether or not to serve keep him from living fully. He was a vigorous man who knew how to appreciate the good things in life. My parents remembered him as an intimidating figure and yet one with a laugh "so resonant it could be heard in the street," who enjoyed food, wine, and song, but in moderation, as dictated by Confucian rules of behavior. He had a good sense of humor and could laugh at himself. He was not demanding in his tastes and could easily adjust to whatever circumstances in which he found himself: He was just as content eating a humble meal as one full of delicacies, dressing in the finest brocades or in rough cotton. Of course, like all traditional scholars, my great-grandfather loved philosophy and literature, especially poetry, which he considered the most refined and accomplished of the art forms. Like other scholars, he enjoyed reciting and composing poems in the company of friends. On these occasions, wine would flow. His and his guests would drink cup after cup, to put themselves in a better mood to savor the beauty of the verses. These and other poems he wrote were mostly for the enjoyment of himself and his friends or family.
My great-grandfather also appreciated chess and a good card game, mostly for the social aspects. He also loved music and the company of female singers, whom he frequently hired to perform for him and his friends, or visited in their quarters. In the red-light district, singers would ply their clients with food and wine and entertain them with songs. But my great-grandfather's interest in the singers was connected to his love of poetry, since the songs were poems chanted to the accompaniment of musical instruments. He himself wrote several compositions for the singers, some of which he dedicated to those whose talent he appreciated the most, or those with whom he had carried on short liaisons.
My great-grandfather would marry four more times after the death of his first wife. Polygamy was then legal. It was considered natural for a man of his stature to take several consorts. The more he married the more it demonstrated his power and influence, and the magnetism of his achievements. His additional wives were widows or women without good marriage prospects. They became his secondary wives because they had no hope of doing better, or because they believed that being the secondary wife of a great man was better than being the chief wife of a man without a future. Between them, they produced twenty-five more children, giving him a total of thirty sons and daughters. (My great-grandfather was not the only man in the clan to take several wives. So many of my male relatives married so many women who produced so many children that, as their descendants multiplied, I would end up with perhaps one of the most complicated family networks in the world, with ties as tangled as a century-old vine. It is so complicated that my American husband, who holds a Ph.D. in political science, finds it impossible to unravel.)
The four wives were unhappy over his affairs with the singers, but were too afraid of him to complain vociferously. In general, they accepted these liaisons as part of their marriage to someone of his stature, and as a man's natural right. Duong Lam was kind to them, took good care of them, and gave them the dignity that they deserved. In the eyes of society at the time, this placed him beyond reproach. Toward his children, my great-grandfather was a loving but stern father, always insisting on correct conduct, although he was known to indulge them when they were small. In this, he followed the Confucian injunction that a mandarin should first learn to maintain strict discipline and order within his household before he could hope to master the art of ruling a country and an empire. In his strict adherence to Confucian ethics, especially those that governed the relationship between subject and emperor, and between a son and his parents, Duong Lam was also typical of his generation. Toward the throne, Duong Lam was loyal to a fault, questioning but never actively opposing its decisions, even when the Nguyen Dynasty was paralyzed by impotence in its twilight years. In his relationship with his parents, he never deviated from the dictates of filial duties, even at the expense of his flourishing career. Yet he would constantly chide himself for not doing enough to repay his debt to them.
While he was working in Hue, my great-grandfather received the news in February 1898 that his father was gravely ill. Duong Lam immediately requested a leave of absence to return home. Because of his high rank, the emperor alone had the authority to approve this request. But the emperor was on a spring tour, and the request languished at the Ministry of Administrative Affairs. The delay distressed my great-grandfather. Not being at his father's bedside was a serious infraction of filial piety, so every day Duong Lam felt like he was sitting on fire, but he had to suppress his impatience. Then, while he was still waiting for permission, his father died. He immediately submitted a new request, asking for a three-year leave of absence to observe the mourning period, although it would have been acceptable for him to return to work after one year. He knew he would risk his career by withdrawing for such a long period of time. He was getting on in years, and the court gave him no reassurance that it would reappoint him again to another high position when his mourning ended. He took the risk, not only because he believed it was his duty to mourn for three years, but also because he was demoralized by France's brazen grab for complete control of the country and did not want to stay "engaged." His father's death gave him an excuse to retreat from government service without his action being construed as political. The moment he got home, he prostrated before his father's coffin and begged for forgiveness, although he believed that his dereliction of duty was unpardonable and that he would carry his guilt with him until he died.
Withdrawal might have given my great-grandfather moral satisfaction, but it also burdened him with financial worries. At the time he left office, his household had mushroomed to thirty-one dependents. Duong Lam's only income came from rice fields he owned, but it was not enough to feed so many people. At the end of his three-year mourning period, my great-grandfather reluctantly returned to government service and was appointed governor general of the provinces of Binh Dinh and Phu Yen in central Vietnam, a significant assignment. He hesitated, not wanting to leave his elderly mother behind, but she urged him to accept the post. This position marked the highest point in my great-grandfather's career. A governor general was, in the mandarin hierarchy, equivalent to a cabinet minister. After the lean years of retirement, he now enjoyed a life of power and abundance. The French might have clipped the wings of the mandarins, but they left them the outward trappings of authority. At every meal, my great-grandfather was served "delicacies from the mountain and from the sea." Whenever he appeared in public, soldiers riding on elephants provided protection for his retinue, and his route was cleared of traffic. His arrival was heralded by criers and by attendants beating on large and small drums and gongs. The common people, forbidden to look at him, had to withdraw indoors, close their doors and windows, or draw their shades. It was during his tenure here that he married his fifth wife, apparently the distant niece of one of the Nguyen emperors.
But Duong Lam's life was not all ceremony. Once again, he found himself in a sensitive military post, and had to lead expeditions against rebels in the mountain areas. For crushing a revolt in 1902, he was awarded a gold medal and made a "knight" of the Dragon of Annam order, for the second time. In the same year, the emperor also granted him the court title of Thai tu thiea bao, or Tutor to the Crown Prince, which now made him a mandarin of the highest grade in the realm. My great-grandfather would stay at this post for only two years. Again, the demands of filial piety, the desire to withdraw from a position in which he felt he was just a puppet of the French, as well as the fear that he could be entrapped by the lure of power, made him cut short his career. He resigned in 1902 when his mother died. He would return briefly to public life in 1907 to write manuals for the teaching of Chinese classics. Although this was a position far below those he had held, he assumed it with enthusiasm because it gave him a chance to help preserve the old learning that he revered. But in 1910, the French decreed that only one more round of imperial exams would be allowed, after which they would be abolished, and eliminated my great-grandfather's position. He retired in that year at age sixty. As a last gesture toward my great-grandfather in his twilight years, the court made him a Great Chancellor, giving him one of the highest honorific titles in the realm.
Duong Lam was now a man whose time had come and gone. Yet he continued to cling to the past. Like many other scholars of his generation, he could not accept Western civilization, believing that traditional Vietnamese learning and culture were superior. He refused to learn French and dismissed modern Vietnamese script as crude, a tool of foreigners to subvert the country. (On this point, Duong Lam was right because this writing system, using the roman alphabet, had been invented by a French missionary to help spread Catholicism among the masses.) My great-grandfather could not see that the traditional learning he so loved had become an intellectual straight-jacket, discouraging independent and progressive thinking with its insistence on repeating the thoughts of Confucius and his disciples.
My great-grandfather returned to his native village upon his retirement and took up residence in the house he had built in Van Dinh, which included an ancestral templea privilege granted only to mandarins of high rank. The residence also included separate living quarters and gardens for each of his four wives. The second wife, the most senior after the death of the first, had the nicest house, and the best landscaped garden. The third, fourth, and fifth wife each had a smaller house that consisted of one room used both for dining and entertaining visitors, a bedroom, and a simple kitchen with an earthen floor toward the back, where meals were cooked over a fire fed with wood or straw. Each of Duong Lam's wives had at least two maids, one to do housework and the other to shop and prepare meals. The ancestral temple and houses were built with bricks and wood, in the traditional Chinese style of architecture. The residence was austere but stood out nonetheless among the more modest dwellings of the villagers, most of which were thatched huts. Duong Lam's residence and the one built by his older brother right next to it occupied a large area, which came to be called "Governors' Hamlet" by the people.
A large gate, topped with a drum tower, opened onto a paved courtyard. The ancestral temple, the most imposing building in Duong Lam's residence, spread along one side of the yard, flanked by two old camellias, and looked out on an inscribed brick-and-mortar screen that shielded it from evil spirits, and porcelain pots bearing azaleas arrayed on stands. The structure and decorations, were intended to inspire reverence for the departed forebears. The temple's five compartments were separated by large columns of iron wood bearing plaques with gilded inscriptions and paved with porcelain tiles that felt cool to the feet. Each compartment was richly decorated with red-lacquered furniture enh anced with gilded carved designs. Halls adorned with the eight ancient weapons, flags, parasols, fans, screens, and tall vases led to the inner sanctum where the alter, an elaborately carved, red-lacquered and gilded table, sat behind a bronze urn and candelabras in the shapes of cranes. It bore the ancestral tablets and other ritual objects. A door led to my great-grandfather's private quarters, which looked out on an inner courtyard.
My great-grandfather now began to lead the life of a retired scholar, not entirely that of a hermit, but certainly removed from the excitement of his past positions. He spent his days reading books from his library collection, writing poems, and entertaining a stream of visitors who came to chat, listen to him discourse on the classics, appreciate his poems, seek advice, play a game of cards, or simply pay their respects. As the most eminent man in the area, he was beseeched by the surrounding villages to preside over ceremonies and rituals. According to my family, the peasants had so much faith in his power that they even sought him out on one occasion to help drive a ghost away.
Like other Confucian scholars, my great-grandfather loved rituals, because rituals helped maintain harmony between mankind and the universe, because they linked the living to their ancestors, and also because they were part of the culture that he was trying hard to preserve. For him, the most important each year was the commemoration of his father's death. The ceremony would begin at dawn when servants lit torches in the courtyard, put the food offerings in the temple, and sounded the drums and bells. As a band struck up ritual music, the worshipers would take turns kneeling and bowing in front of the altar. After the ceremony, a banquet would be served. My great-grandfather would not take part in the feasting, and would wait for relatives and guests to leave before retreating into his private quarters to eat a simple meal by himself, because on such an occasion, he, as a loyal son, was not supposed to be merry.
In their retirement, scholars like Duong Lam usually became teachers to pass on their learning. So my great-grandfather would give lessons to students in the local area who were preparing for the last round of imperial exams. He would also teach his youngest daughters still living at home. This was highly unusual, since families tended to neglect their daughters' education, preferring to focus resources on that of their sons. The lesson was the highlight of the day for his daughters. They would put on their finest clothes, which they kept as wrinkle-free as possible under their sleeping mats. Then they would troop to the ancestral temple to see their father. First they would Serve him tea as part of his morning ritual, and then they would listen to his lessons. Under his tutelage, two of my great-aunts would become fine poets.
Although he had four living wives, my great-grandfather preferred to stay in his own private suite of rooms. He usually ate by himself, because by custom his secondary wives were not allowed to sit and eat with him as long as his eldest sonmy grandfatherwas alive. As the most senior male descendant from Duong Lam's first or principal spouse, my grandfather outranked Duong Lam's secondary wives in the family hierarchy in everything, so it would have been presumptuous for these women to take his rightful place at the dining table, even when he was not home. Though their inferior position was completely traditional, the secondary wives still resented it all their lives, long after such distinctions had become meaningless. When I interviewed Duong Lam's surviving daughter from his third wife in Montreal in 1993, I noticed that, although she was now in her nineties and respected as the matriarch of the clan, she still felt sensitive about the status of her mother and her siblings within the family.
Duong Lam's secondary wives and their children ate in their own houses, except in the late afternoon, when they dined together in a room specially set aside for this communal meal, which usually consisted basic of dishes made with fish, tofu, vegetables, clams, and shrimp. With over seventy people to feed, delicacies were not affordable, and meat was rarely served. At dinnertime, a servant would go down to the river bank and sound the gong to summon everyone. Children and adults would hurry from wherever they were, afraid that if they showed up late, all the better food would be eaten by those who were more punctual. A better meal would be served to my great-grandfather, who ate alone, with his eldest son when he was visiting, with his guests, or sometimes with some of his smallest children whom he wanted to spoil.
In a poem he wrote to describe his life in retirement, my great-grandfather poked fun at its simplicity: an unchanging diet of rice and beans for breakfast, and fish and vegetables for lunch and dinner; a bamboo cot for a bed in the summer, set near the river to catch the cooling breeze; a tattered fur coat to ward off the chill in the winter; an occasional glass of wine; a bumpy cart for transportation; and a wooden cane for support when leading village processions on foot. Although his poem was exaggerated for effect, he wrote it not to complain, but to point out the dignity of rustic living and to express his pride at the austerity of his existence, which impressed people who used to know him in the days when he had so much more.
Outwardly my great-grandfather might have seemed content to live quietly in retirement. But deep down he still felt despondent over the French domination, the more so because he thought he and his peers had failed to find a solution for their nation's predicament. Taking stock of his life, he admitted that he had many questions but no answers. Looking at the generation waiting in the wings, however, he saw a glimmer of hope. He became persuaded by their arguments that the young should adopt French education so that they could help modernize the country, like the Japanese had done, and give it the required strength to expel the colonial masters. My great-grandfather had rejected this Western learning earlier, condemning it for reducing traditional culture "to ashes," but now he realized that it could offer a solution. He reluctantly embraced it. He also felt he had no choice, since the French had made traditional education obsolete.
As my great-grandfather got older, his thoughts began to turn toward death and the afterlife. Preparing for one's death was not considered macabre, and the Vietnamese used to buy their coffins in advance and even display them in their houses. Since the location of a grave could ensure the well-being of his descendants, my great-grandfather began to search for a proper site. As a man who believed in the world of spirits, he turned for guidance to the god of Tan Vien Mountain. This deity rarely descended from his holy place to talk to mortals but, out of consideration for my great-grandfather's position as a mandarin of the highest grade in the realm, the god responded on this occasion as he had before when Duong Lam prayed to him. He dictated a poem telling my great-grandfather to place his grave in the largest knoll among the sixty-four mounds that dotted Tao Khe, the village next to Van Dinh. As instructed, my great-grandfather visited Tao Khe and began to build a tomb there to reflect his vision of an ideal resting place, within a replica of the worldcomplete with a mountain in miniature, trees, shrubs, flowers, and water.
The tomb included a temple that contained statues of my great-grandfather, his first wife, the spirit of Tan Vien Mountain, and the mysterious monk in my family's legend. The temple was decorated with a drum and a stone gong, with statues of kneeling attendants, and with Duong Lam's writings inscribed into two wood scrolls that were gilded and lacquered in red. The two scrolls expressed my great-grandfather's view of life and death. On one, he wrote that the human body trapped man in a web of desires from which only death could set him free. On the other, he wrote that, in death, man could finally leave all worldly belongings behind and go free. A small shrine was erected in front of the temple to house a tablet bearing my great-grandfather's philosophical reflections on life. A series of steps led down to a lower platform where Duong Lam's grave would be located, flanked by carved dragons and elephants. More steps led down to a half-moon pool surrounded with a low wall and decorated with carved unicorns and the miniature replica of a mountain. To complete the effect, my great-grandfather had pine trees and shrubs planted around the site.
Duong Lam fell gravely ill with cancer in 1920. He expressed his suffering in a poem, which read in part:
I have been longing for death for a long time
What is the use of living, when I only cause so much
pain and trouble for my children.
My body is still here, but my spirit is already gone
My skin hangs on my bones, and my flesh is weary.
I will lie buried three meters deep in the ground forever
Leaving behind my burnished loyalty.
Neither traditional herb doctors nor a French physician could halt the disease, and the end finally came on October 17, 1920. On that day, Duong Lam told his children and grandchildren gathered around his bed that he would leave them at five o'clock that afternoon. When the hour of death approached, they fell weeping to their knees, and bowed with their foreheads on the ground to pay their last respects. A poet to the very end, Duong Lam told them to stop crying and listen to his admonition:
Even if your tears flow profusely like a river
You cannot keep my spirit from flying away.
At exactly five o'clock, Duong Lam looked around at his children and grandchildren and said:
Throughout my life,
You have been unfailing in your filial duties
Now I can leave without any regrets.
Then he clasped his hands together in a gesture of farewell and breathed his last.
The news was cabled to the court in Hue by the French résident supérieur of Tonkin, who requested that Emperor Khai Dinh grant my great-grandfather a posthumous noble title. The emperor signed a decree naming him "Baron of Khanh Van," a nonhereditary title. Sealed in a small casket, the decree was carried to Van Dinh by a royal delegation consisting of the Minister of Rites and six other high officials. Duong Lam's funeral was delayed for two weeks to wait for their arrival, and his coffin was placed in the ancestral temple. After a commemorative service, with an elaborate procession Duong Lam's body was carried to Tao Khe and laid to rest in the tomb he had carefully designed. After his death, this village began to worship my great-grandfather as its guardian spirit.
In building his tomb, my great-grandfather had truly believed that it would serve as his undisturbed resting place for a long time: The words "Here I will lie for ten thousand years" were inscribed on the entrance. While the tomb has survived, Duong Lam would scarcely recognize it today. When I first visited his tomb in October 1993, I discovered how close it had come to being obliterated by the Communist revolution that had swept through north Vietnam. There was no trace left of the temple, which had been demolished when revolutionary zeal reached is peak, and most of the stone carvings and statues had disappeared. A robber had dug a hole in the grave. Weeds were everywhere, sprouting even between the bricks covering the grave. The land around the tomb had been turned into rice fields, and the pine trees and other plantings were gone. What was left of the tomb was in a state of disrepair. For decades, Duong Lam's remaining descendants had been too afraid to come and take care of it. The Communist Party had classified them as the offspring of landlords and feudalists, "class enemies" of the local peasants. One nephew who did show up in the village for a visit was chased away by angry peasants. Fortunately, the peasants continued to believe that my great-grandfather, the former guardian spirit of their village, would punish them if they desecrated his resting place, so they did not dare to raze his tomb or dig up his remains.
By the time I visited Tao Khe, Vietnam had embarked on a policy of political, economic, and social reformsa local version of perestroikaand things had changed in the village. Two cousins, Phi and Thai, had secured permission from the authorities to undertake the much-needed repairs at the tomb. In a complete reversal, instead of seeing Duong Lam's resting place as an undesirable remnant of the feudalist period, the village authorities now viewed it as an asset. With the shift in the villagers' attitude, Phi and Thai had no trouble finding workers to repair the tomb. Proving how well traditional beliefs had managed to survive even after four decades of communist rule, the workers told my cousins that they had agreed to work for pay, but also in the hope that my great-grandfather's spirit would bring them good fortune.
The day I arrived for a second visit in November 1993, the repair was in full swing. After my cousins and I finished inspecting what had been done, we lit joss sticks and put food offerings on Duong Lam's grave. As the fragrant smoke curled into the damp morning air, we took a rubbing of the stone tablets that the workers had washed to remove the accumulated grime and dirt. We looked at the inscribed characters but could decipher only a few simple ones. Just as Duong Lam had feared, we had abandoned the old learning, and could no longer read what he had wanted to pass on to his descendants. After the joss sticks had finished burning, indicating that the offerings had been conveyed to my great-grandfather, we shared the food he had blessed with the delighted workers.
My great-grandfather left a legacy of pride among his descendants. Partly because the cult of ancestors forbids making unflattering remarks about one's forebears, and partly because they were still cowed by his status as a mandarin of the first rank in the empire, my relatives viewed any criticism of Duong Lam as sacrilegious. For decades, they basked in the reputation he left behind. Many were insufferable snobs even though they had no accomplishments of their own. The passage of time, several wars, and the communist revolution put an end to this delusion of grandeur. Today, relatives of my generation share a sense of pride in our ancestors, but among the generation that comes after us, no one really cares about Duong Lam or what he accomplished. To them, his time is ancient history.
In Van Dinh and the neighboring area, people are still aware that Duong Lam was a "big mandarin," but he is no longer worshiped as the guardian spirit of Tao Khe where he is buried. A few old-timers in Van Dinh still remember stories of Duong Lam they heard from their own parents. I ran into these old men and women when I visited my ancestral village in 1993. They remembered Duong Lam as a mandarin with dao duc, virtue and integrity, whose power protected the villagers and made them respected wherever they went.
As a mandarin, then, my great-grandfather left a good reputation. As a scholar, his writings, mostly in classical Chinese rather than in the more accessible Vietnamese characters, were well known to his contemporaries, but are no longer familiar to today's audience. As a poet, Duong Lam was admired, but was not as popular as his older brother Duong Khue. For the most part, Duong Lam poetry was considered "serious" and too lofty for the public taste. Modern critics generally praise his poems as elegant and full of noble sentiments, but feel they lack the freshness, lyrical flow, and beauty of his brother's compositions. Marxist critics, who tend to be much harsher toward "feudalist" writers, criticize him for his failure to oppose the French openly, but concede that his poetry reflects the "spirit of the people" and a sense of patriotism.
Duong Khue had a life that illustrated the vagaries of serving as a mandarin and the importance of poetry in his culture. The low point of his career came when he was dismissed by the court and almost beheaded for taking two bars of silver from his provincial treasury to loan to an old friend, a poor scholar. The Council of Ministers recommended imprisonment followed by decapitation, but Emperor Tu Duc, who remembered Duong Khue, granted a pardon. Still, he dismissed Duong Khue from office, stripped him of all his titles, and sent him to an uninhabited region where he was put in charge of clearing land for cultivation. From a comfortable life, Duong Khue suddenly found himself transported into an isolated area, without basic amenities.
For a scholar who lived and breathed poetry, it was perhaps fitting that a poem eventually saved his career. Years after his disgrace, Duong Khue composed one of his most famous songs, in which he reflected on the capriciousness of life. It included a line in which he expressed his gratitude to the emperor for his clemency: "Though my crime was serious, the emperor showed his mercy." The lyrical song became extremely popular and eventually reached the court, where it was performed one day for the emperor himself. Moved by Duong Khue's gratitude, loyalty, and lack of bitterness for his punishment, Tu Duc recalled him to court in 1879. Duong Khue did not stay for long and subsequently resigned, discouraged as was his brother by the court's ineptitude in dealing with French aggression. He used his mother's illness as an excuse for resigning, to avoid being branded as an opponent of royal policy. The rest of my great-granduncle's career would be marked by summonses to service, resignations, followed by more summonses. But honors and promotions, even to the rank of cabinet minister, could not keep him in the government. In 1894 he retired for good, claiming ill health. He died eight years later, in 1902.
Duong Khue's career was perhaps less impressive than that of his younger brother, but he achieved greater literary fame. Many of his poems are well known even today. Readers can still relate to the emotions he described and respond to his carefree spirit, his subtle and self-deprecating sense of humor, and his philosophy, which says that life is fleeting, everything is an illusion, and all efforts are futile. One should abandon oneself to the joy of living, for tomorrow everything will dissolve into nothing. True to this philosophy, Duong Khue sought escape in the company of female singers, whom he frequently visited. Yet his hedonistic quests were simply efforts to escape his own predicament of having to serve a court dominated by a foreign power.
After Duong Lam's and Duong Khue's death, the political, social, and cultural changes that had started during their lifetime began to gather speed and to eventually transform Vietnam in ways even greater than they had feared. Traditional scholars like them who had been hailed at the beginning of the French conquest as protectors of the country's traditions and culture would be ridiculed decades later as hidebound old fogies by younger Vietnamese anxious to modernize their country. And the very same traditions and customs that Duong Lam and Duong Khue wanted to preserve would be attacked as backward practices that should be throw-out the window.
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Meet the Author
Duong Van Mai Elliott was born and raised in Vietnam and attended Georgetown University on a scholarship. She lived in Vietnam again from 1963 to 1968 and worked for the Rand Corporation interviewing Viet Cong prisoners of war. She returned to the U.S. in 1968 and now lives in California.
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