Nguyễn Trãi (阮廌), also known under his style name Ức Trai (抑齋); (1380–1442) was an illustrious Vietnamese Confucian scholar, a noted poet, a skilled politician and a master tactician. He was at times attributed with being capable of almost miraculous or mythical deeds in his designated capacity as a close friend and principal advisor of Lê Lợi, Vietnam's hero-king, who fought to free the country from Chinese rule. He is credited with writing the important political statements of Lê Lợi and inspiring the Vietnamese populace to support open rebellion against the Ming Dynasty rulers. He is also the author of "Great Proclamation upon the Pacification of the Wu" (Binh Ngo Dai Cao).
Nguyễn Trãi originally was from Hải Dương Province, he was born in 1380 in Thăng Long (present day Hanoi), the capital of the declining Trần Dynasty. Under the brief Lê Dynasty, he passed examination and served for a time in the government. In 1406, Ming force invaded and conquered Vietnam. Under the occupation, the Ming China attempted to convert Vietnam into a Chinese province and ruthlessly quashed all rebellions.
War of independence
In 1417, Nguyễn Trãi joined a rebel leader named Lê Lợi, who was resisting the occupation from a mountainous region in Thanh Hóa Province south of Hanoi. Nguyễn Trãi served as the chief advisor, strategist and propagandist for the movement.
The war of independence leading to the defeat of the Ming and the inauguration of the Lê Dynasty lasted from 1417 to 1427. From 1417 until 1423, Lê Lợi conducted a classic guerilla campaign from his bases in the mountains. Following a negotiated truce, the rebels extended their control over the whole of Thanh Hóa and over the southern province of Nghệ An. The Ming sent a series of military reinforcements in response to bolster their positions. In 1426, the army of a Chinese general named Wang Tong arrived in the Red River Delta. However, Vietnamese forces were able to cut supply lines and control the countryside, leaving Chinese presence totally isolated in the capital and other citadels. During this period, Nguyễn Trãi sought to undermine the resolve of the enemy and to negotiate a favorable peace by sending a series of missives to the Ming commanders. In 1427 two other Chinese relief armies entered Vietnam and were defeated. Wang Tong sued for peace. The numerous Chinese prisoners of war were all given provisions and allowed to return to China. Nguyễn Trãi penned a famous proclamation of victory.
After the war Nguyễn Trãi was elevated by Lê Lợi to an exalted position in the new court but internal intrigues, sycophantic machinations and clannish nepotism meant he was not appointed regent upon the king's death. Instead that position was bestowed upon Lê Sát, who ruled as regent on behalf of the young heir Lê Thái Tông.
At some point during the regency of Lê Sát, having found life at court increasingly difficult, Nguyễn Trãi retired to his country home north of Hanoi in the tranquil mountains of Chí Linh, where he enjoyed poetry writing and meditation. Today, visitors can visit this site where a large shrine of remembrance, covering from the foot of the mountain to the top is erected to honour the national hero. The site of Nguyễn Trãi's house still exists, however only the tiled floors remain original. Close by is an ancient Buddhist temple, which has stood there several centuries before his time.
Nguyễn Trãi's death resulted from a scandal involving the young king, Lê Thái Tông, and the wife or concubine of Nguyễn Trãi, named Nguyễn Thị Lộ. Early in 1442, the young king began an affair with Nguyễn Thị Lộ. This affair continued when the king visited the old scholar at his home. Not long after the king left, he suddenly became ill and died. The nobles at the court blamed Nguyễn Trãi and Nguyễn Thị Lộ for the young king's death, accused them of regicide and had both, along with their entire extended families, exterminated.
According to Loren Baritz ("Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did", 1985), Trai set down the Vietnamese strategy against the Chinese in an essay. This essay would prove to be very close to the Communists' strategy of insurgency. Specifically you must, "subordinate military action to the political and moral struggle...better to conquer hearts than citadels."
Most cities in Vietnam have named major streets after him.
Nguyễn Trãi had 5 wives (or concubines) and 7 sons.
• Lady Phạm Đỗ Minh Hiển
• Lady Phùng Thị
• Lady Nguyễn Thị Lộ
• Lady Phạm Thị Mẫn
• Lady Trần Anh Minh
• Nguyễn Khuê (Lady Trần's)
• Nguyễn Ứng (Lady Trần's)
• Nguyễn Phù (Lady Trần's)
• Nguyễn Bảng (Lady Phùng's)
• Nguyễn Tích (Lady Phùng's)
• Nguyễn Anh Võ (Lady Phạm's)
• Forefather of a Nguyễn family's branch in Quế Lĩnh, Phương Quất, Kinh Môn District, Hải Dương Province. (Lady Lê's)
Being a genius military tactician and a skilled poet, Nguyễn Trãi's works varied in many areas ranging from literature, history, geography, ceremony and propriety; many of them were missing after his execution. Most of his poems that survive until today were collected in Ức Trai Thi Tập (Ức Trai's Poems Collection) by Dương Bá Cung, printed in 1868 under Nguyễn Dynasty. His poems, written in both ancient Chinese (Hán) and Vietnamese (Nôm), were highly regarded by many notable philosophers, poets, and politicians in Vietnamese history.
The first collection of Nguyễn Trãi poetry in English naming Beyond the Court Gate: Selected Poems was translated and published in 2010 by Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Đỗ and American poet Paul Hoover. The collection reflects Nguyễn Trãi strong sense of metaphysical contemplation of tiny details in everyday life, but at the same time set him apart from Li Po's uses of extreme imaginary and formal poetic rules. Nguyễn Trãi's poems manifested on his wit, humility, and conversational tone to express his personal perception and experience as a poet who actively engaged in politic.
A good example of Nguyễn Trãi writing is his poem To a Friend (Traditional Chinese: 記友, Sino-Vietnameses: Kí Hữu, Vietnamese: Gửi Bạn), which was translated and edited by Nguyễn Đỗ and Paul Hoover:
To a Friend
My fate naturally has many twists and sharp turns,
So in everything I trust in the wisdom of God.
I still have my tongue—believe me, I am able to talk,
Even though I’m still poor and, as we know, pathetic.
Never to return, the past flies too quickly and the time is short,
But, wandering in this cold room, the night is far too long.
I’ve been reading books for ten years, but I’m poor from clothes to bone
From eating only vegetables and sitting without a cushion.
- Renowned Vietnamese Intellectuals prior to the 20th Century. Hanoi: The Gioi. 2004.
- Beyond the Court Gate. Selected poetry of Nguyen Trai, edited and translated Nguyen Do and Paul Hoover (Counterpath Press, USA, 2010)
Media related to Nguyen Trai at Wikimedia Commons
- Patricia M. Pelley Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past 2002 - Page 125 "One of the most celebrated poets was Nguyễn Trãi, whose famous victory poem, poems addressed to military personnel, poems in classical Chinese, and, most critically, his poems in nom were granted a place of special honor in the literary canon."
- Renowned Vietnamese Intellectuals, p.48 ff.
- Renowned Vietnamese Intellectuals, p.55 ff.
- An English translation of one such letter, under the title "New Letter to Wang Tong", has been published in Renowned Vietnamese Intellectuals, p.69 ff.
- An English translation of the proclamation, under the title "Proclamation of Victory over the Wu", has been published in Renowned Vietnamese Intellectuals, pp.63 ff.
- Vietnam Country Map. Periplus Travel Maps. 2002–03. ISBN 0-7946-0070-0. Check date values in: