Nguyen Trai:

His Life and Achievement

Cam Hong Truong

English 203
Professor Steven Hale
08 June 1997



When studying Vietnamese Literature before 1600, we cannot help mentioning Nguyen Trai. Beside historical heroic letters, Nguyen Trai also left more than one hundred poems, and especially Binh Ngo Dai Cao "which is considered as a master piece of political literature under Le Dynasty" (Geographical ...-6). Nguyen Trai was not only a famous scholar, a hero, a great poet of Vietnam, but his simple life, his words and his works provide brilliant and invaluable lessons for any generation and for all time. Nguyen Nang Tinh used to say: "Nguyen Traiís Literature is delicate, profound, broad-minded, proper inflexible....Mr. Trai did not write his literature elaborately, but whenever he talked, or wrote, his words were clear, fine, strong, with wealth of expression, and nothing can cover his words." (Introduction-8, my trans.)

Reading his poems, one sees the beauties of Nature , and the historical events appear in front of oneís eyes. His poemsalso embody his wish, his spirit which he wanted to send to readers. Moreover, they also reflect his simple life, and his thoughts. In one of his poems, Con Son Ca (Con Son Ballad-my trans.), Nguyen Trai praises Con Son, a beauty of nature, where he used to live when he was a child with his grandfather, and even while he was working as the First Minister and the rest of his life. About one hundred years before Nguyen Trai built up his cottage, Huyen Quang, a Buddhist monk "who was the Third ancestor of Truc Lam Buddhist School and Thought chose Con Son as a place for practising asceticism. Then he reached perfection and passed away on 22 January of Giap Tuat Lunar year (1334) at Hun Pagoda" (Con Son pagoda).(Hai Hung-2)

Con Son's streams babble
As music from a stringed instrument.
Con Son embraces the mossy boulders exposed to the sun
Sitting on these boulders as if sitting on velvety mats.
In the adjacent jungle, it chocks on pine trees,
Providing myriad parasols to sit and rest.
In the cool shade of the bamboo,
Among the immense green, I declaim verses leisurely,

From the beginning of the poem, the author describes Con Son'ís beauty as a full, fresh-air house in which the streamís babble creates melodious sound. The scene of numerous pine trees in the mountain, the bamboo'ís shades spread widely in the fores, give the poet the sense of freedom, in which he feels comfortable to rest and to enjoy. Nguyen Trai does not only look at the exterior beauty of Con Son, but in fact he also observes the interior beauty of the mountain with all his senses, his spirit. When closing oneís eyes it seems that the music from the stream knocks at oneís ears.

Now, now with half my life gone by,
Why should I bother with fame and gain?
Do I really need wealth and position?
Since rice with vegetable and plain water are more than enough.

Living in nature, he does not require fine cuisine, with him rice and plain water are more than enough. Wealth and high position are not important for him because:

Look at Dong Trac, Nguyen Tai,
With abundant goods as well as their gold in their warehouse.
But look too at Thu Mountain,
Di Te would rather starve than eat Chu's grain.
Wisdom or folly is hard to define,
Each of the two made his own choice.

Dong Trac was one character who had a top position at the end of the Han Dynasty, and had abundant gold in his house. Finally, he was killed by his adopted son, and all his property was forfeited. How about Nguyen Tai? He used to be a senior official at a ministry of the Duong Dynasty, but he was guilty of many transgressions. Thus, at the end he was forced to kill himself by the King. Ba Di and Thuc Te starved to death because of loyalty to their former king. One was very rich, and the other would rather die than live under another Dynasty. However, they all died. Everything will be destroyed, that is the truth. No one can live forever, only his name.

Throughout the centuries of the human condition,
Every thing will be decomposed.
Sorrow and joy leap-frog,
Now is luxuriant, now is withered.
Now living in a castle, to living on a hillside,
Once involved in death, the game of honor and shame is over.

That is life, and every one has to pass the period of birth and then death, as well as joyful and sorrowful interchange.

If Sao Do were to be reborn,
They would date Con Son to serve their muses.

At the end, Nguyen Trai concludes and also mentions Hua Do and Sao Phu, who were Chinese legendary characters. They were eminent scholars who took pleasure in simple living, and dissociated from fame and gain.

It is a big misunderstanding to think that Nguyen Trai found pleasure in living the life of a recluse. In fact, he was accustomed to the simple way of life of Vietnamese country people. He was proud about wearing simple clothes, grass shoes, and he also suggested his neighbors should follow his simple life. He used to say: "meals with pickle and salt, adorned clothes are not required." He had a broad heart that loved his people , and cared about them. Witnessing the domination of his people by the Ming invaders, he devoted all his best to help Le Loi to build up the Le Dynasty and free for his people.

During the long and tough resistance, he had proven he was the man who knew how to use people, and how to use the enemy's weakness to fight against them. He took the advantage of superstition to recruit soldiers because at the beginning of the resistance not many people knew them. He knew "the small band of followers dispersed all over the Northern forests. They (Le Loi and Nguyen Trai) climbed into trees over rivers and springs, and with toothpicks dipped in honey, wrote the following words on the leaves of the trees: "Le Loi vi Dan, Nguyen Trai vi Than" (Le Loi for the people, Nguyen Trai for Le Loi). Ants then ate the honey, along with the part of the leaf under the honey, leaving the stenciled message on the leaf. The leaves fell down and floated in the rivers and the springs, and the people found them, thinking that the message was Divinely inspired." (Le Loi...1) With the belief, people supported them more and more. He also had written many letters to appeal to the Ming troops to surrender to avoid the scene of shedding blood of both sides. After ten years enduring hardships with Le Loi, he was promoted to First Minister. However, when the country enjoyed victory, Le Loi abandoned many officials, such as Tran Nguyen Han and Pham Van Xao who were forced to kill themselves. Nguyen Trai also was sent to prison because he was suspected to be involved with Tran Nguyen Hanís case. When they could not find any evidence against him, Nguyen Trai was released. Then, he came back to Con Son. "He came back to Con Son not to shun, nor to enjoy nature, but because his solicitousness for the country still eddied as tide water." (Le, Duc Duc-5) However, when Le Loi knew that he did not have live long to, he had advised his son, King Le Thai Tong, to repromote and trust Nguyen Trai. When Le Thai Tong succeeded Le Thai To, Nguyen Trai was trusted more. Nevertheless, he asked the King let him live and take care of Con Son area, so he could connect with the place that he loved so much. Then, the historical tragedy, Le Chi Farm Case, collapsed to his family. The reason was: the injustice, the private envy. Le Thai Tong had five wives, one of them was Nguyen Thi Anh, who had the Crown-Prince, Bang Co. Then, she heard that Ngo Thi Ngoc Dao was in pregnancy, and Mrs. Dao also had a dream that an angel was sent to be born as her son. Afraid of losing the Prince for her son, Thi Anh calumniated Ngoc Dao to the King that Dao was related to the scheme killing King. Nguyen Trai knew that was a calumniation, so he advised Nguyen Thi lo, one of his favorite concubines, to suggest the King not believe the calumniation. Nguyen Thi Lo also helped Ngoc Dao to escape from Thi Anh, and Dao delivered a son who was King Le Thanh Tong later, and also the one who exculpated and regain Nguyen Trai reputation.

Through his life and achievement, Nguyen Trai had devoted all his knowledge, his intelligence, his capacities to service the country, Vietnam. He also had an opened-mind. He has already passed away, but his achievement, his literature will live forever. Every Vietnamese still remembers him, and always looks up to him as a great master, a great father. Nowadays, reading his literature, people feel pity for him, and respect him more.


Works Cited

Nguyen Trai. "Con Son Ca." ( Chinese to Vietnamese) Nguyen Trai Toan Tap. Ed.

Ban Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi: Vien Su Hoc. (Historical Institution) Trans. Dao Duy Anh,

Van Tan. Ha Noi: Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi, 1976. 375-377. 679.

"Gioi Thieu." (Introduction). Nguyen Trai Toan Tap. Ed. Ban Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi: Vien Su Hoc. Trans. Dao Duy Anh, Van Tan. Ha Noi: Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi, 1976. 7-10.

Le, Duc Duc. "Cam Khai Con Son." Kien Thuc Ngay Nay. 234. 01 Jane. 1997. 3-7.

"Hai Hung." Online . Yahoo. Internet. 02 June 1997. Available:

"Le Loi and Nguyen Trai." Online. Yahoo. Internet. 02 June 1997. Available: