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Lessons in chess
This book of Ho Chi Minh’s poems, done in quietly competent renderings by Steve Bradbury, contains works composed in 1942, (1) mostly fashioned in classical Chinese quatrains while Ho was (2) in a Kuomintang prison
Both these numbered facts deserve some comment before we move on to the substance of Ho’s writing. (For simplicity, I will use the name Ho Chi Minh throughout for a man born Nguyen Sinh Cung, who had many names during his largely underground, conspiratorial life.)
(1) Old Vietnam was long a colony of China, and when in 939 A.D., after rule lasting from about 111 B.C., Chinese control was reduced to the collection of tribute, the country, now under the rule of the Vietnamese emperor at Hue, continued to employ the Chinese mandarin system of bureaucracy. This was a merit system whereby one (anyone male) could qualify for an imperial post by passing exams on Confucian wisdom literature. Not only did the use of this program allow ambitious aspirants from any class, including peasants if they could find the leisure for study, to obtain office, thus reducing discontent; it also helped unify a country that, like China before it, had been a patchwork of warlord fiefdoms, rather than a unified national network.
Moreover, this adapted system created a defining ideological structure that tied together villages that tended toward insularity. Unlike the peasantry in medieval Europe, for example, which in other ways they resembled, Vietnamese farmers had no national priesthood to overlook their religious life. Ancestor worship, the chief ritual observance, was directed by local notables.
Moreover, the homogeneity of agricultural work, which, up and down the narrow country was centered on rice production, meant there was little need for the exchange of produce that would take place in a more differentiated farming culture. The Confucian bureaucracy and ideology provided a much-needed glue that (to an extent) pushed toward national unity and village coordination.
When the French took over, they destroyed this infrastructure, causing a disintegration of the stabilizing patterns associated with the mandarin bureaucracy and the life chances that went with them. Men who were trained on the Confucian classics, such as the Ho’s, father and son, saw their career paths erased.
Years later one commentator, Truong Nhu Tang, could still see traces of this mandarin education in Ho. On meeting him for the first time, Truong stated, “Almost reflexively I found myself thinking of my grandfather. There was that same effortless communication of wisdom and caring with which my grandfather had personified for us the values of Confucian life” (quoted in Chanoff, 35).
It is true the French acted to replace the old ways with the rudiments of an export economy and an elected officialdom, but this led to further deterioration. McAlister explains,
By requiring that village officials be chosen by elections based theoretically on the equality of the individual voter, the French were imposing a system of politics which did not reflect the distribution of social influence within the Vietnamese village ...The basis for the social hierarchy [the exams to enter the madarinate] no longer had its customary vitality ... ties with the Confucian cultural tradition were weakened. Not only did the villages become isolated from an integrating structure ... they also lost one of the most important bonds that had united the village community. (261)
There were two good reasons for Ho Chi Minh and people like him to become anti-imperialist. The French were bleeding their country dry, and they had wrecked without replacing traditional cultural and economic structures. As we will see, the Communist philosophy would replace the defunct mandarin classics, and those — this time both men and women — who displayed a mastery of it, a mastery that had to be shown in practice as well as book learning, could advance into enviable positions.
Thus, it was natural that Ho, trained in Chinese versifying and seeing the loss of the mandarin system as a major cause of his nation’s prostration and disintegration, would choose Chinese as a way to depict his thoughts.
Perhaps, although this is a conjecture, his prison keepers would prefer that he use a (for them) readable form.
(2) This said, one might ask why Ho was in a Chinese, rather than a French or Japanese prison.
The exact reason for this is given by Halberstam. “Chiang was not particularly enthused about the prospect of having a Communist government to the South; rather he was interested in seeing the Vietnamese version of his own Kuomintang strengthened” (65).
To achieve a fuller understanding of this situation, it might be useful to see why Ho was so often in China, which can be related to particular disputes and affinities between his native and temporarily adopted countries. Of special interest here are: a) the attitudes of the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party toward Chinese Communism, b) the politics of the China/ Vietnam border during World War II, and c) the principles of revolutionary warfare as developed by Chinese Communists and applied by the Vietnamese.
While, certainly, these topics are not subjects of his poems per se, the verse does move back and forth between the different prototypical uses of allusion in Chinese and Vietnamese writing, indicating the contrasts between these two cultures was just as central to Ho’s ways of thinking about language as it was to his politics.
(a) Being of the older generation, Ho came to a desire for national liberation before the Russian revolution. When it broke out, he was a socialist living precariously in Paris, retouching photographs and publishing a small political newspaper. His enthusiasm for the Bolshevik victory was kindled when he read Lenin’s call for progressives to support independence movements in the colonies. (This is in contrast to Luxemburg, Kautsky, Bernstein and other leaders of European socialism, who paid little attention to third world nationalism.) Ho became a Communist and traveled to Moscow to study at the feet of the masters.
Years later among the Vietnamese revolutionaries fighting the French, Ho was the exception. Most who went into exile had moved to nearby Asian refuges, first Japan, and later Canton, where they became embroiled in the Chinese revolution. Throughout the struggle against the French, the Vietnamese party leadership would argue over whether the Russians or Chinese provided a better model.
One component of this argument was the dispute over whether urban uprisings should be encouraged or whether battles should be confined (as Mao suggested) to rural areas in which the party had most of its strength.
Ho’s tenacious adherence to at least some elements of the Russian experience, which saw the workers in the cities as crucial to any true overthrow of the oppressing power, was to hobble the party up to and through the 1968 Tet offensive. This ’68 campaign coordinated rural battles against U.S. and Republic of Vietnam troops with urban insurrections. While the size of the attack startled the U.S. and, ultimately, made America draw back from its commitments, the urban assaults were disasters, since they did not galvanize city dwellers and resulted in huge losses of NLF troops.
We can say, then, that Ho as a Russian-trained cadre, who abided by many of the lessons of the Bolshevik revolution, was not well-loved by the Chinese Communists. This, contrarily, may have earned him some respect from Chiang’s nationalists.
(b) Remember, too, that when Ho, a known Communist, resided in China or other Southeast Asian countries, his status depended on the winds of war and ongoing political deal-making between the Kuomintang and the Communists in prosecuting this war. In general, the two major Chinese groups had achieved a modus vivendi, collaborating against the interloper, although there were times when this truce collapsed, sabotaged by Chiang Kai-shek, as in 1927 when the Kuomintang murderously cracked down on subversives in Canton City. (Malraux’s fictionalized description of this appears in Man’s Fate.)
The relationship between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party was mediated by each faction’s relation with various warlords, who still controlled large chunks of territory and fielded considerable armed forces. During World War II, the Chinese side of the Chinese/ Vietnamese border was held by one such warlord, Lung Yun, who had governed since 1927.
Let’s jump ahead a few years past Ho’s imprisonment, simply to note the interesting role Lung and his leading general, Lu Han, played in power politics at the time of the Japanese surrender.
It will be remembered that in working out the status of the newly liberated country, two different transitional forces were established: the British in the south and the Chinese in the north. Before the war, Vietnam had been a French colony. Whether the victorious powers gave it back to France or let it go independent was an open question at this time. If U.S. President Roosevelt had lived and had carried through on his pledge to let the country obtain self determination, things might have been different In the end, he died, and the superpowers gave the Indochinese country back to France.
The only breathing space independence-minded Communists would have to regroup would be during the interregnum before the French colonial administration reoccupied its posts. Everything depended upon how much activity the acting governors would allow. In South Vietnam, the British gave free reign to the French soldiers (who had been interned by the Japanese) and violently canceled any political demonstrations by the country’s people. In the North, the troops were those of Lu Han.
Chiang Kai-shek, in a wily move, had offered warlord Lung the prestige of sending his troops to temporarily control the north, a position that promised (and would deliver) a huge opportunity for corruption. Once Lung’s forces, under General Han, had moved into North Vietnam, Chiang deposed Lung. Han, now with no leader to report to, was even more disposed to make the most of his short time in power. As McAlister ably demonstrates, by purchasing weapons from the Chinese, acquiescing in a grossly unfair exchange rate, and through other means, the Vietnamese Communists provided at a price manifold ways for the Chinese to line their pockets with graft and profiteering. The “price” was that the Chinese troops turned a blind eye as the Vietnamese trained cadres, set up workshops to manufacture weaponry, established party structures in villages, and did what they could to anticipate the coming battle with the French.
Why rehearse all this? The point is that Chinese and Vietnamese politics were complexly intertwined, and high among Chiang’s priorities was manipulating leaders of other military factions to achieve his own goals.
As we saw, Ho was not put in jail haphazardly, but as part of the Nationalists’ strategy to gain some control over what was taking place to the south. Chiang was vying to set up an organization in Vietnam that would parallel his own; that is, a non-doctrinal, notables-led, independence movement, and he wanted Ho to lead it. Saving that, as a fallback position adopted after Ho’s sojourn under lock and key did not convince him to accede to Chiang’s plans, the Kuomintang leader asked Ho to have his Viet Minh group provide intelligence. Once Ho agreed to this, he was released.
Ho’s poem on Wendell Wilkie, which we will examine below, shows Ho’s ironic awareness that, for the time being, he was simply a pawn on Chiang’s chessboard.
(c) Briefly, it is worth mentioning that, while we have characterized the Vietnamese Communist Party as engaged in combining components of both the Russian and Chinese revolutionary experience, it was clearly the Chinese rubric that was most imitated by the Vietnamese, just as, in line with Chinese practice, it was the peasantry that formed the mobilized class who staffed the party.
In the 1920s, Gramsci formulated a theory of dual power, which held that it would be possible to prepare the overthrow of capitalism by creating contestatory, proletarian-led institutions, such as worker-controlled factories and courts, which would act to displace the apparatti of the state, in the way soviets had (supposedly) done in Russia at the time of the revolution. This didn’t prove feasible in practice. The comparatively weak Italian government quickly crushed Turin’s nascent dual power institutions.
The Chinese Communists adopted a similar tactic but from a position of strength. They set up their parallel institutions in regions where the traditional elite had already collapsed. As Albert and Hahnel put it, the Chinese Communist Party
ruled liberated zones which it won control over in the course of its many battles for long periods prior to final victory in 1949.The Red Army became a unique military force, schooled in politics as well as war, able to initiate agricultural campaigns as well as guerrilla offensives. (108-109)
In its zones, the party set up different age and occupational associations that carried out educational reforms, land redistribution and other programs, allowing it to introduce the peasants to a more equitable power arrangement and party procedures.
The Vietnamese Communists followed this same path, quickly introducing land reform and other improvements in the north and in occupied areas in the south. If, as often happened, the southern territories were re-conquered by the troops of the Republic — to move forward for a moment to the period of the American intervention — the farmers would retain an indelible memory of the better conditions under the Communists, especially of their policy of immediately cutting land rents across the board. When the Republic took a village, they would allow the landlord to dun the peasants for the lost money, something which hardly endeared the “democratic” regime to its new citizens.
I’ve been jumping ahead here, but bear in mind that at the time of Ho’s writing his prison pieces, the first Vietnamese trials in dual power were already in progress in the inaccessible northern mountains where the party had a foothold.
As we will note, in the poem, “Lessons in Chess,” dual power is shown enacted in prison.
Let us move immediately to one of his poems, before the reader gets exasperated with all this historical background. “Lessons in Chess” begins, ‘We learn to play [chess] to while the hours away.” (17) Various game strategies are described. “Plan with care, look far ahead, / / Make every move a forceful one ... Advance and withdraw with equal finesse” (17). A moment’s reflection indicates that these prisoners in their discussions of their chess play have “re-functioned” the prison. Meant to be a place of incarceration, they have surreptitiously set up a training institute to instruct in revolutionary tactics.
It is said jails are finishing schools for criminals. A young lawbreaker goes in and learns all the tricks of the trade. Something analogous is described in this poem. The lockup becomes a military training camp in which the strategies for guerrilla warfare are debated and mastered.
The summary, terse writing of these stanzas, which distills a thick sheaf of lessons in 12 lines, can be taken to indicate that what Ho learns at play is not so much a digest of immediate experience, which would appear in a rawer form, but a recapitulation of parts of the amassed knowledge of the party, shared among the “we” of “We learn to play” during a friendly game. Such invocations of a body of learning shows how the party has come to replace the traditional society’s Confucianism as a moral and practical guide that will, perhaps, be capable of unifying the country in the way the mandarin system did.
But what of Ho’s less sanguine sense, mentioned above, that he would often be a pawn in the hands of bigger powers, a belief that balanced his faith in the eventual triumph of the Communists in the war of national liberation?
Turn to “On Reading of Wendell Wilkie’s Reception in China.” It starts out,
We both came in amity,
Wartime allies of the KMT.
While you were fêted at the seat of honor,
I was fettered in this penal horror. (19)
It may seem Ho is simply stating the facts of the case. The U.S. representative Wilkie is from a country that is providing money and material to Chiang, while Ho is from an underground organization with few resources. However, consider the rest of the piece.
Diplomatic affections may run hot or cold,
Such is the way of the world
Or as the French say, C’est la vie:
All waters flow down to the sea. (19)
In other words, the difference in treatment is not necessarily totally dependent on the different power quotients of the two recipients of Chiang’s hospitality. It is the product of the flow of larger currents. A leader’s reception by the Chinese depends on a moment’s expediency. At another time, the American ambassador may be cooling his heels in a cell.
This seems a surprisingly equitable statement coming from a half-starved prisoner. And let us emphasize the horrendous conditions in the jails. Lacouture reports, “Ho went from jail to jail, loaded with chains, covered with scabs ... shackled to men under sentence of death, one of whom died, one night, huddled against him” (80).
To return, the reason for his dispassion may be sought in the last line, “All waters flow down to the sea.” This line seems clear-cut. Probably the most acceptable reading would be the banality “Every dog has his day.” However, a different gloss, one more in keeping with Marxist orthodoxy, would suggest that his is saying no matter the vagaries of diplomacy, the tide of history, which foretells a victory for Vietnamese independence, will not be affected.
Again, we are back to Ho’s unfazable belief in the eventual triumph of the cause. Would it be out of place to invoke Mencius and other Confucian-era Chinese sages who continually envisioned the coming of a just ruler? Such a man would not only be revered, they said, but his state would become a beacon to which all the righteous would migrate, making it phenomenally prosperous. This linkage suggests another link between Vietnam’s lost Confucian patrimony and the place Communism could play in replacing it.
Another poem, “On the Fall of a Tooth,” casts more light on another, non-Confucian element of Ho’s view of the party. Here he contrasts the pliable tongue with the hard tooth. It’s not hard to allegorize and the see the two body parts as corresponding to the opponents in the conflict of Communists with nationalists and colonial powers. The ever flexible tongue stands for the revolutionaries, whether Chinese or Vietnamese, ready to disband their units and merge with the people when the enemy comes in force. On the other side are the French or the nationalist Chinese who act rigidly and proudly, destined, like Ho’s offending, diseased tooth, to be plucked out.
Still, there’s a deeper point to be made. In this poem, he uses a characteristic Vietnamese allusiveness while in other pieces he draws more on a Chinese style, thus balancing the cultures in the book as a whole.
Simplifying drastically, it could be said classic Chinese verse is raptly oblique. In a typical landscape portrait, for instance, there is a nagging, indefinable tie to a some parallel but unpronounced human emotional state, which tie remains, in works of the greatest artistry, no more than spectral.
Vietnamese verse relies more on simple one-to-one allegorical correspondence, which, however, exists only in potential. This structure is visible in Ho’s tooth poem. The lines, “In spirit you were hard and proud, / / Not soft and pliant like the tongue,” which refer to the parts of this mouth, seem perfectly made, at the same time, for a comparison of the nationalists and the party (22). Such reference lacks Chinese indirection; but it also lacks the allusiveness since there is absolutely no clue, other than context, that such a reference to political actors is intended.
While “On the Fall of a Tooth” utilizes what I am labeling the stereotypical Vietnamese allegoricality, another poem, “Entering Jingxi District Prison” relies on a Chinese allusiveness. I quote it in full.
As seasoned inmates take the greenhorn in,
Clearing weather drives away the squalls.
Here and there a cloud goes floating by,
Leaving me to chafe at prison walls. (17)
The last line may seem far from indirection. The speaker defiantly sets out his anxiety. However, interrogating the ending more carefully, it will be seen that what has left him to chafe is not evident. Is it the cloud that is “floating by”? Or is it the “seasoned inmates,” he being the “greenhorn,” perhaps? Or is it, in keeping with Chinese tradition, the interlayering of chiming circumstances whereby the admission of a new detainee, the washing away of the storm, and the trails of a few free-running clouds, represent a subtle balance shift in the natural/ human world that causes a lark of melancholy to alight in his breast for reasons that cannot be articulated, only shown by picturing the combination?
The interplay of these two styles of allusiveness is yet another testimony to Ho’s acknowledgment of the inextricable involvement of the two countries in his thoughts.
The last point to make is much more specific. We noted that the Kuomintang offered Ho an immediate release from jail if he would help with the running of a non-Communist independence movement in Vietnam. I believe, even if he never had spoken to his captors, his answer to their offer could have been read by them in his poetry. To see this, one simply has to become aware of Ho’s affinities.
Recall that the Kuomintang was run by a clique, which had no aspirations to democracy or forming bonds with the common people. The same situation appeared in Vietnam where small nationalist circles around the Emperor had no peasant membership. The non-Communist recruitment of farmers was done through religious groups, such as the Hoa Hoa, who supplied their members with ideology and military training.
Ho’s abhorrence for these brands of nationalism can be extrapolated from his attitude toward the peasantry. Look at “Between Longan and Tongzheng,” where he writes, “I hear the drought this year is so severe / / Every three of four acres lies fallow” (20). He frets that “the poor survive by the sweat of their brow” (20). In “Another Pastoral,” by contrast, he depicts a good harvest outside the jail. Again, here is the complete piece.
When I arrived the rice was barely sprouting,
Now they’ll soon be bringing in the sheaves.
On every farmer’s face a smile is playing,
And O how the fields do ripen with their songs. (19).
Though his own situation is grim, he passes it by to dwell on the happiness of the rice cultivators when they are reaping their rewards. It is true, Ho often dwelt in cities, but he still identifies heart and soul with the farmers. These are the people who make up the country, in his eyes, not the scheming gentry and generals who composed bourgeois nationalist parties.
So we see that a close perusal of Ho’s prison poetry not only gives insight into the fortitude and stoicism of the man who had endure the dreary round of prison life, but alerts us no less to the complex filiations between Vietnam and China, Ho’s worldly view of diplomacy, his ultimate faith in the Communist Party as the moral and political equivalent of a lost Confucianism, and the basis of his refusal to surrender to the elitism of Chiang Kai-shek.
It should go without saying — since I have quoted so freely — that the translations are all that they could be: crisp, rhyming (as does the original Chinese) in a way that is pointed rather than forced; blending French expressions into the natural flow of the English in the way Ho blends Chinese and Vietnamese allusiveness, and giving equal weight to a proud sobriety and currents of underplayed, twinkling humor that people say characterized Ho Chi Minh, the man.
Albert, Michael and Robin Hahnel, Socialism Today and Tomorrow. Boston: South End Press, 1981.
Chanoff, David and Doan Van Toai. `Vietnam’ A Portrait of Its People at War. London: I.B. Tauris, 1996.
Halberstam,David, Ho. New York: Random House, 1971.
Lacouture, Jean, Ho Chi Minh: A Political Biography. Trans. Peter Wiles. New York: Random House, 1968.
McAlister, Jr., John T. Vietnam: The Origins of Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969.
Jim Feast has co-edited two anthologies of the literary group the Unbearables, namely, Help Yourself and The Crimes of the Beats, and is working with Ron Kolm and Carol Wierzbicki on a third. His story ‘Human Life A-Go-Go’ can be found in a recent issue of Evergreen Review on-line.
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