THE LITERATURE OF CONFINEMENT
IN THE CLASSICAL TRADITION
Before examining the way in which political considerations during the 1950s and 1960s shaped the conventions of Communist prison memoirs, it is useful to consider how older literary traditions may have influenced the genre. It is significant that many of the party leaders who determined the parameters of cultural production during the early years of the DRV came from literati families and therefore possessed some familiarity with a classical literary tradition in which images of exile and incarceration figured prominently. Such images anticipated some of the thematics of Communist prison narratives in their emphasis on displacement, isolation, and spiritual resistance. Hence, when the party began to promote the prison writing of its leadership in the mid-1950s, it benefited from the fact that the political classes, if not the reading public more generally, possessed a cultural familiarity with the basic conventions of the genre.
Images of confinement first appear in the classical tradition through poetic depictions of Buddhist monasticism. As with Communist prison
Figure 1.1. Hoa Lo Prison, known during the American War as the Hanoi Hilton, is now a museum. Photograph by Hue-Tam Ho Tai.
|Deep in the mountains runs a crystal brook.|
|Above the ancient cloister drift white clouds.|
|To visitors the monks won't say a word—|
|wind's blown through pines and opened their closed gate.|
By emphasizing the remoteness (“deep in the mountains”) of the “ancient cloister,” the poem recalls important similarities between monastic and prison life. Further affinities can be found in the distinctly carceral
Colonial jails in Indochina might be described as fulfilling a religious function. They forced a significant segment of the Vietnamese intelligentsia to withdraw from the world, endure privation, sort out their thoughts and attempt to master the self and external reality. In this sense, prisons were not unlike Zen monasteries except that the acolytes were not there by choice and those in charge were not seen as teachers but as the enemy.
Images of confinement in Buddhist poetry extended beyond perceived similarities between jails and monasteries. Compassion for human suffering prompted poets working within the Buddhist tradition to focus on the plight of the poor and destitute. Three centuries before Le Thieu Dinh, the Venerable Huyen Quang, the third patriarch of the Truc Lam Buddhist sect, composed a poem about the emotional devastation suffered by the families of prisoners. Entitled Pity for Prisoners, it is among the oldest surviving Vietnamese poems about jail and prisoners.
|They write letters with their blood, to send news home.|
|A lone wild goose flaps through the clouds.|
|How many families are weeping under the same moon?|
|The same thought wandering how far apart?|
While the thematics of early Buddhist poetry may recall features of twentieth-century prison writing, the Vietnamese Confucian literary tradition anticipated the modern genre more directly. This tradition included a subgenre of plaintive appeals by imprisoned scholars, a good illustration of which is Nguyen Trai's A Cry of Innocence, produced after the famous scholar was arrested for treason in 1430.
|Through ups and downs I've drifted fifty years.|
|My love for my old mountain I've betrayed.|
|False honors bring real sorrows—such a joke!|
|Many traduce one loyal man—woe's me!|
|When I can't dodge what comes, I know there's fate.|
|If culture will survive, it's Heaven's wish.|
|In jail, a shame to read the overleaf:|
|how is my plea to cross the Golden Gate?|
The prison poetry composed by Cao Ba Quat in the mid–nineteenth century offers another example of writing from confinement within the Vietnamese Confucian tradition. An influential official during the 1850s,
|Night falls, the flood spills over,|
|Cold winds have driven Autumn hence.|
|My eyes are weary with following the days|
|Suspended between heaven and earth, a poet lies in jail|
|Pillowing my head, I see my sword lying there inert.|
|By the dim light of the lamp, I contemplate my ragged coat.|
|Full of the ardent force of life|
|I must remain walled in, voiceless and mute.|
Imprisoned Vietnamese poets sometimes reflected on their own confinement by conjuring up sympathetic images of caged animals. Around 1750, the scholar Nguyen Huu Cau led a failed revolt against the Trinh family in the North. Cau, who was arrested and eventually put to death, is credited with writing the poem The Bird in a Cage while in jail awaiting execution.
|In all the world one cage holds this small self|
|whose eyes once roamed the space of winds and clouds!|
|But why, oh, why did I get snared and caught|
|to brood, to moan, to mourn my gift of flight?|
|I used to preen my feathers, flap my wings—|
|and now I sing of freedom in a jail!|
|Orioles dip and dart by the north hedge.|
|Phoenixes chirp and coo on the south branch.|
|Let carpers, east and west, all wag their tongues.|
|At my first chance, from bondage I'll break loose.|
|Straight-winged, I'll soar and race toward yonder blue.|
|I'll smash my chains and visit the suncrow.|
|Upon this earth, who knows my heart?|
Echoes of Cau's imprisoned but undefeated bird can be found in The Lu's wellknown poem Memories of the Jungle, in which a caged tiger is employed to symbolize the predicament of Vietnam under the French. Another metaphorically pregnant caged tiger appears in What's My Crime, a revolutionary poem penned by Tran Huy Lieu in 1938.
|You've bolted me in prison—What's my crime?|
|I love my country—do I break the law?|
― 27 ―
|A furnace tempers iron into steel.|
|Fire tests true gold and leaves no room for doubt|
|A tiger waits his chance to flee the cage|
|The dragon bides his time to break the lock|
|Pull any dirty trick you may devise—|
|just try and shake my purpose, I dare you.|
For Communist literary critics, the insertion of prison writing by party members into an older, indigenous literary tradition brought Vietnamese Communism's nationalist character into sharp relief. For example, in 1960, Tran Huy Lieu likened the spirit of Ho Chi Minh's Prison Diary to the “strong and proud will” of Nguyen Huu Cau's imprisoned bird. In 1966, the poet and critic Xuan Dieu drew similar comparisons between Ho's poetry and Nguyen Trai's A Cry of Innocence. The most elaborate effort to place revolutionary prison poetry within an indigenous literary lineage was carried out by Dang Thai Mai,  who traced “a long and powerful tradition of prison poetry” from a handful of classical Chinese and Japanese prison poets (Lac Tan Vuong [Lo Xinwang], Ly Thai Bach [Li Po], and Van Thien Tuong [Wen Tienxiang]) to the nineteenth-century prison verse of Cao Ba Quat and his nephew Cao Ba Nha.
Communist prison writing also drew on a more recent tradition of prison poetry produced by patriotic scholargentry who had been arrested and jailed for political subversion in the early decades of the twentieth century. Much of this work emerged after 1908, when French security forces cracked down on the Eastern Travel Movement (Phong Trao Dong Du), the Eastern Capital Free School (Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc), and an outbreak of antitax demonstrations in Annam. Several dozen scholars involved in these movements, including the influential anticolonialist Phan Chau Trinh, were deported to penitentiaries at Con Dao and Lao Bao and held for the following decade. To pass time in prison, the scholars formed poetry-writing clubs, which they ironically referred to as thi dan after the literary associations for cultivated men that were popular during the imperial era. Although many of the poems composed in the prison thi dan were lost (or never written down to begin with), some were preserved in memory, copied down, and published by prisoners after their release.
The most energetic anthologist of this early twentieth-century prison poetry was Huynh Thuc Khang. In 1904, Khang turned his back on a superb educational career and promising prospects in the imperial bureaucracy to join forces with other Confucian literati devoted to
While the poetry of imprisoned scholargentry tended to convey a more melancholy tone than the relentlessly upbeat writings produced by Communist prisoners in the 1930s, the traditions shared certain thematic preoccupations. For instance, the Communists'attempt to link incarceration and education originated with the writings of Huynh Thuc Khang's generation. On Con Dao in 1908, Phan Chau Trinh advised Khang to try to turn the prison into a “natural school” (truong hoc thien nhien), a comment that anticipated a common trope within Communist prison writing that linked incarceration and political education. Moreover, the emphasis in Communist prison writing on spiritual resistance despite physical confinement mirrors a common theme in scholar-gentry prison verse. It can be seen, for example, in Phan Chau Trinh's Dap Da Con Dao (Breaking Rocks on Con Dao):
|A man stands tall upon Con Dao|
|he makes a din that makes the mountain shake.|
|Hammer to shatter heap on heap of rocks.|
|Break stone by hand to hundreds of small chips.|
|To granite turn your body day by day.|
|Can sun or rainstorm daunt an iron heart?|
|When they're laid low, those who will save the world|
|endure and let no trifle bother them.|
Although the popularization of scholar-gentry prison poetry intensified with Huynh Thuc Khang's efforts in the late 1930s, political prisoners jailed earlier in the decade were not unaware of the older tradition. In a memoir of his incarceration for political activity published in 1935, future Communist Party member Ton Quang Phiet recalled speculating that imprisonment will make him as famous as Ngo Duc Ke and Le Huan, two prominent prison poets from the generation of patriotic