Tuesday, November 18, 2008



Remembering Phung Quan

In January 1995, a remarkable Vietnamese literary figure passed away. Vietnam did not lose just a poet however; gone was someone who had a remarkable love for his country and courage to devote his life to a simple pursuit--the basic freedoms belonging to every human being. Who was Phung Quan?
Phung Quan, born in 1932 in central Vietnam, came of age during the national struggle for independence. A struggle that seemed won in 1954 when French colonialists were ejected from the country. Yet for Vietnamese who lived in the North of the now partitioned country, including Phung Quan, the end of French domination did not lead to any more independence, nor freedom. The yoke of foreign colonialism was replaced by one with a domestic face. In 1956, Phung Quan, age 24, together with a group of writers and poets in the North founded the "Nhan Van" and "Giai Pham". These two publications, and the historic literary movement of the same name, set out to examine life in the so-called "Democratic Republic of Viet Nam."
In the poem titled "Against Corruption and Wastage," in the second issue of the "Giai Pham," Phung Quan describes what a person traveling North Vietnam witnesses: desolate villages, intense poverty, and young people with no hope. The poem concludes with the narrator vowing:
I want to mold poems into bullets
To shoot into the hearts of the ones responsible
Those who squander the blood of the people
Like they squander money with no value!
Within two months of the publication of these powerful verses, Ho Chi Minh signed an edict curtailing freedom of the press in North Vietnam. Those in the leadership recognized themselves as the individuals depicted by Phung Quan and could not tolerate such dissent.
The next year, the regime believed it had asserted control over the Society of Writers and permitted another publication called "Van" (Literature). But allowing the smallest press freedom, the regime soon found itself faced with some powerful truths. In the introductory issue, Phung Quan penned his famous poem, "A Mother's Lesson."
You can tell me to love someone
You can tell me to hate someone
Though sweetly it is spoken
Love shall not be made hate
Though death be it threatened
Hate shall not be made love
I want to be an honest writer
honest for life
The sweet honey of fame
is not sweet on my tongue
Lightning won't strike me down
My paper and pen someone steals
I'll take a knife and carve poetry on stone
The magazine "Van" was closed down, and in a sweeping crackdown, the regime arrested over 300 writers and artists. Phung Quan spent the next thirty-two years of his life in jail. Finally released in 1988, the then 58 year-old Phung Quan never departed from the "mother's lesson." In poems and articles, many smuggled and published overseas, Phung Quang remained a very honest writer.
In a 1992 essay for the "Cua Viet" (Vietnamese Door), Phung Quan tells of a 1990 New Year's visit to his uncle To Huu. To Huu was, as late as the mid-80s, a member of the politburo and deputy prime minister. Now retired, this poet-revolutionary had been nothing less than the Vietnamese Communist Party's Joseph Goebbels.
Tu Huu read Phung Quan a poem he had recently penned:
There was a cadre who bought a watch
Fake or real he worried for he didn't know
So he asked a salesgirl, and she replied:
"Fake" but like "real," hard to tell!
Phung Quan wrote: "As for me, this poem made me wonder. Could it be that this political icon, this poet, as sharp as uncle, not until well into his seventies start to ask himself, fake or real? Or, did uncle wonder much before, but not until now, when no longer in positions of power, was he able to level with everyone?"
For publishing these probing questions by Phung Quan, the "Cua Viet" was shut down by the Party in 1992, ending the temporary experiment of "glasnost" in Vietnam, and a partially independent media.
In a separate article, Phung Quan writes about Nguyen Huu Dang, another figure who made a significant contribution to the Party and regime. Nguyen Huu Dang was active in the resistance against the French and was chosen by Ho Chi Minh to organize the September 2, 1945, "Proclamation of Independence." But after the communist seizure of power in the North, Nguyen Huu Dang, like many other Vietnamese patriots, spoke out against the hijacking of the independence cause. For his participation in the publication "Nhan Van," Nguyen Huu Dang was imprisoned for over 15 years.
In 1991, Phung Quan sought out his old friend. He discovered Nguyen Huu Dang living in a shack, in a remote area of the countryside, preoccupied only with a place to die without bothering anyone. Phung Quan, with half of his wife's pension, brought this founder of the Democratic Republic of Viet Nam back to Hanoi to be cared for. The Nguyen Huu Dang story says much about Phung Quan's humanism and loyalty. It also typifies the fate of Vietnamese for whom the Party no longer has a use.
Beginning last year, Phung Quan was embroiled in an event that only he could be in. Hearing that Nguyen Ho had been arrested for circulating a set of reforms for the Party, Phung Quan immediately set out from Hanoi to the south of the country to interview the long-time party member and war hero. He snuck through the cauldron of public security and spoke with the dissident under house arrest. For this, Phung Quan was detained by authorities. In an internal memo on "activities of enemy and opposition forces," drafted by the ideology and cultural section of the central committee and circulated by its propaganda and guidance section, Phung Quan was charged with spreading lies and criticizing the Vietnamese Communist Party.
In May 1994, Phung Quan filed a legal motion with authorities requesting his case be brought to court if evidence warranting such allegations exist. Moreover, he declared that he would sue the two sections of the communist central committee which defamed him! Four decades before, Phung Quan made it clear that he did not fear the repressive regime in the pursuit of truth and freedom. After years of imprisonment, his pen and paper repeatedly taken away, Phung Quan still carried in him the "mother's lesson."
The passing of Phung Quan is an immeasurable loss to Vietnam. But the life of Phung Quan serves as a beacon of hope for the future of the nation. As long as Vietnam has patriots with such courage and zeal, the oppression and suffering of the people will end. Phung Quan may be separated now from his pen and paper, but his verses are engraved in Vietnam's conscience forever.
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