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  • Poetic Transformations: Eighteenth-Century Cultural Projects on the Mekong Plains by Claudine Ang
  • Eric Henry (bio)
Claudine Ang. Poetic Transformations: Eighteenth-Century Cultural Projects on the Mekong Plains. Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London: Harvard University Asia Center, 2019. xvi, 292 pp. Hardcover $65.00, isbn 978-0-674-23723-0.

This book provides the reader with close readings of a number of literary pieces created by two highly educated men of letters who held positions of authority in several territories south of Huế during the eighteenth century, and in so doing takes the reader deeply into the social and intellectual history of that time and region.

Of the two figures whose literary productions are examined, one, Mạc Thiên Tứ (1710–1780) was the local Chinese ruler of Hà Tiên, a coastal port city on the western edge of the Mekong Delta. Hà Tiên was at that time used as an enclave by Ming loyalists generally allied with the Nguyễn lords who ruled the South from their capital in Phu' Xuân (present-day Huế). Mạc Thiên Tứ's family had come to the region as political refugees in the late seventeenth century. The second figure, Nguyễn Cư Trinh (1716–1767) was a high ranking Vietnamese official whose forebears had served the Nguyễn lords for several generations. He served successively as the governor of Quang Ngãi Prefecture on the eastern coast, the Bố Chính garrison in the far north of the southern polity, and finally, for eleven years, held administrative positions in the Mekong delta, where he did a great deal to enable the Nguyễn court to consolidate its grip on that region. While thus occupied, he entered into close political, military, and strategic relations with Mạc Thiên Tứ, the Chinese governor of Hà Tiên.

The principle literary productions examined in this book are: (1) a 270-line verse drama in Vietnamese entitled Sãi Vãi (A Monk and a Nun) written by Nguyễn Cư Trinh in c. 1750–1752 when serving as governor of Quang Ngãi (Chapters 1–3, pp. 23–117); (2) a suite of ten landscape poems in Chinese written by Mạc Thiên Tứ in 1736, celebrating scenes in Hà Tiên (Chapter 4, pp. 121–163); (3) two letters to Mạc Thiên Tứ, both of them in Chinese, written by Nguyễn Cư Trinh during the period 1754–1765 (Chapter 5, pp. 164–190); and (4) a suite of ten poems in Chinese written by Nguyễn Cư Trinh during the same period in response to Mạc Thiên Tứ's suite (Chapter 6, pp. 191–229). The author also presents and analyses two Chinese-language memorials submitted [End Page 9] by Nguyễn Cư Trinh to Nguyễn Phu'c Khoát (reigned 1733–1765). The first, submitted in 1751, concerns the dishonesty and incompetence of Quang Ngãi officials and, the unseemly activities of the local Vietnamese populace. It is discussed in Chapter 1, pp. 48–50, and Chapter 3, pp. 112–115. The second, written in c. 1756, offers suggestions to the Nguyễn lord concerning dealings with a Khmer prince and the acquisition of Khmer territories. This is analyzed in Chapter 5, pp. 167–69.

Taken as a whole, this book is an extremely large-scale piece of research, both intricate and many-faceted, and this research is carried out with admirable skill, thoroughness, and respect for veracity. The details of the examined materials bristle with difficulties of all kinds. The poems, sufficiently difficult to interpret in themselves, exist in the form of rare books and manuscripts with frequent textual variants, held in different libraries scattered across the world. The author has studied all existing variants of the texts she discusses, and is conscientious in supplying footnotes that explain the choices she makes among the variants. She also shows a very wide familiarity both with primary sources and secondary studies related to all questions that arise from the texts. An example of her pervasive erudition appears in line 218 of the verse drama Sãi Vãi. There, she...


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