Saving Ancient Vietnamese Script Chữ-Nôm from Total Extinction
Published: 01/04/2011 by ptg
After being ruled by China for over a thousand years, Vietnamese intellectuals developed a language that would represent Vietnamese speech and enforce their independence, thus gave birth to Chữ-Nôm, which literally means “Southern script”. Inventors of Chữ-Nôm intended for the script to be the native alternative to Chinese script used by courts in Beijing. The Chinese script having rooted strongly into Vietnamese scholastic circles for such long period, Chữ-Nôm (or simply nôm) presents a mix of standard Chinese characters and characters specifically created for Vietnamese writing. The language, therefore, displays a wide number of borrowed Chinese words incorporated to Vietnamese phonology. Such have resulted to Vietnamese modern language be laden with Sino-Vietnamese terms even up to present. The deep entrenchment of Chinese ways into the country’s history have somehow resulted for the Vietnamese to continue to express themselves using the Chinese script even after they have gained their independence. Civil service examinations, historical records, royal edicts, memorials to the Kings, laws and regulations, and old poetry were all written in Chinese characters. With that, Chữ-Nôm was not easily embraced the time it was introduced to the people. Though the actual date as to when the development of the Chữ-Nôm system has, up to now, not entirely agreed upon, it is believed to be in existence around the mid-13th century. Published poems in Chữ-Nôm were evident during the early 15th-century, but a stele located at the Bao An Pagoda in Yen Lang, Vinh Phu province holds inscriptions in Chữ-Nôm dated back from 1209 AD (Ly Dynasty), thus, is believed to be the oldest surviving Chữ-Nôm writings uncovered to date. With the arrival of Portuguese Christian missionaries to Vietnam during the 16th to 17th centuries, the French colonial authorities discouraged the use of classical Chinese script. Along with the enforced unpopularity of Chinese language, Chữ-Nôm, which not just coined from Chinese, but deeply entwined to it, experienced a similar decline. Western missionaries developed Quốc Ngữ, a Latin-based Vietnamese script which was taught to schools and adapted to Vietnamese religious materials and prayer books. During the 20th century, Chữ-Nôm eventually died out as Quốc Ngữ became more standardized and popular throughout. In modern-day Vietnam, Quốc Ngữ had remained to be the only script used in writing Vietnamese. With the intention of asserting Vietnam’s independence after the Chinese occupation, Chữ-Nôm, undeniably, is an important national legacy. Experts agree on the script’s immense value as a rare and special link of Vietnam’s past and present. But people’s lack of interest in ancient culture has not, in any way, helped strengthen that connection. On top of that, the false notion that Chữ-Nôm belongs to China and not Vietnam, therefore shouldn’t be given much regard, have further pushed aside the importance of preserving Chữ-Nôm as one of the most important aspects of Vietnam’s history. No one is really certain as to how many Vietnamese know and understand Chữ-Nôm. Experts claim that at present, only about less than 100 around the globe can read and write the script. The Chữ-Nôm system of writing, in addition, could only even be mastered by someone who already knew Chinese characters. Though there were books and Chữ-Nôm inscriptions gathered through time, around 90 percent of these materials were not translated to modern Vietnamese. A script that deeply reflects centuries of Vietnamese tradition and culture is indeed on the brink of extinction. By no question, the long stretch of this unique script’s formation process before reaching its degree of completion and fixity makes Chữ-Nôm, by itself, a testament of dynasties by-gone. Far from being devised by one individual, Chữ-Nôm is a product of many centuries of patient and obscure elaboration. Reflecting our ancestor’s thoughts, feelings and day-to-day accounts, the collection of Chữ-Nôm scripts hold a lot of value to Vietnam’s history, thus, should be preserved. Few efforts were demonstrated, among which the Chữ-Nôm script study is made available at the University in Sai Gon until 1993. The script is still studied and taught at the Hán-Nôm Institute in Ha Noi, which has recently published a dictionary of all the nôm characters. Viet states that information technology can be applied to help preserve Chữ-Nôm with a digitalised Chữ-Nôm library and dictionary. If made possible, a rich and pure essence of Vietnam’s culture between the 10th to 20th centuries would be unveiled. Looks like Vietnam has so much to give credit to the very few devoted in urging the spirit of Chữ-Nôm to live on, and hopefully, the total loss of a truly valuable cultural heritage could be prevented.