Claudine Ang's Poetic Transformations: Eighteenth-Century Cultural Projects in the Mekong Plains is about the power of literature to transform perceptions of geographic space. The setting is southern Vietnam (Đàng Trong) in the eighteenth century, when the Mekong plain was a rowdy frontier. The main actors are Nguyễn Cư Trinh (1716–67), a Nguyễn official who penned the humorous play Sãi Vãi (A monk and a nun) while serving as governor of Quảng Ngãi Province at the upper edge of the Mekong plain, and Mạc Thiên Tứ (1710–80), a Ming loyalist who governed the Chinese enclave Hà Tiên and commissioned the poetry compilation Ten Songs of Hà Tiên. These men, Ang argues, shared the goal of incorporating and redefining frontier land through literature. Ang approaches these texts as a historian to uncover their political meanings.
Chapters 1–3 analyze the satirical play Sãi Vãi, which was written in rhymed verse in the vernacular script, Nôm, taking the form of a dialogue between a Buddhist monk and a nun. The play is bawdy, studded with innuendo and social commentary, and undergoes frequent changes in tone. It is difficult to ascertain a unified theme, but it does ultimately seem to present a definition of what constitutes civilizational superiority. Ang describes Sãi Vãi as “a work that exists simultaneously in both the classical and the vernacular worlds” (p. 51), “embedded in Đàng Trong politics” even as it transcends that world through its classical references. Ang argues that the profusion of literary and historical references demonstrates a level of classical literacy among the local population. Less literate audience members would have understood enough to laugh along, while for the more literate, the scholarly register of the play served as affirmation that Đàng Trong was part of the world of high culture.
Ang contrasts the play with a 1751 memorial that Nguyễn Cư Trinh sent to the Nguyễn lord. While the play ends with an exhortation to the crowd to “smite the barbarians” (p. 111), the memorial describes a more complicated dynamic between Việt settlers and the indigenous Đá Vách people. In the memorial, Nguyễn Cư Trinh suggests that settlers are both harassing the Đá Vách and settling among them to escape taxation. Reading the sources together, Ang sees the play's exhaustive enumeration of civilizational superiority as an admonition to the Việt settlers not to join the Đá Vách, which many apparently were tempted to do.
In 1735, Mạc Thiên Tứ inherited control of Hà Tiên, a port that served as a node in a diasporic Chinese trading network, from his father. One of his first projects was to compose ten poems in classical Chinese on the most outstanding sites of Hà Tiên and to solicit matching verses on those themes from poets across the region, some as far away as southern China. Chapters 4–6 explore how Mạc Thiên Tứ used Ten Songs of Hà Tiên to promote his city as a haven for the Ming diaspora. Connecting the first half of her book with the second, Ang focuses only on the poems written by Mạc Thiên Tứ and the matching verses by Nguyễn Cư Trinh.
Ten Songs takes a place viewed by many as a wild frontier and reinscribes it as a place of beauty suitable for cultured people. Hà Tiên is not dangerous, the poems suggest, nor is it a backwater. Rather, it is a place that could be central to larger cultural projects. Mạc Thiên Tứ's poems were both an advertisement to draw in settlers and, implicitly, a statement that Hà Tiên was independent of the Nguyễn lords of Đàng Trong.
Ang patiently unlocks the hidden meanings of the poems. What, for instance, are the “fish-dragons” that frequently appear? Ang persuasively argues that they refer to Ming loyalists scattered across Southeast Asia. The Ten Songs project's goal of drawing together the Chinese diaspora to promote Hà Tiên as a sanctuary independent of Vietnamese control is lost in the official Vietnamese record, which depicts Mạc Thiên Tứ as a loyal supporter of the Nguyễn lord. Ang shows that Ming loyalists in Southeast Asia were not necessarily intent on overthrowing the Qing, but rather on preserving and knitting together their diasporic community.
Mạc Thiên Tứ and Nguyễn Cư Trinh, the two authors at the heart of this book, were friends. Ang includes her translation of two extant letters from Nguyễn Cư Trinh to Mạc Thiên Tứ. These letters, Ang suggests, indicate that Mạc Thiên Tứ had to be cajoled into a position of loyalty to the Nguyễn lord. Nguyễn Cư Trinh discerned the political message of Mạc Thiên Tứ's poetry and responded with a political message of his own. Mạc Thiên Tứ's poems implicitly promote the independence of Hà Tiên and its status as a diasporic Chinese enclave, while Nguyễn Cư Trinh's response, coming after twenty years of Nguyễn expansion in the Mekong, instead positions Hà Tiên as an integral part of the Nguyễn realm.
With this book, Ang makes a major contribution to the field of Vietnamese studies as a whole, showing that even the diverse, ever-changing, contested Mekong frontier was deeply connected to a broader and older literary tradition. These texts are challenging to translate, and few scholars have the language skills and historical knowledge to do them justice. Ang does so successfully, and with style.
More than a book-length study of two texts, Poetic Transformations is a reconstruction of vanished worlds. To fully appreciate these texts, one needs to understand not just their historical context in the frontier world of the eighteenth-century Mekong but also the world of classical tradition. That Ang made these worlds come alive is testament to her skills as a translator and as a guide to lost realms.