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Ho Chi Minh, punning poet

December 18, 2009 |  7:44 am

When Ho Chi Minh was arrested by Chinese authorities in the early 1940s, he sat down to write some poetry. Not surprisingly, it was political. But it was also, as British doctoral student Rachel Leow explains on her blog, full of puns that come from the deconstruction and reconstruction of its characters:

This poem is entitled 拆字 (Chai Zi), which might be translated as “split-word.” The term Chai Zi is also known as 测字 (Ce Zi); it was known in earlier times as 破字 (Po Zi) during the Sui Dynasty, and 相字 (Xiang Zi) in the Song. The concept behind the term is loosely analogous to numerology, except with Chinese hieroglyphics: it’s the idea that you can break up a Chinese word or phrase into its radicals, add or subtract strokes from words to turn them into different words, and conduct divination or tell fortunes from the results.

Ho Chi Minh's poem -- which she translates as "Wordplay" -- reads like this.

Prisoners loosed from prison can build their country
From great misfortune arises true fidelity
The most troubled souls are the most virtuous
When the prison doors open, the real dragons emerge.

Sounds like your basic revolutionary ideas: lock us up, and we'll emerge strong to build a nation. But when she splits the words, she shows how there is a real sense of play in his sentences.

The most troubled souls are the most virtuous: 人有憂愁優點大 

Literally, “men who worry are the most meritorious.” The word for man (人), in slightly altered form, also functions as a radical (亻). According to the Chai Zi reading, then, if you add the radical for man (亻) to the word for worry (憂) you get the word for merit or quality (優).

In other instances, he's played with the multiple tones used in Chinese; see Leow's site for the full explanation of the puns in his poem. It's a lighthearted side -- hard to detect through the veil of language -- of the revolutionary leader who was known in America for saying things like "Those who wish to seize Vietnam must kill us to the last man, woman and child."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Ho Chi Minh, in white, with China's Deng Xioping in an undated photo. Credit: Reuters