Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1882) was a risqué Vietnamese poetess. Her verse — replete with nods, winks, double entendres and sexual innuendo — was shocking to many readers of her day and will doubtless remain so to some of ours. Huong has been described as "the candid voice of a liberal female in a male-dominated society." Her output has been called "coy, often bawdy lyrics." More information about the poet follows these English translations of her poems.

Ốc Nhồi ("The Snail")
by Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1882)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My parents produced a snail,
Night and day it slithers through slimy grass.
If you love me, remove my shell,
But please don't jiggle my little hole!


The Breadfruit or Jackfruit
by Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1882)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My body's like a breadfruit ripening on a tree:
My skin coarse, my pulp thick.
My lord, if you want me, pierce me with your stick,
But don't squeeze or the sap will sully your hands!


Bánh trôi nước ("Floating Sweet Dumpling")
by Ho Xuan Huong (1772-1882)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch

My powdered body is white and round.
Now I bob. Now I sink.
The hand that kneads me may be rough,
But my heart at the center remains untouched.

Most of Huong's poems were written in Nôm script, a complex Vietnamese adaptation of Chinese characters employed from the 15th to 19th centuries. Through her Nôm poems, Huong helped elevate the status of Vietnamese poetry. A century later, she was called "the Queen of Nôm poetry" by Xuan Dieu, one of Vietnam’s greatest poets.

Ho Xuan Huong was apparently born in the Quynh Luu district of the north-central province of Nghe An. Xuan Huong means "Spring Fragrance" or "Scent of Springtime." Her father, a scholar named Ho Phi Dien, died young. Her mother remarried, as a concubine. Huong grew up near Thang Long (modern Ha Noi), in a male-dominated society in which polygamy was permitted and men were more privileged than women. Huong may or may not have been a concubine herself. Very little is known with any certainty about her life. In 1962, Nguyễn Đức Bính admitted, "I don't know anything about the poetess Hồ Xuân Hương and other people don't know any more than I do." And yet legends do take on lives of their own ...

Keywords/Tags: Ho Xuan Huong, Vietnamese, English translations, snail, grass, shell, hole, breadfruit, jackfruit, tree, skin, hands, sap, stain, dumpling, body, powder, powdered, sink, bob, swim, pond, heart, center, red, nom script, spring fragrance, spring essence, concubine

Author of original: 
Ho Xuan Huong