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History of writing in Vietnam

  (Redirected from Hán-Nôm)

Until the beginning of the 20th century, Vietnamese literature, governmental, scholarly, and religious (Daoist, Confucianist, Buddhist) documents, steles, and temple signs were written in classical Chinese (Vietnamese: cổ văn 古文 or văn ngôn 文言), using Chinese characters or chữ hán. This had been done since at least 111 BC.[1][2]

Since as early as the 8th century novels and poetry in Vietnamese were also written in the chữ nôm script, which used Chinese characters for Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary and an adapted set of characters for the native vocabulary with Vietnamese approximations of Middle Chinese pronunciations.[3]

The two scripts coexisted until the era of French Indochina when the Latin alphabet quốc ngữ script gradually became the written medium of both government and popular literature.[4]


In Vietnamese, Chinese characters go by a variety names:

Hán văn (漢文): literally "Han literature" denotes Chinese language literature.[8][9]

The Vietnamese word chữ 𡨸 (character, script, writing, letter) is derived from a Middle Chinese pronunciation of (Modern Mandarin Chinese in Pinyin: zì), meaning 'character'.[10]

Sino-Vietnamese (Vietnamese: từ Hán Việt 詞漢越 "Sino-Vietnamese words") refer to cognates or terms borrowed from Chinese into the Vietnamese language, usually preserving the phonology of the original Chinese. As for syntax and vocabulary this Sino-Vietnamese language was no more different from the Chinese of Beijing than medieval English Latin was different from the Latin of Rome.[11]

The term Chữ Nôm (𡨸喃 "Southern characters") refers to the former transcription system for vernacular Vietnamese-language texts, written using a mixture of original Chinese characters and locally coined nôm characters not found in Chinese to phonetically represent Vietnamese sounds."[12][13] However the character set for chữ nôm is extensive, containing up to 20,000 logograms, and many are both arbitrary in composition and inconsistent in pronunciation.[14]

Hán Nôm (漢喃 "Han and chữ Nôm characters") may mean both Hán and Nôm taken together as in the research remit of Hanoi's Hán-Nôm Institute, or refer to texts which are written in a mixture of Hán and Nôm, or some Hán texts with parallel Nôm translations.[15] There is a significant orthographic overlap between Hán and Nôm and many characters are used in both Hán and Nôm with the same reading.[16] It may be simplest to think of Nom as the Vietnamese extension of Han characters.

The term chữ quốc ngữ (𡨸國語 "national language script") means Vietnamese written in romanized script.


Chữ Hán (111 BC – 1919 AD)Edit

During Chinese domination period from 111 BC to 938 AD, Vietnam was under Chinese rule and so Chinese characters or Chữ Hán (Hanzi) were used for writing. In most cases, formal writings were done in the language of Classical Chinese (văn ngôn 文言, co van, or chu nho, which are usually used as synonyms with chu han).

Chinese was used extensively in government and administration, especially for entry via the Confucian examination system in Vietnam, which was conducted solely in van ngon. Chinese was also the language of medicine, astrology, religion, science, and high literature such as poetry.

According to Dao Duy Anh, Vietnam started to have Chinese studies when Shi Xie (137–226) taught Vietnamese people to write. In this period of over a thousand years, most of the inscriptions written on steles are in Chinese characters.

During this period, Vietnamese existed mainly as an oral language, before the creation of the Chữ Nôm script to preserve and circulate less serious poetry and narrative literature. These writings were at first indistinguishable from contemporaneous classical Chinese works produced in China, Korea, or Japan. These include the first poems in chữ nho by the monk Khuông Việt (匡越), the Nam Quốc Sơn Hà (南國山河), and many Confucian, Daoist, and Buddhist scriptures.[2][17][18][19]

It has been suggested that Chinese characters were present in Vietnam even before 111 BC, based on the interpretation of the inscription considered as a word on a dagger.[20] However, more research needs to be done. Moreover on the Dong Son bronze drums used between 700 BC-100 AD, supposed inscriptions have yet to be deciphered.

Between 939–1919, Chu Han continued to be used as the major means of writing, especially among scholars and in government.

Vietnamese readings of Chu HanEdit

In Vietnam, classical Chinese texts were read with the vocalization of Chinese text as such, equivalent to the Chinese on-yomi in Japanese kambun (漢文) or the assimilated vocalizations in Korean hanmun (한문/漢文).[21][22] This occurred alongside the diffusion of Sino-Vietnamese vocabulary into the vernacular Vietnamese language,[23] and created a Sinoxenic dialect.[24] The Sinologist Edwin G. Pulleyblank was the one of the first linguists to actively employ "Sino-Vietnamese" to recover the earlier history of Chinese.[25]

Chu Nom (since 8th century)Edit

Vietnamese birth certificate in 1938 showing different scripts in descending frequency: quốc ngữ, chữ nôm, chữ nho, French

From the 13th Century the dominance of Chu Han began to be challenged by Chu Nom, a system of modified and invented characters modeled loosely on Chinese characters. Unlike the system of chữ nho, allowed for the expression of purely Vietnamese words, was created in Vietnam at least as early as the 13th century.[26]

However, the earliest known use of chu Nom is documented to be from the 8th century (see Main Article).

While designed for native Vietnamese speakers, chữ nôm required the user to have a fair knowledge of chữ Hán, and thus chữ nôm was used primarily for literary writings by cultural elites (such as the poetry of Nguyễn Du and Hồ Xuân Hương), while almost all other official writings and documents continued to be written in classical Chinese until the 20th century.[27][28]

Though technically different from chu Han, it is simplest to think of it as a descendant of chu Han—with modifications thereof as well as new Vietnamese-coined logograms. Together, they are called Han Nom.

Chu Quoc Ngu / Vietnamese alphabet (since 20th century)Edit

Quoc Ngu is the currently-used script of Vietnam and is based on the Latin alphabet. It was first developed by Portuguese missionaries in the 17th century. During French colonization the alphabet was further modified and then later forced upon the population in 1910.[29]

Meanwhile, the use of classical Chinese and its written form chu Han declined. At this time there were briefly four competing writing systems in Vietnam; chữ Han, chữ Nôm, quốc Ngữ, and French.[30] Although the first romanized script quốc ngữ newspaper, Gia Dinh Bao, was founded in 1865, Vietnamese nationalists continued to use chữ nôm until after the First World War.

After French colonization, quốc ngữ became the favored written language of the Vietnamese independence movement.[31]

As a result of education of quốc ngữ exclusively, most Vietnamese are unable to read earlier Vietnamese texts written in han nôm. The Hán Nôm Institute is the national centre for academic research into Hán nôm texts, and there are modern movements trying to restore han nom to Vietnam, in part or in full.

Modern Usage of Chinese characters (Han Nom)Edit

A calligrapher writing the Chinese character 祿 "good fortune" (Sino-Vietnamese reading: lộc) in preparation for Tết, at the Temple of Literature, Hanoi (2011)

Individual chu han are still written by calligraphers for special occasions such as the Vietnamese New Year, Tết.[32] They are still present outside Buddhist temples and are still studied for scholarly and religious purposes.

With the introduction of Viet Calligraphy (Thư pháp chữ Việt) since 1950s , Viet Calligraphy enjoys tremendous success in Vietnamese Calligraphy at the expense of chu han Calligraphy.

Since the mid-1990s there has been a resurgence in the teaching of Chinese characters, both for chữ han and the additional characters used in chữ nôm. This is to enable the study of Vietnam's long history as well as cultural synthesis and unification.[33]

For linguists the Sino-Vietnamese readings of Chinese characters provide data for the study of historical Chinese phonology and reconstruction of the Old Chinese language.

Additionally, many Vietnamese study chu Han characters to learn other languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and sometimes Korean. This can make it easier to study these languages due to the high concentration of Chinese-cognate words. It also unifies these languages as then these words can then all be represented by the same Chinese character (or variant thereof). For this reason, Chinese characters may be considered considered the cultural glue unifying the cultures and languages of the East Asian cultural sphere.

The significance of the characters has occasionally entered western depiction of Vietnam, especially since French colonization. For instance novelist E. M. Nathanson mentions chu Han in A Dirty Distant War (1987).[34] In Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket one may occasionally see signs in han nom.

Mixed scriptEdit

Vietnamese Mixed Script in the Ho Chi Minh Museum in 2016

It is known that Ho Chi Minh wrote in a mixed Latin–Han Nom script.

In light of the above advantages of han nom, there are recent unauthorized movements that are trying to restore the use of han nom script such as the Han Nom Revival Committee of Vietnam (委班復生漢喃越南,[35]

Others unknown sources have proposed to use mixed script (like Japanese) with chu Han for Sino-Vietnamese words and Latin script for other words. Some have even proposed replacing Latin with other types of constructed scripts such as Rangmowen.[36]

Despite efforts from sources aiming to restore their Chinese influences in the way Vietnamese use their written language, Chu Quoc Ngu has been the only written language accepted by Vietnamese worldwide since the end of the 19th century.

External LinksEdit


  1. ^ Nguyễn, Tri Tài (2002). Giáo trình tiếng Hán. Tập I: Cơ sở. Nhà xuất bản Đại học Quốc gia Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. p. 5.
  2. ^ a b "Vietnamese literature". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  3. ^ Asian & Pacific quarterly of cultural and social affairs – Volumes 20–21 Cultural and Social Centre for the Asian and Pacific Region 1988 – Page 7 "... known script that was used by the Vietnamese, the "Southerners," to transcribe their language, in contrast to the Chinese ideographs (called chữ Hán i.e., "Chinese script," or chữ nho i.e. "Confucian script") of the "Northerners," the Chinese."
  4. ^ Vietnam 10 – Page 522 Nick Ray, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Iain Stewart – 2009 "For centuries, the Vietnamese language was written in standard Chinese characters (chữ nho). Around the 13th century, the Vietnamese devised their own writing system called chữ nôm (or just nôm), which was created by combining two Chinese words or by using single Chinese characters for their phonetic value. Both writing systems were in use until the 20th century – official business and scholarship was conducted in chữ nho, while chữ nôm was used for popular literature. The Latin-based quốc ngữ script, widely used since WWI, was developed in the 17th century by Alexandre de Rhodes (see the boxed text, right). Quốc ngữ served to undermine the position of Mandarin officials, whose power was based on traditional scholarship in chữ nho and chữ nôm, scripts that were largely inaccessible to the masses."
  5. ^ Nguyễn, Tài Cẩn (2001). Nguồn gốc và quá trình hình thành cách đọc Hán Việt. Nhà xuất bản Đại học quốc gia Hà Nội. p. 16.
  6. ^ Hội Khai-trí tiến-đức (1954). Việt-nam tự-điển. Văn Mới. pp. 141, 228.
  7. ^ Đào, Duy Anh (2005). Hán-Việt từ-điển giản yếu. Nhà xuất bản Văn hoá Thông tin. p. 281.
  8. ^ Hội Khai-trí tiến-đức (1954). Việt-nam tự-điển. Văn Mới. p. 228.
  9. ^ Đào, Duy Anh (2005). Hán-Việt từ-điển giản yếu. Nhà xuất bản Văn hoá Thông tin. pp. 281, 900.
  10. ^ Nguyễn, Tài Cẩn (1995). Giáo trình lịch sử ngữ âm tiếng Việt (sơ thảo). Nhà xuất bản Giáo dục. p. 47.
  11. ^ David G. Marr Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945 1984 p141 "Because the Chinese characters were pronounced according to Vietnamese preferences, and because certain stylistic modifications occurred over time, later scholars came to refer to a hybrid 'Sino-Vietnamese' (Han-Viet) language. However, there would seem to be no more justification for this term than for a Fifteenth Century 'Latin-English' versus the Latin written contemporaneously in Rome."
  12. ^ Nguyễn, Khuê (2009). Chữ Nôm: cơ sở và nâng cao. Nhà xuất bản Đại học Quốc gia Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh. pp. 5, 215.
  13. ^ Hugh Dyson Walker East Asia A New History −2012 Page 262 "...chu nom, Vietnamese transcription, using Chinese and nom characters for Vietnamese sounds."
  14. ^ Hannas, Wm. C. (1997). Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. p. 82. The linguistic defects are the same as those noted throughout this book for Chinese characters generally, caused by the large number of tokens (some twenty thousand in chữ nôm), the arbitrariness of their composition, and the inconsistent way the units and their components connect with the sounds of the language.
  15. ^ Trần, Văn Chánh (January 2012). "Tản mạn kinh nghiệm học chữ Hán cổ". Suối Nguồn, tập 3&4. Nhà xuất bản Tổng hợp Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh: 82.
  16. ^ Eva Hung, Judy Wakabayashi Asian translation traditions 2005 Page 174 "A large portion of the lexicon of the Vietnamese language in recent centuries derives from Hán. Consequently, there is a significant orthographic overlap between Hán and Nôm, which is to say that many characters are used in both with the same meaning. This is primarily a lexical, not a syntactic, phenomenon, although Hán grammar did influence Nôm prose to a relatively significant extent (Xtankevich 1986)"
  17. ^ Cœdès, George (1966). The Making of South East Asia. Translated by H. M. Wright. University of California Press. p. 87. No work of literature from the brush of a Vietnamese survives from the period of Chinese rule prior to the rise of the first national dynasties; and from the Dinh, Former Le, and Ly dynasties, all that remains are some poems by Lac Thuan (end of the tenth century), Khuong Viet (same period), and Ly Thuong Kiet (last quarter of the eleventh century). Those competent to judge consider these works to be quite up to the best standards of Chinese literature.
  18. ^ Nick Ray; Yu-Mei Balasingamchow (2010). Lonely Planet Vietnam. Sino-Vietnamese literature was written in Chinese characters (chữ nho). Dominated by Confucian and Buddhist texts, it was governed by strict rules of metre and verse. Modern Vietnamese literature (quoc am) includes anything recorded in ...
  19. ^ Woodside, Alexander Barton (1971). Vietnam and the Chinese Model. p. 53. Although traditional Vietnamese scholars called Sino-Vietnamese literature 'serious literature' and nôm literature 'the literature of pleasure', this dichotomy is obviously misleading.
  20. ^ "Viện nghiên cứu Hán nôm". Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  21. ^ Bjarke Frellesvig A History of the Japanese Language 2010 – Page 258 "... the rendition of Chinese text in Japanese, which affected grammar and usage (see 9.1) and (kanbun-)ondoku, the vocalization of Chinese text as such, which paved the way for the intake of a large number of loanwords from Chinese (9.2).
  22. ^ Nichibunken newsletter Kokusai Nihon Bunka Kenkyū Sentā 1996 – No23–36 – Page 52 "The novel was then translated from Chinese into Vietnamese by a Vietnamese revolutionist. Knowledge of kanbun (classical Chinese) was quite common among Vietnamese intellectuals, and the new kanbun style of Liang Zhi-chau ..."
  23. ^ Hannas, Wm. C. (1997). Asia's Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. p. 77. Sifting out Sinitic from native vocabulary is more of a problem in Vietnamese than in Japanese or even in Korean because of the longer history of contact between Chinese and Vietnamese, and because of the intimacy (most Vietnamese would...) Vietnam was under Chinese 'suzerainty'... During this long period, the Vietnamese language itself was overshadowed and to some extent replaced by Chinese, opening the door to thousands of Chinese terms...
  24. ^ Language research – Seoul University Language Research Centre 1990 – Volume 26 – Page 327 "The term Sinoxenic dialects was first used by Samuel Martin to refer to the foreign readings of Chinese characters, such as Sino-Korean, Sino-Japanese, and Sino- Vietnamese. By Sino-Korean, Sino- Japanese, and Sino- Vietnamese, ..."
  25. ^ John R. Bentley A Descriptive Grammar of Early Old Japanese Prose 2001 – Page 39 "... (1975:195, fn. 3) and his reconstructions, but it is interesting to note that Pulleyblank's work actually supports Miller's claims. ... to have been one of the first linguists to notice the importance of SV in reconstructing earlier stages of Chinese."
  26. ^ Laurence C. Thompson A Vietnamese Reference Grammar University of Hawaii Press 1965 revised 1987 Page 53 "Chữ nôm apparently existed for several centuries alongside the standard written Chinese of the royal court (called chữ nho 'scholar's characters' or chữ Hán 'Han [i.e., Chinese] characters')."
  27. ^ Ha Minh Nguyen, Bac Hoai Tran, Tuan Duc Vuong Colloquial Vietnamese: The Complete Course for Beginners Routledge 2012 Page 3 "Because of thousands of years of Chinese domination and influence, the Vietnamese used Chinese characters known as chu nho as their official written language for many centuries. However chu nho was not easy to learn and only the ..."
  28. ^ D. W. Sloper, Thạc Cán Lê Higher Education in Vietnam: Change and Response 1995 Page 45 "All teaching materials are written in Han, Chinese classical characters known as chu nho. From about the thirteenth century a Vietnamese system of writing, chu nom or simply nom, was developed. ... chu nho was used for official business and scholarship, while chu nom was used for popular literature."
  29. ^ "Quoc-ngu | Vietnamese writing system". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  30. ^ Andrew Simpson Language and national identity in Asia 2007 Page 428 "..there existed a situation in which there were briefly four different available writing systems in Vietnam, chu nho, chu nom, quoc ngu, and Romanized French. ... (4) The acceptability of quoc ngu was then further heightened by its use to translate works of literature from Chinese and chu nom, as well as through its ..."
  31. ^ Simon Eliot, Jonathan Rose A Companion to the History of the Book – Page 124 2009 "The first publication in quoc ngu was the first Vietnamese newspaper, Gia-dinh báo (Daily Paper, 1865), ... During World War I, the colonial administration encouraged quoc ngu journalism for propaganda purposes, and as a result journals"
  32. ^ Vietnam Economic Times Volume 98 – Page 14 Viện kinh tế thế giới (Vietnam) "Today calligraphy is considered one of their most respected art forms. Vietnam also has a long history of calligraphy, but in its earliest form it was called Han Nom, a way of using the Chinese characters to convey Vietnamese words."
  33. ^ Simon Eliot, Jonathan Rose A Companion to the History of the Book Page 124 – 2011 "Since the use of quoc ngu for education has rendered most Vietnamese now incapable of reading earlier Vietnamese ... an increasing commitment to the publication of translations from Chinese or of transcriptions from nom texts to render ..."
  34. ^ E. M. Nathanson Dirty Distant War 1987 Page 121 "So they took the Chinese ideographs for those words, changed them a little to make them distinctive from the Chinese characters, and in that way developed a written language. That's the script that became what we refer to today as chữ nho."
  35. ^ "委班復生漢喃越南 (ủy ban phục sinh hán nôm việt nam)". Retrieved 2019-04-13.
  36. ^ "让墨文——用以记录各种语言、方言的汉字笔划特征的多功能文字". Retrieved 2019-04-13.

External linksEdit