Let the love for Nom come naturally: Dr Nguyen To Lan

Monday, 2017-03-13 16:09:59
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Dr To Lan receives the Balaban Award for Young Scholars.
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NDO - Dr To Lan from the Institute of Sino-Nom Studies has been featured prominently as one of only a few young female researchers who have immersed themselves into the treasure trove of the forefathers’ language heritage to gain a deeper understanding of Vietnamese culture.

She shares her thoughts about the Nom script after being presented with the Balaban Award for Young Scholars for her contributions to the preservation of this ancient Vietnamese writing system.

Q: You seem to be very excited about the “young” aspect of the award recently given to you?

A: Yes but by “young”, I don’t want to focus on age or generation. In my thoughts and in my work, I am not thinking about Nom characters but I am thinking with them. It determines the existence of Nom characters in me and the script is living, alive with my reality, not a mere spark of glory from a distant time in the past. That is partly what I mean by “young”. If you look at Nom characters as something traditional, they are unlikely to survive.

Q: But for many people, the Nom script is something elusive, a concept difficult to access and understand, why do you think people should learn about this ancient writing system?

A: You could never expect all Vietnamese to have a broad understanding or passion for the Nom script. It is natural that they will choose to learn English, not Nom characters, as it is more beneficial for their job. I think it unlikely that the Nom script could be once again as popular as it used to be in previous centuries, however, let people have their own choice and discover the ancient Vietnamese script for themselves. If they see the script as of benefit, they will come to understand it via a wide variety of means under appropriate circumstances. That is how Nom characters should exist today.

Covers of the Tale of Kieu originally written in Nom characters

Q: What do you think should be done to make people feel that Nom is necessary?

A: First we should not rush to tell everyone that Nom is interesting and beautiful or try to make them appreciate the script’s value but we should try to make it more appealing and let people raise their own questions about it. Whether this approach will work or not depends on how we bring Nom characters to the community.

At home I tell my child about the Nom script in an amusing way and explain some characters to them. When she found the Tam Tu Kinh (Three-Character Classic), she liked Nom characters in the book very much and wrote the sentence Con yêu mẹ (I love you, mum) in Nom characters. I didn’t mean to entice her into the script, but in the future if she still has an interest in it, she will have the opportunity to learn more about it.

For me, Nom is a tool, a vehicle to step into the national culture, a large and long-standing part of which was written in Nom characters. My love for the Nom script also came about by accident and was not something forced upon me.

Q: Could you give some details about how your affinity developed?

A: When I was in high school, my maths teacher once wrote the names of some of my classmates in Chinese characters and everyone in the classroom became very interested. At that time I thought the characters were beautiful and wondered why I hadn’t known about them before. When I was admitted to college, I opted for the Sino-Nom programme of the Faculty of Letters at the Hanoi University of Social Sciences and Humanities without regard for other disciplines that may be more helpful to my future career. When Associate Professor Nguyen Kim Son, who would later become my lecturer, asked me what I studied this subject for, I confessed to him that I was not good at literature but I chose the subject because I loved history.

Over time, I was captivated by Nom characters when another of my mentors, Associate Professor Nguyen Van Thinh, sent me on a research trip to Hue to study a huge archive of documents about the tuong opera written in the Nom script for my thesis. I delved deeply into the records and later I had a chance to meet scholars both at home and abroad such as Professor Tran Van Khe, Professor Ho Tai Hue Tam and Professor Masaaki Shimizu, as well as experts of the Vietnamese Nom Preservation Foundation. Gradually I have become more conversant and throughout the journey, Chinese and Nom characters have been my companions.

Thank you very much!

Dr Nguyen To Lan is currently working at the Institute of Sino-Nom Studies. She has published many articles on Vietnamese and foreign magazines. She was a visiting scholar at the Harvard-Yenching Institute in the academic year 2013 - 2014 and a guest scholar at the Institute of Research in Humanities, Kyoto University in October, 2014. She has given lectures at universities in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and the USA.

What is Nom?

Nom is the ancient ideographic vernacular script of the Vietnamese language largely based on Chinese characters but is now no longer used. The earliest evidence of the Nom script is a stele erected in the early 13th century at the Bao An Temple (Temple of Gratitude) in Vinh Phuc province. Nguyen Du’s famous Tale of Kieu was originally composed in Nom characters.

Some Nom characters were directly borrowed from Chinese characters while some are created by combining two Chinese characters, with one denoting sound and the other meaning. With this method, a Vietnamese sound can be represented by several different ideographs depending on a writer’s own choice of the phonetic and semantic parts, making the Nom script even more complicated than Chinese characters.

Unlike in modern Chinese and Japanese, Nom characters have never been standardised and simplified, and were completely replaced by a script based on the Roman alphabet in the 20th century. Now efforts are being made to digitise huge archives of Nom documents and encode Nom characters on computers in order to preserve and promote Vietnam’s rich cultural, literary and historical heritage.