I recently came across a poem in Chinese that was written by Yan Jieren 嚴杰人 in 1943 called “The Annam Maiden” (Annan Nulang 安南女郎). Yan Jieren was a writer and journalist from Guangxi who joined the Communist underground in 1940.

The poem is about a woman that Yan Jieren saw at the China-Vietnam border. From some of the points that Yan Jieren made (that she was apparently wearing a blue turban, for instance), it appears that his “Annam maiden” was probably the member of what would today be called an “ethnic minority” group.

However, to Yan Jieren, this woman represented “Annam” to him, and seeing her stimulated a lot of thoughts in his mind.

The poem below was published in a journal called Literary Creation (Wenxue chuangzuo 文學創作, [2 卷, 1期, 97-8]). I have some points to make about it, but I’ll present the poem in its entirety first, and offer some comments below.

1

At the border,

I saw you.

Examining you with a discrete eye,

I observed your half-naked body.

The blue on your head is like a Frenchman’s eyes,

Azure like the firmament.

Living on the red earth of Asia’s tropics,

The protrusions of your body,

Form an S-shaped line,

Like the appearance of your fatherland on maps.

Your comportment,

Made me think of,

A coconut tree, like those in your village.

Your body,

Stands as naked as the trunk of a coconut tree,

And it has the same color as the trunk of a coconut tree as well.

Your hair,

Is lush and luxuriant like the leaves of a coconut tree.

Those two fruit-bearing breasts,

Hanging in front of your chest,

Are also like two unripe coconuts on a tree.

2

Like your sisters,

You also chew betel nut,

And let it darken your red lips,

And dye black your white teeth.

You all stubbornly maintain,

This preference of your race,

As if you were maintaining the blood of your race.

Is this to make yourselves so that,

You do not forget your race?

Oh!

You also sang,

Sounding painful, like one who has suffered a wrong.

It twisted your throat,

And made your happiness turn to sorrow,

And made your singing sound like crying.

Listening to the mournful sound of your singing,

It was as if at the same time I heard,

The cries of,

That Red River that flows with the blood of your men,

And that Mekong River that flows with the tears of you women.

3

And I,

When you sang,

(which is also when you cried)

I cried,

Because the sound of your singing,

(which is also the sound of your crying)

Infected me with an irrepressible,

Profound sense of sorrow.

Oh, Annam maiden!

You surely know that,

My race and your race,

Both carry the burden of the same weight of hardship.

My country and your country,

Both suffer from the same ruthless treatment.

You surely also know that,

Your pain and sorrow,

Is also my pain and sorrow.

We are both plants growing on a piece of land,

That has been set on fire,

While a windstorm blows over it.

How can we not but look at each other and wail?

4

For half a century,

China, Annam, Burma, Siam,

As well as Korea and India,

Have been forced to travel along,

A road as difficult to walk over as a bed of needles.

Asia,

This specific term,

Has been transformed by the invaders,

Into a synonym for “humiliation.”

Now,

The time to overthrow the invaders has arrived.

China has been the first to raise up,

The banner of resistance.

Over there on the other side of the Himalayas,

Our Indian brothers,

Have sounded the call to arms.

Dear Annam maiden,

Did you hear this?

5

We Asians of this generation,

Have received a mission from the Thearch on High [Shangdi/ Thượng đế],

To engage in battle with the invaders.

And for those of us in this world,

It is only through struggle,

That each Asian’s life,

Can gain the value of existence.

Therefore,

Let each of us Asians,

All exist for the sake of struggle.

My dear Annam maiden,

Even the plentiful milk inside the breasts.

Of you and your sisters,

Only flows in order to nourish struggle in the next generation.

Today,

Let each of us Asians,

Loudly make our pledge:

Let the places where the arteries of the Himalayas pass through,

Be filled with good fortune and happiness,

And that the universe that we can see from the peak of the world,

As we stand on Mount Everest,

Also be filled with happiness and freedom.

6

One point that I find fascinating about this poem is the way that it combines a Pan-Asian call for unity with a somewhat derogatory and Sino-centric view of the Vietnamese.

Yan Jieren used the “Annam maiden” as a symbol for Annam/Vietnam. And what did that symbol look like? Well. . . she was half-naked, chewing betel nut with teeth dyed black and a curvaceous body that featured well-rounded breasts. . .

Now let’s pause and think for a moment. . . When your average male reader of Literary Creation read this poem in 1943, what, if anything, might have inspired him? Was it the passionate call for a Pan-Asian struggle against the invaders?

Or was it thoughts of another kind of passion that the image of “the coconut girl” evoked?

Ultimately, I think this poem is a great example of the conflict between two forces that are probably much more powerful than “invaders” and “resisters” – idealism and reality. The call for Pan-Asian unity might have sounded nice, but it had to deal with many other ideas that were more deeply ingrained in local societies.