Revolutionary poet To Huu was born on October 4, 1920 in the imperial capital city of Hue as Nguyen Kim Thanh. Despite being poor, his family was quite artistic. His father was good at writing poems and his mother was well-known in the region as a singer of traditional songs.
To Huu was brought up in a creative family environment, and started writing poetry at the age of six under the supervision of his father.
At the age of 12, his mother died and a year later, To Huu went to Quoc Hoc – Hue High School. It was there that he started to learn about the plight of his country and Communist ideology. To Huu soon became a leader in the Democratic Youth League in Hue and in 1938 he was admitted to the Indochinese Communist Party.
In April 1939, To Huu was arrested by the French colonial authorities and detained in several prisons in the central region, including at prisons in the Tay Nguyen Central Highlands. Despite the harsh conditions in jail, To Huu maintained his revolutionary spirit and convictions. Together with other prison inmates, in March 1942 he escaped and continued his revolutionary activities under the enemy’s hot pursue before successfully contacting a Party organisation operating in Thanh Hoa Province.
Three years later, in August 1945, To Huu was elected as the Chairman of an Insurrection Committee in Hue. A year later, when the anti-French Resistance War broke out (in late 1946), he was sent back to Thanh Hoa in the position as the Provincial Party Committee Secretary. In 1947, once again, To Huu was asked to serve in a new position – this time as the manager of arts and culture activities of the Ho Chi Minh government following the victory of the August revolution in 1945.
To Huu’s development as a poet and his revolutionary activities were intertwined. His poems were first carried in newspapers produced by the Democratic Front and his work reflected a new voice in the contemporary poetry scene at that time in Viet Nam.
To Huu wrote poems for the people. He wrote about subjects that were close to the hearts of ordinary people, and much of his work explored the anguished and hard life of his fellow countrymen who lived under the yoke of the French colonialists and their henchmen. To Huu was considered Viet Nam’s first Communist poet, and he also breathed new life into poetry and the development of arts in the country. People even considered him a pace setter when it came to political prose. The big differences between To Huu’s poems and those of others were the progressive ideology and his understanding of the injustice and destitute life of Vietnamese people, particularly those living in urban areas. In his poems, To Huu expressed his sorrow for the poor people’s plight, while instilling in his readers the will to fight against injustice and brutality and nurturing a confidence in brighter future and the success of the revolution. In his poem Hai Dua Tre (Two Children), To Huu was successful in depicting the two contrasting lives of a child from a rich landlord’s family and a child servant.
Dua ngay ngat trong phong xanh mat ruoiDay ngua nga, day linh thoi ken TayDua kia them, giuong mat dung nhin ngayKhong dam toi, e don roi, tieng chui
(A child lives in a life of plenty
With abundant toys made in the west
While the other child is an onlooker
Watching silently from far away)
Poet To Huu, at the height of his political career as the Deputy Prime Minister, meets with representatives of the Viet Nam Theatre Association in 1983.
During the war for national salvation, To Huu used his pen to condemn the decadent feudal regime supported by the French, a system that had driven the majority of the Vietnamese people into poverty and hunger. One of his most famous poems Tu Ay (Since Then) described his awakening to Communism as the moment when the “sun of truth shone on my heart”. Many people have described the poem as a trumpet call urging people to fight for their rights. On the other hand, the poem has been considered as words of comfort for unfortunate people:
Toi la con cua van nhaLa em cua van kiep phoi phaLa anh cua van dau em nhoKhong ao com cu bat cu bo
(I’m a son of tens of thousands of families
A younger brother of tens of thousands of withered lives
A big brother to tens of thousands of little children
Who are homeless and live in constant hunger)
A highlight in his poem is his praise of the indomitable spirit of Vietnamese freedom fighters:
Song chet co nhau cungKhong duoc xa hang nguKhong the gi quyen ruMua ban duoc luong tam
(We live and die together
Our lives bound together
Nothing can divide us apart
Our conscience cannot be bought or sold)
Following the resounding victory of the Dien Bien Phu battle over the French colonialists in 1954, once again To Huu had the chance to write about an important moment in his country’s history as it happened. By reading his poems throughout the years, one can trace the anti-French resistance movement from its beginning to it’s triumph. To Huu also voiced the Vietnamese people’s willingness to sacrifice everything for the homeland’s independence and freedom under the clear sighted leadership of President Ho Chi Minh.
Though the war of resistance was full of difficulties and hardship and millions of lives were lost, the people were still optimistic about the final victory – a driving force for the victory at Dien Bien Phu.
To Huu’s poems have not only depicted the magnanimity of the revolution, but also become slogans encouraging the fighters to surge ahead.
Xe doc Truong Son, di cuu nuocMa long phoi phoi day tuong lai
(Crossing the Truong Son mountain range for national salvation
We feel deep pride in our hearts)
It is said to that for a poem to be effective, the poet must have a sense of affection. For patriotic poems, the first criteria the poets must have is self abnegation to the revolution, the people and the nation.
In addition, they were required to be upright and resolute against cruelty and insincerity. All these characteristics have been reflected in To Huu’s poems.
According to To Huu, a good poem must meet certain criteria, including its ideological content and purely poetic and artistic elements. To Huu’s poems praise the Party, the revolution and his homeland, yet they are not dry or impersonal.
Trai tim anh chia ba phan tuoi doAnh danh rieng cho Dang phan nhieuPhan cho tho va phan de em yeu
(My heart is divided into three red parts
I dedicate the larger part to the party
One part for poetry and one part for my love)
According to the Thanh Nien (Youth) newspaper, To Huu once publicly proclaimed: “I’m both a revolutionary and a poet. For me, poems are a weapon for the revolution.”
After peace returned to North Viet Nam in 1954, To Huu held a number of senior government posts. He was the first Vietnamese person to have received the Southeast Asian Writers Award in 1966. He was elected as the alternate member of the Politburo in 1976 and appointed as a Deputy Prime Minister in 1980. He passed away on December 19, 2002.
To Huu’s works continue to be taught in schools throughout Viet Nam today, and it’s thanks to To Huu that politics can have a sense of poetry. As the famed Vietnamese poet Xuan Dieu once said: “To Huu was the one who successfully made politics into poetry.” — VNS
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