The Poem That Gave a Dissident Strength Before Imprisonment

Published April 27, 2015 in Episode 1

On the heels of his pending imprisonment in 2013, human rights lawyer Lê Quốc Quân wrote a letter and paired it with a beautiful poem written by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. This week’s Solitary Envoi features an English reading of this poem, along with snippets of a stylized, melodic Vietnamese reading.

As we investigate divergent perspectives on Loa, this poem reminds us of what unifies us – this spiritual concept of Tổ Quốc – our country or motherland. 

To give some context - one of the key themes of this poem is the issue of Chinese encroachment on the Paracel and Spratly Islands, Hoàng Sa and Trường Sa, a highly charged topic of Vietnamese Sovereignty. The line about crimson stained waters speak to lives lost on Việt Nam’s waters in protecting this sovereignty. 

Tổ Quốc, which can be translated as homeland, motherland, or in this reading – country - is by nature a spiritual term, something that is evoked in this poem. Nguyên Phan Quế Mai uses the term’s nature to bring us back to the point of nationalism, or better put, love of Việt Nam. Even the term nationalism within the conversation surrounding our war-torn history, is charged. Nationalism helped us fight off Chinese and French imperialism, but then we reach a complicated point in history when “nationalism” is the term that was used when we had Vietnamese brothers in arms against each other. To me, through all of the divergent perspectives and stances, it is this immeasurable connection to Việt Nam that provides a sense of clarity. 

Việt Nam’s past is anything but peaceful, but there’s a simple sense of peace in listening closely when My Country Calls on Me.

Below you can find the original Vietnamese text, the full melodic Vietnamese reading, as well as attorney Lê Quốc Quân’s letter.

Tổ Quốc Gọi Tên
by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Đêm qua tôi nghe Tổ Quốc gọi tên mình
Bằng tiếng sóng Trường Sa, Hoàng Sa dội vào ghềnh đá
Tiếng Tổ Quốc vọng về từ biển cả
Nên bão bố dập dồn chăng lưới bủa vây
Tổ Quốc của tôi, Tổ Quốc của tôi
Bốn nghìn năm chưa bao giờ ngơi nghỉ
Thắp lên ngọn đuốc Hòa Bình, 
Bao người đã ngã 
Máu của người nhuộm mặn sóng biển Đông
Ngày hôm nay kẻ lạ mặt rập rình
Chúng ngang nhiên chia cắt tôi và Tổ Quốc
Chúng dẫm đạp lên giang hình đất nước
Một tấc biển cắt rời vạn tấc đất đớn đau
Sóng chẳng còn bình yên dẫn lối những con tầu
Sóng cuộn đỏ máu những người đã mất
Sóng cuồn cuộn từ Nam chí Bắc.
Chín mươi triệu môi người thao thức tiếng Việt Nam
Chín mươi triệu người lấy thân mình chở che Tổ Quốc linh thiêng
Để giấc ngủ trẻ thơ bình yên trong bão tố
Ngọn đuốc Hòa Bình trên tay rực lửa
Tôi lắng nghe Tổ Quốc gọi tên mình
My Country Calls On Me
Last night I heard my country call my name
Through the waves of Trường Sa, Hoàng Sa reached ashore
The sea her harbinger
Crashing storms lay their siege
My Country, my Country
Four thousand restless years
In lighting the torch of Peace,
How many have fallen
Tides of the East Sea dyed deep with blood
Today, a stranger lurks
Intent to sever the ties of my Country and I
Trampling over this land of mine 
One inch of sea detached, pain ripples through the land.
Waves no longer peaceful to guide ships
Waters stained crimson by those who have passed
Tides roll from South to North
Việt Nam sits upon the lips of ninety million patriots
Ninety million protect this land with their bodies
Ensuring the innocent rest of children amidst this storm, 
The torch of Peace ablaze in hand
I listen closely as my Country calls my name 

**This is an unofficial translation of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s poem, by Trinh Nguyễn and Quyên Ngô.

Lê Quốc Quân’s letter

As a citizen of Việt Nam, I am always eager to see the growth of my country and the progress made by my people. I truly believe that only freedom and democracy can liberate our people and further the development of Việt Nam.
As a dissident lawyer, I may face harassment or even imprisonment.
Under the event that my freedom is compromised, I write this letter to present a number of points so that the truth cannot be distorted with inaccurate information.
  1. With my understanding of the law, I affirm that: my advocacy activities, my blogs and writing, and my words are well-intended and innocent under under Vietnamese and International law.
  2. My advocacy efforts are not to benefit any foreign country other than my own country, Việt Nam. I work to help contribute my part in the formation of a civil society, stimulating a widespread people’s movement emerging with the aspirations of the people, through democratic institutions and non-violent tactics.
  3. I have repeatedly expressed my stance on the topics of freedom, democracy and human rights. I put forth my utmost efforts to protect these fundamental rights under all circumstances. However, if and when I am no longer free, any distorted information against my political views must be recognized as contrary to my core beliefs and principles. These baseless claims are thus irrelevant. 
  4. I welcome any challenges in my struggle as gifts that my Country has given me. I take full responsibility for all of my actions. To my friends and family, I would like to apologize for any of my shortcomings. But to use my actions to incriminate or use as evidence against anyone would be insubstantial. I reject all allegations and prejudice against those who are fighting for a renovated, prosperous, developed and democratic Việt Nam.
Personally, I have always believed in the aspirations and efforts of the Vietnamese people. I strongly believe that the day will come when we will live in a free and truly democratic society. A day when all Vietnamese people can express their views openly, with the rights to seek and pursue our happiness and success on this beloved homeland, Việt Nam.
Sincerely yours, 
Attorney Lê Quốc Quân