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The greatest encyclopedist and the first bibliographer of ancient
Viet Nam
(1726 - 1784)

Le Quy Don

The memory of this scholar lives on in the plethora of his anecdotes that have been passed down from generation to generation. People still recall his precocious intelligence and his presence of mind, which enabled him to improvise poems according to the rigorous Tang metres, and to juggle with subtle classical parallel sentences.

His prodigious reputation is perhaps best sanctified by the following story. While en route to China, an embassy mission that included Le Quy Don was caught in a typhoon and was forced to stay in a local village for several days. To kill time, Le Quy Don leafed through a notebook containing the debts owed by the clients of the inn. On his way back from China, Le Quy Don was sad to see that a fire had destroyed the inn. The innkeeper complained that dozens of his debtors had not paid him because his debt book had been burnt in the blaze. To the innkeeper’s surprise and delight, Le Quy Don was able to recall the names of all the debtors.

Le Quy Don lived in the 18th century, a century shaken by peasant uprisings and torn by the rivalry between the shogunal lords, Trinh and Nguyen. While the feudal system had reached its climax at that time, the era’s political and social effervescence had helped develop a brilliant culture. This culture found its expression in magnificent architectural and sculptural productions, popular poetic works in Nom scripts and a rich literature to which Le Quy Don made significant contributions.

Le Quy Don, whose pseudonym was Que Duong, was a native of Dien Ha village in present-day Thai Binh Province. Born into a scholar’s family, he was already a prodigy in his childhood. When he was five years old he began classical studies, which he diligently continued until the age of 14.

While at the university, he was crowned with many honors: at 18 he was dubbed the first laureate of a provincial literary competition; and at 27, the first laureate of the capital city’s competition and a royal palace competition under the title Bang nhan (second-grade Doctor of the first degree). The first-grade title Doctor of the first degree (Trang nguyen) was still in store. He worked at the Royal Academy and took part in writing its official historiography. In 1760, he was sent on an embassy mission to China where the great northern scholars were impressed by his vast cultural knowledge.

Tired of the intrigues of the court, he withdrew from public life and only came back in 1767 under the title of Lord Trinh Sam (1762-1782). He came to hold a number of important offices at the ministries of war, finance and public works. However, he distinguished himself first and foremost as the rector of the National University (Quoc Tu Giam, situated in Van Mieu – the Temple of Literature in Ha Noi) and the Director of the Bureau of Annals.

His candour and energy found him many enemies in the court; he knew of several moral lapses in the course of his carrier. He died while holding the post of assistant governor (Hiep Tran) of Nghe An. Being a prominent statesman, Le Quy Don has drafted a great number of bills. He also commanded troops on several occasions to quash interior rebellions.

Le Quy Don is an encyclopeadist spirit endowed with an amazing capacity to produce quality scholarship. His monumental work, only a part of which has been preserved, encompasses history, geography, economy, philosophy and customs. They comprise commentaries and exegesis of Chinese classics, literary anthologies and his own prose and verse creations.

Le Quy Don’s work is a very precious documentary source on ancient Viet Nam. Through reading and voyages, he has acquainted himself with and enquired into oriental works. As a result, he compiled a number of works in various fields. These include encyclopaedic works, such as Kien Van Tieu Luc (Small Collection of Things Seen and Heard) and Van Dai Loai Ngu (Various Texts Written While Examining My Library). His historical works include Dai Viet Thong Su (General History of Dai Viet or Viet Nam) and Phu Bien Tap Luc (Monograph of Thuan Hoa and Quang Nam Provinces). His bibliographical works include Toan Viet Thi Luc (Anthology of Poems of Viet Nam), while his philosophical work includes Thu Kinh Dien Nghia (Explanations on Confucius’s Book of Annals).

sources: Huu Ngoc