Translator's notes

Prison Diary

By Ho Chi Minh

In August, 1942, a middle-aged Vietnamese gentleman ordered a set of business cards from a Hanoi printer. The cards were to be printed in Chinese. In one corner, they gave his profession as ‘Press Correspondent’; in another, his nationality (‘Chinese, resident in Vietnam’); and in the centre, his name: “Hồ Chí Minh”. All three pieces of information were false. 

He intended the visiting cards as his travelling documents for a short trip into China – he was hoping to meet both with the wartime government of China, led by Lin Seng, and also with its Communist opponents, led by Mao Zedong. With both groups, his intention was to make common cause against the Japanese, carrying with him the fraternal greetings of the Vietminh. 

He estimated that the trip would take him four to five weeks. In the event, he never succeeded in meeting any Chinese political leaders, because he was arrested on suspicion of spying shortly after crossing the border. He would spend the next thirteen months being frogmarched between southern Chinese prisons, an experience that forms the subject of his prison diaries.

Like so many aspects of his life, the reason for his arrest remains unclear. It seems that the police had received a tip-off that this self-styled ‘Press Correspondent’ was really Nguyễn Ái Quốc, a well-known communist who had been active in the 1920s. The man they had arrested physically resembled Quốc, and was roughly the age that Quốc would have been, had he lived – but the problem was that Quốc had reportedly died in a Hong Kong jail in 1932.
The truth is that Nguyễn Ái Quốc was simply another alias of the man now calling himself Hồ Chí Minh. (He was born with the name Nguyễn Sinh Cung.) The British, who had arrested him in June 1931, but who had evidently taken a liking to the man they believed was a Communist agitator, announced his death in order to protect him from extradition to French Indochina – they then released him quietly a few months later.
Ironically, his Chinese incarceration was also to end in a false death. The Vietminh representative charged with asking after his whereabouts was told by the Chinese authorities ‘chu lou’ (‘he has already been released’) but the agent understood this as ‘shi lou’ (‘he is already dead’). This meant that Hồ Chí Minh finally arrived back in Vietnam a few weeks after his own funeral, with his personal belongings already divided up by the mourners. 

The name he had chosen for the trip – ‘Hồ Chí Minh’ – would become the name under which he was made President of Vietnam, a post he held from the country’s declaration of independence in 1945 until his death from a heart attack in 1969, at the age of 79. After the fall of Saigon in 1974, Vietnam’s largest city was renamed in his honour, and to this day he is known to millions of Vietnamese affectionately as ‘Uncle Ho’. 

The name is sometimes translated as ‘Ho who brings enlightenment’, since ‘Chí’ can mean ‘from the heart’ and ‘minh’ can mean ‘enlightenment’ – but it seems more likely that he chose the name simply to link himself more firmly with the political grouping he represented, the Vietminh. The word ‘minh’ is the Vietnamese equivalent of the Mandarin Chinese word ‘ming’, as in the dynasty (the Brilliant Dynasty) and also as in Qing Ming (the Festival of Brightness). But the word ‘minh’ also forms part of the Vietnamese phrase ‘minh hội’ which literally means ‘bright society’ but which also happens to be the usual expression for a formal association or league, so that the Việt Nam Ðộc Lập Ðồng Minh Hội (the longer form for the name of the party) can be translated simply as the League for the Independence of Vietnam. 

The prison diaries themselves remain one of the bestselling titles in twenty-first century Vietnam. They consist of 114 Chinese quatrains. Anything Hồ Chí Minh had written in Vietnamese, with its modified Roman script, would have been seized as proof of his spying, and so he wrote instead in Chinese characters, mostly in regular quatrains, so that his scribblings could be passed off as harmless poetry. 

The best-known English version of the diary is by Đặng Thế Bình, and forms one third of the popular trilingual edition published by Thế Giới Publishers. This pocket-sized paperback presents the Chinese original alongside renderings into Vietnamese and English (and also forms the basis for my own reassembling of Hồ Chí Minh’s diary). It assembles the quatrains into 73 separate poems – short haiku-like observations on the poet’s life in and between prisons. While this trilingual presentation is at once an invaluable resource and a formidable publishing feat, to this reader at least it makes the diary feel even more fragmentary than it already is. 

I have aimed to draw the strands and themes of the diary into a coherent whole, and one that makes the complete narrative of Hồ Chí Minh’s Chinese imprisonment much easier to follow. Few of the fragments are dated, although internal evidence can enable us to supply a few of the missing dates. (Wendell Willkie’s two-week visit to China began on 28 September 1942, for example, while the Qing Ming festival would have been 5 April 1943.) My hope is that this reworking of the diary into sixteen thematically-linked sections will help give a more rounded picture of the man who made such a powerful impact on twentieth century history – a man described by one of his US recruiters as ‘an awfully sweet fellow’. 

A few months after his release from the Chinese prison system, Hồ Chí Minh was given the codename ‘Lucius’ as he became Agent 19 of the OSS, the forerunner to the CIA, and coordinated Vietnamese resistance to Japanese occupation. After defeating the Japanese, he was dismayed to find that the West refused to accept Vietnamese independence. He would spend the rest of his life leading his country’s struggle against occupation by first the French, and then the Americans. These prison diaries testify to the charm and compassion that would make their writer such a charismatic leader, but also to the resilience that would make him a formidable foe.

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