The Scholar and the Moral Compass

Apropos of the children's book The Sea Scholar by Khái Hưng


Hien V. Ho


1) “Corruption is rife and it is well known that degrees and titles can be purchased. University personnel systems are opaque and promotion is too often based on nonscholastic criteria such as seniority, family and political background, and personal connections.”

Thomas J. Vallely and Ben Wilkinson, Harvard Kennedy School, in: ‘Vietnamese Higher Education: Analysis and Response’ (November 2008)

2) “Nowhere are the four virtues of diligence, efficiency, honesty, integrity, more needed than in education and science. An education and science system that lacks these moral principles will, of course, not function properly and, sooner or later, will stagnate.”

Professor Hoang Tuy, mathematician, widely regarded as one of the most accomplished Vietnamese scientists of the 20th century.

3) “Money reigns; a life style based on profit making, pragmatism, the cult of material values, consumer’s products and hedonism, the rise of extreme individualism has encroached on and eroded intellectual values, destroyed morals and human characters.”

The Vietnamese Institute of Social Sciences (in Current state of our country’s social morals: Problems and solutions) (3)

4) “It is not a coincidence that today, in discussions about intellectuals made in the press inside of the country (Vietnam) or overseas, an echo and a faint shadow from the past keep coming back to haunt us: the conduct of the intellectual-scholar. “Old-fashioned Confucians” indeed, but they were Confucians who dared hold up their face and look up at heaven, and speak the voice of their conscience... Vietnam’s misfortune is , at the threshold of the 21st century, after more than a hundred years, generations have still to look back to the past to find a model that they know they themselves  have not  reached, for example in the aspect of taking  responsibility.”

“The truth is that, today, our country does not have an intelligentsia, although we had and still have many excellent specialists, a certain number of dauntless but isolated intellectuals.”

Phạm Trọng Luật (10-5-2009) (4)


Now more than ever, it is clear that as Vietnam is entering a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, there is a moral crisis that most severely affects the educated class. There is a huge vacuum left behind as different, sometimes successive sets of values making up the Vietnamese moral culture were discarded. Traditional morality  (mainly Confucian) was replaced by Western culture, then ‘petit bourgeois’ mores and religious beliefs were purged by communism, and finally revolutionary  and socialist ideologies were  thrown away in light of ‘renovation’ and globalization.

From Vietnamese intellectuals’ writings and discussions , one can feel a sense of disorientation, of desperation about a moral compass going south, and paradoxically, even a certain nostalgia about an era before independence (1945), before the two wars (the so called “French” and “American” wars), before the communists came to the South in 1975 and before their renovation (“đổi mới”) of 1986.

Author Vũ Anh Tuấn is a case in point (1). In Reminiscences about  60 years of collecting books (Hồi ký 60 năm chơi sách), he tells about his joy when he finds a copy of a children’s book The Sea Scholar (Ông Đồ Bể) by Khái Hưng.

Khái Hưng is the alias of  Nguyễn Khánh Giư, was a native of Hải Dương Province (North Vietnam). He contributed to several periodicals (Phong Hoá and Ngày Nay) and produced numerous works of fictions. His most well known works are Nửa Chừng Xuân,  Hồn Bướm Mơ Tiên, Anh Phải Sống and Đời Mưa Gió ( the last two with Nhất Linh). In 1939 he became active in politics, specifically with other nationalists against the French. Finally, in 1947 he was killed by the Việt Minh for his affiliation with the Đại Việt Party(2). Khái Hưng is more famous for his romantic short stories and novels in modern and concise Vietnamese than for his children’s books (known as “Sách Hồng” (Pink Books), among them: Cái ấm đất [The Terra Cotta Kettle], Cây tre trăm đốt [The one hundred knot bamboo tree]).

Figure 1 : The original cover (picture from Vu Anh Tuan's article)

Figure 2 : “This book was printed into 10000 copies, date of completion June 30, 1939,

at the Printing House Ngày Nay,

80, Quan- Thánh, Hanoi”

Vũ Anh Tuấn read The Ocean Scholar for the first time in 1945 at the age of ten. He said he loved the book for the interesting story and for the lessons in morality intended for young people. In 1974, a book dealer gave him a copy of the same book and suggested that he translate it into English. He read it more thoroughly the second time and had a greater appreciation for the depth of the story. Unfortunately, in light of the arrival of the communists in April 1975, he never had the opportunity to write a translation. Recently, at the age of 72, he rediscovered the book while witnessing the loss of academic and intellectual values in his country:

“This time, he wrote, holding the book in my hands, and reminiscing about my childhood, I spent one hour reading it for the third time and, strangely, I appreciate it even more so than I did when I was planning to translate it 30 years before. Is it because at an age triple the number of my 24 youthful years, the experiences that I have lived through have allowed me to understand how my preferred  episodes of the story are so useful to any young person starting to experience life, as well as to any adult who wants to live with strength, pride and honesty.”

Author Vu Anh Tuan was so enthralled by his new-found trove that he included a large part of the 28 page short story in his memoir, which was then posted online (1). That is how I found my (partial) copy of my favorite childhood story that I used to read over and over again when I was ten years old. For me, it is a wonderful trip back to the innocence and idealism of youth. I want to share it with young Vietnamese now who are likely more inclined to watch a movie about a superhero or cartoons than an old tale about an honest Confucian scholar. I also dedicate this tentative translation and adaptation to people of the older generations, not to them as grownups but to their former selves as children (to paraphrase Saint Exupery in his dedication of “The Little Prince”, as many grownups may argue that life would be less bearable without prayers and even a few lies).

In the following English version, paragraphs in italics are reconstructions based on my memory about the original story by Khái Hưng. The remaining is based on the Vietnamese version quoted by Vũ Anh Tuấn in his book, without which this article could not have been written.   

Hien V. Ho


(2) Danny J. Whitfield, Historical and Cultural Dictionary of Vietnam

(3) “Đồng tiền lên ngôi, lối sống vụ lợi, vị kỷ, thực dụng, tôn thờ các giá trị vật chất, các tiện nghi tiêu dùng và hưởng lạc, sự trỗi đậy của chủ nghĩa cá nhân cực đoan... đã lấn át và làm xói mòn các giá trị tinh thần, làm hủy hoại đạo đức, nhân cách … Đạo đức của người thầy giáo và người thầy thuốc bị xâm phạm, làm vẩn đục, hoen ố các quan hệ con người, làm tha hóa nghiêm trọng con người, đạo đức và nhân cách. (Đạo Đức Xã Hội ở nước ta hiện nay: vấn đề và giải pháp” của Viện Khoa Học Xã Hội Việt Nam) quoted by Phạm việt Hưng in “Đâu là lời giải của bài toán đạo đức” (

(4)Không phải tình cờ mà ngày nay, trong các cuộc bàn luận về trí thức trên báo chí trong và ngoài nước, một tiếng vang và một bóng mờ của quá khứ vẫn hiện về ám ảnh: tác phong kẻ sĩ. «Hủ nho» thật đấy, song đây lại là loại hủ nho còn dám ngẩng mặt nhìn trời, nói lên tiếng nói của lương thức... Ðiều bất hạnh cho Việt Nam là, trước ngưỡng cửa của thế kỷ thứ 21, các thế hệ sau của cả 100 năm sau vẫn còn phải quay nhìn về quá khứ để tìm lại một mẫu mực mà bản thân mình tự biết chưa đạt đến, dưới khiá cạnh trách nhiệm chẳng hạn!

Sự thật là, ngày nay, đất nước Việt Nam chúng ta không còn có một tầng lớp trí thức (một «intelligentsia»), dù vẫn có và còn nhiều những chuyên gia xuất sắc, một số trí thức bất khuất nhưng lẻ loi.”

Nguyễn Trọng Luật, in Góp phần xây dựng một thái độ văn hóa từ góc nhìn của thành tố Phật giáo, xem lại bản "đề cương văn hóa" (1943) (

Figure 3 : A scholar-candidate with his accessories

Figure 4 : A candidate’s camp bed and its canopy (Hà Nam Center, 1912)

The Sea Scholar

(Adapted from Ông Đồ Bể by Khái Hưng)

People called him the Sea Scholar, not because he lived by the sea but because of his knowledge that was supposed to be as vast as the sea.

“Already twenty-four years old, with his belongings wrapped up in a bundle, his camp bed and its arched top, the scholar took the road to the capital city of the Ascending Dragon (Thăng Long), to take the interprovincial examination (*). On his way, he took a respite at an inn near an old temple. The inn keeper reminded him to take off his hat and bow his head when he walked by the temple, because the deity who resided there was very powerful. He smiled and said:

-In this blazing sun, it would be shame to catch a cold by taking off my hat.

The vendor fearfully glanced at him:

-Not as bad as being stricken dead by his Sainthood!

He calmly retorted:

-But has he stricken anyone?

In a low voice, the lady started to enumerate the magical deeds of the deity. Then she went on:

-I suppose you are bound for the examination with your camp bed and your sedge mat. You should buy some devotional sham gold and incense sticks and go to kowtow before his altar. Then, without fail, your name will appear on the list of successful candidates.

The scholar put forth a stern face and vehemently said:

-If one has studied rigorously then one must pass the exam. If not prepared, then one should wait until the next examination. A gentleman should never beg or kowtow to anyone for the purpose of passing an exam.

He then immediately paid for his drink and left.

In front of the temple, he paused to contemplate the old banyan tree, with its dense branches and leaves almost completely covering its moss-overgrown roof. On either side of the entrance, two clay statues with their red faces and their wide-open eyes seemed to stare at those passing by, raising their swords as if ready to slash someone. On the roadside, there was a stone with two engraved Chinese characters: “Dismount horse.”(**)

The scholar thought to himself:

-The sign says ‘dismount’, but I am not riding a horse. As far as taking off my hat and bowing my head, there is no mention of these things. Therefore, let me walk by in a dignified and poised manner. A gentleman is supposed to bear heaven above and tramp the earth below without arrogance but also without obsequious fear.”

The scholar calmly proceeded past the temple. After about ten steps, he heard a noise behind him and turned around. A man stood before him who dressed similarly to himself, also with a mat and a cot bed on his shoulder and holding his belongings in a bundle. Surprised, he asked:

-Are you going to the capital for the competition too?

-Yes, sir.

-I did not see you at the inn. Which road did you take?

-I just came out of the temple, the other man replied. This was true, for it was the deity himself who was disguised as a candidate to the exam.

The scholar asked:

-Why did you go to the temple?

-I went to pay my respects to the deity there so that he will help me successfully pass the exam with a high ranking. Because his sainthood is so propitious and willing to help, you will surely get what you pray for. However, those who disrespect him will be punished by death.

This was a threat from the deity, but the honest scholar was so naïve that he paid no heed. He even candidly asked a question which the deity considered as a provocation:

-The living and the dead belong to separate and different worlds, how can his sainthood strike dead any living human?

-But he has his magical power.

 The deity hesitated but then went on:

-When I was in the temple, it appeared to me that you did not take off your hat, nor bow your head when you walked by.

-Yes, that is true. I meant no disrespect toward the deity. It is sunny and I must wear a hat.  Furthermore, our heads are made to be held straight at the top of our necks, there is no reason to bend them to the side or to bow them down. Only cowards and the dishonest, without self-respect or a clear conscience, have to fear and be obsequious.

The deity smiled sarcastically:

-So it is clear that you are an honest man with a clear conscience?

The scholar was not offended and answered calmly:

-I only know that in my life I never lied once and never did anything illegal. As to whether I am honest or whether my conscience is clear, in fact I cannot brag about my honesty or my clear conscience.

The deity thought to himself:  You say that you have never lied nor done anything illegal. I will follow you and wait until you lie just once, or do one thing illegal, and then I will punish you. I will strike you dead so that your soul cannot hold any grudge against me, and cannot drag me to the tribunal of the Underworld.”

From then on, the deity was always at the scholar’s side. He used his magical power to create multiple compromising situations to entrap the scholar…However, in every situation, the scholar acted with such transparency, correctness and intelligence that, eventually, the deity had to give up.  Thereafter, his hate was replaced by love and admiration. He continued to follow the scholar, not as an enemy that he wanted to entrap, but to help and protect him.

Figure 5 : The jury of the examination/competition (from


In the Ascending Dragon City, while waiting before being secluded in the enclosed camp where the exam would take place, they overheard that the president of the jury was less than honest and without a bribe, it would be very difficult for any candidate to be successful. The scholar refused to believe this information, but   this corrupted practice actually did happen. The examiner found that the papers submitted by the scholar were marvelous but he was angry about being ignored by the stubborn candidate, so he put a failing grade on every one of his submissions. It was then that the deity intervened, used his supernatural power to change every “Fail” to “Excellent”, so that the scholar passed the whole four-step competition with the highest grade. The candidate that the corrupted president of the jury had intended to put on the top of the successful list was therefore demoted to the second rank, to the surprise of the president who had to refund twenty of the fifty silver teals that he had received as bribe. On the day of proclamation of the names of successful candidates, a large crowd came to watch with excitement. The beauties of the city of the Ascending Dragon jostled to catch a view of the new valedictorian. However the latter did not pay attention to any of the demoiselles, went straight to the mandarins, received the gown and the hat bestowed by the King and quickly left. Fearing that he might run short of traveling fund, the new laureate returned to his village the next day.

Figure 6 : Announcement of the names of successful candidates (Nam Định, 1897)

( by Nguyễn Tấn Lộc)


As the scholar walked by the temple, the deity went out to meet him.

-Greetings to the new bachelor of letters! (***)

The valedictorian assumed that his friend had failed the exam and then after hearing the news of his success had taken off furtively. He tried to offer him a few words of consolation:

-About the results in examinations, it is nothing more than a matter of fate. If you failed this exam, you only have to wait until the next one. For some one talented like you, there is nothing you should worry about!

-It was the first time that you lied. You are well aware that it takes an outstanding talent like you to be successful, so why do you have to console me with those frivolous niceties about fate?

The valedictorian smiled with him. The deity continued:

-But now, even if you told an innocent lie to a failed candidate to make him feel better, I would not try to punish you because you have become a very close friend of mine.

As the valedictorian was extremely surprised and clueless, the deity then told him the whole story, from the moment he walked by the temple to the announcement of his success at the exam. Then the deity disappeared. The valedictorian sadly thought to himself: “So, actually, I passed the exam thanks to the intervention of a deity. Then, my title of valedictorian would not have any value”. That thought did not leave his mind as he walked home alone, until he reached the entrance of his village. That is why, when people from the village came in drove with banners and parasols to greet him, he gestured them away, saying:

-Please go home. I did not pass the exam at all and there is no reason to escort me to the village. I still am your old sea scholar, gentlemen.”

Figure 7 : Entrance of a village in North Vietnam (Thổ Hà, Bắc Giang)

(courtesy Bùi Thế Tâm,

So the news about the scholar refusing his new title spread out quickly to reach the capital city. The King was so surprised by such an unprecedented display of honesty that he wanted to investigate the matter himself. The scholar was convened to the court and given the opportunity to explain his situation to the highest authority of the country. But then, the deity, so moved by the scholar’s unexpected decision, volunteered himself as an unchallenged witness in his favor in front of the King. The corrupted president of the jury was demoted and exiled to the most remote area of the kingdom. The King admired the scholar’s knowledge, character and wisdom so much that he gave him his most beautiful daughter and made him Prince Consort. At their wedding, the deity brought a special gift for the most honest groom on earth, a splendid diamond ring with its unique magic power: if its owner said a lie, it would disappear forever. The Scholar – Prince Consort loved his bride so much that he gave her the ring, putting it on her finger at the wedding ceremony. He was the happiest husband on earth because his wife would never dare lie to him for fear that the ring would go away.

Figure 8 : Reception of gowns and hats by the new laureates

Figure 9 : Royal banquet for the laureates

 (Fig. 3,4,5,6 from f


*Thi hương: According to Trần Trọng Kim in Việt Nam Sử Lược (Synopsis of Vietnamese History), under the Lý dynasty in 1075, took place the first exam called Tam trường (interprovincial competition, consisting of three steps) to select mandarins among scholar-candidates. It was the first exam in Vietnam, and 10 people were chosen. In 1076, Quốc tử giám (Royal/National College), the equivalent of a modern college was established. In 1086, a competition was established to select members to the National Academy (Hàn lâm viện). In 1232, under the Trần Dynasty, the first exam was created at the doctoral level (Thái Học Sinh/Tiến sĩ). Nguyễn Trãi (1380-1442), a military genius, poet and statesman, who helped Lê Lợi defeat the Ming Chinese invaders, was a Thái Học Sinh

** Hạ mã 下 馬

*** Cống : Prior to Emperor Gia Long, Hương Cống  or Ông Cống was a candidate who passed all four steps of the interprovincial competition (thi hương), the equivalent of a Bachelor of Arts, eligible for the doctoral competition. The top candidates who passed only three steps were called Sinh Đồ, or Ông Đồ (three Sinh Đồ for every Hương Cống). Later Hương Cống and Sinh Đồ were respectively called Cử Nhân and Tú Tài.(Nguyễn thị Chân Quỳnh in Lịch sử thi cử Việt Nam , in In this article ‘Ông Đồ’ has been translated as scholar for its generic meaning.


Hien V. Ho

Great Falls, October 17th, 2009