Pham T.T.
Pham T.T. VIETNAMESE RESEARCHERS WITH THE CONCEPT OF “BUDDHIST LITERATURE OF THE LY - TRAN DYNASTIES” // Universum: общественные науки : электрон. научн. журн. 2022. 1(80). URL: (дата обращения: 10.08.2022).
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DOI - 10.32743/UniSoc.2022.80.1.12937



Vietnamese literature that started from the 10th to the beginning of the 15th century was identified as Ly-Tran literature by researchers. During this time, there were numerous dynasties. The Ly (1009-1224) and Tran (1225-1400) dynasties ruled for the most prolonged periods and had a significant historical impact. Vietnamese Buddhism flourished, and Buddhist literature, an essential element of Vietnamese literature, also made outstanding achievements. The article introduces a part of Buddhist literature research in the Ly-Tran Dynasty of Vietnamese researchers, considering the concept of “Buddhist literature” an object of study. The author will also mention and compare this concept with the one given by Chinese researchers.


Вьетнамская литература, которая началась с 10-го по начало 15-го века, была определена исследователями как литература Ли-Чан. В это время существовало множество династий. Династии Ли (1009–1224) и Чан (1225–1400) правили в течение самых продолжительных периодов и оказали значительное историческое влияние. Вьетнамский буддизм процветал, и буддийская литература, важный элемент вьетнамской литературы, также достигла выдающихся успехов. Статья знакомит с частью исследования буддийской литературы вьетнамских исследователей династии Ли-Чан, рассматривая понятие «буддийская литература» в качестве объекта исследования. Автор также упомянет и сравнит эту концепцию с концепцией китайских исследователей.


Keywords: Vietnamese literature, Buddhist literature, Vietnamese Buddhism, Ly dynasty, Tran dynasty, Buddhist Studies.

Ключевые слова: вьетнамская литература, буддийская литература, вьетнамский буддизм, династия Ли, династия Чан, буддистские исследования.


1. The concept of “Buddhist literature” according to Vietnamese researchers

According to researchers, Buddhist literature paralleled the national literature until the twentieth century rather than being limited to the Ly-Tran Dynasty.

What is “Buddhist literature”? There are many differing viewpoints about this question. However, Nguyen Pham Hung’s study project titled Vietnamese Buddhist Literature [6] provided a relatively comprehensive and exhaustive approach when discussing this notion. I have summarized some crucial points of his study and given some Chinese scholars’ comments for comparison.

Dinh Gia Khanh might be one of the first researchers who mentioned the concept of “Buddhist literature.”

In 1992, Tran Thi Bang Thanh used the concept of “a literary part imbued with Buddhism” [15] and pointed out that this literary part possessed two inspirations. These views were repeated in an article published in 2016: “At that time, the writer supposed that a part of works was imbued with Buddhist ideology and philosophy in Vietnamese literature. It considered the transmission of Buddhist philosophy, the way of practice, and the reflection of daily life, the object, inspiring creativity, having a journey throughout the history of literature, reaching achievements, and creating unique characteristics regardless of ups and downs. Therefore, this literary part was known as Buddhist literature” [16, p. 34] She said: “In my opinion, Buddhist literature has two inspirations. The first one is to do the task of indoctrination. The other is influenced and inspired by Buddhist thought, philosophy, and living space” [16, p. 35]. According to Tran Thi Bang Thanh, spreading Buddhist thought was an indispensable criterion. “It is difficult to find a Buddhist literary work that does not propagate Buddhist thought” [p. 35]. “Thus, it’s possible to include a type of composition such as the Nom narrative poems “that only preach an idea or recount a Buddha’s dialogue and is spread mainly by word of mouth, especially those going to pagodas” [16, p. 35].

In the book Collection of Vietnamese Buddhist Literature (published in 3 volumes), although author Le Manh That didn’t provide a clear description about “Buddhist literature,” in the Preface, he said that he expected to introduce “more than 40 authors of Vietnamese Buddhism” [17, p. 12]. Most of them were Zen masters, “except for three writers in Tran Dynasty, including Tran Thai Tong, Tue Trung Tran Quoc Tung, and Tran Nhan Tong, an author in Le Dynasty named Le Thanh Tong, an author in Tay Son Dynasty named Ngo Thoi Nhiem, and an author in Nguyen Dynasty named Nguyen Du. In addition to Buddhism, they wrote on various topics. However, they identified themselves as Zen masters like Tran Nhan Tong and Ngo Thoi Nhiem or found themselves close to Buddhism through poetry like Le Thanh Tong and Nguyen Du. Therefore, we listed them in the Collection of Vietnamese Buddhist Literature” [17, p. 13]. The selected authors had to be Zen masters or “closely associated with Buddhism.” According to Le Manh That, some authors wrote about Buddhism, but the number and volume of works were limited. Therefore, they weren’t introduced into this book.

In the book “Buddhist literature of the Ly - Tran Dynasty: Aspect and features,” author Nguyen Cong Ly commented: “The study of Buddhist literature is the study of works about Buddhism or related to Buddhism, including anti-Buddhist ones. They appear on epitaphs, inscriptions, veritable records, and Zen genealogies in terms of form. In terms of genre, these are works associated with pagodas such as verses, poems, great compassion mantras, collection of aphorisms, treatises, chants, stories, veritable records, biographies, and records passing on the lamp of Buddhist truth” [8, p. 15].

According to Nguyen Cong Ly, “in terms of content, Buddhist literary works must directly or indirectly express philosophical thoughts and Buddhist teachings, and refer to Buddha, monks, and temple, or are related to the temple, consisting of the anti-Buddhist and anti-monk works accepted by pagodas. Regarding the author, these works are composed mainly by Zen masters, meditators, kings, nobles, mandarins, and Confucianists who have practiced Zen, are knowledgeable about Buddha, or are influenced by Buddhist thought. In terms of form, they are found on the steles, bronze bells, woodblocks, sets of veritable records, collections of aphorisms, and Zen genealogies. In terms of genre, they are associated with temples such as verses, poems, Great Compassion Mantra, collection of aphorisms, treatises, parallel sentences, chants, and stories (including veritable records, biographies, and records passing on the lamp of Buddhist truth)” [8, pp. 21-22].

The above definition includes three main aspects: author, content, and form & genre. If comparing it with the definition mentioned in the first edition in 2002, there are some adjustments, such as not including Buddhist literary language. Focusing on Buddhist literary genres seems to determine the scope of the study. In terms of content, the researcher mentioned works whose content was anti-Buddhist content and against the pagoda accepted by the temples. However, regarding the scope of “anti-Buddhist” and “accepted by the temples,” it’s better to clarify the element: anti-Buddhist or anti-Buddhist. Truong Han Sieu’s Epitaph at Khai Nghiem Pagoda didn’t ostracise Buddhism but criticized the monks’ decadent lifestyle (which appeared in all times). He was well-versed in Buddhist teachings and held them in high regard: “The doctrine is created for Buddhism to save living beings, help those who are stupid but not enlightened, or those who are ignorant but not awakening, return to good Karma. However, the sly people in the monkhood had forsaken Buddhism’s “difficulty and immateriality.” They took care of occupying good lands and beautifying their houses and disciples. At that time, the powerful and the infidels followed” [11, p. 748]. In general, works, including folk jokes, with anti-Buddhist content mainly addressed negative issues in the daily life of some monks, especially food or sex life. They didn’t argue or refute points of Buddhist dogmas.

Talking about the phenomenon attacking Buddhism, Dinh Gia Khanh explained: “Those epitaphs are against the evils of the temples, not against the temples as well as the core of Buddhist philosophy” [7, p. 83].

Researcher Nguyen Pham Hung stated the concept of “Buddhist literature” as follows: “Buddhist literature is a concept that refers to all literary works about Buddhist life or inspired by Buddhism when reflecting real life. Buddhist feature is the most important dominant factor for the entire process of literary creation, from the authors (Zen master and people who understand and love Buddhism) to the purpose of the composition (comprehending spiritual reality, experimenting, spreading a doctrine or expressing attitudes, moods, and feelings toward life), or from ideological content (topics, themes, and inspirations) to forms (selecting and using Buddhist language, genres, and rhetorical figures of speech with appropriate Buddhist elements), or from the encoding process to the decoding process of Buddhist literature” [6, p. 50].

It is a fairly comprehensive definition, covering many aspects such as the authors, the purpose of composition, the content & form, the genre, and the Buddhist language. According to Nguyen Pham Hung, it should be noted that there is always an ambiguity between secular and religious factors in Buddhist literature’s perception and reflection of the world so as not to favor one side when studying Buddhist literature. In particular, the author focused on decoding the art of Buddhist literature, that was, an aspect of receiving Buddhist literary works. People interested in receiving Buddhist literature are familiar with the book “Dropping a raft of reeds – The tale of Kieu” under the contemplation of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Reading the Tale of Kieu is like reading a sutra. However, we still wonder about the phrase “reflecting real life” because many cases don’t reflect reality but borrow a real thing to give an example of abstract thought, like Zen Master Vien Chieu’s response when asked about Buddhas Confucian Sages.

According to researcher Nguyen Dinh Chu, “Buddhist literature is the literature of monks and Buddhists whose content directly expresses Buddhist ideals, thoughts, and inspirations. It also includes works by authors who are not monks or Buddhists but represent the ideals and inspirations of Buddhism directly, for example, A Salvation Oration for Wandering Souls of Many Sorts of Nguyen Du, or Huong Son Landscape of Chu Manh Trinh. In addition, we shall mention works that don’t belong to Buddhist literature but be affected by Buddhism, such as The Tale of Kieu of Nguyen Du” [2, p. 29].

The doctoral thesis of literature by Nguyen Thi Viet Hang gave the concept of Buddhist literature at a superficial level: “The works that convey Buddhist teachings are Buddhist literature in the right sense. However, in the 17th and 19th centuries, many works were inspired or influenced by Buddhist thought. They could be considered two complementary sources, creating a richness for the whole literary period” [4, p. 8].

In a recent study, Le Thi Thanh Tam expanded the concept of Buddhist literature: “Buddhist literature is a broad concept including a complex system of the discourses of Buddha and Buddhist explanation in many forms. In the beginning, the Vinaya Pitaka mainly presented the discipline. Next, the Sutta Pitaka consisted of the teachings of the Buddha. Finally, the Abhidhamma Pitaka was considered the most profound part of the entire philosophical system of the Buddha and his disciples. Buddhism has created and built a great religious literature career. The emergence of ancient Buddhist stories, stories of Buddha’s predecessor, and other kinds such as collections of aphorisms, stories of monks, works influenced by Buddhism, and sutras demonstrated the growth of the multifunctional literary forms of Buddhism. They both propagated the Dharma and reflected the aesthetic spirit of Buddhism to important ideological issues” [14, p. 19]. In this definition, the author mentioned a part of Buddhist literature, the Tipitaka, and emphasized the multifunctionality of Buddhist literature and aesthetics.

The above opinions are some introductions to the Buddhist literature of secular researchers. It is vital to understand the point of view of researchers and practitioners.

Thich Nguyen Hanh offered an understanding of the concept of Buddhist literature from a canonical and non-canonical perspective, as follows:

“The Buddhist literary works were classified into two forms: Canon and Non-canon.

Canon consisted of orthodox works such as the Sutras, Tantras, and the Commentary handed down from the time of the Buddha.

Non-canon concluded unorthodox works handed down from the Buddha’s time. They were composed by Buddhist disciples to display the teachings of the Buddha, such as The Pali Literature of Ceylon of Buddhaghosa and The Platform Sutra of The Sixth Patriarch Hui-Neng.

The first type of Buddhist literature accepted the principle that “literature was the means and teachings were the main contents.” According to this respect, the Tipitaka of Buddhism was literature.

The second type was that personal inspiration or creative principle was the essence of literature. In this respect, Buddhist literature was no longer bound to the direction of “listening to preach a religion” but moving towards the creative arena of art by using language”  [3, pp. 179-180].

Based on this concept, Thich Nguyen Hanh defined the scope of the research work: “Besides the works commenting, annotating, and copying the Tipitaka, many poems, essays, epitaphs, and rhyming poems of Zen masters and Buddhists or writers influenced by Buddhism were also included” [3, p. 181].

Classifying Buddhist literary works into canonical and non-canonical groups is reasonable, which determines the research scope when mentioning the works copying the Tipitaka. If a researcher does not limit himself, the range of research will be too broad to be suitable for research or thesis. Moreover, the canonical works not only “spread a doctrine” but also contain great literary and artistic values in terms of language and aesthetics that shall be studied and analyzed.

Thich Hue Thong was the only person who introduced the most extensive theory on Buddhist literature by using the concept of “the space of Buddhist literature.” He wrote: “The space of Buddhist literature includes a system of the Sutras, Tantras, and the Commentary in the Tipitaka. Its Dharma-words consist of the records and collections of aphorisms of the three sects: The Zen Sect, Tantric Buddhism, and the Pure Land Sect. Besides, the Mahayana Sutras creates branches of literature with unique characteristics of each sutra, such as Wisdom, the Hua-Yen, Diamond, and Lotus Sutra. Moreover, there is a huge treasure of literary works including Buddhist history, Buddhist literary history, dictionary of Buddhism, Buddhist press, essays, poems, stories, commentaries, lectures, theories, and other literary genres created, translated, and explained by Zen masters, practitioners, and intellectuals inside and outside Buddhism” [18, p. 197]. It’s vital to classify such a wide-ranging subject: “We can temporarily divide it into three groups. The first one is the canonical works, including the Sutras, Tantras, and the Commentary handed down from the time of the Buddha. The second one includes the Dharma-words written by the Buddha’s disciples to display the truth, such as the Shinjinmei of Sengcan or The Platform Sutra of The Sixth Patriarch Hui-Neng. The last one is a group of purely Buddhist literary works that don’t belong to the system of discourses of Buddha and Dharma-words. It covers a wide range of topics, categories, and genres written, compiled, and translated. However, the last group is divided into two branches. The first branch concludes works that explain and preach about Buddhism, and the other one consists of works influenced by the morality of the four immeasurables, dependent origination, and the law of Karma. Similarly, we can divide the authors into two groups. The first one consists of Buddhist practitioners, and most of them are Zen masters. The second one is poets and writers influenced by Buddhist dogmas” [18, pp. 197-198].

It can be said that the introduction of the monks has a common with that of Chinese researchers. In Vietnam, although studies on the literariness of Sutras are limited, we can still find some, for example, the research of Phuoc Nguyen on the literary value of a set of Buddhist texts. However, it’s needful to focus on Vietnamese Buddhist literature, that is, the works of Vietnamese people. The ancient Vietnamese didn’t translate Buddhist scriptures written in Sanskrit like the Han Chinese. Therefore, the literary nature of Buddhist scriptures ought to be considered a specialized study object, not within the scope of the study of Ly-Tran Buddhist literature, although it was an indispensable content of research in Chinese Buddhist literature.

2. Buddhist literature and Zen Buddhism literature

Vietnamese researchers implicitly consider Buddhist literature in the Ly-Tran Dynasty as Zen Buddhism literature.

Nguyen Pham Hung wrote about “the literary trend inspired by “Zen” in the Ly Dynasty”: “Regarding the literature of the Ly-Tran Dynasty, first of all, we had to mention the literary trend inspired by Zen. It was the most significant trend of the Ly Dynasty and played an important part in the literature of the Tran Dynasty. The language arts of the Ly Dynasty also had to blend in with Vietnamese Buddhist life. Buddhist literature inspired by Zen had become principal” [5, p. 77]. In this article, although he believed that Zen-inspired literature was the mainstream of Buddhist literature, he used the concept of Buddhist literature and Zen literature as two synonyms.

Researcher Nguyen Cong Ly also proposed the concept of “Zen Buddhism literature” as follows: “Zen Buddhism literature referred to a part of literature written under the thought of Zen Buddhism” [10, p. 127]. “Regarding subject and content, these compositions directly or indirectly expressed Buddhist doctrines and thoughts, brought feelings and inspiration about Buddha, Zen, or wrote about Buddha, Zen, pagodas, and monks” [10, p. 128]. However, in the 3rd edition of Buddhist Literature of the Ly-Tran Dynasty (2017), he wrote: “The concept of “Buddhist literature” has a broader connotation and scope than the concept of “Zen literature.” “Buddhist literature” includes “Zen literature,” so “Zen literature” is one element, a crucial part of “Buddhist literature” [9, p. 22].

The reason for this argument is pretty simple. In Dai Viet Buddhism, the Zen Sect was the main religion. Dinh Gia Khanh wrote: “For Buddhism in Dai Viet, the Zen Sect was an official religion, but in fact, it had combined with Tantric and Pure Land Buddhism. Many Zen masters also practiced the Dhũranĩsamadhi and chanted the Mahā Karuṇā-Citta Dhāranī that were the Tantras of Tantric Buddhism” [7, pp. 49-50]. He said: “The fact that Zen Buddhism was influenced by Tantra had been criticized by some Zen masters. However, to gain the people’s trust, who originally believed in the gods, temples had to use the spiritism of Tantra. It was needful to bring the Buddhist patriarchs and his disciples the magical aura. Therefore, besides Tantra, Pure Land Buddhism greatly impacted Zen Buddhism. It integrated with the masses through compassion, philanthropy, rescuing from misery, and saving from danger” [7, p. 50]. Dinh Gia Khanh admitted that the literature of the Ly Dynasty had no trace of the Pure Land Buddhism [7, p. 51]. In addition, it was challenging to identify the Tantric element because the Tantra didn’t impact strongly on Zen literature of the Ly Dynasty, and “Zen Buddhism literature showed little sign of vulgar beliefs or the common feelings of believers towards religion. The Zen Sect was neither associated with superstition and spiritism like Tantra nor religious and emotional like Pure Land Buddhism. It maintained the essence of Buddhist philosophy in the concept of pantheism. This was the ideological basis of Zen Buddhism literature of the Ly Dynasty” [7, p. 54]. Thus, the phrase “Zen Buddhism literature” appearing when discussing Ly-Tran Buddhist literature is reasonable, but researchers rarely use this concept.

Until the end of the Ly Dynasty, the Buddhist literature was handed down through the book “Collection of Outstanding Figures of the Zen Garden,” which preserved information about the Zen masters and their poems. In the Tran Dynasty, although Confucianism was increasingly strengthened and Confucian literature thrived, the Zen Buddhist literature representing Buddhist literature continued to hold an important position. Even there were some typical authors with various compositions such as Tran Tung, Tran Thai Tong, Tran Nhan Tong, and Huyen Quang. The genre of Buddhist literature of the Tran Dynasty was more diverse with the collections of aphorisms, veritable records, epitaphs, and treatises. Therefore, studying the movement and transformation of Buddhist literature from the Ly Dynasty to the Tran Dynasty was the key content in most research.

3. The concept of Buddhist literature according to Chinese researchers

Although the studies of Buddhist literature in China are diverse, we only mention some studies for comparison.

The study of the sutras titled “Buddhism and Chinese Literature” by Ton Xuong Vu (19) provided many essential suggestions for researchers about Chinese Buddhist literature. It consisted of 4 chapters with comprehensive content. Chapter 1 was the Buddhist scriptures translated into Chinese and their literary values. Chapter 2 mentioned Buddhism and Chinese writers. Buddhism and Chinese literary works were presented in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 wrote about Buddhism and thought in Chinese literature. It could be said that the discussions on Buddhist literature published later often applied this system of research problems to the introduction of Buddhist literature. The most important thing was that Chapter 1 made this study more distinctive than other studies on Buddhist literature in Vietnam because it focused on Buddhist scriptures’ literary and artistic value. This is comprehensible because the Chinese have a long period of translating and receiving Buddhist scriptures, and they have faced many problems, including the literary characteristics of the Sutras.

The author of “Chinese Buddhist Literature” [22] wrote: “It is necessary to limit the concept of Buddhist literature from a relatively broad perspective to divide it into two parts. The first one is the Buddhist texts that possess literary nuances of the Buddhist scriptures. It can be called “Buddhist scripture literature.” The second one is poetic works and novels related to Buddhism and using literary devices to compose, including literary and art activities of Buddhist monks and devotees” (Textual information: “佛教文学”可以从较宽广的角度来界定它,分为两大部分:一是佛教经典文学的部分,即佛教典籍中具有文学色彩的部分,这一部分可称为佛经文学。二是指以文学手法创作的和佛教思想等有关的诗歌、小说等作品,包括佛教僧侣的文学审美活动和世俗文学家崇佛的文学创制) [22]. Based on the above definition, the author divided Chinese Buddhist literature into two parts. “The first one was the texts rich in literary nuances among the Buddhist scriptures and translated into Chinese characters. The second one was the works possessing Buddhist nuances written by Chinese authors or monks. Thus, the former part could be called literature turning into Buddhist scriptures, and the latter part could be named the Buddhism turning into literature” (Textual information: “一是指汉译佛典中的具有文学色彩的经典。二是指中国文人或僧人作品中带有佛教色彩的作品。前者可称之为佛经的文学化,后者可称之为文学的佛教化”) [22].

Despite not giving a concise definition of “Buddhist literature,” through the description, we can understand the concept of A Lien, the author of An overview of Buddhist literature. According to A Lien, Buddhist literature had three components. The first one was the Buddhist texts. When the Buddha was alive, he often preached sutras to his disciples. He used rhetorical devices such as metaphors and hyperbole to make the Buddhist teachings have great meaning and promote the disciples’ faith in Buddhism. Later, his disciples recorded and commented on that teachings. These records were also the first literary works of Buddhist history, which was the literature of Buddhist scriptures.

The second one was the works of monks, cultivators, and lovers of literature. They discussed the profound meanings of the Buddhadharma with writers and responded to each other with poems. Monks often used short poems to express their feelings in Zen practice. There were many works of monks and nuns via the literary form to explain the Buddha’s teachings and Zen thoughts, as well as represent the views on cultivating themselves in the right practice.

The third one was works of those who had a close relation with Buddhism, such as Ta Linh Van, Ly Bach, Vuong Duy, and To Thuc. They were influenced by Buddhist thought and brought Buddhist concepts as well as ideas into their compositions. In addition, they used poems to promote the Buddhadharma and explained Buddhism and the understanding of cultivating themselves in the right practice. There were many literary works related to Buddhism in Chinese literature [21, p. 2-3]. The author mentioned the role of the Zen Sect in the history of Chinese Buddhism and the features of the Zen Buddhism literature as follows: “During the development of Buddhism in China, the Zen Sect was loved by many writers. It had been at its peak for a period. Being a sect possessing many differences in the way to practice the Dharma, the “direct question and answer” was an exceptional feature of the Zen Sect” [21, p. 3]. Then, this way of speaking was recorded and adjusted into the Records of the Zen sect, which included many unique ideological and literary values. Besides the records, there were many koans containing the Buddha’s philosophy of life. In the scope of the study of Buddhist literature, the author also introduced the types of parallel sentences in Buddhist temples. They were like an integral part of Buddhist literature, expressing the Buddhist philosophy of Zen and contributing to the training of Buddhist culture for visitors to the temples. According to the author, it was essential to understand the influence of Buddhist literature on the genres of Chinese literature. The ideologies in Buddhism, koans, stories, and historical references were put in novels to show the thought of cause and effect, for example, in Romance of the Three Kingdoms or impermanence in The Dream of Red Mansions. In short, it was vital to research the compositions influenced by Buddhist thought and aesthetics. Regarding the function of Buddhist literature, the author had studied the role of teaching the world, awakening the mind, enlightening, praising the doctrine, and purifying the human heart.

Therefore, we have selected some studies on Chinese Buddhist literature to have a basis for comparison with the concept of Buddhist literature in Vietnam, with most of the similarities. Because China possesses many translations of Buddhist scriptures, leaving many valuable lessons about exploiting the sutras' literary value, Chinese researchers easily turn the content and literary value of Buddhist scriptures into the survey object. It could be stated that the studies of Ton Xuong Vu or A Lien had accurately analyzed the artistic characteristics of many Buddhist scriptures. It is different from the studies on Buddhist literature in Vietnam because, in Vietnam, there is not any researcher who systematically studies the literariness of sutras, including the above monks. Although they stated that the Vinaya Pitaka belonged to Buddhist literature, there was no proposal for doing research.

This comparison indicates that besides many accomplishments, people studying Vietnamese Buddhist literature should broaden the research scope towards the art of Buddhist sutras and learn about the influence of Buddhist texts as well as records passing on the lamp of Buddhist truth on Vietnamese literature.



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Информация об авторах

PhD Student, faculty of literature, Vietnam national university VNU university of social sciences and humanities, Socialist republic of Vietnam, Hanoi

аспирант, факультет литературы, Вьетнамский национальный университет, ВНУ Университет социальных и гуманитарных наук, г. Ханой, Социалистическая Республика Вьетнам

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