I. Biography of Nguyen Du
--Born 1766 into a very learned family
--Father had been a prime minister in the Le Dynasty
--His brothers were high ranking officials in the Le Dynasty
II. Historical Situation
By the end of the 18th century, the Le Dynasty, after almost 300 years on the throne, had been weakened.
The king of Le was like a puppet. Power in the country was shared by two big families: The Trinh family to
the North and the Nguyen family in the South. The country was at war; the two families fought each other
for the power and the king did nothing. The national hero, Nguyen Hue from the Tay Son (Qui Nhon)
defeated both the Nguyen family and the Trinh family. Afterward the last king of the Le Dynasty, Le Chieu
Thong, went to China to beg for help. He asked the King of China (Thanh Dynasty), King Cau Long, to send
troops to Viet Nam to help him gain back the throne of his ancestors. In 1789 Thanh's troops were also defeated
by Nguyen Hue, and he became a King by the name of Quang Trung. Nguyen Du and his family had tried to
follow Le Chieu Thong (to China), but they had to stay in Viet Nam. They were loyal to the former king of Le
and were afraid of the Nguyen Dynasty which took over in 1802. Nguyen Anh overthrew the Tay Sons and he
became the new king [the first of the Nguyen Dynasty which continued until Bao Dai abdicated in 1945-ed. note]
by the name of Gia Long. Gia Long asked Nguyen Du to join the new government. It was against Nguyen Du's
willingness, but he had no choice.
III. The Concept
The Vietnamese are a very learned people and were deeply influenced by the concepts of King-Master-Father
of the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius. [He taught that] you must be loyal to your king-no matter what.
Nguyen Du and his family had benefited a lot from the former Le Dynasty, which explains why Nguyen Du was
unwilling to join the new government. He considered it an act of disloyalty to the former king. As a learned man,
he was afraid of being disregarded by the people of his time and felt it would bring shame to his family name,
because he was being faithful to the concepts of Confucius.
IV. Kieu's Story
(Also titled the equivalent of The New Scream that Cuts Your Guts)
In order to explain his situation, Nguyen Du was inspired by the story of KIM VAN KIEU by a Chinese author,
Thanh Tam Tai Than (pen name). The story had three main characters: Kim Trong, Thuy Van, and Thuy Kieu.
The culture of Viet Nam was deeply influenced by Chinese culture. But if we believe that Nguyen Du was only
translating the Chinese original we would be mistaken. Nguyen Du only wanted to borrow that story to convey
his concept, his situation, his memory of the dynasty that had been lost. Furthermore the story was written in
[the Vietnamese] 6-8 verse. It was a very popular verse form and everyone, from farmers to learned men, could
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN KIEU AND THE AUTHOR NGUYEN DU
This is the story of a young lady named Vuong Thuy Kieu. Kieu was very beautiful and learned as well.
She was born into a well-educated family, and she was in love with a young man, Kim Trong. Then disaster
fell on her family. Her father and her brother were imprisoned. In order to solve the family's problem, she
had no choice but to sell herself. From then on, catastrophe after catastrophe fell on her. She had to follow
her fate: being cheated, two times being held in a pleasure house (whorehouse) as a singer, concubine, servant.
We may say this is a sad story of a talented lady who had bad fate. In this story Nguyen Du wanted to tell us
through the fate of Kieu to be widened into the fate of human beings in the wicked feudal society along with its
cruelties and injustice. He wanted to scream out loud, a scream that breaks our heart. Thus the title of the story
DOAN THANH TAN THANH, or as it is more popularly known, KIEU's STORY.
Nguyen Du's inspiration:
Nguyen Du tried to explain to us that disaster that befell Kieu is the conflict between talent and fate [See
opening lines of the story]. Kieu had to endure a lot of suffering and hardship because she is beautiful and
talented. The more you are talented, the more bad luck may strike you.
To Nguyen Du to settle this conflict, the matter of the heart must come into being. By the end he wrote that
the heart is three times more important than the talent. The inspiration of Nguyen Du's was the inspiration of
considering men's fate. How could men live in a society full of injustice and cruelties? Kieu was built in the image
of perfection, she was the essence of desirability by men. Kieu was not only beautiful, she was also talented.
In one word she was the perfect combination of beauty and talent. Such a lady must have a good life with
happiness but because she was living in an unjust, cruel,wicked society, all that she got was turning against her
and she fell victim to a disaster that destroyed her. Kieu had become a victim of the society. But she never
accepted her fate; she was always fighting against it. There was a rebel in Thuy Kieu. We may say that the more
she fought the more she failed, and as she became aware of her fate, her failure became more bitter.
Nguyen Du was writing Kieu's story with his blood and his tears.
V. The Kieu Story and the Vietnamese People
To solve everything the matter of the heart comes into being;
righteous people will overcome everything toward a better life.
MANY THANKS TO A WONDERFUL TEACHER. Transcribed with permission of Mr. Tien - JKS
PART I -- Lecture -- pp. 3-67 -- Kim Trong & Scholar Ma Section
WHY STUDY KIEU? I think the logical place to start is with this passage from Alexander Woodside's
"The Historical Background," (xi-xviii) which serves as a preface to the referenced text:
To the Vietnamese people themselves, THE TALE OF KIEU is much more that just a glorious heirloom from
their literary past. It has become a kind of continuing emotional laboratory in which all the great and timeless
issues of personal morality and political obligation are tested and resolved (or left unresolved) for each new
generation. Western readers who are curious about Vietnam and the Vietnamese may well gain more real wisdom
from cultivating a discriminating appreciation of this poem than they will from reading the entire library of scholarly
and journalistic writings upon modern Vietnam which has accumulated in the West in the past two decades. (xi)
Strong words those; I cannot add to them except to say that an understanding of modern Vietnam, and the
roles of Americans and Vietnamese in the recent conflict, is one of the aims of this critical thinking course.
A powerful idea that we might understand the recent past by going to the beginning of the nineteenth century.
I am reminded of Maxine Hong Kingston's comments to me that by studying war today "we are preventing wars
a thousand years from now." (PREVENTING WARS A THOUSAND YEARS FROM NOW, May 1994 taped interview
with MHK, on reserve in the Open Media Lab of the LRC). I suppose a secondary aim is to assist our Vietnamese
(and Chinese in view of the sources of Nguyen Du's work) students to retain an important part of their culture,
and to help non-Asian students to understand our fellows.
ORGANIZATION OF THE WORK
This is fairly straightforward and is illuminated in the introduction by Thong on page xxix. There is a general
introduction from pages 3-9 where we meet the Vuong family and the deceased muse Dam Tien, who, although
she is only a spirit will eventually speak to Kieu, and who has a real perfume fragrance. The intro. is critical and
bears several readings (My recommendation for those of you who are reading this for the first time is that you
do a quick read all the way through and then go back and do an analysis in each section, doing a more careful
reading and using the wonderful endnotes). It is the detailed introduction to Van and Kieu and young Vuong,
and it introduces a number of themes that resonate throughout the work. Notice also that there is a god in the
work whom Kieu addresses on p.7. On page 9, after the break we meet the "youthful scholar," Kim Trong,
who is an admirable first love for Kieu.
Scholar Ma and his wife, Dame Tu, are very evil characters (not without some comic relief somewhat
reminiscent of the Thenardiers in LES MIS). Note the commingling of the flower, nature, and sexual
imagery on pp. 43-45 et. passim.. The melancholy family leave-taking on pp. 47 inspired a playlet put
on by my students in Viet Nam in the summer of l998, which was keenly appreciated by the Vietnamese
students in their audience at the University of Forestry and Agriculture in Thu Duc, Viet Nam.
(The alternate translation is a prose translation, KIM VAN KIEU, five copies of which are on reserve
in the DeCillis Collection, along with several copies of TRUYEN KIEU, in Vietnamese. If you are really
into KIEU, and I hope you will be, check out a copy of the prose translation and compare some of
the footnotes. While the superiority of the Huynh Sanh Thong translation will readily become
apparent, the alternate translation will shed additional meaning for serious students. :-) The prose
translation is published in Viet Nam, is titled KIM-VAN-KIEU. and is translated by Le Xuan Thuy. )
KIEU II -- Lecture -- pp. 67-113 Thuc Ky Tham Section
In the introduction, pp. xxx-xxxi , Huynh Sanh Thong starts off by saying that "The love between Kieu
and the weak willed Thuc eventually matures into a deep attachment, but sexual attraction is its main
ingredient. Thuc meets Kieu as a customer of the brothel. Once again the plot evolves based on the
departure of a parent, Thuc's father journeying home by "a stroke of timely luck" (67). While the
relationship is a sexual one it soon includes music, poetry, and chess.
Kieu then takes up the notion of her responsibility and Thuc's and urges that there is no future in their
relationship given Thuc's attachment to his first wife and she proceeds to forecast all of the doom that
will (and does) befall them if they continue. Thuc's argument on p. 71 is that these matter-and Miss Hoan--
are all far away and she should pay them no heed, and as a measure of his serious intent he buys her
out of the brothel, and they live together for 6 months until Thuc's father returns. And here the wrath
of the father that Kieu had foretold comes home with a vengeance and a trip to the judge.
The father turns them into a judge and it here that Kieu must make a moral choice, choosing to accept
punishment for her deeds, or return to the brothel. She replies with grace "I shall endure the thunder
of the law" (75). Here she is beaten as Thuc is forced to watch. Thuc's pain is so intense that the Judge's
heart is moved, and he shows mercy and orders a wedding. (I am reminded of Shakespeare's Portia in
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE dispensing justice and mercy in a European society, that is younger than
the Asian societies here. Where is this in American literature?)
Old Thuc's heart is softened also BUT they still have, as Kieu has also foretold, Miss Hoan to deal with--
and her mother!! Miss Hoan is one of the strongest characters in the novel, physically violent and with
a malicious cunning that guarantees that Kieu will be punished sorely for her deeds. On Kieu's urging
Thuc returns to his wife (79) and we see, especially on p. 83 his weak will that Thong started us off with.
His refusal to reveal his relationship with Kieu which was the purpose of his journey shows how weak
he is and we as reader experience the dramatic irony of knowing what Miss Hoan knows and what her
On p. 91 we meet another young girl (cf. Ma Kieu in Part I) who befriends and advises Kieu who is now
in the service of Miss Hoan, and the Buddhist notion of karma/justice/responsibility is repeated "Perhaps
you must atone for some past sin" (91). But she then continues "but malice [Miss Hoan] brought you here,
and not pure chance" (91). This text is so rich you can almost stop anywhere and do a textual analysis--
which is also why the Vietnamese fortune tellers can randomly select any line and tell a fortune from it.
Eventually Miss Hoan softens--although this becomes a necessary plot point for what is to follow--but not
before continuing her own plot to humiliate her husband and Kieu by having Kieu wait in them and play
music for them together. Miss Hoan finally lets up a bit on p. 99 and grant Kieu's request to become a Nun.
Conveniently there is a shrine in the garden that Kieu can be cloistered in, just close enough for Thuc to
sneak over to, which he does, all of the time observed by his wife. But the reunion of Thuc and Kieu is
quite beautiful and Kieu merely asks his help in her escape. She is willing to forego their own happiness
and leave him with Miss Hoan. But alas, Miss Hoan has overheard it all, and Kieu is left no choice but to
escape. Like Valjean leaving the Bishop of Digne's house, she takes the silver as she goes.
We next meet the character of Giac Duyen who would make for an interesting paper. I am still not sure
what to make of her. A prioress, she instructs Kieu in what nuns are supposed to do and all is well until
a pilgrim sees the silver and identifies it as Miss Hoan's . Kieu confesses and Giac asks a neighboring family
to provide shelter for Kieu. Alas, "Dame Bac soon proved a colleague of Dame Tu" (109) and Kieu is back
in a brothel again. I remain confused by the apparent marriage to Bac Hanh (whose first name means
"false") but he is a parallel to Scholar Ma. Indeed the # of times that Kieu is married is a mystery to me.
I hear various reports from 2-9 and a textual examination must be aided by more cultural expertise than
I possess. Perhaps some of our students have some answers.
The final line worth mentioning in this section "O Great Potter's Wheel, how you treat womanhood (112)
certainly sums up one of the major themes of this work, and reminds me of Maxine Hong Kingston's
vignette in CHINA MEN called "On Discovery." So much for Thuc Ky Tham and Miss Hoan--though
we shall see them again. Time to turn our thoughts to Kieu's next great love, the soldier Tu Hai.
Giac Duyen takes her leave with a promise of a reunion within five years guaranteed by another seer,
Tam Hop. And in that five years Tu Hai is victorious in many battles, accompanied by his first lady, Kieu.
The partnership is taken advantage of by Lord Ho Ton Hien whose entreaties convince Kieu to convince
Tu Hai that Ho will be an ally, not an enemy. Alas, the end of Tu Hai, because of Kieu's actions (I am
reminded of The Moor of Venice & Desdemona, but in that case it was the Moor who was convinced
of the wrong thing). We have already noted the powerful death of Tu Hai, and Kieu is once again in
captivity, this time playing "Cruel Fate" on her lute for Lord Ho.
And it appears that Kieu marries again (135), forced into it by her captor! And then we start back to the
beginning with Kieu communicating with Dam Tien, lamenting her fifteen years of suffering under the
cruel "wheels of fate" (137). The next part starts with Giac Duyen and the seer Tam Hop weighing the
balance of Kim's actions "When judged for her past sins, Kieu must be charged/ with reckless love,
but not with wanton lust" (139). Tam Hop continues:
"She caused one death, but saved ten thousand lives./She knew right thoughts from wrong,
fair deeds from foul./ Whose merits equal her good works in truth?"(139).
Let's go back for a minute back to the opening stanza of the poem:
A hundred years in this life span on earth/
talent and destiny are apt to feud./
You must go through a play of ebb and flow/
and watch such things as make you sick at heart/
Is it so strange that losses balance gains? /
There is both the conflict of talent & destiny (individual actions versus fate) and the notion, explained
in note 5 that "losses balance gains" refers to a "Chinese adage, which makes the common observation
that no one is perfect or enjoys complete happiness, [which] has a Vietnamese equivalent in a folk saying:
'[who] gets this loses that'" (169).
In fulfillment of her dream, Kieu escapes from Lord Ho by jumping into the river- her second suicide
attempt? - and after floating downstream is rescued by two fishermen who were there for the purpose
of saving her and fulfilling Tam Hop's prediction of Kieu's and Giac Duyen's reunion within five years.
And Dam Tien also appears again with a prediction, finally some good news:
with many days ahead, you shall fulfill/
your great past love, reap future happiness./ (141)
But what happened to Kim Trong, Kieu's great past love whom we last saw in Part I?
(Their leave-taking is captured in another piece of lacquerware in the DeCillis Collection,
which depicts Kieu and Van, Kim and young Vuong, Kim's horse and the mountains he
will journey beyond. The next piece shows Kieu lamenting the absence of Kim. The third
piece shows Kieu playing her pear shaped lute form Thuc, and the fourth Tu Hai, noted above)
Kim had come back to the awful news of Kieu's departure and the plot summary in lines 2775 et. ff. is worth noting,
but I will not summarize nor quote it here. Kim takes care of the family and sends emissaries looking for Kieu, and to
assuage his grief, the family arranges for him to marry Van, which you will recall Kieu had asked Van to do. On page
149 Van dreams that she will be reunited with Kieu, and Old Do, a clerk whom we have not met before, summarizes
Kieu's life. This summary leads Kim to find Thuc to get the rest of the story, which continues to the top of p. 153 at
which Kim's supposed death by drowning in the river is reported.
My wish for you is the same as the author's. I hope you enjoy your study of this great work. Like all
great works of literature it returns to you what you invest in it, and you should return to it ten years
from now to measure your own change. Its words will still be the same.
Please use the LISTSERV or FORUM -I will post the lectures there also which is a password protected
area--to agree/disagree/comment. I have gotten responses so far ranging from "I could not put this book
down" to "it is an immoral book that should not be taught in our class." I very much appreciate the
comment about morality since this is a critical thinking course, and whether I agree with that opinion is not
so important as whether YOU do. Later in the course I want us to consider the morality of American actions
and Vietnamese actions in the war. This is kind of like the CLIFF'S NOTES. Now it is up to you to think
critically. What are YOUR thoughts? -- JKS
|Thoughts From Kayoko Sato|
Have you ever heard of Musashi-bo Benkei? Tu Hai, in THE TALE OF KIEU, reminded me
of this famous character in Japanese history. Benkei became avery faithful follower of the
aristocratic warrior Yoshitsune. As a retainer, Benkei sacrificed his life to protect his master
from the attacks ofYoshitsune's brother, Yoritomo. Even after being strapped with so many
arrows and he was mortally wounded, he stood still, did not let the enemies go by and reach
his master. Benkei's strong will to guard Yoshitsune kept his body "firm as rock and hard as
bronze" (Du 131)--just like Tu Hai in the story--and this shows how devoted and committed
he was. I feel that Benkei and Tu Hai were somewhat similar. I think not only was Benkei
loyal to his master, but was proud of himself being a retainer of the great warrior who--
Benkei thought he was-- worth sacrificing his own life. And Tu Hai, who was very faithful
to his wife Kieu, and who agreed with her to stop expanding his niche and to have a truce,
was killed by the government-- his foe. Like Benkei, he stood still even after he was dead
Both Benkei and Tu Hai died after all, but one thing that I caught a glimpse in their death
was that both of them were loyal to the people who they loved, and they died proudly.
My interpretation of Tu Hai may be wrong, but are they not they similar? I think it is very
interesting. Regards, Kayo Sato
P.S. I really enjoyed reading THE TALE OF KIEU (although it was pretty tough to understand!)
:-) RESPONSE: IF IT WERE EASY IT WOULD PROBABLY NOT BE GOOD.