NGUYEN DU (1765-1820), whose 200th birthday was celebrated in 1965 by UNESCO and both North and South Vietnam, is the greatest poet in the Vietnamese language. His Tale of Kieu is considered the masterpiece of that national literature, so popular that even illiterates can recite scores of lines from this narrative in verse, even though it is the adaptation, or recreation, of a rather banal Chinese work of fiction. Nguyen Du also wrote poems in Chinese, but he is better known as the author of this 3,254-line "literary Bible," which has been translated into several languages.
Huynh Sanh Thong's superb rendition in English first appeared in 1973, and we are now grateful to him for a bilingual revised edition dedicated "to Vietnamese refugees and their friends throughout the world." The book contains an essay on the work's historical background by Alexander B. Woodside, and the text is accompanied by copious notes and a bibliography.
Often titled Kim Van Kieu--the story of Kim (Trong), (Thuy) Van and (Thuy) Kieu--it tells the life story of a beautiful and talented girl who has to sacrifice her love for her scholar lover in order to save her father from an unjust jail sentence. Selling herself as a concubine to Ma Giam-sinh, who turns out to be a procurer for a house of ill fame, Kieu tries to escape, but later becames resigned to her fate as a public girl. She meets scholar Thuc, who falls deeply in love, redeems her and makes her his second wife.
Thuc's first wife, out of jealousy, has her rival kidnapped and submitted to all sorts of diabolical tests. Kieu runs away again, this time to a Buddhist temple, where she becomes a nun. But soon afterwards, thinking that she is going to be adopted into a decent family, Kieu becomes a prostitute for a second time and lives a lamentable life until she meets Tu Hai, a rebel warrior. The latter, victorious over the imperial army, reigns for several years over a territory of his own, giving Kieu marvelous days as a lady. But Kieu soon persuades her husband to accept a peace offer from the governor.
After Tu Hai is betrayed, bravely meeting death on the battlefield, Kieu jumps into the river. She is rescued by the same superior nun who had given her asylum 15 years before. Meanwhile, after looking in vain for Kieu, Kim Trong, her first love, followed her own wish and married her younger sister, Thuy Van. When the two are finally reunited, Kieu agrees to marry Kim. Nevertheless, feeling like a faded flower which "bees and butterflies" had visited, she begs Kim not "to pick up the fragrance that had been tossed to the ground or to pluck a late season bloom," and the two agree to live together as friends.
The language of the poem follows the purest tradition of folk songs and popular sayings with their realism and colorful imagery. "The peasants' songs taught me the tongue of jute and mulberry," Nguyen Du once wrote in a poem. But The Tale of Kieu is not a folkloric book, and its literary value places it among the best of universal literature. Nguyen Du, conversant with the Chinese and Vietnamese classics, chose the typically Vietnamese luc-bat meter--a line of six followed by a line of eight words with both final and internal rhymes--and forged it into a harmonious tool that combines popular speech and classical language. The tale has contributed to the enrichment of the Vietnamese language, making it more precise and concise. Whether Nguyen Du praises the beauty of a landscape, expresses the emotion that seizes a couple in love, or relates sorrow and melancholy, disappointment and joy, he is not just romantic, but also a realist: in a few words, in a couple of lines he can delineate a character--the graft-ridden mandarin, the unscrupulous merchant, the madam, the pimp, the jealous wife, the rebel hero. They are all depicted in language full of color and at times with biting rawness. He did it so well that names of characters from the poem have come to designate common nouns: a So Khanh, for instance, is synonymous with Casanova.
Readers enjoy identifying with the enemies of feudalistic customs and mores. In her parents' absence Kieu dares to have a tete-Ma-tete with a young man across a courtyard. To many this would have been scandalous conduct condemned by the norms of Confucian society. But instead of ostracizing the young couple, Confucian- trained Nguyen Du devoted page after page to a description of their tender feelings toward each other. Neither did he spare the sacrosanct notion of conjugal fidelity which forced a woman to devote all her life to only one man, even after his death: Kieu, forced to sell her body more than once, falls in love a second time and marries Tu Hai. In traditional Vietnam, where the code of ethics forbade even a hint of sex in works of fiction, Nguyen Du was not afraid of describing Kieu taking a bath and unveiling to a marveling lover her body "as pure as jade and as exquisitely white as ivory."
In the poem, the author shows unwavering sympathy for Kieu, making her faithful lover realize and proclaim at the end that she had remained pure despite all the vicissitudes and that fidelity in love must be conceived in a more human sense than conformity with the sanctimonious, the self-righteous and the hypocritical. The Tale of Kieu thus heralds the praise of love--emancipated love--as the most profound feelings of the masses in the 18th century, and this was to emerge later as the central theme of other narratives in verse.
Vietnamese culture owes to Nguyen Du this new humanism that rose against the inhuman rigor and dried-up ritualism of Confucianism. His brushstrokes sketched so well a society which pitilessly crushed all the innocent dreams of a young woman in full bloom and dragged her body in mud. In painting her as the lotus that grows in muddy waters yet remains untainted by it, the great bard of Vietnam lent to that humanism sometimes tender, sometimes pathetic notes, and thus succeeded in engraving in the hearts of millions of people this aspiration for personal happiness which feudal ideology for many centuries repressed and stifled.
Whether we agree or not with those critics and analysts who look at the poem as Nguyen Du's own inner drama--loyal to the Le house, he barely tolerated the other two royal dynasties--we can say that the poet, sensitive to the sufferings of his people, vibrated in unison with their aspirations for a life of happiness and fulfillment beyond the notions of karma and destiny.
This English version of Vietnam's national poem will contribute to a better understandng of the people of Vietnam and of their traumatic experience in death and war, in exodus and separation. To quote the translator and editor himself, "If, like Kieu, the Vietnamese accept and endure with fortitude whatever happens to them, someday they will have paid the cost of their evil karma and will achieve both personal and national salvation."