The Poetry of Nguyễn Du

The Tale of Kiều (Truyện Kiều)

The following is the section on the poem from:

Vietnamese Literature, published by Red River/Foreign Languages Publishing House, Hanoi, circa 1980s. Historical Background: Nguyễn Khắc Viện. Presentation of authors and works: Hữu Ngọc. Translation: Mary Cowan, Carolyn Swetland, Đặng Thế Bính, Paddy Farrington, Elizabeth Hodgkin, Hữu Ngọc. 1043 pages.

My copy came from the UNSW library, and is stamped as having arrived there on June 1, 1987.


Kiều, a beautiful and gifted girl, met in the course of a spring outing a handsome young scholar named Kim. They fell in love with each other. On the same day, she saw on the roadside the forsaken tomb of Đạm Tiên, who had been a beautiful and much-courted courtesan. Kiều, who had always had the foreboding that fate, jealous of her beauty and talent, would persecute her, wept over Đạm Tiên's tomb. That very night, Đạm Tiên visited her in her dream and predicted that she would meet a destiny similar to her own, and from then on, what had been a mere presentiment became a real obsession with Kiều.

Soon after, an opportunity was given Kiều to visit Kim in his study and they vowed to each other eternal love. However, a calamity befell her family. Her father, falsely accused, was put in jail and savagely tortured. The only way to save him was to offer a big sum of money to the local mandarin and his hangers-on. Kim had just left for a distant part of the country. Kiều made up her mind to sell herself as a concubine to a passing merchant, Ma Giam Sinh, who took her away. Before her departure, Kiều asked her younger sister Vân to resume the thread of her broken love with Kim. In fact Ma Giam Sinh was only a pimp. In vain did Kiều try to get away; finally she had to resign herself to being a courtesan. A young merchant, Thuc, was smitten with her charms and took her to his house. But his cunning and jealous wife, Hoan Thu, put Kiều through a series of truly diabolical trials. Unable to stand it, Kiều got away and sought refuge in a Buddhist temple where she became a nun under the protection of Superior Giac Duyên. A family of "pious believers" offered to give her shelter: alas, they were "traders in human flesh", and Kiều again fell into a brothel. Her life dragged on pitifully until the day when an extraordinary man, Tu Hai, fell in love with her and took her with him.

Tu Hai, a hero of legend, led a great uprising, defeated the royal troops and carved out for himself a vast domain over which he ruled for many years. Kiều enjoyed the marvellous days. Tu Hai ordered his troops to bring to him all who had known Kiều: those who had done her good service received princely rewards, whereas those who had deceived, betrayed or ill-treated her were severely punished. Of the latter, Hoan Thu alone skilfully pleaded his case and was pardoned.

The mandarin charged with suppressing the rebellion, having failed to win by force of arms, sought to attain his ends through cunning. He made a peace offer to Tu Hai, who hesitated to accept. But Kiều, seduced by the peace proposals, urged her husband to accept the promises of the Court and lay down his arms. But no sooner had Tu Hai ordered his troops to disarm than the imperial army launched a treacherous attack in which he was killed. Kiều threw herself into a river.

However she was rescued from the waters by Superior Giac Duyên and again took refuge in a Buddhist temple. Fifteen years had passed, during which Kim had in vain gone up and down the country looking for her. He had married Vân, Kiều's younger sister. One day, chance took him to Giac Duyên's place, and there he met Kiều for whom his love had remained unchanged. Kiều's feelings had also remained unaltered.

On account of pressing entreaties from Kim and her own family, Kiều agreed to marry Kim. But she knew herself to be but "a stained flower which had been the prey of wasps and butterflies"; she asked Kim not to "try to recover fallen perfume, or search for a flower when the season's gone." They both agreed to live thenceforward as friends.

Such is a brief summary of the story of beautiful Kiều.

The theme was drawn by Nguyễn Du from a little-known Chinese novel and, as often happens in such cases, the result was a truly Vietnamese work whose splendour and originality in fact brought new life to the source material.

What has been the cause of Kiều's large audience and particular position in Vietnamese literature?

"The villager's songs have taught me the language of hemp and mulberry-trees", wrote Nguyễn Du in another of his poems. In fact, he lived for long years in the countryside, among peasants who grew rice, jute and mulberry-trees. The language of Kiều continues the tradition of fold-songs, of which it has kept the flexibility, realism and wealth of images and colours. It is not by pure chance that the common people know long passages of it by heart and that many of its verses have become proverbs and sayings.

But Kiều is not a folk-tale; it is a great literary achievement which can be ranked among the masterpieces of world literature. Nguyễn Du, who had thoroughly assimilated the Chinese and Vietnamese classics, succeeded in achieving a harmonious synthesis of the popular tongue and classical literary language. Kiều marked an important stage in the history of the Vietnamese language. Kiều contributed to enriching it, making it more flexible and giving it remarkable precision and conciseness. One understands why the work has remained up to this day a model which many a poet or writer has tried to imitate, for seldom can in any one writer be found such a wide gamut and rich palette.

A romantic writer, Nguyễn Du knows how to sing the beauty of a landscape, express the emotion of a lover's heart, sadness, melancholy, despair, or triumphant joy, in short all "lyric movements of the soul, modulations of dreams, and spasms of conscience." (Baudelaire).

A realist writer, he can forcefully draw a character in a few words or verges: a cupid mandarin, a cunning and insolent merchant, a "blue pavillion" (brothel) keeper, are pitilessly unmasked by sarcastic, scathing and colourful language. So much so that the names of many characters of Kiều have passed into the current language: a seducer is called a So Khanh, just as a skin-flint is called a Harpagon in French or a hypocrite a Pecksniff in English.

In his great realist work, Nguyễn Du unmasked and denounced often with violence, oppressive and rotten feudalism; in Kiều, there is not a single mandarin who evokes the sympathy of the reader. All misfortunes suffered by Kiều originate from the cupidity of a mandarin who, to secure a bribe, does not hesitate to drive a whole family to wretchedness. And when one penetrates into the palace of the Supreme Commander, one feels disgusted and stifled: for the greatest warrior of the Court can think of nothing better than a cowardly stratagem to get the upper hand of his enemy. One the contrary, what a gallant hero is the "rebel" Tu Hai who in his border area "holds his army, defies them all, with power to do all he wishes, and none to deny him!" One must understand how deeply rooted in a Confucian scholar's mind were the feelings of veneration for the Sovereign, respect for the mandarin class and horror for rebels, to fully realize Nguyễn Du's audacity. And he must get all the more credit for this boldness since at the time he write Kiều, feudal reaction was rampant. Nguyễn Huệ had died after a short period of glory; the Tây Sơn had been defeated by the Nguyễn Lords who again imposed on the country the yoke of feudalism.

The Vietnamese people had grasped the point: in Kiều they loved, and will continue to love, this passionate indictment of feudalism from which they suffered so much. For his part, Emperor Tự Đức had put the following note on the margin of his copy of Kiều, opposite the passage on the "rebel" Tu Hai: "The author would have deserved a good thrashing". Here we have Kiều, a girl of good family, who one night, in the absence of her parents and of course without their knowledge, went and joined the man she loved: what a scandal for a Confucian society over which the Master's precept had ruled for centuries: "There shall be no communications between young men and young girls." And far from castigating the lovers who dared to give themselves up to their passion without permission from their parents, the authour devoted many pages among the best of his work to their tender effusions. Love between people who had freely chosen each other, that feeling which had been held in contempt by feudalism for so many centuries, found in Nguyễn Du its true poet. In spite of the efforts of the Nguyễn monarchy which during the whole of the 19th century attempted to restore the most reactionary teachings of Confucianism, nothing could prevent the young people of Vietnam from loving beautiful and courageous Kiều and her faithful lover Kim.

Also knocked out of shape was the sacrosanct notion of fidelity according to which a woman must devote her whole life to a single man, even after his death: Kiều in her tribulations had a second passionate love when she met a man worthy of her, a hero. This second love, which an orthodox Confucian scholar would have vehemently condemned, found a zealous defender in Nguyễn Du.

Confucian puritanism prohibited the least allusion to physical love. Yet the poet did not shrink from painting a picture of Kiều taking her bath and unveiling to the eyes of a lover her "jade and ivory body". One must add that the poet's art allowed him to evoke images of the flesh with a discretion and a taste that kept from his realism all suggestions of indecency. For Kiều, forced by a ferocious society to prostitute herself, Nguyễn Du reserved all his sympathy: in the poem, her faithful lover rightly said that she had remained pure in spite of what she had suffered and that loyalty in love must be conceived in a much more humane way than in the views of the self-righteous hypocrites. By singing the praise of love founded on free choice in all its beauty and without excluding its physical side, Nguyễn Du claimed for women rights which had been flouted by feudal society. In the last spasms of that dying 18th century, a new emotion, love, became a part of the more or less clearly-felt aspirations of the great masses and, what was a sign of the times, the love between two handsome and gifted young people was the central theme of numerous poetical works. A new humanism appeared in opposition to the inhuman rigor and searing ritualism of Confucianism. This humanism raised an accusing voice when the poet described with scathing realism that savage society which had pitilessly destroyed all the innocent dreams of a girl in the freshness of her youth and dragged her in the mud. To this humanism, the great poet that Nguyễn Du was lent stirring accents, now tender and now pathetic, which engraved in the hearts of millions the aspiration to happiness that feudalism had always sought to smother.

One understands the resonance that so many passages of Kiều have found in the hearts of the Vietnamese people, a resonance still reinforced by the beauty of the verses.

Kiều (Excerpts)

Thus is the way of love

In the course of an outing to a country shrine, one day in Spring Kiều and Kim meet for the first time though in fact they are of neighbouring families.

On his return to his own room Kim find his thoughts turning constantly to this meeting. Night and day he dreams of the beautiful Kiều.

Thus is the way of love and this the way of lovers... The sensitive skein of the heart, who can unravel it? At his window, among his books this memory Possessed the young man Kim. The more he measured his distress The more it grew, it overflowed. Long were the days of waiting, Like the long-drawn sadness of many Autumns. The curtains like a veil of mist held fast their secret, His dear mirage in the world's red dust half hidden seemed. Moons changed in the course of the long nights, The oil in the lamp burnt low, And ever his thoughts turned to search for the same face, His heart still yearning for that other heart. Cold and close as a bell seemed his small room, His writing brushes idle lay by the lute with idle strings, Endless the wind sighed in the sun-blind of stretched silk. As soon as he lit the incense stick scent quickened memory, Though in vain he sought in tea the elusive aroma of love. Some day our destinies must unite... why suffer this cruel game? Heaven, what plan was this to let her cross my path, A girl so rare, of beauty by which citadels are stormed His dream was still his torment, memory was held entranced By the face of his longing and the sweet place where they met. He returned to behold again that place Green green as ever grew that grass, In the clear running stream no glint remained, Only the cool breeze of evening ruffled his yearning, The teasing rushes shook as by some passing form.

The Blue Pavillion

Kiều's family suffer sudden disaster so they arrange a hasty match for her. The "husband", however, turns out to be an elaborately disguised pimp who hands her over to a brothel. Finding herself trapped in this horrible life she attempts to kill herself, but is saved and subsequently held in solitary confinement in the "Blue Pavillion".

A prisoner now she must remain, Locked in the Blue Pavillion and alone In her young beauty. Only the distant mountains, Though so far, she felt as friends, and the near moon Watched at her window. All about, below around The sand dunes, ochre tinged and barren, spread afar; Dust from the roads blew a red restless mist. Morning in the heavens piled bright clouds, At night the lamp's lone fluttering flame danced in her eyes. All that she saw, all that she thought and felt Turned in confusion in her troubled heart Where is he now who drank love's cup with me? Day after day he waits for news of me In vain, in that lost country, under the skies of home. Love fresh, red and living in my heart still waits... My cherished parents... How I remember them With pity! ... morning and evening at the door, scanning the road Anxious, without a hope. Who now will care, On hot days to fan them or cover them from cold? In the courtyard of my home how many times Has the sun cast his blaze, has the rain wept? And there the catalpa tree1 now growing old Inert with sorrow at the fall of night she watched the waters far, On the estuary the small sails came and went Bearing who knows what travellers. Grieving she watched the running of the tides. Those tossed flowers on the waves, when will they rest? Grieving she watched the grasses withering on the dunes Sky and earth met there in a green that was only dusk Grieving she saw how the land-wind tossed the waters of the bay The clamorous waves came leaping to the walls of her lonely room.

1 Catalpa-trees: the parents.

Oath of Eternal Love

One evening, profiting by the absence of her parents, Kiều went to find Kim. The young lovers swore an oath of eternal love and stayed together late into the night.

The flowers grew richer, their perfume more insistent, The ardour in their eyes lit in one flame, Kim's passion surged within him, a strong flood And now some licence pierced his tenderness. She warned him... Let us not treat lightly this great love Now let me speak to you one simple word. Tender is the blossom of the peach and to the blue bird's coming Never would I lock the garden gate, But we are sworn to marry and for that She who must wear the wife's plain smock her body must keep pure, If like wantons in the mulberry-groves I fail, And all unworthy prove you I merit your contempt. Should we the passing flower of a day thus seize To stain henceforth the wholeness of our love? Remember Thoi and Truong's1 love so beautiful, Alas the rains and storms too quickly spoiled Their treasured loves, the too fond willing flowers Faded before the birds of Spring. Their pinions touched, The feathers interlaced... already love was fading, Contempt was whispering in their hearts, their vows undone That they held sacred once. And so love died in shame. The lovely Thoi her shuttle2 should have thrown To bind, not loose her love. Why should we haste To break the branch and snatch the flowers? The day will come when love will answer love.

1 Thoi and Truong: two characters of a famous Chinese novel. 2 Throwing the shuttle: a girl was weaving. A boy came to flirt. She threw the shuttle at him.


Peter Gammie

Last modified: Tue Sep 23 00:02:49 EST 2008