Vietnamese Culture - A 1970's Perspective
                       Copyright 1996 Vn-families

Issue #22. Vietnamese literature in "Chu Nom", Vietnam Bulletin, 
Februrary 1, 1971.

We will run this column weekly until we run out of interesting cultural 
Please direct all questions to [email protected]
Here is the proposed schedule of this column.

Issue #1:  Tet 1971 in Vietnam! by Phu Si, VB710118
Issue #2:  The Unicorn dance at Tet, by Minh Tam, VB710118.
Issue #3:  The origin of Tao Quan, the three kitchen gods, by
           George F. Schultz, VB710118.
Issue #4:  1971 - The year of the Pig, by Van Ngan, VB710118.
Issue #5   The Joy of "first writing of the new year", by Thuy Ngoc,
Issue #6:  Traditional Vietnamese male attire, by Van Ngan, VB710208
Issue #7:  The legend of Princess Lieu Hanh, George F. Schultz, VB710215 
Issue #8:  The dialogue on Mount Na-Son, George F. Schultz, VB710222
Issue #9:  The secret housewife, George F. Schultz, VB710301
Issue #10: The golden axe, George F. Schultz, VB710308
Issue #11: Golden age of Viet Nam under the Hung Kings, Pham Tung, 
Issue #12: The legend of Chu Van Dich, George F Schutlz, VB701221
Issue #13: The sandalwood maiden, George F. Schultz, VB7010??
Issue #14: Legend about Emperor Ly Thai-To, George F Schultz, VB7010??
Issue #15. Chu Dong-Tu and Princess Tien Dung, George F. Schultz,
Issue #16. The husband's most difficult task: teaching his wife, 
           Van Ngan, VB 691216
Issue #17: Superstition in Viet Nam, Van Ngan, VB6911??
Issue #18: Hair: VN style, VB7007??
Issue #19: Funeral rites in Viet-Nam, Van Ngan, VB7006??
Issue #20: "Non Bai Tho" or the "Poetical Leaf", ???, VB7011?? 
Issue #21: The different systems of writings in Viet-Nam, ???, VB710201 
Issue #22: Vietnamese literature in "Chu Nom", ???, VB710201 -
           June 12, 1996.
Issue #23: The boat of illusion, Nguyet Cam, Heritage Sept/Oct 1995
            - June 19, 1996.
Issue #24: Tran Hung Dao's proclamation to his officers, 
           George F. Schultz, VB 710201 - June 26, 1996.
                     Vietnamese literature in "Chu Nom"
                    KIM-VAN-KIEU by Nguyen-Du (1765-1820)

                      NGUYEN-DU[1], OUR NATIONAL POET
"Nothing better reflects the soul of a nation than its heroes and poets. 
If the Vietnamese do not all agree in their choice of a national hero, 
they unanimously consider Nguyen-Du, the author of �Kim-Van-Kieu ", a 
3,254 line poem composed in the early 19th century, as their national 

�With this masterpiece, Nguyen-Du consecrated his mother tongue as a 
poetical language of an extraordinary delicacy, power and richness. He 
also gave to the soul of his fatherland a sensitive and prestigious 
mirror in which its eternal image, evolving throughout the centuries and 
in changing settings, is reflected."[2]

Nguyen-Du was born in 1765 at the village of Tien-Dien, in the province 
of Ha-Tinh (now in North Vietnamese territory), the seventh child of a 
former Prime Minister under the Le dynasty. Several members of his 
family, including one of his brothers, were noted scholars and mandarins 
at the Court. At the age of 17, Nguyen-Du himself passed the traditional 
Chinese-style triennal competitive examination and received the title of 
"tu-tai", which opened up for him prospects of a bright mandarinal 
career. At that time, Viet-Nam was going through one of the darkest 
periods of her history, torn apart, as she now is, by a protracted civil 
war. It was not, however, an ideological war imposed by one party upon 
the other- such as is the case in the present conflict - but a war 
between two rival feudal families.

Since the early 17th century, Viet-Nam had been. partitioned into two 
parts along the Gianh river (19th parallel), the North under the control 
of the Trinh, the South under the Nguyen. The two families fought 
against each other while pledging allegiance to the Le dynasty, which 
each of them claimed to recognize as the legitimate authority. After 
fifty years of civil war, marked by intermittent campaigns in both parts 
of the country, a 100-year truce followed and lasted until 1774. But two 
years before, in 1772 - Nguyen-Du was then 7 years old - a-local 
rebellion led by three brothers, Nguyen-Nhac, Nguyen-Lu and Nguyen-Hue 
from the village of Tay Son, in the present central coastal province of 
Binh-Dinh, had reached the proportion of a nationwide revolution 
directed against both rival houses and widely-supported by the poverty-
stricken peasants and the newly-emerging small merchant class - Kieu's 
father belonged to that new class, "he was neither rich nor poor" - tired 
by war and the exactions of corrupt officials at all levels.

The Tay Son revolt very quickly became fatal to the Nguyen: in 1776, 
Saigon fell and Nguyen-Anh, the heir to the Nguyen "throne", fled the 
country and sought refuge in Siam. The Tay Son brothers then turned 
against the Trinh: Nguyen-Hue, the youngest brother, and one of the most 
outstanding Vietnamese generals, captured Thang-Long (Hanoi) in 1786 and 
deposed the Trinh. Nguyen-Hue formally restored the Le dynasty and 
married the daughter of Emperor Le-Hien-Tong, Princess Ngoc-Han, a 
famous poetess. Le-Hien-Tong�s successor Le-Chieu-Thong, asked the 
Mandchu rulers for help and a 200,000-man Chinese army invaded VietNam 
but was routed by Nguyen-Hue in 1789. Le-Chieu-Thong fled to China and 
it was the end of the Le dynasty. For a few years, the Tay Son were 
going to be the masters of the whole of Viet-Nam but in 1802 they were 
in their turn defeated by Nguyen-Anh, supported by France. The rule of 
the Tay Son was brief but the unity of Viet-Nam which they had shaped 
survived and was to be strengthened by Nguyen-Anh, who became Emperor 
Gia Long.

It is necessary to keep in mind this historical and social background in 
order to understand both Nguyen-Du and his main work, "Kim-Van-Kieu".

One of the first lines of the poem -"Oceans turn to mulberry fields, a 
desolate scene", was an obvious reference to those upheavals and 

Faithful to the Le dynasty, Nguyen-Du and members of his family joined 
the fight against the Tay Son - although according to certain historians 
apparently without much conviction - but as he realized that it was of 
no avail, he refused to co-operate with the new regime and returned to 
his native village. For several years led a secluded life, hunting, 
reading, writing and spending long hours walking in the Hong-Linh 99-
peak mountain range area.

After the collapse of the Tay Son, Nguyen-Du halfheartedly rallied 
Emperor Gia-Long - some historians believe that he was "drafted"- and 
started a brilliant mandarinal career, first as a provincial 
administrator, then at the Court. 1n 1813 - he was then 48 - he was 
appointed Can-Chanh (Grand Chancellor of the Empire) and went as Special 
Envoy to China.

It was during that diplomatic mission that he noticed a Chinese novel 
entitled "The story of Kim-Van-Kieu ", written by an author under the 
pen-name of "Thanh-Tam Tai-Nhan" in the 16th or the early 17th century, 
which he later adapted into his own poem.

On his return to Viet-Nam, Nguyen-Du was promoted Le-Bo huu tam-tri 
(Vice-Minister of Rites) and in 1820, the first year of the reign of 
Emperor Minh Mang, on the point of leaving on another Embassy to China, 
he fell suddenly ill and died at the age of 56.

                     " DOAN-TRUONG TAN-THANH "

The initial title given by Nguyen-Du to "Kim-Van-Kieu" was "Doan-Truong 
Tan-Thanh" (New accents of a heart-rending song). It recounts the trials 
and tribulations of Kieu, a beautiful and talented girl, who had to 
sacrifice her love and sell herself - she was driven into prostitution - 
in order to save her father from jail, out of filial piety. According to 
most literary critics, Nguyen-Du saw in Kieu�s life and destiny a sad 
replica of his own. For him and his family, Gia-Long was after all a 
"usurper" and serving him was, according to Confucian ethical concepts, 
an act of disloyalty (that tiet), if not of treason or "moral 
prostitution ".

During his years at the Court, Nguyen-Du proved an able and honest 
administrator. But he gave the impression of feeling more at ease among 
peasants and the common people than among his colleagues. For these, he 
was a silent and moody man. Some of them saw in his attitude sheer 
arrogance and aloofness but those who knew him more intimately realized 
that he bore some secret wound. One day, during a Court session, Emperor 
Gia-Long himself reproachingly asked him why he usually remained silent 
while state affairs were being debated: Nguyen sobbed and offered to 
resign but the Emperor refused.

In a famous two-line verse, Nguyen-Du, who wrote under the pen-name of 
To-Nhu, in one of his pessimistic moods, wondered whether within three 
hundred years, there would be "someone, somewhere, who would still 
remember him with tenderness ".

It was a mere lack of self-confidence on his part, for "Kim-Van-Kieu ", 
after 150 years, is still the most popular poem in Viet-Nam and the 
foreigners who know it through translations - although translations are 
unable to render all its poetical beauty and flavour - readily recognize 
it as one of the masterpieces of universal literature.

Few are the Vietnamese - whatever their social background - who do not 
know one or two lines of the poem and some of them even use it as a book 
of oracles, finding in it, in times of difficulty and stress if not the 
answer, at least an echo to their own problems.

In "Kim-Van-Kieu" we find the dominant themes of Buddhism.

[1] Pronounced in the northern dialect: zoo; in the southern dialect: 
[2] From the introduction to the translation into French of "Kim-Van-
Kieu" by Xuan-Phuc and Xuan-Viet,in the "Connaissance de 1�Orient" 
series, sponsored by UNESCO, Gallimard, Paris, 1961.


Four score and two tens, within that short span of human life,
Talent and Destiny are poised in bitter conflict.
Oceans turn to mulberry fields: a desolate scene!
More gifts, less chance, such is the law of Nature
And the blue sky is known to be jealous of rosy cheeks.

                             KIEU�S FAMILY

Pages of fragrant manuscripts turn under the lamplight
And the �Rom"nces of yore "[1] recorded on green tablets,
Recount that, one year, under the reign of Gia Tinh[2]of the Ming 
There lived a craftsman by the name of Vuong.
He was neither rich nor poor.
His youngest child, a son, Vuong Quan, was a scholar, a proud link in 
the family tradition.
He had two daughters: they were as beautiful as the goddess of the Moon:
Thuy Kieu was the older sister, Thuy Van the younger one.
Both were as graceful as the "mai" flower and as pure as snow.
Each had her own charm, a perfect charm in its way.
Van was endowed with an uncommon poise,
Her face was one of harmonious features adorned with brows of a noble 
A smile as fresh as a flower gave her a touch of natural distinction, a 
word she uttered was a precious stone.
Clouds could not shape the graceful fall of her hair and snow was no 
match for her complexion.
But there was more refinement, more glamour in Kieu�s charm
And in wit and culture she outshone her sister.
Her gaze had the deep intensity of an autumn lake,
The curve of her brows was like the dreamful line of mountains in the 
Flowers envied her frail delicacy, willows her green youth.
A smile from her could rock empires and citadels.
Her beauty was exceptional, her talents unrivaled.
Nature had bestowed upon her bountiful gifts:
She was equally well versed in poetry, painting, singing and diction.
The five-scale tone had no secret for her.
She excelled in the playing of the lute
And her favorite piece was her composition, "The cruel fate", a poignant 
A fair maiden, she lived behind curtains and screens,
Approaching the age when she would adorn her hair with combs and pins, 
Indifferent to the bees and butterflies frolicking at the Eastern wall.
[1] The Chinese novel on which is based Nguyen Du's Kim-Van-Kieu. 
[2] 1522-1566.
[3] Age when girls could marry.