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250 years later, Nguyen Du still stirs debate

Update: December, 13/2015 - 09:36
Field trip: A teacher takes Tien Dien Primary School pupils to visit the Nguyen Du Memorial, only a few hundred yards from their school. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

Covering complex topics like love and treason, the epic poem The Tale of Kieu still resonates more than two centuries later. Nguyen My Ha reports.

Nguyen Thi Nhung, 37, is a primary school teacher, teaching for the first time at the Tien Dien Primary School, after 13 years in remote schools in Loc Ha District.

Nhung was taking her pupils to visit the nearby Nguyen Du Memorial, which consists of a museum and a surrounding garden, a stone stele and an inauguration stone of his father, and last, but not least, three trees planted by him.

The group was accompanied by the school's principal, who insisted on showing off the children's ability to perform a courting scene between Kieu and her first love Kim Trong.

The two children, still wearing their school uniforms, offered the most spontaneous show I have ever had the chance to witness.

The only tools they needed were two pairs of paper fans, in pink and blue, to sing and dance with. Luckily, in the auditorium next door, the real rehearsal for the show was taking a break.

The Tale of Kieu talks about the upheaval of a young woman with stories of love and treason, faith and disbelief, life and death in one's honour. The epic showcases the state-of-the-art poetic description and metaphor, classical cliches and beautiful rhymes.

The Tale of Kieu is an epic poem and is considered the cornerstone of Vietnamese literature. Nguyen Du wrote 3,254 lines of six-eight metre, a rhythmic poetry style more popular in folkloric proverbs than academic poetry style. The storyline evolves around the ups and down of an upper middle-class young woman, who decided to sacrifice herself to save her father and younger brother from a prison sentence for a crime they did not commit.

She sold herself to get married to a middle-aged man, not knowing that he would later sell her to a brothel. Having failed to kill herself with a knife, her life then drifted from one man to another. They either pitied her miserable condition or loved her beauty and talent. They all wanted her as a mistress or even a wife. As a Vietnamese saying goes, "Beauty leads to bad fate". Kieu continued to struggle until she met an anti-royalist leader, who fell in love with her and helped her start a new life.

Tricked by the governor, she convinced her warrior to surrender to the authorities, to just be sold out once again. Desperate, she jumped into a river. Saved by a nun living nearby, Kieu lived till the day her first love Kim Trong, now a successful court mandarin, set out to look for her. They met again but she felt she did not deserve to be with Kim, but promised they would be friends forever.

Life of Nguyen Du

Amid the most tumultuous political changes of the country's 18th century history, Nguyen Du was born into an upper class family. His father was the Court's prime minister, who was both a literary master who won royal examinations and a martial general who was a master on the battlefield. His mother was the father's third wife, and was a talented and beautiful singer.

However, the jobs of musicians and singers were not thought of as respectable before Viet Nam became a republic in 1945.

During his lifetime, Nguyen Du lived through three dynasties in 18th century Viet Nam: the Le, who ran the longest dynasty in power, the rise and fall of Emperor Quang Trung, the undefeatable military talent, and the Nguyen, the last monarchy of Viet Nam.

Nguyen Du's father served the last king of the Le Dynasty and rose in the hierarchal ranking of the powerful general of de-facto rulers, the Trinh Lords.

Born in Thang Long citadel, when it was the country's capital into one of the most powerful and wealthy families, Nguyen Du inherited both, his father's literary talents and his mother's sensitivity.

When he was a year old, his father was promoted to prime minister and he had a wealthy, happy childhood until the age of 8, according to historical documents, which typically factor the child's nine months spent in the mother's womb into the child's age.

In 1774, his father went southward to conquer the opposition factions of the Court. His army suffered heavily and he died two years later. Two more years went by and his mother also died in 1778 when Nguyen Du was barely a young man.

The same year, when Tay Son defeated both the Trinh and Nguyen Lords and Quang Trung was declared Emperor in 1778, Nguyen Du was coming of age at 13.

Then began the long arduous youth of the young man, when he moved in and out with relatives and family's friends growing up and learning to become a man of letters. After his mother died, he moved in with his eldest brother, 31 years his senior, and held a mandarin's post.

The Nguyen from the land of Tien Dien in Ha Tinh Province had been faithful to the Le Dynasty for six to seven generations before Nguyen Du. It was the Nguyen's family's honour.

During the next 24 years, the brief reign of the Tay Son Dynasty, Nguyen Du moved several times and opposed the rise of the Tay Son.

Two years later, his big brother was charged with attempting to overthrow the ruling dynasty and was imprisoned.

Then, Doan Nguyen Tuan, one of his father's friends, took custody of Nguyen Du and took him home to the southern suburbs of Thang Long to raise and teach.

In 1783, at 18, he won the baccalaureate at the provincial court exam. He then got married and was assigned a military position.

Brought to life: An open-air exhibition of life-sized artwork in the garden depicts scenes from The Tale of Kieu.

Six years later, in 1789, Emperor Quang Trung defeated the 200,000-strong Qing army from China. His foster father sided with the new King and was assigned an important post.

Faithful to the former dynasty, which was now falling apart, Nguyen Du left the citadel to live with his wife's family in Thai Binh Province.

After the rise of the new dynasty, members of the big Nguyen family left Thang Long Citadel for their native Ha Tinh Province, or dispersed into remote hamlets in Bac Ninh and Nghe An, changing their names and concealing their backgrounds to avoid working for the new rulers.

One of Nguyen Du's brother was charged with opposing the Tay Son, arrested and killed. The Nguyen family residence in Tien Dien was destroyed.

In 1793, Nguyen Du went to his home village in Tien Dien, Ha Tinh, then made a brief visit to Hue to see his brother-in-law. Six years later, he ran away to side with Tay Son's opposition leader Nguyen Anh, who later founded the Nguyen Dynasty in 1802. But his attempt failed and Nguyen Du was imprisoned for three months. A pile of poems later were composed based on the time he spent behind bars.

When Nguyen Anh became King Gia Long in 1802, he invited Nguyen Du to serve under his rule. The man of letters was assigned to be governor of a province, then the court's ambassador to China's Qing Court to receive the recognition of the new King.

From then until his last breath at the age of 55, Nguyen Du served the Nguyen Kings, representing his country in the Kingdom of China, which enriched his literary expertise and understanding.

Prodigious poet

Nguyen Du's literary legacy comprised poetry written in Han and Nom scripts. Han-scripted works included Thanh Hien thi tap (78-poem Thanh Hien poetry collection) written before his service in the Nguyen court), Nam Trung tap ngam, (40 poems), Various poems were sung in the South, written when he worked in Hue, Quang Binh and some other posting south of Ha Tinh, and Bac hanh tap luc, (Various essays written on the trip to the North - 131 poems).

Back in the 15th century Vietnamese scholars thought of a new script, that used Han script to write the way Vietnamese speak, which is called Nom. In a way, Nom is even more difficult than the Han script to start with. The Queen of poetry written in Nom has been credited to Ho Xuan Huong, and the King of the language must undoubtedly be awarded to Nguyen Du.

Nguyen Du's poems written in Nom script are the most well-known, remembered and loved in Viet Nam. Doan truong tan thanh, literally meaning the Arduous Odyssey of a Young Maiden, is known the world over as the Tale of Kieu.

His other works in Nom include Thac loi trai phuong non, a 48-line poem representing the boys of the conical hat guild declaring their love for the girls of the weaving guild, and Van te song Truong Luu nhi nu, or the 99-line poem to voice his grudge over the desperate love for two other girls of the weaving guild.

Up for interpretation

This year, to commemorate Nguyen Du's 250th birthday, a series of exhibitions, poetry recitals, theatrical shows and workshops, seminars and a nationwide live television broadcast of the main ceremony from Tien Dien, his home village, are being organised.

The entourage of teachers and pupils we met that day said: "How do you teach a small child the sad facts of Kieu?"

"We only taught them the beauty of landscape description, the metaphors and rhymes," Nhung the teacher, answered.

Records showed that in the first 100 years after he died, literary critics and scholars of notable significance were divided about The Tale of Kieu.

In his latest essay, written on this occasion and unpublished in the Vietnamese media, Kieu scholar Tran Nho Thin wrote, "The Tale of Kieu, seen through the eyes of Confucian scholars".

In a retrospective take of over 200 years, Tran Nho Thin set out to look for, as he wrote in his essay, "What did Nguyen Du really say?"

Digging up old Nom script books, the scholar at Ha Noi National University tried to get into the mind of the Nom writers, whom, he supposed, shared cultural and literary codes with Nguyen Du.

"What they had said," he writes, "comes closer with what Nguyen Du really was trying to convey."

In his essay, Tran Nho Thin went through the archives to look at the way King Minh Mang (1791-1841) and Nguyen Cong Tru (1778-1858), the poet and scholar, and a high ranking court mandarin who served three Emperors of the Nguyen Dynasty — Gia Long, Minh Mang and Thieu Tri — lived.

The assessment of Emperor Minh Mang and Nguyen Cong Tru can be at two ends of a critical line, when one praises Thuy Kieu for her attempts to abide by Confucian rules that sets the behavioural ethics for a woman, the other spared no words, deeming her a prostitute who went through the lowest levels of society.

Emperor Minh Mang was a Confucian scholar and he definitely supported the principal pillars of a society when a man must be faithful to his king, his teacher and his father, and a woman must follow her father, then her husband and her son. Throughout her life, she was expected to know only the man she married and called husband. If things went the other way, she was supposed to die to preserve her honour.

Thus, Minh Mang praised Kieu for attempting to kill herself knowing that she was going to be sold to a brothel.

"Using a sharp knife to commit suicide, she was such a maiden with self-righteousness," the king was quoted in the essay. "Telling a grand man to give up and obey his king, she was an honest patriot."

"The Nguyen monarchy made Confucius its national faith," writes Tran Nho Thin. "Always value the faithfulness of the man to his king, and that of a wife to the man in her life."

On the other end of criticism, Nguyen Cong Tru, a Confucian scholar, poet and statesman, heavily criticised Kieu for selling herself to live in a brothel, dismissing the fact that she tried to kill herself in the first place.

Using harsh words, Nguyen Cong Tru wrote that Kieu "did not keep herself clean for letting herself through with a bunch of men, from a deceitful Ma Giam Sinh, to the strong man of grand virtues like Tu Hai. She sold herself out over those years, who else can be deceived to believe in her 'filial piety' motto?" This is a rough translation of what Nguyen Cong Tru wrote.

In the early 20th century, Huynh Thuc Khang and Tan Da, both noted patriots and scholars also heavily criticised the heroine Kieu calling her a "prostitute".

Publisher of Tieng Dan newspaper, Huynh spoke strongly against the romanticism in the New Poetry movement and called it "the decadence of morality".

In 1934, romantic poet Luu Trong Lu even made a statement saying that the values of The Tale of Kieu were only the literary and poetic craftsmanship of maestro Nguyen Du, and the subject matter was not worth paying attention to. "She was just another prostitute from the Binh Khang neighbourhood," he was quoted as saying in Tran Nho Thin's essay.

More than 200 years ago, Nguyen Du was already ahead of his time.

Being a scholar who learnt all the rules and standards of a Confucian society, he knew them all too well. But his heart fell for the weak, in this case, the woman who had nowhere and no one to turn to when her family, her parents were put in jail.

His description of all the ordeals Kieu had gone through only showed his empathy for a human being, for a desperate soul trying to get out of her situation to live her life anew.

Not only in The Tale of Kieu did he show his humanism, but his other work, Van chieu hon, or poem dedicated to the deceased world of all creatures, he turned his love to all who died without being worshipped and wandering souls.

A young critic, Nhi Linh, writes in his blog: "Born into the highest class in society with an indepth and educational background, Nguyen Du slid out of his aristocratic world. We can say that he went really low, to the fates less fortunate, a self-lowered manner that is typical of a Confucian aristocrat."

During his time, one of his notables phrase was: "In 300 years' time, who in the world would weep over To Nhu?"

Pen-named To Nhu, he still has people talking about his work and life 250 years later. Now he will have the last laugh, as those who loved him or criticised him, have to accept his magical use of the Vietnamese language and metaphor.

Fifty years' time is just a blink of history, but Nguyen Du will still get people fascinated about him as a scholar, a poet, and above all, a compassionate soul who shared love for the weak, the desperate and the forgotten. — VNS

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