“The Tale of Kieu” by Nguyen Du

Each nation has great works of literature. If for representatives of the eastern culture the works by George Gordon Byron, Victor-Marie Hugo and many other great writers are considered the works which defined the development of literature for many years, eastern culture was influenced greatly by Confucianism and Buddhism. The philosophy influenced not only the religious aspect of eastern civilizations. Confucianism was a method of cognition and existence. That is why one can trace features of the philosophical doctrine in great works of literature. The Tale of Kieu is considered one of the great works by Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du. The epic poem which is regarded as one of the best works of Vietnamese literature tells a story of a girl who had to sell herself in order to save her near and dear. As a representative of his culture Nguyen Du dedicated his poem to the theme of virtue. One of the virtues was filial piety. “Filial piety or, more exactly, ancestral piety, was an essential element in ancient religion and thus in ancient life in general” (Holzman 185). Still, Confucianism dictated lots of principles Vietnamese people had to follow. Through images of the minor characters the author revealed the essence of the philosophical notion “virtue” and its peculiarity in eastern culture, the role it played in the destiny of the poet himself.

There are several characters in the poem, each of them reveal main ideas of the author and set off the image of young Kieu. Scholar Ma played a tragic role in the destiny of the young girl. In the eastern culture the beauty of tragedy is considered deeper, purer, and truer than the beauty of happiness. “Vietnamese literature is a reservoir of cultural conceptualizations and explanations of social suffering” (Gammeltoft 589). For example, Confucius highlighted that true virtue is in filial piety. From the point of view of literary criticism, if scholar Ma was not the main cause for Kieu to become a prostitute, Kieu’s renunciation would not be so prominent. Ma destroyed her personal happiness, but doing this he immortalized her virtue. Just that very situation became classic from the point of view of Chinese and Vietnamese literature, the cult which presupposes that personal life is sacrificed in the name of virtue, duty, responsibility, and social benefit. Nevertheless, the virtue of Kieu was impossible without Ma. Ma is a primitive instrument of fate and, at the same time, an ordinary representative of his epoch and social group.

Thuc’s image includes several issues such as the question of strength and weakness, the problem of a child’s respect to his parent, and the question of husband’s social obligations. In fact, paternity will plays a great role in the poem; Thuc just could not disobey his father because it was impossible from the point of view of Eastern philosophy. Father’s image personifies the idea of social, moral and virtuous responsibilities. For Kieu and Thuc this fact was the universal truth; still the girl was stronger than her lover and she took responsibility and decided to face the judge. Thuc could not fulfill his obligation to his wife and to Kieu: when the judge took pity and ordered their marriage, Thuc was afraid of his first wife and did not reveal his relationships with the girl. Kieu saved faces even in shameful situations, while Thuc fell sacrifice to his passions and weaknesses. Kieu is strong even in the hours of hardships and This is influenced by her strength, when he helps her escape the temple and the threat which his wife corresponds. True virtue serves as an example for others and strengthens them.

Kim Throng’s ordeal was separation with Kieu, and even the reunion of lovers was not so happy. It happened because they married, but their relationships were not full.

Of love and friendship they fulfilled both claims –
They shared no bed but joys of lute and verse…
Their wishes all came true since fate so willed,
And of two lovers marriage made two friends. (Nguyen Du 165)

Their mutual life is both reward and ordeal for Kieu. At the end of life human’s soul seeks for truth. Kieu becomes a nun, and does not want to defile Kim Throng’s ordeal and proves that true virtue is renunciation (according to Confucius).

According to Confucius, everything that happens with us is predetermined from above.

This we have learned: with Heaven rests all things.
Heaven appoints each human to a place.
If doomed to roll in dust, we’ll roll in dust;
We’ll sit on high when destined for high seats. (Nguyen Du 167)

That is why, true virtue lies in the ability to accept destiny, but not resist it, even if it breaks personal happiness.

Summarizing our work it should be pointed out that the autobiographical poem by Nguyen Du includes several layers of Confucianism principle representation. Everything in the world is interconnected and interrelated. Virtue is highly connected with fates in the same way, the first is impossible without the second. That is why we should change our nature in order to follow our fate humbly. Hardship, our personal feelings and different people on our life path are just steps of self-development, and renunciation is one of the highest rungs. The theme is revealed through the images of the poem’s characters and their interrelations with Kieu and each other.

Works Cited

Du, Nguyen. The Tale of Kieu: A bilingual edition of Nguyen Dus Truyen Kieu. Trans. Huynh Sanh Thong. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987. Print.

Gammeltoft, Tine. “‘Beyond Being’: Emergent Narratives of Suffering in Vietnam. Emergence D’une Narration De la Souffrance Au Vietnam.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 12.3 (2006): 589.

Holzman, Donald. “The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China.” The Journal of the American Oriental Society 118.2 (1998): 185.

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