Nguyễn Du (阮攸; 1766–1820, pennames Tố Như and Thanh Hiên) is a celebrated Vietnamese poet who wrote in Nom, the ancient writing script of Vietnam. He is most known for writing the epic poem The Tale of Kieu.
Nguyễn Du was born in 1766 in Bích Câu, Thăng Long. His father is Nguyễn Nghiễm, born in Tiên Điền village, Nghi Xuân, Hà Tĩnh, Vietnam. He was the seventh child of Nguyễn Nghiễm, a former prime minister under the Lê Dynasty. By the age of thirteen, Nguyễn had lost both of his parents, so for most of his teen years he lived with his brother Nguyễn Khản or with his brother-in-law Đoàn Nguyễn Tuấn.
At the age of 19 (some sources say 17), Nguyễn passed the provincial examination and received the title of "tú tài", which made him (very roughly) the equivalent of a high school graduate. However, in Nguyễn Du's time this was a far more difficult credential to obtain both because few people were affluent enough to devote themselves to study and because of exacting standards applied.
Nguyễn's mother was his father's third wife, noted for her ability at singing and composing poetry. In fact, she made her living by singing, which at that time was considered a disreputable occupation. It is said that Nguyễn may have inherited a part of his talents from his mother. He loved listening to traditional songs; and there was a rumor that, when he was 18, he himself eloped with a songstress.
After passing the provincial exam, he was appointed to the position of a military advisor in the Royal (Trịnh) army. After the Trịnh Lords were defeated in 1786 by Nguyễn Huệ (the second youngest, most able and popular of the three Tây Sơn brothers), Nguyễn Du refused to serve in the Tây Sơn administration. He was arrested and held for some time before moving back to his native village in the north of the country.
When Nguyễn Ánh defeated the Tây Sơn and took control over all of Vietnam in 1802, Nguyễn Du agreed to serve in his administration (many mandarins from the north refused to do this as it was widely felt that a mandarin should only serve one dynasty). At first he was given his old post of military advisor but after a decade he was promoted to ambassador to China (1813). While in China, he discovered and translated the Ming Dynasty era tale that would become the basis for the Tale of Kieu. He was later appointed to two more diplomatic missions to Peking, but before he could depart for the last one, he died of a long illness for which he refused treatment.
Nguyễn's father had been a minister under the Lê Dynasty, and his family had benefited greatly under their rule. For most of his life, Nguyễn Du was haunted by what he felt was his own betrayal of the rightful rulers of Vietnam, which occurred when he accepted a post under the Nguyễns.
The Tale of Kieu
It is necessary to keep in mind his historical and social background in order to understand both Nguyễn Du and his main work, The Tale of Kieu (Vietnamese Truyện Kiều), which was based on an earlier Chinese work known as Kim Vân Kiều and was originally titled Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh (lit. new accents of a heart-rending song).
The Tale of Kieu was written under a pen-name as the story was quite critical of the basic tenets of Confucian morality. It is a tragic tale of two lovers forced apart by the girl's loyalty to her family honor. Nguyễn added his own pain and guilt over the self-betrayal of his own code of honor, and the result is one of the greatest masterpieces of Vietnamese literature.
In Vietnam, the poem is so popular and beloved that there are allegedly illiterate peasants who know the whole epic by heart and can recite it without a mistake.
Most cities in Vietnam have named major streets after him.
- Bắc Hành Tạp Lục (Travels to the North)
- Điêu la thành ca giả
- Long thành cầm giả ca
- Mộng đắc thái liên
- Nam Trung Tạp Ngâm (Various Poems)
- Ngẫu hứng V
- Ngô gia Đệ cựu ca cơ
- Thác lời trai phường nón
- Thanh Hiên thi tập (Poems of Thanh Hiên)
- Văn chiêu hồn
Besides Vietnamese poetry, Nguyen also wrote some poems in Chinese.
- Renowned Vietnamese Intellectuals prior to the 20th Century (essay by the Vietnamese historian Nguyen Khac Vien) published by The Gioi Publishers, 2004.
- Patricia M. Pelley Postcolonial Vietnam: New Histories of the National Past 2002 Page 126 "Many postcolonial critics who focused on the masterpiece of Vietnamese literature — Nguyễn Du's narrative poem The Tale of Kiều — were tempted to interpret it as a critical, allegorical reflection on the rise of the Nguyễn dynasty."
- Vietnam Country Map. Periplus Travel Maps. 2002–03. ISBN 0-7946-0070-0.