The Tale of Kieu
|The Tale of Kiều|
Book cover with Chữ Nôm text, published 1905
|Full title||Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh|
|Also known as||Truyện Kiều|
|Date of issue||1820|
|State of existence||Emperor Minh Mạng|
The Tale of Kiều is an epic poem in Vietnamese written by Nguyễn Du (1766–1820), and is widely regarded as the most significant work of Vietnamese literature. The original title in Vietnamese is Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh (斷腸新聲, "A New Cry From a Broken Heart"), but it is better known as Truyện Kiều (傳翹, lit. "Tale of Kiều") pronunciation (help·info).
In 3,254 verses, written in lục bát (6/8) meter, the poem recounts the life, trials and tribulations of Thúy Kiều, a beautiful and talented young woman, who had to sacrifice herself to save her family. To save her father and younger brother from prison, she sold herself into marriage with a middle-aged man, not knowing that he is a pimp, and was forced into prostitution. Modern interpretations vary, some post-colonial writers have tried to interpret it as a critical, allegorical reflection on the rise of the Nguyễn dynasty.
Nguyễn Du made use of the plot of a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, known in Vietnamese pronunciation of Chinese characters as Kim Vân Kiều (金雲翹). The Chinese original written by an otherwise unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen (Chinese: 青心才人; Pure Hearted Man of Talen) in classical Chinese was a straight-forward romance but Nguyễn Du chose it to convey the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.
Vietnam at that was ruled nominally by the 300 year-old Lê Dynasty but real power rested in the Trịnh Lords in the north and the Nguyễn Lords in the south. While the Trịnh and the Nguyễn were fighting against each other, the Tây Sơn rebels overthrew both the Nguyễn and then the Trịnh over the span of a decade. Nguyễn Du was loyal to the Lê Dynasty and hoped for the return of the Lê king. In 1802 the Nguyễn lord, Nguyễn Ánh, conquered all of Vietnam forming the new Nguyễn Dynasty. Nguyễn Ánh (now Emperor Gia Long), summoned Nguyễn Du to join the new government and, with some reluctance, he did so. Nguyễn Du's situation in terms of conflicting loyalties between the previous Lê king and the current Nguyễn emperor is partially analogous to the situation of the main character in The Tale of Kiều who submitted to circumstances but her heart longed for her first love.
The entire plot in the Tale of Kieu spans over fifteen years. At the beginning of the story, Thuy Kieu—a beautiful and educated girl—connects with the grave of a dead singer—Dam Tien. There, she meets and promises to marry Kim Trong without parental consent. However, while Kim was away for half a year, Kieu's family was imprisoned by the government for a vaguely described crime. Kieu decides to sell herself to Scholar Ma to free her family, therefore showing her deeply rooted filial piety. Scholar Ma turns out to run a brothel, where Kieu is forced into prostitution. Kieu's beauty attracts many men, including Thuc Sinh, who proceeds to buy Kieu out of the prostitution house. They live together for a while, although he is married to the daughter of a prime minister. Thuc Sinh's wife becomes enraged and jealous, and passive aggressively kidnaps Kieu and sentences her as a slave, to serve Thuc Sinh and the wife. Thuc Sinh never dares to admit that he is in love with Kieu to his wife. Kieu runs away from the estate, stealing two candlesticks in the process. She goes into a Buddhist temple, where Giac graciously accepts her. However, after realizing that Kieu carried stolen property, she was thrown back into a brothel, where she met Tu Hai, the revolutionary. Tu Hai and Kieu get married and live together for five years, reigning a temporary kingdom. Kieu convinces her husband to surrender all in favor of amnesty. This eventually leads to the invasion of Tu Hai's kingdom, and the death of Tu Hai himself. Kieu is forced to marry a tribal chief, and devastated, throws herself into the river. The Buddhist nun saves her, having heard a prophecy about Kieu's fate. Meanwhile, Kim Trong, Kieu's first love, has provided housing for Kieu's parents. He has been searching for Kieu, and eventually finds her with the Buddhist nun. Kieu is reunited with her first love and her family, thus ending her cycle of bad karma. She agrees to marry Kim Trong, but refuses to have sex with him.
The tension between Kieu's impulsive tendencies and filial piety is evident. She tries to make the right decision, but ultimately follows her passions. She believes that she is fated to suffer, due to karma from the evils of a previous life. There is a constant struggle between Confucian virtues and Buddhist beliefs throughout the poem, but Confucianism ultimately prevails as in the end, Kieu returns home to serve her parents and fulfill her role as a daughter and wife. Likewise, Kieu as a character struggles between traits of masculinity and femininity, exemplified by her ending position as a sexless wife and a half-nun.
There have been at least five English translations of the work in the last half century. Kim Van Kieu by Le-Xuan-Thuy, presenting the work in the form of a novelette, was widely available in Vietnam in the 1960s. The Tale of Kiều, a scholarly annotated blank verse version by Huỳnh Sanh Thông (1926–2008), was first published in the US in 1983. In 2008, a translation by Arno Abbey, based on the French translation by Nguyen Khac Vien (1913–1997), was published in the US.
There have also been two verse translations in recent years. One of these, another bilingual edition called simply Kiều published by Thế Giới Publishers, Hanoi, in 1994, with a verse translation by Michael Counsell (born 1935), is currently the English version most widely available in Vietnam itself, and the English version alone, called Kieu, The Tale of a Beautiful and Talented Girl, by Nguyen Du, is now available worldwide through amazon. A second verse translation, The Kim Vân Kiều of Nguyen Du (1765–1820), by Vladislav Zhukov (born 1941), was published by Pandanus books in 2004. Note that Zhukov's patronymic has on some sites been incorrectly given as 'Borisovich'. His full and correct name is Vladislav Vitalyevich Zhukov.
A new translation by Timothy Allen of the opening section of the poem was awarded one of The Times Stephen Spender prizes for Poetry Translation in 2008; further extracts from Allen's translation have appeared in Cosmopolis, (the Summer 2009 edition of Poetry Review'.') and in Transplants, the Spring 2010 edition of Modern Poetry in Translation
The original text was written in Vietnamese using the vernacular chữ Nôm script. Below are the first six lines of the prologue written in modern Vietnamese alphabet and several translations into English. Most Vietnamese speakers know these lines by heart.
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In modern Vietnamese:
Trăm năm trong cõi người ta,
Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo là ghét nhau.
Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu,
Những điều trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng.
Lạ gì bỉ sắc tư phong,
Trời xanh quen thói má hồng đánh ghen.
Within the span of hundred years of human existence,
what a bitter struggle is waged between genius and destiny!
How many harrowing events have occurred while mulberries cover the conquered sea!
Rich in beauty, unlucky in life!
Strange indeed, but little wonder,
since casting hatred upon rosy cheeks is a habit of the Blue Sky.
Another English translation:
As evidenced by centuries of human existence
Destiny and genius are apt to feud
Having endured an upheaval
The sights observed must wrench one's heart
'Tis no surprise to find the bad and good in pairs
So a maiden blessed by beauty is likewise cursed by envy.
Another English translation:
Centuries of human existence,
Prodigy and fate intertwined in conflicts,
Mulberry fields turned into open sea,
Enough's been seen to melt the heart.
Little wonder that beauty begets misery,
For Blue Heaven's jealous of exquisite glamour!
English translation by Michael Counsell:
What tragedies take place
within each circling space of years!
‘Rich in good looks’ appears
to mean poor luck and tears of woe;
which may sound strange, I know,
but is not really so, I swear,
since Heaven everywhere
seems jealous of the fair of face.
English translation by Vladislav Zhukov:
Were full five-score the years allotted to born man,
How oft his qualities might yield within that span to fate forlorn!
In time the mulberry reclaims the sunk sea-bourn,
And what the gliding eye may first find fair weighs mournful on the heart.
Uncanny? Nay—lack ever proved glut's counterpart,
And mindful are the gods on rosy cheeks to dart celestial spite…
Truyện Kiều was the inspiration for the 2007 movie Saigon Eclipse, which moved the storyline into a modern Vietnamese setting with a modern-day immigrant Kieu working in the massage parlor industry in San Francisco's Mission District to support her family back in Vietnam. Additionally, Burton Wolfe directed a musical adaptation which premiered September 10, 2010 in Houston.
- 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."
- Tale of Kieu
- Kim Van Kieu (ISBN 1-59654-350-7) is an annotated prose translation, comprising 27 chapters and an epilogue, by Le-Xuan-Thuy, first published in Saigon in 1964 and reprinted by Silk Pagoda in 2006
- The Tale of Kiều: a bilingual edition of Nguyễn Du's Truyện Kiều (ISBN 0-300-04051-2), published by Yale University Press, is a translation into iambic blank verse by Huỳnh Sanh Thông, dividing the poem into six lengthy sections and including an introduction and detailed footnotes. 
- Kieu: An English Version Adapted from Nguyen Khac Vien's French Translation (ISBN 1-4343-8684-8) by Arno Abbey 
- A biographical account of Michael Counsell, who is a retired Anglican priest 
- The Kim Van Kieu by Vladislav Zhukov at Amazon.com (ISBN 1-74076-127-8) 
- Timothy Allen's version of the opening sixty lines, alongside the Vietnamese original 
- Poetry Review for Summer 2009, containing extract from Kiều
- Poetry Review home page
- The Transplants edition of Modern Poetry in Translation
- "Tale of Kiều version 1902". Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
- Lê, Xuân Thuy (1968). Kim Vân Kiều, Second Edition. p. 19.
- Counsell, Michael (2013). Kieu by Nguyen Du. Amazon (ISBN 9781482617269).
- Zhukov, Vladislav (2004). The Kim Vân Kiều of Nguyen Du (1765–1820). Pandanus Books.
- Webpage of the musical version of The Tale of Kieu
- Renowned Vietnamese Intellectuals prior to the 20th Century (essay on Nguyễn Du by the Vietnamese historian Nguyen Khac) published by The Gioi Publishers, 2004.