The Tale of Kieu

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The Tale of Kiều
Truyện Kiều
Book cover with Chinese text, published 1967
Full titleĐoạn Trường Tân Thanh
Also known asTruyện Kiều
Author(s)Nguyễn Du
Date of issue1820
State of existenceEmperor Minh Mạng
Verse formlục bát (6/8)
Length3,254 verses
PersonagesThúy Kiều
SourcesJin Yun Qiao

The Tale of Kiều is an epic poem in Vietnamese written by Nguyễn Du (1765–1820), and is widely regarded as the most significant work of Vietnamese literature.[citation needed] 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, IPA: [ʈʂwîənˀ kîəw] (About this soundlisten), lit. "Tale of Kiều").

In 3,254 verses, written in lục bát ("six–eight") meter, the poem recounts the life, trials and tribulations of Thúy Kiều, a beautiful and talented young woman, who has to sacrifice herself to save her family. To save her father and younger brother from prison, she sells herself into marriage with a middle-aged man, not knowing that he is a pimp, and is forced into prostitution. While modern interpretations vary, some post-colonial writers have interpreted it as a critical, allegorical reflection on the rise of the Nguyễn dynasty.[1]

Nguyễn Du made use of the plot of a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jīn Yún Qiào (Chinese: 金雲翹), known in Vietnamese pronunciation of Chinese characters as Kim Vân Kiều. The original, written by an otherwise unknown writer under the pseudonym Qīngxīn Cáirén (Chinese: 青心才人 "Pure-Hearted Man of Talent"), was a straightforward romance, but Nguyễn Du chose it to convey the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.[2]

Vietnam at that time 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 Kiều spans over fifteen years. At the beginning of the story, Vương Thúy Kiều [vi; zh] — a beautiful and educated girl — is visiting her ancestors' graves with her younger sister Thuý Vân (王翠雲) and brother Vương Quan (王觀). On the way she meets and connects with the grave of a dead performer—Đạm Tiên (淡仙), who was said to be as beautiful and talented as she is but lived a life full of grief. There, she meets and later promises to marry Kim Trọng (金重), a young and promising scholar, but their marriage is delayed because Kim has to go back home to mourn a relative for half a year.

During that time misfortune begins to befall Kiều. Her family is framed by a silk dealer and has all their wealth taken away by the government, and her father and brother are facing imprisonment. Kiều decides to sell herself to Scholar Mã (馬監生) to free her family, therefore showing her deeply rooted filial piety, while not forgetting the promise with Kim Trọng and has it resolved by asking her sister, Thúy Vân, to fulfill it. Scholar Mã turns out to be a pimp who is in charge of finding girls for a brothel run by Madam Tú (秀婆). He rapes Kiều and takes her back to the brothel, but she refuses to serve any guest and threatens to commit suicide if she is forced to do so. Madam Tú concocts a plan to crush Kiều's dignity by hiring Sở Khanh, a playboy and con artist, to meet Kiều and coerce her into eloping with him, and then lead her into Tú's trap. With nothing left to hold on to, Kiều finally submits and becomes a prostitute. Kiều's beauty attracts many men, including Student Thúc (束生), who uses his wealth to buy Kiều out of the brothel and marry her, although he already has a wife named Lady Hoạn (宦姐), who is the daughter of prime minister Hoạn. Upon learning of this, Hoạn burns with jealousy and secretly tells her henchmen to kidnap and force Kiều to become a slave in her house when Thúc is on the way to visit her. Thúc is shocked at the sight of Kiều as a slave, but never dares to reach out to her in front of his first wife.

Kiều runs away from the estate, stealing two candlesticks in the process. She goes to a Buddhist temple, where nun Giác Duyên (覺緣) graciously accepts her. However, after realizing that Kiều is carrying stolen property, she is thrown out and again gets tricked into another brothel, Madam Bạc's (薄婆), where she meets Từ Hải [vi; zh], leader of a revolution army. Từ Hải and Kiều get married and live together for five years, together reigning over a temporary kingdom. Later tricked by Hồ Tôn Hiến [vi; zh], Kiều convinces her husband to surrender all in favor of amnesty. This eventually leads to the invasion of Từ Hải's kingdom, and the death of Từ Hải himself. Mesmerized by Kiều's beauty, Hồ Tôn Hiến forces her to perform in his victory banquet, where he rapes her. To avoid bad rumors, he hurriedly marries Kiều off to a local official. Feeling devastated, she throws herself into the Tiền Đường river. Once again, Giác Duyên saves her, as she prophesied about Kiều's fate long ago. Meanwhile, Kim Trọng, Kiều's first love, becomes an official and is providing housing for Kiều's parents. He has been searching for Kiều, and eventually finds her with the Buddhist nun Giác Duyên. Kiều is reunited with her first love and her family, thus ending her cycle of bad karma. She is married to Kim Trọng, but refuses to have a physical relationship with him because she thinks she is no longer worthy.

English translations[edit]

There have been at least five English translations of the work in the last half century. Kim Van Kieu[3] 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.[4] In 2008, a translation by Arno Abbey, based on the French translation by Nguyễn Khắc Viện (1913–1997), was published in the US.[5]

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[6] (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. 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.[7] 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[8] in 2008; further extracts from Allen's translation have appeared in Cosmopolis,[9] (the Summer 2009 edition of Poetry Review'.'[10]) and in Transplants, the Spring 2010 edition of Modern Poetry in Translation[11]

Text comparisons[edit]

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.[citation needed]

Original text[edit]

In Nôm:[12]


In the Vietnamese alphabet:[12]

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.

English translations[edit]

From Lê Xuân Thuy's Kim Vân Kiều:[13]

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:[citation needed]

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:[citation needed]

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:[14]

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:[15]

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…

Artistic adaptations[edit]

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.[16]


  1. ^ 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."
  2. ^ "Tale of Kieu". Southeast Asia Library Group (SEALG).
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Du, Nguyễn; Huỳnh, Sanh Thông (1983). The Tale of Kieu. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-04051-7.
  5. ^ Abbey, Arno (2008). Kieu: An English Version Adapted from Nguyen Khac Vien's French Translation. AuthorHouse. ISBN 978-1-4343-8684-7.
  6. ^ |
  7. ^ Zhukov, Vladislav. The Kim Van Kieu. ISBN 1-74076-127-8.
  8. ^ "Timothy Allen's version of the opening sixty lines, alongside the Vietnamese original".
  9. ^ "Poetry Review for Summer 2009, containing extract from Kiều". Archived from the original on June 28, 2009.
  10. ^ "Poetry Review home page".
  11. ^ "The Transplants edition of Modern Poetry in Translation".[dead link]
  12. ^ a b "Tale of Kiều version 1902". Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  13. ^ Lê, Xuân Thuy (1968). Kim Vân Kiều, Second Edition. p. 19.
  14. ^ Counsell, Michael (2013). Kieu by Nguyen Du. Amazon. ISBN 9781482617269.
  15. ^ Zhukov, Vladislav (2004). The Kim Vân Kiều of Nguyen Du (1765–1820). Pandanus Books.
  16. ^ "Webpage of the musical version of The Tale of Kieu". taleofkieu. Archived from the original on 2010-06-03.


  • Renowned Vietnamese Intellectuals prior to the 20th Century (essay on Nguyễn Du by the Vietnamese historian Nguyen Khac) published by The Gioi Publishers, 2004.

External links[edit]