We often read of brawny heroes like Achilles, who defeat their enemies with brute strength, or wily tacticians like Odysseus who nimbly outwit their foes. But perhaps no protagonist so surprises and delights us as Kieu, who overcomes injustice and adversity by the beauty of her poetry and the depth of her sorrow.
Nguyen Du’s narrative poem, The Tale of Kieu, was first published in 1820 during a transitional period in Vietnam’s history. Its author looking back with nostalgia on the past, took its themes from a Chinese historical novel about a pirate rebel and his ill-fated concubine. However, Nguyen relegated the pirate narrative to a subordinate role and brought the concubine center stage. In the years since its publication, The Tale of Kieu has become almost the national epic of Vietnam, beloved by scholars and ordinary people alike as a source of inspiration and strength amid the harsh realities of life.
The story centers on Kieu, the beautiful daughter of an upper-middle-class family. Nguyen tells us that “Her eyes are dark and troubled as November seas, spring flowers envy her grave beauty, and the mountain ash shivers with jealousy.” 1 Yet Kieu is no mere male fantasy figure. As the tale unfolds, she demonstrates high intelligence and courage. When we first meet her, the narrator celebrates accomplishments as a poet and musician, and these will be her defining characteristic throughout the story. And while her songs and poems are not joyful, they move all who hear them by their beauty and the sorrow they express.
After inscribing one of her verses on an abandoned tomb, she has a dream in which it is revealed to her that her fate, like her poetry, will not be a happy one. A maiden “wet with rain and dressed with snow appears in the dusky air” to tell her she is destined to be a member of the “Company of Sadness.” 2
This fate is not slow in manifesting itself. Shortly after this vision, she meets a young scholar named Kim, and the two fall deeply in love. Before they can marry, her intended receives word that his uncle has died and must go to another province to assist his aged father. Dutifully Kim packs up and asks Kieu to wait for him while he settles his family’s affairs.
While the dust of his departure still hangs in the air, Kieu’s father is arrested for his many debts. Kieu realizes that she alone can save her family from ruin. Despite her promise to Kim, she resolves to marry and so that her family will be able to pay off their debts with her bride price. And while her actions may seem strange for more individualistic Western readers, her noble self-sacrifice for her family embodies her culture’s values.
Unfortunately for Kieu, the man who “marries” her is a procurer, and she is trafficked into a life of prostitution. While the writer cloaks her sufferings in poetic allusions, one of the remarkable features of The Tale of Kieu is its frankness in dealing with human trafficking and the trauma it produces in its victims’ lives. Kieu attempts suicide and several times runs away, but each time she is caught and manipulated back into the life she despises.
However, throughout her time in the brothel, she continues to write poetry and even gains a reputation. In one remarkable scene, through the machinations of her enemies, she is brought up on charges. Her foes sneeringly allude to her poetic gifts, and the judge mockingly asks her to prove her talent.
“They unshackle her and give her paper and brush. She works swiftly and places the page on the judge’s desk. The judge reads them. He is amazed. He says: These lines are more heart-rending than the finest works of the Thinh Duong poets. There is not gold enough on earth to buy a woman of such genius.” 3 He sets Kieu free, and for a time, she gains from her sorrowing verse some measure of happiness and peace.
This motif of redemption through poetry is repeated later in the tale when Kieu, once more caught up in tragic circumstances, seeks to take her own life by leaping from a precipice into a river. As she is drowning, she has a vision of a maiden from the Company of Sadness who reveals to her that her verse’s power has destroyed the evil fate that has ensnared her. “I give you back your poems. They are the finest in our literature. Your future is now different.” 4
We can read The Tale of Kieu in many ways. It is a multifaceted jewel of Vietnamese art that will continue to inspire generations of readers. A feminist may see in this narrative a strong female protagonist who rises above her circumstances by her own merits. Another may look to this tale for solace in times of loss or grief. But perhaps the best way to read it is as a celebration of the power of verse itself.
In a noisy world, it is not always easy to hear the voices of the poets, but we must always try. Poets play a vital role in our society. Their words transmute the raw material of language and experience into the gold of wisdom and transcendence. And unlike most other forms of magic, the magic of poetry is real. Through it, we can see the beauty another’s eye beholds and hear the sound their sorrow makes. And, like Kieu, if we listen carefully and try to harmonize with words of our own, the power of verse may change our lives for the better.
- Nguyen Du, The Song of Kieu, Tr. Timothy Allen, Penguin Books USA, A Random House Company, 2019, p.2
- Nguyen, p.7
- Nguyen p.77
- Nguyen p. 130
The Redemptive Power of Verse in The Tale of Kieu: copyright 2021 by Jonathan Golding. All rights reserved.
Cover art: Illustration from The Tale of Kieu. Artist Unknown. Public Domain