Poetic Spotlight: The Tale of Kieu

Last week, we shared a little rumination on the life and words of Vietnamese poet Ho Xuan Huong, and what her works mean to the identity of Vietnam’s literary tradition. Today, we continue our journey through this nation’s heritage, to the scribbles of one of Huong’s contemporaries, and one of those responsible for making Chữ Nôm, the ancient writing script of Vietnam, into the accepted pen it is today: Nguyen Du.

Unlike Huong, Du was, perhaps, more typical of what one might expect in the writers of his time and area. He was a politician, and a diplomat, a man who made words his life even outside the creative fence. He was the seventh son of a former prime minister that would die by the time he reached thirteen years, and to a dynasty that would also fall within his lifetime. He himself would one day serve as his nation’s ambassador to China, a position that would seal his place in history, as it was during this time that he wrote his most famous work: The Tale of Kieu.

Though today regarded as the finest sampling of Vietnamese creative capabilities, The Tale of Kieu was not, in its day, written under Du’s own name. This is due to the fact that it, like those works of his contemporary, —, was at its heart quite critical of the social tenets governing the society of their time–Confucianism. A staggering 3,254-verse epic written in 6/8 meter, the poem recounted the life and struggles of a certain beautiful maiden by the name of Thúy Kiều, who would go on to sacrifice herself to save her family–forced through prostitution, and unwilling marriage, and all the horrors one can imagine accompanying such. It prodded the culture’s distaste for romance, and broached the notion of falling in love multiple times–under Confucian morals, you were supposed to be devoted to one person your whole life (as chosen by your parents, no less). It was actually based on an even earlier tale–Kim Vân Kiều, by Qing Xin Cai Ren, a Chinese writer.

And now, a taste of what’s is perhaps Vietnam’s most significant literary work, through one of its many translations…

The Tale of Kieu

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.

By lamplight turn these scented leaves and read
a tale of love recorded in old books.
Under the Chia-ching reign when Ming held sway
all lived at peace—both capitals stood strong.
There was a burgher in the clan of Vuong,
a man of modest wealth and middle rank.

He had a last‑born son, Vuong Quan—his hope
to carry on a line of learned folk.
Two daughters, beauties both, had come before:
Thuy Kieu was oldest, younger was Thuy Van.
Bodies like slim plum branches, snow‑pure souls,
each her own self, each perfect in her way.

In quiet grace Van was beyond compare:
her face a moon, her eyebrows two full curves;
her smile a flower, her voice the song of jade;
her hair the sheen of clouds, her skin white snow.
Yet Kieu possessed a keener, deeper charm,
surpassing Van in talents and in looks.

Her eyes were autumn streams, her brows spring hills.
Flowers grudged her glamour, willows her fresh hue.
A glance or two from her, and kingdoms rocked!
Supreme in looks, she had few peers in gifts.
By Heaven blessed with wit, she knew all skills:
she could write verse and paint, could sing and chant.

Of music she had mastered all five tones
and played the lute far better than Ai Chang.
She had composed a song called Cruel Fate
to mourn all women in soul‑rending strains.
A paragon of grace for womanhood,
she neared that time when maidens pinned their hair.

She calmly lived behind drawn shades and drapes,
as wooers swarmed, unheeded, by the wall…

~Nguyen Du

Poetic Spotlight: Spring Watching Pavilion

(Though this segment’s been on hiatus here with my lack-of-work-related-absence, it’s been continuing strong at dVerse Poetry Pub. That said, I am to restore it here as well…so enjoy today’s spotlight.)

中文: 胡春香 《佳人遺墨》

Ho Xuan Huong. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Surely if I spoke of Han or Sengoku, Ming or Edo, the majority of poets would smile–whether they know the history behind the words, the words themselves hold some image, some base concept to most that know anything of Asia. Too often, I think, it is the works of Japan, China, and India that the world allows to serve as their notion of “Asian poetry”–but the truth is so much more engrossing. I have spoken to you of haiku, and tanka, even some of the classic Chinese bits before–and undoubtedly shall again before the year is out–but today we turn to Vietnam for our dose of eastern poetics.

For that matter, we turn to a woman that indeed could be argued to form one of the foundations of her country’s poetic legacy: Ho Xuan Huong. Though her origins shift depending on the historian telling the tale, what we know for certain was that Ho was a child of turbulent times: witnessing the end of a dynasty–the Lê Dynasty, Vietnam’s longest-ruling dynasty–by rebellion, and the birth of a new.

She was a wife of politicians, a concubine, but first and foremost, a poet, and a curious one at that, for much of her works paint the figure of an independent-minded woman, one resistant to societal norms and to the ideas of being chained by someone else’s whims. She used common expressions in a time–Confucian, mind you–when the proper and formulaic was all but key, and poked fun with the use of sexual expressions most would have been shocked to see leaving a “proper” woman’s pens. By writing in the traditional Nôm language–like her contemporary, Nguyễn Du, who will serve as next week’s focus–she was also one of the figures responsible for elevating the Vietnamese tongue to an accepted literary language, as opposed to the Chinese characters most often used.

So today, you are welcome to a helping of Ho Xuan Huong’s talent in the form of the translation of “Spring Watching Pavilion”. Hopefully, the translation does it justice.

~Chris Galford

Spring Watching Pavilion

Gently Spring evening comes to the pavilion,
Unclouded in the least by worldly sins.
Three times the temple’s bell surges like a wave
Unsettling the puddle where sky and water mingle.
Truly the sea of Love cannot be emptied
And the stream of Grace flows easily everywhere.
Now, where, where is Nirvana?
Nirvana’s here, nine parts in ten.

~Ho Xuan Huong