The Tale of Kieu – a story transcending time and space hinh anh 1Cover of Korea-translated version by Professor Ahn Kyong Hwan (Photo: VNA)

Hanoi (VNA) - On his historic visit to Vietnam fifteen years ago, former US President Bill Clinton recited a verse from “Truyện Kiều” (The Tale of Kieu) – a masterpiece by Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du (1765 – 1820): “Just as the lotus wilts, the mums bloom forth; time softens grief, and the winter turns to spring” (Sen tàn cúc lại nở hoa. Sầu dài ngày ngắn đông đà sang xuân).

In July 2015, US Vice President Joe Biden quoted another phrase from the poem while welcoming Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in Washington: “Thank heaven we are here today. To see the sun through parting fog and clouds” (Trời còn để có hôm nay. Tan sương đầu ngõ vén mây giữa trời). The host’s quotation once again created a “fever” among politicians, diplomats, journalists, scholars and those who admire the literary work of Nguyen Du across the globe.

The leading US politicians’ use of these quotations during momentous events highlighted the normalisation of relations between the two countries. It also illustrated the immortal values and significant influence of the tale as a means of intercultural communication and diplomacy.

Originally known as “Đoạn trường tân thanh” (A New Cry from a Broken Heart), the Tale of Kieu is based on the plot of a Chinese prose novel titled “Kim Vân Kiều” written in the 17th century. The poem was originally written in “Nôm” script – the ideographic Vietnamese script that was widely used between the 15th-19th century.

An interesting feature of the Kieu story is that its 3,254 lines were written in “Lục bát” – a traditional Vietnamese verse form that was historically first recorded in “Nôm” script and deeply tied to the soul of Vietnamese culture and people. It consists of alternating lines of six and eight syllables, and is the most popular Vietnamese poem of all time.

Depicting the arduous life of Thuy Kieu, a beautiful and talented young woman who had to sell herself into prostitution to save her father from prison, Nguyen Du overcame harsh social prejudice to praise Kieu’s physical and soulful beauty, as well as her talents and personality.

Through Kieu’s story, the author wanted to draw a picture of the corrupt, money-dominated, evil and unequal feudal society in Vietnam in the late 18th century and the early 19th century, while reflecting the aspirations for the right to live, and the right to freedom, justice, love and happiness.

The tale is considered one of the most significant works of Vietnamese literature with its flexible, creative utilisation of folk languages such as idioms, folk poems, proverbs and “Hán – Việt” (Sino – Vietnamese) expressions, which laid a foundation for the development of literary art in modern society.

In turn, local people have borrowed the language of characters in the story to create new proverbs and folk songs to express various emotions in their daily lives.

It is undeniable that “Truyện Kiều” has helped international friends understand Vietnamese literature better. It’s rare that literary works in Vietnam and the world at large win the hearts of so many readers. The poem has become a “bedside” book and a “bible” for Vietnamese people over the past two centuries.

The narrative language in the tale is widely used in the cultural life of people of various social strata such as “ngâm Kiều” (a melodic recitation of the verses in Kieu, which can be done solitarily for personal entertainment or in a performance at a gathering), “vịnh Kiều” (refers to the composing of poetry that uses a situation or character in Kieu as an allusion to one’s thoughts and feelings, often concerning one’s present condition), “bình Kiều” (writing commentaries on Kieu), “lẩy Kiều” (changing a word or phrase in the verses to adapt them for one’s personal purposes), and “bói Kiều” (telling someone’s fortune by having the person randomly point at a verse line, whose meaning would then indicate his/her future).

Many of these are popular in Vi-Giam folk singing in central Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces, which has been recognised by UNESCO as an intangible heritage of humanity.

Many characters in the tale, such as Kieu, Tu Hai, Hoan Thu, and Tu Ba step out the novel, and each symbolises a personality in society.

A number of Kieu verses carry deep philosophies on life, social relations and human destiny. The “magic” of the words is so powerful that readers can see parts of themselves through the plight, fate, happiness and sorrow of the characters.

Nguyen Du, also known as To Nhu and Thanh Hien, was recognised by UNESCO as a World Cultural Figure, among 108 others in 2003.

A wide range of activities will be held during Culture Tourism Week in December 2015 to commemorate the 250th birthday of the UNESCO-recognised World Cultural Figure in his homeland of central Ha Tinh province, in recognition of his remarkable contributions to national literature, particularly the Tale of Kieu - an indispensable part of the spiritual lives of Vietnamese people.

By: Huu Chien-Linh Ha-Linh Chi