by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
It’s customary for Vietnamese people to commemorate the ancestors, related or not, on the anniversary of their death. Not to mourn their passing, but to celebrate their life.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Nguyễn Du, Việt Nam’s most beloved poet.
The Nguyễn Clan of Tiên Điền in the central province of Hà Tĩnh together with the Việt Nam Kiều Scholars Society held a solemn ceremony recently to honour the poet, who has lived in the hearts and souls of generations of Vietnamese over the course of two centuries.
When Nguyễn Du died in the autumn of 1820, writer Tiên Phong Mộng Liên Đường wrote a preface for the poet’s famed Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kiều). “Tố Như [an alias of Nguyễn Du] has explored the human psyche, has a personal narrative, has beautifully described nature, and is well-conversed in affairs of the heart. If he hadn’t had a far-reaching vision of the six realms of rebirth and existence: gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hells, nor had a heart that aches for a thousand lifetimes, he would not have had such immense power in his pen.”
In 1924, the Tiến Đức Society, or the Association for the Intellectual and Moral Formation of Annamese, held a grand ceremony commemorating Nguyễn Du and his legacy.
Trần Trọng Kim, deputy head of the literary section of the society, made a speech about the poet’s life. Phạm Quỳnh, then a minister of the Royal Nguyễn Court, presented a bilingual address in Vietnamese and French, while a singing speech was given by Confucian scholar Nguyễn Đôn Phục and an essay submitted by Bùi Kỷ, encrypted on a stela.
It was at this ceremony that Phạm Quỳnh made his famous remark: “As long as The Tale of Kiều exists, our [Vietnamese] language exists. And our language remains, our country remains.”
In 1965, 20 years after Việt Nam became a republic and with the last emperor now a normal citizen, a memorial commemorating Nguyễn Du’s birthday was held at the Hà Nội Opera House in the presence of the World Peace Council.
During the next 50 years, the beautiful verses of The Tale of Kiều were cited many times, in reconciliation speeches by US Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama as the former foes tried to build new partnerships.
But The Tale of Kiều was not meant to heal diplomatic relationships. It recalled an ill-fated love affair and the destitution of a beautiful young woman forced to put her family’s honour ahead of her own love. Nguyễn Du unveiled the dark side of women’s lives, men’s ostensibly grand gestures, and horrific revenge in the name of legal love.
In his latest paper to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Nguyễn Du’s passing, scholar Trần Nho Thìn from the Hà Nội National University said that, a learned man, Nguyễn Du lived in a time when the political power of the ruling Lê Court was transgressed by the rising Trịnh Lords.
“During the five years from 1782 to 1789, the country was divided into five parts, with rising groups trying to win influence in society. In the north, the conflicts between the Lê King and Trịnh Lord grew very intense, which led to the destruction of the Lords, but later the Lê Dynasty was also corrupted.”
“This was a time of martial power for heroes and the rise of martial art group leaders. Sadly, it was also a time when men of letters and scholars were looked down upon by more muscular leaders.”
“This led to a complex of ‘being born in the wrong time’, a state of mind held by a generation of learned men, of which Nguyễn Du was the most famous, and lasting for nearly a century.”
Nguyễn Du is most known for The Tale of Kiều but his career as a poet extends far further than the 3,254 verses of his epic poem.
He wrote in classic Han script, which was an academic trait of learned men of the time. His three volumes of poetry written in Han include Thanh Hiên Poetry Collection (1786- 1804), Assorted Poems in the South (1805-1812), and Poems Written on Travels to the North (1813-1814).
Born into the family of a high-ranking court mandarin, his stature at a time of great change in Việt Nam and personal loss made him the poet of the less fortunate, the disadvantaged, and the weaker in society.
Nguyễn Du lost both parents at the tender age of 13, and lived with his older brother. Having lived through the decaying years of the Later Lê dynasty, he gave himself 10 years to think it over before deciding to serve the subsequent Nguyễn Dynasty.
He also wrote poems in Nôm, ideographic Vietnamese script based on Han Chinese characters. Nôm script was an attempt to break away from the strict discipline and jargon of the classic Han literary traditions.
The Tale of Kiều was written in Nôm script, but was known by heart by many people, even rural illiterates.
Another masterpiece from Nguyễn Du is Call to Wandering Souls, a requiem that shed tears and expressed pity for all those who died accidentally, had no one to worship them, and turned into wandering souls.
A perennially melancholic poet, Nguyễn Du served the Royal Court but also saw and felt the misery of the ordinary people. His epic poem about Kiều and other works were human tragedies, but he also strived for a more humane and poetic approach to the human condition.
Inspired by Kiều
Though the original storyline of Kiều was adapted from an old Chinese narrative, Nguyễn Du’s talent lay in telling the tale in the most beautiful and poetic way, containing vivid emotions never before found in traditional Vietnamese poetry.
The tale also transcends Nguyễn Du’s own philosophy that goodwill or kindness will overcome talent as reflected in the last few lines of the tale:
With Heaven rest all things – so life has taught us.
Heaven allots to every human a condition.
Doomed to a wanderer’s lot, you’re to wander.
And an elevated position will be yours if it’s destined for you.
Heaven is in no way partial,
But liberally gracing both talent and fate!
Don’t take too much pride in your gift:
gift sometimes does rhythm with guilt.
Our karma, let’s carry it as due
and stop complaining of Heaven’s finickiness.
Deep within us, there lies the root of good,
the heart by far outweighs any talents.
Maybe those rustic lines, gleaned one by one,
while away a few hours of your long night.
(translated by Dương Tường)
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