Tale of Kieu

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The Tale of Kieu is a novel in verse composed in Vietnamese by Nguyễn Du and circulated in nom script since the first quarter of the nineteenth century, under the first ruler of the last Vietnamese dynasty. It is as "classic" or as "modern" as James Fenimore Cooper's contemporaneous novel under the first government of the United States, The Last of the Mohicans.

The commonly given title Truyễn Kiều means Tale of Kieu. The author may have titled it Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh [A New Cry From a Broken Heart]. It is also called Kim Vân Kiều, referring to the poem's three continuing leads, the friends Kim, Van, and Kieu.

The story, after the popular Chinese novel Chin Yün Ch’iao chuan [Truyễn Kim Vân Kiều / Tale of Kim, Van and Kieu], follows the sorrows of the lives of the three friends, though most critics focus on the fate of the beautiful, talented Kieu, who enters into prostitution for the sake of her parents.

It just gets worse from there. "In a hundred years", the poem begins "in the course of a person's life, talent and fate are at odds and as the sea covers the orchards you will see things that make you sick at heart."

The poem is built of lục bát [six-eight] couplets, the easy yet elevated form that plays the role in Vietnamese prosody that blank verse does in English and alexandrines do in French. It is the same form usually taken by ca dao, the famous "folk poetry" of Viet Nam.

In a room full of Vietnamese speakers, several will know lines from the poem and very likely one or more will know long sections, if not the whole poem, by heart. Even those who don't know the poem will quote from it, as English speakers use expressions and lines from Shakespeare without ever seeing a play. Many use the poem for divination, as many have used the Aeneid for the sortes Virgilianae, finding a passage at random to shed light on the present moment or tell the future.

The Tale of Kieu is often called the Vietnamese national poem. Whether on account of its penetration into daily life, or because it is the one Vietnamese work to have won an audience in several other languages over more than one generation, or because it is of "epic" length for a work in verse, the practice has survived several critical challenges.

Dan Duffy started this entry.

English-language approaches to The Tale of Kieu