Many Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans are quite familiar with Vietnam’s literary classic, The Tale of Kiều by Nguyễn Du (1766–1820) in which the long narrative or epic poem has been shared throughout Vietnamese oral tradition. In many traditional oral stories, the narratives are told to teach morals and values depending on your culture and religion.
In my experience with German folklore and epic poems of the British and English literary canon, it is alarming to note that the life lessons and values reflect solely on the patriarchal structure, which instills fear on following the ideal gender norms or roles of society. Why are the moral lessons directed mainly towards women regarding the many disciplines or customs they follow for their particular culture or religion? For The Tale of Kiều, even though we know that the audience is directed towards the common reader and upper-middle class, why is it also focusing more on the female audience? In Vietnamese oral tradition or folk poetry, we see depictions involving the importance of nature and the six-eight verse free form, which display femininity and beauty. Let’s closely view Nguyễn Du's phenomenal literary piece, The Tale of Kiều, to challenge and question the perspective of womanhood and the female gender role.
Published in the 19th century, the epic poem, The Tale of Kiều by Nguyễn Du and translated by Huỳnh Sanh Thông is one of Vietnam’s treasured national literary works, which presents historical and societal Vietnamese influences, calling on Confucian tradition when confronting a woman’s love and fate. In the long narrative poem, womanhood is closely examined, which questions a woman’s duty regarding obedience and submissiveness to a man; however, it is through a woman’s talent and tricks that overcome a man’s entrapment over the self and duty. In academic literature, we tend to expose ourselves to Eurocentric literary works, but with this piece it provides an opportunity to explore with a diverse lens on the major influences of Vietnamese history and culture. Comparing it to British or English epic poems, it allows for a refreshing and progressive view even through its poetic structure and tone in which nature’s imagery creates authentic characters and the meter focuses on a freer verse and rhyme scheme as part of its goal in maintaining accessibility for the everyday reader.
Reminiscing on the themes and symbols, it inquires a strong presence of challenging the patriarchal structure or the male dominant society, as the female character, Kiều, undergoes a poor twisted fate of making many sacrifices for herself in order to protect her family. Thus, beginning the epic poem with the opening lines:
Trăm năm trong cõi người ta,
Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo là ghét nhau.
Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu,
Những điều trông thấy mà đau đớn lòng.
A hundred years in this life span on earth
Talent and destiny are apt to feud.
You must go through a play of ebb and flow
and watch such things as make you sick at heart.
Is it so strange that losses balance gains?” Kiều’s cruel fate constantly gets in the way in which she experiences the lack of authority over the self due to her social status as a woman, transitioning from an upper-class daughter to a concubine and brief moments as a loyal wife. Her reputation as a woman deteriorates due to unforeseen circumstances of breaking her marriage vows, which exercises the dangers of her virtue and her morality.
The female characters and complex villains of the epic poem, Miss Hoạn and Dame Tú, contest the motives of womanhood through their advice toward Kiều. They are in full recognition of their duty and loyalty to men; however, they acknowledge how unfair the patriarchal structure truly is. Miss Hoạn’s villainous attitude may be out of jealousy and revenge; on the contrary, she does this in order to maintain her independence and authority. At one point we see her talents unfold through her plans of revealing her husband’s adultery. Miss Hoạns husband, young Thúc, unveils his vulnerability and emasculinity, which is a rare sight to see in this poem as the men and the court govern over society and women. Dame Tú’s advice suggests, “men are all alike:/ they’ll get their money’s worth or won’t come here./ there are more things to love than meet the eye/ and ways to cope with men by day or dark…Play love with them until you’ve played them out.” DameTú has a different perspective of a woman’s duty in which women should advocate for their own independence and authority over the self through their love and talents towards men, exploring their sexuality and femininity even further.
As the narrative continues, we notice nature’s ability to influence the action and tone of the story, evoking feelings and emotions, which mirrors the characters’ sense of self and identity. The moon takes shape as a symbol of reflection for the characters, especially in times of recognition of faults and self-doubt. Generally in literature, the moon weighs on the representation of women, often times, symbolizing femininity or lunacy. However, Nguyễn Du reinforces a woman’s emotions and feelings as a powerful yet natural force that directs the characters’ actions throughout the narrative, thus representing themes of marriage, changeability, and self expression. On the other hand, the domestic spaces such as the home, brothel, and the nunnery, that the character, Kiều, finds herself in are symbols of entrapment and female oppression in which she lacks the ability to freely move and express herself outside these spaces, often referring herself being “caged” due to her “poor lot.” These references of fate and destiny are intertwined and eternal and sometimes inescapable as we are able to see throughout Kiều’s journey. One might ask, will she ever find a way to escape her own female oppression?
Even though Kiều struggles to maintain a sense of control or independence, at times we see self-empowerment or self-worth in her own beauty and talents, which are conveyed through her verses of writing/lyrics/songs and her expertises of playing the lute. Her reputation is a bit interesting because we know that her social status is constantly changing, which at the end of the narrative it allows her to come back to her family. This pays tribute to author’s accountability and maybe even muse: that writing (poetry) transcends one’s self-worth by allowing them to practice freedom of expression. The epic poem’s structure is also quite unique because oral tradition in the 17th or 18th century was much more accessible, as referenced in the Introduction, the eight-six verse in iambic meter with high and sharp tones helped make it easier to memorize as it was difficult to produce written text back then, especially for long narrative poems like this one.
Nguyễn Du’s progressively written critique of confucian and patriarchal disciplines through the creative art form of his epic poem, The Tale of Kiều, allows for a narrative to establish spaces of a well-represented female perspective that explores femininity and self expression in literature. Challenging ourselves to seek out controversial literary texts to help broaden our horizons on the topics of womanhood, will instill valuable conversations on current issues like women empowerment and gender equality, more specifically being inclusive to establishing a voice for women of color. Even during the times of chaos in the 19th century Vietnam’s social corruption, authors like Nguyễn Du provide a political and social voice that confronts the problems of oppression as a result of confucian tradition and the patriarchal society. Therefore, literary texts like Nguyễn Du’s The Tale of Kiều echo the political and social awareness of gender inequality, which reinforces the new generation of Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans to reflect on the current political and social inequalities of today.
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Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA
Originally from the Bay Area and a recent graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.