Vietnamese literature in "Chu Nom"
KIM-VAN-KIEU by Nguyen-Du (1765-1820)


"Nothing better reflects the soul of a nation than its heroes and poets. If the Vietnamese do not all agree in their choice of a national hero, they unanimously consider Nguyen-Du, the author of “Kim-Van-Kieu ", a 3,254 line poem composed in the early 19th century, as their national poet.

“With this masterpiece, Nguyen-Du consecrated his mother tongue as a poetical language of an extraordinary delicacy, power and richness. He also gave to the soul of his fatherland a sensitive and prestigious mirror in which its eternal image, evolving throughout the centuries and in changing settings, is reflected."[2]

Nguyen-Du was born in 1765 at the village of Tien-Dien, in the province of Ha-Tinh (now in North Vietnamese territory), the seventh child of a former Prime Minister under the Le dynasty. Several members of his family, including one of his brothers, were noted scholars and mandarins at the Court. At the age of 17, Nguyen-Du himself passed the traditional Chinese-style triennal competitive examination and received the title of "tu-tai", which opened up for him prospects of a bright mandarinal career. At that time, Viet-Nam was going through one of the darkest periods of her history, torn apart, as she now is, by a protracted civil war. It was not, however, an ideological war imposed by one party upon the other- such as is the case in the present conflict - but a war between two rival feudal families.

Since the early 17th century, Viet-Nam had been. partitioned into two parts along the Gianh river (19th parallel), the North under the control of the Trinh, the South under the Nguyen. The two families fought against each other while pledging allegiance to the Le dynasty, which each of them claimed to recognize as the legitimate authority. After fifty years of civil war, marked by intermittent campaigns in both parts of the country, a 100-year truce followed and lasted until 1774. But two years before, in 1772 - Nguyen-Du was then 7 years old - a-local rebellion led by three brothers, Nguyen-Nhac, Nguyen-Lu and Nguyen-Hue from the village of Tay Son, in the present central coastal province of Binh-Dinh, had reached the proportion of a nationwide revolution directed against both rival houses and widely-supported by the poverty- stricken peasants and the newly-emerging small merchant class - Kieu's father belonged to that new class, "he was neither rich nor poor" - tired by war and the exactions of corrupt officials at all levels.

The Tay Son revolt very quickly became fatal to the Nguyen: in 1776, Saigon fell and Nguyen-Anh, the heir to the Nguyen "throne", fled the country and sought refuge in Siam. The Tay Son brothers then turned against the Trinh: Nguyen-Hue, the youngest brother, and one of the most outstanding Vietnamese generals, captured Thang-Long (Hanoi) in 1786 and deposed the Trinh. Nguyen-Hue formally restored the Le dynasty and married the daughter of Emperor Le-Hien-Tong, Princess Ngoc-Han, a famous poetess. Le-Hien-Tong’s successor Le-Chieu-Thong, asked the Mandchu rulers for help and a 200,000-man Chinese army invaded VietNam but was routed by Nguyen-Hue in 1789. Le-Chieu-Thong fled to China and it was the end of the Le dynasty. For a few years, the Tay Son were going to be the masters of the whole of Viet-Nam but in 1802 they were in their turn defeated by Nguyen-Anh, supported by France. The rule of the Tay Son was brief but the unity of Viet-Nam which they had shaped survived and was to be strengthened by Nguyen-Anh, who became Emperor Gia Long.

It is necessary to keep in mind this historical and social background in order to understand both Nguyen-Du and his main work, "Kim-Van-Kieu".

One of the first lines of the poem -"Oceans turn to mulberry fields, a desolate scene", was an obvious reference to those upheavals and turmoil's.

Faithful to the Le dynasty, Nguyen-Du and members of his family joined the fight against the Tay Son - although according to certain historians apparently without much conviction - but as he realized that it was of no avail, he refused to co-operate with the new regime and returned to his native village. For several years led a secluded life, hunting, reading, writing and spending long hours walking in the Hong-Linh 99- peak mountain range area.

After the collapse of the Tay Son, Nguyen-Du halfheartedly rallied Emperor Gia-Long - some historians believe that he was "drafted"- and started a brilliant mandarinal career, first as a provincial administrator, then at the Court. 1n 1813 - he was then 48 - he was appointed Can-Chanh (Grand Chancellor of the Empire) and went as Special Envoy to China.

It was during that diplomatic mission that he noticed a Chinese novel entitled "The story of Kim-Van-Kieu ", written by an author under the pen-name of "Thanh-Tam Tai-Nhan" in the 16th or the early 17th century, which he later adapted into his own poem.

On his return to Viet-Nam, Nguyen-Du was promoted Le-Bo huu tam-tri (Vice-Minister of Rites) and in 1820, the first year of the reign of Emperor Minh Mang, on the point of leaving on another Embassy to China, he fell suddenly ill and died at the age of 56.


The initial title given by Nguyen-Du to "Kim-Van-Kieu" was "Doan-Truong Tan-Thanh" (New accents of a heart-rending song). It recounts the trials and tribulations of Kieu, a beautiful and talented girl, who had to sacrifice her love and sell herself - she was driven into prostitution - in order to save her father from jail, out of filial piety. According to most literary critics, Nguyen-Du saw in Kieu’s life and destiny a sad replica of his own. For him and his family, Gia-Long was after all a "usurper" and serving him was, according to Confucian ethical concepts, an act of disloyalty (that tiet), if not of treason or "moral prostitution ".

During his years at the Court, Nguyen-Du proved an able and honest administrator. But he gave the impression of feeling more at ease among peasants and the common people than among his colleagues. For these, he was a silent and moody man. Some of them saw in his attitude sheer arrogance and aloofness but those who knew him more intimately realized that he bore some secret wound. One day, during a Court session, Emperor Gia-Long himself reproachingly asked him why he usually remained silent while state affairs were being debated: Nguyen sobbed and offered to resign but the Emperor refused.

In a famous two-line verse, Nguyen-Du, who wrote under the pen-name of To-Nhu, in one of his pessimistic moods, wondered whether within three hundred years, there would be "someone, somewhere, who would still remember him with tenderness ".

It was a mere lack of self-confidence on his part, for "Kim-Van-Kieu ", after 150 years, is still the most popular poem in Viet-Nam and the foreigners who know it through translations - although translations are unable to render all its poetical beauty and flavour - readily recognize it as one of the masterpieces of universal literature.

Few are the Vietnamese - whatever their social background - who do not know one or two lines of the poem and some of them even use it as a book of oracles, finding in it, in times of difficulty and stress if not the answer, at least an echo to their own problems.

In "Kim-Van-Kieu" we find the dominant themes of Buddhism.

[1] Pronounced in the northern dialect: zoo; in the southern dialect: you.
[2] From the introduction to the translation into French of "Kim-Van- Kieu" by Xuan-Phuc and Xuan-Viet,in the "Connaissance de 1’Orient" series, sponsored by UNESCO, Gallimard, Paris, 1961.


Four score and two tens, within that short span of human life,
Talent and Destiny are poised in bitter conflict.
Oceans turn to mulberry fields: a desolate scene!
More gifts, less chance, such is the law of Nature
And the blue sky is known to be jealous of rosy cheeks.


[1] The Chinese novel on which is based Nguyen Du's Kim-Van-Kieu.
[2] 1522-1566.
[3] Age when girls could marry.