Fulbright University Vietnam recently held a conference on “Nguyen Du and Contemporaries” to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the great poet’s passing. The event was attended by close to 200 participants, including high school and university students. The conference was a chance for lovers of poetry and literary researchers alike to commemorate Nguyen Du, reflecting on his most famous, most invaluable work: Truyện Kiều (The Tale of Kieu).

The miraculous vitality of The Tale of Kieu

What makes “The Tale of Kieu” different from other literary masterpieces in Vietnam is its universal qualities, and a pervasive vitality. Since its first publication, the epic poem rose to fame, and not just inside Vietnam. It was translated to French in 1884, and into many other languages soon after.

Writer, researcher Nhat Chieu (right)

According to Nhat Chieu, writer, translator and literary researcher, the world is now familiar with the “The Tale of Kieu” through translated versions in more than 20 languages, counting over 10 acclaimed translations each in English and French alone.

The Tale of Kieu is ranked among 10 literary masterpieces outside Europe, along with India’s Ramayana, Japan’s Tale of Genji and Li Bai’s poems from China.

“When I read the translated versions, as well as the books and articles published by foreign scholars on The Tale of Kieu, I can feel their serious dedication to the work, their heartfelt enthusiasm towards this literary masterpiece. They have offered a multitude of unique perspectives. This is how I’ve realized that Nguyen Du created a character that can live on forever in the hearts of readers all over the world,” writer Nhat Chieu said at the conference.

Nhat Chieu also quoted a foreign researcher, saying, “when we follow the life story of the main character, Kieu, we see the entirety of Vietnam as a country, steeped in a past of grim tragedies. Viet[nam] sounds like “vuot”, which means “pass”. Vietnam, as a country has passed through a long journey of tribulations, just like Kieu.” Meanwhile, another researcher had said The Tale of Kieu reminded him of the legend of Trong Thuy and Mi Chau, helping them understand how a Vietnamese woman could be so passionate and wholeheartedly dedicated in love.

A self-reflection

When attempting to answer the question of The Tale of Kieu’s universality, a common response is that people can see parts of themselves in The Tale of Kieu, whether it is the mood, the personality, the plight, the fate, or the desires portrayed. Ha Van Thach, a Kieu researcher and former deputy chairman of Ha Tinh Province People’s Committee, explained that The Tale of Kieu successfully explores the deepest mysteries of the human heart, thus helping people understand themselves, others, and their country.

Mr. Ha Van Thach

“Many scholars have remarked that Nguyen Du’s talent lies in successfully portraying the human heart and mind, illuminating the deeper truths, the good and the bad.  This is the hardest thing to accomplish, as an old saying would tell us: “Tri nhân tri diện bất tri tâm” (“When an artist paints a tiger, he can only paint it skin, not his bones. When we observe people, we can only know their appearance, not their truest intentions”). In The Tale of Kieu, Nguyen Du writes in order to know a person, from their appearance to their intentions. The Tale of Kieu is like a mirror for people to see the hidden secrets, the bright and the dark sides of themselves,” Mr. Thach said at the conference.

Nhat Chieu further praised the intemporal vitality of The Tale of Kieu, attributing it to its openness. Similarly to Lord Byron’s Don Juan and Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, two literary classics of the 19th century, the researcher explains The Tale of Kieu has to be interpreted through the lens of the “lyrical self” – a means to distinguish between the poetic form of the lyrical subject, and the empirical person of the author. Both Byron and Pushkin use their characters to explore their self, just like Nguyen Du who was not in fact writing about a random girl living during the reign of the Jiajing Emperor in Ming China. Instead, he wrote about himself. The expression “Trăm năm trong cõi người ta” in Vietnamese is a phrase that means the hundred-year span of a human life. It is implicitly accompanied by its very close counterpart “Trăm năm trong cả người tôi”, a clever substitution that shifts meaning to “a hundred years in all of me.” Writing about Kieu therefore functions as a way to write about the author’s experience, and the pain and suffering of others who like him lived through times of chaos and dramatic changes.

“It is necessary to add new meanings to a classic work, and the greatness of a literary work lies in the openness of it. In the 19th century literature, The Tale of Kieu stands out for the lyrical self of Nguyen Du as he portrays human life in chaotic times. New generations of readers read The Tale of Kieu today and find new meanings for themselves, not just in the story of Kieu set in the period that Nguyen Du experienced,” writer Nhat Chieu explained.

The Tale of Kieu in diplomacy

Ben Wilkinson, Executive Director of Trust for University Innovation in Vietnam, shared with the participants of the conference some experiences he had when preparing the speeches for American politicians during their visits to Vietnam. Speech writers like him always tried to find new materials for the speeches to be delivered in the Vietnam-US bilateral meetings. The Tale of Kieu has become a vivid source of inspiration for them to write the speeches, because the Vietnamese masterpiece explores many aspects that can be related to the history of Vietnam-US relations, including tragedies, fate, hope, betrayal and love.

In 2000, during the reception at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, hosted by then President Tran Duc Luong, US President Bill Clinton – the first US president to visit Vietnam after 25 years after the Vietnam War – delivered his remarks to thank the Vietnamese government for their warm welcome. He quoted two sentences from The Tale of Kieu: “Sen tàn cúc lại nở hoa/Sầu dài ngày ngắn, Đông đà sang Xuân” (Just as the lotus wilts, the daisy blooms forth. Time softens grief, and the winter turn to spring). The lotus is traditionally understood as a symbol of summer. Similarly, the daisy represents fall. By referring to a verse describing cyclical change and renewal, implying that time softens grief, President Bill Clinton offered a message of hope for such renewal to occur between the US and Vietnam, from former foes to closer friends.

In July 2015, during the reception hosted by then US Vice President Joe Biden at the US Department of State, Biden delivered a speech to celebrate the normalization of Vietnam-US ties, and the renewed efforts to heal the aftermath of war, including the search for MIA soldiers or dioxin decontamination. There, he quoted two sentences from The Tale of Kieu: “Trời còn để đến hôm nay/Tan sương đầu ngõ vén mây giữa trời” (Thank heaven we are here today. To see the sun through parting fog and cloud). The verses carried special meaning, a wish for the development of Vietnam-US relations from its troubled past.

Positive messages about the ties between the two countries were also sent by US President Barack Obama when he talked to Vietnamese youths during his visit to Hanoi in 2016. He quoted The Tale of Kieu in his speech, saying: “Rằng trăm năm cũng từ đây. Của tin gọi một chút này làm ghi” (Please take from me this token of trust, So we can embark on our one-hundred-year journey together).

Wilkinson said The Tale of Kieu is much favored and usually quoted by American diplomats to allude to the Vietnam-US relations because it is widely loved by Vietnamese people regardless of their backgrounds.

“Speech writers want to send a meaningful message to Vietnamese people and there is no better choice than to pick such a beloved national literary masterpiece,” he concluded.

Xuan Linh

The second panel of the conference titled “Nguyen Du and Contemporaries” recently organized by Fulbright University Vietnam explores the creative approaches of artists, choreographers, and film directors to adapt the literary masterpiece The Tale of Kieu, of illustrious poet Nguyen Du, to a multiplicity of artforms.

The wondrous vitality of The Tale of Kieu can be seen in how often it has been the source of great inspiration for artists, choreographers, and film directors alike, creating numerous works widely acclaimed by the Vietnamese audience.

Under the vast shadow of what is commonly understood as the most significant piece of Vietnamese literature and a major work of the 19th century, art masters strive their hardest to meet their audience’s expectations.

From the literary masterpiece to contemporary forms of art

“Cai luong” singer Bach Tuyet

Panelist Bach Tuyet has been a cải lương singer (loosely translated as reformed theater, or modern South Vietnamese folk opera) for close to 60 years. She is famous for her role in many major cai luong performances over her long career, including “Kim Van Kieu” in which she played the role of Thuy Kieu, the main character of The Tale of Kieu.

One of the biggest milestones of her career was the opening of a private cai luong troupe together with Hung Cuong, a famous male cai luong singer, in 1971. The duo later introduced three cai luong performances based on The Tale of Kieu, all critically acclaimed.

According to Bach Tuyet, that work was only the continuation of other cai luong masters’ attempts to adapt the epic poem to the folk opera form. Back in 1918, the cai luong troupe of Mr. Nam Tu in My Tho, a city in the Mekong Delta region of South Vietnam, introduced Kim Van Kieu, the first cai luong performance based on The Tale of Kieu.

Why did he pick The Tale of Kieu for adaption? Perhaps it is because there is nothing more suitable than adapting a famous Vietnamese literary work regarded as a symbol of Vietnamese culture into a traditional theatrical form made for the middle class during the country’s French colonial period,” she said at the conference.

For Bach Tuyet, The Tale of Kieu is a highly narrative poem. Nguyen Du was a master in employing the written form to spark the imagination. When adapting a work characterized by the use of words into a form of performance, the hardest part for cai luong directors and actors is to keep the narrative feature of the original work and at the same time underline the dramatic aspects of the theatrical form.

According to panelist Dao Ba Son, directing a movie based on a poem written by Nguyen Du was an excellent experience. In 2010, he directed the film “Long Thành cầm giả ca” (The zither player of Thang Long) based on the namesake poem about a musically gifted girl in Thang Long, the former name of Hanoi.

Film director Dao Ba Son

Nguyen Du wrote the poem in 1813-1814, as he travelled to China as an ambassador under King Gia Long. He stopped by Thang Long and saw a once-famous zither player and singer, now saddened, tired and old among young and beautiful singers. But this was not his first meeting. He remembered seeing the woman 20 years prior, as a young, beautiful, and greatly admired talent.

Based on the poem, screenwriter Van Le developed a story centered on the tragic love between Nguyen Du and the zither player named Cam; the movie also portrayed the life of Vietnamese people during the 1783-1813 period – one of the most chaotic times in Vietnamese history that saw the change from the Le to the Nguyen Dynasty.

The movie was screened at cinemas nationwide, coinciding with the opening of Hanoi’s millennial anniversary in October 2010. The script was awarded first prize from nearly ten historical films shown during the event.

For Dao Ba Son, the film addresses the immortality of art through the suffering of intellectuals like Nguyen Du and fragile artists such as Cam. They have the same talent, the same love for art, the same fate, the same pains about themselves and the life. “The rulers have changed, people have aged and died but the values of art will live forever,” he said.

Targeting the young audience

Film director, actress Mai Thu Huyen

Widely known as an actress, Mai Thu Huyen took her fans by surprise when she announced her role as the director and producer of a new film project in late September 2020: the latest adaptation for the big screen of The Tale of Kieu, minimally titled “Kieu”.

Huyen shared that this project was 10 years in a making, and was slated to be completed this year, on the occasion of Nguyen Du’s 200th death anniversary.

This project brought her on a deeply convoluted journey full of difficulties and challenges. The past decade saw her knock on the doors of many Kieu researchers, writers, and screenwriters to develop a suitable screenplay for “Kieu”. Yet many were reluctant to accept her offer. Indeed, some said they felt huge pressure adapting a work so influential, with its large audience of dedicated fans. On the other hand, the scripts she did receive did not feel persuasive enough. Huyen was afraid she would have to give up on this ambitious project.

Eventually, film director Phi Tien Son, that she had hired as consultant for her project, was moved by Huyen’s dedication for the project, and took it upon himself to write it. His script won her heart. Soon after, she was calling for investors to start shooting the movie.

I seized the chance on that movie. To me, this was a now or never opportunity to honor such a great literary work,” she shared at the conference.

After two months of shooting in six provinces across the country, the movie is currently undergoing post-production before hitting the cinemas early next year.

When the pre-teaser of the movie was released in September, a small detail sparked controversy among young netizens. However, Huyen said she was undeterred. This meant young people, the target audience for her film, were paying a lot of attention, both to The Tale of Kieu and her production.

According to Huyen, the movie is not a copied version of the epic poem; it is an attempt to re-invent the work so that it could reach the young audience easier.

Each form of art has a different kind of expression and a different approach to the audience, so is the movie Kieu. This movie is independent from the original work,” she explained.

Also named Kieu, the ballet produced by Ho Chi Minh City Ballet, Symphony Orchestra and Opera presented in June attracted the attention of the public in Hanoi and HCMC.

“Ballet Kieu”, as it is known, is the second dance performance adapted from The Tale of Kieu; the first was a dance show directed by a Korean, Yoo-Oh Chun. According to choreographer Nguyen Phuc Hung, the producers of Ballet Kieu have long yearned to re-create the image of Kieu on pointe shoes, with the heart and soul of Vietnamese people, for the Vietnamese audience.

Choreographer, ballet dancer Nguyen Phuc Hung

“As a form of art, the lack of words in ballet create unique constraints and challenges to convey the meaning of The Tale of Kieu and stay true to its spirit. It’s about finding a new language to express it in a combination of sights, sounds, and the soul of ballet dancers,” he said.

When it came to choreographing, it was important to combine an expression of the Vietnamese spirit with European ballet techniques, according to Hung.

Hung and another choreographer, Tuyet Minh, gave special attention to the vocabulary of movement of the dancers, striving to bring a different sense to The Tale of Kieu through the body language of dancers. To create a successful modern ballet, they thoroughly blended the techniques of the European tradition with Vietnamese dance, along with musical effects, costumes, props and modern visual arts.

Despite the challenges, Director Dao Ba Son concluded, it was an honor for him to adapt Nguyen Du’s poem into a movie; the great poem always brings to life the most miserable people in society, and those hardest hit by chaos and upheaval.

“I think Nguyen Du is greater than what we think he is. It’s still a long way for us to create something that can truly do justice to his works. When I started directing “The zither-player of Thang Long”, I read a lot of his writings. And I realized everything I know about him is so very little compared to his tremendous influence on our country. But his greatest characteristic is perhaps the way he put human suffering into words. He was always concerned and thoughtful about the people, the times, and himself. I remember this verse in one of his poems: “Chẳng biết ba trăm năm lẻ nữa. Người đời ai khóc Tố Như chăng? (In 300 years, who will cry for To Nhu? (To Nhu is one of Nguyen Du’s pen names),” reflected Son.

Dr. Nguyen Nam, lecturer for the Vietnamese Studies major at Fulbright University Vietnam, further discussed how artistic works such as cai luong performances, a movie, or a choreography based on The Tale of Kieu all constitute different ways to interpret the poem. And in so doing, they help Nguyen Du’s successors to convey the beauty of The Tale of Kieu to a larger audience, making it live forever in Vietnamese people’s hearts.

Thuy Hang