The Tale of Kieu is one of the first Vietnamese books that made me understand the relationship between Vietnamese and Chinese culture. There are several characters in the poem, from whom we can get the main ideas of the author, and set off the image of young Kieu. Through images of the minor characters, the author reveals the essence of the philosophical notion “virtue” and its peculiarity in Eastern culture, the role it played in the destiny of the poet himself.
The Tale of Kieu is a moral verse. I say this because Kieu and other characters go through what they go through by fate; a situation they have no control over. There are instances through which immorality is illustrated, but beyond this curtain, there are great moral lessons . We are told of Kieu, “Alive she played the wife to all the world” (Du, 7) .As such the mere presentation of Kieu in a brothel can send the signal that the verse is immoral. But this should not be the motivation for such a harsh conclusion.
The kind of restoration that we eventually encounter points to the fact that this tale is seriously mirrored towards advancing the nature of virtue. This is seen from the inner thoughts of the minor characters. Though Thuc got Kieu through a brothel, he had a yearning of once getting a partner with whom they could marry and finally start a serious family. “…this harlot, after all, knows right from wrong…” (Du, 75).Theirs was a relationship which quickly moved from a casual one to a morally acceptable one.
Scholar Ma played a tragic role in the destiny of young girl. In the eastern culture the beauty of tragedy if considered deeper, purer, and truer than the beauty of happiness. From the book we may know if Scholar Ma was not the main cause for Kieu to become a prostitute. Kieu’s renunciation would not be so prominent.
Scholar Ma destroyed her personal happiness, but by doing this, her character became more immoral. The very same situation became classic from the point of view of Chinese and Vietnamese literature. Virtue of Kieu was impossible without Scholar Ma. Scholar Ma is an original element of fate and at the same time, an ordinary representative of his social group.
Thuc’s image includes several issues such as the question of strength and weakness. In fact, paternity plays a great role in the story; Thuc just could not not follow his father because it was impossible from the point of view of Eastern philosophy. Father’s image personifies the idea of social, moral and virtuous responsibilities. For Kieu and Thuc, this fact was the universal truth; still the girl was stronger than her lover and she took responsibility and decided to face the judge.
Thuc could not fulfill his obligation to his wife and to Kieu. When the judge took pity and ordered their marriage, Thuc was afraid of his first wife and did not reveal his relationships with the girl. Kieu saved faces even in shameful situations, while Thuc fell sacrifice to his passions and weaknesses. Kieu is strong, even in the hours of hardships. Thuc is influenced by her strength when he helps her escape the temple and the threat which his wife corresponds. We are told “…known as Miss Hoan, she wore a great name….” (Du, 79)
True virtue serves as an example for others and strengthens them. Virtue plays out in the tale from what Miss Hoan goes through. Though Thuc leaves her and marries Kien, we can easily see how she practically stands her ground as first wife.
Through Thuc we see the reflection of squander and plunder as compared to what actually befell Vietnam historically (Du, 164). Thuc being a thrift spender, “squandered money with both hands”. Vietnam as a country got squandered by invaders who affected almost every aspect of the country.
Though The Tale of Kieu portrays characters as seen, going deeper one sees an embodiment of what ails the society. There are several competing forces and these determine the way things work out. The character, in essence, presents to us how destiny is equally determined by fate.Kim Trong’s ordeal was separation with Kieu, and even reunion of lovers was not so happy. It happened because they were engaged, but their relationships were not full.
Of love and friendship they fulfilled both claims –
They shared no bed but joys of lute and verse . . .
Their wishes all came true since fate so willed,
And of two lovers marriage made two friends. (Du, 165)
Their mutual life is ordeal for Kieu. At the end of life, a human’s soul seeks for truth. Kieu becomes a nun and does not want to defile Kim Throng’s ordeal. She proves that true virtue is renunciation.
Through the images of the minor characters, the author reveals the essence of virtue and its role in the destiny of people. From what befalls the characters, we can finally see the kind of moral conscience that drives humanity being advanced in the tale. There are several issues which we see getting resolved through reconciliation and reunions.
By all these one can only conclude that the characters, through the turmoil that they go through, serve as a medium through which the trouble that humanity goes through in search of virtue is reflected. Kim for instance seeks Kieu’s love for a long time, but Kieu’s refusal to give in quickly initially is motivated by the fear if soiling Kim’s stature. Her sticking to the preservation of chastity only goes further to reflect the inner yearning for virtue. In essence The Tale of Kieu is a moral verse.
Du, Nguyen. The Tale of Kieu. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.