The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Kim Vân Kiêu (c. 1800)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Kim Vân Kiêu (original: Doan Truòng Tân Thanh) was written by Nguyên Du. Nguyên Du (1765-1820) is considered the national poet of Vietnam. As a teenager Nguyên fought against the Tây-son rebels whose revolt was destroying the country, but he soon saw the futility of the war and moved to the mountains and became a poet. He later became a Mandarin and an able and honest administrator who was more at home with the poor than the gentry. His work is widely read even today, but he is best-known for Kim Vân Kiêu, which was influential on Vietnamese literature for over a century.
Kim Vân Kiêu is perhaps the classic of Vietnamese literature. The poem has a wealth of allusions to Chinese and Vietnamese literature and philosophy, and is variously known as a “romance, a political allegory, a book of divination, and a moral fable.”1 Critics have also seen in it an allegory for Nguyên Du’s guilt over agreeing to work for the Nguyên dynasty (1802-1945) after it had overthrown Nguyên Du’s former masters, the Tây Son dynasty (1778-1802).
Kim Vân Kiêu is a “scholar-beauty” (original: “caizi jiaren”) story in the form of a 3,254 line poem. The scholar-beauty genre began as a collection of several dozen works of prose fiction which became popular reading in China in the seventeenth century and which were read in translation in many countries in southeast Asia.
Caizi jiaren narratives revolve around the outworking of a single plot thread, the marriage of the scholar and the beauty, or main female and male protagonists. A series of obstacles or tests, both physical and moral, are placed in the path of the young hero, while his desired or betrothed overcomes opposition from within the confines of the inner chambers. After proving their intellectual and spiritual worth, the couple are united in marriage, or (in the case of Haoqiu zhuan) a previous de jure marriage is consummated. Evil officials and relatives who have conspired against the predestined couple are punished, and the righteous poor who have aided them in their quest are honoured, often with high imperial accolades. The hero and heroine are moral and chivalric exemplars— in contradistinction to the negative examples set by the protagonists of the red-light novel— drawn in individuating detail. Themes which recur in caizi jiaren works include the fairy-talesque elevation of women, a celebration of father-daughter relations, the injurious wielding of power by some officials with its concomitant retribution, and discourses on the nature of talent... committed affection...and ritually correct behaviour.2
One classic scholar-beauty story is Wen K’ang’s The Gallant Maid. In writing Kim Vân Kiêu Nguyên Du took as his model The Story of Chin, Yun, and Chi’ao (original: Chin Yun Ch'iao chuan, late seventeenth century), a Chinese story which brought together the wüxia and the scholar-beauty genres.
Kiêu is not the scholar of Kim Vân Kiêu, but rather the beauty. The scholar and ostensible hero of Kim Vân Kiêu is Kim Trong, a handsome young man who meets Kiêu and is attracted to her. The attraction is mutual, and the two become engaged secretly, but then Kim Trong has to leave on a trip to see to some family business. When he returns, four months later, he discovers that Kiêu's father has been unjustly accused of a crime by a local magistrate, and that to save her father Kiêu agreed to become the concubine of a local merchant. Kiêu leaves Kim Trong a note urging him to forget about her and to marry her younger sister, Thuy Van. Kim Trong marries Thuy Van but never forgets about Kiêu and spends the next sixteen years looking for her. He eventually finds her, after Thuy Van has died and he has become a degree-holder and an official. Kiêu agrees to become his second wife on one condition: that their marriage never be consummated. (When they meet for a second time she throws herself in his arms, but except for that one occasion the two never make love).
The reason Kiêu won't sleep with Kim Trong is the reason that she, and not he, is the hero of this entry. Kiêu is a model of filial devotion and love. She becomes the mistress of the merchant to save her father. When the merchant tires of her, she becomes a prostitute and then a concubine, a maid, a Buddhist nun, a prostitute again, the wife of a rebel chieftain, a prisoner of war, a Buddhist nun, and finally Kim Trong’s wife. She won't make love to Kim Trong because of all she has been through and everything she has done; she has too much respect for Kim Trong to allow him to sully himself with her. Kiêu is a good musician and poet, is beautiful and sensitive, and deeply loves her father and Kim Trong (which is why she wanted him to marry her sister–so he could be happy). Kiêu is beautiful, good, and doomed, and by poem's end that doom lies heavily upon her, even with her marriage to the man she loves. The Vietnamese have it as “hông nhan bac mênh:” “Beautiful women will suffer a perilous fate.” By story’s end Kiêu knows this all too well.
Kim Vân Kiêu’s reputation in Vietnam has not always been of the highest; during the 1920s and 1930s, a political debate “revolved heatedly around The Tale of Kiêu,”3 between collaborationists with the French and scholars who opposed the French control of Vietnam. The collaborationists “canonized Kiêu and proclaimed The Tale of Kiêu a ‘pure’ masterpiece, subtly suggesting that ‘pure’ literary pursuit was a glorious (and profitable) alternative to politics or revolution.”4 The rebels, seeing that the collaborationists had embraced Kim Vân Kiêu, “went to the other end [of the critical spectrum] to dramatize their hostility toward [those] they considered the most dangerous henchmen of French imperialism; if The Tale of Kiêu meant everything to a traitor, then it meant nothing, or worse than nothing, to patriots.”5
This changed in the second half of the twentieth century, following the United States’ enormously damaging involvement in Vietnam–only the latest in damaging foreign incursions in Vietnam’s history–and the consequent scattering of Vietnamese across the globe.
Often psychologically and socially estranged from a host country whose language they do not understand, many derive spiritual comfort from Nguyên Du’s masterpiece. They know most of its lines by heart, and when they recite them out loud, they speak their mother tongue at its finest. To the extent that the poem implies something at the very core of Vietnamese experience, it addresses them intimately as victims, as refugees, as survivors. Inn the course of Vietnam’s tortured history, the individual, like Kiêu herself, has all too often become the toy of necessity, has been compelled to do the bidding of some alien power, to serve a master other than the one to whom he or she should owe allegiance. Beyond its literal meaning, Kiêu’s prostitution is interpreted as a metaphor for the betrayal of principle under duress, the submission to force of circumstances. More generally, Kiêu stands for Vietnam itself, a and well endowed with natural and human resources, but too often doomed to see such riches gone to waste or destroyed.6
Print: Nguyên Du, The Kim Vân Kieu of Nguyen Du (1765-1820), transl. Vladislav Zhukov. Canberra: Pandanus Books, 2004.
Nguyên Du, The Tale of Kiêu, transl. Huynh Sanh Thông. New Haven: Yale University, 1983.
Online: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Or_14844 (In Vietnamese; there is no English language version available online).
1 Nathalie Nguyen, “A Classical Heroine and Her Modern Manifestation: The Tale of Kieu and its Modern Parallels in Printemps inacheve,” The French Review 73, no. 3 (Feb. 2000): 454
2 Chloe F. Starr, Red-light Novels of the late Qing (Boston: Brill, 2007), 41.
3 Huynh Sanh Thong, “Introduction,” in The Tale of Kiêu, transl. Huynh Sanh Thong (New Haven: Yale Universit, 1983), xxxix.
4 Thong, “Introduction,” xxxix.
5 Thong, “Introduction,” xxxix.
6 Thong, “Introduction,” xl.