The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

The Tale of Luc Vân Tiên (1856)    

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

The Tale of Luc Vân Tiên (original: Truyên Luc Vân Tiên) was written by Nguyên Ðình Chiêu. Chiêu (1822-1888) was one of Vietnam's leading poets in the nineteenth century. Blinded at an early age by a serious illness, he became a teacher and doctor in his home village. He used his poetry to inspire patriotism and to help the anti-French movement. His poems are still read and well-thought-of in Vietnam.

Luc Vân Tiên is a 2,076 line truyên tho nôm, or verse narrative, set in Vietnam in the nineteenth century. The poem’s hero, Luc Vân Tiên, is in many ways a typical Vietnamese wüxia knight-errant. He is a skilled fighter and a rescuer of those in need as well as a scholar of some note. One day he is out wandering when he discovers the beautiful maiden Kieu Nguyet Nga being threatened by a gang of robbers and rapists. Luc fights them off, and Kieu is so grateful for this that she vows to stay with Luc forever. But bad things happen to them. They can't marry because Luc has not yet passed his exams. They suffer a series of accidents and setbacks. Luc is injured up in a series of fights, and then his mother dies, which so traumatizes him that his own tears blind him. Then Luc's friend Trinh Ham accidentally pushes Luc into a river. Kieu, meanwhile, is ordered to give herself as tribute to the invading Wuguo army. She refuses, wanting to remain faithful to Luc, and jumps in a river to end her life. She is fished out of the river, but then has to flee to avoid marrying the man who saved her.

But Luc and Kieu, being good and just folk, are eventually rewarded. The Buddhist goddess Quan Yin looks kindly on Kieu for her efforts to remain true and helps her to wait for the day when she can be reunited with Luc. Luc eventually has his eyesight restored through a local remedy. He passes the exams for the office of mandarin and then defeats the hated Wuguo troops. Luc and Kieu end up together and live happily ever after.

Luc Vân Tiên is particularly valued by the Vietnamese, who see it as one of their best heroic romances. Its popularity is such that it was filmed as a movie in Vietnam as recently as 2017.

Some modern writers have criticized Luc Vân Tiên for the predictability of its action and the lack of depth of its characters. To be sure, Nguyen Dinh Chieu’s plots were unoriginal and his characters were little developed. In context, however, such criticisms miss the point. The work was beloved by contemporary Vietnamese (and remains so today), who appreciated it as a lively, albeit predictable, adventure story with an important and edifying message. In trying times, Luc Vân Tiên reaffirmed traditional values by encouraging virtuous behavior through positive and negative examples: virtuous acts are rewarded, and evil ones are punished. It thus spoke directly to Vietnamese audiences searching for a response to the perennial problem of how to respond to invasion and the French occupation, recommending the emotionally satisfying response of resistance.1 

Recommended Edition

Print: Dinh Chieu Nguyen, Luc-Van-Tiên, poème populaire annamite, transl. P.C. Nguyjn. Paris: Hachette Livre-BNF, 2017. (There is no English-language translation available).


1 Mark W. McLeod and Nguyen Thi Dieu, Culture and Customs of Vietnam (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), 73.