Đoạn trường tân thanh (I)

In Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung II, Schopenhauer wrote:

“Das Talent gleicht dem Schützen, der ein Ziel trifft, welches die übrigen nicht erreichen können; das Genie dem, der eins trifft, bis zu welchem sie nicht einmal zu sehen vermögen.”

This saying addresses the difference between talent and genius: While talent hits a target that no one else can hit, genius hits a target that no one else can see.

Do we need to be genius to appreciate The tale of Kiều by Nguyễn Du? Yes, especially when Kiều is taught to 14-year-old kids of junior high in Vietnam. This fact often makes me wonder how they could understand this level of simplicity:

“Trăm năm trong cõi người ta
Chữ tài chữ mệnh khéo là ghét nhau”

“A hundred years – in this life span on earth
talent and destiny are apt to feud”
(translated by Huỳnh Sanh Thông, 1983)

Shouldn’t it take the experience of a play of ebb and flow, or “một cuộc bể dâu” to fully latch on such maxim? How could a 14-year-old kid, whose only real concern is where to have milkshake after school, who doesn’t even receive an honest education of the history of 20th century’s Vietnam, be moved by reading Kiều? That is not to mention the complexity of Nôm (喃) poetry that is full of classic references to the ancient time.

This is why, if we take this magnum opus seriously, we must read it again when we get older, but that won’t happen, for reading Kiều does not earn us anything. We’d rather spend time making money, right?

I happened to read Kiều again by some coincidence. Some days ago, I came across the title of an essay by Nguyễn Thạch Kiên on the life and death of Khái Hưng, Đốt lò hương ấy, which also reminds me of a memoir by Đinh Hùng, Đốt lò hương cũ. This phrase is taken from a part of Kiều, in which Thúy Kiều asks her younger sister Thúy Vân to help her mend and splice the bonds of love between her and Kim Trọng which were snapped by a sudden storm of misfortune. In order to save her family, Kiều decides to sell her body, and because of that she could not fulfill her troth with Kim Trọng, so she asked Thúy Vân to marry him in stead. She knows that she may never be able to return, so she leaves behind a golden hairpin, a troth-letter decked with the patterns of clouds, the lute that she played for Kim, and the leftover incense stick that was burned on that night. Kiều tells Vân that if she would ever miss her, just play that lute, light that incense vessel, and look outdoors, the breeze among grass and leaves could be her soul coming home.

Mất người còn chút của tin,
Phím đàn với mảnh hương nguyền ngày xưa.
Mai sau dù có bao giờ,
Đốt lò hương ấy, so tơ phím này

Trông ra ngọn cỏ lá cây,
Thấy hiu hiu gió thì hay chị về.

I shall have vanished leaving few remains:
a lute, troth-incense burned in days gone by.
Sometime, if ever you will tune this lute
or light that incense vessel, look outdoors:
among the grass and leaves you’ll see a breeze
waft back and forth – you’ll know that I’ve come home.
(translated by Huỳnh Sanh Thông, 1983)

(Nguyễn Tuân in Một chuyến đi describes in detail how lute playing should be paired with incense burning).

Đinh Hùng and Nguyễn Thạch Kiên are not the only ones who get inspired by Kiều. Nguyễn Bắc Sơn has a poem named Mai sau dù có bao giờ, whose title is also from Kiều. Nam Dao Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng probably takes his novel title Bể dâu from the first four lines of Kiều, and it seems like Bùi Giáng also takes the phrase Cõi người ta from Kiều to translate the title of Saint-Exupéry’s memoir, Terre des hommes.

The influences of Nguyễn Du’s Kiều on the following generations is vast. Two hundred years have passed, but it is stilled considered the most important work of Vietnamese literature. The tradition of reading Kiều in Vietnam over two centuries has made up a volume of critique and analysis that is many times larger than the volume of Kiều itself.

Now when I read Kiều again, I think one of the great things about Kiều is that, by telling the story of an ordinary woman, Nguyễn Du illustrates the universal patterns such as life and death, love and duty, vengeance and forgiveness, departure and return, and so on. My favorite critic says that Kiều, like Balzac’s La Comédie humaine, also reaches the limit of literature, but through the way of minimization, not maximization.

However, that Kiều is widely considered the most important literary work of Vietnam poses a question to many people: Why didn’t Nguyễn Du come up with an original plot by himself, rather than adopting a story from China? This has sparked a heated debate among the researchers and critics of Kiều, both inside and outside of Vietnam.

But the thing is, it is by no means necessary to read Kiều from a nationalist standpoint. In fact, I suppose “nation” could be just an imagined community (cf. Benedict Anderson), and “originality” is a myth. Nationalism will be on the rise whenever the racist practices are on the way, which is quite irrelevant in this liberal time. And putting emphasis on a static point in time where something original emerges could be in fact wrong-headed, because everything is always moving and changing, in the interwoven interactions with its predecessors and successors.

Moreover, it could be a mistake to treat Nguyễn Du as a nationalist. Nguyễn Du was born in the time of division, that is to say the end of Lê dynasty and the beginning of Nguyễn dynasty, with conflicts between the North and the South, and revolutions broke out across the country. It was indeed the time for individualism, with the presence of so many individualist writers including Nguyễn Công Trứ, Hồ Xuân Hương, and Cao Bá Quát. They no longer held forth on the topic of patriotism. They cried their own sadness and sang their own joy, with little ambition to speak on behalf of their nation.

Nguyễn Du was probably one of them, but he is different because he does not only look inwards, but outwards as well. He finds sympathy for people like Thúy Kiều and Tiểu Thanh, but by talking about them, he is also talking about himself, and about people like him in this vast existence of time.

Bất tri tam bách dư niên hậu,
Thiên hạ hà nhân khấp Tố như

(Độc Tiểu Thanh Ký)

to be continued…

Photo: Vũ Cao Đàm (1908-2000), Thiếu nữ uống trà. Jeunes femmes prenant le thé. Couleurs sur soie, 78 x 114 cm. Source: manhhai.