The Tale of Kieu by Nguyen Du is one of the most prominent Vietnamese poems, depicting the life of a woman who had to save her family by sacrificing her own life. This poem presents the social and political challenges of the 18th century, when two dynasties, Nguyen and Trinh, were fighting for power. On the example of one woman, the author shows the beliefs and cultural traditions of the identified epoch. Although Vietnam of the 19th century was dominated by men, the female character, Kieu, represents Confucian morality that helped her to fulfill her obligations, overcome critical challenges, and reunite with her family.
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Confucian Morality as the Main Driving Force
According to the ideas of Confucius, a person should not proceed from an individual moral position in his or her actions or yield to impulses, such as anger, love, or hatred. People must invariably proceed from the moral dogmas prescribed by Confucius, regardless of what suffering it may cause (Sheldon 2). The Confucian logo can be formulated as “overcome yourself and restore the rituals”, which is evident in The Tale of Kieu. When the protagonist’s brother and father are left without all their wealth, Kieu becomes a prostitute to protect her family. More to the point, a person was dissolved in society, losing his or her individuality and following all the moral and ethical standards (Sheldon 2). Having no independent moral value, Kieu can be considered as a faceless but integral element of the system of social relations. In other words, her attitudes and actions exist only in connection with others, which, nevertheless, is supported by her commitment to the family.
The question of Kieu’s morality takes the central place in the identified problem. On the one hand, she became a prostitute and had several husbands across her life, which seems to be immoral. On the other hand, the woman was forced to do so to ensure that her family would be safe and secure. The environment in which the actions happen is critical to understanding the decisions that were made by the protagonist. Namely, it was stated that the best way to unite society could be achieved by strengthening the position of the family and encouraging respect for parents in every way (Van Duong 156). The poem shows that in Vietnam, the family was considered the core of society. The interests of the family far exceeded the interests of Kieu, who was considered only in the context of the family through the prism of its problems: “when evil strikes, you bow to circumstances” (Du 87). For example, the girl fell in love with Kim Trong, but there was no opportunity for her to be with him.
The Vietnamese Confucian morality lies in the foundation of The Tale of Kieu, serving as the source of support for the main character. Despite her numerous challenges, the young woman did not give up on the androcentric world of that time. While being separated from her family, Kieu ultimately reunited with her parents and her first love (Ozoliņš 135). According to Confucian values, a daughter’s filiality, as well as moral propriety, were the key aspects for any female. It should be stressed that this poem was written in the period of launching the Laws and Regulations of the Imperial Viet that reinforced male domination in the country (Ozoliņš 131). One may suggest that the intention with which the author used an image of a young girl and prostitution is to demonstrate the system of values of that time. It seems that pimps were compassionate to women, especially for those who had to pay the debts of their families. In other words, the readers observe a well-designed yet morally-controversial system of relationships in Vietnam of the 19th century.
Accordingly, Kieu can be justified for being engaged in prostitution and other seemingly incorrect behaviors. It is especially important to stress that this justification is possible in the given context, but it can be completely inappropriate in other conditions. In addition to Confucian ideas, the influence of Buddhism is also evident. Namely, the concept of dharma can be applied to this situation as a cycle of suffering and well-being to support and make the universe possible. Dharma includes a set of duties, conduct, virtues to determine a correct way of life, which was followed by this heroine. The Confucian approach to male dictate is another issue that identified the life of Kieu, who had to be submissive to her father, brother, and son in widowhood (Rato 69). Chastity and filial piety are the key virtues that made her save her family by means of actions that were not preferable for her.
The social and cultural impacts of Confucianism and Buddhism can be traced not only in the protagonist’s behaviors but also in her family and environment as a whole. In turn, the family of the main heroine also follows the prescribed virtues and believes that “a child first pays the debts of birth and care” (Du 21). It does not mean, however, that her family treats her as a slave or unwanted child. Instead, the father notes that “you raise a daughter wishing she might find a fitting match, might wed a worthy mate” (Du 32). It is clear that he does not like the idea of selling her daughter to a brothel, but he considers that it is her duty in this case. The father puts the interests of the family higher than those of her daughter or himself. The marriage with a man who had sufficient financial stability was seen as a contract for preserving a family. In the given case, a contract is made with the same idea yet in a different form.
Another major factor is Kieu’s personal adherence to her family and a sense of duty before her parents. The first example of such behavior can be observed when he refuses Kim, which is opposite to her personal interest of love. The girl mentions that “treat not our love as just a game; please, stay away of me and let me speak” (Du 37). These lines show that this young woman has virtuous thinking that is integrated into her system of values. The way her parents raised her determines not only her life but also the future of the whole family. This is the presentation of the entire epoch that lived according to a patriarchal order, in which the authority of the head of the family was always absolute. It was expressed in the complete submission to his decisions of all family members. The internal sense of duty allows Kieu to survive the most challenging situations of rape and submission since she understands her important role in her family’s fate.
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Kim Trong, the first love of the main character, is described as a noble and faithful person, who also has romantic feelings to Kieu. At the very beginning of the poem, the couple understands that they cannot be together, but they get married without sexual relationships in the end (Ozoliņš 133). This shows that they followed the rules of Vietnamese society. Nevertheless, a tendency towards valuing personal wishes can also be traced in this poem. Despite his parents’ requirements, Kim chose Kieu, which clarifies that a male’s destiny was also challenging at that time. Kim overcomes prejudice and stereotypes that were inherent in society, which allows him to reunite with his beloved woman. From this point of view, the poem’s morality is associated with remaining committed to loving instead of economic, political, and social challenges.
To conclude, The Tale of Kieu is a Vietnamese poem that presents the life of a young girl. Although she had to sell herself to a brothel to cover her family’s debts, he can still be justified as a moral person. The analysis of Confucian rules and prescriptions regarding family and the duty of children before parents makes it clear that Vietnam of the 19th century was a patriarchal and Confucianism-based society. Across the poem, the readers observe the struggles of Kieu, the thoughts of her family, and support from religion. Even though Confucianism morality identified the submissive role of women, it still helped them to fulfill their duties. It is especially important to consider this poem in the context of Buddhism and Confucianism of that time as the key determining factors that impacted people’s decisions. Thus, the poem describes the importance of morality and religion on the example of Kieu, who overcame all the challenges.
Du, Nguyen. The Tale of Kiè̂u: A Bilingual Edition of Truyện Kiè̂u. Yale University Press, 1987.
Ozoliņš, Jānis Tālivaldis. Religion and Culture in Dialogue. Springer, 2016.
Rato, Montira. “Filial Piety and Chastity in Nguyen Du’s The Tale of Kieu.” Manusya: Journal of Humanities, vol. 10, no. 4, 2007, pp. 66-75.
Sheldon, Mary F. “Confucian and Buddhist Values in Nguyen Du’s the Tale of Kieu.” East-West Connections, vol. 8, no. 1, 2008, pp. 1-5.
Van Duong, Nguyen. “The Characteristics of Confucian in Vietnam from XVI to XVIII Centuries.” RUDN Journal of Philosophy, vol. 4, 2016, pp. 154-160.