The moon in Vietnamese
cultural life as reflected through the "Tale of Kieu"
The moon has a familiar significant place in every Vietnamese life. Traditionally, we follow the lunar calendar and celebrate the Mid-Autumn Harvest Moon festival (Tet Trung Thu). I still remember that, as a child, I used to sing a favorite song with these simplistic lyrics depicting children carrying lanterns to the opulent palace on the moon where the beautiful moon goddess Hang Nga dwells within:
Tung dinh dinh, cat tung dinh dinh
em ruoc den nay den cung trang
The symbolic imagery of the moon figures prominently in Vietnamese literature as reflected in the "Tale of Kieu," written by Nguyen Du (1765-1820). This masterpiece of Vietnamese classic epic poetry is best known and loved by all Vietnamese because its subtle verses express well the Vietnamese national character, thoughts and aspirations.
Here are just a few examples to illustrate where the moon's image is cleverly incorporated and interwoven into the "Tale of Kieu:"
Sharing the betrothal vows under the moon with someone.
(Tuong nguoi duoi nguyet chen dong
Den khuya trong bong trang tron sanh doi)
Someday when we find someone special, we can be sure that the moon would be our trusted friend in whom we could confide our thoughts as expressed in the above verse.
The image of blissful marriage is reflected in this verse:
Spending hours together, mingling our shadows
beside a lamb late at night, jor walking side by side in the full moonlight.
(Den khuya chung bong, trang tron sanh doi)
In old age, as the closing years of life approach, we hope to be able to enjoy the pleasure of:
A glass of wine, a game of chess
Admiring the beauty of flowers,
waiting for the moon to rise
(Khi chen ruou, khi cuoc co;
Khi xem hoa no, khi cho trang len)
The above verses from the "Tale of Kieu" vividly portray the Vietnamese hopes and dreams.
The major characters of the "Tale of Kieu" are as follow:
Thuy Kieu: The main character, the beautiful daughter of a well-to-do country gentleman
Thuy Van: Kieu's beautiful younger sister
Kim Trong: A young scholar, Kieu fiancée
Dam Tien: A fortune telling ghost, an apparition of a young woman
Ma Giam Sinh: Kieu's first patron
Tu Hai: Kieu's third patron, a hero
Giac Duyen: A buddish Nun
In the story, the author compared the beauty of Thuy Van, Kieu sister, to that of the moon:
Her face is like the moon,
her eyes brows are two full curves.
(Khuon trang day dan, net ngai no nang)
The moon is used to describe the gentleness and innocence of a young woman. But the author employed vivid natural phenomena to describe Kieu's vicarious charm:
Eyes like rivers in the autumn,
brows like mountains in the spring.
The flowers are jealous of her beauty,
the willows are left green with envy.
(Lan thu thuy, net xuan son
Hoa ghen thua tham, lieu hon kem xanh)
Kieu was indeed a beautiful, talented, and well-bred young woman but she had to sell herself as a concubine to save her family and was betrayed into becoming a prostitute. Yet, she still maintained her own sense of honor until at last, after many adventures both romantic and sordid, she was finally reunited with her family and with her true love. The moon was witness to all the dramatic events in her life. Kieu found Dam Tien grave and met her beloved Kim Trong on the same day and the moon was a silent witness to the secrets of her soul torn between hopes and fears.
When Dam Tien, a ghostly apparition of a young woman, appeared to let Kieu know that her name was in the book of damnation and predicted that her life will be miserable.
Moonlight reflecting on the river.
Splashing ripples of gold across the water,
Trees projecting dark shadows on the courtyard.
(Guong Nga chenh chech dom song
Vang giao ngan nuoc, cay long bong san.)
On her nocturnal clandestine visit to see Kim Trong, she observed:
Shadowy patches of moonlight filtering through
the branches, illuminating the courtyard path.
(Nhat thua guong gioi dau canh.)
Traditionally, seeing a man at night in his own apartment was a very shameful thing for a girl to do; Kieu needed dark shadows to conceal herself from prying eyes, yet the moonlight was bright enough to help her see the path that leads to his apartment. The flickering moonlight also reflected her nervous anticipation of seeing him. The new moon rising on the night she came to visit her love for the first time symbolized her first love. The moon was flitting, and wandering on top of the willow tree just as she tiptoed and approached the wall. The moon and Kieu seemed to share the same sentiment.
At a crucial moment of their secret rendezvous, in a chorus Kieu and Kim Trong makes a lifelong vow of love. Again, the moon was the only witness to the secret in their hearts. They both pledged the union of their very souls under the moon:
With the moon shining brightly from above
In one voice we pronounce our eternal love
Our innermost sentiments fine as silk threads
Will unite us forever - this we pledge.
(Vang trang vang vac giua tro
Dinh ninh hai mieng, mot loi song song
Toc to can van tac long
Tram nam tac mot chu dong den xuong)
Because they shared their vows under the moon, it became a reminder to Kim Trong not to forget his love whenever he looked at it:
Our betrothal moon appears with constancy
As your face is etched deep within my heart
(Trang the con do tro tro
Dam dau quen mat, ma thua tho long.)
Tragically, she had to break her promise her promise with her love and was sold as a concubine to save her family. She was betrayed and forced into becoming a prostitute. Looking at the moon in the dark sky, she was painfully reminded of her betrayal that:
The moon, a witness to her vows, cried shame
(Dam khuya ngat tanh mu khoi
Thay trang ma then nhung loi non song.)
When Kieu was a prisoner of the brothel, the moon alone shared her sadness:
In Crystal-Blue Pavilion pleasure tower;
only the moon and mountains were her friends.
On every side her ranging eyes could see the
dawns of gold, the trails of red dust.
She dully spent her days watching clouds, her
nights staring at the lamp, her soul half sick for
love, half sorrowed by the view.
(Truoc lau Ngung Bich koa xuan
Ve non xa, tam trang gan o chung
Bon be bat ngat xa trong
Cat vang con no, bui hong dam kia.
Be bang may som den khuya
Nua tinh, nua canh nhu chia tam long.)
While working at the Crystal-Blue Pavilion pleasurer tower, she met a man named Thuc Sinh who bought her to be his concubine. When he had to return to his wife, the moon again witnessed the poignancy of Kieu and Thuc Sinh's grief when they had to part:
She is left to face the night along.
He rides off down an endless road.
Who separated the moon?
Half shone upon her pillow,
Half lit the way along his journey's road.
(Nguoi ve chiec bong nam canh
Ke di muon dam, mot minh xa xoi
Vang trang ai xe lam doi
Nua in goi chiec, nua soi dam truong.)
While separated from his love, gazing at the crescent moon, Thuc Sinh imagined it was Thuy Kieu eyebrows:
Whose eyebrow follows the curve of the crescent moon?
The flush of powder and the scent of perfume.
(May ai trang moi in ngan
Phan thua huong cu, boi phan xot xa.)
After separation from Thuc Sinh, she was sold back to the Crystal-Blue Pavilion. There Kieu met Tu Hai, a hero from a far frontier who granted her every wish, whom she grew to love and respect deeply on a moonlit autumn night. At this time, she recognized that all of the major events of her life happened on a moonlit night!
(Lan thu gio mat trang thanh
Bong dau co khach bien dinh sang choi.)
However, Tu Hai met his doom because he "let a woman warp a her's will" (bend a hero's determination). Unwittingly, Kieu led him to his death. Deeply affected by the untimely death of Tu Hai, Kieu wanted to commit suicide:
The moon sank behind the mountain.
Alone she nervously paced back and forth.
She heard waves crashing on the rocks
and learned of the river Tien Duong.
(Manh trang da gac non doai
Mot minh luong nhung dung ngoi chua xong
Trieu dau noi tieng dung dung
Hoi ra moi biet rang song Tien Duong.)
Then she remembered that the ghost of Dam Tien, a fortunetelling spirit, had told her that they would meet at this very river. She then attempted to drown herself and her sorrows in the rivet. After plunging into the water, she was rescued by the nun Giac Duyen.
After being saved, Kieu stayed with the nun and her life turned down a happier path-with the moon and nature joining her peaceful life, as described by these verses:
Now, day after day, they share one roof.
They cool their faces in the wind and moon and
cleanse their hearts living on salted greens.
Around them, on all sides, the sea waving, the
wind howling and the clouds embracing.
(Mot nha chung cha som trua
Gio trang mat mat, muoi dua chay long
Bon be bat ngat menh mong
Trieu dang hom som, may long truoc sau.)
The little grass hut was a microcosm of their sisterhood. They found support, and friendship in each other and felt safe as well as protected by this cozy environment. The moonlight and soft breeze gave them a peaceful interlude from the troubled outside world. There, they found a bond of sisterly love. Day by day, they cleansed their hearts and purified their spirits with a simple vegetarian diet. Their grass hut was surrounded by the vast sea and was engulfed with white clouds. They spent their days contemplating the moon and rising tide in the evening, and the framing clouds in the morning. The vastness of the surroundings gave Kieu and the nun a feeling of stillness; that brought about a Zen-like meditative state of mind. Kieu was truly contented:
All the youthful passions of life have faded from her heart. Why should she plunge herself into the red dust world?
(Su doi da tat lua long
Con chen vao chon bui hong lam chi?)
After many adventures both romantic and sordid, she was happily reunited with her family and her love one. Having been so fortunate to have been found by Kim Trong again, she consented to their joining in wedlock; their marriage, a symbol for their constancy. However, they remained chaste and everlasting friends. Their relationship continued to be pure. Once again, with heaven, symbolized by the silver moon as their witness, they renewed their vows to remain faithful to each other in their platonic relationship.
The link of love is not borken
The fading silver moon is still there as a witness
of their oaths of olden days
(Con duyen, may lai con nguoi
Con vang trang bac, con loi nguyen xua.)
Kieu and Kim Trong found pleasure in their remaining days drinking wine, playing chess, admiring and contemplating the beauty of flowers. The moon again was part of their happy lives-waiting for the moon to rise was one of their favorite hobbies:
A glass of wine, a game of chess
Admiring the beauty of flowers,
waiting for the moon to rise
(Khi chen ruou, khi cuoc co
Khi xem hoa no, khi cho trang len.)
Most of our readers are at an age to love and be loved. We might have all experienced a broken heart. The "Tale of Kieu" offers, among other things, ways to encounter "unpredictable adversities in life and love including a broken heart:
Surely that Heaven shapes our lives, but so do we.
Happiness can be found in renunciation, and
passions lead only to sufferings.
(Co troi ma cung tai ta
Tu la coi phuc, tinh la day oan.)
From the "Tale of Kieu," I learned that longings of the heart are just a fleeting fancy. Kieu met Kim Trong when she was sixteen. At that time and throughout fifteen years of adventure, she thought of him and wanted to marry him so much. By the time Kieu reunited with her love, she only wanted to be his friend. Therefore, the expression "Winning or loosing someone's heart is just the thought at that passing moment" can be true for us. The person who may be right for you at one time can turn out to be the wrong person for you at another time or vice versa.
This article only focused on the moon theme as a recuring motif constantly appearing throughout the "Tale of Kieu." But Nguyen Du's "Tale of Kieu" is a much richer literary work. Contrary to the modest conclusion of its author in the epilogue:
May these plain words, strung one by one,
entertain you for an hour or two night...
(Loi que chap nhat dong dai
Mua vui cung duoc mot vai trong canh.)
The "Tale of Kieu" is indeed a major gem in Vietnamese literature. Discover this great masterpiece by reading it for yourself.
- Uyen Khanh -