It is strange to read Truyện Kiều for the first time, as a Vietnamese. I am familiar with the general plot and all the main characters—there is no surprise in this regard, I also recognise many lines. The reading feels both new and familiar—I’m returning to my roots, and in some ways, it feels like home.
Truyện Kiều is guided by 2 main philosophies: Confucianism and Buddhism. For now, let’s talk about the former.
Confucianism is a system of thought and behaviour that originated in ancient China, formed by Confucius (known in Vietnam as Khổng Tử). “Although transformed over time, it is still the substance of learning, the source of values, and the social code of the Chinese.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica) Confucianism not only influenced but shaped Chinese and many other East Asian societies, and today China, Vietnam, and other East Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea are still Confucian at the roots.
As Truyện Kiều is a Vietnamese literary work, published in the 19th century, and based on a 17-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao by Qingxin Cairen, it helps to have some understanding of Confucianism.
As it is impossible to write about Confucianism in depth in a blog post (nor am I learned enough), I will only write some main points.
Confucianism places great emphasis on social morality, social harmony, family, and hierarchy. Social harmony results from people knowing their place in the natural order and in society, and performing their part well.
The ethical codes are defined by the 5 Constants:
Rén (仁, benevolence, humaneness);
Yì (义; 義, righteousness or justice);
Lǐ (礼; 禮, proper rite);
Zhì (智, knowledge);
Xìn (信, integrity).
And the 4 Virtues:
Zhōng (忠, loyalty);
Xiào (孝, filial piety);
Jié (节; 節, contingency);
Yì (义; 義, righteousness).
In Vietnam, these concepts are known as: Nhân, lễ, nghĩa, trí, tín and Trung, hiếu, tiết, nghĩa.
2 very important values in Confucianism (and Confucian societies) are loyalty and filial piety. Related to the concept of loyalty is the Mandate of Heaven (天命, thiên mệnh), which is used to justify the Emperor of China (read more on Wikipedia).
Filial piety is a virtue of respect for one’s parents, elders, and ancestors.
Confucianism also has the 3 Obediences and 4 Virtues, which is a set of moral principles and social code for women. From Wikipedia:
“The three obediences for born females are to obey, give obéisances and follow the spiritual, ethical and moral wisdom of:And:
1. her father as a maiden daughter (Chinese: 未嫁从父; pinyin: Wèijià cóngfù)
2. her husband as a chaste wife (Chinese: 既嫁从夫; pinyin: Jìjià cóngfū)
3. her sons, and upon conflicts, in prioritized order according to the seniority of each, as a widow in perpetuity dedicated to clan and family (Chinese: 夫死从子; pinyin: Fūsǐ cóngzǐ)”
“The Four Feminine Virtues for women are:In Vietnam, they are known as Tam tòng tứ đức. Tam tòng: tại gia tòng phụ, xuất giá tòng phu, phu tử tòng tử. Tứ đức: công, dung, ngôn, hạnh.
1. Feminine Virtue in Ethics in matrimony (Chinese: 婦德; pinyin: Fùdé)
2. Feminine Virtue in Speech in matrimony (Chinese: 婦言; pinyin: Fùyán)
3. Feminine Virtue in Visage i.e. 'comportement' / manners / facial appearance, in matrimony (Chinese: 婦容; pinyin: Fùróng)
4. Feminine Virtue in "Kungfu" / "Works" / 'oeuvres' i.e. active and ongoing feminine participation in chaste, monogamous, matrimonially-restricted sexual intercourse as a Virgin preserved for a lifelong monogamous marriage arranged for the first and foremost interest and benefit of the Empire/State (in the case of Imperialty, extant Imperialty and/or any extant Royalty, Aristocracy), clan and family bridewealth and the name and moral fame of the patrilineal clans of birth, especially of the husband and in-laws but also of self and the mother's patrilineal clan of origin, and with Virginity preserved until spiritually presented on wedding day upon clan-officiated and family-arranged marriage; lifetime monogamous maximal reproduction especially of son heirs and chaste daughters normally about ten offsprings at least five of which are healthy sons; loyal child-birth for the only one spouse in a lifelong marriage; and enlightened, dedicated and responsible child-rearing in lifelong maternity; spiritual, religious, moral, ethical and philosophical education of children; etc. (Chinese: 婦功; pinyin: Fùgōng)”
Needless to say, it is a sexist, patriarchal ideology—women are considered inferior to men. The key thing about Confucianism is hierarchy, order, and social harmony. If you watch Farewell My Concubine, for example (which I revisited recently), you can see the hierarchy very clearly in the relationships between master and pupil, husband and wife.
Nguyễn Du’s Truyện Kiều must be understood partly in light of Confucianism. For example, it is because of loyalty and filial piety that Thúy Kiều sells herself into marriage (to be a middle-aged man’s concubine) to save her family—she has to choose between her duty to family and promise with Kim Trọng (not between family and herself). It is because of loyalty that she blames herself for breaking the promise with Kim Trọng, and asks her sister Thúy Vân to fulfil it instead by marrying him; and because of filial piety, Vân accepts it.
People who complain about clashing with views and values in 19th century Russian or British literature should try reading 19th century Chinese or Vietnamese literature. Confucianism and other traditional values, embodied in the characters and expressed in the Chinese classical allusions, are far harder to take.
I imagine, to a Westerner today, the mindset and values in Truyện Kiều must feel alien, even incomprehensible sometimes. It must be difficult to understand, but at the same time you have some kind of distance. As a Vietnamese who grew up in Vietnam and know Confucianism, I don’t have that distance. Truyện Kiều is a masterpiece, I’m enjoying the poetry, but struggling quite a bit with Confucianism and Buddhism in it.