Confucian and Buddhist Values in Nguyen Du's the Tale of Kieu

By Sheldon, Mary F. | East-West Connections, January 2008 | Go to article overview

Confucian and Buddhist Values in Nguyen Du's the Tale of Kieu


Sheldon, Mary F., East-West Connections


How frail your fate! Your virtues, though, how strong.

--The Tale of Kieu (l.2715)

In modern Chinese literature, reincarnation has served both doctrinal and popular functions. A key Chan Buddhist doctrine, reincarnation has been included within stories to define, support, and/ or propogate this doctrine within the context from which it originated, such as in Ts'ao Hsueh-Ch'in's Hung-lou Meng (The Dream of the Red Chamber). At the same time, reincarnation was adapted into "popular" or "folk" practices, most oft en being included within stories to reinforce the common people's belief in ancestral ties, such as in Zheng Yi's Lao Jing (Old Well). In an ancient village such as the one Zheng portrays, reincarnation serves Confucian notions such as filial piety in a way that would have utterly dismayed Ts'ao Hsueh-Ch'in as he authored Hung-lou Meng a mere two hundred years before Zheng.

While what is considered traditional Vietnamese culture developed from the eleventh to the early thirteenth centuries in the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225), Buddhism flourished among all classes in Vietnam. Having arrived in the second and third centuries from China by land and from southeast India by sea, the Thien (Chan, Zen) and Pure Land Mahayana sects were the most popular. During the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400), Confucianism regained equal footing with the ruling classes. From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, in both the Le (1428-1788) and Nguyen (1802-1945) Dynasties, the ruling classes were educated exclusively in Neo-Confucian philosophy as rooted in the writings of the Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (1130-1200). Yet many Confucians also practiced Buddhism as both philosophies continued to flourish in varying degrees (Jamieson 1993, 9-11; Taylor 1983, 80-84).

Nguyen Du, the author of the Vietnamese epic poem The Tale of Kieu, was born in the Le Dynasty in 1766 and died in the Nguyen Dynasty in 1820. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Vietnam's scholars and government officials concentrated on Neo-Confucian texts. They controlled the Vietnamese populace in part through Neo-Confucian principles as disseminated in folk songs and wise sayings (Marr 58). Nguyen Du's father, a prime minister in the Le Dynasty, and his brothers, who were ranking officials, exemplified Confucian conduct in their public and private lives, as did Nguyen Du. Yet while Neo-Confucianism formally dominated state thinking at this time, Buddhism continued to find expression. Over the centuries, Buddhism and Confucianism had, in fact, "become [so] intertwined, simplified, and Vietnamized" as to constitute almost "a single system" that was "shared to some extent by all Vietnamese" (Jamieson 11). By reflecting on how characters in The Tale of Kieu use values from each philosophy, it is possible to reveal how many considered Buddhism to be a necessary complement to classical Confucian doctrine in early nineteenth century Vietnamese life.

Buddhist Values in The Tale of Kieu

The Tale of Kieu centers on a young woman's suffering and journey to well-being. Her life's pattern is symbolic of the ideal life-pattern outlined in the Four Noble Truths as presented by the Buddha in the Discourse on Turning the Wheel of the Dharma. The First Noble Truth establishes that suffering exists (Hanh 1999, 9, 19). Perceiving this reality at an early age, Kieu relates its truth to her gender. She recognizes the inevitability of suffering as a woman's fate: "[Kieu] had composed a song called Cruel Fate / to mourn all women in soul-rending strains" (11.33-34). After her brother shares Dam Tien's story while they stand before her grave, Kieu immediately symbolizes the singer's tragic fate: "'How sorrowful is women's lot!' she cried. / 'We all partake of woe, our common fate'" (ll.83-84). Suffering exists, but where does it come from?

The Second Noble Truth engages an individual in the search for the origin of suffering. …

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