Prof. Phong Le: ‘Tale of Kieu’ is a calling card of Vietnamese culture
VietNamNet Bridge – As the country is celebrating the 250th birthday of legendary Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du (1765-1820), Professor Phong Le, Chairman of Vietnam’s Association for Kieu study granted an interview to Nhan Dan Monthly to share his thoughts on the great poet as well as the everlasting value of his masterpiece ‘The Tale of Kieu’.
“The Tale of Kieu” has been translated into more than 20 languages worldwide.
What do you think about the stature of Nguyen Du and the influence of his renowned work ‘The Tale of Kieu’?
Nguyen Du is the most well regarded name not only in Vietnam’s medieval literature but also in the entire evolution of the country’s literature history.
Nguyen Du set unprecedented records that before him, no writer has ever reached before. He has been the inspiration for hundreds of books, with tens of thousands of pages over the past two centuries, and the number is still increasing. He attracted countless readers from all social backgrounds, many of them can memorise thousands of verses of ‘The Tale of Kieu’ or quote many sections from the tale.
Nguyen Du is also the first Vietnamese to be honoured as a world cultural celebrity by the World Peace Council in 1965 on his 200th birthday celebration. His name was also called for the second time to receive the honourary title as “L'homme de Culture” (Man of Culture) by the UNESCO Great Council in 2015 on his 250th birthday. Nguyen Du has well and truly earned his title as a representative of Vietnamese literature.
‘The Tale of Kieu’ established Nguyen Du as the pinnacle of Vietnamese literature like Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri of Italy and Faust by Goethe of Germany.
‘The Tale of Kieu’ has generated various and flexible forms of perceiving, including quoting, interpreting, and reciting among poets and writers while ordinary people use ‘The Tale of Kieu’ as a way to predict the future.
The vitality of ‘The Tale of Kieu’ has also reached other art forms such as stage, music and painting.
As a cultural researcher who served as Head of the Literature Institute, how to you evaluate the value of ‘The Tale of Kieu’?
When the country saw the prolonged domination of feudal moral code, ‘The Tale of Kieu’ shined as an extraordinary star braving any barriers in ideology at that time. It not only carried the mission of preaching morals but also offered a panorama on “things seen in this life span on earth”.
In this work, Nguyen Du built an array of characters; both named and unnamed, who have been remembered by the Vietnamese people over the past 200 years.
One of the most significant values of ‘The Tale of Kieu’ is that through this masterpiece, Nguyen Du promoted the beauty of Nom (Vietnamese ideographic script). The entire writer circle agreed to honour him as the Master of Vietnamese language after ‘The Tale of Kieu’ was released.
With more than 3,200 verses, the masterpiece is still appreciated in the context of today’s society. One believes that he can tell the future through verses in ‘The Tale of Kieu’ since the work covers all plights of mankind; and every verse can be interpreted as a prediction of the fate of mankind.
In the early 20th century, scholar Pham Quynh made his famous statement about ‘The Tale of Kieu’: "As long as ‘The Tale of Kieu’ lasts, our language shall last. And as long as our language endures, our nation shall live on". What is your opinion about the role of ‘The Tale of Kieu’ in preserving and promoting the beauty of the Vietnamese language?
There is no better statement to revise and summarise the value of ‘The Tale of Kieu’ in the Vietnamese language. In the context of medieval literature when one chose to write in Han script as an academic way and Nom script for the common people, ‘The Tale of Kieu’ stood out others to win the hearts of readers even hundreds of years later.
Thanks to ‘The Tale of Kieu’, Vietnamese language was prevented from assimilation like some African countries, which lost their mother language after being invaded by the French or the British.
Today, only a few youngsters read and memorise ‘The Tale of Kieu’, what do you think about this?
‘The Tale of Kieu’ has been included in the curriculum at schools; that youngsters are not much interested in it is the fault of the education sector. The most beautiful verses from ‘The Tale of Kieu’ are not selected for students. I also think that we need to change teaching methods so that people can perceive the beauty of the masterpiece, after they achieve this, they then will be able to memorise it.
‘The Tale of Kieu’ is our calling card to the world. Former US President Bill Clinton, in his visit to Vietnam, and most recently, Vice President J. Biden when receiving Vietnamese Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong in the latter’s visit to the US, recited verses from ‘The Tale of Kieu’. This showed that guests have learnt about our culture. It is national culture for a nation to introduce itself to the world.
In his time, Nguyen Du wondered: "300 years later, who's going to cry for To Nhu (one of his pen names)?" As we are cherishing the great poet’s 250th birthday, what do you think about his concern?
Nguyen Du had a very pessimistic view of life with lots of inner feelings. He wrote ‘The Tale Kieu’ without thinking that it would help him to go down in history.
His 250th birthday is a special occasion for us to revive national culture through ‘The Tale of Kieu’. National culture is the national spirit and will. The essence of national culture, in my opinion, is ‘The Tale of Kieu’, which represents Vietnamese literature, Vietnamese language, Vietnamese identities and the Vietnamese spirit.
I think that the State should establish a research institute on Nguyen Du and ‘The Tale of Kieu’ so that his work can be widely brought in to life.