Vietnamese, or no, it is difficult not to respond strongly to the tale of Kieu's woes and dignity in the face of misery. Kieu's story is one in which bad fortune, conflicting duties, personal caprices and betrayals, and petty tyrannies all play a role in creating an existence for her that any reasonable person knows would have humbled them to the point of madness and despair--think of King Lear howling as he holds the body of Cordelia in his arms. This is not what happens to Kieu though. Through a life that forces her first to abandon love and to endure all manner of humiliations and heartbreak for the sake of her family's freedom she maintains an integrity and gracefulness that transcends all the suffering the taboos that she breaks. She is a picture of how one can remain strikingly upright in a world where every type of bad fortune from a monsoon to a B-52 air raid carried the temptation to fall down low.
Though it seems naïve to make it explicit, The Tale of Kieu is a morality tale peculiarly suited to speak to the sensibilities of any people under the yoke of tyranny; be it foreign or homegrown. The nature of tyranny is its unpredictability and most of the history of Vietnam could be written as a history of tyranny; whether Chinese, French, American backed, or completely native. In a society where little is certain, moral adaptability coupled with a sense of duty is valuable beyond quantification. Though not a hero in the sense that her lover Tu Hai is, a rebel and a fighter capable of greatness, she is a hero whom it is possible for ordinary people to emulate. Fate that has made her life a tale of woe, but she never becomes disgraced by it and she certainly never descends to depths of hatefulness of Scholar Ma, Dame Tu, and the company they keep. Even though turned into a courtesan and blown through several horrifying winds degradation in her fifteen years of exile, she is still as righteous and as dignified as she was when she ransomed herself to save her father and brother--even if it is only the reader and not she who sees it.
The profound longing for home and hearth is not something peculiar to the Vietnamese. That longing though became much more to so many Vietnamese in the one hundred sixty years after its publication and could be related to by millions because of the experience of Vietnam under colonialism and decades of war. Kieu never finds peace--and it is only peace, certainly not a happy ending--until she makes her way back to her family and rights the wrong she believes she did to her first love, Kim. Her experience will be like that a leaf in the wind until she is able to reach home. For millions of Vietnamese from the time of this poem's publication down to our exile and uncertainty wrought by forces beyond their control have Kieu's lamentations and experiences parallel their own. Whether in the suburbs of Paris or Los Angeles, a foreign worker in Russia or Germany, or simply forced far from home in Vietnam itself to earn a living, Kieu's experience as an exile knowing none of the security she knew at home speaks to a larger collective experience which is something of a national trauma. Her story is their own.
Kieu's story is not only a profoundly a Vietnamese story, it is very much a story where the protagonist has to be a woman. Nothing says that man could not be as much of a victim of vast impersonal forces and of circumstance as Kieu was, but her travails are gender specific--the product of being a woman in a traditional Confucian society. Just as in others. Confucian society values female virginity and chastity very highly, so it is a peculiarly womanly form of suffering when the trick played on her by So Khanh and Dame Tu forced her to part with her own virginity. Though subtle this is still a form of rape and it is a form that a polite society could stomach. Kieu's decision to allow herself to be prostituted has a metaphorical parallel for all those Vietnamese who had to compromise themselves in order to survive because of the capriciousness of forces beyond their control. There is consolation in the actions of Kieu for every person who under the duress of tyranny has been made to bring themselves low.
The scene in The Tale of Kieu where Kieu dispenses justice to all those who have wronged and graces to all those who have shown her kindness while she has been buffeted from one place to the next is one of the most satisfying scenes that I have ever come across in fiction, comparable to Prospero forgiving all his enemies when they are within his clutches near the close of The Tempest. Like The Tempest the trial that Tu Hai allows Kieu to put all her enemies through--rewards for righteous, mercy for the contrite, death for the wicked--shows some of the greatest hopes of the society that it was written in and for. The want for justice, to reward the righteous and to pardon those not as righteous as ourselves and willing to admit as much while living in peace is the great hope that is held out by the trial and ultimately would seem to be the want longing of every Vietnamese, and every person of conscience who has known injustice and insecurity.