Nguyễn’s Tale of Kiều as Post-colonial Classic

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Nguyễn’s Tale of Kiều as Post-colonial Classic

Copyright © 2003 Dennis Redmond


One of the most intriguing features of the dawning 21st century has been the convergence of postcolonialism – understood in the broadest sense of the term, as a cultural condition, political conjuncture, and economic situation, all at once – with quite another concept-turned-periodization: namely, postmodernism. More is at stake here than the oft-remarked First Worldization of the Third World, the Third Worldization of the First, and the disappearance of the Second. What is at issue is the emergence of a multinational world-system very different indeed from its Cold War antecedents, everywhere from the geopolitics of the European Union to the economic might of East Asia, and from the rise of a post-American media culture to the construction of the informatic commons. In retrospect, much of the broad appeal of the postmodernisms and postcolonialisms was derived from their capacity to think beyond the usual categories of the Cold War – most famously, as Jameson’s project of the cognitive mapping of the cultural logic of consumer capitalism, and as Spivak’s meditation on the subaltern or Fourth World peoples who, although excluded from the demesne of the nation-state, understood the total system well enough to turn the latter’s logic against itself, everywhere from the jungles of Chiapas to the riverbanks of the Narmada.

What we have lacked, however, are conceptual instruments capable of triangulating between the postmodern and the postcolonial, and thereby rising to the concrete level of the multinational. As late as the mid-1980s, the work of postcolonial thinkers such as Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak remained firmly anchored in a specifically national political and cultural context, i.e. the desperate struggle of occupied Palestine and neocolonized India for national survival, and the identity-politics of a utopian Third World nationalism, respectively. Conversely, Fredric Jameson’s thesis of postmodernism as the cultural logic of consumer capitalism took the hegemonic US media culture of the late 1970s as its starting-point – postmodernism was the halfway house, as it were, between theories of 1950-style Americanization and those of 1990s-style neoliberalization. Put another way, the leading theories of the 1980s were primarily accounts of the localizations which preceded globalization: Jameson’s breakthrough essay on postmodernism, for instance, diagnosed the multinational corporate atrium out of the spatialized Thatcherism of the Bonaventura Hotel, while Spivak’s subaltern crackles with the micropolitical energies of the neocolonial favelas – the destitute mass of female laborers, landless peasants, and Fourth World peoples spawned by decades of the most brutal neoliberal marketization, not yet conscious of their class identity or capable of organizing a project of resistance in the mold of Porto Alegre.

The hallmark of the 1990s, on the other hand, was the emergence of new types of multinational solidarity, capable of combating neoliberalism on its own global turf. The post-colonial reflections of Aijiz Ahmad, Gayatri Spivak, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Enrique Dussel were very much the transcendental pole of this resistance, precisely where the postmodern meditations of Fredric Jameson, Pierre Bourdieu and Slavoj Zizek carried the banner of the immanent resistance. A strikingly similar dynamic can be observed in the cultural field, where the stupendous achievements of post-colonial writers, directors and media artists such as Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, China’s Can Xue, Senegal’s Ousmane Sembene, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami and Poland’s Krzysztof Kieslowski demolished the prison-house of the Cold War media culture from without, precisely where the radical postmodernisms of Germany’s Heiner Müller, Ireland’s Patrick McGoohan, Northamerica’s William Gibson and Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki bored into the mediatic infrastructures of the US Empire from within.

This is not to argue that the rift between postmodernism and postcolonialism, or more precisely, between theories of First World consumerism and theories of Third World neocolonialism, was a mere optical illusion or false problem. This rift marked a genuine social fault-line, the functional equivalent of what Fredric Jameson called, in a rather different context, the problem of the “vanishing mediator” in Max Weber’s concept of rationalization. This latter expressed the insoluble ideological contradiction between the brittle class compromise of the Wilhelmine politics of iron and rye, and German capital’s subaltern position vis-à-vis the British, French and American competition. Rationalization is, in short, what you get when liberal capitalism and its historical agent, the British Empire, reigned but no longer ruled over the world-system, and a rather different logic begins to assert itself over the world-market: the arrival of bureaucratized corporations and monopoly capitalism. The “vanishing mediator” of the multinational era, on the other hand, is without question the US Empire, which has declined from the undisputed economic and cultural hegemon of the Cold War era to the subaltern object of the multinational capitalism it once spawned.1

In order to measure the full extent of this decline, it’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on how thoroughly the era of monopoly capitalism (very roughly, the 1870s to the 1950s) was dominated by the United States. The high point was surely 1945, when the US accounted for almost 50% of global industrial output, generating three times as much GDP per capita than the UK and Sweden, eight times as much as West Germany, and ten times as much as Japan. With the assistance of the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates and the installation of the US dollar as world reserve currency, US military Keynesianism powered the world economy for the next thirty years, spreading Hollywood, shopping malls and automobilization across the globe.

All this changed in the post-1975 conjuncture, when two semi-peripheral regions of the world-economy – not Japan and Germany, but East Asia and Central Europe – began to catch up with their erstwhile US mentor, in fields ranging from autos to computers, banking to electronics, and machine-tools to telecommunications. Powered by a wide variety of corporatist and welfarist developmental states, East Asian and EU firms ranging from Sony and Nokia, to STMicro and Toyota, rose to global prominence by out-engineering, out-servicing and out-thinking their US competitors.2 By the late 1990s, even that last bastion of US supremacy, namely the media and entertainment biz, suddenly had to contend with powerhouse EU media firms (e.g. Bertelsmann and Vivendi Universal) as well as East Asia’s near-monopoly on the videogame industry (a field with an estimated $49.99 billion in 2001 revenues, according to the Wall Street Journal).3 This economic transformation went hand-in hand with a vast financial transformation: by 2001, the US had not only become the world’s biggest debtor nation (to the tune of minus 2 trillion euros on its net international investment account, a figure equivalent to around 20% of US GDP), but had to import 400 billion euros per annum from East Asia and the EU, the dominant creditors of the world-system, to pay for its trade and current account deficits and keep its economy afloat.4

To make a long story short, the US is no longer the economic, financial or even cultural center of the post-Cold War world-system, a fact of inconceivable significance to cultural theory. For whatever their other differences may have been, both postmodernism and postcolonialism did share a common social geography and narrative metric: namely, US economic, political and cultural hegemony – or what we call US monopoly capitalism, the Cold War, and Americanization, respectively. Postmodernism derived its content from the immanent version of this hegemony, i.e. the US mass media and communications infrastructure, precisely where postcolonialism focused for the most part on transcendental models of Americanization, i.e. the progressive nationalisms and internationalisms of the Second and Third World which reverse-engineered their very own Americanizations, as it were, in order to resist the encroachment of the US hegemon (e.g. the cultural innovations of Soviet and Third World cinema, as well as the political mobilizations of the anti-colonial movements, national revolutions, and Communist parties).5

Put bluntly, even at their most radically anti-American, postmodernism and postcolonialism remained all too Americentric, and we will go so far as to suggest that the all-purpose term “Eurocentricism” as a shorthand reference to imperialism ought to be shelved in favor of the more accurate “Americentrism”, “Anglocentrism” and “Francocentrism”, depending on the national imperialism in question (one could also speak of “Lusocentrism” and “Iberocentrism”). There may indeed be a kind of “eurocentrism” in the future, with a small “e”, based on the EU’s common currency and hegemonic might vis-à-vis the Maghreb and Eastern European regions, but this needs to be radically distinguished from 19th century colonialism and 20th century neocolonialism. What the current usage of Eurocentrism fatally occludes, in particular, is the history of the East Asian nation-states, and in particular the ghastly history of Japanese imperialism, as well as the long-running sub-imperialisms of feudal China vis-à-vis the cultures which became modern-day Korea and Vietnam – the local subvariants, in short, of Nippocentrism and Sinocentrism.

Nowhere are the unique vectors of East Asian nationalism and postcolonial identity more crucial than in Du Nguyễn’s [pronounced “nwahn”] magnificent verse novel, The Tale of Kiều (1813), the national epic of Vietnam. A high-ranking mandarin who personally witnessed the tumultuous birth of the Vietnamese nation-state, Nguyễn created a masterpiece equal to the greatest verse epics of Goethe and Schiller, but which has languished in relative obscurity due to all the usual colonial and neocolonial reasons (for one thing, the first English translation was not available until the 1970s; for another, Vietnamese language and culture remains vastly underrepresented in First World universities). What makes Kiều especially interesting is its contemporaneity with the French and American revolutions, and in particular the moment of rupture or break between the revolutionary-national revolutions of the 18th century and the processes of state-formation in the early 19th century, i.e. the distance from the storming of the Bastille to the Napoleonic Code, or from the shots fired at Lexington to the drafting of the US Constitution.

As it turns out, the late 18th century was an equally momentous period in Vietnamese history as well, characterized by a thirty-year cycle of dynastic wars, peasant uprisings, Chinese invasions, wars of national resistance, and wars of national unification. The cycle officially began with the Tây Sơn rebellion in 1771, one of the first great peasant revolutions in world history. Unlike the peasant uprisings of the European Reformation, which were stamped out with extreme brutality, the Tây Sơn (named after the three brothers who led the revolt) soon grew into a national movement which toppled the ruling houses of northern and southern Vietnam, and even carried out a modest amount of land redistribution. This drew the ire of China’s Qing dynasty, which was pledged to support the traditional rulers; the Qing consequently invaded Vietnam with a massive army in 1788. Under the leadership of Nguyễn Huệ, the Tây Sơn demolished the invasion force in 1789 via a tactically brilliant Tet offensive. Although Nguyễn later crowned himself Emperor Quang Trung, he did not live long enough to consolidate his regime, and his death by natural causes in 1792 sparked a renewed round of civil war. The conflict did not end until Nguyễn Anh, the only surviving member of one of the lesser south-eastern ruling families, established the Gia Long dynasty and the first administratively unified Vietnamese state in 1802.

This eventful political history was matched by an equivalent outpouring of literary innovation, something attested to by the work of Nguyễn’s contemporary, Hồ Xuân Hương, the other indispensable Vietnamese poet of the early 19th century, who carried out the sort of national revolution in the field of lyric poetry which Kiều accomplished in the realm of the verse novel.6 Nguyễn interwove key strands of this historical period into the narrative fabric of Kiều, transforming an eclectic admixture of Confucian sayings, Buddhist and Taoist lore, classical Chinese literary forms and plebian Vietnamese poetry, proverbs, ballads and folklore into a true national epic, crackling with the energies of a Napoleonic thunderbolt.

What Kiều offers us, then, is an incomparable opportunity to rethink the development of national culture, nation-state formation, and cultural modernization from a multinational (that is to say, post-American) perspective. Viewed historically, few national cultures have ever emerged in precise lockstep with their corresponding political and economic infrastructures; Emerson and Thoreau composed their meditations on the American national character decades after the American Revolution, while Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone, the great Chinese novel of the 18th century, was written a hundred and eighty years in advance of China’s emergence as a political nation-state in 1949. Perhaps the one author who can be said to have produced a canonic national aesthetics during an era of national revolution, namely Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz, one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, is very much the exception which proves the rule: not only do Mahfouz’ later works turn sharply against the official institutions of the Nasserite one-party state, but the stylistic trajectory from the realism of his Cairo trilogy to the startling modernism of The Thief and the Dogs, and finally to the full-blown postmodernism of Adrift on the Nile and Miramar, recuperates the 150-year span from Balzac to William S. Burroughs in the space of twenty years.

If Mahfouz offers an object-lesson in how centuries of past metropolitan aesthetics can be reappropriated by the periphery in a radical turn, then Kiều offers an intriguing example of how a work of art can, at the right time and place, anticipate centuries of future history, namely Vietnam’s 150-year struggle against French, Japanese and American colonialism. This in turn raises all sorts of interesting questions about how one might periodize a text which seems so utterly asynchronous to its cultural time and place. Certainly, Kiều certainly strikes many of the same proto-national chords as Alexander Pushkin’s verse novel, Eugene Onegin, while its involuted narrative structure bears more than a passing resemblance to the famously binomial protagonists of Weimar theater. But whereas Pushkin’s work retrofitted the superstructure of the aristocratic marriage-plot with a utopian Russian national identity, and where Schiller reverse-engineered a preexisting Swiss national culture into the model nationalism of William Tell, Nguyễn will forge a uniquely Vietnamese national identity on the grounds of gender identity-politics. Not only is the central figure of the story is a woman, Kiều Thúy, but much of the plot revolves around a breathtakingly advanced denunciation of the gender roles and patriarchal clan relations of late Vietnamese feudalism. In effect, Kiều turned the familial into the political, more than a century before the cadres of the Vietcong would put the cultural insight into political practice, by telling peasants in the villages, “We are not your fathers; you are our mothers”.

One of the key reasons for this startling modernity was the complicating factor of Vietnam’s neighbor to the north, namely China. The territory of present-day Vietnam existed for a thousand years as a tributary province of various Chinese Empires, and it was only after countless failed rebellions, each commemorated in copious detail by Vietnamese folklore, that an indigenous Vietnamese dynasty managed to throw off the yoke of the T’ang dynasty in the early tenth century AD. Since then, Vietnam has successfully resisted periodic invasions from China in 981, 1076, 1284, 1287, 1406, 1789 and, latest of all, 1979. This lengthy struggle for autonomy did not merely generate hostility towards the invader; it also permitted great swathes of China’s examination system, ideographic alphabet and culture to be absorbed by Vietnam’s indigenous scholar-gentry or literati, in much the same way that China’s vast hydraulics systems, intensive rice horticulture, and river-mercantilisms centered around the Yellow River and the Yangtze were transplanted onto Vietnam’s own Red River and Mekong valley-cultures.7

In geopolitical terms, Vietnam’s position vis-à-vis China in 1813 was thus roughly analogous to the newly independent Latin American states vis-à-vis Spain and Portugal, the American southern colonies vis-à-vis Britain, or Haiti vis-à-vis France, and we will see later that there is a moment in Kiều which corresponds to the moment of Bolivarism. China was thus the first great counter-player, to borrow Erik Erikson’s suggestive term, for Vietnam’s autonomous development, a tradition which has continued until well into the 20th century: the nom de guerre of Vietnam’s greatest revolutionary, Ho Chi Minh, is a Chinese expression literally meaning “He Who Enlightens”, and it is no accident that when Ho was arrested and interned by a regional Chinese warlord in the early 1940s while trying to cross the northern border, he wrote his famous prison poems in Chinese ideograms.

What this means in practical terms is that Kiều’s relationship to Chinese culture is somewhat more complicated than, say, Pushkin’s adaptation of the categories of late 18th century French melodrama, or Shakespeare’s reworking of the history play into Elizabethan national drama. This is partly due to Nguyễn’s skillful use of Chinese literary metaphors, tropes and similes, which ceaselessly shuttle from one proto-national culture to another, and partly because much of the plot is borrowed from an extant Chinese narrative, The Tale of Chin, Yuen and Ch’iao. Written under the pseudonym of Ch’ing-hsin Ts’ai-jen, and most likely published at some point during the Qing era, the work is a mediocre novel, but had the singular merit of furnishing Nguyễn with some of the key raw materials for his own classic. We are extremely fortunate to have Huỳnh Sanh Thông’s excellent English translation of Kiều, which provides detailed annotations of Nguyễn’s Chinese references and specifically Vietnamese innovations (I should note that in the quotations to come, I generally use the literal translation found in Huỳnh’s notes, in order to highlight the complex interplay of Chinese and Vietnamese cultural registers). Consider the opening passage, which makes three significant allusions to the Chinese canon:


A hundred years – in this life span on earth

talent and destiny are apt to feud.

You must go through an event in which the sea becomes mulberry fields [bể-dâu]

and watch such things as make you sick at heart.

Is it strange that who is rich in this is poor in that?

Blue Heaven’s wont to strike rosy cheeks from spite.8


The term “bể-dâu”, literally “sea-and-mulberry”, signifies a profound natural or social upheaval; no less an authority than Mao Zedong would commemorate the liberation of Nanking by the Red Army in April of 1949 with a poem which concluded triumphantly: “What marks the course of men/ Is the Flood-tides and Mulberry-fields”.9 What is striking here is Kiều’s intensely subjective framing of this motif, that is to say, the well-nigh Shakespearian clash of plebian talent and nobilitarian destiny, shorn of any theological intermediary between the two registers; no less significant is the direct appeal to the reader’s heart, ironically contrasted to the heartlessness of the Heavens, a.k.a. the imperial bureaucracy. Last but not least, the seemingly innocent piece of folk wisdom, “who is rich in this is poor in that”, conceals a canny piece of linguistic dialectics: as Huỳnh points out, Nguyễn uses the Vietnamese transcription of a Chinese literary adage here, namely “bỉ sắc tư phong” (meaning roughly, noone is perfect), rather than the indigenous Vietnamese phrase, which would be “dược cái này mất cái kia” (literally, “[who] gets this, loses that”).10

Presumably, the Vietnamese saying would have been too crudely materialistic for the purposes of the narrative, which stresses the importance of internalized or symbolic wealth, as opposed to a one-time profit or loss. It’s worth remembering here that the wealth of China’s dynastic cultures was extracted from agrarian-rents mediated by internal networks of river-valleys, as opposed to ocean-based trade. The traditional threat to Chinese dynasties, namely the semi-nomadic cultures based further in the continental interior, were occasionally a military threat, but never a technological or economic one. By contrast, Vietnam’s coastal geography, combined with the rugged mountain terrain along its northern and western borders and the overwhelming presence of China, spawned a qualitatively different geographic unconscious – one far more attuned to maritime metaphors. Whereas the Chinese term for the nation is “chung-guo” – literally, “middle realm” – one of the key Vietnamese terms for nation or homeland is “nước”, which can also mean “water”, “streams”, “rivers”, and even “tide”; Nguyễn also deploys the more poetic “nước non” (literally, “hills and streams”), the Vietnamese equivalent of “countryside”.

Nguyễn will do more, however, than just transform the symbolic currency of Chinese mountains and rivers into Vietnamese hills and streams; he will also undermine the Confucian gender ideology of Ming-era China, via a clever set of narrative inversions. Kiều does not begin with the village idyll or the stereotypical male protagonist of Chinese opera – the handsome young scholar, destined to fall in love with a fair maiden – but rather in the midst of that prototypical urban phenomenon, the crowd (“Fine men and beauteous women on parade/ horses and carriages like water, upper and lower garments like nen grass”).11 As evening approaches, the three siblings of the Vương family – Kiều, the eldest daughter; Vân, her younger sister; and Quan, their brother, the youngest of all – stroll by a grave, whereupon Quan recounts the sad fate of Đạm Tiên, a famous singer much admired in her day, who died suddenly before the arrival of a mysterious suitor:
From overseas a stranger came to woo

and win a girl whose name spread far and wide.

But when the lover’s boat sailed into port,

he found the hairpin had broken, the flower vase had fallen.12


This invocation of an ocean-going mercantilism gone awry, which in a different time and place might have provided the materials for a somber New England sea shanty or a Melville novel, is employed here for quite a different purpose. After writing a poem to commemorate Đạm Tiên, Kiều sinks into a mournful trance, the rough equivalent of the Romantic melancholy of a Rousseau, or the suicidal gloom of Faust in his study. Waving aside the protests of her brother, Kiều insists on waiting for a sign from the deceased singer; their wait is rewarded by a mysterious whirlwind, which shakes the trees and leaves tell-tale footprints in the moss (as a token of her gratitude, Kiều writes an old-style or “ku shih” poem, i.e. unregulated by length, tone or rhyme sequence). This whirlwind has the most uncanny resemblance to the clash of proto-national and nobilitarian registers in Kleist, pithily described by Heiner Mueller as follows: “[Kleist’s] fundamental metaphor, in the force-field between Europe and Asia, is the pillar of dust, the trope of total acceleration at a standstill, the eye of the typhoon.”13

To be sure, the energies in question here are not those of a Prussian principality buffeted by the storm of the Napoleonic Wars, but rather a unified Vietnam just beginning to develop into an autonomous nation-state. Our first hint of this is the moment when Kim Trọng, the young scholar-hero straight out of the Chinese operatic canon, espies the Vươngs from afar, and finds himself instantly smitten with Kiều:



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