TALE OF KIEU
The visual POEM

If every American teenager had read Fahrenheit 451, then the tale of Kieu was the childhood of Vietnamese teenager including me. Every secondary school had taught and praised about this tale of a talented young beautiful girl that had to sell herself to be a prostitute to save her family from the corrupted government system. The story is 3254 verses long poem in traditional Vietnamese (Nom letters). That is why it is quite abstract and poetic for even local Vietnamese to fully understand the details. Yet I have decided to visualize a part of my
childhood into art and design. 

The fascinating part was brainstorming and come up with costumes, features, and style for each character with such significant roles and persona. Through research and referencing between many different Asian cultures and time period (base of the historical information the poem), The person of each character is reflected through their facial features, color, pose and clothing.

The Series are inspired by the ancient cultural screen printing/ drawing method called Dong Ho in Vietnam. The costumes reflect from the Chinese dynasty with empress Wu Zetian. Each is designed under the playing card mirrored format as to reflect the two different sides to every story under different perspective as the poem was known for in its storytelling style.

TALE OF KIEU 
[translated]

INTRODUCTION
DESTINY IS ENVIOUS OF GENIUS
HEAVEN IS JEALOUS WITH BEAUTY

1. In the hundred-year span of a human life,
Skill and destiny are always apt to strife.
Through experience of a harrowing change,
What we witnessed filled our hearts with tearing pain.
5. ‘Tis not a wonder that Heaven gives then takes,
And with the fair sex He used to be jealous.

EPISODE I
DAUGHTERS OF EXCELLENT DIGNITY
SISTERS OF OUTSTANDING DECENCY

Let’s open the scented book under the lamp,
An old love saga transmitted in history.
That in the Chia-Ching[1] reign of Ming dynasty,
10. All was in peace and two capitals[2] stable.
There once lived a man of the Vuong family,
A middle-class bourgeois of that society.
His only son and last-born child was Quan Vuong,
Who he hoped would maintain his line of scholar.
15. His first births were two magnificent daughters,
Of them Thuy Kieu elder and Thuy Van younger.
Both with apricot bodies and snow spirits,
Each had their unique style and perfect beauty.
Van looked gentle with a decent elegance,
20. Her face a full moon, her eyebrows two long arcs.
Her smile a flower and her voice sounds of jade,
Clouds yielded her hair and snow ceded her skin.
Kieu was even more attractive and charming,
Surpassing her sister in skill and beauty.
25. Eyes purer than fall lake, brows bolder than spring hill,
Flowers grudged her fresh and willows craved her green.
Her glances would make a king bequeath his throne,
Her skill, like her beauty, was second to none.
Endowed with an inherent intelligence,
30. She excelled in poetry, chanting, and painting.
Well versed in pitches and fine tones of music,
She was peerless with her skill of lute playing.
She herself composed the song for her singing,
A heart-tearing lyric of woman’s sufferings.
35. As refined and noble as the sisters were,
And though they’d reached the age of nubility,
They did stay at home behind drapes and curtains,
Without care of flirting butterflies and bees.

EPISODE II
THE ON-GRASS JUNKET
THE OWNERLESS GRAVE

Like a swallow, time shuttled so fast in spring,
40. It was beyond the sixtieth day of the season.
The young green grass spread out to the horizon,
The pear trees were speckled with some white flowers.
Now came Bright Day[3], a seasonal feast in March,
A grave-cleaning and on-grass walking party.
45. All ‘round people were eager to celebrate,
And the sisters prepared to participate.
A convergence of fine men and fair ladies,
A squeezing jam of carriages and clothes.
They were coming up on the burial knolls,
50. Strewing leaves of sham gold and paper money.
Gradually the sun went down in the west sky,
The sisters regrettably left and went home.
Leisurely pacing along a rivulet,
They looked at the landscape rather delicate.
55. Here curved an indolent current of water,
There spanned a small bridge on the rivulet’s brinks.
By the alley appeared a flat mound of grave,
Where the grass was sadly half yellow half green.
“Why is it that in the Bright-Day festival,
60. Neither incense nor smoke at this burial?”
Asked by his sister, Vuong Quan tried to explain:
“’Tis the tomb of Dam Tien, a former songstress,
Once renowned for her beauty and genius,
Host of amorous men jostled at her door.
65. But how fragile a beauty fate always was!
This heaven-scented flower broke while in bloom.
There was then a customer lured by her fame,
From a distant land for her delight he came.
But when his love boat arrived at the station,
70. The brooch had been shattered and the vase broken.
Her room was already cold and deserted,
The carriage traces had been blurred by green moss.
The unhappy lover moaned and cried his loss:
‘How wretched and ill-fated two of us are!
75. Because we were not destined to meet this life,
Here’s my token of union in the next.’
He at once acquired a coffin and a hearse,
And laid her to rest in this rose-covered grave.
Henceforth, through countless moonsets and sunrises,
80. No one come to visit this ownerless tomb.”
With a sensitive heart filled with compassion,
Kieu burst out in profuse tears for the story:
“How sorrowful a woman’s destiny is!
A damned fate’s always our final common lot.
85. How cruel and pitiless Creator is!
Who shrivels our youth and withers our beauty.
Alive, she played the wife of many a man,
When dead, she remains a ghost without husband.
Where are they now who once shared her sex pleasures?
90. Where are they now who were her beauty cravers?
Since no one cares to visit and think of her,
I would on this instant light some incense sticks,
As a proof of her meeting on my way home.
Perchance, down there in the Yellow Spring[4], she’ll know.”
95. Mumbling incantations in tone high and low,
She made some bows before the tomb, then got out.
In the pale twilight loomed a field of dead weed,
And a soft breeze stirred the tassel of the reeds.
Kieu pulled down a brooch that was pinning her hair,
100. And scratched on the tree skin a four-verse poem.
She then fell into a bewitched state of mind,
She then stood immobile and dazed at her place,
She then made grim and gloomy her flower face,
Immersing in broken grief and endless tears.
105. Van said: “You are truly laughable and weird,
Having extra tears to weep ancient people.”
Kieu answered: “Since era immemorial,
Cruel fate has never spared any woman.
Just thinking this idea makes me sick at heart,
110. I see her lie there but what will be of me?”
Quan interfered: “What you said’s very funny,
It’s hard to hear your words of analogy.
Here the atmosphere is morbid and gloomy,
The sun’s declining and the way home still long.”
115. Kieu replied: “For elites of gifted talent,
Their bodies perish, but essences persist.
I’m rather lucky to meet my intimate,
Let’s wait and see, soon her soul will show itself.”
Before could anyone answer to these words,
120. That from nowhere a whirlwind started to blow.
Violently, it felled the buds and shook the trees,
Bringing with it more or less a vague perfume.
Following the wind’s path, they were stunned to see,
The print of each step clearly stamped in the moss.
125. They were all terrified by what they’d just seen,
Kieu said: “This isn’t anything but true faith,
As heart-felt friends, we’re due to meet each other,
Without concern of life and death, we’re sisters.”
In gratitude to Dam Tien’s apparition,
130. Kieu added more words of appreciation.
Her heart overflowing with inspiration,
She inscribed an old-style poem at the tree foot.

EPISODE III
THE FATEFUL MEETING
THE OMINOUS DREAM

Staying or leaving, while still undecided,
The sisters heard near a sweet tune of music.
135. They looked and saw a youthful handsome scholar,
Who loosened the rein and slowly rode forward,
Carrying a half bagful of poetry,
And followed by a couple of small pageboys.
His pony was stamped with a snow-white color,
140.And his coat mixed with the tints of grass and sky.
As far as he could recognize the sisters,
He deigned to dismount and walked to their meeting.
His figured shoes gently striding in the green,
The environs sparkled like a grove of gems.
145.As an acquaintance, Vuong came out to greet him,
While the sisters, shy, hid behind the flowers.
In fact, this young man, not at all a stranger,
Was Kim Trong, a descent of noble ancestry,
A brilliant son of a wealthy family,
150. Endowed with scholarship and intelligence.
Superb were his conduct and physiognomy,
Refined and generous his ways of living.
He’d ever since lived in the same surroundings,
And had also been one of Vuong Quan schoolmates.
155. He’d heard about his neighbors’ celebrities,
Two beauties locked in the Bronze-Sparrow Tower[5].
But rivers and mountains guarded their chambers,
So he could only yearn and love in secret.
It was lucky that they met by coincidence,
160. A good chance for him to seek her confidence.
From afar, Kim had seen the sisters’ figures,
Spring orchid and autumn mum, lovely both were.
She- a national beauty, he- a genius,
They fell in love within, kept reserved without.
165. In a faint state of half dreaming half waking,
They were unsure about staying or leaving,
Evening shadows seemed like to induce sadness,
The guest already gone, her eyes still followed.
Under the bridge, limpid water was running,
170. Nearby, with evening shades, willows were dancing.
When Kieu returned home to her maiden chamber,
The sun had set and the dusk gongs had echoed.
A slanted moon was peeping through the window,
Gold rippled on water, trees shadowed the yard.
175. The camellia drooped on east neighbor its plant,
Dewdrops gathered and bent the swaying spring branch.
Lonely watching the face of Lady Phoebe[6],
Kieu was confused by near-and-far anxieties:
“How could Dam’s fate of songstress end up like that?
180. And what a waste an urban dazzling life is!
And this young man why did we meet after all?
Will it end up in a life-time union?
From the mixed feelings of her heart, she poured forth
A poem reflecting the mood of her being.
185. In the skewed moonlight through the window curtain,
Leaning against the sill, Kieu was slumbering.
Out of nowhere she saw appear a damsel,
A little girl, graceful and impeccable.
Face stamped with dew and body shrouded in snow,
190. She moved round, her feet like two lotus flowers.
With joy Kieu went out to welcome and asked her:
“Are you coming astray from the fairy land?”
She said: “Those of the same mood share sympathy,
We met each other this afternoon, didn’t we?
195. At the western side of yours, my poor house is,
Where there is running water beneath a bridge.
You had empathic heart to think of me,
And stooped to write priceless words at my retreat.
I reported all of them to the league chief,
200. Who told your name was also in the Doom Book[7].
As we see, that’s the law of cause and effect,
We’re not strangers but the same boat’s passengers!
Here are ten new themes just posed by the league chief,
Please write fairy verses with your flower pen”.
205. Consent to the association girl’s bid,
With one stroke of nymph hand Kieu finished ten songs.
The girl read the poems and flattered lavishly:
“What an extraordinary poetry!
Had it been introduced into the Doom Songs[8],
210. Second to none it’d deserve the first trophy!”
Towards the threshold the guest had turned to leave,
Kieu still kept her back for more intimate talk.
A sudden strong wind snapped the blind from nowhere,
Kieu awoke and knew she’d just had a nightmare.
215. She looked around for the girl but saw no one,
Though she could still feel the lingering perfume.
All alone tossing about in the late night,
She thought of her long future, all terrified.
A flower swept by water, a weed by wind,
220. That’d be her lot, that’d be her fate, she realized!
Endless waves of inmost feelings harassed her,
The more she thought, the more tears started to flow.
Hearing the sobs of her child in her chamber,
Her mother woke up and asked: “What’s the matter?
225. Why stirring and fretting late at dead of night?
Behold your pear-flowered face all soaked in tears.”
Kieu said: “As a little daughter of yours, dear,
Nothing I’ve done in return of your favors.
Strolling today, we visited Dam Tien’s grave,
230. Right away, tonight, in my dream, I saw her.
What is the fate of a doomed woman, mother?
She gave me subjects and I wrote into poems.
Based on what I saw in dream, I can foretell,
My future life will be as somber as hell!”
235. Mother said: “Those absurd dreams of groundless things,
Worth nothing to acquire griefs and sufferings”
Kieu obeyed her mother and stopped worrying,
Hardly had grief left, lovesick took hold of her.
Outside the window, orioles were talking,
240. From the wall, willow’s blooms flew before the screen.
The moon cast its skewed light on the veranda,
Deep in thought Kieu felt lonely more than ever.

EPISODE IV
THE HOPELESS PURSUIT
THE GOD-SEND HAIRPIN

It’s a common way for those sentimental,
Once they’re trapped in love, no one can unravel.
245. Since his return after meeting the sisters,
Kim couldn’t a moment stop thinking of her.
Time seemed to elapse slowlier than ever,
One day of lovesickness equaled three long months.
Layers of curtains enclosed her window like clouds,
250. He dreamed himself probing the way to her house.
Under the waned moons, beside the burned out lamps,
He longed to see her face, yearned to date her heart.
His study room icily cold like copper,
Brush stood dried in stand, lute strings lied loose on fret.
255. Winds shook the cane blind into sounds of music.
Perfume induced her breath, tea enticed her voice.
Had it not been their predestined unity,
Why did she tease him with her gorgeous beauty?
Occupied with the memories of his girl,
260. And of their meeting place, he rushed to go there.
A region of luxuriant grass verdure,
By the pure brook they were to be seen nowhere!
The evening breeze seemed to rouse his sadness,
The reeds lightly shook their mocking vibration.
265. Urged by his bountiful imagination,
He decided to dash toward the Blue Bridge[9].
High walled and close gated was her residence,
That found him hopeless in communication.
Line of willows drooped their leaves of silk curtain,
270. An oriole chirped mockingly in the branch.
Behind those numerous bolted gates and closed doors,
Beyond that dead flower-filled yard, where was she?
Stunned by the view, he stood there for a long time,
Then turned ‘round and saw in rear another house.
275. That was Ngo Viet’s, an itinerant businessman,
Who was far away and the house left empty.
Posed as a lodging student, he asked to rent,
Then with his lute and books, he at once moved in.
The house was ready for him with rocks and trees,
280. With a terrace bearing the name ‘View of Thuy’[10].
He was glad at heart at the name coincidence,
This was, perhaps, a predestined occurrence!
Half closing the window of his rented house,
He peeped day after day at the eastern wall.
285. Being so near but almost locked out from her,
He saw not a flitting glimpse of her shadows.
Two swift rounds of moon had passed since he moved in,
Sojourning in this strange lodge in search of her.
On a serene day, it seemed, beyond the wall,
290. A gracious figure flit beneath the peach tree.
He put down his lute, tidied his gown, dashed out,
The perfume still lingered, the girl’d disappeared.
Walking along the wall circling the area,
He saw on the peach branch a golden hairpin.
295. Kim stretched out his hand for it and brought it home,
Thinking: “Why’s it here, the lady chamber’s thing?
This brooch of that woman would not have fallen
Into my hand without predestination!”
He sat all night watching and touching the pin,
300. Which still emit a slight sandal scent of her.
As dew just cleared, a soul was seen by the wall,
Searching for something in a confused manner.
Kim’d been purposely waiting for this moment,
He raised his voice through the wall to sound her heart:
305. “I’ve found someone’s hairpin accidentally,
But where’s Ho-p’u[11] to return the jewelry?”
A lucid voice was heard from the other side:
“Thank you so much for your heart honest and kind,
The hairpin’s worth nothing and you never mind,
310. But your righteous conscience is indeed priceless!”
Kim said: “We have lived for sometime as neighbors,
And I’m an acquaintance of yours not stranger.
I’ve got this moment thank to your perfumed thing,
That compensates for my sufferings ever since!
315. My long waiting time has been paid off today,
Let me tell you my inmost feelings, please stay.”
Then he hurried inside and took out with him,
Two golden bracelets and a square silk kerchief.
With agility he climbed over the wall,
320. And there before him, the girl he met that day.
Of bashful, reserved, and timorous nature,
Before his close regard, she lowered her head.
Kim started the dialogue: “Since per chance we met,
I’ve been sick with my secret thirsts and longings.
325. My skinny body so withered and wasted,
That no one thought till today I could linger!
All the last months I was like a daydreamer,
Nurturing my love at the expense of my life!
Now I wish I could beg a couple of things,
330. Will you deign to look through into my poor heart?”
Amazed and embarassed, Kieu politely said:
“Mine’s a stringent and pastoral family.
As to the grave matter of matrimony,
It’s up to the decision of my parents.
335. Thank you for your loving and caring heart,
But I’m still too young to answer your request.”
Kim said: “it blows today and it rains the next,
And spring days are not always within our reach.
If you don’t consent with my passionate love,
340. It will hurt me but will it benefit you?
First, let’s make a promise of our attachment,
Then with the matchmaker I’ll make arrangement.
And if heaven disapproves of my true wish,
My youth for your great love I’m willing to risk.
345. But if your heart resolves to reject my love,
All my search labor comes to nothing, you know!”
The lulling words of the young man soothed her ears,
The spring evening stirred the strings of her heart.
She said: “In the first stage of our acquaintance,
350. For your truthful heart, it’s hard to hold back mine!
I appreciate your kindness and concern,
I vowed my oath of loyalty in return.”
Her acceptance seemed to free his heavy heart,
Handing her the jewelry and the rose scarf,
355. He said: “Our conjugal life begins today,
Please as token of trust accept these keepsakes.”
Having had with her a sunflower-shaped fan,
Together with the brooch, she exchanged instantly.
While they were trading words of consistency,
360. There was hubbub of human voice from the rear.
Swift as a draft of falling leaf and flower,
He went back to his room and she her chamber.

EPISODE V
WORDS OF TENDERNESS
VOWS OF FAITHFULNESS

From time when the touchstone certified the gold,
The further in love, the deeper in sorrow.
365. This Hsiang River[12], a stretch of shallow water,
He waited at one end, she at the other.
A wall of fog and snow barred their mutual views,
Making it hard for them to exchange their news.
Slowly elapsed windy days and moonlit nights,
370. Rose faded and green thrived as spring was over.
On the grand mom’s birthday anniversary,
Her parents as well her brother and sister,
All in their new costumes and with their fine gifts,
Were at grand mom’s to present her their best wish.
375. Being in the deserted house left alone,
She thought today a good chance to meet her love.
Having set seasonal fruits on the table,
She hastened her lotus feet towards the wall.
Across the shrubs she lightly made her voice heard,
380. There he was, standing ready by the flowers.
He blamed her for being cool to his ardor,
And leaving their love for a time in the cold.
That had immersed him in longings and sorrows,
Making his hair half white as if mixed with snow.
385. She said: “Vicious rain and wind have kept me home,
Making me unworthy of your confidence.
It’s lucky today everyone is absent,
I come with my heart to appreciate yours.”
They went skirting around a man-made mountain,
390. At the wall’s end was a newly fenced entrance.
Rolling up sleeves Kim unlocked the love haven,
Splitting clouds they looked into the fairyland.
They gazed at one another’s shining faces,
Exchanging their words of health and happiness.
395. Shoulder by shoulder they entered his study,
While trading their vows of love and loyalty.
On the desk were brush and sheets of poetry,
On the wall hung an ink picture of pine trees,
That betrayed the real expression of nature.
400. Admiringly she praised the lively drawing.
He said: “This sketch of picture is just finished,
Please give it more value by adding a note.”
The nymph hand of hers, as swift as wind and rain,
Brandished the brush and scribbled a four-verse poem.
405. He praised: “Your talent of gem and pearl poetry,
Is unmatched even by Ladies Pan and Hsieh[13].
Were I not a good person in previous life,
I wouldn’t’ve been awarded with this high prize!”
She replied: “By but a glance at your clear face,
410. I could recognize you’re a man of high worth.
I think myself but a girl of petty fate,
Will heaven agree to our love consummate?
I remember when still an innocent child,
There came a physiognomist who looked and said:
415. ‘This girl’s quintessence all reveals visibly,
A life of genius trapped in a tragic fate.’
Weighing your good lot and my bad destiny,
I doubt if our love ends up in unity?”
He said: “Our fortuitous meeting is destined,
420. To date, many times men’s will has won god’s wish.
Even if the worst happens to our marriage,
We’ll duly risk ourselves to keep our promise!”
All of their innermost feelings once released,
Their hearts filled with love, their heads tipsy with wine.
425. Happy days were all shorter than a hand span,
The sun had hid its mirror behind the mount.
Uneasy to stay thinking of her vacant house,
She said goodbye and left for her residence.
When she got home, her mom and dad were not there,
430. Still taking part in grand mom’s birthday night feast.
In a rush, she lowered the door’s silk curtain,
And hastened her pace towards the midnight garden.
The moon was glimmering on tops of the trees,
A lamp peeping through the blind of his study.
435. Kim was dozing off, leaning on the table,
In a state of half awake and half asleep.
Her footsteps aborted his fantasy sleep,
Then in the late moonbeam, the pear bloom approached.
Dazed as being on the peak of ecstasy,
440. He thought of having a honeymoon fancy.
“Despite the empty and lonely night,” Said she,
“My heart urges me to come in search of yours.
Now, we are clearly face-to-face together,
Who knows it will be but a dream tomorrow?”
445. Overjoyed, he rushed out to invite her in,
And lighted more candle, added more incense.
They jointly wrote down a page of troth promise,
Cut their hairs, mixed and shared them with a gold knife.
Then by witness of the bright moon in the sky,
450. They solemnly reiterated their oaths,
And painstakingly recommended their hearts,
That their unanimity should be for life.

EPISODE VI
THE FOREBODING MOURNFUL MUSIC
THE RESPECTFUL RIGHTEOUS LANGUAGE

In cups of jade, they then drank their pledging wine,
Their perfumes mixed and their shadows coalesced.
455. He said: “the wind is cool, the moon transparent,
Anyhow I still feel my heart uneasy.
As I’ve not yet crossed the Blue Bridge for marriage,
My insistence might become an insolence.”
She said: “We’re tied together by thread of fate,
460. One word exchanged and we became intimates.
Except improper and indecent requests,
Any other thing for you I won’t regret.”
“Was told you’re a famous lute player,” he said.
“My Chung Ch’i’s[14] ears craved to enjoy your music.
465. She replied: “My humble skill is worth nothing,
But you have ordered and I have to give in.”
On the wall was readily hung a moon-lute
At once Kim gallantly handed it to her.
She said: “This private and petty art of mine,
470. Why you so occupied for this knack so trite!”
She began by tuning the strings of the lute,
Adjusting them in accord with the tone scales.
Her music revived the Han-Ch’u[15]’s Battlefields,
Where iron and gold arms were heard colliding.
475. Another air was the Su-ma’s Phoenix Plea[16],
Wherein woes and sorrows were heard lamenting.
Here Chi K’ang[17]’s masterpiece entitled Kuang-ling[18],
Where water was heard running and cloud erring.
There the “Crossing the Border Gate” by Chao-Chun[19],
480. Lovesick for her king and homesick for her folks.
The sounds were clear as a flying heron’s cries,
Thick as the brook’s water falling from above.
Slow as the breeze slightly wafting from outside,

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