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Thuy Van is introduced to us in the beginning of the poem, The Tale of Kieu, as the younger of the two daughters of Vuong. Both the daughters, Kieu and Van are described as being physically very attractive. Though Kieu is described as being more beautiful and talented than Van – “Yet Kieu possessed a keener, deeper charm,/surpassing Van in talents and in looks” (Du, 23-30), Van’s physical description is more in the image of a traditional Confucian Vietnamese woman. She is portrayed as a quiet and graceful woman- "her face a moon, her eyebrows two full curves;/ her smile a flower, her voice the song of jade;/ her hair like the sheen of clouds, her skin white snow”(19-22). With words like, “moon”, “flower”, “jade”, “clouds”, and “snow”, Du has cast Van in the mold of the perfect woman by the then Vietnamese view of woman as being elegant, demure, and almost fragile beings who were to be taken care of by men and were to be entirely dependant on men due to such qualities. Van’s temperament is shown to be of perfect restraint and decorum expected of a well-bred woman. There is not much mention of Van in almost seventy-five percent of the poem, yet her presence and accomplishments, or lack thereof, at the beginning and the end of the poem are used as a meter to gauge Kieu’s imperfections as a ‘perfect’ Vietnamese woman. She is shown to be not sympathetic towards women who have had a fall form grace as is seen when she chides Kieu for crying over the unclaimed grave of Dam Tien, a talented woman with many lovers who waited for her betrothed to come to her. Her restraint comes into focus when the sisters chance upon Kim Trong, a handsome young man. Though he likes both the women, he never gets a glance form Van,
only Kieu is shown to lead him on and betroth herself to him without permission from her parents. This instance sets up Van to be the more reserved of the two sisters, and Du manages to portray her as a mirror image of Kieu, who is not very restrained in her choices. When their father, Vuong, is arrested, Kieu sells herself without hesitation to save her father; Van is shown to be more passive and accepting of whatever circumstances befall them. She appears to have failed to uphold the Confucian concept of filial piety, when she does not offer herself instead of Kieu, but it can also be seen as an effort to maintain the honor of the family by at least one daughter (Van) still in the house, untouched by circumstances. In contrast to not being bold enough to sell herself, her acceptance of Kieu’s offer to marry Kim in her (Kieu’s) absence shows her to be the epitome of the Confucian concepts of filial piety (duty towards the family’s promise to Kieu that her troth to Kim will be fulfilled by Van), female chastity, personal obligations ( her own promise to Kieu), and personal morality. Even after Kieu has been gone for a long time, Van still thinks about her and wishes for her to come back-“ asleep Van dreamed and saw her sister Kieu” (2878). Her love and respect, for her sister and for her family clearly show when she marries Kim upon his return, never once complaining or seeking to break the promise she made her sister. This respect for Kieu and for the love that Kim and Kieu share, prompts her to urge Kieu to marry Kim, despite being herself married to Kim. It appears as though Van knows that though Kim is happy being married to Van, he has not really stopped loving Kieu, and as is her duty to keep her husband happy (according to Confucian standards), she gets Kieu to marry him. At the end of the
poem, Du tells us that though Van let Kieu marry Kim, Van is still the chief wife of Kim and many children, boys and girls- “ Van gave him many heirs: a stooping tree,/ a yardful of sophoras and cassia shrubs” (3237-38). This final passage telling of Van’s good luck in marriage and having a “twice-blessed” home reinforces the image of her as the perfect Vietnamese (Confucian) woman.
Works Cited Du, Nguyen. THE TALE OF KIEU. Trans. Huynh Sanh Thong. New Haven: Yale U Press, 1983.