Confucian Women
Nghia M. Vo
         Nguyen Dinh Chieu, a poet and patriot wrote Luc Van Tien, a verse narrative in the late 1850s just prior to the French takeover of southern Vietnam. He actually did not write it, as he was blind at that time. According to accounts, he rested in a hammock and chanted the composition of his poetic work to his students who wrote it down. Thus in the mid-nineteenth century, a fairly important Vietnamese personality was still advocating a two thousand-year-old Chinese philosophy. Since the story is rather complex and convoluted, we will try to focus only on his depiction of the ideal Confucian woman, which remained true for the last two millennia.

         The 19th century hero of the story, Luc Van Tien, one day set off to the capital to sit for his examination that, if successful, would propel him to the position of a mandarin. On his way to the city, he rescued a beautiful lady, Kieu Nguyet Nga, from a band of brigands who tried to kidnap her. As her feeling of gratitude turned into love, she wrote to him a poem and drew his portrait to have something to remember by. Tien, however, had to return home on hearing the news of his mother's sudden death. He cried so much he became blind. Profiting from the confusion, a competing student attempted to drown him by pushing him into a lake. A fairy rescued, threw him into a cave, and saved his eyesight.

         Within the same timeframe, the local king decided to offer Nga as a tribute wife to a nearby king, against whom he was fighting for many years. Nga felt divided between her faithfulness to Tien, whom she loved although not yet married and her loyalty to the king who ordered her to become the wife of a foreign king. Unable to resolve the dilemma, she drowned herself, was saved by a goddess and finally adopted by an elderly woman. Tien eventually reconnected with Nga and married her.

         Nguyen Dinh Chieu in his story extolled the virtues of Confucian teachings, which were based on the Three Submissions and the Four Virtues. The Three Submissions, by order of importance-father, husband, and eldest son-defined the relationships of a woman within the society at different phases of her life. She must first obey and follow her father when she was young, then her husband if she was married, and finally her son if she ever became a widow. Within the society, any woman must also submit to the king who-as a representative of Troi (Heaven)-superseded both the father and husband. The fate of a Confucian woman thus was intimately linked to the men in her life: she was never seen and thought of as being an independent person. Her role within the society would not be complete unless she faithfully followed the guidelines. No free spirit would be accepted in that uniform society. As for the four virtues, a woman first should master cooking and sewing (cong), she must be presentable (dung), have a reserved and polite speech (ngon), and be honest and loyal (hanh). Without these virtues, she would not be deemed a perfect woman. Besides these basic rules, there were hundreds of other oral prescriptions that parents reminded their daughters prior to their wedding like: "If your husband is angry, refrain from talking back. Boiling rice does not burn when you lower the flame."

        Please read the rest of the story in THE WOMEN OF VIETNAM.
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