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BackArts & Culture » Literature » [Photos] Relish this Rare 1894 Edition of 'Truyen Kieu' Through World Digital Library

The World Digital Library allows people around the world to see high-resolution scans of the 1894 edition of The Tale of Kieu, annotated by Paul Pelliot, the famous French Sinologist, who bought the manuscript in 1929.

The most famous and heralded single piece of Vietnamese literature, The Tale of Kieu or Truyen Kieu, has been read by nearly every citizen and scores of foreigners. While few people may be able to read this version's nôm characters — the ideographic script widely used between the 15th and 19th century — this meticulously inked and delicately illustrated version owned by The British Library shared on the World Digital Library serves as an example of the enduring importance the poem has had in Vietnam.

Composed in lục bát (6-8) stanzas in 1820, the poem originally titled 'Doan Truong Tan Thanh' ('A new cry from a broken heart') tells a familiar story of Confucianism-inspired familial duty. Nguyen Du's 3,254-verse poem describes the titular woman's sacrificing herself into prostitution while commenting on the greed, corruption and inequalities of late 18th and early 19th century feudal Vietnam.

The book's enduring popularity has preserved many of the idioms and folk sayings contained as well as has created themes and archetypes that have helped shaped modern Vietnamese arts. The often-translated book has also helped foreign audiences and governments connect with the nation as exemplified by the foreign diplomats, including American president Bill Clinton, who have quoted it during visits. A cornerstone of literature education, every year students are tasked with memorizing, interpreting and ruminating on its moral, philosophical and cultural lessons.

This 1894 version is thought to have imperial connections because the dragon pictured on its covers features five fingers — a depiction that would have been illegal amongst commoners. View some pages fro the special edition below and view it online in full here

Cover depicting the five-toed dragon.

[Photos via World Digital Library.]

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