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The lutist of Thang Long city

About Nguyen Du (18th century) one generally knows only that he is the author of the immortal masterpiece Kiểu, a novel in three thousand verses written in the national language and script. People often don’t know or know very little about his other monument work written in Han, the classic Chinese script. In fact we could fully realise the importance of this work only if we recall that in Nguyen Du’s time scholars wrote their serious works only in Hán, the official language and script just as Latin was used in Europe in the Middle Age.
Among Nguyen Du’s poems in Han the best known is no doubt The Lutist of Long Thanh (Dragon City) also known as Thang Long (City of the Soaring Dragon) the ancient name of Ha Noi where the poet spent his youth under the Le dynasty. The Le king together with the shogun families of Nguyen and Trinh were swept out by the peasant insurrection of the Tay Son. During a musical soiree in Thang Long, Nguyễn Du saw medal-bedecked officers of the Tay Son applauded a lute player radiating with talent and beauty.
Twenty years had passed. The capital city had been transferred to Hue by the Nguyen after their victory over the Tay Son. During an ambassadorial mission to China, Nguyen Du stopped over in Thang Long now a deserted town. An old man with whitening hair he saw again the former lutist and wrote the following poem:
“She was one of the most beautiful women of the Dragon City,
Her name I don ’tremember,
She excelled in the lute
The whole town called her the lutist
In the palace of former kings she had played her homage to the Sovereign
One of the purest jewels of this world 
It was in the prime of my life at Lac Giam
I remember having seen her at a gala 
Young, about twenty years old 
Pink robe, radiating like a peach blossom
Dreamy, candid, irresistibly beautiful 
The five sounds danced under her fingers 
The breeze caressing a forest of pine,
Crystal chirps of birds at night 
Thunderbolt crashing on the Tran Phuc stele,
At times one might think Trang Tich humming tunes of the native soil
Everyone listened, plunged in ectassy
Those tunes formerly reserved for the king’s palace
The Tay Son officers sat there, enthralled by the charm
All night they were steeped in music.
From all sides rewards rained in Money was like grass and mud
These men dwarfed dukes and marquis by their lofty looks 
The golden youth of the capital ceded to them the upper pavement 
Twenty years have passed
The Tay Son defeated, to the South I have emigrated 
I no longer saw the Dragon City and its festivities
This time, the governor gave a banquet in my honour S
ingers and musicians were ail in the prime of their life 
Alone, at the end of the platform, a greying woman 
Pallid complexion, drawn face, small figure,
Carelessly dressed, face without powder
Who would know she was once the star of this town?
The new voices on ancient tunes brought tears to my eyes 
My ears listened, my heart sank at each note.
I recalled things of twenty years ago 
When I met her at Lac Giam
The town and ramparts and people have changed so much
The ocean rumbles where mulberry trees undulated
The Tay Son's work had gone
Only a musician was left
Years had passed like a dream
Thinking of things long past tears wetted my tunic
From the South I have returned, all my hair had whitened
How should I wonder that her beauty had faded
Eyes wide open I dreamt of time past
Face to face, but alas, we did not recognise."
Learn more about Nguyen Du’s poems with 12 day Vietnam tour.
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Update : 04-08-2017

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