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Fired Gold (Vang Lua)
[Familiar proverb: "Lua thu vang, Gian nan thu duo" (Fire tests gold, suffering tests virtue).]
Fiction by Nguyen Huy Thiep, Nhung Ngon Gio Huatat (Nha Xuat Ban Van Hoa--Ha Noi, 1989)
Translation by Peter Zinoman
Mr. Quch Ngoc Minh  from Tu Ly village in Da Bac district town  wrote me a letter: "I've read your short story Kim Sac (Sharp Sword) which tells of my ancestor Dang Phu Lan. I didn't like the detail concerning his meeting with Nguyen Du.  The character whom you describe as "the strange, pure young man at the inn with a soul as clear as mountain water" seems pointless. Your song "The Discordance of Talent and Fate" implies that Nguyen Du, while clever, is not really that clever. Please come up for a visit and I will let you examine several documents which will help you to see things in a different light. My daughter, Quach Thi Trinh, will prepare some fish and starfruit consomme which I'm sure you will enjoy..." Upon receiving this letter, I went up to visit Quach Ngoc Minh and his family. The ancient documents he possessed were truly original. I then returned to Hanoi and wrote this story. As I wrote, I freely amended and reorganized extraneous details and edited the documents so as to make them consistent with the telling of my story.
In 1802, Nguyen Phuc Anh invaded Thang Long  and taking the royal name Gia Long, seized the throne.  The new King was assisted by a handful of European advisors including, due to the recommendation of Bishop Pigneau de Behaine, the Frenchman Francois Poiree. The King called him Phang.
Ever since childhood, Phang had liked to wander about. He participated in the revolution of 1789 and was friends with Xanh Giuyt. In 1797, he boarded a merchant ship bound for Hoi An. While no one actually knows if a meeting between Phang and Pigneau de Behaine took place, the Bishop definitely did write Phang a letter of introduction to King Gia Long.
In his diary, Phang writes:
The King is one colossal solitary mass. He performs his role in the imperial court with great skill. He moves, stands, exits, enters, issues orders and receives homage from his clique of court officials. He is a stern father towards his selfish and dim-witted children. As a husband, he commands respect from his mediocre wives. He knows he is old and with the young, beautiful concubines in his royal harem, he is impotent. As its founder and architect, he knows that the imperial court is superficial and that his nation is poor. He worries constantly because he is aware that the power which lies exclusively in his hands is far too great for the strength of a single human being...
Phang follows Gia Long on a hunting trip north of Hue, the royal capital. According to Phang:
The King rides a horse, his back erect. In the wild, he is radiant and the anxious scowl he wears daily disappears. He is happy, thrilled by the hunt. Sitting with me that evening he says, "Do you see that pack of dogs over there? They prepare everything for me. As I pass through the hunting grounds, they actually release the prey for me." Surprised, I ask why the King (by birth a skilled martial leader) tolerates this insult. He laughs: "You understand nothing. Is there any glory not attained at the expense of a good name?" Sitting there listening to the King, I am struck by the dreadfulness of his life. He understands that his existence is essentially dependent on symbiosis. As fate has arbitrarily placed him in a paramount position, he dare not tamper with any of society's fixed relationships, since this might upset the delicate symbiosis and weaken his throne. I ask the King about Eastern philosophers but he shows no interest. He responds, "They are all embittered by life. They are the past. Our concern is the present." Here, the King is visibly more engrossed in finishing his tiger ribs, than in continuing the conversation with me..."
Phang gets Gia Long's permission to travel around the realm. He meets Nguyen Du, who at that time is serving as a district chief. Phang writes:
Before me is a slight, young man whose face is creased with misery. This man is a famous and talented poet. I sense that he understands absolutely nothing about politics and yet he is an unswervingly dedicated official. His character is superior to other people's, yet what value does such character hold when real, material life is impoverished and luckless. He lacks even the most basic conveniences. He can be neither frivolous nor magnanimous. Spiritual life suffocates him. His speech is simple and cunning, his intuition, wonderful. Like Gia Long he is also a massive bulk of material, but lighter, less substantial, and thus besmeared with thinner layers of soot and impurities. Both men are priceless treasures, national entities.
Nguyen Du takes Phang to visit several areas under his jurisdiction. Phang writes:
Nguyen Du displays a deep sympathy for the people. He loves his people and is himself representative of their most lyric and melancholy characteristics, but also of their most pitiable ones. Gia Long is representative of no one other than himself. Herein lies his glory, but also something horribly vile. The King perceives reality exclusively in relation to the perpetuation of his own existence. The King is aware of his own pain. But Nguyen Du is numb to his pain. Nguyen Du sympathizes with the odd miseries of small and isolated destinies but does not understand the general wave of misery welling up in the nation. The most significant characteristics of the country are its smallness and weakness. She is like a virgin girl raped by Chinese civilization. The girl concurrently enjoys, despises and is humiliated by the rape. Gia Long understands this and herein lies the bitterest sentiment which he and his community must endure. Nguyen Du does not understand this. Nguyen Du is the child of this same virgin girl and the blood which flows through his veins is laced with allusions to the brutal man who raped his mother. Whereas Nguyen Du appears to be drowning in the soft muck of life, Gia Long stands tall, unencumbered almost detached from that life. Nguyen Du's mother (the polity of that time) has, through supreme restraint and self-control, concealed her own shame and anguish from her child. Only in three hundred more years, will we understand this seemingly meaningless gesture.
Nguyen Du lives a simple, country life and naively endures poverty with the people. He doesn't stand above them and possesses no more than they do, which shows he understands nothing about politics. Because his days are filled with unproductive activities he can only satisfy life's minimum requirements. His kindness is consequently of a small type and is incapable of saving anybody. Gia Long is different. He himself is terrified at his own audacity in resisting the flow of nature, and in deceptively using his people in service to his own interests. He certainly makes history more exciting. His is the immense kindness of a politician. This type of kindness is concerned not only with good works for their own sake, but with their contribution to the King's own force within the community. According to natural laws, each element in the community will exist, adjust, and develop. If one strong force does not exist, the community will stagnate and decay. The Vietnamese community suffers from an inferiority complex. How small it is next to Chinese civilization, a civilization equally glorious, vile, and ruthless..."
Phang describes Gia Long's impression upon meeting Nguyen Du. Phang writes:
The King listens to me disinterestedly. It seems he is deaf but I know otherwise. He does not acknowledge Nguyen Du, or perhaps he simply considers him as one well bred horse among many in the herds of horses, pigs, cows, and chickens which he must tend. "I already know this man," he informs us. "His father is Nguyen Nghiem. His older brother is Nguyen Khan." I see that the King realizes Nguyen Du's helplessness in the face of his impoverished life and stagnant nation. He does not believe that the scholarly arts can transform his race. Priority must be given to the material situation. Unproductive economic activities offer the people only a meagre and insecure existence. The problem at hand is how to rise up and strengthen the country. This will require the courage to withstand a swift and disorienting jolt to the community's fundamental structure of relationships. Decrepit Confucian practices and political masturbation will never result in pure or wholesome relations. A time will come when the world-wide polity will seem like an exotic mixed salad, and the very concept of moral purity will possess no significance."
In 1814, gold is discovered. Phang entreats Gia Long to give him permission to lead a band of Europeans on a search for the gold. The King agrees. While Phang left no account of the expedition, an anonymous Portuguese participant did leave a memoir. According to the Portuguese memoir:
Our band included eleven men, four Portuguese, one Dutchman, five Frenchmen and a Vietnamese guide. Francois Poiree leads us. Gia Long chooses to rely on this cruel man. We travel on horseback, carrying weapons and the kind of panning equipment used last century in North America. At this stage, Francois Poiree is unable to fathom the events which are about to unfold. For this, we ultimately pay a high price. Most of us have joined the expedition out of simple curiosity. We prepare enough provisions for one month. After snaking our way through the jungle, we arrive at a path. Here, we find the source of a river peacefully lying within a deserted valley. No human shadow has previously passed over this place. A raven circles overhead. On his map, Francois Poiree names this place The Valley of the Ravens. We pitch tents along the river. That first day, the Dutchman suffers a convulsive fit. He progresses through several frightful seizures, his body grows hot like coal, his face turns grey. We suggest that someone remain behind to care for him, but Francois Poiree disagrees. He insists that everyone dig for gold in the mountain and help filter the ore. Returning that evening, we find the Dutchman dead. Francois Poiree orders his dead body thrown in the river. A black swarm of ravens immediately descends upon the corpse...
The gold mine is like a strip mine. We are overcome with elation and forget our exhaustion. On the third day, we are attacked by local minority people. We cluster together in a defensive circle. Wielding knives and spears at a safe distance, the natives hurl abuse and shower us with stones. Their only intention is to expel us from the valley. Seeing the attackers, our Vietnamese guide disappears. Francois Poiree's Vietnamese is poor. He raises aloft King Gia Long's royal banner, but to no effect. At that, we should have hastily withdrawn, but Francois Poiree will not retreat. Instead he opens fire. A native is hit. The rest run helter-skelter. We implore Francois Poiree to let us turn back but he refuses to listen and forces us to return to work. Dazzled by gold, he has become blind to reason. Returning that evening, we see the skull of our Vietnamese guide skewered on a stake posted near our camp. Against a red hot sky, a flock of ravens circle above the jungle, savagely shrieking as they fly by.
In the middle of the night, a violent fire erupts around our huts. Arrows soaked in deadly poison rain down. Five members of our group are hit and die immediately. Seizing as much gold as possible, Francois Poiree attempts to beat a bloody path of escape. The fire grows unbearably hot. Before us, behind us, overhead, and underfoot, the entire jungle is engulfed in flames..."
The memoir of the anonymous Portuguese ends here. I, the writer of this short story, have already endeavored to search the content of ancient texts and the memories of aged men, yet I have uncovered neither documents nor individuals with information on The Valley of Ravens and the Europeans who entered it during Gia Long's reign. Over many years, all my attempts have been in vain. I therefore offer three conclusions to the story, so that each reader can select the one which he or she feels is most suitable.
Three members of the expedition survive and Phang, with virtually the entire quantity of unearthed gold in tow, returns home. The expedition's success thrills the King. He orders an exploration of the Valley of Ravens and assigns Phang the task of overseeing the further exploitation of the mine. The two other surviving Europeans are also invited to participate but they refuse. For two years Phang oversees the work in the mine. The King relies exclusively on Phang and bestows many generous awards on him. One day, the King sends Phang an elaborately prepared meal called Eight Jewel bird stew. After eating it, a violent ache begins to gnaw at Phang's stomach. His eyes roll back in his had, blood pours from his mouth. He dies hunched over the dining table. Afterwards, the following lines are discovered in his diary: "All human endeavor inspired by kindness is painful and exacting. Genuine kindness is as rare as gold and ultimately it must be guaranteed with gold to have real value.
"We live without meaning, poor and miserable among makeshift theories and specious reasoning, consumed with ethnic and class antagonisms. How fragile and trifling are our lives. When, I ask, when on the face of this earth, will progress appear?"
Only Phang escapes the sea of fire. With the remaining gold, he arrives at the house of the district chief. Showing the royal banner which bears the seal of Gia Long, Phang asks for protection. The district chief, an elderly Confucian scholar, is skilled in medicine. Phang undergoes treatment in this secluded district capital. Vu Thi, the young widowed daughter of the district chief falls in love with Phang. When Phang returns to the capital, Gia Long bestows upon him a generous reward. The King orders the exploitation of the gold mine.
In Europe at that time, the monarchy of Napoleon Bonaparte lay in ruins. Europe matures. It begins to understand that the beauty and glory of a people are based neither on revolution or war, nor on ideologists or emperors. By grasping this, they can live more simply, reach their full potential, and be in greater accordance with nature. Phang requests Gia Long's permission to return with Vu Thi and a large store of gold to his native land. In France, he sets up a bank and lives happily for many years. With his grandchildren, he often conjures up stories about the historic upheavals he witnessed in distant Annam. According to Phang, the period during which he lived in Annam marked the beginning of the Vietnamese nation; borders were determined, a writing system based on the Latin alphabet became popularized, the Vietnamese gradually escaped from their frightful imprisonment to Chinese civilization, and a general intercourse was established with the community of humanity.
All members of the gold expedition are killed. They were in fact encircled and attacked not by the ethnic minority peoples as mistakenly reported in the memoir of the anonymous Portuguese, but by dynastic troops. The Europeans' possessions are searched for concealed gold, their clothes and written records are examined. Gia Long appoints a person of royal blood to oversee the exploitation of the mine. Towards the end of his life, Gia Long lives in his palace, seeking to avoid contact with the outside world. The King hates anyone who dares remind him of the early relations he had with Vietnamese, Chinese or Europeans back in the days when he was poor and powerless.
The Nguyen Dynasty of King Gia Long was a great depraved dynasty. Please pay attention dear readers, for this was the dynasty which left many mausoleums.
* I would like to thank Nguyen Nguyet Cam, Tran Hanh, Phan Quang Minh, Trinh Thi Kim Chi, Hans Schodder and Birgit Hussfeld for their invaluable advice.
- Quach Ngoc Minh first appears in Nguyen Huy Thiep's "Kiem Sac," the story immediately preceding "Vang Lua" in Nhung Ngon Gio Hua Tat (Nha xuat ban van hoa, Ha Noi, 1989). According to "Kiem Sac" Minh's forefather, the ethnically Vietnamese Dang Phu Lan, serves as King Gia Long's top advisor. Thiep suggests that Lan, fleeing the court to avoid execution, may have settled in the highlands where he and his family posed as Muong villagers, and eventually assimilated completely.
- Da Bac district is located in Ha Son Binh province, directly southwest of Hanoi.
- Nguyen Du (1765-1820) is generally considered Vietnam's greatest poet and man of letters. His epic poem of an ill-fated young woman, The Tale of Kieu is the most widely known piece of Vietnamese literature, both in Vietnam and internationally. For western language discussion of Nguyen Du's life and work, see Henry Eric, "On the Nature of the Kieu Story," Vietnam Forum 3 (Winter-Spring, 1984); 61-98; Durand, Maurice and Nguyen Tran Huan, Introduction a la Literature Vietnamienne (Paris, 1969); Nha Trang Cong Huyen Ton Nu Thi, The Traditional Role of Women as Reflected in Oral and Written Vietnamese Literature, unpublished dissertation, UC Berkeley, 1973. The Vietnamese scholarship on Nguyen Du is of course voluminous. A good starting point is Phan Ngoc, Tim Hieu Phong Cach Nguyen Du Trong Truven Kieu (Nha xuat ban khoa hoc xa hoi, Ha Noi, 1985).
- Thang Long is the ancient name of Hanoi.