Nguyen Thuc Kieu – Phan Boi Chau’s teacher

Posted at: MONday - 26/05/2014 13:48 - post name: Nguyễn Thị Thùy


In the “Phan Boi Chau Chronicle,” the author said when he was 13 years old, he could write poems of the mediaval, many of which teachers in his village counldn’t understand.

Phan Boi Chau’s father wanted him to go to a giant school taught by famous teachers. However, the poverty prevented him to realise his dream so his father sent him to Nguyen Tien Sinh’s school in Xuan Lieu village.

Nguyen Tien Sinh (or Nguyen Thuc Kieu) was a profound scholar of Chinese script, got his BA. degree and appointed to the post of a mandarin. But he soon resigned and got back to his home village to open a school. He liked Phan Boi Chau very much and used to help him borrow books from rich families.

Prof. Chuong Thau said Phan Boi Chau used to follow 4 teachers: Dinh Van Uyen, Nguyen Thuc Kieu, Nguyen Duc Dat, and Nguyen Thuc Tu. However, when reading Phan Boi Chau’s Chronicle, I could only notice Nguyen Thuc Kieu. I did not understand why.

“Did Kieu leave so many memories since his teens or did he sow the seeds of thought of a true confusion scholar?” I thought, “Did he teach him proper behaviour or did he really inspired him. I could not find the answer for my questions until I moved to the Ministry of Education for work.

Fortunately, I met an elderly person, Nguyen Vinh Thuat, who said once he visited the Cao pagoda in Dai Hue Mountain, he saw a stone stele next to Kieu’s grave, featuring his grief over his teacher’s death. I planned to visit the stele but the war stopped me from doing that. Later, when I retired, I went to Xuan Lieu village in the foot of the Dai Hue Moutain to explore the “antique”. I brought everything I can, including paper, ball-point pens, and even soot to the village.

Climbing the mountain, I could see the stele from a distance. When I reached the stele, I could see a line of Chinese words which mean “Acknowledgement by learner Phan Boi Chau”. I felt very satisfied. After relaxing for a while, I started my work of copying  all the words carved on the stele and felt very hungry and tired when I finished it, I burnt the incense for the teacher.

In the afternoon, I asked for the way to the house of a retired teacher, Mr Long, and asked him to let me stay overnight in his house. The teacher, who has already known me, told me that there are three other steles, which are carved with names of those who passed examinations in the Le, Trinh, and Nguyen Dynasties and names of civil and military mamdarins in the village. I was aware that I am now at the land of pre-eminent people and thought that I would come back early some day to study the three steles. After having lunch with Mr Long’s family, I left the village for Hue.

I am quite bad in Chinese script, so I brought all the 700-word epitaph to Prof. Vuong Loc, who was working at the Linguistics Academy. Hearing the draft translation, I could fully understand why Mr. Kieu was the only teacher mentioned in Phan Boi Chau’s Chronicle. Mr. Loc said he would ask his friend to translate it. Several months later, I got the Vietnamese version and made public the epitaph in both Chinese and Vietnamese language in 1996.

The translation version showed that Phan Boi Chau and his teacher, Mr Kieu felt deep affection for each other and even became friends of confidence. Phan Boi Chau knew about his teacher like the back of his hand, reprected, admired him, considering him a talented and righteous person. Phan Boi Chau wrote his epitaph after he was house arrested by the French colonialists. But in what situation was the epitaph written? Perhaps it was written after Phan Boi Chau met with Mr. Kieu’s only son, Mr Dinh, twice. Mr Dinh, who was a mandarin at that time, was not worried about having a relation with a political prisoner. He visited Phan Boi Chau right after he was taken to Hue for the arrest.

In the epitaph, Phan Boi Chau talk a lot about the teacher he honoured and admired. He described Mr Kieu as a person with great passion for reading.

In the beginning of the epitaph, Phan Boi Chau talks about the family conditions, date of birth, and date of death, as well as prizes Mr Kieu had won. However, the epitaph was not carved until Mr Dinh retired (from 1934 – 1940)


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Prof. Vuong Loc said his friend, Prof. Nguyen Tai Can, was former student of Prof. Nguyen Thuc Hao (Mr Kieu’s grandson) when he was still in Hue so Prof. Can was willing to translate it immediately I brought him the ancient Chinese version. According to Prof. Can, the epitaph was an outstanding work and it was no easy task to translate all what Phan Boi Chau had written. Prof. Hao was really touched and thankful to Prof Can and Prof. Loc.

I could feel something very strange when I research this. Phan Boi Chau did not only “mentioned” Mr. Kieu in the book. There seemed to be something that encouraged Phan Boi Chau to write, despite the fact that he knew it is a silly thing to write an epitaph, especially when he is under “house arrest”. His epitaph even inspired a teacher cum writer Nguyen The Quang, who made a visit to Vinh City right after he heard about the epitaph, to the writing of a short story.

In order to preserve the stele, I think local authorities should soon recognised it a historical relic site.

Author: Translated by Dic
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