Time: Tenth century
Place: Việt Nam
Mãng’s daughter, Thị Kính, is a beautiful young lady, possessing all the characteristics of a proper and supportive wife. It is her wish to stay at home helping her father, her remaining parent, in his old age and to postpone marriage as long as possible. On his side, Mãng’s dream is to see his daughter settle down before he dies. Respecting her father’s wish, Thị Kính agrees to marry Thiện Sĩ, a young handsome scholar with promising future as a mandarin from the Sùng family.
Thiện Sĩ and Thị Kính live an ideal happy life. On a chilly autumn night, Thiện Sĩ gets tired while studying late. He leans on his wife’s lap to catch a short nap. Thị Kính recognizes a single long hair on his cheek. She decides to cut it off with her knitting knife, because it is an unbecoming characteristic for a righteous man. Thiện Sĩ suddenly wakes up and mistakenly thinks Thị Kính is trying to kill him. He screams for help and his parents quickly take his side. The Sùng family is shocked and disgusted, and insists on returning Thị Kính to her family.
Under social pressure in this circumstance, the family must abandon her. Failed by love, by her own parent, and by the rules of society, Thị Kính turns to the eternal love of Buddha. She disguises herself as a man and enters a monastery, taking her Buddhist name Tiểu Kính Tâm. She takes a vow to devote her life to a higher cause.
Another spring comes. Spring festival is a joyous event, with new fortunes and possibilities for its attendants. The young, beautiful and lustful Thị Mầu pours her heart out for the possibility of a young love for herself. She falls in love with the young monk Tiểu Kính Tâm and pursues him, an impossible goal. Failing to get her wish, she vows to pursue any possible prospect.
Returning home, Thị Mầu realizes that her family’s attractive servant Nô is not a bad prospect after all. On his part, No takes the chance of a lifetime, returning his mistress’ interest, pursuing the unthinkable. As a result of this unlikely affair, Thị Mầu becomes pregnant.
Despite Phú Ông‘s efforts to keep his daughter’s pregnancy a secret, the news finally becomes known in the village. Lý Trưởng, the village’s chief, calls for the town meeting to decide on the punishment of Thị Mầu. In order to defend herself, Thị Mầu accuses Tiểu Kính Tâm, the young monk, of being responsible for her pregnancy. The village turns its attention to putting Tiểu Kính Tâm on trial. Following his own motto of living life for a higher cause, Tiểu Kính Tâm thus accepts the accusation and punishment in order to grant Thị Mầu a new life.
Returning to the temple, Tiểu Kính Tâm desperately begs the senior monk, Sư Cụ to let him remain under the protective roof of his temple. The monk helplessly denies such a request in the name of the holy temple. A sin you committed is the fate you live, he replies. In spite of his Buddhist belief that Tiểu Kính Tâm deserves a second chance, he acknowledges his failure to provide the young monk protection against social rules. Tiểu Kính Tâm has no other choice but to leave the temple. Meanwhile, Thị Mầu approaches the temple and abandons her new born child under a tree. Tiểu Kính Tâm hears its cry, finds the baby, and decides to raise the child as his own. He carries the baby to marketplaces to beg for food and money to raise the little boy.
Tiểu Kính Tâm hopes to seek sympathy from strangers in the marketplace for the sake of the baby. Instead, he and his child were spit on for the sin they are alleged to have committed. Three years later, on a cold autumn day, Tiểu Kính Tâm finally gives in, thinking that the child is ready to survive on his own. Before he leaves the earthly world to enter the enlightened realm of everlasting nirvana, he writes a letter to explain everything, in the hope that someone will take care of the child. Touched by Thi Kinh’s selflessness, Buddha declares her Phật Quan Âm Thị Kính (the female Buddha).
Reference: Synopsis of The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, a dramatic/satiric opera in three acts – ten scenes. Translated and reconstructed by P.Q. Phan. Publication permission from P.Q. Phan.
Vietnamese version here.