Journey of an Opera (3) – What’s in the Title?

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính Creation Series

The answer is: A whole world of difference that can sometimes be smashed down to sameness by geo-political confusion! Quan Âm Thị Kính is the story about the Vietnamese female Buddha. In other Asian cultures there exist stories about female Buddhas as well, yet none is as popular as Quan Âm Thị Kính is in Vietnam. As P.Q. Phan created his new opera, The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, based on this popular story its significance prompted him to search for a title that best reflects the essence of the Vietnamese story. Here is how.

The Vietnamese female Buddha: Quan Âm Thị Kính

In Vietnamese Buddhism, the female representation of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who has the power to assume any form as required by circumstances is called Quan Âm. The folk tale of Quan Âm is about an ordinary woman named Thị Kính. Born into a poor family she goes through a lot of misunderstandings and hardships in her life and at one point has no choice but to seek monkhood for her survival. As a “monk” she proves to possess unconditional love and compassion for people she encounters. As a result of her actions, she touches Buddha’s heart and is invited into “Nirvana” transforming into a female Buddha known as “Quan Âm Thị Kính.”

Without trying hard for an analogy, this story of Thị Kính is very close to that of Buddha himself. Like Buddha, Thị Kính has to pay her dues to a secular life before she could enter monkhood to achieve a more spiritual one. In fact, she chooses to live in a way that mirrors the basic Buddhist teachings thus bringing her peace and happiness. Her actions, undiluted by any local religious beliefs imported from China, eg. Daoism, reveals the core belief of Vietnamese peasants in the 10th century with regard to goodness and spirituality. All these has to be taken into consideration when it comes to the title, starting with its translation from Vietnamese.

From “Quan Âm Thị Kính” to “The Tale of Lady Thị Kính”

Many people translate “Quan Âm Thị Kính” into English as “Goddess of Mercy Thị Kính.” This translation is problematic for two reasons. First, Thị Kính is not a “goddess” – a term often used to refer to a deity in Chinese Daoism. While deity is one whose behavior is still influenced by senses of happiness, sadness, or anger like other humans, Buddha has already transformed to stay beyond these typical behaviors. To address a Buddha “Goddess” is inappropriate in the least.

Second, “mercy” here implies the power to forgive those who mistreated you during this earthly life. Thị Kính never means to blame or criticize anyone for their wrong doings or for the ordeals she goes through in the first place, to forgive them later. What is revealed through her choices in life is her wishes to have peace and happiness for herself and people around her. For these two reasons, P.Q. Phan believes  “Quan Âm Thị Kính” could more properly be translated as “The Benevolent Lady Thị Kính.”

However, if Phan used The Benevolent Lady Thị Kính as the titlefor his new opera, original as it might be, this title – as well as its Vietnamese equivalent, Quan Âm Thị Kính – would still be misleading on account of its religious connotation. For “Benevolent” implies kindness and generosity from some authority or spirit above. The creators of Quan Âm Thị Kính, however, are peasants who have contributed over ten centuries to the creation of the character of Thị Kính as an ordinary person like them, not wishing for a moment a hierarchical relationship where she is above and they at the bottom. The Benevolent Lady Thị Kính, therefore, is still not the title as befitted the Thị Kính Phan has in mind.

At the same time, Phan also wants to tell this story from a different perspective – a humanistic one. He thinks the tale revolves for the most part around the life of Thị Kính who lives and sacrifices her life for a better society. A close reading of the script reveals that the tale is a human rights voice, or rather, a host of voices for women’s rights in unison.

It was then that the title, The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, was suggested to him. Phan found that this title reflects a very neutral concept of who Thị Kính is and thus projects a more appropriate image for his opera. Equally important, this title does not favor either religion or social structures. Phan liked it and ultimately decided to keep it.

The Tale of Lady Thị Kính, after all, will be portraying Vietnamese life and culture in the 10th century as it tells the story of Thị Kính. Her life is a good example to show that an ordinary woman who lives life for a higher cause can become a meaningful symbolic figure in society. Without rejecting the inevitable religious interpretation of Thị Kính’s transformation, the opera is also evident that with love, compassion, and perseverance, a woman can eventually transcend to become a higher being, and that you don’t have to be born a Buddha to become Buddha – in fact, as Thị Kính has shown, anyone can become Buddha.

Together, all the characters in The Tale of Lady Thị Kính are people’s representative voices demanding justice, equality, and free love. Nobody will be flying on the stage like goddesses – except Thị Kính as she transcends to become Buddha entering Nivarna!

******** The Vietnamese version of this article has been published by the Vien Dong Daily News, also available online here.

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