Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Beautiful Heart

What does a truly generous and loving heart look like? It is one that looks like that of a poor fisherman named Truong Chi. For those of us who don’t know, Truong Chi is one of the most famous characters in Vietnamese literature. And his story moves us because of his deep and sincere love.

Once upon a time, there was a very beautiful girl named My Nuong, the only daughter of a powerful mandarin. Like all the maidens of her station in life, she met no one and was kept secluded in a high tower in the palace. She spent most of her time reading, knitting or standing by the little window in order to cast her eyes upon the Tieu Tuong River, which passed quietly beneath her.

Gliding along, from time to time, was the small boat of Truong Chi, a poor angler, who would sing songs as he cast his nets on the river. From afar My Nuong could not see his face, but could hear him singing, an enchanting and melancholic voice.

No one knew what feelings this voice produced in My Nuong’s heart. However, one day the boat was not seen on the water and she began to wait. After waiting in vain for many moons, she fell ill. Her anxious father called for doctors to cure her, but even the most famous doctor of the time could not discover the cause of My Nuong’s illness.

One morning, to everyone's joy and surprise, My Nuong suddenly recovered her health. The little boat had returned to the river and the voice of Truong Chi again filled the sky. Based on the words revealed by My Nuong’s maid, the mandarin called the angler in and brought him before the daughter. But after just one glance, she did not wish to see Truong Chi anymore; his face was ugly, completely opposite of what she had pictured in her mind.

Nevertheless, the meeting was a fatal one. It put an end to the love in the bosom of the girl, but gave birth to a desperate one in the heart of the poor fisherman. Worn by a hopeless love, he pined away in solitude and finally drew his last breath one dark autumn evening. Truong Chi took the secret of his unrequited love with him into the next world.

Many years later, Truong Chi’s family exhumed his remains in order to transfer them to the family tomb. In the coffin, they found nothing but a marvellous and sparkling piece of gemstone, which they put on the prow of the boat as a decoration to remember the dead.

One day an old mandarin passed by the place. Taken aback by the splendour of the precious stone, he bought it and ordered a clever turner to make a beautiful teacup from it. It was then that he made a very strange discovery. Every time the cup was filled with tea, there appeared the image of some poor angler rowing his boat around the cup.

My Nuong heard about this strange story and wanted to see it herself. When she poured some tea into the cup, the image of the poor ugly man that she once met appeared and she could again hear the resonance of his enchanting voice that used to mesmerize her soul. Feelings of longing and regret surged in her heart and turned into tears running down the sides of her cheeks. A teardrop fell into the cup, and as this happened, the gemstone cup that My Nuong was holding in her hand melted into pure water.

Perhaps you would not be surprised to see why the story of Truong Chi and My Nuong is one of the most romantic folk tales in Vietnamese literature. As young people, the situation in the story may be unfamiliar to us. In our modern lifestyle, we don’t know anything about mandarins or young maidens being kept up in palaces. We don’t know anything about the life of fishing on the river in order to make a living. We can’t imagine what it’s like listen to someone singing on the river. What we know is fast cars, ADSL internet, and mobile phones. What we know is FM radio and Podcast.

And yet, there is one thing that we know, and it has nothing to do with time, place, or culture. And that’s the quality of a true heart – a really really good heart. We can see from the story that Truong Chi was a poor young man. He had little but his boat and his nets to catch fish to sell at the market. And add to that, he was ugly – so ugly that the moment My Nuong looked at him, she never wanted to see him again.

But while Truong Chi did not have money or good looks, he was blessed with a talent that few had – a beautiful voice. This was a talent that he did not keep to himself but he shared it with everyone. As Truong Chi sang while he was fishing on the river, it probably wasn’t My Nuong alone who was enchanted by his voice and felt less lonely being kept in the palace. Perhaps there were babies lying in the cradle who fell peacefully asleep as Truong Chi’s voice lulled them. Perhaps there were farmers working in the field, having their backs baked under the midday sun, who forgot their tiredness because they heard his songs.

The more I read this folk tale, the more I admire Truong Chi because of his sincere and generous heart. How many of us are blessed with very wonderful talents, but are afraid or unwilling to share them with others? We keep our talents to ourselves because we are afraid to be criticized, afraid to appear in public, or afraid to fail? We’re afraid that people will talk about us and make fun of us.

Truong Chi was poor, and he was ugly. But his voice was beautiful. And he shared his talent with others in the best way that he could. The fact that Truong Chi was brave enough to sing as he worked on the river was because his heart was sincere and true. He wanted to share his gift with others without worrying about being made fun of or being criticized.

But Truong Chi’s story, as we know, is a tragedy, because as sincere and generous as he was, it wasn’t good enough for My Nuong to love him the way he loved her. He was disappointed in love and suffered from heartsick. But despite this, Truong Chi’s heart never changed. That’s why when he died, his body turned into a precious and sparkling gemstone. Even in death, Truong Chi showed everyone how truly beautiful his heart was. In the end, My Nuong herself was filled with regret for having rejected Truong Chi.

The story of Truong Chi and My Nuong reminds us that in any time and place, what is on the inside is far more important than what is on the outside. Love is something that comes from the heart, and we have to feel other’s love with our heart as well. If we try to look for love with only our eyes, chances are we might overlook something very precious and true.
The story of Truong Chi and My Nuong also reminds us that we should let our heart help direct our actions. If we have a heart of generosity and openness, we are able to overcome things that hold us back such as shyness and insecurity. When we do things from the heart, we can change the lives of people around us in ways that even we are not aware of.

Today, we don’t make a living casting fish nets on the river like Truong Chi. We don’t sing the same kind of songs that Truong Chi sang. But definitely, we can be generous like Truong Chi was generous. And we can love like Truong Chi loved.

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