Dear Asian Youth,
Welcome to your first day of class! If you grew up in the U.S., you probably read a lot of “classic” fairy tales when you were younger, like the ones by the Grimm brothers or Hans Christian Andersen. You may have even learned about Egyptian, Greek, or Roman mythology in your other classes. It’s also possible that you developed an interest in some specific subset of mythology, which for me was Irish folklore because I was easily able to find a really informative and fun Magic Tree House: Fact Tracker book on the topic.
But my favorite fairy tale was always Yeh-Shen (or Ye Xian): A Cinderella Story from China, a children’s book I found one day while roaming the aisles of my local library. I had never read a story from Asian folklore before, but here this book was, the only one of its kind on the shelf, waiting for me to read it. I was gripped by the beautiful illustrations and storytelling, both of which were so much more interesting to me than that of the Cinderella stories I had read before.
After finding Yeh-Shen, though, to my disappointment, I was never able to find another story like it. My experience with Asian mythology ended as quickly as it began. But I could find at least a dozen versions of Cinderella where she was white. In fact, I could find just about any myths and fairy tales where the characters, or at least the main protagonist, were white. The message was loud and clear: the stories of Asian people, my people, were unimportant.
But that’s not true. Our folklore has always been beautiful, and it has always deserved to be read, and taught, and passed on. So, for myself and all my students (and readers) of Vietnamese descent, I’m adding a new unit on Vietnamese mythology to our curriculum. Take your seats, class, and get out your notebooks—you never know if you’ll have a pop quiz on this material!
Chapter 1: An Introduction to Vietnamese Mythology
1.1 Creation Story: Ȃu Cơ and Lạc Long Quân
A creation story details the spiritual or mythological origins of a culture, people, or place. The idea that all Vietnamese people are descendants of dragons and fairies came from this particular creation story. The king of Xích Quỷ (also known as the Land of the Red Demons, south of the Yangtze River), Lạc Long Quân, which translates to “Dragon Lord of Lạc,” was the son of a mountain god and water dragon with the body of a dragon who used magical abilities to fight such monsters as Ngư Tinh, the sea monster, Hồ Tinh, the mountain monster, and Phong Châu, the evil genie. Ȃu Cơ was a fairy goddess-princess and healer from the northern mountains who could transform into a bird at a moment’s notice.
There are two different stories for how the two met and fell in love. The first: after the Northern mountain people came to Lạc Long Quân’s Southern lowland kingdom, Lạc Long Quân met Ȃu Cơ, the chieftain’s daughter. The two fell in love and ran off together to Lạc Long Quân’s mountain palace. The second: Ȃu Cơ was healing villagers when she was ambushed by a beast and transformed into a bird to escape. Lạc Long Quân showed up and conquered the beast, causing Ȃu Cơ falling in love with him. Their legend continues that the two settled exactly in-between the mountains and the ocean, where Ȃu Cơ laid a sac of 100 eggs and their children were born.
As time went on and their children grew up, both Lạc Long Quân and Ȃu Cơ missed their lands immensely and felt that their lives were incompatible together, from the contrast of fire and water in their spirits, to the different customs they honored. Together, they decided to return to their respective homes with 50 of their children, so that half of the family would grow up in the mountains, and half in the sea, where they would develop skills and occupations that matched their environments. Despite the distance, Lạc Long Quân and Ȃu Cơ’s love still rung true, so they swore to always meet at the middle ground if ever they needed one another’s help.
1.2 Nature Myth: Sơn Tinh and Thưy Tinh
A nature myth explains some sort of natural phenomenon through supernatural means. This myth explains the monsoon season of Vietnam. Sơn Tinh, a mountain spirit, was one of the Four Immortals, a cult of gods worshipped in Vietnam. Thưy Tinh was the sea spirit.
The two came upon a conflict when King Hùng Vương VI began a search for a worthy husband for his daughter, Princess Mỵ Nương, and both gods came to propose to her, promising to make her the queen of each of the worlds and vowed to offer all they could to earn her love. Since both were equal in stature and power, in order to decide which of these men he would arrange his daughter’s marriage with, the king asked Sơn Tinh and Thưy Tinh to bring special gifts of his choice the following day, which were 100 pots of rice, 100 bánh chưng (or square rice cakes), an elephant with nine tusks, a rooster with nine spurs, and a horse with nine colors in its mane. Sơn Tinh arrived first at the break of dawn with the gifts, and doing so won the princess’s heart and hand, marrying her straight away.
When Thưy Tinh found that he had lost and Sơn Tinh and Princess Mỵ Nương had been married, he raised the seas in rage and caused a great storm, to which Sơn Tinh responded by raising the mountains. Despite Sơn Tinh’s efforts to protect the land and the people, there was a great deal of flooding and destruction. After days of fighting one another, Thưy Tinh finally grew tired and lowered the sea again. But every year, he returns to fight Sơn Tinh again to exact revenge for his loss at a chance with Mỵ Nương.
1.3 Food Tale: Bánh Chưng and Bánh Dầy
Food-related mythology often describes the origins of culturally significant dishes. This myth details how bánh chưng and bánh dầy, two types of rice cakes, came to be created, and thus enjoyed by the Vietnamese people to this day. The story goes that King Hùng Vương asked his 18 sons to each bring him their most fantastic and unique dish as a test for him to use to choose his heir. Most of his sons were highly accomplished and rich, being skilled in areas such as martial arts or literature. But his youngest, Tiết Liệu, lived a simple life on a farm with his family. His dish, too, was just as simple as he was.
One version of the story says that a deity came to Tiết Liệu in a dream instructing him on the dish to make. Whatever the case, instead of doing elaborate hunting, fishing, and cooking like his brothers, Tiết Liệu harvested rice with his rice and family, his wife made the rice into a paste, and his children cooked them into cakes and wrapped them in banana leaves. They created two types of rice cakes: bánh chưng, the earth cake, which was a square shaped cake of rice and mung beans wrapped in leaves, and bánh dầy, the sky or sun cake, which was a round cake of glutinous rice dough. When Tiết Liệu and his wife presented these dishes to his father, all his brothers laughed at him. But after seeing and trying them, the king named Tiết Liệu’s dishes the purest and most significant, being so simple and accessible to all people, and yet so elevated in taste and pleasure. Tiết Liệu was named the new king and gained newfound respect from his brothers.
The thing about mythologies is they aren’t merely collections of fun fairy tales that we spend a period of our youth reading and obsessing over—they’re stories that serve as a cultural bridge to our greater pasts. They spiritually connect us to our ancestors through storytelling, which forever serves as one of the most important forms of communication and art throughout every culture. This is a connection that can be taken for granted by people with easy access to extensive familial and cultural histories. But for children of diaspora, such as myself, who have a lost connection to their language and cannot trace back their ancestry beyond grandparents, these stories are a lifeline.
I hope that this piece serves to connect other Vietnamese youth with their culture in a way I never knew was possible before. And I hope that, one day, these are commonplace stories, taught in schools and found in plenty on those library shelves I used to search high and low for just one measly book, and passed on like heirlooms for the rest of our history, never to be forgotten again.