Growing up, I looked to Western mythology as inspiration for fantasy and stories. In the United States, there always seems to be a fixation on European mythology in children’s and young adult novels. Though it shames me to admit, it took me a while to learn about Vietnam’s creation myth, but once I did, I immediately wanted to explore all there was to it. I had no idea of the richness and depth of women’s roles in the origin and history of Vietnam.
In the Vietnamese creation myth, ancient beings, creatures, and even humans had roamed the earth. Unlike a lot of other traditional mythologies, there isn’t a completely verified rendition of this story and most versions are fairly short, so each varies a little in its retellings. Additionally, the contrasts between Eastern and Western creation myths and cultures are interesting, as well as the presence of Western ideological elements and how these ideals were pushed onto the Vietnamese way of life and its depiction of women, which still permeates in our culture to this day.
The myth of “The Immortal Bond Between the Sea Dragons and Mountain Fairies” of Vietnam shows how identity and sense of self are shaped by our stories and myths and still are powerful in the present day. This creation myth was first recorded in the 15th century and features two protagonists, Âu Cơ and Lạc Long Quân. Âu Cơ was an immortal mountain fairy who healed all she crossed paths with, and Lạc Long Quân was a dragon lord hailing from the sea. They fell in love soon after meeting and settled in a land equidistant between the mountains and the sea, their two worlds. A song of the myth, translated into English, summarizes the story of the two:
A story of ancient telling, under blue sky were only two
Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ, met together on the earth
People began to love, a hundred eggs were born
Fifty went up to the mountains, fifty down to the deep sea
The ocean bears the hand of father Dragon
The face of the deserted earth, mother Âu Cơ built up …
Sing … together one passionate lullaby
Sing … together, of one bloodline, mother and father (Nguyễn Minh Sơn).
When a fairy and a dragon create children, it is from an egg sac and from this sac comes one hundred children who grow into adults quickly. All had the charm of a fairy, while harboring the blood of a dragon. After their time together, they both were homesick and wished to be back in their native lands. They agreed they were too different as fire and water, and each took fifty of the one hundred children she bore, and Âu Cơ returned to the mountains.
Traditionally, when we see an interpretation of man and woman, water and fire, it is that of the woman being demure and the man being fiery. There have always been natural opposites in myths and in life, showing the balance of the world and of our lives. The traditional sense of Yin and Yang derives from Chinese philosophy, which has spread out into many neighboring mythologies. Patriarchal philosophy was also heavily present in Confucianism, which Vietnam tried to keep apart from. What I found interesting in this creation myth is the fact that they are both each other’s equal; one is never greater or more dominant than the other. Âu Cơ is not seen as a silent, helpless victim of spousal abuse and together they bring harmony and a collective spirit within their people. The element of water seems to be a great part in this myth as well. Water is often seen as a void from which creation is made and rises up. As well, Lạc Long Quân is associated with water/the ocean and Âu Cơ is associated with the mountains/fire which is different from the usual binary depiction of females being water and males being fire. So even with Yin and Yang, these two have elements from both sides and there is no cut and dry way of assigning one solely to the feminine, dark, water side or the masculine, light, fire side.
We can also see the evolution of women’s rights in Vietnam and its correlation with western ideals and imperialism. As Vietnam fought to gain its own autonomy from China, it is said that the first revolts and leaders against China were women. Even the creation myth was used as a way to separate Vietnam’s identity from China. Ancient Vietnam was known to be a matriarchal society, and to this day, women hold a highly respected role in extended families and rural communities. In my family, women are always seen as headstrong leaders who always have something to say and will put others in their place if needed! Lady Triệu, a third-century female warrior, is a Vietnamese idol for being able to resist the Chinese onslaught and is famously quoted saying, “I’d like to ride storms, kill orcas in the open sea, drive out the aggressors, reconquer the country, undo the ties of serfdom, and never bend my back to be the concubine of whatever man.”
There is a correlation between European rule of Vietnam and the drop in women’s status in society. First, the French arrived to colonize and convert Vietnam. Then, came the Indochina Wars and, later, the Vietnam War. During these events, the vision of Southeast Asian women shifted from strong warriors and to the twisted stereotype of exotic, demure, and promiscuous comfort women for the pleasure of Western men. Surprisingly, at the beginning of the French colonization, it was not seen as shameful to marry a Western man coming to Vietnam temporarily, gain social status and material goods, and remarry a local man once the Western man departed back to Europe. However, soon after, this led to Western religious leaders shaming Asian women and protraying them as prostitutes, which rapidly led to a rise in rape and abduction. The ideals of Western culture were put on a pedestal and portrayed to be superior to the Vietnamese way of life. It was new, more advanced and therefore, a show of wealth and status. When my family was still living in Saigon, it was a status symbol to not have to wear an áo dài but instead partake in the luxury of Western fashion, goods and cars. This can also lead to the indoctrination of casting your own culture aside for what is deemed proper and better at the time. As these materials were touted as the correct way to live and present one’s self, it led to an extensive distancing of traditional Vietnamese culture, societal structures, gender roles and ways of life.
In contrast to women’s roles in everyday life, Vietnamese women were actively involved in and fought heavily in both the Indochina Wars and Vietnam War. Millions of women took up arms, aided in medicine, espionage, intelligence operations and surveillance. However, most, if not all, of these contributions of Vietnamese women at war have been wiped by Western media to portray the fighting as solely American soldiers and Southern Vietnamese men fighting against the communist Việt Cộng. We still see the effects of Western ideologies penetrating deep within the culture of Vietnam, with many of the progressive gender rights ideals failing at the end of the war and with women feeling pushed aside and unheard, though there have been recent strides in feminist and gender rights in the current culture and administration.
Western mythology is where we start to see the difference from Eastern mythology in the mentality of gods and creation. In European mythology, gods sit in judgement above the mortal and insignificant humans, usually in a far away, unreachable place. They even sometimes revel in the misfortunes of the human race and are quite spiteful. Evils are reflected as deformed and disgusting human forms to show how men are easily corruptible and how they can find themselves within these forms. The image of the dragon is also portrayed differently in Western and Eastern mythologies. In Western mythology, dragons are often seen as greedy, violent creatures who need to be eradicated or fought against by noble mortal heroes. In Eastern mythology, dragons are creatures worthy of praise and admiration, being seeked out for help, fortune and knowledge. In Vietnamese mythology specifically, creatures such as dragons and faeries, who are deemed to be immortal, live amongst human civilization and often interact with them on a constant basis. There tends to be more introspection and humility placed upon these characters. Often even mythical beings, such as Âu Cơ, deal with the same problems as the humans they interact with, such as a longing for one’s original home and having to separate from one’s love. They help us ruminate on two fundamental aspects of human existence: belonging and estrangement. They are not meant to strike fear into their believers as most myths aim to do, which we can see in how these cultures deal with real life issues.
What I truly enjoyed when reading and researching more about this myth is that Âu Cơ is seen as an independent entity in regards to Quân and there is no bitterness when they both decide they need to be apart from one another; her voice is just as important as his, a gender dynamic rarely seen in Western mythology. She also keeps an equal amount of children, showing that she is just as capable of raising and teaching them as Quan. Additionally, they both care for and nurture their offspring to become successful with valuable lessons and crafts in the future. One of the sons she takes with her actually takes over Lạc Long Quân’s position as Dragon King, instead of one of the children who followed him.
They also help those around them without a sense of superiority. This shows cooperation and no malice among differing lifestyles and opinions, teaching the people of Vietnam the importance of unity and honoring one another, regardless of upbringing or geographical location. Another stark contrast to Western creation myths is that both parties seem to be equally suited for one another and there is no forceful impregnation or abuse of the mother. With other creation myths, the male counterpart is usually metaphorically and physically suffocating the woman, forcing himself upon her again and again as she cries out for help from her children. We see this correlation of how women were seen as high status beforehand when marrying Western men but then discarded and deemed dirty and as prostitutes once they were no longer in favor with Western rule and ideology.
Ancestral acknowledgement and praise is an essential part, if not the most important part, of Vietnamese moral culture. I grew up with altars in every family member’s house and now better appreciate the reasoning behind looking to our past generations and taking pride in our history. It is important to look back to one’s roots and give thanks to the family which has passed with incense, prayer and gifts of foods. The same is done when praying to Buddha and attending festivals celebrating the mythical creatures Âu Cơ and Lạc Long Quân. For myself, researching my roots and the evolution of womens’ status in modern Vietnamese society really opened my eyes to the reasoning behind this change and how amazing and empowering our lore is. This type of creation story gives the Vietnamese people a sense of identity and unity which can be seen throughout the culture. We see active efforts in current Vietnamese society to create a place for women in public spheres of society and to grant them opportunities to become people with authority and power. From our creation myth, it is easy to see how far back these morals and ideologies implant themselves and it is a call to action to research and appreciate often overlooked mythologies and to get back to our pre-imperialisation and pre-colonization cultural beginnings.
The Fall 2021 issue exists in the liminal space bounded by fear, superstition, and taboos in order to decolonize all that goes bump in the night. From taboos to tradition, check out Mochi’s latest issue here! And if you like what you are reading, please support us through our end-of-year Ko-Fi campaign.
Works Cited: Nguyễn Minh Sơn. Lời Ru Âu Lạc, Vietnam, 20 Apr. 2007.
Cover photo credit: Andreea Popa//Unsplash