In my previous post, I touched briefly on the story of Âu Cơ and Lạc Long Quân, which I told in the style with which it was presented to me as a child, namely that of a mythical fairy tale that did not have a basis on reality. I certainly never believed that it could exist. I just thought it was a fairy tale because the story was just too unbelievable to me. It never rang true.
Still, I decided to go back and revisit this myth. I wanted to see if I could make some sense out of the story and to give it a realism that would ring true for me. What I found surprised me. My understanding and appreciation for a story that I have heard all my life grew unexpectedly, the more I delved into the history books. Please allow me to elucidate my findings.
In that usual patriarchal style, typical of most places in the world, there is much ado about the men in the family, but not that much emphasis is placed on the women, no matter how significant their contributions happen to be. This should be addressed—and rightly so, especially when it comes to a figure of such historical importance as our very own Royal Mother of Vietnam. To get to the story, I had to dig through volumes and volumes of dusty history books.
OK, so maybe it’s not so dusty. I got an Ebook version and spent all day reading through the pertinent parts. And BTW, I got it for free off of a cool site. If you want this free ebook, simply click and download from this link.
Dai Viet su ky toan thu.rar (909.6 KB, 46107 lần tải)
If the link does not work, click on the book to the left and it will take you to the original source site where you can download it. Be forewarned. It’s rather dry reading material, written in an ancient and archaic style of writing that sounds stiff and formal to the modern day reader.
Also, it’s written in old Vietnamese court language, which is to say, NOT the common language of the streets. Incidentally, this is the language that my parents used, and that we learned at home, which of course, got us NO friends outside the house. Quick tip. Don’t talk like this when you meet other people or they will think you are putting on airs and trying to be better than they are. It’s the quickest way to get picked on and bullied incessantly.
Another book which gives a slightly different slant on the mythology of Âu Cơ is the Lĩnh Nam Trích Quái ( 嶺南摘怪 ) or Wonders Plucked from the Dust of Linh-nam, written in the 14th century by yet another historian by the name of Trần Thế Pháp. This one is a bit more fun to read since it deals strictly with the mythology and the stranger stuff that happened in and around the area known at that time as Lĩnh Nam, which was a large area south of the Five Points Ngũ Lĩnh.
Linh Nam Trich Quai.prc (85.3KB)
There is a small section which mentions our fair lady Âu Cơ, but it says that she is the wife of Đế Lai in this recounting. ** Since we cannot go back into history to find out which account is more accurate, we’ll just go with the original dry history account from the court historian and establish that he is her father and not her husband.
As always, I read history with a skeptical eye because as we all know, history is written by the victors. Not only that, it sometimes gets twisted and shaded into whatever the historian-du-jour wants the world to know. Sometimes, this is done through sheer malice from the side of the victor. At other times, what must be written has been decidedly pointed out to the historian in the form of a very sharp dagger to the throat. When possible, I try to grab history books from both sides of the conflict. The two opposing stories will have shades of similarity, and between the two wildly differing viewpoints that color the truth, I arrive at something that approximates the truth after careful review and some gut instinct reality checks.
So, in my small and insignificant way, I will honor her by telling her story, this time, through the eyes of a loving progeny who also happens to be a woman—one who understands what it is like to live within a world dominated by men.
This is her story.
Âu Cơ was born in the northern region of what is now central China. She was not a meek and mild young girl who was ignorant in the ways of the world. According to various history books found on both the Chinese and the Vietnamese sides, there are a few certainties, even for such a mythical being as she.
- She was a princess, the daughter of a king who reigned in an area north of present-day Vietnam. His name was Đế Lai.*
- She was a highly educated, well-traveled and famous healer who went everywhere to administer her knowledge of the healing arts to the people in her father’s domain.
The Vietnamese story begins at a point in her life when she accompanied her father, King Đế Lai, to the kingdom of Xích Quỷ (赤鬼) or Red South, the land immediately south of where her father ruled (the region in red on the map).
This was during a peaceful time when borders were friendly and entire generations of families ruled whole areas. King Đế Lai left his henchmen behind to rule in his stead and took a nice long vacation with his entourage and a huge number of soldiers. Xích Quỷ was further to the south and the land was warmer and more temperate than his own kingdom was. He decided that it had to be a great place to enjoy the good life.
Since King Đế Lai was the nephew of Kinh Dương Vương (涇陽王) aka Hùng Lộc Tục, it was merely to be viewed as a family visit and not a military occupation. After all, there was to be no bloodshed. Only he was not visiting his uncle who had passed away at this point; he was visiting his cousin.
When Kinh Dương Vương passed away in 2,839 BC (keep in mind the time frame…this is 4,851 years ago!), the kingdom of Xích Quỷ passed into the hands of his only son, Lạc Long Quân, aka Hùng Sùng Lãm, aka our one-and-only Dragon Lord of Lạc.
With me so far? Not too confusing, eh?
Well, it gets more confusing later on, most especially when the mythology says one thing, the geography says another, and the accepted gold standard written in the history books say yet another.
Now, this new king of ours was no stump. He was actually a really great ruler and leader of his kingdom. There are many accounts of all the great deeds he’d done, but since this is not his story, I’ll skip it for another day. Needless to say, at this point in our tale, the Dragon Lord of Lạc had already done quite a bit of his adventurous and mighty deeds and was in fact, about fifty years old. He also already had about twenty or thirty ‘wives’ by the time Âu Cơ and her father (and the whole entourage of ladies-and-gentlemen-in-waiting plus soldiers, etc.) arrived at his kingdom.
Sad to say, the Dragon Lord of Lạc wasn’t around to greet them. He was, himself, away from his own kingdom and visiting his mother’s lands which was even further south of his kingdom. Without a host to limit his enjoyment, King Đế Lai decided to build himself a nice little playground, complete with room to spare for his entourage and his men. Then he began roaming about the countryside, exploring the southern territory that belonged to his cousin.
Of course, as with any visiting dignitaries who happen to have their own band of very well-armed soldiers, they were treated like the royalty that they were. King Đế Lai and his entourage were given whatever they needed, and in doing so, the people began to suffer as a result of having to feed, care for, and in general, pander to the huge number of soldiers and courtiers who had marched down with King Đế Lai.
The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the flowers blooming and heady with tropical scents, KingĐế Lai was in heaven. He took off with a group of his men to go visit all the wondrous places to collect ivory, rare scented woods, and the culinary delights of the southern lands, leaving behind his beautiful daughter at the new citadel installation he had just built for his entourage.
By now, word had gotten to the Lạc Long Quân that his land looked as if it would soon be invaded by his cousin to the north, so he quickly said his goodbyes to his mother and off he went, back to his home in Xích Quỷ.
It seemed though, that the two cousins would never meet, because by the time the Dragon Lord of Lac returned to his homeland, King Đế Lai had been on his outing for quite awhile, obviously scoping out the best places to possibly spread his kingdom out a bit.
Rushing to Đế Lai’s citadel, ready to confront the man, the Dragon Lord was startled to find that nobody was home except for one exquisitely beautiful young girl, all alone except for her hundreds of maids-in-waiting, and the entourage of foot soldiers that was left behind to take care of her.
So the Dragon Lord did the only thing that he could possibly do in the circumstance.
He kidnapped her.
He took her far, far away from the area where her father’s citadel had been constructed, up high towards a mountain top, to his castle in the sky. There he kept her, along with her maids and ladies-in-waiting. Needless to say, she was not at all ill-treated. He was the king of a wealthy kingdom, after all, and she was provided for quite lavishly and abundantly. Still, having been taken forcibly from her father at such an inopportune time must have been quite a shock to her delicate sensibilities. Furthermore, the knowledge that she would never be able to see her homeland again must have been a source of no small grief.
Here, the history books were deliberately vague and quite vanilla in their retelling of the events that happened at that time. It is written that before they met, the Dragon King had seen her and wanted to woo her, so he changed his appearance to that of a young dashing courtier and caused her to fall in love with him. In the history books, it is said that she begged him to take her with him because she could not bear to be apart from him.
But something about this account just does not vibrate truthfully for me. Try as I might, I simply cannot believe that this is actually what occurred. For what it’s worth, my assessment of the situation is thus:
Lạc Long Quân must have been furious at his cousin for having ruined his visit to his mother’s land and for poaching on his lands while he was away. After all, they were suppose to be friendly neighbors and first cousins. Racing back to his cousin’s hastily constructed citadel by whatever means he had, most likely horses, he probably called all of his men and showed up en masse as a sign of strength and power to be reckoned with, and he was armed and ready to drive them off.
It must have been a huge surprise for him to come charging in to face off with a group of young ladies-in-waiting who had nothing more lethal than their looks. It had to have been an even bigger shock for him to come face-to-face with the breathtaking beauty of his cousin, the Princess Âu Cơ.
Of course, I would have loved to have seen her face at that time.
Âu Cơ must have screamed bloody murder! She probably clawed and kicked at the men who held her back, bit and spat at the Dragon Lord himself—she must have fought with everything she had to try to get away from this cousin of hers who had decided he was going to remove her by force. But how does a lone girl get away from a man when all his guards have converged in on the territory? She knew she was as good as a trapped rabbit.
With nowhere to run and worse yet, nowhere to go, she finally acquiesced to her fate. Âu Cơ was no dummy. She knew that once she had been taken from her father’s citadel, there would be no going back to her home. As with all persons of royal lineage, her value to her kingdom and her family lies in the advantageous exchange of herself to a neighboring kingdom to secure borders and to maintain peace. Perhaps that was the original design that her father had sought to obtain by bringing her all the way from the North to a land far, far away from her home, but that possibility would never come about due to the fact that the two men never met. King Đế Lai had lost his only bargaining chip, his beautiful daughter. The Dragon King now had possession of the princess and there would be no counter-offer.
Now, that would have been the end of the story had she been just a beautiful commoner. There are lots of those types of girls and their fates are simple. They would get taken into his court and after having been checked for various important physical and mental assets, they would become courtesans, living out their days in idle comfort. Their only mission in life at that point would be to try and come up with some male heirs for the king.
To be fair, the Dragon King was not known to be a harsh Lord and Master, and he was quite a handsome guy despite his age, so it was not such a bad deal to have. But in her case, because she was a princess, and more importantly, she was his second cousin, there was bound to be trouble.
Sure enough, as soon as King Đế Lai got back from the whirlwind tour of his cousin’s lands, he found his beautiful daughter vanished, along with her maids, and his citadel taken down by a legion of armed men whose claim to the space was vastly superior, now that their Lord and Master had once again returned to his kingdom. He immediately summoned his guards to go look for her. They searched for days, but the terrain was foreign and they met with much difficulties. Lạc Long Quân set out to ambush the search parties so that they would not reach his castle atop his mountain.
Unable to find any trace of her, he pulled his army back and returned home to his northern kingdom without his daughter. So it is with some resignation that I turn back to the annals of the history books to continue forth the story.
It seemed then that despite the fact that he had many concubines, the only woman Lạc Long Quân actually legally married was his cousin, the Princess Âu Cơ. History books note that, just as his father before him, he took his bride up to mount Tam-sơn, where there was a lake called Hồ Ðộng-đình. This was the place where they honeymooned for three years. Notice that this is deep within present-day China.
As an aside, if you notice on the map above, there is a mountain north-east of Hồ Động Đình called Mount Thái Sơn. There is an ancient saying of my people and it goes like this.
Công cha như núi Thái Sơn
Nghĩa mẹ như nước trong nguồn chảy ra
Một lòng thờ mẹ kính cha
Cho tròn chữ hiếu mới là đạo con
Translated, it means something like this:
Father’s heroic deeds are as great as Mount Thái Sơn
Mother’s virtue is an endless gushing of spring water
Revere one’s Mother and Respect one’s Father
To completely fulfill one’s filial duties. ~ ancient Viet teaching
This poem is ancient and is one that is taught to every kindergartner, to be memorized. I myself was taught this as a very small child. It was understood that this was part of our history and heritage. What I never knew was that Mount Thái Sơn was an actual mountain. It wasn’t just made up for the poem and to make the poem sound good. But look at the location of Mount Thái Sơn! My goodness, it is way up there in the northern reaches of China, almost at the border of the yellow river, which we call Hoàng Hà (remember, hoàng is yellow for everything except royalty).
Anyway, back to the love birds.
Now, whether he truly loved her or whether it was to keep her as a political hostage to maintain peace with King Đế Lai, we will never know. However, what we do know is that in due time, their first-born son was born and his name was Hùng Vương (Hùng being his father’s real family name).
Now, the story continues in that strangely aggravating mythical fashion where the couple had 100 children, all springing forth from Âu Cơ’s egg sac which held 100 of her eggs. Since this happened a very long time ago, we will never know the truth of the matter, but there is no harm in speculations. We are, after all, born with a mind that can think, and only the complete idiot will accept everything he reads without question and without utilizing his brain to think through the matter and come up with his own ideas about the situation.
There are two possible explanations for this occurrence.
- She had one child with the Dragon King and all the others were children of the concubines that he kept combined with the hand-maidens that was a part of her original entourage. Since she was the Queen, she was legally their mother because her husband was their father. OR
- Their science was so advanced that they were able to fertilize 100 of her eggs, of which all were able to be developed into living human babies.
But the story doesn’t end there. After a couple of decades of living together, they decide to part ways because the Dragon King wanted to return to the lands of his mother, near the coastal areas where there was plenty of water. He took 50 of his sons with him, leaving fifty sons with Âu Cơ, including their first born son, Hùng Vương, thereby instigating the very first divorce case in the history of Vietnam.
What that meant was that it was OK to live apart if that is what will bring happiness to the individual. It meant that they weren’t stuck with each other in miserable cohabitation. They were able to move on with their lives and to live where they wanted to live, and they did so in amicable terms. I think that is a much more valuable lesson to leave for their future generations of children.
In due time, their son, Hùng Vương became the first king of Vietnam, ruling over an area in the northern reaches of present-day Vietnam and southern China. His lineage ranged for a good long time, roughly 18 generations.
But that is a completely different story, and not within the range of this post.
* Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư – Complete Annals of Đại Việt. ( 大越史記全書 ). Ngô Sĩ Liên. 1479.
** Lĩnh Nam Trích Quái – Wonders Plucked from the Dust of Linh-nam. ( 嶺南摘怪 ). Trần Thế Pháp. 14th Century AD.
Wonderful story. Encapsulates the beginnings of the Vietnamese, including their ownership of much of southern China before the Yellow Emperor moved south.
I remember learning about this some years ago and I thought you put it together beautifully, and rereading it has made further impression on me.
It occurred to me sometime recently, could there be a connection between Âu Cơ and Hsi Wang Mu?