One of the difficulties in attempting to understand early Vietnamese texts is that I think we tend to believe that the people who wrote them were like us. Ngô Sĩ Liên was an historian. We have historians today and know how they think, so we assume that Ngô Sĩ Liên thought like an historian. That, however, is a dangerous assumption, because there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, such as his comments about the episodes we just been discussing here.

We’ve covered the story of early Vietnamese history up to the point where Lord Lạc Long married Âu Cơ who then gave birth to 100 sons (or 100 eggs, according to some versions). These offspring then became the ancestors of the Hundred Yue, while one of them became the first Hùng King. It’s a complex tale which this diagram can hopefully clarify (my apologies for the amateur graphic):

After relating this information, Ngô Sĩ Liên then made the following comment:

“When heaven and earth formed, the one who could make use the transformation of qi was Pangu. With the transformation of qi, you then had the transformation of forms. This is nothing other than [the workings of] the two [types of] qi, yin and yang. The Classic of Changes states, ‘Heaven and Earth mesh together, and the myriad things develop and reach maturity; male and female blend essences together, and the myriad creatures are formed and come to life.’ Therefore, there must be a husband and wife before there can be a father and son, and there must be a father and son before there can be a sovereign and minister. However, the birth of the sagely and virtuous is definitely different from the births of ordinary people, for [the births of the sagely and virtuous] are determined by Heaven. Swallowing a sparrow’s egg and giving birth to [the founder of the] Shang [dynasty], stepping on a giant’s footprint and giving rise to [the house of] Zhou, are both records of true events. Shennong’s descendant, Diming found the daughter of Vụ Tiên, who gave birth to King Kinh Dương, the progenitor of the Hundred Yue. He in turn married maiden Thần Long, who gave birth to Lord Lạc Long. Lord [Lạc Long] married Dilai’s daughter who gave birth to an auspicious 100 sons. This is how the establishment of the enterprise of We Việt was possible.”

Ngô Sĩ Liên felt that “the birth of the sagely and virtuous [was] definitely different from the births of ordinary people.” The evidence he provided for this comes from Chinese history. There was a tradition that a woman by the name of Jiandi swallowed an egg that a sparrow, which had been sent by Heaven, dropped near where she was bathing. Jiandi became pregnant and gave birth to Qi, the founder of the Shang dynasty (16th to 11th centuries B.C.E.). Meanwhile, Jiang Yuan stepped on the footprint of a giant, became pregnant, and gave birth to Hou Ji, the founder of the Zhou dynasty. Having reminded his reader of this information, Ngô Sĩ Liên then discussed the unique births of some of the people recorded in his history, such as the “100 sons” of Lord Lạc Long and Âu Cơ.

In the nineteenth century, Emperor Tự Đức took Ngô Sĩ Liên to task for these comments. He admitted that the Classic of Poetry does contain a reference to a woman who gave birth to 100 sons. In particular, it contains a reference to Taisi, the wife of Zhou Wenwang, who was reportedly so virtuous that she gave birth to 100 sons. Emperor Tự Đức, however, did not actually believe this. Instead, he said,

“This is just a comment in praise of many sons. In examining the truth one finds that there was never such a number, let alone 100 eggs! Otherwise, how would they be different from animals? Could they still be considered human? Although there are the accounts of swallowing a mysterious egg and stepping on a giant’s footprint, these are still not as absurd as this. All of this began in those stories of beings with the body of a snake and the head of a man, or with the body of a man and the head of a cow, and are equally as ridiculous and ungrounded!”

It’s unclear to me if Emperor Tự Đức still felt that the stories from ancient China about the Shang and Zhou might be true or not. He certainly felt that those stories were not as absurd as those recorded by Ngô Sĩ Liên. However, there is no trace of any disbelief in Ngô Sĩ Liên comments. Ngô Sĩ Liên may have been an historian, but historians in the fifteenth century were clearly quite different from historians today.