Have you ever heard a turtle talk? Probably not. In the fifteenth century, the Vietnamese historian, Ngô Sĩ Liên, had never heard a turtle talk either, but he believed it could happen, and in the history of Vietnam which he compiled, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, he clearly explained how it could happen.

In Vietnamese history there is the famous story of King An Dương and his efforts to build the citadel of Cổ Loa. Every time he built it, it subsequently collapsed. Eventually a golden turtle arrived and told King An Dương that the citadel was being destroyed by a spirit which he could eliminate by killing a white chicken on a nearby mountain. King An Dương did so, and was then able to complete construction on the citadel. The golden turtle then prepared to depart. Before he did, however, the king asked him, “If we are harassed by outsiders, how can we defend ourselves?” In response, the golden turtle gave the king one of his claws and told him, “If you see bandits coming, use this numinous claw as a crossbow trigger, and fire at the bandits. You will have no worries.” In the end, however, this claw did cause King An Dương worries, because it was eventually stolen from him and his kingdom was conquered.

This story is in included in Ngô Sĩ Liên’s fifteenth-century Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư. After relating this information, Ngô Sĩ Liên then explained the logic behind this story by alluding to a couple of related stories from the ancient (Chinese) text, the Zuozhuan.

In the Zuozhuan (Zhuang gong 32) there is a passage in which King Hui of the Zhou asks about an incident where some spirits reportedly descended to Shen, an area in the Kingdom of Guo, in what is today Henan Province. King Hui is told that, “When a kingdom is about to rise, enlightened spirits descend into it in order to observe its moral virtue; and when it is about to perish, spirits also descend into it in order to view its wickedness.”

There is another passage in the Zuozhuan (Zhao gong 8) in which the sovereign of the Kingdom of Jin asks his music master about a report that a stone has spoken. The music master then states, “Stones cannot speak. Perhaps something relied on it [to transmit words]. Otherwise the people did not hear correctly. I have heard it said though that ‘If one engages in activities in an untimely manner and discontent and complaints stir among the people, that speechless objects will speak.’ At present, lofty and luxurious palaces are being built and the people’s labor is being exhausted. Discontent and complaints are on the rise as people have no means to maintain their livelihood. Is it not appropriate that a stone would speak?”

Let us now look at how Ngô Sĩ Liên used this information to explain the appearance of the talking golden turtle.

“It is probably that spirits rely on people to move and objects to speak. When a kingdom is about to rise, enlightened spirits descend into it in order to observe its moral virtue; and when it is about to perish, spirits also descend into it in order to view its wickedness. Therefore, spirits are awaited for the rise and for the demise [of kingdoms]. In constructing the citadel, King An Dương did not conserve the people’s labor. Therefore, the spirits relied on the golden turtle to inform him. It is not that there must be resentment and complaints that stir the people for this to happen. It can also be like this.”

Although Ngô Sĩ Liên cited the first of the two passages from the Zuozhuan above, his explanation was more closely related to the ideas in the second passage. In particular, Ngô Sĩ Liên argued that the spirits got the golden turtle to speak because “King An Dương did not conserve the people’s labor.” Although it had not reached the point where people were complaining about this yet, according to Ngô Sĩ Liên, it was close enough for the spirits to act.

It might surprise some people to find that Ngô Sĩ Liên believed in spirits. Belief in spirits was widespread among the elite of traditional East Asia, what Confucian teachings taught these people, however, was to keep their distance from the spirits. And they were particularly discouraged from seeking the assistance of spirits.

Another story in the Zuozhuan (Zhuang gong 32) indicated what could happen if people sought the assistance of the spirits. The ruler of the Kingdom of Guo sent some officials to make offerings to the spirits in Shen. The spirits then granted the Kingdom of Guo land. However, when they did so, one of the officials stated that, “[The Kingdom of] Guo will perish! I have heard that a kingdom which is about to flourish listens to its people, whereas a kingdom which is about to perish listens to the spirits. The spirits are intelligent, upright, and of one heart and mind. They act through people. [The Kingdom of] Guo has many who are lacking in virtue. How can it thus obtain land?”

The ruler of the Kingdom of Guo should have heeded this warning, for in the end the kingdom did perish, and the cause for the kingdom’s demise was understood by subsequent generations of scholars to have stemmed from this act of seeking assistance from the spirits.

So if one could not seek the assistance of spirits, what was one to do? Confucian scholars believed that the best way to help oneself and others was by living a morally upright life according to the heavenly principles (天理, thiên lý). If one did that, everything would be fine.

This is how Ngô Sĩ Liên thought, and when he read the story from the past about the golden turtle giving his claw to King An Dương, he knew that this was the cause of the downfall of King An Dương’s kingdom. To quote,

“As for making requests of the spirits because one is worried about future disasters, this gives rise to self-interest. Once self-interest sprouts, heavenly principles are destroyed. How can the spirits not be disgraced, and bring about calamities? The entrusting of a numinous claw with the claim that it would be sufficient to hold off the enemy; was this not the sprout of calamity? It is like the spirits’ order to grant land to [the Kingdom of] Guo, and the subsequent demise of Guo. With a consequence like this, how could it have been anything other than that [the spirits] acted through the people? If one does not make requests, but acts according to principle, how can one think that the kingdom will not enjoy longevity?”

So in the end, if you ever hear a turtle talk, you’d better listen to it, because it’s the spirits giving you a warning. If, however, that turtle gives you anything which is aimed at bringing you benefits in the future, politely decline, and instead, live according to the heavenly principles.