One aspect of Vietnamese history which is problematic is the fact that there are sources which contain information about events which supposedly occurred many centuries earlier.

An example of this would be the story of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ, a couple who supposedly lived in the first millennium B.C., or perhaps even earlier. However, the written information we have about this couple dates from the fifteenth century.

As far as we know, the story of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ first appeared in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện. This work was compiled in 1489, but it may contain material which was written earlier. However, it is unlikely that any parts of this text were written over 2,000 years earlier! So where did the story of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ come from?

Vietnamese scholars have a simple answer to that question – the story was passed down orally among “the people.”

Vietnamese academics endlessly talk about the importance of “scientific” (khoa học) scholarship, and there is nothing more unscientific than this answer. Trần Quốc Vượng once tried to give this unscientific view a scientific basis when he noted that “A law of psychology is that the things which should be forgotten are all forgotten, and that which is remembered in the legends of the people is a deep memory.”

[“Một quy luật của tâm lý học là cái gì cần quên thì đã quên rồi, cái gì truyền thuyết dân gian còn nhớ, thì đó là kỷ niệm sâu sắc.” Trần Quốc Vượng, “Về danh hiệu ‘Hùng Vương,’” in Hùng Vương dựng nước, vol. III (Hanoi: Khoa Học Xã Hội, 1973), 354.]

For the life of me, I cannot think of what “law of psychology” he was referring to. Then again, perhaps it is one of those “things which should be forgotten.”

To be fair, this is an issue which Western scholars really only came to realize in recent decades, and prior to that point they too believed that the absence of any evidence of earlier material to base a new story on was “proof” that the story had been passed on orally. Yes, there were some lone visionaries in the past, like Czech scholar Albert Wesselski, who tried to demonstrate in the early 1930s that certain German fairy tales were actually based on earlier written texts. That was bad timing though, and the Nazis made sure that this idea did not spread.

The big developments came with the creation of electronic library catalogs and then the development of the Internet. This technology enabled scholars to see that there was a ton of “pulp fiction” in European libraries, and this “cheap literature” shed light on how stories emerged and were disseminated.

What people who study the “oral tales” now realize, is that yes there may have been a peasant or two who created some story which an educated person then heard and wrote down. However, the overwhelming majority of “oral tales” were created by literate people and spread by the printed word.

What the discovery of all that “cheap literature” in European libraries revealed, is that there was much more printing in the past than people previously realized, and that much of that printing was of cheap quality, such as a small pamphlet of a few pages with a story or two in it.

In other words, rather than starting with the “folk,” the stories were created by literate people and spread by printing, and only at some point rather late in the process did they at times get passed on orally to illiterate peasants.

Printing in Vietnam in the past was extremely limited. However, there is no reason to believe that handwritten manuscripts did not circulate and get copied. In fact, in a certain archive in Vietnam today the staff is in the process at this very moment of going through some of the “cheap” materials which they collected decades ago and which have sat unread and un-cataloged because, as one person told me, they “don’t have much value” (không có giá trị lắm).

That’s what librarians in Europe probably thought about the decaying pamphlets in their collections. Now those “cheap writings” have put the lie to the “scientific” explanation of “oral tales.” That’s pretty valuable.