A Fox Corpse, West Lake, and the Divided Population of Medieval Vietnam

The Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện) is a collection of short tales which was compiled in the fifteenth century (although some of its content may have been first drafted earlier). Vietnamese scholars today argue that it contains stories which “the people” passed down through the centuries. They therefore see this work as evidence of the antiquity of the “Vietnamese nation.” When one reads the Arrayed Tales, however, it is clear that this is not the case.

Let us examine this issue by looking at one of the tales in this work, “The Story of the Fox Essence” (狐精傳).

昇龍之城,昔號龍編地,上古無人居焉。李朝太祖泛舟珥河津,有雙龍引舟,因名焉,而都之,即今之京華城也。初,城之西有小石山,東枕蘇瀝江,山下之穴,有白狐九尾,壽千餘年,能化為妖怪,變化萬端。或為人為鬼,遍行民間。時傘圓山下,蠻人架木結草為屋。山有神靈異,蠻人奉事之。常教蠻人耕織,作白衣衣之,因名曰白衣蠻。九尾狐化為白衣人,入蠻眾中,與同歌唱,誘取蠻人男女,藏於小石岩穴。蠻人苦之。龍君遂遣水府六部眾引水而上,攻破小石岩穴。九尾狐走之,水府部逐之,破穴,獲狐啗之。其破處成深淵,今呼為狐屍潭(即今之西湖也)。遂立祠觀(今金牛寺),以鎮壓其妖。湖之西岸,原野平地,民田而耕,今呼為狐洞。土地高爽,民屋而居,今呼為狐村。其狐穴,今呼為魯卻村。

The citadel of Thăng Long [lit., “rising dragon”] was formerly called the land of Long Biên. In antiquity no one resided there. Then when Lý Thái Tổ sailed in a boat to the Nhị River crossing, there was a pair of dragons who led the boat. He therefore named it thus [i.e., Thăng Long], and made it the capital. Today it is the capital citadel.

Earlier, to the west of the citadel was a small stone mountain, and to the east it was cushioned by the Tô Lịch River. In a cavern below the mountain there was a white fox with nine tails which was over 1,000 years old. It could transform into a monster and change in myriad ways. It could become a person or a ghost and would move about among the people. At that time, below Mount Tản Viên savages made houses of wood frames and grass. There was a spirit which was numinous and the savages worshipped it. The spirit had long taught the savages to cultivate and weave. It made white robes and clothed them. They were therefore called the “White-Robed Savages.”

The nine-tailed fox transformed into a white-robed person and went amongst the savages. Together with them it sang songs and seduced savage men and women, and then hid them in its small stone cavern. The savages suffered from this. Dragon Lord then dispatched a group from the Six Boards of the Water Palace to draw water upward to attack and smash the small stone cavern. The nine-tailed fox fled. [The group from the Six] Boards of the Water Palace pursued it, destroyed the cavern, and captured and ate the fox. The destroyed area became a deep reservoir. Now it is called “Fox Corpse Pool” (this is the current West Lake). They then erected a shrine (current Kim Ngưu Temple) to suppress the monstrousness [of the nine-tailed fox]. On the western shore of the lake is an open flat area. People have fields which they cultivate. Now this is called Fox Grotto. Where the land is high and pleasing, people have houses where they live. This is now called Fox Village. As for the fox’s cavern, it is now called Lỗ Khước Village.

Discussion:

This story is about a fox essence (狐精), a term which is sometimes translated as “fox spirit.” The fox can be found in fables from all around the globe, but this story here is clearly inspired by the massive number of fox stories from the Chinese literary tradition. Mention of a nine-tailed fox who was over 1,000 years in age are both clear indications that the author of this piece was influence by Chinese fox stories. Therefore, it is clear that this story was not a story which came from “the people,” but from a person literate in Chinese.

The ending of this story makes this point even clearer. Essentially, the place names at the end of the story all relate to the Chinese word for “fox” (hu 狐), a word which a literate Vietnamese at the time would have known from reading Chinese texts and would have pronounced “hồ.” I translated the meaning of some of these terms in the text above, but if we look at how the original characters are pronounced, we can see the play on words which is at work in this story.

Fox Corpse Pool = Hồ Thây Đầm 狐屍潭

West Lake = Hồ Tây in Vietnamese, but written in Chinese in the opposite order (Tây Hồ 西湖)

Fox Grotto = Hồ Động 狐洞

Fox Village = Hồ Thôn 狐村

My guess would be that “Fox Grotto” and “Fox Village” were originally referred to as “Hồ Grotto” and “Hồ Village,” and that people did not know the meaning of “Hồ.” Some scholar who was familiar with these place names then created this story which linked the “hồ” in these two names with the Chinese term for “lake” (hồ) which we find in “West Lake” (Hồ Tây) and then created a fox story to link all of these names together because 1) the Chinese word for fox (hồ) sounds the same as the Chinese word for “lake” (hồ) as well as the names of this grotto and village (both hồ), and 2) he had read plenty of Chinese fox stories. In the end, his story led to a “fox corpse” (Hồ Thây), a term which sounds strikingly similar to the term for West Lake (Hồ Tây). [Note: the one name in this story which does not make sense is Lỗ Khước Village, but in other versions it is Hồ Lỗ 狐魯 or Lỗ Hồ 魯狐 which could make sense as meaning something like “fox pit,” as “lỗ” means a “hole” or “pit” in Vietnamese and “hồ” is the Chinese word for “fox.”]

In other words, only someone who was literate could have understood this story, so it is not a story of “the people.” Its content also points to divisions among the inhabitants of the Red River delta at the time. Mention of “savages” around Mount Tản Viên is one example of this. Mention of a “grotto” near West Lake is another. The term “grotto” is one which the Chinese created to refer to administrative units in border areas which were ruled over by non-Chinese peoples. That there was a grotto near West Lake could be due to the fact that the name was established during the period of Chinese rule and continued to be used afterward, or it could be because the Vietnamese elite at the time had established it because the people living in that area were seen as somehow alien.

There is more which can be said about this story, but the point which I wish to make here is to simply note that 1) it is an elite story, and 2) it points to divisions among the population of the Red River delta. In other words, it is not a story which was passed down by “the people,” because “the people” (in the singular) did not exist.

9 thoughts on “A Fox Corpse, West Lake, and the Divided Population of Medieval Vietnam

  1. Whew, you question some of the same contradicting thoughts I’d been having about holes in the Lac Long Quan stories and the Lĩnh Nam chích quái. I had trouble finding out if there are numerous foxes (the animal) living in Viet Nam and it reeked too much of Chinese literature for me to accept it as ‘ancient’ Vietnamese.

    (But I do consider it a part of Vietnamese culture now (modern Viet). Facts may question origins but in reality, the Vietnamese people know where they come from; that the Vietnamese people identify with the fox spirit stories does not make them less Vietnamese.)

    It’s also telling that the people were referred to as savages. If that’s not a Chinese-driven idea then I don’t know what is. A divided people, yes- the ones trying to rewrite history to cater to their Chinese influenced identities, and… the people. And the etymology of Hồ is absolutely facinating. Thanks for your thoughts on these.

    You don’t happen to know of an english tranlation of the Lĩnh Nam chích quái do you? And that passage that you posted above, do you think you can make it available in quốc ngữ too?

  2. Yea, most people think that at first you had “the Vietnamese” who had their own stories which they passed down for centuries, and then they were finally written down. I don’t think that is correct. For one, there is no other place in the world where this has been shown to have been possible. Instead, the creation of a unified people who share the same stories is something which took centuries to bring about, and which has only really happened in the past century or so with the advent of modern educational systems. (this argument is made clearly in From Peasants to Frenchmen)

    There were definitely various peoples living in “Vietnam” in the past, but I think the creation of “the people” began in the medieval period with these stories which members of the elite created. Over time they then spread to the common people (and yes, I agree with you that these stories are now “Vietnamese.”). What is more, I don’t think there was a simple divide between the elite and “the people.” Instead, there were many “peoples.” The “savages” of Mount Tan Vien were somehow different from the people who lived in Fox Grotto. Either their lifestyles were different, or their languages were different, or both.

    If you do a google image search for “indochina ethnolinguistic groups” you can see a map which shows how ethnically diverse northern Vietnam still was in the 20th century (and still is today!). For the medieval period, I think we need to picture a world in which the areas where the “Vietnamese” lived were even more limited. It would make sense that a place like Mount Tan Vien would have been inhabited by other peoples.

    As for the quoc ngu version, no I’m probably going to be too lazy. I try to be very careful in matching my English translations as precisely as possible with a given version of a text. The text and translation here comes from the A.1200 version of the Linh Nam Chich Quai. There are quoc ngu translations out there, but I’m not sure if anyone has translated this version. So if I were to put quoc ngu up, I would need to get it to match this version, and 1) I’m lazy and 2) there are people out there who have a better command of Vietnamese than me who can do that better.

    As far as I know, there is no English translation of the LNCQ. I’ll post more as I translate parts though. So stay tuned.

  3. You mentioned 15th Century was when the LNCQ was written, a quick google search and I see that it’s the second Lê Dynasty period (I’m learning as I go to be honest, there are so many holes in my understanding of VN history), right after the Ming were driven out. This would make sense further, seeing that the crowning factions would want to legitimize themselves by having their own cultural background. The folks around Mt. Tan Vien would have been hilltribe folks? Or people that had been driven up by Ming rule?

    Thanks again, I reread the original post and realized that my brain hadn’t processed every line. I appreciate your approach of looking at all of SEAsia, not limited to national borders. Everything you’ve said here has been extremely useful. I don’t mean to keep bothering you but do you have a recommended book list? The books I’ve gathered have been disappointing and the information online. I’ll flip through your blog too, to see if you’ve mentioned this before. Thanks again.

  4. This is an interesting point. I haven’t really thought about what influence the Ming occupation and the rise of the Le Dynasty might have had on this text. The general sense is that this text was “finalized” in the late 15th century, but that the stories were begun earlier. The preface to the LNCQ (which I haven’t finished translating) has a couple lines about the stories in this collection which state that “There is no record of when they were begun or who the person was who completed them. Perhaps a draft was composed by preeminent scholars during the Lý and Trần, and was then embellished in recent times by gentlemen who were learned and fond of antiquity.” So based on this information, most people think that the stories have more to do with the time before the Ming occupation rather than after it.

    Like you, I find pretty much everything that has been written to be disappointing. Two exceptions are the following two journal articles:

    Charles Holcombe, “Early Imperial China’s Deep South: The Viet Regions through Tang Times,” Tang Studies 10-11 (1997-98): 125-56.

    John K. Whitmore, “The Rise of the Coast: Trade, State, and Culture in Early Dai Viet,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. 37.1 (2006), 103-22.

    What I like about these articles is that they don’t take the existence of “Vietnam” for granted. In fact, they are pretty clear that from distant antiquity up through the Ly and Tran there was no “Vietnam” or “Vietnamese” yet. Instead, the people, culture and polity which we now think of as Vietnamese/Vietnam was slowly emerging over the course of these many centuries, and wouldn’t really reach its fruition until still much later.

    These are ideas which Vietnamese in Vietnam simply cannot think because nationalism is too strong there. 1) I think it would be difficult for someone to come out and make these points, and 2) the opposite ideas (that “Vietnam” and the “Vietnamese” have existed since antiquity) have been drilled into peoples minds so much over the past half century that it is difficult now for people to see anything else.

    The key is 1) to know about other parts of the world (because if you do, you will realize that there are no people on the planet who have been a distinct, unified and unchanging people since antiquity, and you will realize that around the same time that the Vietnamese were “inventing” themselves in the medieval period, many other people in Asia were doing the exact same thing – the Japanese, Koreans, northern Thai, etc.), and 2) to only rely on the primary sources (and not the quoc ngu translations or what modern scholars have said about the primary sources). Both of these two elements are largely absent in Vietnam today, so these are other reasons why all of the writing remains so disappointing. Finally, people outside of Vietnam can of course write about these things, but there are very few people who do so. As a result, old Vietnamese history does not get much serious attention.

    OK, now that I have completed my tirade, I’m not sure who the “savages” around Mount Tan Vien were and whether they were still there during the late 15th century. I think the only actual historical reference to savages around Mount Tan Vien date from the 13th century. See
    https://leminhkhai.wordpress.com/2010/06/23/the-savages-of-mount-t%e1%ba%a3n-vien/
    So they were there then, but I don’t know about before or after that time.

    Starting around the 10th century, there was a big movement of Tai-speaking peoples from southwestern China (Guangxi) into mainland SEA. We know that these people went into Laos and became the “Lao,” and into what is now Thailand and became the “Thai.” However, people haven’t said anything about them moving into the Red River delta. I’m starting to think that they must have. So perhaps the savages around Mount Tan Vien were Tai-speaking peoples. But then again, perhaps they were the speakers of an Austroasiatic language (like Vietnamese) but were somehow quite culturally distinct.

  5. I can throw another shoe in there, but not based off of research or any facts. When looking for an idea of ancient Red River Delta people’s tattoos, I looked throughout SEAsia and the surrounding islands for ideas, and what struck me were that the Polynesian islands had very similar design/building structure to the Dong Son period designs. And in Cong Rong Chau Tien, it has a dragon coming from the sea and a northern woman/possibly ‘chinese’ from the mountains- this might be literal. It might be islander folk mixing with hilltribe/plainsfolk/austroasiatic. Who all wrote the story might have taken that into account and created the story to justify unification. I wonder if the Red River delta people are not mentioned BECAUSE they were mixed/too diverse. The 100 children already existed. Do those records mention the Mon/Khmer folks btw?

    Maybe I’m being too figurative, but since we know that facts are rare and scewed, I thought it was a useful approach.

    And to add to your rant, I always found this ironic. We talk about the Champa people as though they are different, as though they are not a part of Viet Nam when their land makes up half of our VN today, but we forget that VN wasn’t always a single identity. It’s strange. (I realize that the descendents of the Cham still identify as Cham btw)

  6. So when people talk about the Con Rong Chau Tien story, they tend to start with Lac Long Quan and Au Co. The actual story, as it is recorded in the LNCQ and the Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu, starts with the mythical Chinese ruler, Than Nong/Shen Nong, and then talks about people like Kinh Duong Vuong and his wife, Than Long, and then it gets to LLQ and Au Co. I’ve found that all of this stuff which comes before LLQ and Au Co and much of the information which follows the story of their marriage and the 100 children comes from Chinese sources. I’ve also found that some elements of the LLQ and Au Co story were also influenced by a Chinese story. There could be more that I haven’t found, but I’ve written about what I have discovered to date:

    https://leminhkhai.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/lord-lạc-long-au-cơ-and-the-“biography-of-liu-yi”/

    https://leminhkhai.wordpress.com/2010/05/16/kinh-dương-vương-as-a-medieval-invented-tradition/

    https://leminhkhai.wordpress.com/2010/05/18/the-huayang-guozhi-and-early-vietnamese-history/

    I haven’t found a source for the 100 egg story, and how 50 sons went to the mountains with the mother and 50 to the sea with their father. And yes, many people have argued that this story has deep meaning and symbolizes the coming together of continental and maritime cultures.

    The people who say this, however, don’t realize how much of the information surrounding the egg story (and even parts of it, namely the dialog about LLQ and Au Co being different and not being able to stay together) comes from, or was inspired by, Chinese sources. Taking that into account, I find it REALLY hard to believe that the egg story has deep significance.

    At this point, I think that there was very little connection between the people who wrote these stories in the medieval period and the people who lived in the Red River delta in say the first millennium BC. This doesn’t mean that I think that the people who were there in antiquity moved away and someone else moved in. To some extent that probably did happen. It is recorded in the DVSKTT and other sources that the Tran were actually from China, and there were other Chinese who migrated into the area. Meanwhile there were probably local people who became “Sinicized” to some extent. There were also probably some old populations who moved away or who were assimilated into other groups. And Tai peoples must have migrated into or through the region at some point. The result of all of this, I think, is that there was no direct line between the people who lived in the Red River delta in antiquity and the member(s) of the educated elite who wrote the stories in the LNCQ, such that stories from the first millennium BC could end up in the LNCQ 1500 years later.

    Let me put it another way, I was in Bangkok recently and saw a book in Thai on the history of Tai music. On the cover of the book was an image from a bronze drum of a person playing a khene, an instrument played today by various peoples in mainland Southeast Asia, but not the Vietnamese, as far as I know. A lot of the blood which flows in the veins of Vietnamese has probably been in the region for eons, but their current culture is one which is more recent. I think it is the medieval elite who started to create it. I could be wrong, but. . .

  7. The story might even be the evidence for a more diverse population (of course). As I see it, a chinese-literate member of the educative elite writes about (probably only the left over legends) of an ancient cult, a non-normative religion in his eyes, which was eradicated by a more streamlined “civilized” dragon cult. Similar to the snake cults in India which caused the Brahmans to depict the earlier positive Nagas in a shady light in their own stories, while outside of direct Brahman influenced they stayed neutral-positive.

    1. Yea, I think a story like this reveals that there was an elite and that there were people who were very different from them (a diverse population). However, I find that it is dangerous to try to find “ancient cults” or anything like that in the Linh Nam chich quai. A lot of the information in this text is clearly the invention of the elite. So it is very difficult to tell where the inventions end and reality (if it exists in this text in some form) begins. I think there are some traces of reality in this work, and yes, I think some cults of different peoples have been transformed by the elite to fit their way of viewing the world, but we’re on much more shaky ground than the scholars who have talked about the Nagas and the Brahmans.

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