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).
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.
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.