The study of “folk literature” (văn học dân gian) first began in Vietnam in the North in the 1950s. The approach that Vietnamese scholars at that time employed in studying folk literature was European-inspired. They adopted categories like legend, myth and epic from the European tradition and sought to identify the same types of folk literature in the Vietnamese past.
In the European tradition, folk literature refers to stories that are created by illiterate people, and are told and transmitted orally. As we move back into the past, it is very difficult to find anything like this from the “folk” we today refer to as the ethnic Vietnamese.
One group of stories that is often referred to as an early collection of Vietnamese folk literature is the Lĩnh Nam chích quái. Part of the reason why it is believed to be folk literature is because in his 1492 introduction to this collection, Vũ Quỳnh wrote the following:
“From the time before the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, not that far from antiquity, Southern customs were still simple. There were not yet any histories of the kingdom to record affairs. Therefore, [information about] most affairs has been lost. That which was fortunate to continue to exist and not be destroyed are just the oral transmissions of the people” (dân gian chi khẩu truyền 民間之口傳).
So we have this one statement by Vũ Quỳnh from 1492 that makes reference to some kind of tradition of transmitting stories orally by “the people.” Beyond that statement, what evidence do we have for this?
Western scholars who have studied oral traditions have noted ways in which one can detect the previous existence of an oral tradition in later writings. In other words, when oral stories eventually get written down, traces of the earlier oral tradition can get left in the later text.
Scholars, for instance, have found this to be the case with the Greek epics, the Odyssey and the Iliad. In comparing different early textual versions of these stories, scholars have found that at times they differ in content, but that there are certain set expressions that one finds shared by the various editions.
What scholars have argued based on this is that when these stories were told orally, storytellers would memorize certain fixed expressions that appeared at different times in the stories. These set expressions were there to help the storytellers remember the story.
In other words, storytellers did not memorize every word in these long stories. Instead, they memorized certain set expressions at key points in the story so that they could maintain the overall narrative of the story. In between those points the storytellers would “improvise” or “elaborate” to some extent, but the overall storyline would be maintained because storytellers had memorized key passages or expressions that served as a structure for the story as a whole.
What evidence do we have of this in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái? None that I can find. That said, an obvious problem here is the fact that the stories in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái were written in classical Chinese, and no one spoke that language. So if there had been an oral tradition prior to the point that these stories were written down, one would not be able to find the same “set expressions” in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái as people have found in early versions of the Iliad and Odyssey because storytellers would not have told these stories in classical Chinese.
So theoretically it is possible that there was an oral tradition, and that a literate person then recorded the stories in this oral tradition in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái. However, this leads to a bigger issue.
It is clear that many stories in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái are indebted to ideas and actual passages in other texts. The opening story (“Truyện họ Hồng Bàng”), for instance, has information that comes either directly from, or is inspired by, information in earlier (“Chinese”) texts.
So how does that relate to the illiterate “folk” and their “oral stories”? Did members of the literate elite take stories from the illiterate folk and “embellish” them? If that is the case, then we should be able to successfully peel away the layers that the literate elite added on and see a core story that the illiterate folk created.
However, I have not seen anyone do that successfully. Instead, scholars have tended to “selectively” peel away what they argue are “scholarly layers,” leaving others behind, but not talking about them.
For this technique to be persuasive, scholars would need to make a serious effort to identify everything in a story like the “Truyện họ Hồng Bàng” to see how it relates to information that is in everything from Tang dynasty encyclopedias to Buddhist tales, and to then see what is left. To date, no one has ever done this.
In my opinion, if the stories in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái have any connection to an oral tradition, it is more likely that they came from an oral tradition of the literate elite. Rather than assuming that the elite took stories from the illiterate folk and “embellished” them, it seems reasonable to me that members of the elite could have created stories that they told amongst themselves.
It would then make sense that such stories would have been inspired by information that comes from texts, because the people who created the stories read texts. And since the textual information that we find in these stories in some cases doesn’t pre-date the Tang dynasty period, then we don’t have evidence to suggest that such an oral tradition, if it did in fact exist, had a long history.
So is the the Lĩnh Nam chích quái a collection of “folk” literature? That depends on who we define as the “folk.” If we follow the European model, as scholars in Vietnam have, and see the folk as the illiterate commoners, then no, we don’t have strong evidence to demonstrate that this is “folk” literature.
If, however, we see these stories as having been at first told orally by members of the literate elite (and perhaps just among themselves, as we have no evidence that the elite told stories to commoners at that time), then we would have to come up with a new way to explain what these stories were.
This latter approach makes more sense to me. After all, why are people using a European model to examine the Vietnamese past?
In his preface, Vũ Quỳnh drew a connection between the stories in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and those in the fourth-century Soushen ji (搜神記). The Soushen ji was part of a genre of writings that was specific to the area of what we today call East Asia. It makes more sense to me to try to understand why such collections of tales were created in their own cultural setting than it does to try to apply a European model to a non-European context.
That said, in the European context (and in Germany in particular) the study of the “folk” in the nineteenth century was intimately connected with the development of (romantic) nationalism. So as long as nationalist ideas continue to inspire people, the Lĩnh Nam chích quái will undoubtedly continue to be a collection of “folk” stories.
For those who wish to move beyond the European-inspired-nationalist understanding of the past that has been constructed in Vietnam, however, a fascinating world awaits.