I’ve been having a long (and very productive) discussion with someone about an early Vietnamese text – the 15th-century – Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện (the Arrayed Tales of Collected Oddities from South of the Passes). We have been talking about whether or not some of the information in that text comes from an oral tradition.

The problem is that this text was compiled in the 15th century, but it claims to have information in it that was passed down from the first millennium BC. So we have to ask ourselves how that can be possible.

As far as I can tell, the only way that information can be passed down orally for over 1,000 years is if a society has an “oral tradition.” However, we do not have any evidence in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện or any other historical text about the Việt that demonstrates that there was an oral tradition in the Red River Delta.

borneo

In Southeast Asia, there are various peoples who had an oral tradition. The various Dayak groups on Borneo, for instance, each had such a tradition.

The Institute of East Asian Studies at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak published some collections of oral tales from Borneo in 2001. In one of them (about the Bidayuh) we find information like the following:

“Folk stories used to be told at night on the gallery of the longhouse (botang romin), in the garden house (plaman), the farm hut (bori omuh), or in the ceremonial house (baruk). When a story was told on the gallery of the longhouse, the audience was larger and mixed, comprised of adults, young boys and girls. When a story was told in a plaman or bori omuh, it was usually told by an elderly woman to her children and grandchildren. When the story was told in the baruk, the audience was restricted to teenage boys. This was because the baruk was specially reserved for male activities.”

[Robert Sulis Ridu, Ritikos Jitab and Jonas Noeb, comp., King Siliman and Other Bidayuh Folk Tales (Sarawak: Universiti MalaysiaSarawak, 2001), 1.]

bidayuh

Meanwhile the Penan, another group on Borneo, created stories called suket that were told in various contexts. Another volume that the Institute of East Asian Studies at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak published states, for instance that,

“When a person dies and people gather to keep vigil over the body, suket may be told during the night to relieve the mourners’ feelings of bereavement (nevalau kenep). Only suket jian (‘good stories’) are told on such occasions.

Suket can be spoken (bara’ mengete), chanted, or sung (kajun).

“When a suket is spoken, the storyteller mimics and sometimes acts out the part of the characters in the narrative to make the story more exciting and entertaining. When a suket is chanted or sung (kajun), certain words are arranged in pairs (ipet) to create rhymes. The art of pairing words is called mipet. Mipet adds beauty to the story.”

[Jayl Langub, Suket: Penan Folk Stories (Sarawak: Universiti MalaysiaSarawak, 2001), 2.]

Kammu

What is clear from this and other information that we have for other groups of non-literate peoples in Southeast Asia (like some Kammu groups) is that there were people in these communities who specialized in storytelling, and that the act of telling stories was culturally specific, that is, certain stories were told in certain specific circumstances.

With the Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện, however, we do not get any sense of this. From that (or any other such) text, we do not get any sense that there was an oral tradition in the Red River Delta.

So without such a tradition, how could information have been passed down orally for over 1,000 years?