I’ve been engaged in a long discussion on Facebook about, among other things, the story of a Vietnamese spirit in Phù Đổng village known in as Saint Gióng (Thánh Gióng) or the Soaring-to-Heaven King (冲天神王) or Heavenly King of Phù Đổng (扶董天王). I wrote about the history of this spirit in an article that hasn’t been published yet. Rather than wait for that to come out in print, I’m posting the information (with changes) from that article on Thánh Gióng here.

One of the points that we have been debating is whether or not stories like this one come from “the folk” and/or reflect something about their lives. I don’t think that they do. Instead, I think that they reflect the interests of the elite, and those interests were often directed against “the folk” rather than shared with them.

As such, I agree with a term that historian Olga Dror used in her book on Liễu Hạnh to refer to stories like these – they are “anti-folk stories.”

We can see this clearly in the information that we have about this spirit in Phù Đổng village, as there were various stories that were created about this spirit over a period of several centuries, and all of these stories were created by members of the educated elite and reflect their interests.

The first people to create a story about this spirit were Buddhists.

From an Earth Spirit to a Supporter of Buddhism

The information that we have about the earliest manifestation of a spirit in Phù Đổng village comes from a tale called “The Heavenly King of Phù Đổng” in the Collection of the Departed Spirits from the Việt Realm (Việt điện u linh tập). Some versions of that text cite the earlier Tales of the Extreme Reach of Karmic Retribution/Reward (Báo cực truyền) as the source for its account of this spirit. The account of the Heavenly King of Phù Đổng in the Departed Spirits states that this spirit was originally an earth spirit (thổ thần). The text then records that in the past when a certain Thiền (i.e., Zen) Master Chí Thành built a temple in Phù Đổng village, he placed a tablet for the earth spirit to the right of the temple gate. Later, however, the pagoda fell into disrepair and the local people made use of spirit mediums to contact this spirit. As a result, this site became an “obscene shrine” (dâm tự). [Vđult, 15b]

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The Departed Spirits goes on to talk about a time in the early eleventh century when another Thiền master, Đa Bảo, was serving in Phù Đổng village. The text records that Thiền Master Đa Bảo wished to eradicate this spirit, and one day on a big tree in front of the temple a poem magically appeared which stated the following:

Whoever can protect the Buddhadharma,

Let him stay in the JetavanaPark.*

If it is not our Buddhadharma,

Then move away from here in haste.

[*the park and monastery in northern India where the Buddha did much of his teaching]

After seeing this poem, Thiền Master Đa Bảo chanted it every night. One evening after he had done so, he heard a resounding human voice stating:

The Buddhadharma is full of compassion.

Its potent radiance covers the heavens.

I am willing to follow it and accept the precepts,

And permanently to protect the JetavanaPark.

The following day, Thiền Master Đa Bảo set up an altar and made a sacrifice of vegetarian offerings to the spirit. [Vđult, 15b-16a]

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It is not clear who Chí Thành was, but Nguyễn Tự Cường (in Zen in Medieval Vietnam, pgs. 48, 107 and 113) has suggested that this perhaps refers to Cảm Thành, the man who founded Kiến Sơ Temple in Phù Đổng village in the ninth century, the same temple where Đa Bảo was based in the early eleventh century. Regardless of who exactly Chí Thành was, what is clear from the account of these two men’s actions is that it was meant to demonstrate the superiority of the Buddhist religion over the power of local spirits. While Chí Thành’s effort to deal with the local earth spirit may have failed in the years after his lifetime, the religion ultimately prevailed, as in the end the local spirit declared its support and protection for the religion.

From Supporting Buddhism to Suppressing Internal Unrest for the Trần

In the thirteenth century, this local spirit was transformed again, this time by the Trần Dynasty ruling elite. This was related to the fact that Phù Đổng village was rather unstable during that period of transition from the Lý to the Trần. We know this from information recorded in Ngô Sĩ Liên’s fifteenth-century history, the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư).

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The Complete Book records that in 1218 an order was issued to arrest a hermit (cư sĩ) in Phù Đổng village by the name of Nguyễn Nộn on the account that he had obtained a golden piece of jade but refused to offer it to the monarch. Then in 1219, Trần Tự Khánh, a general for the Lý Dynasty and member of the Trần family which would replace the Lý a few years later, submitted a memorial to the throne requesting that Nguyễn Nộn be allowed to atone for his crime by leading troops to put down an uprising. The monarch, Lý Huệ Tông, assented to this request and dispatched Nguyễn Nộn to lead troops to attack some savages whom Trần Tự Khánh had previously been unable to suppress.

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However, in 1220 Nguyễn Nộn appears to have taken this permission to assist in suppressing rebels a bit further than the court approved, for in that year he occupied Phù Đổng and declared himself the Hoài Đạo Prince. In doing so he also submitted a formal request to serve the court and asked to put down unrest to atone for his crime. However, Lý Huệ Tông apparently disapproved of these actions. The monarch prepared to have an edict delivered to order Nộn to cease, but Huệ Tông became ill and did not carry through with this measure. [Bản Kỷ, 4/30a-b]

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Nộn’s military strength subsequently became formidable, and by the time the Trần came to power in 1225, Nộn controlled a much larger area than Phù Đổng village. In 1228 he defeated another rebel leader and declared himself the Đại Thắng [Great Victory] Prince. He then became ill and died in 1229. [Bản Kỷ, 4/34b, 5/1b-2a and 5/5a-b]

Shortly before he died, the Trần monarch sent one of his officials to visit Nộn. Nộn tried to show that he was still strong and healthy by eating and mounting his horse, but in the end he died.

Nguyễn Nộn had a Cham slave by the name of Phan Ma Lôi who was a fantastic warrior. After Nộn died, Phan Ma Lôi jumped on Nộn’s horse and raced off, never to be seen again.

The kingdom, meanwhile, became peaceful again.

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Nguyễn Nộn constituted a challenge to first Lý and then Trần Dynasty rule. From the perspective of a ruling dynasty, it was wise to bring such power under the court’s authority, and that appears to be exactly what the Trần did. In particular, someone appears to have created a story in order to erase Nguyễn Nộn from people’s memory and to re-write the history of what had actually happened.

We can see this in a fourteenth-century work known as the Brief Record of An Nam (An Nam chí lược). That text records the following information about a shrine in Phù Đổng village called “Soaring-to-HeavenTemple”:

“Within the domain there was internal unrest. Suddenly a person appeared with moral awe. The people all followed him. He thereupon led them to put down the unrest. Having done so, he flew away into the sky. He was called the Soaring-to-Heaven King. The people erected a shrine and made sacrifices to him.” [1/12a]

[昔境內亂,忽見一人有威德,民皆歸之,遂領眾平其亂,已而騰空去。號為沖天王,民乃立祠禮祀之。]

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The Brief Record of An Nam was compiled by Lê Tắc, a Vietnamese who submitted to the Yuan Dynasty army during the second Mongol invasion of 1285. This information about the Soaring-to-Heaven Temple should therefore represent the situation immediately prior to that time. What it indicates is that the spirit in Phù Đổng appears to have been transformed from a local spirit which supported the Buddhist religion to a spirit which put down internal unrest (nội loạn) on behalf of the central court.

One can imagine that after Nguyễn Nộn died, the Trần court would have wanted to prevent any other charismatic people from Phù Đổng from emulating him. Therefore, it appears that someone connected to the court created a new story about this spirit. What is interesting is that they took the image of Phan Ma Lôi (one of the participants in the revolt) riding away on his horse, and transformed that image into a symbol of the suppression of the revolt.

From Suppressing Internal Unrest to Fighting Northern Bandits for the Hùng Kings

At some point after this time yet another story was created. Starting at the time of the second Mongol invasion, the Trần added to the Heavenly King of Phù Đổng’s official title on three separate occasions, 1285, 1288 and 1313. [Vđult, 16a-16b] At perhaps the same time that the court was granting these titles, or perhaps later, a new story was created about this spirit, for the Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện) contains a different account of a spirit in Phù Đổng.

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Entitled the “Tale of the Heavenly King of Phù Đổng,” this account takes place in antiquity during the period when the Hùng kings were said to have ruled over the Red River delta. One of the Hùng kings did not perform the ritual of visiting the Shang Dynasty court in China. The Shang king planned to use the pretext of a royal tour of inspection to invade.

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When the Hùng king heard this, he summoned his officials and asked for advice. One suggested that he seek the assistance of the Dragon King, a reference to the mythical ruler, Lord Lạc Long. The Hùng king set up an altar and prayed for the Dragon King to appear. He finally did and informed the Hùng king that he must prepare for an attack from “Northern bandits” three years hence. In addition to preparing his soldiers, the Dragon King also stated that the Hùng king must seek out “a remarkable talent who has the ability to crush the bandits” and that this person should be granted a title and a hereditary fief.

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The Hùng king followed the Dragon King’s order and dispatched an emissary to fully search the realm. He arrived at PhùĐổngVillage where there was a three-year-old boy who could not speak. He could not even sit up. Upon hearing that the emissary had arrived, his mother jested to the son, “I gave birth to this boy, but all he can do is eat and drink. He cannot fight bandits and thereby receive the court’s reward to repay me breastfeeding him.” Hearing this, the boy angrily exclaimed, “Mother, call the emissary to come!” When the emissary arrived, the boy sat up and said said, “Quickly return and report to the king to forge an iron horse, 18 xích tall, a sword, seven xích long, an iron whip, and an iron helmet. I will mount the horse, wear the helmet, and engage in battle. The bandits will surely be frightened and defeated. What need is there for the king to worry?” While the emissary returned to report to the king, the boy ate massive quantities of food [rice?] and grew to become a giant. He thereupon led the Hùng king’s army to victory, after which he ascended to Heaven on his horse.

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This account in the Arrayed Tales concludes a long process whereby this spirit in Phù Đổng village was repeatedly brought under the authority of the elite. From the Thiền Masters Chí Thành and Đa Bảo to Lý Thái Tổ to the Trần court to perhaps some scholar-officials for the Trần or Lê dynasties, this spirit was made to submit and recognize higher powers.

Through these stories, meanwhile, “the folk” were told different things – support the Buddhist religion, do not rebel against the Trần Dynasty, fight against the Mongols, etc.

From the Supporter of a Dynastic House to the Spirit of a Nation

In the twentieth century there was yet another change. The information in the story of the spirit of Thánh Gióng did not change, but the way it was used did. Following the inspiration of Romantic nationalism, the ruling elite in Vietnam sought to use this story to create a sense of a (national) folk tradition that reflected the spirit of the people. According to this view, this spirit was the result of the common experience of all the people, both the rulers and the ruled, of uniting together against foreign aggression.

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The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century no doubt did have an impact on both the rulers and the ruled at that time, and this can explain why the story of Thánh Gióng that emerged after that time was about a person who fought off “Northern bandits.” But prior to that time the stories had been different. They were stories that put the rulers/elite in opposition to the ruled/commoners.

As for the real origin of this spirit, it perhaps did emerge from “the folk,” but today we have no idea what their understanding of this spirit was, as their views were suppressed and forced to change. The “real Thánh Gióng” was an earth spirit, and we know nothing about that spirit, nor do we know anything about “the folk” who worshipped it.