I recently wrote about a spirit in Phù Đổng village known 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). This is supposedly the spirit of a boy who grew into a kind of giant and then led troops to fight off an Yin/Ân Dynasty (a.k.a. the Shang Dynasty, 1600-1050 BC) army that was invading the Red River Delta region.
There is a problem with this story, and that is that our earliest record of this information comes from a text that was compiled in the fifteenth century, over 2,500 years after the time period it discusses.
While there are many reasons why we should view this story as having been created in the fifteenth century or at some point not long before that, there are some scholars who believe that it might be possible that at least some aspects of this story were passed down orally from that earlier time.
In other words, scholars have looked at this text and argued that some of it might originate with “the people” and that this information was passed down orally by “the people.”
In the early twentieth century, “the French” (I’m not sure who exactly) sent some people to villages like Phù Đổng to record information about the festivals that were held there and about the spirits that were worshipped.
In talking about the festival to honor Thánh Gióng these people recorded that 28 young women were chosen to represent the 28 female generals in the Yin/Ân army that attacked “Nam Việt.”
This information about 28 female generals is not recorded in any historical source that I am aware of. This record here also says that it took place in the past during the time of King Hui 暉王. I don’t know who this is referring to. There was a King Hui of the Zhou 周惠王 (676–652 BC) but that “Hui” used a different character.
In any case, 28 unmarried young women between the ages of 15 and 20 were chosen to represent the 28 female generals of the Yin/Ân army, and in the festival dedicated to Thánh Gióng, these women proceeded to his altar and paid their respects to him.
I have never seen historians include this information in their writings about the ancient history of Vietnam, and I don’t understand why this is the case.
This information about the 28 female generals clearly came from “the people.” If we are going to believe that some information could get passed down orally for one or two thousand years and get recorded in a text in the fifteenth century, why shouldn’t we also believe that some information did not get recorded at that time, but continued to be passed down until it was finally written down in the early twentieth century?
There seems to be a contradiction here. Historians want to accept problematic information in a fifteenth century text by saying that it comes from “the people,” but at the same time they don’t use equally problematic information that actually comes from “the people.”
What is the logic here? I think the logic is that historians decide what they want to say first, and then they look for information that supports what they want to say. If some of that information is problematic (i.e., it was written down 1,500 or 2,500 years after the time it refers to) then scholars find a way to justify using it (“it comes from the people”). But at the same time they dismiss similar types of information if that information doesn’t fit what they want to say.
Historians in Vietnam want to see a continuous history of unity and resistance to “foreign aggression.” 28 female generals don’t seem very “aggressive,” but a boy who grows into a giant and rides a horse of steel. . . that’s perfect!!