The story of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ is a very famous story in Vietnam today. In this story Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ marry and Âu Cơ gives birth to 100 eggs, all of which produce boys. 50 of the boys then follow their father into the sea, and 50 follow their mother into the mountains, where one of them becomes the first ruler of a kingdom called Văn Lang.
This tale first appeared in a larger story called “The Tale of the Hồng Bàng Clan” in a fifteenth-century text called the Lĩnh Nam chích quái. There are many other parts of this larger story that clearly came from, or were inspired by, information in extant texts. However, this story about the 100 eggs does not appear to have any textual precedent.
So where did it come from? Many twentieth-century scholars argued that it comes from the oral traditions of the Việt nationality (dân tộc) and that it was passed down orally for centuries until it was recorded in the fifteenth century.
Today I came across an account of a “100 egg story” that was recorded by French scholar Pierre Grossin in his 1926 work on the ethnic Mường people in Hòa Bình province, La Province Muong de Hoa-Binh.
This, according to Grossin, is how a Mường “100 egg story” began (My knowledge of French isn’t great – especially when it comes to verb tenses – but I think this translation is close.):
“The land was uninhabited. One day, a beautiful tree called ‘Si’ that stood up over the mountain, was blown over by a violent storm. From this fall were born two birds who made their nest in the ‘Hào’ cave which is today ‘Hang-Ma-Chung-Dien’ in Phu-Nhiên hamlet, Ngoc-Hào community, Gia-Vien district, Ninh-Binh province.
“They laid 100 eggs of which three were remarkable for their size and because they changed into humans. Thus were born ‘Ay’ and ‘Ua,’ the first people of the aboriginal race. Five months passed and none of the other eggs hatched. Desperate, Ay and Ua went into the forest. They met ‘Dam-Cu-Cha’ and ‘Gia-Cha-Giang’ and revealed their worries to them. ‘In layers of 50 eggs,’ advised the divine midwives, ‘place the eggs between thick beds of these marvelous herbs. Cover them with care. Every five days, change the layers of eggs. . . Place on the bottom the eggs that were on the top and vice versa. In fifty days, the one hundred eggs will hatch.’
“Ay and Ua had barely finished thanking the goddesses when they disappeared into the forest.
“On returning to their cave, Ay and Ua faithfully followed the advice of the fairies. 50 days later, 97 eggs hatched giving birth to different races; fifty to populate the delta and 47 the mountainous region. Thus were created the Muong, Mans, Méos, Tho-Dan, and Tho-Trang.”
“Race” is a Western concept, so it’s clear that there must be some differences in the way that Grossin recorded this story with the way it was understood among the Mường in Hòa Bình.
Nonetheless, what is interesting is that the core concept here – that there were 100 eggs and the people that hatched from them went in two main directions (towards the delta and towards the mountains) – is the same as the core concept in the Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ story.
So did one story inspire the other? Is this a common story of a single nationality?
This Mường story is similar to other oral stories in upland mainland Southeast Asia, namely the various “bottle gourd myths” which tell how different peoples came from different holes that were made in a gourd.
The “100 eggs story” that appears in “The Tale of the Hồng Bàng Clan,” however, is very different from these bottle gourd myths. First, it’s not meant to show how various groups of peoples emerged, as the bottle gourd myths are. And second, its symbolism is very Sinitic, with references to qi and yin/yang (the full story is here, 1/14a-1/14b)
So how do we explain the existence of this core concept in these two stories? My theory is that what we call “Vietnamese culture” was created by a Sinicized elite in roughly the tenth to fifteenth centuries and that it was created largely in opposition to the indigenous culture(s) of the Red River Delta region.
This Sinicized elite did not use bronze drums. They did not live in houses on stilts. And they stopped tattooing themselves.
At the same time, they took pieces of indigenous culture(s) and transformed them. The “Lao” story of the betel leaf and the areca nut was transformed into a tale that exemplified Confucian virtues. And the core concept in the 100 egg story of “the Mường” was transformed and incorporated into a Sinicized tale that described the orthodox succession (chính thống 正統) of political rule. (I put “Lao” and “Mường” in quotes because I don’t think that there were clearly defined groups of these peoples in the past – just communities of peoples who spoke varieties of the languages that we now refer to as Lao and Mường.)
The stories in a collection like the Lĩnh Nam chích quái are therefore not the oral tales of a nationality (dân tộc) but are the creations of an elite. That elite created its stories and its sense of identity in opposition to the culture(s) of many of the people they ruled over.
Over the course of the following centuries, as the common people came to follow more and more of the cultural ways of the elite, and came to learn the elite’s stories, the elite cultural creations of the tenth to fifteenth centuries became part of the world of commoners. Then with the advent of universal education in the twentieth century, that culture and its stories became core elements in the formation of a nationality.