Vụ Tiên and Âu Cơ are Not Names, or How the Modern Vietnamese Language Distorts Vietnam’s Written Heritage

There is one name that I’ve never been sure how to translate. It appears at the beginning of the fifteenth-century Việt history, the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư).

The first chapter of that work consists of an imagined genealogy of political succession starting with the mythical (“Chinese”) ruler, Thần Nông/Shen Nong, and continuing on through such mythical (“Việt”) rulers as Kinh Dương Vương and Lạc Long Quân.

Much of the information in this chapter comes from another fifteenth-century work, but one of a different genre, the Arrayed Tales of Collected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện), a collection of medieval Việt “tales of the strange.” This information is therefore not “history,” but it was included in the Complete Book, an historical chronicle, and I suspect that this was done in an effort to create a “hallowed past” for the dynasty of the day, the Lê Dynasty.

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In any case, this imagined genealogy of political succession starts with Đế Minh/Diming, the son of Thần Nông/Shen Nong, journeying to the south where he “obtains” (tiếp đắc 接得) a woman who is referred to as “Vụ Tiên nữ” 婺僊女.

This is the name that is difficult to translate as it can be understood in various ways.

The first character, “vụ” 婺, doesn’t have a literal meaning. It is used in the name of a river and a star, etc., but the character itself does not have a meaning.

The other two characters, however, do have meanings. “Tiên” 僊 means “immortal,” and “nữ” 女 in classical Chinese texts can mean “female,” “unmarried girl” (a maiden) or “daughter.” Further, the compound “tiên nữ” 僊女 means “female immortal.”

As such, “Vụ Tiên nữ” can be translated in multiple ways from “Female Immortal Vụ” to the “Immortal Vụ’s daughter.”

When this mythical figure is written about in modern Vietnamese, however, she is referred to in a common way. In modern Vietnamese the first two characters, “Immortal Vụ” (Vụ Tiên), are treated as if they referred to an actual name, and therefore this mythical figure is referred to in such ways as “Lady Vụ Tiên” (nàng Vụ Tiên) or “Madam Vụ Tiên” (bà Vụ Tiên).

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In reading eighteenth-century scholar Ngô Thì Sĩ’s comments about this passage, I came to realize that he clearly saw the character “tiên” 僊 in this name as meaning “immortal,” and not as part of an actual name.

Ngô Thì Sĩ remarked that the “account of Đế Minh/Diming meeting Female Immortal Vụ who then gave birth to Kinh Dương is similar to the account in the History of the Wei with its proverb about Emperor Jiefen not having a wife or in-laws.”

The History of the Wei is a chronicle about the Tuoba Wei and their Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 CE). Like the Complete Book, the History of the Wei begins with an imagined an imagined genealogy of political succession, starting in this case with the mythical Yellow Emperor (Huang Di). It later mentions Emperor Jiefen.

Emperor Jiefen was a Tuoba Wei ruler who was in power near the end of the second century CE. The History of the Wei records that he met a “celestial woman” (thiên nữ 天女) and sired a child by her. This celestial woman gave Emperor Jiefen the boy and then left, and that is why he did not have “a wife or in-laws.” The boy, however, went on to become the next ruler.

tb

As such, what was similar here was that just as Emperor Jiefen met a “celestial woman” (thiên nữ 天女) who gave birth to his successor, so had Đế Minh/Diming met a “female immortal” (tiên nữ 僊女) who gave birth to his successor.

Therefore, if Ngô Thì Sĩ had to translate “Vụ Tiên nữ” into English, I’m certain that he would translate it as “Female Immortal Vụ” and not as “Lady Vụ Tiên” (nàng Vụ Tiên) as it is often translated in modern Vietnamese.

“Tiên” (immortal) was meant to be part of her title – tiên nữ (female immortal) – and not part of a given name.

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The same goes for the other mythical figures in this imagined genealogy of political succession:

“Female Immortal” Vụ (Vụ tiên nữ 婺僊女) gave birth to “King” Kinh Dương (Kinh Dương vương 涇陽王).

“King” Kinh Dương married the daughter of “Lord” Động Đình (Động Đình quân 洞庭君), who gave birth to “Lord” Lạc Long (Lạc Long quân 貉龍君), who married “Consort” Âu (Âu cơ 嫗姬), who was originally the wife of a “Northern” emperor, Đế Lai/Di Lai (帝來).

According to the story, Consort Âu was originally the wife of a “Northern” emperor, Đế Lai/Di Lai (帝來). While this story is invented, the term “cơ” 姬 was actually used in antiquity, particularly during the Zhou Dynasty era, as a title for the wives/concubines of rulers.

Therefore, tiên nữ (female immortal), vương (king), quân (lord) and cơ (consort) are all titles, and they are of course all Sinitic titles as well.

However, today many of these titles are treated as part of Việt “names.”

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This is one of the countless ways that the transition from classical Chinese to modern Vietnamese has changed/distorted the way Vietnamese understand their written heritage, and by extension, how Vietnamese understand themselves.

While this might seem like a small point, I would argue, to the contrary, that it is significant. There is a big difference between seeing someone as “Lady Âu Cơ” (nàng Âu Cơ) and as “Consort Âu” (Âu cơ), with all that these differences imply.

That said, this distortion has been good for the fashion world and beauty contests, so. . . I guess it doesn’t really matter.

11 thoughts on “Vụ Tiên and Âu Cơ are Not Names, or How the Modern Vietnamese Language Distorts Vietnam’s Written Heritage

  1. … “King” Kinh Dương married the daughter of “Lord” Động Đình (Động Đình quân 洞庭君), who gave birth to “Lord” Lạc Long (Lạc Long quân 貉龍君) …
    This[ 貉 ] word does not have the sound LẠC, according to the Khang Hi dictionary , it sounded like this
    貉《集韻》《韻會》《正韻》𠀤曷各切,音鶴 ( HẠC )。本作貈。又《廣韻》下各切,音涸 ( HẠC )。義同。又《唐韻》《集韻》《韻會》𠀤莫白切,音陌 ( MẠCH )。又《集韻》末各切,音莫 ( MẠC )。又《集韻》《正韻》𠀤莫駕切。同禡 ( MẠ )。

    1. Yes, you are exactly right!! I wrote about this many years ago:
      https://leminhkhai.wordpress.com/2010/05/24/why-is-l%E1%BA%A1c-long-quan-%E2%80%9Cl%E1%BA%A1c%E2%80%9D-long-quan/

      I’ve had Vietnamese tell me, “oh, that’s just the way that Vietnamese pronounce that character,” and that appears to be true, because, for instance when this French book was published in the 1860s (Legrand de la Liraye, Théophile Marie. N.d. Notes historiques sur la nation Annamite [Historical Notes on the Annamite Nation]) it Romanized this name instead of using characters, and it Romanized it as “Lạc lung.”

      The important point, however, is that the “lạc” in “Lạc Long Quân” is not the same as the “lạc” in “Lạc Việt.” This is something that I think most people don’t know, and because these words look the same in modern Vietnamese, people imagine some deep connection and significance between these terms. . .

      1. … The important point, however, is that the “lạc” in “Lạc Long Quân” is not the same as the “lạc” in “Lạc Việt.” …

        Theo thiển ý , danh hiệu 貉龍( 君) này là do người Việt dùng để fonetic tiếng H’ROONG ( K’ROONG …) trong tiếng Việt cổ phản ánh nguồn gốc SÔNG, NƯỚC của dòng họ 鴻龐 ( Hồng Bàng ( Long ).

        Chữ 龐 này , theo Khang Hi Tự Điển , ngoài âm Hán Việt là ” BÀNG ” ra , nó cũng còn có âm là ” LONG ” . ( 《集韻》力鍾切《韻會》《正韻》盧容切,𠀤音龍》 ) .

        Cũng đã có người cho rằng 雒, 駱 trong tên gọi Lạc vương là fonetic của tiếng RÁC , ĐÁC ( = sông , nước ) trong tiếng Việt cổ , tiéng Mường .

  2. _ I would translate ” Vụ tiên nữ 婺僊女” as ” woman from Vụ tiên star ”
    _ Động Đình in Động Đình quân is probably the name of the lake Động Đình ; so Động Đình quân means king of the famous Lake Dongting https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dongting_Lake
    _ 龐 bàng is also pronounced long , it then means full , not dragon
    _ the character 嫗 is pronounced ẩu , rather than âu ; it ‘s the same with the legendary woman warrior Bà Triệu , also called Triệu ẩu
    _ ẩu means basically older mother and Âu cơ = respectable older mother

  3. Thanks for pointing out that I missed the dấu hỏi. I am going blind. . .

    Yes, ẩu means “mother,” but cơ does not mean “respectable.” Yes, it has a positive meaning, but this is what the Kangxi Dictionary says it was used for: 一曰王妻別名。一曰衆妾總稱。1) Another name for the king’s wife, 2) a collective name for all of the concubines. Đế Lai was a king/emperor. For someone creating a story about his wife, it makes perfect sense that he would use a title in her name.

    As for Vụ tiên nữ 婺僊女 being “woman from Vụ tiên star,” first of all there is no “Vụ tiên” star. In antiquity the Chinese referred to one star as 婺女 Vụ nữ, which is the equivalent of something that is today referred to as in Chinese as the Girl Mansion:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girl_%28Chinese_constellation%29

    I think Đào Duy Anh may have been the person who first argued that we should see the 婺 Vụ as signifying that star, which is far to the north of Vietnam today, as is Lake Dongting. But Đào Duy Anh was influenced by Western ideas that every “people” or “nation” has deep “cultural memory.” And he was influenced by the ideas of Chauvannes and Aurousseau that the Việt had migrated into the Red River Delta from areas far to the north. He therefore tried to argue that the Việt originally came from the area around the Yangzi River, and in particular, the areas that are recorded in ancient Chinese sources as the regions of Kinh 荊 and Dương 揚. From there, the Việt migrated southward, and eventually the recorded “their stories.” When they did so, they wrote about King Kinh Dương, “their ruler” when they had lived around Lake Dongting, but since they didn’t know how to write way back then, when thousands of years later they finally wrote about that information, they mistakenly wrote Kinh Dương as 涇陽.

    I don’t think that anyone believes that the people in the Red River Delta migrated there from the Yangzi River area, but people still believe that there is some “cultural memory” that we can see in stories about “the Lord of [Lake] Dongting] and in the 婺女 Vụ nữ star.

    People like Ngô Sĩ Liên and Ngô Thì Sĩ certainly didn’t see anything like that in those stories, but “Westernized” Vietnamese like Đào Duy Anh did (he might have been conservative but he was exposed to all of the new ideas that Vietnamese were introduced to from the West in the twentieth century).

    So who is more believable? A Vietnamese or a Westernized Vietnamese? 🙂

    1. Wait, now I’m really confused. I’m not going blind. Everyone writes “Âu Cơ,” but you are right, 嫗 is pronounced “Ẩu.” So why has Ẩu Cơ become Âu Cơ?

      It’s also pronounced “ủ” and I recall seeing something that Trương Vĩnh Ký wrote where he referred to her as Ủ Cơ.

      1. Wikipedia tiếng Việt also mentions Âu Cơ https://vi.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%82u_C%C6%A1
        How does Ẩu Cơ become Âu Cơ? Partly it’s simple mis- reading ; âu is more broadly seen : Âu Lạc , Âu châu ( âu in “Âu châu” is also pronounced ẩu ) .
        Another example , king Tự Đức’s mother ‘s name is Từ Dụ 慈裕
        but VN people usually called her Từ Dũ
        Maybe it’s also due to lack of knowledge of Han characters
        Besides the evils of quôc ngu , have the evils of Han characters suppression been explored ?

    1. Also , 嫗 ẩu in Ẩu Cơ do not sound nice , so people smooth out the accent .Ẩu have other ” bad ” meanings : 毆 ẩu = strike , fight ; 嘔 ẩu= vomit ;
      ẩu in non-Han Nôm vocabulary = careless , loose , ….

      1. Great point!! Yes, it this also shows again that these are not stories that were “passed down by the people.” They are elite stories that were written by the elite. Because I don’t think you get that same sense when you look at a Chinese character.

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