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.
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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.