Vietnamese music expert and blogger Tây Bụi just drew my attention back to a topic that I have been thinking about for a long time now – Where does the word “huyền thoại” (and the related term, “huyền sử” – for more on “huyền sử” see this video and this video) come from?
What does this term mean? Well, “huyền” means “dark” or “obscure” and “thoại” can mean “talk” or “tale,” but when they are combined together they create a compound that means. . . Well, that’s the problem. I can’t figure out what it means.
Go to the popular online Vietnamese dictionary vdict.com and search for “huyền thoại” under “Vietnamese-English.” You will see that it is glossed as “legend, myth.”
Then go and search for “myth” and “legend” under “English-Vietnamese” and you will get “thần thoại” and “truyện cổ tích,” respectively.
That’s strange! If “huyền thoại” means “myth” or “legend,” then why aren’t those two terms glossed as “huyền thoại” in Vietnamese?
Today I spent some time looking at all kinds of dictionaries (Vietnamese-Vietnamese dictionaries, Vietnamese-English Dictionaries, French-Vietnamese dictionaries, English-Vietnamese dictionaries) from the various parts/periods of the Vietnamese world (colonial Vietnam, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the diaspora and the Socialist Democratic of Vietnam [hereafter, SRV]) and I cannot find “huyền thoại” in any dictionary before the 1990s.
I have a 1996 edition of a Vietnamese-Vietnamese dictionary that was created by the Center for Dictionary Studies in Hanoi (Từ điển tiếng Việt), and Tây Bụi consulted a 1994 version of that same dictionary. They both contain this term and explain it as “story that is obscure [huyền hoặc], strange, and entirely the product of imagination; a myth [thần thoại]” (câu chuyện huyền hoặc, kì lạ, hoàn toàn do tưởng tượng; thần thoại).
Meanwhile, the term also appears in a dictionary that Nguyễn Đình Hòa published in the US in 1995 (NTC’s Vietnamese-English Dictionary). That dictionary contains a “supplement,” that is, a section at the end where Nguyễn Đình Hòa added new words that he had come across that he had not included in the main part of the dictionary. “Huyền thoại” appeared in the supplement, and it was glossed simply as “myth.”
Finally, to take the story a little further, Tây Bụi found a definition of “huyền thoại” in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Vietnam (Từ điển Bách khoa Việt Nam) published in 2002 that explains this term as “a story that is obscure, mysterious, and is invented from imagination. Huyền thoại often talk about spirits, supernatural people and extraordinary actions, are connected to some degree with history, [but] most do not have a basis in reality” (chuyện huyền hoặc, thần bí, do trí tưởng tượng hư cấu. Huyền thoại thường kể về các vị thần linh, các nhân vật siêu phàm, những hành động kì vĩ, gắn ít nhiều với lịch sử, phần lớn không có cơ sở thực tế).
What an obscure definition! Huyền thọai “are connected to some degree with history, [but] most do not have a basis in reality.” What on earth does that mean?
This is a very imprecise definition, and its imprecision becomes particularly evident when one looks at the definitions of “myth” and “legend” in a source like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Here is how the OED defines “myth”:
“A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.”
So here the connection to history and reality is clear. It is an imagined story, but it is used to explain some phenomenon that is larger than the content of the story itself.
An historian can therefore examine myths and try to understand what that larger phenomenon is (and there are countless scholars who have done this for myths from around the world).
As for “legend,” the main meaning in English is “the story of the life of a Saint,” but there is another meaning that comes closer to what seems to be indicated by the term “huyền thoại.” To quote,
“An unauthentic or non-historical story, esp. one handed down by tradition from early times and popularly regarded as historical.”
Here again, the relationship with history is clear. A legend is not actual history, but it is something that is “popularly regarded as historical.”
Therefore, an historian can examine a legend and can demonstrate what is not authentic about it, and can use that information to talk about why people might have created the legend and why people believe the legend even though it is not true.
In other words, what both of these definitions show is that myths and legends can be analyzed and understood by historians. They are not some “obscure” topic that one cannot examine and come to a convincing explanation about.
This, however, is not the case with “huyền thọai.” How, after all, can an historian understand something that is “connected to some degree with history” but which does “not have a basis in reality”?
While I am picking on this one definition, I am doing so because I have read and heard many Vietnamese scholars use this concept of “huyền thọai” or “huyền sử” to essentially not have to make any point about the past. – “Oh, it’s huyền thọai/huyền sử. Nothing can be known for sure.” (Không biết được.)
Well, one thing that we can know for sure is that this concept of “huyền thọai” first started to get documented in the 1990s. It obviously must have been in circulation before that point, but where? When?
A quick search for the term “huyền thoại” in my local library reveals only one title from the 1960s: Nguyễn Văn Trung’s French Colonialism in Vietnam: Reality and Myths (Chủ nghĩa thực dân Pháp ở Việt Nam thực chất và huyền thoại), published in Saigon in 1963.
Then in the 1970s there are a couple of literary works from South Vietnam.
In the 1980s there are works that were published in America, like Kim Vinh Phạm’s The Liberation of Vietnam: Myth, Reality and Hope (Giải phóng Việt Nam: huyền thoại, thực tại và hi vọng).
In other words, it’s clear that up until 1990, “huyền thoại” was a term used by South Vietnamese and then South Vietnamese in the diaspora.
In the 1990s, however, this started to change, as works started to be published in the SRV that used the term “huyền thoại”
By the 2000s, many works were getting published in the SRV that employed the term “huyền thoại” (my library lists 143 such titles).
So what happened here?
Tây Bụi discusses a song from South Vietnam in the early 1970s called “Legend/Myth of a Girl” (Huyền thoại người con gái).
This was apparently the first pre-1975 song from South Vietnam to be approved by the government of the SRV for performance.
That approval came in 1991.
Although I need to document this more clearly, Kim Đình’s concept of “huyền sử” also seems to have started to “make a comeback” around that time.
So there is something about the “re-emergence” of the South at that time, but I think it is also probably related to what some scholars have referred to as “late Socialism” or “the late Socialist moment.”
The gist of this idea is that as the Soviet Union fell, and most of the various remaining Socialist countries started to transform their economies from command economies to market economies, the ideological tenets that regimes were based on not longer “had a basis in reality.”
As that happened, there was a “turn to tradition” and an accompanying “re-enchantment” of reality. Temples and churches were renovated, spirits were venerated, etc.
This, scholars argue, was motivated by a sense of uncertainty. After decades of living in a world which was based on a clear ideological divide, how could the people in Socialist countries now open their doors to a world that they had long opposed? How would this change their societies? Would it destroy everything? What should people do?
Well in this uncertain setting, the past seemed like a good resource to rely on to gain a sense of strength and stability. After all, if the nation had existed since antiquity, certainly the nation could survive through the present changes.
But wait, was there actually a nation in antiquity? Wasn’t that all a bunch of myths? How could that be used to strengthen society in this new age?
Hence the appeal of terms like “huyền thoại” and “huyền sử.” While there had been terms that had been used for decades in Vietnam to refer to the Western concepts of “myths” (thần thoại) and “legends” (cổ tích, truyền thuyết), these new terms which had probably never really caught on in South Vietnam (and hence, never appeared in a dictionary there), and which had not been used since 1975, now provided the opportunity to create a new concept.
Indeed, Kim Đình’s concept of “huyền sử” (obscure history) really provided the model for this. It was real but not real. It was malleable. One could use it as one wished, because “nothing can be known for sure.”
I therefore find this term “huyền thoại” to be filled with historical significance. It is a term that emerged in South Vietnam in the 1960s, went overseas in 1975, “went back” in the early 1990s, and was then transformed to enable Vietnamese to cope with the uncertainties of a changing world.
In so doing, this term also freed Vietnamese scholars from the need to look critically at the origins of their society, a topic that was now being used to strengthen the nation in the absence of ideology. After all, it all was just “huyền thoại” and “huyền sử.” Không biết được.
In other words, unlike in the English speaking world, where “myths” and “legends” could be clearly examined and analyzed in various ways by historians, “huyền thoại” and “huyền sử,” by their very nature as stories that “are connected to some degree with history, [but] most do not have a basis in reality” could not.
They were too obscure.