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Doan thi Diem's 'Story of the Van Cat Goddess' as a story of emancipation.


This paper is an approach to studying the issue of emancipation in Van Cat Than Nu Truyen (Story of the Van Cat Goddess), written in the 1730s in Han (classical Chinese pronounced in Vietnamese) by Doan thi Diem, a female Vietnamese writer. The story is about one of the main spirits of Vietnamese popular religion, Princess Lieu Hanh. She is one of the Four Immortals, considered 'as a symbol of the ability to survive, of the indomitability of the nation and the country from antiquity through the present.' (2) At the same time, Lieu Hanh is a leading figure in the pantheon of the Mothers, spirits who act as patronesses and protectors. Her cult, which is believed to have originated in the sixteenth century, has experienced a significant revival during the past decade, especially in northern Vietnam.

Doan thj Diem's story about Lieu Hanh attracted my attention for two reasons. First, according to some Vietnamese scholars, it is 'the earliest and the fullest story' of this famous deity. (3) Secondly, it was written by an acclaimed woman author, which is significant since there were only a few such figures in traditional Vietnamese literature, and they were particularly rare in the eighteenth century when Van Cat Than Nu' Truyen was produced. Furthermore, this is a story written by one woman about another woman, which may be particularly important for understanding the author's perspective. Although this text has been taken as an authoritative account of the goddess Lieu Hanh by some later writers and scholars, I argue that it is fiction, based on the cult of the Princess Lieu Hanh existing at that time but with a strong resemblance to Doan thi Diem's own life, and that it expresses the critical attitude of an educated woman towards the society of her time.

The article will first introduce Doan thi Diem and various considerations arising from what is known about her life. We will then turn to Van Cat Than Nu Truyen, a story about the goddess Lieu Hanh, summarising the story and analysing it to apprehend the message conveyed by its form and content and to show the points of contact between the lives of Lieu Hanh and Diem herself. I want to suggest that Diem took a genie from popular religion and wrote her into a literary figure exemplifying an emancipated woman in a society dominated by Confucian moral principles, a woman who could successfully compete with men in her mastery of literary production.

The historicity of Lieu Hanh's cult is beyond the scope of this article; it need only be stated that Doan thi Diam did not invent the goddess, whose cult can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century. Allegedly she was a real person who appeared in Thien Ban district (modern Vu Ban) in the northern province of Nam Dinh, was deified after her death and eventually came to head the pantheon of the Mothers, a cult which became very widespread in the north. The author took information available to her about Lieu Hanh to tell a story, not about religion, but about the place of an educated woman in society. In the process, she purified and apparently transformed existing versions of the legends.

Doan thi Diem's story, in turn, became the best-known and most popular account of the goddess Lieu Hanh, later serving as a basis and inspiration for numerous legends, stories and biographies. Oral traditions about the goddess which are current among Vietnamese today are in fact derived from Doan thi Diem's story, as are most of the written sources. The two most important versions are found in Truyen Ky Tdn Pha (New collection of marvelous stories) by Doan thi Diem and Tien Tu' Pha Ky, a seventeenth-century genealogical register of the Tran-Le clan. (4) Dang Van Lung observes that:

Generally speaking, all the books acknowledge the earliest book describing the story/history (su' tich) of Mother Lieu as being that of ... Doan thi Diem ... After Doan thi Diem a lot of people described the origins of the Mother in Nom [vernacular Vietnamese] poetry ... As for the plot, in general all the manuscripts are similar to each other, but some details are added. (5)

The author

Doan thi Diem was born in Giai Pham village, Van Giang district (in modern Hung Yen province) in 1705, but was raised by her mother's family in the village of Vu Dien, now in Nam Sang district in Nam Dinh. (6) Her father, Doan Doan Nghi, failing to pass the provincial examination, came back home and established a school and medical practice. He had two children: a son, Doan Doan Luan, who was the elder, and Doan thi Diem. Despite being a girl, Diem studied with her brother. When she was sixteen, she was given as an adopted daughter to her father's friend, the high-ranking mandarin Le Anh Tuan, who later wanted to send her to the Trinh court. However, she did not agree with this arrangement and preferred to go back home. In both Le Anh Tuan's house and her own family she was in contact with contemporary intellectuals. She was a beautiful and well-educated young lady, and many men sought her in marriage, but she invariably refused, considering them all unsuitable for her intellectual level. Doan thi Diem 'used to say frequently with good reason that it would be better not to get married at all than to unite with a person to whom she felt no affinity'. (7) Not finding a suitable partner, she stayed single.

In 1729, when Diem was twenty-four-years old, her father died; not long after this, her brother passed away, leaving her responsible for his two children and his seriously ill wife. She had a medical practice and taught children in order to support her brother's family and her aged mother, but she also continued her studies. Later she accepted a suggestion to become a private tutor in the royal palace, but after some time she returned home and opened a school. Diem only married in 1742, at the age of thirty-seven. Her husband was Nguyen Kieu, a scholar and official with whom she apparently found an intellectual union, but, almost immediately after the wedding, he left for three years in China to fulfill his official duties while she remained in Vietnam. After his return, he was appointed to serve in the administration of Nghe An province, and Diem followed him. She died there, childless, in 1748 at the age of forty-four. (8)

Doan thi Diem wrote Van Cat Than Nu' Truyen in the 1730s, while teaching in her home village prior to her marriage. The story is included in her anthology entitled Truyen Ky Tan Pha. She wrote at a time when Vietnamese literature was entering a new phase of its development. There were many educated 'free-lance' literati, some from poor families, who were without government appointments and, like Diem's father, survived by practising medicine and teaching. These people produced an open intellectual environment opposed to Confucian ideology, and they wrote with great interest about the lives of individuals and personal feelings. They borrowed plots for their stories from folklore and from the lives of poor people to challenge Confucianism, though not directly. (9) Doan thi Diem's story became one of the most famous literary pieces of that time.

Van Cat Than Nu Truyen

First I will concisely present Doan thi Diem's story of Lieu Hanh. (10) For convenience of discussion, the story is divided into thirteen parts, twelve of which function in the analysis as pairs (indicated by Roman numerals) and one of which serves as a transformative turn at the centre of the story (indicated by the letter T).

I. In Van Cat village, Thien Ban district, lived a righteous man, Le Thai Cong, who constantly prayed to Buddha and burned incense. He had one son. In the Thien Huu reign period (c. 1556-7), his pregnant wife passed beyond the term for delivery. She fell seriously ill and could not eat or drink anything, but she enjoyed the aroma of joss-sticks. Despite the efforts of magicians, her illness grew worse. One day a strange man appeared, claiming that he could make the woman quickly give birth, but the gatekeeper refused him entry. Thai Cong heard of it and hurried to invite him in. The man was a Daoist and had a jade hammer in his sleeve. He threw it down, and Thai Cong immediately fell unconscious.

II. In a dream, Thai Cong, with a giant assigned to accompany him, arrived at the Heavenly Palace of the Jade Emperor (the supreme deity of Daoism). There he saw a young lady, second in the ranks of the Heavenly Palace, who dropped and broke a jade offering cup while presenting it to the Emperor. For this, the Emperor ordered her expelled from the Palace to the Earth, and the giant explained to Thai Cong that 'this time she surely will be expelled from Heaven'.

III. When Thai Cong regained consciousness, his wife delivered a daughter. That night the incense was unusually fragrant in the house. Thai Cong concluded that his dream signified that a heavenly fairy was born, so he gave her the name 'Giang Tien' (Fairy who came down). She grew up to be very beautiful; she liked to read books, play the flute and compose poetry, which she sang. One day, Thai Cong realised that the songs of his daughter had become very sad, and he understood that it was her time for love. He gave her as an adopted daughter to a retired mandarin who resided in Van Cat. In his garden she met a student named Dao Lang, who was this mandarin's adopted son. He proposed and the parents agreed to their marriage. After three years of happy life and giving birth to two children, Giang Tien died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, without any apparent cause. The family grieved.

IV. The fairy ascended to Heaven, but there she still felt very much connected to her earthly fate; she was sad, and other fairies, feeling compassion for her, persuaded the Jade Emperor to let her go back. Before her departure, the Emperor conferred upon her the title of Princess Lieu Hanh.

V. She came back to her village, exactly on the second anniversary of her death, and found her parents, brother and adopted father grieving her death. Lieu Hanh explained to them that she was a fairy and her place was in the Heavenly Palace, and she came because she missed them, but she was not able to stay with them, since her spirit was no longer bound to the earth. But she promised that they would reunite in the future because her parents had merit and their names were registered in the Heavenly Book of Fate.

After that, Lieu Hanh visited the capital, where her husband had moved with their children. He lived alone, had quit all his studies, and was depressed. Lieu Hanh explained to him that she was a fairy and their earthly love was predestined, so he should not feel so unhappy, for they would reunite later. She admonished him to recall his duty towards her parents and his adopted father, to strive for self-improvement and to manage his household affairs. After spending a part of the night with him, she disappeared. The only traces of her were the clouds in the sky.

Later she disguised herself, sometimes as an old woman and sometimes as a beautiful young lady playing the flute under the moon. Those who tried to tease her were punished with disasters, while those who made offerings to her received her benediction. People offered her silver and silk, which she gave to her parents. Eventually they died, as did her adoptive parents and her husband, and the children grew up. Nothing connected her to the Earth anymore, and she began wondering all over the country in search of beautiful landscapes.

VI. Once she happened to be in a desolate place in Lang Son province, where she visited a temple and sat down to sing her songs. Phung Khac Khoan, a famous scholar," appeared, and was deeply impressed by her poetic abilities, but at the moment he wanted to express his appreciation, Lieu Hanh disappeared without a trace. Nothing but a stick remained behind with two tablets on which were inscribed some characters, which only Phung Khac Khoan could interpret. The characters of the first tablet meant 'the Princess Lieu Hanh'; those of the second tablet meant that someone from the Phung family would repair the temple.

T. After that time the Princess's whereabouts were not clear, but traces of her were seen at scenic spots all over the country. Later, longing for noisy places, she came back to the capital.

VII. Phung Khac Khoan was then in the capital, having just returned from a mission to China; he had just assumed a high position in one of the Ministries and considered it a burden compared with a peaceful life in the countryside. Once, trying to find solace for his spirit, he invited two friends, from the Ngo and Ly families, to join him for a stroll and to drink wine. While walking and composing poems, they found themselves at West Lake in front of a tavern whose proprietress happened to be Lieu Hanh. While having their meal, they had an opportunity to esteem not only her abilities to compose parallel poems, but also her wisdom in explaining the words of a strange fishermen, apparently a giant, 'with his legs on the ground and his head in the sky', who appeared near the tavern and left three fish. In the evening, the three men went back home by moonlight. Later they returned to this place, but saw only the water of the lake, with no trace of the tavern where they had once been. Then Phung Khac Khoan told hi s two young friends about his meeting with a fairy in Lang Son while on his way to China. All three wished for an opportunity to see the fairy again.

VIII. As for the Princess, after she left West Lake, she appeared in Nghe An province, where she met a poor, young orphaned student named Sinh, whom she identified as a reincarnation of her late husband Dao Lang. Not revealing her identity, Lieu Hanh tried to persuade him to let her stay for a night at his home, but keeping his integrity and virtue, he rejected her request. Several days later, the student saw a piece of flower-filigreed paper on a peach tree with a verse which he found splendid and hardly resembling anything written by human beings. He immediately composed his own verse as an answer to what he had just read and inscribed it near the first one. But from this time on he began to desperately long for the woman who he thought was the author of the poem. He looked and waited for her, but in vain.

One day, while walking after a long period of rain, he heard a female voice greet him from afar. Happily, the student admitted how much he missed her during since their first meeting, and the woman told him her story. She said that she was also an orphan, who avoided people because they teased her, and she admitted that she at once recognised in him a refined Confucian scholar and felt very attached to him. When he suggested finding a matchmaker, she declined this suggestion, insisting on a marriage without any formalities. They went home together and became engaged under the moon. They respected and loved each other; the fairy admonished her husband, who had quit his studies in order not to be separated from his wife, to resume them and become not just a scholar, pleasing his vanity, but an official to help other people. He agreed with her arguments. In a year she gave birth to a son; the husband successfully passed an examination and was appointed to the Imperial Academy. One day, however, the Princess burs t into tears. She explained to her husband that she was a fairy who had broken a jade cup and been expelled from Heaven; now the period of her punishment was over and she should go back to Heaven even though it made her sad. After her departure, her husband became very depressed, and not seeing any further purpose in being an official, retired to a remote desolate place. There he raised his child and never married again, putting all his spirit into poetry.

IX. The Princess, having returned to Heaven, missed her eternal love, and she persuaded the Jade Emperor to let her go back to Earth.

X. Accompanied by two other fairies, Que and Thi, she reached Pho Cat village in Thanh Hoa province.

XI. The Princess was awe-inspiringly powerful: good people received blessings, ferocious people were punished with disasters. Seeing this, the people of the region were frightened and built a temple to pray to her. In the Canh Tri reign period (1661-71), the dynasty heard rumours about her, thought that she was an evil spirit, and ordered the army to go with magicians to suppress her. The temple was reduced to ashes. It was not the king's army that overcame the Princess, but the magicians' tricks, which turned out to be more powerful than she was.

Soon the region was affected by an epidemic that wiped out all the flocks and herds. The people in this region were in a state of panic and erected a platform to make offerings. The Princess appeared on the platform, declared that she was a fairy, and told the people to ask the dynasty to build a new temple. Only then would she eliminate calamities, ward off misfortunes and bring blessings; otherwise, nobody would survive in the region.

XII. The dynasty acknowledged her as 'linh dj' (supernatural and extraordinary), conferring upon her the title Ma Hoang Cong Chua (Golden Princess to whom sacrifices are made as to the God of the War), and ordered that a new temple be built on Pho Cat Mountain. Furthermore, when the king's army went to suppress an enemy, the Princess helped in the fighting. The dynasty conferred upon her one more honorific title Che Thang Hoa Dieu Dai Vuong (Great King who grants victory and peace) and wrote her name in the annals. Since then all the kings have raised statues of her and built many temples to worship the Princess.


The first section, Parts I through VI, tells of Lieu Hanh's earthly incarnation up through her first encounter with Phung Khac Khoan, the pre-eminent intellectual of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The second section, Parts VII-XII, relates her second encounter with Phung Khac Khoan and her later incarnations until she was recognised by the earthly powers as a goddess. The sections are connected by the part designated by a 'T', which contains the 'turn' or 'hinge' in the story that I believe holds the key for revealing the meaning of the plot's development. This 'turn', appearing between her first and second encounters with Phung Khac Khoan, reveals the 'freedom' or 'free spirit' that an educated woman might and should acquire in establishing intellectual and social equality with educated men.

The inner structure of the story contributes to its content. It is semantically parallel and reminiscent of Vietnamese parallel sentences (cau doi), each component of which has its own value and sense that cannot be fully understood until we read the parallel component and consider both as a whole. Parallel pairs in the text are as follows: I-XII, II-XI, III-X, IV-IX, V-VIII and VI-VII. Each pair is not only a step in the development of the plot, but also constitutes a separate and complete segment in its own right, reflecting a particular aspect of the evolution of Lieu Hanh.

The structure of the story produces pairs in inverse order, moving from the beginning and the end of the story towards its climax and explanation point at the center. My analysis can be briefly summarised as follows.

Pair I-XII (Lieu Hanh is unknown on earth -- recognition of Lieu Hanh by the dynasty and people as a goddess). This pair serves as a framework for the whole story. Part I, the beginning, shows us the world before Lieu Hanh came down to Earth: people prayed to the Buddha, though Daoism was also popular. The closure, in Part XII, reveals how Lieu Hanh altered the world: people still pray, but now they pray to her. If Part I does not present any evidence of Lieu Hanh's impact on or intervention in earthly affairs, Part XII witnesses her active role in the world, which forced people to recognise her as a deity. This intensification of her role can be clearly traced in all the other pairs. Thus, this pair witnesses the transformation in Lieu Hanh's cosmological position from an unknown fairy in Heaven to a mighty deity to whom people prayed.

Pair II-XI (Lieu Hanh's misdeeds in the Heavenly Palace and her misdeeds on Earth, in Thanh Hoa province). Part II presents Lieu Hanh as a fairy in the Heavenly Palace who apparently was not very obedient or careful, and it tells of her dropping a jade cup, which exhausted the Jade Emperor's patience so that he expelled her to Earth. The words of Thai Cong's guide explaining what was happening -- 'This time she surely will be expelled from Heaven' -- suggest that it was not her first misdeed there. Her previous misdemeanors were perhaps not serious, and even breaking the cup did not bring a dire punishment, but only twenty-one years of exile on Earth -- hardly a long time, considering that fairies are immortal. Part XI suggests that in Thanh Hoa her misdeeds were more serious and cruel, which caused the ruling dynasty to seek to eradicate her and her temples, which appears to be a punishment equivalent to more serious misdeeds than mere exile to Earth for a broken cup.

In both cases, however, her punishment proved to be a kind of reward. In the first case, she so enjoyed being on Earth that she could no longer separate herself from earthly life and her role is passive as a subject of punishment for the accidental breaking of the cup. In the second case, however, she deliberately forced people to rebuild her temples and to recognise her as a deity and thus her actions in Thanh Hoa led to the reward of official recognition and a widespread cult. In summary, this pair shows Lieu Hanh's punishments transformed into rewards and a shift from passively accepting punishment to actively responding to it.

Pair III-X (Lieu Hanh's exile to Earth as a human being -- her voluntary return to Earth with the fairies Que and Thi). Part III suggests that the Jade Emperor expelled Lieu Hanh to be born on Earth in a family of righteous people with the intention that they could correct features of her character that annoyed him and disturbed the peace of the Heavenly Palace. But she was not successfully corrected, as proven by events following her death and by her first reappearance on Earth. In Part X, the Emperor sent her back to Earth a second time with two other fairies, who might be considered as her guardians. The Jade Emperor, apparently, gave up trying to correct her character by relying on human beings; instead, he sent heavenly beings whose supernatural powers were supposed to prevent her from committing misdeeds on Earth. As Part XI shows, however, Que and Thi failed in this mission. The pair III--X reveals that neither righteous earthly people nor the powers of heavenly beings could restrain a process of trans formation in Lieu Hanh's personality.

Pair IV--IX (Lieu Hanh in the Heavenly Palace after her first sojourn on Earth and after her second sojourn on Earth). Here we also witness significant alterations in Lieu Hanh's behavior. In Part IV, the compassion of other fairies for her sadness persuades the Jade Emperor to permit her to return to Earth. In Part IX, Lieu Hanh's role is already very active, and she by herself convinces the Jade Emperor to allow her to resume her life on Earth. This pair suggests that changes in the character of Lieu Hanh altered her behaviour towards the Jade Emperor as well as her position in Heaven itself.

Pair V--VIII (Lieu Hanh's first and second sojourns as a returned fairy with her family). Part V describes Lieu Hanh's appearance in Van Cat on the day of the second anniversary of her death. Finding her relatives grieving over her death, she consoled them with a prediction that after death they would be reunited forever. However, even though the main reason for her to leave Heaven a second time and to return to Earth was to be with her family, she stayed with her relatives for only a very short time before joining her husband and children in the capital. She arrived late in the evening and left before dawn. Why such a brief visit?

Lieu Hanh was expelled to Earth and born in Le Thai Cong's family according to the Jade Emperor's desire, not by her own choice. She married her husband because he liked her and proposed and the parents agreed; her passive role is defined by filial piety, obeying her parents and husband. It is a typical patriarchal situation in Vietnam, and this situation could not hold Lieu Hanh's personality. Thus, still having some sentimental gratitude to the ""mily and not being rid of the values of Le Thai Cong's family - as well as those of the Jade Emperor, perhaps - she visited her parents and husband, but could not stand to stay with them for any length of time. But sometimes she still would come back to her parents (only to the parents, not to the husband or children) and bring them 'the silver and silk which people offered her.'

The situation in Part VIII is entirely different, for Lieu Hanh appears as a completely free woman - free in all respects. In this part there is no sign of either her parents or her husband - 'We don't have parents or any relatives', she says to Sinh - and it is she, not he, who proposes marriage. Moreover, she insists on a wedding without formalities, 'not standing on trifling ceremonies.' This time, Lieu Hanh stays with her husband for a considerable length of time. 'They respected and loved each other', reads the text; during her previous marriage she only 'took reverent care of the husband's parents and was obedient to the husband', being a subordinate to the husband rather than an equal partner or, as in the second time, a leader in the union. The main transformation is in her and not in her husband, an incarnation of her previous husband more or less in the same situation as before (a student and orphan). Describing Sinh as being in a similar situation to his earlier incarnation as her first husband hig hlights Lieu Hanh's transformation from an obedient wife to an independent woman, a leader in this marriage. But even such a union could not quiet Lieu Hanh's quest for freedom. Neither a loving husband nor a newborn son could bind her to one place, to one man, to a household routine. Unable to provide a plausible excuse for leaving her husband this time, she suggested an untruthful explanation, repeating her previous story about punishment for having dropped a jade cup, and the necessity to go back to the Heavenly Palace since her punishment was over.

The reason for such an untruthful explanation presumably lies not in Doan thi Diem's inability to invent a new excuse for Lieu Hanh to escape from marriage with its routine and constraints, but in her deliberate indifference to such a detail. (12) Diem may wish to emphasise that it does not matter what the pretext was; Lieu Hanh wanted to be emancipated at any price. (Or can it be a piece of advice for other women to try to feel free by any means?) Freedom became much more important for Lieu Hanh than any human bond. In the story there is no evidence of any later attempt to see her husband and son. Thus, in this pair we see the transformation of a faithful, obedient daughter and wife into a free woman who decides her life on her own.

Pair VI-VII (Lieu Hanh's first meeting with Phung Khac Khoan in Lang Son and their second meeting in Hanoi). This pair should be considered as the path leading to the climax of the story. Not only are these passages the textual centre of the story, occupying fourteen out of thirty-four pages (leaving only twenty pages for the other five pairs), but from an intellectual point of view, the transformation from a passive woman-fairy into an active woman-deity plays the most important role in the story.

Lieu Hanh's first meeting with Phung Khac Khoan took place in the remote border region of Lang Son while she was wandering all over the country 'in search of beautiful landscapes', which means that she was not looking for any contact with people. During her first meeting with Khoan her role was limited to reciting her poems while accompanying herself on the lute, which he heard as he was passing by. There was almost no contact between them. Khoan was impressed by Lieu Hanh's verse; he declaimed a verse in response, and she disappeared. But this brief contact revealed to her a new world: she saw in the scholar a person from a world other than that of her relatives, a strong person who was well educated and occupied a high position.

It is not a coincidence that after this meeting she got tired of visiting natural landscapes and began missing 'noisy places' (the 'turn' in section T), which means that from her solitude she started to look for contact with people. Her second meeting with Phung Khac Khoan was completely different from the first. She was the owner of a tavern, hostess to the young scholar and his two young friends, who had also passed academic exams. She not only initiated contact with them and composed parallel poems, she also explained the meaning of an obscure poem of an unusual fisherman. All three well-educated men acknowledged her intellectual superiority. These components of the story reveal an intellectual transformation in the context of her life from wandering through the countryside to view landscapes to an urbanised lifestyle in Hanoi, which is indicated in Part T and which is the major turning point in her earthly life. In other words, she gained solid experience, which caused all the other transformations we see in the previous pairs: changing her position towards her family, her intellectual superiority vis-a-vis the famous scholar and his educated friends, her altered behavior in the Heavenly Palace and, as a result of all this, her transformation from a fairy into a deity, officially recognised by the ruling dynasty and venerated by the people.

The heroine of the story, Lieu Hanh, is the product of both heavenly and earthly factors, but mostly the latter, because the transformation that drastically changed her occurred on Earth. This is the story of a woman's liberation, of one who succeeded in self-affirmation both in Heaven and among people in earthly society through pursuing her independent character and the development of her intellectual abilities. Furthermore, in her deification Lieu Hanh crossed the gender boundary: the title Che Thang Hoa Dieu Dai Vuong (Great King who grants victory and peace) conferred upon her by the Le dynasty (Part XII) refers to her not as a female deity, but as a male king. The same titles were conferred upon the most renowned male Vietnamese heroes, such as Tran Hung Dao, a military leader of the thirteenth century. Since men's status was much higher in Vietnamese society, this title was an additional recognition and proof of Lieu Hanh's prowess, authority and victory over the stigma of traditional society.

The author does not conceal the difficulty and pain of such a transformation, for to gain freedom Lieu Hanh sacrificed her personal happiness and caused pain to people close to her. Her wandering between Heaven and Earth and all over Vietnam, turning into clouds (which means everywhere and nowhere) reveals not a quietness of spirit, but a quest. Furthermore, a constant presence in the story is the moon, the symbol of yin or 'femaleness', which aggravates this impression, since the sun, symbol of yang or 'maleness', is mentioned only once. On the one hand, it shows the significance of the female factor in the world, but, on the other hand, it also shows a lack of harmony that exists only as a combination of yin and yang. Thus, the author apparently wanted to emphasise the difficulty of a woman developing her independence.

Lieu Hanh made her choice. Was it only Lieu Hanh, or was this a reflection of Doan thj Diem's own aspirations? From what is known of Diem's life, there are at least eight parallels with her version of the story of Lieu Hanh in Van Cat Than Nu Truyen. First, she was raised in a village very close to Van Cat, the 'native' village of Lieu Hanh. Second, she had an older brother, and, according to her story, so did Lieu Hanh. Third, she and the heroine of her story were both highly educated women. Fourth, Diem, according to her biographers, and Lieu Hanh. according to the story, were both beautiful women whom men found attractive. Fifth, both were given by their fathers for adoption to a person of higher social rank. Sixth, both were reverent and caring towards their parents. Diem did not have children of her own; Lieu Hanh did, but there is no evidence of her affection for them in the story. Seventh, both encountered male intellectuals and succeeded in gaining the upper hand over them. Eighth, both guarded their personal freedom, considering it as the most precious treasure.

The latter three points can be considered in relation to Confucian thought, the dominant orthodoxy of educated people. Doan thj Diem's complicated attitude towards Confucianism can be seen in her life. She long refused to get married and consequently to have children and concentrate on family life, which would have limited her intellectual life. Furthermore, in her writing she not only invaded a traditionally male field of intellectual activity, but also created a heroine who undermined the basis of Confucianism. Outwardly, Lieu Hanh acknowledged Confucianism. Her first husband, Dao Lang, was a student, and she chose her second husband, Sinh (Dao Lang's reincarnation) because he was a decent Confucianist. Moreover, Phung Kha Khoan's reputation as a Confucianist is one of the components that creates his impressive image. In fact, however, Lieu Hanh as Doan thj Diem describes her is an 'apostate'. She lacks filial piety towards her elders (she abandons both of her husbands and earthly parents, and the Jade Empe ror is not able to tame her in Heaven), and she lacks responsibility towards her children (in both cases she left them behind and Doan thj Diem does not mention that she remembered them). (13) Lieu Hanh seems to be a Vietnamese version of the Padua 'Shrew' described by Shakespeare. But if eventually Katharina was tamed by Petrucchio, Lieu Hanh achieved her emancipation and tamed both men and women, making them worship her.

Furthermore, it is not only Lieu Hanh who lacks Confucian convictions, her husbands do as well. She influences them to proceed with their Confucian studies, but when she disappears, both men abandon their duties to lead a secluded life. This proves that Confucianism did not play the most important role in the husbands' lives; rather, family and love were much more precious to them, and without a woman's support they failed to succeed in their studies and careers. Lieu Hanh's behavior is a retaliation of women against Confucianism, which treated them with a certain disrespect.

Doan thj Diem, Lieu Hanh and Phung Khac Khoan

One of the most prominent themes in the tale is the relationship between Lieu Hanh and Phung Khac Khoan; Diem's story contains 'the earliest and the fullest description of their encounters,. (14) The fact of their meeting became deeply rooted in the literary and historical legacy of Lieu Hanh's cult, and since Diem's time it has appeared in many works. Moreover, allegedly in memory of their second encounter, Thy H6 Temple (Phu Tay H6) was erected on the shore of West Lake in Hanoi. I argue that these episodes were a pure invention of Van Cat Than Na' Truyen's author in pursuit of her goal to glorify women's emancipation.

Why was Phung Khac Khoan chosen for this role? To understand this, we should not only consider the pair Lieu Hanh-Phung Kh&c Khoan, we also need to add Diem and her use of Khoan to their tandem. The incorporation of the encounters was first and foremost an opportunity for Doan thj Diem to display Lieu Hanh's intellectual prowess, while also enabling her to include a lot of poetry in the story. These episodes are unlikely to have been in oral versions of the legend, created by ordinary people, because the figure of Phung Khac Khoan would appeal mostly to the more educated segment of the population, amongst whom he was famous and acclaimed. Furthermore, usually popular beliefs need not be supported by any factual material, historical figures or prosody. (15) At the same time, by bringing the two together, Doan thj Diem legitimised Lieu Hanh as a person of at least the same social level as Khoan and, consequently, as a person equally worth of deification, for it is known that by her time his spirit was being wor shipped in northern Vietnam.

What was Phung Khac Khoan for Doan thj Diem? Being a well-educated person with contacts among intellectuals and serving as a tutor in the palace, she knew of, and may well have admired, Khoan's reputation as one of the most decent and faithful people of his generation. The scholar appears in another of her stories, An Ap Liet Nu Truyen (The story of an indomitable woman from An Ap), in the same collection. This story is devoted to a royal envoy to China and his wife; Diem compares him to Phung Khac Khoan, whom she apparently saw as a model of the ideal envoy. (16) In her story of Lieu Hanh, she used Khoan to strengthen the fame of a woman not only by his presence in the story, but also by his admiration of her and, eventually, by his recognition of her intellectual superiority. The a historical nature of the encounters between Phung Khac Khoan and Lieu Hanh is indicated by the absence of any mention of them in his own work or in writings about him, except for references to Doan thj Diem's story or general sta tements that the encounters took place without any further details, which might be considered as a silent and habitual reference to her original account. One modern author asserts that there are some materials in which Khoan himself tells about his meeting with the fairy Lieu Hanh. But this author's reference to the source of this information is not persuasive, for the text he cites reads: 'Mr. Trang Bung (Phung Khac Khoan) said that he met a woman from Heaven, Lieu Hanh ... she composed parallel poems with him'; however, there is no indication of when Phung Khac Khoan said this, or whether it was a written or oral tradition. (17) A second source dwells on the supposed fact of Phung Khac Khoan's encounter with Lieu Hanh and names poems recited during their meeting, but it states that all this information is based on Doan thj Diem's Van Cat Than Nu Truyen. (18)

What is Van Cat Than Nu Truyen?

Van Cat Than Nu Truyen has been extensively used as a basic account of Lieu Hanh's life and/or as the fullest version of her legend. Both possibilities should be considered. As the Russian folklorist Vladimir Propp has written, 'From an artistic point of view legends are usually poor ... this is not an aesthetic genre. The narrator seeks neither consciously or unconsciously to embellish the story, but wants only to transmit what he considers reality.' (19) The Van Cat Than Nu Truyen is different, with its panoply of literary allusions and plenitude of highly polished poetry. The structure of the story is so elaborate that it can hardly be considered as conforming to the structure of legends or myths, which are commonly told by and for non-literary people, and are thus relatively simple in their structure and their display of events. In addition, the numerous dialogues, the complicated philosophical parallel poems and the well-developed psychological portraits of the characters that fill the story are alien to legend and myths. Legends usually are the products of a collective creativity.

By contrast, hagiographies are usually written by one person, but this story cannot be considered as belonging to that genre. Rather than concentrating on the psychological development, a hagiography tries to display the life and main concept of a saint as clearly as possible in order to be understandable to all strata of the population and to attract new followers. Moreover, while the author of such a work usually directly states the purpose of the work, Doan thj Diem does not provide such a statement. Rather, she incorporates her story into a collection whose title suggests 'marvelous stories' and not the hagiography of a deity. Another point worth attention is an evident allusion to Nguyen Du's book Truyen Ky Man Luc (The collection of marvelous stories). Written in the sixteenth century, also in Han, this work creatively imitated the stories of the fourteenth-century Chinese collection Jiandeng Xinhua (New interpretations by the light of the trimmed candle wick) by Qu You (Zongji) and transferred them int o Vietnamese contexts. Many of the stories in this book are about witches, fairies and other supernatural creatures. The motifs of some of the stories are reminiscent of some parts of Doan thj Diem's writing (for example, mortals visiting the Heavenly Palace, love between a mortal man and a fairy, and so on). Having been raised in a region where Lieu Hanh's cult was quite widespread, Doan thj Diem was definitely familiar with it, and she used the deity to tell her own story of a woman's position in society. To avoid directly challenging her society, which was still to a significant extent permeated with Confucian principles, she 'hid' her critique within a 'New Collection of Marvelous Stories', using Nguyen Du's anthology of tales as a 'shield for by that time his work was fully recognised. On the basis of all the materials I have presented, I propose that the Van Cat Than Nu Truyen is neither legend, myth or hagiography, but a highly elaborate novel entangling elements of myth, legend, romantic imagination a nd Doan thj Diem's own biography with her intellectual inclinations and aspirations. The account was written as a novel in which Lieu Hanh appears not as an element of peasant or folk religion, but as a figure worthy of being emulated by the highest classes of society. The audience of readers of the story was restricted to the stratum of well-educated people. The elaborate structure of the narrative reveals abstract philosophical ideas and literary tropes, and the classical Han language the author used was accessible only to a thin layer of readers. (A work written in Nom would have corresponded more closely to the spoken vernacular and would have been intelligible to uneducated people when read aloud, which was not true of Han texts.) Doan thj Diem did not write this story in order to attract high-class followers to a folk cult; rather, she wanted them to be acquainted with the folk phenomenon of Lieu Hanh seen through her own eyes, the eyes of a well-educated person writing for other educated people. In so doing, she upgraded a popular cult, adjusting it to the tastes and cultural level of the educated class. I believe that her main aim in writing this story was to show the development and emancipation of a woman. This could hardly be described in real stories because of official disapproval, but it could easily be hidden in a work of historical fiction. And if, as the scholar Nguyen Thj Hue puts it, 'the legend of Holy Mother Lieu Hanh goes beyond the frame of a primitive popular belief and has acquired a more developed character',20 it is mainly because of the merits of Diem's novel, which created a new image from an old cult. Furthermore, this story, based on the cult of Lieu Hanh existing in the eighteenth century, has become in turn the most authoritative source for describing her life and her deification. As my field trip to Vietnam revealed, most ordinary followers of Lieu Hanh's cult know about her from Doan thj Diem's story, even though they often are unaware of the story's actual authorship and refer to it as to an oral tradition. Thus, Van Cat Than Nu Truyen has outgrown itself in the people's memory, and has been transformed from the literary production of one author into a creation of popular culture.

(1.) Milan Kundera, 'Le Testament de somnambules,' Le Nouvel Observateur, 9 April 1982; quoted in Georges Boudarel, 'L'insertion du pouvoir central dans les cultes villageois au Vietnam,' in Cultes populaires et societes asiatiques, ed. Alain Forest, Yoshiaki Ishizawa and Leon Vandermeersch (Paris: L'Harmattan, 1991), p.87. All translations in this paper are mine.

(2.) Vu Ngoc Khanh and Ngo Duc Thinh, Tir Bat Tu [The Four Immortals] (Hanoi: NXB Van hoa Dan toc, 1990), p. 9.

(3.) Ibid., p. 101; Vu Ngoc Khanh and Pham Van Ty, Van Cat Than Nu [The Van Cat Goddess] (Hanoi: NXB Van hoa Dan toc, 1990), p. 22.

(4.) Doan Lam, 'A Brief Account of the Cult of Female Deities in Vietnam Vietnamese Studies, 1 (1999): 16.

(5.) Dang Van Lung, Mau Lieu. Doi va Dao [Mother Lieu: her life and cult] (Hanoi; NXB Van hoa Dan toc, 1995), p. 12.

(6.) Bui Hanh Can, Ba Diem HQ Doan [Lady Diem from the Doan family] (Hanoi: Trung tam Hoat dong Van hoa Khoa hoc, 1988), p. 11.

(7.) Tran Cuu Chan, Les grandes poetesses du Viet-Nam (Saigon: Imprimerie de l'Union Nguyen Van Cua, 1950), p. 10.

(8.) In addition to the sources cited above, the biography of Doan thi Diem given here is based on Do Thi Hao's Hong Ha Nu Si [Hong Ha Woman-Writer] (Hanoi: NXB Phu nu. 1986).

(9.) Nikolai Nikulin, Vietnamskaya Literatura [Vietnamese literature] (Moscow: Nauka, 1971), pp. 70-1.

(10.) The translation is based on the original Han version of Truyen 19 Tan Pha (Ch. Chuanqi Xinpu) in Yuenan Hanwen xiaoshuo congkan/Collection romans et contes du VietNam ecrits en Han, ed. Chan Hingho [Chen Qinghao] and Wang San-ching [Wang Sanqing], Chuanqilei [Marvelous stories genre], vol. II (Paris and Taipei: Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient and Student Book Co. Ltd., 1986), pp. 24-41; and the Vietnamese translation in Doan thi Diem, Truyen Ky Tan Pha [New collection of marvelous stories] (Hanoi: NXB Giao duc, 1962), pp. 66-99.

(11.) Phung Khac Khoan (1528-1613) was a prominent Vietnamese scholar, poet and official, one of the most distinguished people of his time.

(12.) I speak here about the author's ability and not Lieu Hanh's because the latter did not need a better pretext, since here husband did not know about her previous descent to Earth, her punishment and her return to Heaven. For him, then, the excuse she suggested sounded new and plausible.

(13.) The fact that Doan thj Diem did not have children of her own might have well contributed to Lieu Hanh's negligence towards her children.

(14.) Ha Dinh Thanh, 'Phu Thy H6 va su phung tho' Lieu Hanh' [Tay Ho Temple and the worship of Lieu Hanh], in Dao Mau a Viet Nam [The Cult of the Mothers in Vietnam], ed. Ngo Duc Thjnh (Hanoi: NXB Van hod-Thong tin, 1996), p. 150.

(15.) It seems most plausible to me that the original legend was created by ordinary people, because Lieu Hanh's cult was for a long time widespread among the lower classes.

(16.) Doan thj Diem, Truyen Ky Tan Pha, p. 57.

(17.) Hoang Dao Thuy, Dat nuoc ta [Our country] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa hoc Xa hoi, 1989), p. 83, quoted in Ha Dinh Thanh, 'Phii Tay Ho', p. 163.

(18.) Tran Le Sang, Phung Khac Khoan, cuoc doi va tho van [The life and works of Phung Khac Khoan] (Hanoi: NXB Khoa hoc Xa hoi, 1985), pp. 164-5.

(19.) Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, ed. Anatoly Liberman and trans. Ariadna and Richard Martin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 51. Propp is developing an observation by the Hungarian scholar G. U. Ergis in a study of the folklore of the Yakut people.

(20.) Nguyen Thi Hue, 'From Buddha-Mother Man Nuong to Holy Mother Lieu Hanh; Vietnamese Studies, 1 (1999): 87.

Acknowledgement: My deepest gratitude goes to Keith W. Taylor, Nguyen The Anh , J.M. Law and Tamara Loos for their valuable comments on this paper. All errors are my own.

Olga Dror is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853 USA. She can be reached by e-mail at
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Author:Dror, Olga
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
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Date:Feb 1, 2002
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