'At the Edge': Margins, Frontiers, Initiatives in Literature and Culture



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XVIIth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association

Hong Kong, 08-15 August 2004


'At the Edge': Margins, Frontiers, Initiatives in Literature and Culture


'The Word and the Fairy Tale' (# 2216) (FA1)
Karin Schmidt:
Cinderella in Vietnam
I. Introduction

There are various ways by which Cinderella-like tales may have come to Vietnam.1 One could have been through China. The earliest Chinese literary version of the tale has been ascribed to an author who had died in 863.2 This was about one century before the Vietnamese people had freed themselves from Chinese occupation which they had to endure for roughly 1000 years. The Chinese Cinderella story is rarely to be found in Vietnamese tale collections.3 The French tale Cendrillon by Charles Perrault is, however, well known under it's Vietnamese title Cô Bé Lọ Lem. It is dealt with in schoolbooks for 10-11 year-old children as a cultural heritage of French colonialism.4 Never missing in folk tale collections is a story known by the name of two sisters: Tấm Cám. It resembles Cinderella-like tales from some South East Asian countries. Therefore, it has also been assumed that the story had originally come from India and found its way to Vietnam from the South.5 Vietnamese people count the tale Tấm Cám among their very own "old stories".6

Collecting of "old stories" from all the 54 ethnicities living on Vietnamese territory has not been concluded yet.7 The author Nguyễn Đổng Chi did elaborate comparative research work on the matter during a period of 25 years. In 1982 he published the last of his highly acclaimed 5 volumes Kho Tàng Truyễn Cổ Tích Việt Nam (A Treasure Chest of Old Vietnamese Stories).8

For classification he suggests a three-way distinction: mystical, worldly and historical stories. Following this pattern he points out certain Vietnamese singularities:

1) Mystical stories, i.e. stories telling about events happening by magical power, cover only 10% of the entire story treasure. Unlike in other parts of the world, the portion of this category is exceptionally small. Besides, in nearly half of their number mystical and worldly elements are combined.

2) One third of all stories are dealing with worldly matters.

3) The author judges the fact that historical stories are included in the Vietnamese folk tale collections as being unique and typical of Vietnam.9
II. The story

The Tấm Cám tale is a mystical story. It also contains worldly elements and reflects historical aspects. Here is a short outline of the story’s content which may vary in details depending on the region where it had been recorded:10

Like Cinderella, Tấm is mistreated by a cruel stepmother and a stepsister called Cám. Thanks to a slipper, Tấm is discovered by a prince who finally marries her. Unlike Western but in conformity with South East Asian Cinderella-like tales,11 Tấm gets murdered after her marriage by her stepmother and Cám. Cám then takes over Tấm's position as the prince's wife. As Tấm's spirit enters the body of a bird and the bird wins the prince's love the two jealous women kill the bird, too. The bird's bones are buried in the park. They grow into two peach trees and become the prince's favourite place to rest. Therefore, the wicked women destroy them as well. A persimmon then becomes inhabited by Tấm's soul. A kind old woman relieves Tấm from being enclosed in a persimmon fruit. One day, the prince happens to come to the old woman's house. There he meets and recognizes his beloved wife and takes her home to the palace.

From the tale The Brocaded Slipper, which is the Tấm Cám story told in English by Lynette Dyer Vuong, I quote the following ending: "Tấm lived happily with the prince for many years, loved by all the people of the kingdom, first as their princess and later as their queen."12 This ending suits well the expectations of Western fairy tale readers. It is not the genuine Vietnamese end of the story which runs as follows: Tấm punishes her stepsister by having her killed in boiling water. She then has Cám's body prepared as a dish and has it sent in a jar to her stepmother. When finishing eating the dish Tấm's stepmother discovers at the bottom of the jar her daughter Cám's skull. Struck by horror and fear she falls onto the ground dead.


III. The mystical story

In the above mentioned English version of the Tấm Cám tale it is a fairy intervening magically. In most Vietnamese variations it is Buddha demonstrating supernatural power. Buddha endows Tấm with a small fish and teaches her to speak out rimes which would make the fish trust her and accept her food. As Cám and her mother kill the fish, Buddha instructs Tấm to keep the bones of the dead fish buried in jars under the four corners of her bed. Magically, the bones change into fine clothes and slippers and a harnessed horse. Buddha also sends sparrows to help Tấm sort out the good rice grains from the bad, the task which the wicked stepmother had forced Tấm to fulfil.

To Western readers such mysterious events seem to equal those happening in Western fairy tales. The author Nguyễn Đổng Chi declares, however, that Vietnamese people are getting bewildered when reading Western fairy tales. They look for reasons why miracles happen, where they come from, and who is responsible for such events.13 He explains that in Vietnamese tales Vietnamese readers find answers to these questions because every magic event fits into a system of common beliefs. The chief points of this system are outlined as follows:

1) Human beings are part of the cosmic realm in the same way as other living creatures are, including rivers, mountains and plants. Everything is interrelated with one another.

2) There is no beginning and no end, no birth and no death. Souls are wandering. The human body is regarded as the temporary materialized home for souls. Plants and animals are also housing souls.

3) Beside the realm of the Earth, there are three more realms, Heaven, Water World, and the World of the Dead. The Earth is also harbouring Gods, Bodhisattvas, Devils, Ghosts and Spirits. They can be good or wicked, and they can influence human beings.14

The author states that this system of beliefs has been deeply embedded in Vietnamese culture. Time and again, it has been expressed in the form of many popular religious festivals and traditional customs, the cults of Buddha and Bodhisattvas, of Taoist Gods and Confucius, the cults of national and local heroes, of village genies and in ancestor worshipping. Temples, pagodas, and historic monuments all over the country are linked with at least one old story.15 To practice these cults means to experience the system of beliefs as a reality. Thus, to Vietnamese people the Tấm Cám story is not just fiction. In several villages Tấm and Cám are being worshipped and processions in their honour are being held every year.16 To the people from a village called Nam-sơn, the names Tấm and Cám inspired so much awe and fear that the village people did not dare to use the common words for rice which is "gạo tấm" or for bran, which is "cám". Saying the words out loud was to conjure up the spirits of Tấm and Cám and to expose people to their presence and power. The village people used synonyms instead.17
IV. Worldly elements

In many ways, Tấm seems to be a far more down-to-earth person than Cinderella is. When Buddha tells Tấm that the sparrows would help her sort out the crop Tấm is worried because the sparrows might be greedy and eat all the good crop. So Buddha has to instruct her how to make the sparrows obey. Before Tấm puts on the precious new dress she washes her face whereas Cinderella seems to be cleaned magically. In most tale variations Tấm’s family are ordinary village people. They, like everybody else from the village, are eager to get a glimpse of the prince who happens to pass by. They set out walking a long way to stand at the side of the road watching. For such an extraordinary occasion onlookers are expected to wear decent clothes.18

To the question why the two sisters are treated in such different ways within the family an answer is given in the variation the French author G. Jeanneau had recorded in 1886 from the region of Mý-tho: Tấm and Cám are twins. Their father sends them off for fishing crabs. The one who would fill her basket first would be addressed by "chị".19 To be addressed by "chị" means to be shown respect for being the older sister. This is what Cám achieves by cheating. According to Confucian rules any person ranking below must not object to any person of a higher ranking. So, Cám and her mother have full authority over Tấm. Vietnamese readers understand that by showing disobedience Tấm would act in violation of the rule of filial piety.

Besides, there is the Buddhist belief in karma. Events are believed to be decided by fate, and fate is said to be influenced by acts done in previous existences. There seems to be no other way for Tấm than resignation. This is what she is living through in the first part of the story. In the second half Tấm takes a more active part under the cover of metempsychosis. In a manner that depends rather on totemistic beliefs than on the Buddhist conception of soul wandering, Tấm appears to remember her previous existences and acts accordingly.20


V. Historical aspects

One Tấm Cám variation is linked to people who actually lived in the past: The first part of the plot is the usual one but, to make it sound authentic, the protagonists, the village, the province and the landscape where the story takes place are specified by names existing in fact. The role of the prince is taken over by the King Lý Thánh Tông, Tấm’s part is represented by the king’s second-rank wife known by the name of Ỷ Lan. She gave birth to King Lý Nhân Tông. Both kings belong to the Lý dynasty ruling Vietnam from 1010 to 1225.21

On a national scale, Vietnamese people have understood Tấm's passive part in the story as a symbol for the endurances of foreign (Chinese) occupation and the active one as national resistance against it. 22 A manifestation of cultural identity can be derived from a view relating the prince's taste for the delicate slipper and his longing to identify the owner by her fine small foot, to the Chinese custom of foot binding. In China, the custom of foot binding was linked to the highest ideals of civility and culture. Its origin presumably goes back to the Tang Dynasty (10th century). In the late 16th century "foot binding became the terrain on which the ethnic and cultural boundaries between the Han Chinese and the ‘other‘ were being drawn".23 Unadorned bodies and feet were regarded as visible signs of savagery. Vietnamese people of that time were described by the Chinese as "descendents of monkey-like dogs. They are cunning and crafty in character. They shave their hair and bare their feet".24 Tấm's natural qualities contradict this image: Her miserable outward appearance conceals an outstanding physical beauty which is in perfect harmony with her impeccable character. Her feet are small by nature and fit into slippers of the most precious kind.

The fact that, after Tấm's death, her sister steps in as the prince’s wife could also have served as a signal against foreign oppression. The custom of the sororate aimed at the widower's marriage with the deceased wife's sister had been the rule in old Vietnamese societies. It had been rejected under the Chinese rule.25

Above all, it was certainly a provocation of Chinese orders and a demonstration of patriotism to give narrative prominence to the forbidden Vietnamese custom of betel chewing. Betel leaves and areca nuts were offered as a first conversation starter to guests and they have been a symbol of marital union to this day.26 To form the betel cud well demands much practice and skill. The Tấm Cám story culminates in the scene when the prince being offered a betel cud, recognizes the specific skill by which only Tấm could have formed the cud. He asks to be shown the person who had prepared the cud before him. This is how Tấm and the prince are happily reunited.

VI. The moral of the story

The cruel punishment inflicted on Cám and her mother is judged by Nguyễn Đổng Chi as being not typical of Vietnamese story end­ings.27 There is, however, a similar scene in the most popular work of art in Vietnamese literature, in the famous epic poem Truyện Kiều which was composed by Nguyễn Du in the early 19th century:28 The heroine Kiều – like Tấm - gives orders to the executioner to fulfil death punishment against the wrong doers. In this poem, we are told that behind the idea of revenge and justice, there is the belief in a power beyond human reach. I quote the lines from an English translation: "They all (the spectators) understood now that everything had been decided by Heaven".29 The moral of the epic poem and of the Tấm Cám tale may be the same: Because justice is done to everybody there is a way out of chaos and the cosmic order prevails.30
VII. Conclusion:

To Vietnamese readers Tấm Cám is not just an entertaining fantastic story with some hidden meanings which only historians or psychologists might be able to reveal. The tale is based on a system of beliefs that Vietnamese people have kept alive in many cults and traditions. It reflects aspects of real life and the people's memory for national suffering through foreign oppression. Cinderella in Vietnam is a national heroine.



1 According to the folktale classification system of the Aarne and Thompson Type 510 A, in Cinderella-like tales five motifs are usually included in which the heroine: 1. suffers persecution, 2. receives magic help, 3. meets a prince, 4. provides proof of her identity, 5. marries the prince. See Aarne, Antti and Stith Thompson, The Types of the Folktale, Helsinki, 1961.

2 Đinh Gia Khánh, Sơ B Tìm Hiu Nhng Vấn Đ Ca Truyn Cổ Tích qua Truyn Tấm Cám. Hà Nội 1999, p. 14.

3 It is included in Đinh Gia Khánh's presentation of Cinderella-like tales from all over the world under the title Truyn Nàng Diệp Hn. Ibid., pp. 226 f.

4 Đỗ Quang Lưu – Vân Thanh, Bộ Giáo Dục và Đào Tạo, Truyn Đc 5, Nhà Xuất Bản Giáo Dục, 1993, pp. 40 f. - The popularity of the French tale may also be attributed to the fact that on this Cinderella story Walt Disney had based his famous film in 1949.

5 Đinh Gia Khánh, pp. 34-35.

6 There is no equivalent Vietnamese term to the Western term "fairy tale". The most frequently used term “truyễn cổ tích” refers to any kind of Vietnamese folk tales and can be translated by "stories showing traces of former times" or just “old stories”. Lứ Huy Nguyên – Đang Văn Lung, Hp Tuyn Truyn Cổ Tích Việt Nam, Nhà Xuất Bản Giáo Dục, 1996, pp.17-18.

7 About the 54 registered ethnicities living on Vietnamese territory see Ethnologue, 13th edition, Barbara F. Grimes, Editor, 1996.

8 Nguyễn Đổng Chi, Kho Tàng Truyễn Cổ Tích Việt Nam, Nhà Xuất Bản Giáo Dục, 2000 [1982].

9 Nguyễn Đổng Chi declares that Vietnamese people often tend to explain events and phenomena from historical views and patriotic outlooks due to the fact that, for centuries, the Vietnamese had to fight off foreign aggression and domination and thereby developed very strong patriotic feelings: op.cit., pp. 55 and 1587 f.

10 The tale appears in practically identical versions in: Nguyễn Đổng Chi, op.cit., pp 1167-1174; Đinh Gia Khánh, op. cit., pp 140-151; Đỗ Quang Lưu – Vân Thanh, op. cit., pp 5-11; Lứ Huy Nguyên – Đang Văn Lung, op. cit., pp 88-95; Truyn Cổ Tích chọn lọc, ChuynTấm Cám, Nhà Xuất Bản Thanh Niên, 1999, pp. 3-19.

11 See Nguyễn Đổng Chi, op. cit., pp. 1174-1207; Đinh Gia Khánh, op. cit., pp. 202-211, 230-238.

12 Lynette Dyer Vuong: The Brocaded Slipper and other Vietnamese Tales. New York, 1982, pp. 25-26.

13 Nguyễn Đổng Chi, op. cit., p. 64.

14 Ibid., pp. 62-64.

15 Ibid., p. 65.

16 Đinh Gia Khánh, op. cit., pp. 68 f., 211 f.

17 Nguyễn Đổng Chi, op. cit., p. 1176.

18 Truyn Cổ Tích chọn lọc, Chuyn Tấm Cám, op. cit., p. 9.

19 Nguyễn Đổng Chi, op. cit., p. 1176.

20 In ancestor worshipping totemistic and superstitious beliefs from ancient societies are part of the tradition and customs passed down from one generation to the next. See: Hue-Tam Ho Tai, "Religion in Vietnam: A World of Gods and Spirits", in: Vietnam: Essays on History, Culture, and Society, 1985, pp. 22-39.

21 See Nguyễn Đổng Chi, op. cit., pp. 1175 f.; Đinh Gia Khánh, op. cit., pp. 17 f.

In a Vietnamese history book for school children dealing with this period of time the story of Tấm Cám is mentioned as coinciding with Ỷ Lan’s life until she gets married to the King: Lch s Vit Nam bng tranh, Ỷ Lan Nguyên Phi, tập 17, Nhà Xuất Bản Tr, 2003, p.88;

In a book about Vietnamese Dynasties there is a note saying that people believed Ỷ Lan and Tấm to be one and the same person: Quỳnh Cư-Đỗ Đức Hùng, Các Triu Đi Vit Nam, Nhà Xuất Bản Thanh Niên, 2001, p. 91.


22 By comparing Tấm's passive with her active parts in the story, Đinh Gia Khánh centres his interpretation of the family conflict on the assumption that it was meant to be a metaphor of the class struggle in the universal Marxist sense of the term. See op.cit., pp 31-32,135.

23 Dorothy Ko, "The Body as Attire: The Shifting Meanings of Foot binding in Seventeenth-Century China", in: Journal of Women's History, Winter 1997,Volume 8, Number 4.

24 Yu Xiangdou, Santai wanyong zhengzong [The authentic Santai encyclopaedia of ten thousand uses] (Fujian: Yushi Shuangfang tang, 1599) 5.1a. quoted by Dorothy Ko, ibid.

25 The ethnic community of the Gelao are still practicing the sororate. See Ethnologue, op. cit. The sororate and the levirate (the widow's marriage with a deceased husband's brother) were usually associated. See Nguyen Ngoc Binh, "The Power and Relevance of Vietnamese Myths", in: Vietnam: Essays on History, Culture, and Society, 1985, pp. 61-77.

26 See Pham Duy Khiêm, Vietnamesische Märchen, Frankfurt, 1968, pp. 110-117.

27 Nguyễn Đổng Chi, op. cit., p. 1619.

28 Nguyễn Du, Truyện Kiều, Nhà Xuất Bản Tổng Hợp Đồng Tháp, 1998.

29 Nguyễn Du, Kim Vân Kiều, English translation, footnotes and commentaries by Lê Xuân Thuy, Nhà Xuất Bản Văn Học, 1994, p.331.

30 About the ethical role 'Ông Trời / August Heaven' plays as judge in the moral universe: See Nguyen Ngoc Binh, "The Power and Relevance of Vietnamese Myths", op. cit., p.62.

The meaning of the Tấm Cám story is explained to school children stating that the story is "thế sự" (real life) and that the moral is the same as in the poem Truyện Kiều. See: Đỗ Quang Lưu – Vân Thanh, Bộ Giáo Dục và Đào Tạo, Truyn Đc 5, op. cit., p. 11.





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