When I was little, I had the good fortune of hearing folklore everyday from one or the other of my two grandmothers who never tired of telling stories and quoting proverbs and popular sayings to give us examples of good behavior. Since it was mostly their granddaughters who hung around the house, the items of folkore they chose to relate in the main had to do with women. I remember myself being secretly puzzled at what appeared to be contradictory messages conveyed by different items, and also at what was presented in stories and folk wisdom as compared to what I observed in actual daily life. When I grew up, I chose to specialize in Vietnamese folklore not only for its beauty, but also because I wanted to resolve my childhood confusion.
I have found that numerous recordings of Vietnamese folklore, notably since the end of the nineteenth century, offer identical or slightly different versions of many of the items which my grandmothers related and had learned from their own mothers. Since these items had thus been circulated long before Viet Nam attempted to embark on modernization, it can be said that the images of women they embody reflect women's reality in tradition. And indeed folklore embraces two contradictory images which were responsible for my confusion as a child.
The first image, and also the more dominant one, presents the woman as a vulnerable being. One folksong compares her to a piece of red silk fluttering in the market not knowing to whom it will be sold:
Thân em như tấm lụa đào
Phất phơ giữa chợ biết vào tay ai.
Another sees women as drops of rain; purely by chance some will fall on luxurious palaces while others on muddy rice fields:
Ðàn bà như hạt mưa sa
Hạt rơi gác tía, hạt ra ruộng cày.
What we have here is the idea that the woman has no self-determination, no control of her own life, but is at the mercy of fate. Furthermore, the folk concept of woman confers upon her an all-round inferiority vis-à-vis men. Whatever symbol of perfection in men would turn out to be a defect in women, and so a saying declares that a large mouth in a man signifies his talent and nobility, while a woman with the same physical feature only deafens her neighbors and brings disharmony to her family:
Ðàn ông rộng miệng thì tài
Ðàn bà rộng miệng điếc tai láng giềng.
Ðàn ông rộng miệng thì sang
Ðàn bà rộng miệng tan hoang cửa nhà.
In a dismissing tone, folklore sates further that since the woman has weak legs and soft hands, she is incapable of work, and all she can ever do well is gossip:
Ðàn bà yếu chân mềm tay
Làm ăn chẳng được lại hay nỏ mồm.
On another level, women are said to be mentally as shallow as a dish; and even the shallowness of men's thought is still a deep well as compared to the depth of women's thought which is like a shallow basket container of betel:
Ðàn bà cạn như lòng đĩa.
Ðàn ông nông nổi giếng khơi
Ðàn bà sâu sắc như cơi đựng trầu.
That folk speech abounds in popular sayings of such nature would seem to imply that the notion of women's inferiority and helplessness has become deeply ingrained in the Vietnamese collective consciousness so as to deprive the woman of dignity and self confidence. From there it is not difficult to arrive at the conclusion that she must depend for protection and support on men who are stronger and better. And folklore does not fail to spell out what is expected of her in return for this dependency: namely, she is to devote her entire life exclusively to the services of the patriarchal family that provides her with an identity.
Among the most favorite folk narratives from Viet Nam are found those which exemplify the woman's unquestionable and unconditional fidelity and devotion to her man and his family, the more extreme the more praiseworthy. There is the legendary tale of a young woman named Vu thi Thiet from a place called Nam Xuong. Attractive and hard working, Vu was married to Truong, who turned out to be a jealous husband. She took care to serve him the best she could to avoid disharmony. When she was with child, Truong was called up to join a military expedition against the Chams in the south. A son was born and named Dan. Vu worked hard to support and care for Dan and her old mother-in-law. When the latter died of illness, Vu buried and mourned her as she would her own mother. The conflict with the Chams was then over and Truong returned home when the three-year-old Dan had just begun to learn to speak. While left alone with Truong, the little boy expressed surprise that Truong was also his father, telling Truong that his other father had come to the house only at night, that he had walked when his mother walked, sat when his mother sat, but he had never held Dan. Immediately suspecting his wife's betrayal, Truong heaped abuses on Vu. Disregarding relatives and neighbors' defense of her virtuous behavior, Truong kept railing at her and even beat her up. Being abused and humiliated unjustly, Vu thought that only death could help prove her innocence. She drowned herself in a river. That same evening, Truong sat down sorrowfully beside a lamp. Suddenly, the child clapped his hands and exclaimed that his other father had just arrived, and pointed at Truong's shadow on the wall. Truong came to realize too late that his wife had amused the child by identifying her own shadow on the wall as Dan's father.
For the romantic Vietnamese, Vu thi Thiet's traumatic experience is a celebration of the female's ultimate virtue of chastity. She treasured it more than her life. This value binds the woman to her husband, and in that way ensures her total unconditional loyalty to him, no matter if it turns out that he is no protector and no provider as is usually argued. Vu's life represents a pathetic case of obsession with, and blind conformity to, the ideal; but the fact that she endured and submitted to an undeserving man makes her even more virtuous.
On the contrary, the second image of women in folklore strongly suggests that the woman is equally capable of using her brains and determining her conduct, equally ready to work for a living and perform difficult tasks as do men. In myth, several deities in charge of natural elements are female: the goddesses of fire, of water, of carpentry, the twelve female deities who are responsible for the shaping of our human bodies and making them function. More significantly, Vietnamese legends which are built around real historical figures or legendary heroes do not hesitate to celebrate women in important positions and roles. The mythical legend of the origin of the land and the people of Viet Nam has a deity of the dragon race married to a female deity living on land who mothered one hundred sons. Seeing that they were incompatible in nature, the couple parted company, dividing their sons equally between themselves. Mother Au Co took her fifty sons to settle in mountainous regions of north Vietnam today, teaching them how to grow crops and weave cloth. Legends of the less remote times are rich with imaginative details about the lives of the earliest national heroines of Viet Nam: they were the two Trung sisters who in the year 40 led a successful rebellion against the Chinese; and Lady Trieu who followed in their footsteps two centuries later.
In the same vein, here and there folktales contrast the woman's common sense wisdom with her husband's impractical perception of reality. There is a story of two brothers, the elder was rich and the younger very poor. The elder brother entertained his neighbors and friends generously but never helped his own brother. The wife was very unhappy with her husband's conduct, but could not persuade him to change. So she came up with a strategy. One day when her husband was out, she killed a dog, wrapped it in a mat and left it in a corner of the garden. She then told her husbsand she had accidentally killed a beggar, and asked him to seek help to bury the dead secretly. No friend and no neighbor agreed to help. The wife suggested that they turn to his own brother. The younger brother came and finished the job quickly, then left without asking for any compensation. The next day their neighbors came and threatened to expose the crime if the couple failed to pay them some hush money. The wife insisted that her husband ignore them. The matter was then brought to the magistrate. The wife revealed the real situation which was checked and verified, was praised by the magistrate for having given her husband a good lesson in how to distinguish between friends and foes, and also a lesson in family unity.
Finally, and most intriguing of all, are folksongs which defy the first image of women as we discussed earlier, by ridiculing the false concept of women's inferiority and dependency and mocking the double standard in an exaggerated way. One example will illustrate the point:
Chính chuyên lấy được chín chồng
Vê viên bỏ lọ gánh gồng đi chơi
Ai ngờ quang đứt lọ rơi
Bò ra lổm ngổm chín nơi chín chồng.
(Respecting the rule of fidelity I have married nine husbands
Rolling them into balls, I put them in a jar and carried it with a shoulder pole.
Accidentally the suspending frame broke and the jar fell to the ground;
Out crawld the nine husbands scatteringly in nine different directions.)
The question now is, how do we reconcile the two contrasting images? I would like to suggest that the first image reflects the dominant ethical tradition advocated and enforced by the ruling class, which I will call the elite tradition, very much influenced by Confucianism; it sets a model for women's behavior, or the ideal. In contrast, the second image, which exposes the woman's deviance from the ideal given real life situations and what she can actually do, recalls the pre-Chinese indigenous or popular tradition which was more in line with Southeast Asian culture wherein women are allowed more freedom and equality. An eloquent expression of the popular tradition was the historical fact that the leaders of the very first Vietnamese resistance against foreign intervention were the Trung sisters, and almost half of their subordinate commanding officers were also women, each of these had raised an army of her own before rallying around the sisters.
It is further proposed that the popular tradition is a persistent undercurrent which has resurfaced whenever the elite tradition has weakened, so as to render it acceptable for Vietnamese women to reassert themselves and resume their share in social responsibilities. This seems applicable to the description of the role of women in contemporary Vietnam. War, political, economic and social upheavals created and perpetuated by men -- for some obscure nonsensical idealism or ideology -- have made it impossible for society not to lean on the common sense wisdom and selfless practicality of women. More women have joined the work force, stepping out beyond their conventional family boundaries to engage in various businesses necessary for nation building and reconstruction. Admittedly society has come to look at women with less contempt and to recognize their contributions, though grudgingly. However, the change in attitude is more on the surface than in substance. The elite tradition has taken such deep roots in the Vietnamese collective psyche over a period of almost two thousand years that society in general, and men in particular, continue to view women's active participation in the social sphere during hard times as part of their duty to help their men. As such, women's effort is not considered significant enough by and of itself to justify a radical change in the traditional concept of woman and her role. As long as this concept lingers, Vietnam is deprived of a wealth of needed talents and contributions.
(This was presented for the panel discussion :
Southeast Asian Women Then and Now:
A View from the Folklore of the Philippines, Thailand,
at University of Hawaii at Manoa, March 12, 1992.)