Let me be perfectly clear, this post is not belatedly inspired by the Netflix documentary, Tiger King. The idea for this post stemmed from my excitement for two upcoming Tor.com novella by authors from the Viet diaspora:
I love fantasy novella, I love Viet folklore, and I love the recurring imagery of tigers in our tales and imagination. Hence, this is a self-indulgent post where I reflect on these stories and how ponder on how they may link to the novellas above, while I wait eagerly for their publication date.
Tigers in Viet Lore
Sadly, tigers are classified functionally extinct in Vietnam in present day. Once, they roamed forests throughout the country, and appeared ubiquitously in folk tales and religious shrines alike. While tigers were embedded in our psyche, the relationship we had with them was a complicated one. In our tales, they’re at times villains, at times revered spirits, and oftentimes both. Ultimately, it depends on who’s telling the story – a theme that is already prominent in Nghi Vo’s first Singing Hills Cycle novella, The Empress of Salt and Fortune – which features a traveling cleric who collect stories chronicling the course of an empire.
Without further adieu, here are some of my favourite Vietnamese lore surrounding these creatures.
The Godly Origin of the Tiger
In Vietnam, the tiger is also known as Chuá Sơn Lâm (The God of the Mountain and Forest). The creation myth of the tiger tells of a mutinous heavenly deity by the name of Phạm Nhĩ. While Phạm Nhĩ was remarkably strong and talented, he plotted against the Jade Emperor as he thought he would be a more worthy ruler of the Heavens. Phạm Nhĩ created a huge ruckus, and he was almost successful in his exploits, until Buddha intervened and captured him. Buddha handed him back to the Jade Emperor, but warned that Phạm Nhĩ should not be killed for his crime. Instead, he was reincarnated as an animal on Earth – but he still retained his extraordinary strength and hearing (the name Phạm Nhĩ refers to his long ears).
The Tiger and the Toad
I love finding common threads in tales around the world, and discovering the similarities between this story and The Turtle and the Hare, as well as The Banquet of the Twelve Zodiac, made me appreciate it all the more. In this story, a toad dissuade a tiger from devouring it by proposing a competition to see who can jump across the river first. During the jump, the toad hangs onto the tiger’s tail for most of the way, and leap across at the last moment to emerge as the victor. You can see the echoes of how the rat tricked its way to become the first member of the lunar zodiac sign, as well as the ever-present commentary between might and wit in fairy tales.
How the Tiger got Its Stripes
As a child, my favourite kinds of tales were the ones that attempted to explain the natural world around us. Like with many fairy tales, I am surprised at how dark it is now that I look back on it. The tale starts with a tiger who saw an ox being used as a beast of burden by a farmer. The tiger asked the ox why it willingly submitted to a human, when it was exponentially stronger. The ox replied it had to follow the human due to his cleverness, but could not explain what ‘cleverness’ was to the expectant tiger. The tiger then went to ask the farmer to show him this object called ‘cleverness’, and the farmer used the tiger’s curiosity to tie him to a tree and set him on fire (yes, folklore comes with a sobering dose of casual animal cruelty!). While the tiger escaped from the fire, it bore the burn marks from the event, and all tigers henceforth were burn with the black burn marks on their body. The ox? It fell over laughing when the tiger was caught and lost all of its upper teeth, which is why ox now only have teeth on their lower jaw. A two for one creation fable, so to speak.
There will be echoes of this tale in the upcoming FIREHEART TIGER by Aliette de Bodard. The cover features a princess lit by flames, with echoes of a tiger’s stripes on her skin. To say I’m excited to see what more there is to the story is an understatement.
Tigers in Our Language
Tigers are traditionally respected in Vietnam. Up until the past decade, it was still common practice to avoid referring to tigers as ‘con cọp’ or ‘con hổ’ (tiger), but instead using the titles of ‘ông’ (grandfather) or ‘cậu’ (uncle). In Southern Vietnam, the first born son was called ‘anh hai’ (second elder brother), as the title ‘anh cả’ (eldest brother) was saved for the tiger.
One of the most common folk name for a tiger is ‘Ông Ba Mươi’ (Grandfather Thirty), the name came from a rumored tradition once held. The emperors of yore would reward hunter who can catch a tiger with 30 quan tiền (an archaic Vietnamese currency, loan word from the Chinese 貫) as they prevented the destruction wrecked by tigers. However, they will simultaneously be punished by 30 lashes, for displacing the revered creatures from their natural habitat.
There are many Viet proverbs and ca dao (Vietnamese folk poetry) relating to tigers, one of the most well-known ones tells of the dominance of tigers over other landlocked creatures:
Trời sinh Hùm chẳng có vây,
Hùm mà có cánh, Hùm bay lên trời.
Loose Translation: The tiger was born without scales,Vietnamese Folk Poetry
If the tiger had wings, it would fly to the heavens.
The poem puts forward that if tigers had scales like a fish, or wings like a bird, they would also dominate the sea and the sky. This is a call-back to the tiger’s godly origin, from a deity who almost became the Emperor of the Heavens.
Tigers are ubiquitious in Vietnamese idioms, a few examples are below. If you are versed in your Chinese idioms, you’ll notice the crossover because *gestures at the Viet colonial history*:
|“Hùm dữ không ăn thịt con”|
Translation: Vicious tigers won’t eat their own cubs.
|Refers to the bonds between parent and child.|
|“Mình Hổ, tay vượn”|
Translation: The body of a tiger, the hands of a monkey.
|This saying is used to describe anyone who’s at the peak of their physical state: strong like a tiger and as agile as a monkey.|
|““Hổ ngồi rồng cuộn”|
Translation: Crouching tiger, coiling dragon
|If you’re familiar with the wuxia movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you already know what this means. In Vietnamese, it refers to a destination with hidden spiritual potential.|
|“Hổ phụ sinh hổ tử”|
Translation: A tiger will father a tiger
|Referring to the similarities between parent and child, as well as that insidious expectation that an accomplished parent would have an equally talented offspring.|
Tigers in Legends
Like many other East and South-east Asian culture, Vietnamese also revere the Bạch Hổ (White Tiger). You can see a White Tiger carved onto the shrine near the famous Hoàn Kiếm lake in Hà Nội. In the ancient capital Huế, there are not just one, but two notable bridges that once went by the name of Bạch Hổ. One of them is now a popular tourist landmark of the city.
Legends of extraordinary men who defeat tigers with their bare hands are also passed on as an example of their might. You may already be familiar with Wu Song from the Chinese classic Water Margin, but Vietnamese have a similar figure in Mai Hắc Đế (Mai, the Black Emperor). Mai successfully led the uprising against Tang Dynasty rule in Vietnam in 722AD, and ruled for a short time over a region of the country. One of his backstory told of the slaying of a tiger by his bare hands to avenge his mother.
There are a few ethnic groups who claim the tiger as their ancestor, too. Myths tell of tigers (usually the White Tiger mentioned above), who took on human form, fell in love, and the children of these union became the descendants of tigers. Notable examples are prominent families bearing the surnames Vương, Bành, Dương, Điền, Đàm, Trướng, and Nhiễm. They migrated to Vietnam from the regions of Hubei, Hunan, and Sichuan in China and carried these legends with them.
The upcoming novella WHEN THE TIGER CAME DOWN THE MOUNTAIN BY Nghi Vo will feature the story of a tiger and her scholar lover, breathing new life into these tales. I love the world of the Singing Hills, and the emphasis on the importance of owning your narrative in these tales. I can’t wait to see what Nghi Vo will reveal with the tigers in this novella.
Urban Legend: The Three-Claws Tiger
The tiger’s hold on Viet people’s imagination is not a relic of the past. As recently as the 1940s, urban legend of the Cọp Ba Móng (The Tiger with Three Claws/Foot) haunted our thoughts. This was a fearsome tiger who feasted on human meat, there were many reasons proposed for its bias for human flesh – was it because it was used to devouring the corpses of our fallen soldiers? Perhaps it lived for so long that it was close to attaining human intelligence? There were also disputes on its origin, the most popular one being that it escaped from the menagerie of a wealthy French official. Having lost one of its foot in captivity, it turned its hatred and anger onto the Vietnamese villagers in the neighboring area. Among the brewing anti-colonial sentiment at the time, I can see why this theory held particular allure. In any event, it became the harbinger of death and military intervention was introduced to remove it. I can’t quite figure out what happened to the tiger on my readings, but it’s certainly a legend I will ponder for a long time.
More on the Novellas
You could write novels on the tigers in Viet lore, but I will stop for now to highlight the upcoming novellas. It means so much to me to see members of the Viet diaspora tackle themes and imageries that are intrinsic to our culture. More than that, I am excited to to see them make each tale their own, and be passed along to future generations like the stories I grew up with. To that end, please make sure you preorder the titles below and support them!
Why I am Excited: I recently read the first Singing Hills Cycle novella, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, on audiobook. To me, the novella was so beautifully written and memorable that Nghi Vo instantly became a must-read author. While the titular Empress in the first book did not have a point of view in the novella, in fact, she was long dead by the time it began – she left an indelible mark on the fabric of her empire. The story that unraveled was achingly personal in scope, but conveyed the rise and fall of the entire country. I loved the interplay between the history and storytelling in Empress. Needless to say, all of this has me eager for Tiger – especially as the F/F Scholar/Apex Predator ship has my name written all over it.
Why I Am Excited: Reading Aliette de Bodard is the first time I’ve ever seen Viet culture reflected in the scope of SFF. She has a way with capturing the sights and sounds of every setting, along with a deeply resonant emotional core to each of her story. I would have purchased Fireheart Tiger due to her name alone, but along with this it’s also pitched as a F/F romantic fantasy, comp to Howl’s Moving Castle and Goblin Emperor, in a setting inspired by 18th century Nguyễn Cochinchina? Shut the front door, I am definitely getting myself a copy on every platform. I also LOVE the cover, and the glimpse of the main Ngọ Môn gates in Huế – a necessary reminder of the times when we could all travel.
I hope you enjoyed reading this post as much as I enjoyed writing and researching for it! Tell me all about your favourite fictional tiger. And please let me know if you would like to see more of the Viet and Southeast Asian lore type posts on this blog in the future, I have a few ideas bubbling away!