Week 1: The Duke and The Water God

Have you ever watched the Grudge or Ju-On and wondered: if Kayako killed me, wouldn’t I turn into a ghost myself? And then what stopping me from coming back for a fair fight?

Well, I’ve got your question covered, as the Vietnamese indeed had a folktale using this very motif before it was even considered cool. While it might not be the first, it’s sure exciting as heck. And instead of a ghost, the antagonist is a freaking god.

That’s the story inspired by the life of Ngô Đình Điền – or the Điền Duke, who lived about 300 years ago.He was brother to Ngô Nhuận Phi, the concubine of Trịnh Cán, which is what made him a Duke. Now, I must clarify the historical setting of the story a bit to avoid confusion.At the time, Đại Việt (former name of Vietnam) was in a state of division. The north was ruled by the Trịnh Kings, while the south was under the governor of Nguyễn Kings (King here means Wang or Vương in Chinese and Vietnamese, respectively). Both of those kings still worked under the Lê Emperors (Emperor is Di or Đế), but only on paper, as the emperors were more or less just puppets of the Trịnhs. Yet, the people were so attached to the Lê dynasty that both kings dared not overthrow the emperor. Well, not after someone else tried and failed magnificently, but that would be another story for another day. Just know that the thought of overthrowing the dynasty was there. Trịnh Cán was the eleventh king, who had all the power of the puppet emperor.

Điền Duke quickly became the admiral. Then one day, a flood destroyed the dam at what’s now the town of Ý Yên. Trịnh Cán asked the Duke to go there and fixed the problem, which he gladly agreed on, unbeknown to him, that would be his last mission – at least in the fairy tale.

Quick note: in the original folklore “Yin Yang battle,” he’s simply known as a Duke with a last name Điền.

I. The first encounter

When the Duke’s ships got to the place, one of the scouts suggested they should go into the temple of the Water God and give an offering so that they would be allowed to enter the village. The righteous Duke refused, thinking that because he was on a mission issued by the King, the Water God wouldn’t dare to cause any trouble. I should note here that Kings and Emperors in Vietnamese/Chinese culture are special, almost as if they’re counted as gods themselves; therefore, they have respect from gods and can even give decrees that create, exile, or promote minor gods. Yet, as his ships were passing by the temple, they froze in the middle of the river. His soldiers rowed as hard as they could, but their ships wouldn’t move an inch.

The Duke was irritated. He went to the bow of the ship and said:

“You are a god reside in a temple, being praise upon by the locals, yet you let them suffer by letting the flood broke their dam. And now you even have the audacity to stop me from fixing it? Know your place and help me, then I’ll let you be. But if you dare to cause any more trouble, I’ll burn your temple down myself!”

(I know you folks like short posts, but I just have to add this line. So freaking badass!)

The Water God was boiled with rage; thus, he called upon a fleet consisted of five ghost ships, on which were fish-headed soldiers ready to drown the Duke’s vessel. The Duke was unhinged. In fact, he was a seasoned Taoist himself. He used spells, made and used talismans, and pointed his sword toward the ghost ships, then ordered his men to shoot arrows toward the phantasms. The battle was tense and lasted an entire day. In the end, the Water God knew he was outgunned and made all his ships vanish again. The Duke arrived safely at the village.

Men 1:0 god.

(Side note: here’s the tricky part of translating Vietnamese folklore, the word “phù thuỷ” used in the Vietnamese version can mean witch, wizard, shaman, witch doctor, etc. depend on the context. Our ancestors are really lazy with names, and we just have to deal with it. I chose Taoist because the crafts the Duke performed were typically theirs.)

But the Water God had not given up yet. And now he knew that it was a bad idea to take the duke head-on.

II. Round two, fight!

After a day or two examining the field, the Duke and his men began fixing the dam. It went smoothly at first, but at the very moment when the whole project was finished, the Water God struck. He ordered all the water animals to ram on the dam, right at the spot where it had just been fixed. The dam collapsed, and the hard work of hundreds of people was in vain.

Not willing to give up, the Duke ordered people from the neighboring towns to rebuild the dam, but it was destroyed the second time. Tired from all the rebuilding, the town folks asked the Duke to take a step back so that they could finish the dam. He agreed to it at the end, at least on the outside, and go to the temple to apologize. The dam was fixed in no time, now twice as big and sturdy as the last two combined. The Duke was pleased. He went to the temple for the third time (including the time when his ships passed by it, but he didn’t come in), saying it was all a lie. And now, as the dam was so strong, the Water God wouldn’t be able to take it down again.

Enraged, the Water God turned into a giant fish and rammed as hard as he could into the dam, destroying it for the third and final time. The Water God balanced the score!

However, that was the last straw that broke the camelback. The Duke was so pissed that he was about to do something so shocking that I bet most of you can’t predict what happened in the third battle.

_He massacred the god’s servants!

III. How he committed the act.

The Duke wouldn’t let a god that petty and evil roam about much longer. He ordered his men to scout the river. They found a small crack underwater where the Water Gods and his underlings lived, and they reported it to the Duke.

He then ordered his men to isolate the crack using bamboo, rock, stone, and wood. With that done, the Duke used a hill worth of quick lime to boil everything in that said creek alive…

(Um… I hope that most of us know that fairy tales and folklore are f***ed up by now. But if you didn’t, considered this as a fair warning)

Losing all his men and didn’t want to go head-on against the Duke magic, the Water God could only watch as the people rebuilt the dam. He wasn’t killed by the quicklime, probably because he was a god, and gods wouldn’t die from the effects of the Yang realm.

A couple of months passed, and the Duke was severely sick. He knew this was the revenge of the Water God, yet couldn’t do anything against it. He either passed away after some time or ended his life himself depend on which version you read.

So 2:2 on the match of God vs. Men.

IV. Final battle

Just now, I realized that this story also broke the “golden three” rule :))

The Duke appeared in his sister’s – the King’s concubine – dream, saying he’s worried that the petty god will enact his revenge on the people after he had been dealt with. Also, he wasn’t planning on going out that easily and wanted his revenge. The Duke asked his sister to burn joss paper in the form of soldiers, battle elephants, canons, etc., for him so that he could settle the score with the Water God once and for all.

The concubine did just that, and after some time, an invisible battle took place on that same river, right in front of the Water God temple. The people there heard sounds of weapons clashing, cannons roaring, and water shooting into columns everywhere.

When the sounds stopped, the river was filled with dead fish, turtles, shrimps, and all those animals. And the dam at that village wouldn’t break down anymore.

Now, at this point, there were actually two endings.

The more popular one is that the Duke told his sister in the dream again that even though he won, he couldn’t finish off the Water God completely. So he asked his sister to build him a temple right in that village to keep an eye con that petty god. From then on, people didn’t need to go to the temple of the Water God out of fear anymore.

The second ending was more severed. The Water God died at the end, appearing as a dead uhm… thuồng luồng (a dragon-like creature that I will touch on in a later post). Its blood dyed the river red. The people were overjoyed and dedicated the shrine to the Duke instead. This ending came with a slight tweak at the beginning of the story where the god demanded human sacrifice, or else he would flood the place to take lives himself.

V. My comments on this:

_ Well, I think that while other creatures and magics are a bit shorter to cover, I chose this story over them, as it showcased one of the less well-known – yet very crucial – aspects in Vietnamese Folktales and Mythology: being human-centric. Humans deal with their own problems in most cases, may that be gods, demons, or monsters. The gods either have to reincarnate as humans or play only a supportive role. And at the end of the day, men win, as you have seen in this very folktale. So keep this in mind :))

_ Why the Duke was mad: I think I need to explain this a bit so you folks can understand his action. Basically, Vietnamese don’t often worship any god simply because they were gods. Gods in Vietnamese legends were more or less just another race of super-humans. They’re only worshipped IF AND ONLY IF they help the people and steer clear from taking innocent lives. Vietnamese had never feared our gods. Should they stop acting godly and show intentions of harming humans, they’re then treated as monsters to be put down, regardless of how powerful they are. And then men or women to lead the uprising that dethroned or killed said gods are then worshipped. It’s like that saying Itachi said to Naruto in Naruto Shippuden, “it’s not that those who become Hokage get recognition, but those who are recognized that become Hokage,” in Vietnamese lore, it’s not those who are gods that get worshipped; instead, those who get worshipped become gods.

_ How I used it in my book: just for anyone curious, the main character of my novel is the descendant of the Duke, though I used the last name Điền to honor the lore.

Have fun and till we meet again.

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