This week on #VNmyth: Thuồng luồng – Vietnamese dragon like serpent
I. Different description
Some say it’s a giant soft-shell turtle that use to live in the northern region.
Others argue that it’s actually crocodiles that migrate downstream from the Yangzi River.
Well, I’ll personally stick to the folktale’s description: a snake-like creature with scales as hard as rocks, a majestic crest on its head, may or may not have wings, and tend to grow legs when it gets older. All of its bodily fluids, including saliva, blood, and mucus, are highly poisonous.
II. Story where they are good:
The stories of the good Thuồng Luồng are pretty rare since they tend to be more on neutral/evil alignment in our stories, but I actually managed to find one. And it even tied to Chu Văn An – the scholar who is regarded as the best Confucianist in imperial Vietnam.
The story began with a strange young man that attended Chu Văn An’s classes. He came early every day, didn’t leave until the last pupil had left, and was very attentive and constructive during classes. Yet, whenever Chu Văn An asked him where he lived, he would just say it was the other side of the Red River. Suspicious, Mr. Chu asked his student to follow the strange man, and they saw him vanish at what’s now the lake of Linh Đàm – Hà Nội. Knowing he got a non-human in his class, Mr. Chu took extreme care in teaching the young man about right and wrong, as well as building his moral compass. He never questioned the young man’s origin since.
After some time, there was a massive drought, and the people struggled to make a living. Seeing people’s misery, Mr. Chu finally and asked his students what could be done to help. The strange student said: “If I were to listen to you, then it’d be against the Heaven’s will. But I’ll do it regardless because, as you have taught, the people’s needs come first. If something were to happen to me, please arrange my funeral.”
And so, he went out to the yard and perform a series of magic rituals that called forth a huge rain. Or, as the cool kids would phrase it, “Kingdra used Rain Dance. It started to rain.” Long story short, the downpour brought forth effectively ended the drought.
The following morning, people gossiped about the dead body of a thuồng luồng floating in the lake. Knowing that it was his student, Mr. Chu kept his promise with a heavy heart. A shrine was later built by the village folks in honor of the serpent.
III. Stories where they are evil:
There are plenty of this. They can either be the big boss as in “Đại Vương Hai (Great King Hai),” or “The magic goby fish.” I won’t be going into details about these stories since the serpent appears like your typical “goliath and the giant” monster, but bear this in mind: in all of them, the heroes died as well. The poisonous breath and mucus of the serpent got in through their nose, rotting away their brain and turn their skull into marshmallows. In some versions of the “goby fish,” the true form of the fish is a dragon. So yeah, you can imagine how ridiculously dangerous these serpents are.
IV. Stories where they are neutral:
There were at least three stories about them being neutral, with the tendency of being evil, so I’ll go over them quickly.
The first one is “Mr. Long and Mr. Short” (original title: Ông Dài Ông Cộc). The story started with a fisherman and his wife finding two strange eggs that hatched into snake-like creatures with crests on their heads. The couple decided to keep the animals and raised them as their children. After Mr. Short’s tail was chopped down by his foster father in an accident, the couple released the two back into the river, and the two became gods of that part of the river. While they both were generals under a Water God (not that one from the first story, we have a lot of them), they both sunk ships and caught cattle to eat from time to time. Mr. Short even kidnapped the wife of a mortal once, eventually resulting in his exile in the later part of the story.
In another one, there was once a thuồng luồng that hid under a betel garden (yeah, they can literally phase into the ground). When it was thirsty, it would raise its head up and lick the dew on the leaves, leaving its poisonous saliva on the tip. A man who ate that betel leaves prepared by his wife was immediately killed. In the end, a wise governor had found out the truth and slew the beast, but from that point onward, it was said that Vietnamese people retained the tradition of removing the pointy end of betel leaves to prevent this from happening again.
A third story told of a thuồng luồng once posed as a poor, stinky beggar lady. She went to a village, go to the pagodas and shrines to beg for food and shelter, but was ignored. She then went into the town for the same purpose. This time, she was chased away by people by their guard dogs. Only a widow and her child, who were the poorest around, took her in and took care of her. Even though the serpent returned to its true form in the middle of the night, the mother and child didn’t show disdain or disrespect. So when dawn break, the thuồng luồng gifted them with some magic rice hulls, telling the pair to scatter them around their house. Then it went and drown the whole village, only the isolated piece of land – where the widow’s house was – always stayed above the water. The rice hulls turned into boats when touched by the water. The widow and her child then used them to save as many people as they could.
V. Comments and cultural contexts explanation:
_ Vietnam is a country that thrives on rice farming and agriculture, so the fear of what lurks beneath the surface of water bodies is kind of a constant trope.
_ The idea of a thuồng luồng, or almost any other mythical creatures can be both good and bad, is actually one of my favorite things in Vietnamese culture. It showed that it’s your actions and thoughts that count, not your race or origin. Well, all but the exiled demons. Haven’t found a story where the demons are portrayed as the good guys; the closest I could find have them as chaotic neutral.
_ There is another story regarding a hero – Great King Linh Lang, who might be the reincarnation of one of the Four Immortals that use the serpent, but they are not the focus of the story, so I didn’t include it. Maybe for another time._ Thuồng luồng had another name: Lốt, and is actually a god in the đạo Mẫu (lit. the religion of… mothers, where the big trio (or quartet) deities in control are all goddesses), along with the five elemental tigers. Collectively, they’re called “Hàng Ngũ Hổ, Ông Lốt.”
_ Just add this in because people might find it interest: The Mother of Heaven – Mẫu Thượng Thiên Liễu Hạnh – is actually one of the Four Immortals I mentioned earlier. She is also rumored to be the mother to one of Vietnamese folk tricksters and legends – Trạng Quỳnh.
_ Speaking of which, though. While Heaven’s will most of the time are fair and just, cases where it is perceived as wrong, like in the first story, come up from time to time. And as you can see, both here and previously mentioned in the first post about the Duke and the Water God, Vietnamese really don’t give a rat*** about Gods or Heaven’s will if they don’t prioritize people’s wellbeing and happiness. So you can kinda see why it’s so hard to dominate/invade/rule over Vietnam. We’re basically a nation where the first thing children hear in their bedtime stories is that in the fight against injustice and unimaginable powers (whether it be gods, Heaven’s will, or enemies with bigger armies and more advanced technology), your own life is a small price to pay. The only way any Government could function in Vietnam, in our entire history, is if the (majority, if not all, of our) people support it.
Ps: next week supposed to be the dog but I’m having trouble with the sources (seem like what I read back in the days have been taken down), so I’ll post about someone else instead