Week 6: Princess Liễu Hạnh – Mother Heaven

This week on #VNmyth – Liễu Hạnh.

May be an illustration of 1 person
Liễu Hạnh as she is depicted in Đạo Mẫu.

She is the Daughter of Heaven (yes, I mean literally), ruler over the sky realm and one of the four Vietnamese Immortals: Heavenly Mother (mẫu thượng thiên) Liễu Hạnh.

I. Cosmology:

To understand her story, one first needs some info on the cosmology in the Religion of Mothers (or đạo Mẫu).

There are four planes in total, excluding the mortal plane that we thrive in:

  • Heaven (thiên phủ): ruled by Liễu Hạnh – one of the four immortals
  • Mountain (nhạc phủ): ruled by La Bình – daughter of another one of the four immortals – Sơn Tinh.
  • Water (thoải phủ): ruled by an unnamed goddess, she is said to be the daughter of the eight seas dragon king. Note: her realm is probably the most crowded place – as she has to share some of her domain with Lạc Long Quân (The Dragon King of Lạc – forefather of the Viet people) and Thuỷ Tinh (rival to Sơn Tinh and the very representative of Nature).
  • Netherworld (địa phủ): well, self-explanatory, also ruled by a goddess.

Actually, there is a place that could be considered the fifth realm: the east sea island. It’s where the primordial demons are banished to in the story of New Year Cane (Or the Tết’s Pole).

II. Her main story (without any religious factors):

Disclaimer: she is rather a peculiar case. Not only is she a significant figure in religion, but she is also the target for other religions to take down, so her story is kind of messy. As such, I’ll try my best to eliminate as much religious factor as possible – since “my god is stronger than yours” is a can of worm I’m not willing to open anytime soon.

Liễu Hạnh was that rebel daughter in the family – who was stubborn and never listen. Unable to discipline her, her father decided to: “f*** it, what I can’t teach you, life will!” So he banished her from Heaven so that she could learn to be a suitable successor to the throne.

*Insert the old Heaven singing “Oh I just can’t wait to retire” in Simba’s voice.*

Back to the soon-to-be Mother of Heaven, she went to Đèo Ngang, a mountain pass that connected the north and the south of the country, and opened a water stand. In a place plagued with bandits and predatory animals, her stand stood out like a sore thumb. However, people flocked there, as it was the only place to quench their thirst/fill their stomachs after a long day of travel. Plus, the owner was beautiful beyond the descriptive capability of words.

Still being the rebellious daughter, Liễu Hạnh would punish anyone who dared to flirt or want to r*** her, all the while leaving those who just admire and do their own business alone. To sum up: flirting and touching are taboos there.

So, all was well and good, until the day when the country’s crown prince heard of Liễu Hạnh. He went there to meet the girl; then, because he wanted to marry her and couldn’t keep his manner, he was punished with madness. The emperor was enraged, but all the Taoists and wizards he sent to battle her were easily defeated. One day, he remembered Bodhisattva once ordered 8 generals to cleanse the realm of demons. The king asked the generals to subdue Liễu Hạnh, and they agreed.

The battle was tense, yet at the end, Liễu Hạnh managed to over-powered all eight generals. Out of choice, they fled to Bodhisattva for help and were given a magic bag. With that, Liễu Hạnh was finally captured. However, as she is the Daughter of Heaven, she was technically on equal footing as the emperor, and thus, he had no right to punish her. Also, technically, albeit being somewhat ruthless, what she did could be considered justice and abide by the laws of Heaven. So, in the end, she was spared without any punishment. She did, however, heed the emperor’s advice of avoiding harming the innocents or creating too much ruckus.

During this time, she had a husband and a son with 11 fingers. As the days of her exile ending drew near, she entrusted her child to a Buddhist monk before returning to Heaven.

After some time, she was banished again and bore a second child with nine fingers. She gave her child to a Buddhist monk again just before returning to Heaven, this time she said:

“I went to the mortal realm two times and have two sons. Originally, I planned to make them great emperors, yet couldn’t as one has too much, the other too little. But one of them will be a genius.”

That child became Trạng Quỳnh, a very complex character that I will cover in a later post.

III. Other versions:

Being a major deity in đạo mẫu, Liễu Hạnh had seen some significant appropriation in her lore, and not all of them are respectful.

In Nội đạo tràng – a sect of Taoism during the 15h century, she was depicted as a cruel, ruthless, and evil deity who would kill half a village when her demands were not met. She was later defeated by the sect founder – Tiền Quân Thánh. This is likely due to the conflict for influences between two religions, and it’s by far the most disrespectful.

In Buddhism, she was saved just before being defeated by the leader of Nội đạo tràng by buddha, who gave her a monk outfit to wear and took her away. This is okay-ish since đạo mẫu itself worships some deities in Buddhism, too.

In Confucianism, she was… paradoxical. She was talented and often appeared to flirt with scholars; her husbands (in all reincarnations) were also Confucians, too (which is strange since her whole folklore was her punishing sexual abusers).

However, I would share one last story with you guys about Liễu Hạnh. It was the time when she appeared before Phùng Khắc Khoan – a famous scholar.

It took place after Phùng Khắc Khoan’s diplomatic mission to China. When he got to Lạng Sơn (a mountainous town in Northern Vietnam), he saw a stunningly beautiful girl sitting under three pine trees in front of a temple, singing. He then teased her with a đối:

“Tam mộc sâm đình, toạ trước hảo hề nữ tử” – 三木森庭,坐著好兮女子 – a beautiful girl sits in front of a temple, with three pine trees.

You thought this was easy to reply, huh?

Wordplay explanation: 三 means “three,” 木 means “tree,” but three characters for “tree” will form the word 森 – “thick” (as in a thick forest). The word 好 means “good,” and it is a combination of 女 – which means “girl” and 子 – which means “child.”

And to add to the impressiveness, he pulled this out of his ass on a whim.

The girl, too, replied without needing to think for even a moment: “Trùng sơn xuất lộ, tẩu lai sứ giả lại nhân.” – 重山出路走來使者吏人 – From the mountains come someone, he is an official.

Wordplay explanation: 重 – means “double, multiple” – and 山 – means “mountains.” But when you combine the characters for “mountains” two times, you’ll get 出 – means “get out, come out from.” The word 使 – “ambassador, representative of the emperor” – is the combination of 吏 – meaning “to work in Office” and 人 – meaning “human.” While the second word doesn’t appear fully in the characters 使, it exists there in the form of a stroke to the left of the first character 吏. In Sino characters, we call this “bộ.”

Phùng Khắc Khoan was stunned, he asked:

“Sơn nhân bàng nhất kỷ mạc phi tiên nữ lâm phàm” – 山人凴一几,莫非仙女臨凡 – The girl sitting on the chair, are you perhaps a fairy in heaven?

Now, Vietnamese “tiên” is more like “xian” in Chinese, which means somewhat celestial or godlike people. It’s very different from fairies and pixies of westerns culture, albeit we use the same word for them all.

Word plays explanation: the word 仙 – tiên – was a combination of mountain and that stroke – bộ 人. The word 凴 – “to sit” has the word 几 – “chair” – under it. That same word, when combined with “一” – meaning “one,” became 凡 – “mortal” (in this case, “mortal world”).

The girl replied: “Văn tử đới trường cân, tất thị học sinh thị trướng” – 文子帶長巾必是學生視帳 – The confucian tied a long hair tie, must be an eye dropping student.

Haizz, back to the explanation: the word “văn” 文 (Literature) and the word “tử” 子 (Person) combine to make the word “học” 斈 or 學 (to study). Under the word “đới” 帯 has bộ “cân” 巾. The word “trường” 長 (school) and the word “cân” combine into “trướng” 帳.

Phùng Khắc Khoan was astonished and kowtow to her, yet the girl was nowhere to be seen when he looked up. On one of the trees it was written: 卯口公主 – Mão khẩu công chúa – the princess with a cat mouth. On a board at the temple had another line: 冫馬已走 – Băng mã dĩ tẩu.

None of his followers understood what the actual f*** just happened, so he explained:

“The tree is “mộc” 木, so add that character to “mão” 卯 we get “Liễu” 柳, add that character to “khẩu” 口 we get Hạnh 杏. That girl we saw just now was Princess Liễu Hạnh.

In the almost same line of thought: “băng mã” 冫馬 combined into “Phùng” 馮, Phùng Khắc Khoan’s family name. “Dĩ tẩu” 已走 combined into “khởi” 起, which means “to begin.” Liễu Hạnh put that line there to command us to rebuild this temple.”

IV. My comments:

_ She was a major religious figure, so I kind of steer clear from all the non-folklore narrative to avoid bias.

_ In folktales, as well as some official documents of the feudal time, she was recognized as one of the four Immortals – or Tứ Bất Tử. Some experts suggested that she represented “justice” and “fairness,” but that is still debatable.

_ She was rebellious, and thus her genius son – trạng Quỳnh – might have inherited that from his mother, as in most of his legends, the guy took superstition head-on and come out on top with nothing but his wit and deceiving skills. Yep, albeit being the son of a literal goddess and one of the four Immortal, that guy has no magical power whatsoever and was arguably an atheist before that term even existed. Even more ironic: he outwitted his own mother, not once, but twice or thrice! :))

_ Something to note about Vietnamese folklore: most deities see positions of power as nothing but nuisances – responsibilities that had to be taken rather than something to strive for. So, in many stories, immediately after they had raised a suitable successor, the gods were like, “f*** this shit, I’m out. Onto sweet retirement!”

Even the creator god (we have many versions of creation myth, but I’ll stick to the Sky Pillar god – thần trụ trời) was like: “There! You have your world, do with it what you’d like! My work here’s done. So long, suckers!!!” And he was never heard of again :)) he didn’t die creating the world like in Norse or Chinese mythology, just suddenly disappeared into retirement.

See you guys next week

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: