Week 8: Cường Bạo đại vương – if Noah were to rebel

This week on #VNmyth, the story of one of the times when Vietnamese rebelled against Heaven, and won.

Disclaimer: I drew this comparison because technically, the last arc of this story is a flood story. It neither was an attack on anyone’s religion nor contained any religious motives.

Cường Bạo Đại Vương as illustrated on children’s book.

I. The story

Cường Bạo was a successful man, or at least, he was viewed as such by his fellow farmers. He had a wife, his own house, a buffalo, and a farm. What more could a man want back in the days??

People said he was lucky and was blessed by heaven, which he always shrugged off, saying:

“I worked hard for this. This is all me! What did Heaven ever give me? If I were to quit, this land would be a wasted field of weed.”

That had angered the Heaven King (ông Trời, or sometimes known as the Jade Emperor), so he sent a Thiên Lôi to kill the imbecile farmer. (lit: heaven thunder, a troop of thunder gods that use lightning axes as weapons. They were soldiers and goons for heaven)

However, Cường Bạo was the best friend, or better yet, booze friend with Táo Quân (The Kitchen King or Kitchen God). Whenever he cooked something good, he had always invited Táo Quân for a treat. So when the Kitchen God heard this news, he quickly reported it to Cường Bạo.

Having heard this, the man answered:

“I’ll prepare for their assault.”

And he did. Cường Bạo cooked Malabar spinach into a paste, mixed that with sesame oil to make a really slippery concoction, then he painted it on top of banana leaves and leave it on the roof.

Late at night, a thiên lôi came to kill the farmer as per heaven’s order. He raised his ax and would strike the very moment he stepped foot on Cường Bạo’s rooftop. But then, he stepped on the banana leaves, lost his balance, and fell down onto the yard.

Cường Bạo was hiding nearby, so he seized that moment to just beat the thunder god senseless. He claimed the lightning ax as a trophy, but thiên lôi managed to escape.

The King of Heaven was even more furious, and he ordered Hell to launch their own assault.

The King of Hell sent Quận Rết (centipede duke) to Cường Bạo house to bite both him and his wife. He hid in the pillowcase and slept through the day. When the couple went to sleep, he would slither out and strike.

But, having been told about this beforehand by Táo Quân, Cường Bạo boiled a big pot of water. When the water was roaring, he tossed the pillow in, and the Centipede Duke was burned to death.

The king of Hell sent his second trusty underling, Quận Rắn (snake duke). This Duke planned to hide in the haystack and strike when the couple went out to pee at night.

Well, let’s just say snake barbecue is a thing in Việt Nam.

This time, the king of Hell sent his most powerful official, Quận Cú (owl duke). Now, this Duke had two tongues. The red tongue was the living tongue, and the black one was the dead one. If he were to make three sounds with the dead tongue, he could rip the soul of people out of their bodies, thus making them dropped dead.

He flew to the house, used the dead tongue, but then realized only Cường Bạo’s wife was home. The man – the primary target – was at work. So he went to the nearby forest to wait for Cường Bạo’s return to claim his second kill.

However, a neighbor had seen it all and told the farmer about the strange death of his wife. Furious, the man asked the kitchen king for help, which he replied:

“Make me the best birdcage you can, and I’ll try to save your wife.”

Cường Bạo got the cage done in mere hours.

With the cage in his hand, the kitchen king went to meet the owl duke in the forest. The Duke, still being a bird in nature, liked the cage so much and wanted to live in there… He demanded that the kitchen king gave it to him as a gift.

The kitchen king said:

“But of course, but step inside first, so we’re sure that the cage fit.”

And the Duke did just that, not expecting the kitchen king wasn’t on the gods’ side. Táo Quân locked the cage, trapping the owl duke, and threaten:

“How did you kill people? Tell me, or I’ll turn you into finger-licking-good fried chicken.”

So the secret of the tongues was exposed, and the kitchen king just cut off the black one. After forcing the owl duke to release the souls of Cường Bạo’s wife, he was set free. Still, some people believed that owls could predict the upcoming death of people. They just couldn’t kill anyone directly anymore.

That was the last straw, and the heaven king was like:

“Release the kra… I mean the dragon king. I heard flood is an effective way to discipline the human.”

The dragon kings (long vương) was ordered to flood the land to kill Cường Bạo.

But the man had already been informed of this incident by the kitchen king. Not wanting to get his neighbors into the crossfire, he told the entire village of this.

Now, here’s the part that different from most flood stories.

The people were like:

“So, The King of Heaven had chosen… war??”

They gathered their weapons, built rafts, and prepared reeds as the flag. They also built anti thiên lôi roof as per Cường Bạo instruction.

On that faithful day, when the first raindrop fell, the people started to sound their drum, gong, and roared:

“We will rebel against the Heaven.”

Their sounds snuffled the roaring thunder as their rafts rose closer and closer to the gate of heaven.

Out of fear, the King of Heaven told the Dragon King to withdraw the floodwater.

The village folks returned to their village, and Cường Bạo was left alone.

II. My comments:

_ The human-centric attribute of Vietnamese mythos once again showed, similar to the post about the Duke and the Water God.

_ There are different versions and variations of the story. In some cases, Cường Bạo was rude to his mother to justify the action of heaven. In other, he was a fisherman who benefited from Táo Quân info to avoid floods and drought instead of a farmer. There were also stories where the attacker was a second thiên lôi who loved to skin people to eat their skin. In some other stories, Cường Bạo was eventually killed by a sneak attack, but that was much later after he raided heaven. And, he got a Temple for having lead people to fight and win against the Gods.

_ Ông Trời (or Trời, or Giàng depending on the regions) was an original Vietnamese deity, ruling over Heaven, or the Sky Realm. However, when Chinese culture influenced our culture, he was merged with Chinese Jade Emperor. Most of the time, he symbolizes Justice. Though, there are times, such as this story, where he appear in a less than flattering light – as an adversary to be conquered. In addition, he’s the father of Chúa Liễu Hạnh.

_ Cường Bạo might be based on Phùng Cường Bạo, a historical figure back in the Đinh’s dynasty, who helped unite the country in the age of the twelve warlords. The reeds flag was a signature of Đinh Bộ Lĩnh’s (the first king of Đinh Dynasty) legend, so it might be a call back to that.

An illustration of Đinh Bộ Lĩnh with his signature reeds flag.

_ The heaven in Vietnamese had lost a total of three wars: the other two were against a Sun-Wukong-like-figure named Big Ears! (Yep! He was an overpowered Dumbo) and a toad :)) In fact, every child is taught to believe the toads to be Heaven’s Uncle, as whenever they clenched their teeth, rain would follow.

_ Lastly, Táo Quân made an appearance in Book 1 of the Half-Alive Series.

As usual, have fun, and see you next week. Also, if you had enjoyed reading this, don’t forget to like and share!

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