Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Doan Thi Diem's 'Story of the Van Cat Goddess' as a Story of Emancipation

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Doan Thi Diem's 'Story of the Van Cat Goddess' as a Story of Emancipation

Article excerpt


This paper is an approach to studying the issue of emancipation in Van Cat Than Nu Truyen (Story of the Van Cat Goddess), written in the 1730s in Han (classical Chinese pronounced in Vietnamese) by Doan thi Diem, a female Vietnamese writer. The story is about one of the main spirits of Vietnamese popular religion, Princess Lieu Hanh. She is one of the Four Immortals, considered 'as a symbol of the ability to survive, of the indomitability of the nation and the country from antiquity through the present.' (2) At the same time, Lieu Hanh is a leading figure in the pantheon of the Mothers, spirits who act as patronesses and protectors. Her cult, which is believed to have originated in the sixteenth century, has experienced a significant revival during the past decade, especially in northern Vietnam.

Doan thj Diem's story about Lieu Hanh attracted my attention for two reasons. First, according to some Vietnamese scholars, it is 'the earliest and the fullest story' of this famous deity. (3) Secondly, it was written by an acclaimed woman author, which is significant since there were only a few such figures in traditional Vietnamese literature, and they were particularly rare in the eighteenth century when Van Cat Than Nu' Truyen was produced. Furthermore, this is a story written by one woman about another woman, which may be particularly important for understanding the author's perspective. Although this text has been taken as an authoritative account of the goddess Lieu Hanh by some later writers and scholars, I argue that it is fiction, based on the cult of the Princess Lieu Hanh existing at that time but with a strong resemblance to Doan thi Diem's own life, and that it expresses the critical attitude of an educated woman towards the society of her time.

The article will first introduce Doan thi Diem and various considerations arising from what is known about her life. We will then turn to Van Cat Than Nu Truyen, a story about the goddess Lieu Hanh, summarising the story and analysing it to apprehend the message conveyed by its form and content and to show the points of contact between the lives of Lieu Hanh and Diem herself. I want to suggest that Diem took a genie from popular religion and wrote her into a literary figure exemplifying an emancipated woman in a society dominated by Confucian moral principles, a woman who could successfully compete with men in her mastery of literary production.

The historicity of Lieu Hanh's cult is beyond the scope of this article; it need only be stated that Doan thi Diam did not invent the goddess, whose cult can be traced back to at least the sixteenth century. Allegedly she was a real person who appeared in Thien Ban district (modern Vu Ban) in the northern province of Nam Dinh, was deified after her death and eventually came to head the pantheon of the Mothers, a cult which became very widespread in the north. The author took information available to her about Lieu Hanh to tell a story, not about religion, but about the place of an educated woman in society. In the process, she purified and apparently transformed existing versions of the legends.

Doan thi Diem's story, in turn, became the best-known and most popular account of the goddess Lieu Hanh, later serving as a basis and inspiration for numerous legends, stories and biographies. Oral traditions about the goddess which are current among Vietnamese today are in fact derived from Doan thi Diem's story, as are most of the written sources. The two most important versions are found in Truyen Ky Tdn Pha (New collection of marvelous stories) by Doan thi Diem and Tien Tu' Pha Ky, a seventeenth-century genealogical register of the Tran-Le clan. (4) Dang Van Lung observes that:

Generally speaking, all the books acknowledge the earliest book describing the story/history (su' tich) of Mother Lieu as being that of ... Doan thi Diem ... After Doan thi Diem a lot of people described the origins of the Mother in Nom [vernacular Vietnamese] poetry . …

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