The Tiger in Vietnamese Lore

I have stumbled upon a very interesting post about tigers in Vietnamese legend and lore. The link is here, and I am copying the most relevant parts below just in case the original post should disappear from the internet (as it often happens); I am not trying to appropriate it!

The Godly Origin of the Tiger

In Vietnam, the tiger is also known as Chuá Sơn Lâm (The God of the Mountain and Forest). The creation myth of the tiger tells of a mutinous heavenly deity by the name of Phạm Nhĩ. While Phạm Nhĩ was remarkably strong and talented, he plotted against the Jade Emperor as he thought he would be a more worthy ruler of the Heavens. Phạm Nhĩ created a huge ruckus, and he was almost successful in his exploits, until Buddha intervened and captured him. Buddha handed him back to the Jade Emperor, but warned that Phạm Nhĩ should not be killed for his crime. Instead, he was reincarnated as an animal on Earth – but he still retained his extraordinary strength and hearing (the name Phạm Nhĩ refers to his long ears).

The Tiger and the Toad

I love finding common threads in tales around the world, and discovering the similarities between this story and The Turtle and the Hare, as well as The Banquet of the Twelve Zodiac, made me appreciate it all the more. In this story, a toad dissuade a tiger from devouring it by proposing a competition to see who can jump across the river first. During the jump, the toad hangs onto the tiger’s tail for most of the way, and leap across at the last moment to emerge as the victor. You can see the echoes of how the rat tricked its way to become the first member of the lunar zodiac sign, as well as the ever-present commentary between might and wit in fairy tales.

How the Tiger got Its Stripes

As a child, my favourite kinds of tales were the ones that attempted to explain the natural world around us. Like with many fairy tales, I am surprised at how dark it is now that I look back on it. The tale starts with a tiger who saw an ox being used as a beast of burden by a farmer. The tiger asked the ox why it willingly submitted to a human, when it was exponentially stronger. The ox replied it had to follow the human due to his cleverness, but could not explain what ‘cleverness’ was to the expectant tiger. The tiger then went to ask the farmer to show him this object called ‘cleverness’, and the farmer used the tiger’s curiosity to tie him to a tree and set him on fire (yes, folklore comes with a sobering dose of casual animal cruelty!). While the tiger escaped from the fire, it bore the burn marks from the event, and all tigers henceforth were burn with the black burn marks on their body. The ox? It fell over laughing when the tiger was caught and lost all of its upper teeth, which is why ox now only have teeth on their lower jaw. A two for one creation fable, so to speak.

Tigers in Our Language

Tigers are traditionally respected in Vietnam. Up until the past decade, it was still common practice to avoid referring to tigers as ‘con cọp’ or ‘con hổ’ (tiger), but instead using the titles of ‘ông’ (grandfather) or ‘cậu’ (uncle). In Southern Vietnam, the first born son was called ‘anh hai’ (second elder brother), as the title ‘anh cả’ (eldest brother) was saved for the tiger.

One of the most common folk name for a tiger is ‘Ông Ba Mươi’ (Grandfather Thirty), the name came from a rumored tradition once held. The emperors of yore would reward hunter who can catch a tiger with 30 quan tiền (an archaic Vietnamese currency, loan word from the Chinese 貫) as they prevented the destruction wrecked by tigers. However, they will simultaneously be punished by 30 lashes, for displacing the revered creatures from their natural habitat.

There are many Viet proverbs and ca dao (Vietnamese folk poetry) relating to tigers, one of the most well-known ones tells of the dominance of tigers over other landlocked creatures:

Trời sinh Hùm chẳng có vây,
Hùm mà có cánh, Hùm bay lên trời.

Loose Translation: The tiger was born without scales,
If the tiger had wings, it would fly to the heavens.

Vietnamese Folk Poetry

The poem puts forward that if tigers had scales like a fish, or wings like a bird, they would also dominate the sea and the sky. This is a call-back to the tiger’s godly origin, from a deity who almost became the Emperor of the Heavens.

Tigers are ubiquitious in Vietnamese idioms, a few examples are below. If you are versed in your Chinese idioms, you’ll notice the crossover because *gestures at the Viet colonial history*:

“Hùm dữ không ăn thịt con”
Translation: Vicious tigers won’t eat their own cubs.
Refers to the bonds between parent and child.
“Mình Hổ, tay vượn”
Translation: The body of a tiger, the hands of a monkey.
This saying is used to describe anyone who’s at the peak of their physical state: strong like a tiger and as agile as a monkey.
““Hổ ngồi rồng cuộn”
Translation: Crouching tiger, coiling dragon
If you’re familiar with the wuxia movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, you already know what this means. In Vietnamese, it refers to a destination with hidden spiritual potential.
“Hổ phụ sinh hổ tử”
Translation: A tiger will father a tiger
Referring to the similarities between parent and child, as well as that insidious expectation that an accomplished parent would have an equally talented offspring.

Tigers in Legends

Like many other East and South-east Asian culture, Vietnamese also revere the Bạch Hổ (White Tiger). You can see a White Tiger carved onto the shrine near the famous Hoàn Kiếm lake in Hà Nội. In the ancient capital Huế, there are not just one, but two notable bridges that once went by the name of Bạch Hổ. One of them is now a popular tourist landmark of the city.

Legends of extraordinary men who defeat tigers with their bare hands are also passed on as an example of their might. You may already be familiar with Wǔ Sōng from the Chinese classic Water Margin, but Vietnamese have a similar figure in Mai Hắc Đế (Mai, the Black Emperor). Mai successfully led the uprising against Táng Dynasty rule in Vietnam in 722AD, and ruled for a short time over a region of the country. One of his backstory told of the slaying of a tiger by his bare hands to avenge his mother.

There are a few ethnic groups who claim the tiger as their ancestor, too. Myths tell of tigers (usually the White Tiger mentioned above), who took on human form, fell in love, and the children of these union became the descendants of tigers. Notable examples are prominent families bearing the surnames Vương, Bành, Dương, Điền, Đàm, Trướng, and Nhiễm. They migrated to Vietnam from the regions of Húběi, Húnán, and Sìchuān in China and carried these legends with them.

Urban Legend: The Three-Claws Tiger

The tiger’s hold on Viet people’s imagination is not a relic of the past. As recently as the 1940s, urban legend of the Cọp Ba Móng (The Tiger with Three Claws/Foot) haunted our thoughts. This was a fearsome tiger who feasted on human meat, there were many reasons proposed for its bias for human flesh – was it because it was used to devouring the corpses of our fallen soldiers? Perhaps it lived for so long that it was close to attaining human intelligence? There were also disputes on its origin, the most popular one being that it escaped from the menagerie of a wealthy French official. Having lost one of its foot in captivity, it turned its hatred and anger onto the Vietnamese villagers in the neighboring area. Among the brewing anti-colonial sentiment at the time, I can see why this theory held particular allure. In any event, it became the harbinger of death and military intervention was introduced to remove it. I can’t quite figure out what happened to the tiger on my readings, but it’s certainly a legend I will ponder for a long time.