The Story of the Vân Cát Goddess: An Icon of Female Emancipation

The Vietnamese Princess Liễu Hạnh, also known as the Vân Cát goddess, is the 13th daughter of the Jade Emperor, and one of the Four Immortals found in Thanism (an indigenous religion with roots in Taoism). Most of what is known of her comes from the Vân Cát Thần Nữ truyện (The story of the Vân Cát goddess) by Ðoàn Thị Ðiểm. Written in the 1730’s, part of what makes this story so special is that not only is princess Liễu Hạnh a strong role model, but her story was written by a woman (Ðoàn Thị Ðiểm), almost unheard of in that day and age.

By all accounts the author, Ðoàn Thị Ðiểm, was a beautiful and educated girl with many prospective suitors, but Ðoàn Thị Ðiểm turned them all down in her youth saying: “it would be better not to get married at all than to unite with a person to whom she felt no affinity” (Dror 64). Instead Ðoàn Thị Ðiểm chose to work and support herself, taking a role as a tutor at the royal palace, and later opening a school of her own. Eventually she found a man with whom she felt intellectually compatible with, an officer and a scholar whom she married at the age of 37. The union was brief however, as Ðoàn Thị Ðiểm died at the age of 44.

The story of Princess Liễu Hạnh started in the Vân Cát village, where a man named Lé Thái Công was waiting patiently for his wife to give birth. As she passed her due date, he became more and more worried, especially as she had begun to take ill and neither the doctors nor the magicians were able to help. One day a stranger came to the village, claiming that he would be able to help the woman. On hearing this, Thái Công convinced the gatekeepers to let him in. Once they were alone the strange man drew a giant jade hammer from beneath his garments and threw it to the ground. As it hit the floor, Thái Công fell down unconscious.

While he slept, Thái Công had a vision. Accompanied by a giant, he reached the heavenly palace of the Jade Emperor, and entered through the gates. There he saw a beautiful young girl holding a delicate jade cup in her hands. As she knelt down to present it to the emperor, the cup slipped from her grasp and hit the floor, shattering into a million pieces. The emperor was angry, expelling the young girl from the palace and down to earth as punishment.

As soon as Thái Công woke his wife delivered a healthy baby girl. Thinking the baby was the incarnation of the girl from the palace, he named her Giáng Tién, a name that meant ‘the fairy that came down”. Giáng Tién was an angel child, beautiful and kind. She loved poetry and song. Eventually she grew into adulthood and Thái Công sent her to live with a retired Mandarin (bureaucrat), where she would have more access to society. Giáng Tién was soon married to the mandarin’s son, Ðào Lang, and they had two beautiful children, living happily together until Giáng Tién died suddenly at the age of 21.

While the family mourned their loss, Giáng Tién resumed her role as a fairy, and was taken back to the Heavenly Palace. The fairy missed her earthly life, and the other fairies felt pity for her, eventually convincing the Jade Emperor to let her return. Her finally relented, allowing her to return on the second anniversary of her death, giving her a new title: Princess Liễu Hạnh. The princess returned to her family, revealing her fairy nature and her role in the Heavenly Palace. Princess Liễu Hạnh also explained that as much as she loved all of them, she couldn’t stay with them. Her new life did not allow for her to remain on the same place, but she had come to console them with the knowledge they would be reunited later in the heavenly palace.

From then on Princess Liễu Hạnh wandered, and in time her parents, husband and children died. She continued to travel the world, unbound to anyone or anything. She sought out the beauty of the earth, singing her songs, and playing her flute as she went. Eventually she met a poor orphan student named Sinh who she recognized as an incarnation of her husband Ðào Lang. They wooed each other with beautiful poems, and Liễu Hạnh convinced him to marry her unofficially in a ceremony under the moon. Again, the two lived happily together, and produced a beautiful child, but the day came when it was Liễu Hạnh’s time to leave. This time she was honest with her husband, explaining her fairy nature. Her husband was distraught but let her go as she ascended back into the heavens.

Liễu Hạnh returned to the heavenly palace, but soon grew homesick for the earth. She returned to the Vân Cát village where she gave blessings to those who were good and punished those who displeased her. As word of her powers grew, the people built a shrine in her name, worshiping her as a goddess. In the late 1600’s the ruling dynasty heard rumors of this goddess and thinking her a malignant spirit ordered her temple burned to the ground. After the burning the village was inflicted with a number of disasters and the people began to panic, building a giant platform that they filled with offerings to the goddess. Liễu Hạnh appeared to them all, ordered a new temple to be built, and lifted the curse from the village once it was completed.

Olga Dror has analyzed the story of Liễu Hạnh, concluding that it is a rare tale of female emancipation in a region where women’s freedom was severely limited. Liễu Hạnh had the ability and freedom to move wherever she pleased, roaming both the heavens and earth. She was not tied down by her husbands or children, and she chose only to marry for love. Her union with Sinh, a poor penniless student showed that she valued love and intellectual companionship over everything else the world had to offer. Both the Vân Cát goddess and the woman who wrote her story are inspirational tales of feminine freedom for those trapped in a patriarchal world.

References: Dror, Olga. Ðoàn Thị Ðiểm’s ‘Story of the Vân Cát Goddess’ as a Story of Emancipation. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. Vol. 33, No. 1 (Feb. 2002), pp. 63-76

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