- Women and Mythology in Vietnamese History:Lê Ngọc Hân, Hồ Xuân H[inline-graphic xmlns:xlink="http://www.w3.org/1999/xlink" xlink:href="01i" /]ng, and the Production of Historical Continuity in Vietnam
Three Myths about Two Vietnamese Women
Lê Ngọc Hân (1770-99) and Hồ Xuân Hng (c. 1770-1822) are two of the most well known female writers of premodern Vietnam. Despite their different social stature (while Ngọc Hân was a princess and queen, Xuân Hng operated at the fringes of the literary world), both women occupy important roles in Vietnamese literature and history. There are references to them in anthologies of Vietnamese poetry, histories of Vietnam, the names of Vietnamese buildings and streets, and the halls of the Vietnamese women's museum and history museums. In other words, both women occupy an important place in the pantheon of Vietnamese national heroes and in the sites where the continuities of Vietnamese nationalism, of past and present, are produced. [End Page 411]
Yet an examination of the historical record of these two women makes their vaunted place in the Vietnamese nationalist tradition seem strange. Despite their ubiquity, we actually know relatively little about either of them. What we know of Ngọc Hân's ideas is limited to her two famous but short poems: a funerary oration and a gravestone inscription (both of which are subject to the formulaic conventions of their genre) for her departed husband, the Quang Trung emperor (c. 1753-92, r. 1788-92). While Xuân Hng was a prolific poet, her poems have survived only in poetry collections published nearly a century after her death, and what little is known about her life comes predominantly from the poems attributed to her. In other words, while both of these women have attained great importance in both Vietnamese historiography and Vietnamese literature, they have gained this position only relatively recently, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that very little is known about them.
Since 1954, the year that marked the beginning of two decades of division between North and South Vietnam, publications about both women have appeared in greater numbers than before. Both Xuân Hng and Ngọc Hân have appeared as part of what Patricia Pelley has called "a new canonical version of the Vietnamese past" that Marxist historians in North Vietnam constructed. In this context, their writing was used as evidence of the progressivism of the Tây Sn dynasty (1771-1802), which these historians regarded as a precursor to Vietnamese communism.1
In this essay, I argue that these two women have risen to prominence in the Vietnamese historical and literary canon during this period at least in part because of debates over three central myths perpetuated about them. First, in North Vietnam, historians perpetuated the myth that Ngọc Hân and Quang Trung were madly in love with one another. The second myth is precisely the opposite of the first: in South Vietnam, magazines circulated the fable that Ngọc Hân, far from loving her husband, secretly hated him to the point that she poisoned him. Finally, particularly in North Vietnam, historians have perpetuated the myth that Xuân Hng wrote during the Tây Sn dynasty, rather than during the Nguyễn dynasty. Therefore, northern historians argued, she was representative of the Tây Sn's purported progressive protosocialism, and thus she could be associated with the Tây Sn's expression of the anti-Chinese, antifeudal will of the Vietnamese people. [End Page 412]
To say that these are myths is not to categorize these three stories as being in opposition to the facts that we know about Ngọc Hân and Xuân Hng. Bruce Lincoln has suggested that we view myth as a narrative that conveys a special form of social authority, as "a discursive act through which actors evoke the sentiments out of which society is actively constructed."2 Lincoln distinguishes history and myth not on the basis of the factuality of history and the fiction of myth, but on the basis that myths acquire "the status of...