Thạch Lam by the painter Đinh Cường ~ pc

Back in January, Jason Gibbs and Liam Kelley posted in their respective blogs about the term huyền thoại.  While each wrote about a different concern, they consulted various dictionaries on the term and related ones, whose meanings, generally speaking, are related to “myth” and “legend.”

Their posts made me get curious about the use of the term in history. As Kelley has indicated, huyền thoại is used a lot in Vietnam today, and rather loosely in meaning. But it wasn’t common in Vietnam before the 1980s.

When was it first used?  Kelley notes the following in his post:

A quick search for the term “huyền thoại” in my local library reveals only one title from the 1960s: Nguyễn Văn Trung’s French Colonialism in Vietnam: Reality and Myths (Chủ nghĩa thực dân Pháp ở Việt Nam thực chất và huyền thoại), published in Saigon in 1963.

There were a few other titles with this term from the Republican south in the early 1970s and in the diaspora in the 1980s.  My own searches in January suggested the same.  In his prison memoir Từ Yên Bái đến Côn Lôn [From Yen Bai to the Con Lon Island] (Saigon: Khai Trí, 1970), which was written in the 1960s and published in the early 1970s, Nguyễn Hải Hàm (alias Ký Thân) recalls the following:

Thêm vào đó những cối xay ầm ầm… quả thật đúng cảnh Diêm Vương của nhiều huyền thoại thường diễn tả.

In other words: more evidence of usage in South Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s.

Recently, however, I found one piece of evidence that this term most likely appeared a good deal earlier.  The evidence comes from the book Hà Nội Băm Sáu Phố Phường – Thirty-six Neighborhoods of Hanoi – serialized by the writer Thạch Lam during the 1930s and published as a book in 1943.

A romanticized view of antebellum Hanoi ~ pc

Thạch Lam (1910-1942) was a member of the influential Hanoi-based Tự Lực Văn Đoàn, or the Self-Strength Literary Group, during the 1930s.  He was younger brother of Nhất Linh, the pen name of Nguyễn Tường Tam; and Hoàng Đạo, whose real name is Nguyễn Tường Long.  Along with Khái Hưng and the poet Tú Mỡ, they formed the core of the Self-Strength.

Thạch Lam, by the name, was the best-known of his pen names; he also published as Việt Sinh and Thiện Sỹ.   Born Nguyễn Tường Sáu – “Nguyễn Tường the Sixth” because he was the sixth child – this name was later changed by his parents to Nguyễn Tường Vinh.  Still a few years later, he himself changed the second name to Nguyễn Tường Lân.  The third legal name appears on the masthead of one of the Self-Strength’s journals in the role of “executive editor.”  By the way, he should not be confused with the contemporary Hanoi artist Nguyễn Tường Lân (1906-1946).

Yes, yes, I can hear you saying, “Good luck keeping track of those names and aliases!”

In any event, Thạch Lam wrote a lot in his short life: fiction, reportage, commentary, etc.  But Hà Nội Băm Sáu Phố Phường remains his best known work. It consists of a series of essays – sketches and impressions, really – about the foods and drinks and neighborhoods and people of Thạch Lam’s beloved Hanoi.   The term appears at the start of the very first sketch, right after the brief introduction.  Here is one online link, and here’s another one.  This is the line where the term appears:

Trước hết có hiệu trâu vàng, hẳn thế. Ấy là câu chuyện huyền thoại của ông Khổng Minh Không đã được hình tượng ra bằng hai cái biển.

Now, this book was initially serialized, possibly in the journal Ngày Nay.  (I can’t say for sure because I don’t have a complete run. But I browsed through Phong Hóa, the other journal by the Self-Strength, and did not see it.)  A year after Thạch Lam died of tuberculosis, the Self-Strength compiled and published these sketches in book form.  It was republished in South Vietnam, in the diaspora after 1975, and in unified Vietnam since the 1990s.

Since I haven’t got a hold of the original publication where this term appeared, I cannot say with absolute certainty that Thạch Lam used the term huyền thoại in his lifetime.  It is possible that a compiler or editor inserted the term into his original essays.  Nonetheless, Vietnamese have tended to copy the original faithfully.  Until other evidence turns up, I think we can stick with the assumption that Thạch Lam used this term in the 1930s or 1940s.

I don’t think this bit of information changes anything substantial in the posts by Gibbs and Kelley.  It seems clear that huyền thoại was not used widely at all before 1975, and less so before 1945. The fact that dictionaries did not include the term until well after the postwar era suggests as much.

For the sake of detecting, though, I can’t help wondering if the term were used earlier than the late 1930s, the likely time of Thạch Lam’s use.  One place to look is the journal Nam Phong edited by the mandarin and scholar Phạm Quỳnh.  In order to promote more use of the modern Vietnamese script, he often annotated his articles on terms.  But I have looked at no more than a dozen of issues and have yet to see huyền thoại there or, for that matter, another publication before 1940.