Trâu, Cọp, và Trí Khôn Con Người: Buffalo, Tiger, Human Wisdom

What do a tiger, a buffalo, and a farmer have to do with being Vietnamese?  Read on and find out!

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Viet Nguyen, editor-in-chief of diaCRITICS, had earlier criticized what it means to (not) be Vietnamese, and challenged the notion of authencity.  He mentioned some markers that people use to determine Vietnameseness: phở, fish sauce, Khánh Ly, etc.  The list can certainly go on so where does one draw the line?  What does being Vietnamese include?

Viet was also right in asserting that these are the wrong questions to ask because ethnic identity is amorphous, changing from individual to individual. Anyone can claim any identity, whether others believe it or not.   What we should be asking instead are the “Why” of being Vietnamese.

Why do Vietnamese people do/believe in the things they do?  These questions are more exploratory and will often lead to a better understanding of the Vietnamese identity because they attempt to look at Vietnamese people from the inside out, rather than outside in.

When we ask these questions, though, we inevitably run into Truyện Cổ Tích.  Truyện Cổ Tích are the folklore, legends, and tales of Việt Nam that reveal and explain our mores and day to day lives, like the one about the origin of the Vietnamese people.  Truyện cổ tích  literally means ‘old collected stories’ and some of the stories we tell today will, in the future, be old and explain again why it is that Vietnamese do the things they do now.

Until that time, we hope you will enjoy this feature where we will present English-translated truyện cổ tích so you can catch a glimpse of why it is Vietnamese.

Trâu, Cọp, và Trí Khôn Con Người – Buffalo, Tiger, and the Wisdom of Human

This original piece by Julie is available for your non-commercial creative use.

Long long ago before any can remember, when animals and humans still talked with one another, there sat a bird in a tree watching a farmer struggle to lead his water buffalo with ropes tied to its horns.  Bemused, the bird said aloud to itself, “I wonder why the rope is tied to the horns?  Why not lead the buffalo by the nose-nose-nose?”  The farmer understood the wisdom in these words so he pierced the buffalo’s nostrils and from that day on, led the buffalo by its nose.

Meanwhile, a tiger was sitting in the cool shade at the edge of a pond, admiring its golden coat of fur. This was part of its daily ritual for the tiger was quite proud of its spotless appearance and thought itself not only the most beautiful creature but also the strongest.  By now, it was nearly noon and the tiger was hungry. It came upon the farm hoping for an easy meal but stopped at the spectacle of the hard-working duo of farmer and buffalo streaming with sweat as they pulled a heavy plow through the mud.

His curiosity tinged with greed but as is the nature of cats, he couldn’t help but say first, “It’s so strange Buffalo…you toil for this puny human and let him lead you by the nose, but you are so much bigger and stronger! Why do you listen to him?”

The water buffalo was undisturbed.

“He may be small, Tiger, but he has wisdom,” said the buffalo, flicking his tail in the direction of the farmer.  “Ask him and he will show it to you.”

Wasting no time, the tiger approached the farmer, whose face darkened at the sight of sharp fangs and long claws. Tiger said to the farmer, “Buffalo tells me that you have something called wisdom that makes even a great creature as he obey you, will you show it to me?”

“I’ll…I’ll have to g…go and fetch it,” the farmer said, trembling.  “But I don’t dare leave seeing how hungrily you eye my buffalo.  If you allow me to restrain you…say…tie you to that tree over there, I’ll gladly go and get my wisdom to show you.”

Tiger hastily agreed, for he so wanted to see this thing called wisdom and the hunger was becoming quite unbearable.  The farmer proceeded to tie the tiger to the tree with several spans of rope and ran off.  When he returned, he carried with him only a torch, the fear on his face had disappeared.

“You call that wisdom?” the tiger demanded.  “What nonsense!  Now untie me so I can get my meal.”

Tiger bared his fangs, as if to make the point clear, but the farmer said nothing and lit the tree on fire before leading his buffalo away.

The tiger howled and flailed wildly but the ropes held fast.  The flames bit deep, the rope charred.  Finally, Tiger managed to free himself and ran back into the dark of the jungle.  It was a long time before he would emerge again and what a sight he was!  Great black stripes now marred his golden body, burned into his fur by that thing called wisdom.

Buffalo saw the tiger and laughed.  He laughed so hard that he fell over and broke his front teeth on a rock.  Thereafter and always, water buffaloes have no front teeth and tigers stay deep within the jungle, not wanting others to see their shameful black stripes.

Read versions of this story in Vietnamese at Vietfun, at e-cadao.
Listen to it in Vietnamese at nhaccuatui.

by Bảo Nguyễn and Julie Nguyễn.

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