Animal spirit

The turtle plays a major role in Vietnamese legend and lore.

By JOE A on October 14,2019 10:02 AM

Animal spirit


When certain countries come to mind they may have a particular animal associated with them as a representation of the nation. Russia sees itself as a tough, fierce people so they use a brown bear for their national animal. The US considers the soaring eagle to be a symbol of its courage and freedom. And since China has always placed itself at the center of the world as the “Middle Kingdom”, the enduring dragon is how they have chosen to be viewed. Other countries, however, might not be so easy to place. For instance, what is the first animal that springs to mind when you think of Vietnam?

Not all Vietnamese people feel the same way about which animal represents their country, though the turtle stands out as a real possibility. While I’ve had multiple people tell me they feel “no connection” with the turtle, I’ve also met a fair share with a deep connection, including one highly animated little boy. Though only six years old, he was adamant about the turtle being the most important animal, and even had a shaved head with a few long strands of hair at the very back that he called his “turtle tail” and which he said brought him luck. There are also some powerful myths that place the turtle as integral to the national identity of the Vietnamese, one of which you may be able to view with your own eyes.

Many of the historical landmarks in the city of Hanoi have turtles present. For instance, at the Temple of Literature are rows and rows of turtle statues with stele of text from Confucian scholarship. In this case the turtle is the bearer of wisdom and a representation of the diligence to press forward in study. The turtle is also a symbol of luck, so students from kindergarten through graduate school often come to take a little luck from the turtles here at the ancient center of learning.

Animal spirit

The one landmark in Hanoi indeliblymarked by the turtle, however, is Hoan Kiem Lake, sometimes known in English simply as Turtle Lake. This comes from a legend based around a historical figure in addition to a once living, or possibly still living, creature that resides in the lake. The legend is about the founder of the Le Dynasty and takes place in 1427AD, but let’s go a little farther back to give the story some context.

Since the very earliest times of social and cultural organization in Vietnam there has been encroachment from China. For over a thousand years the country was occupied by the Chinese, until they were able to succeed in pushing out the invaders in 938. This was followed by many successive attempts to reconquer Vietnam by every dynasty that ruled in China. This culminated in the Ming Dynasty eventually moving in and overtaking the entirety of Vietnam, something the Chinese had been trying to do for 500 years since they lost total control. The years under Chinese domination were oppressive, in that Vietnamese customs were suppressed and replaced by a Chinese way of life. This was most notable during their final occupation under the Ming, where a vast attempt was undertaken to strip Vietnam of its scholar and educated class, destroy all books that were specifically Vietnamese, confiscate property, and even change the traditional dress.

Now enter the hero of the story, Le Loi. In the legend he receives a magical sword that he uses to defeat the Chinese and gain back independence for Vietnam. After pacifying the nation, he encounters a golden turtle god named Kim Quy while boating on a lake. This golden turtle is a recurring figure in Vietnamese lore, as it is said to have gifted a previous emperor a magical crossbow around two millennia before this story. When Le Loi meets him, though, Kim Quy requests that the sword be given back. After this the emperor names the lake Hoan Kiem, or Return of the Sword, hence linking the lake to the legend of the turtle. Thus ends the myth and begins our fascination with the lake, but how did the turtle get involved in the story?

Animal spirit

It is possible that the myth is an occurrence that truly happened in history, but the way the historical narrative plays out is a bit more realistic and heroic. Le Loi didn’t easily win back independence. He undertook a ten-year long struggle that saw victory against great odds and brilliant strategic maneuvering. His advisor at the time was a man named Nguyen Trai, who has a street named after him in every city in Vietnam. Nguyen Trai was a Confucian scholar and counselled Le Loi throughout his campaign. Through his sage advice the emperor was able to slowly chip away at the enemy and ultimately remove the threat to his country and to his culture. The last piece of advice from the scholar was to graciously allow the enemy to return to their home and even give them adequate supplies for their journey.

Putting the historical story and the mythical story together you can see how the wisdom and aid of the scholar can be associated with the divine weaponry of the turtle, who is the symbol of wisdom. The last act of the golden turtle was to demand the emperor return the sword, or give up his arms, mimicking the advice of the scholar to forgo massacring the enemy even when it was suitable. They were then able to establish a kingdom based on peace and reclaim their cultural identity from the brink of complete annihilation because of this great scholar and the emperor who heeded his word.

But how did this particular lake get involved in the story? This is where history and myth might collide in a very interesting way. This lake was, until recently, home to a giant turtle called the Yangtze giant softshell turtle. This is the largest known freshwater turtle and could live well over a hundred years. There is debate about whether or not it was the same species as similar turtles found in China due the enormous difference in size. Even if it is the same species as the Yangtze giant softshell turtle, it is still a very rare species. Indeed, only three known living animals remain. Unfortunately, the turtle that lived in Hoan Kiem Lake died in 1967, was preserved, and is still kept in Ngoc Son Temple on the island in the lake. This turtle weighed in at 200kg, around twice the size as a 100-year-old turtle in a China zoo. This was a sad time, as a turtle who possibly inspired a myth and could have been hundreds of years old had vanished.

This was until 1998, when sightings of another giant turtle were made and caught on film. This alerted the scientific community that the species was not in fact extinct but could have continued. Hopes died again with this turtle when it was found floating lifeless in 2016. Again preserved and placed in the temple, both turtles can be viewed while visiting the lake. And a myth-inspiring creature was again lost, but some still say there are others living in the lake, and some have been spotted in more remote lakes. Sightings before the turtle died were rare enough and came only with luck, so it is possible there is another turtle hiding in Hoan Kiem, which would indicate the lake as one of the last surviving homes of one of the rarest species on the planet. So, keep an eye out when at the lake and maybe you too can be witness to the living embodiment of legend and of the Vietnamese spirit.

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