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Mythology, History, and Supernaturals Mingle in the World of 'Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái'

Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái was one of Vietnam’s first anthologies written in Hán characters in prose form. It’s a collection of 22 folk tales, mythologies, and legends surrounding the origin story of the Vietnamese civilization, how our ancestors built and defended our sovereignty, and a myriad of ancient customs and spiritual folk beliefs.

According to historical texts, a Trần-dynasty academic named Trần Thế Pháp compiled the tales in the anthology, and Lê Thánh Tông-era writers Vũ Quỳnh and Kiều Phú edited the text at the end of the 15th century into the version that we know and love today. In 2017, Kim Đồng Publishing House unveiled a special edition of Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái to commemorate the company's 60 years in publishing. The artbook features intricate original illustrations by artist Tạ Huy Long, making it an elegant gift for any fan of folk stories, or even horror enthusiasts.

Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái Liệt Truyện’s handwritten manuscript is currently housed at the National Library of Vietnam in Hanoi.

After nearly seven centuries, Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái not only entails great cultural and spiritual values of past generations, but it also influenced many subsequent seminal works, such as Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư (1697) by Ngô Sĩ Liên and Việt Nam Sử Lược (1919) by Trần Trọng Kim. First appearing in Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái, the mythic narratives and nationalistic pride in Vietnam’s "Con Rồng-Cháu Tiên" origin story, despite their fictional elements, were still respectfully adapted by historians and academics in their publications.

The first edition of Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái, translated by Lê Hữu Mục in 1960 (left) and an edition translated by Đinh Gia Khánh-Nguyễn Ngọc San (right). Photos via Kệ sách Du - Yên Moksha

Professor and literature researcher Lê Hữu Mục translated Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái into modern Vietnamese for the first time in 1960, though the most prevalent version that widely circulates today was the work of translator duo Đinh Gia Khánh-Nguyễn Ngọc San. Most existing versions are written in prose form, with a significant percentage of the lexicon still retaining Hán-Vietnamese words. This has long created a barrier between the book and the average reader, and is the main reason why it hasn’t enjoyed more widespread appreciation.

For the special version of Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái published in 2017 to celebrate its 60th birthday, Kim Đồng Publishing House collaborated with artist Tạ Huy Long to make over the legendary stories. The edition keeps the original text, but adds 200 full-page original illustrations. Each artwork was elegantly conceptualized by Long in a refreshing take that employs both traditional imagery and modern brushstrokes. Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái seems to have “reincarnated” into a new form — still a valuable historical relic, but now brandishing a new coat of polish.

It was unsurprising that the book sold out even before its official release date. “This is an incredible achievement that any author would hope for, because the historical genre is not a top-selling one,” Tiền Phong newspaper said of the success. After three years, Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái continues to have reprints and remains just as well-loved by readers, thanks to its high-quality paper and beautifully illustrated cover that delivers both aesthetic appeal and historical value.

In Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái, many tales and characters familiar to any Vietnamese are depicted with a rare pared-down style, unlike most conventional historical publications. These include Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ, the primordial “parents” of Vietnam; Phù Đổng Thiên Vương, the hero who fought hostile Ân invaders; and Sơn Tinh from Tản Viên Mountain. Tạ Huy Long made full use of exaggerated brushstrokes and a restrained palette to construct the fantastical world of Vietnamese mythology.

Ancient Vietnamese deities appear as highly stylized and idealized entities.

Among the tales, some are awash in the enigmas of classic horror, like the stories of Hồ Tinh (the demonic fox), Mộc Tinh (the demonic tree), and Ngư Tinh (the demonic sea serpent). Other narratives are focused on shape-shifting and the dynamic relationship between humans and the supernatural, like the stories of Chử Đồng Tử, Man Nương, Từ Đạo Hạnh, and Nguyễn Minh Không. There are also some episodes that seek to explain the meaning behind places and names, like the origin stories of the Tô Lịch River and the tale of how the Turtle God helped An Dương Vương construct the Cổ Loa Citadel.

The art style combines elements of the real and the mythical, the human part and the divine part.

Apart from supernatural aspects, Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái also includes ample anthropological exploration into the country’s cultural practices and culinary customs — such as the origin story of the watermelon, the origin of bánh chưng, and why Vietnamese incorporate areca nuts in wedding ceremonies. It takes pride in the nation’s past victories against brutal invaders, like Hai Bà Trưng’s revolution, and the Trương Hống-Trương Hát brothers. In its depiction of heroic figures, the artwork adapts a majestic, panoramic perspective while portrayals of village traditions take on a slice-of-life, intricate style.

Tạ Huy Long conducted a lot of research to accurately reflect the rich life of ancient Vietnamese.

Beside the content, Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái’s visuals showcase the confluence of cultural influences on Vietnam over the ages. At a book event held by the Kim Đồng Book Center in 2017, illustrator Tạ Huy Long shared that he consulted many sources before creating the artworks because the details require a high level of precision, such as Chăm dance style, folk painting of Vietnam and China, Japanese prints, even Russian religious iconography, etc. This was to ensure that every motif and pattern is presented as correctly as possible.

To complete over 200 full-page illustrations for the book, Long had to spend nearly a year on research and execution. He described the creative process as a journey on the river of time. He couldn’t just draw the way he’s always done for contemporary works. The most challenging thing about drawing sequential drawings is how to arrange the narrative in the most accessible way for readers.

The artworks showcase Vietnam’s many cultural influences over time.

Of the illustrations, writer Lưu Minh Sơn complimented Long’s hard work during the book event, as the refreshing visuals have breathed new life into the centuries-old book, making even young pupils interested in our nation’s historical texts.

Reading Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái with Long’s art feels like stepping on a time machine to travel from prehistoric time to the modern era. No longer just stories told around the fire, the illustrated version transports us right into the setting, witnessing how events unfold in a much more modern way.

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