Vietnamese martial artists training amidst Cham ruins in Bình Định of southcentral Vietnam.
Source: ZingNews


***What follows in the second installment in our short guest series considering the history and development of the Vietnamese martial arts.  Enjoy****


Lessons from the South

By Trần Khải Hoài


In the previous section, we looked at a “flat” reading of Yue/Việt across time and space as a brainstorming exercise to suggest, among other things, that the coasts of southeast China and Vietnam can be viewed as a transitional space between the cultural worlds of a Sinitic North and peripheral South as well as continental and maritime Asia.  Here, we continue our discussion by surveying four episodes from imperial Vietnam (roughly 11th–19th C.) that speak to martial arts in the Yue/Việt South, wherein lie meaningful lessons for the martial arts practitioner and scholar alike.


Don’t get cocky

On the 11th day of the 11th month (Dec. 10, 1511), Trần Tuân (d.1511) launched an insurrection in Từ Liêm (western Hanoi) against the Lê Dynasty (1428–1527).  The capital was largely vacated as many fled to their native villages in advance of Tuân’s impending assault when… 

The emperor [Lê Oanh, r. 1510–1516] ordered Marquis of Mỹ Huệ, Trịnh Duy Sản, to lead an army to attack Trần Tuân.  At the time, Tuân’s army pressed to invade Từ Liêm.  [Duy Sản’s] army was defeated and retreated back to station at Đông Ngạc and Nhật Chiêu…  Duy Sản, having been defeated by the rebels, had only thirty-some men left.  They ripped their clothes as a sign [of their resolve] and vowed to attack the rebels.  In the hour of the Cock (17:00–19:00), Duy Sản suddenly arrived and stormed Tuân’s camp.  Seeing Tuân dressed in red robes and seated on a bed, [Duy Sản] thrust with a spear and killed him.  Tuân’s band of followers ran away and scattered.

Clearly, Trịnh Duy Sản (d.1516) had gall.  Five years later, he would even have the temerity to murder the emperor. He cultivated such fighting spirit as a member of a formidable military family, the Trịnh from Thanh Hóa.  Towards the end of the century, his clan would establish a junta in Hanoi that would rule northern Vietnam for almost two centuries. But the old soldier’s daring would prove a fateful vice.

In the winter of the 11th month (Dec. 4, 1516–Jan. 1, 1517), a new threat emerged:  

At that time, because [Trịnh] Duy Sản’s army had exerted itself for a prolonged time and the rebel [Trần] Cảo had yet to be extinguished, he issued [an exhortative] speech to lift the morale of his weary troops … At that time, a meteor fell into his camp.  Duy Sản’s army advanced to Chí Linh and fought with Cảo at Nam Giản.  [Duy Sản’s] subordinate general named Hạnh died in the battle.  Duy Sản saw the rebels taunting him to fight, and he wanted to attack.  The [other] generals remonstrated with him, but he did not listen.  The rebels again taunted him to do battle.  Duy Sản grew enraged and, splitting his army in different directions, advanced to battle, he himself ahead of his soldiers.  Duy Sản and Nguyễn Thượng were both captured by Trần Cảo, who took them to his encampment at Vạn Kiếp and killed them.

Complete Book of Great Yue/Việt Historical Records[1]

Even if our valiant’s pride made him blind to danger and deaf to sound advice, he still should have known that the falling star was a sure sign of a great hero’s fall.  (Another historical account details that Duy Sản was ambushed by calvary).  His opponent, Trần Cảo was keener to omens.  Cảo led a (probably millenarian) magico-Buddhist movement that believed kingmaking numen had come to inhabit him as the reincarnation of a former Buddhist king from the lower Red River Delta.  His armies were led in part by his Cham lieutenant and likely included survivors of genocide against Cham peoples in the years prior.  Cảo soon went on to seize and ravage the capital.  Ultimately, he determined to shave his head as a monk and thus disappeared into obscurity.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this tale is not to be found in heroism, spear fighting, or prophecy, but rather another instrument of war, Duy Sản’s speech.  Considering his pedigree with the Trịnh clan from Thanh Hóa, Duy Sản was probably of Mường ancestry.  Here, the Mường general composed his speech in literary Sinitic (“classical Chinese”) with all the classical allusions becoming of such writing but, realizing that his illiterate army would not understand it, had it translated into vernacular Vietnamese for oral dictation to his men.[2]  Apparently, Duy Sản believed that he could rally his Vietnamese speaking troops by appealing to the high-culture of Chinese antiquity through a hybrid Sino-Vietnamese exhortation (that would have sounded like a translation) against an army of magico-Buddhists  based in the delta lowlands and populated by Austronesian Cham fighters.  Such was the art of war in 16th century Great Yue/Việt!   


Drawing of a Tây Sơn soldier in 1793 by William Alexander, a member of Lord McCartney’s mission. Note the soldier’s Cham style turban and sword resembling the dha. Source: Wikimedia.


Fish-dragons don’t drown easy

In the 12th century, Zhou Qufei (1135–1189) travelled to the far south and marveled, “Elephants can actually swim!”[3]  Sometimes, the unbelievable turns out to be true.  Martial arts scholars and reality-combat proponents alike can be quick to decry, “That only happens in the movies.”  But sometimes such incredulity simply belies a lack of imagination.  Consider, for instance, the idea of single-handedly taking on a battleship during the age of firearms with just a sword.      

In autumn of the 7th month (Aug. 5th–Sep. 2nd, 1557)… The grand general [Trịnh Kiểm] personally commanded the elephant troops to secretly go around the foot of Yên Mô Mountain to the estuary and emerged to attack the enemy from behind.  He sent his subordinate from Hoằng Hóa, the Marquis of Vũ Lăng, Phạm Đức Kỳ, to go first on a skiff.  [Đức Kỳ] rushed [Mạc] Kính Điển’s boat and, launching himself, jumped across.  He wielded his sword and severed the man holding the parasol in two, felling him to the river.  Kính Điển, his hands unable to respond in time, threw himself into the river and fled as his forces scattered into the mountain forests…

Kính Điển swam to Trị Nội Hamlet and hid away in a mountain valley for three months extremely famished.  One night, he saw a banana tree drifting through the mouth of a stream.  He held onto it and floated out looking for a way back.  After several months, he came to Yên Mô’s Trinh Nữ Harbor and met a fisherman from Trà Tu Hamlet who ferried him away to escape.  When [Kính Điển] got back [to Hanoi], he vouched for the man and made him Marquis of Phù Nghĩa (“assisting righteousness”).    

Comprehensive History of Great Yue/Việt (1749)[4]

“Native wrestlers”—show of wrestling in Mạc Đăng Dung’s coastal region of Hải Phòng in 1911. Source: Thanh Nien.

When speaking of Vietnamese amphibious warfare, typically the divers of Bạch Đằng are the first to come to mind.  But the Mạc were also skilled on the water.  Mạc Kính Điển (?–1580) was the grandson of Mạc Đăng Dung (1483–1541), a brave who first garnered attention as a champion wrestler in the imperial military examinations.  He went on to lead the palace guard, assume full command over the imperial military, and, eventually, found the dynasty that would rule the Red River Delta for the better part of the 16th century.  Clearly a fearsome fighter, he reputedly brandished a 25kg pole-knife, the so-called Dragon Knife that Stabilizes the South.  

Đăng Dung may have risen through the military, but he began life as a humble fisherman at Đồ Sơn (Miry Mt.) on the eastern coast.  There is good reason to believe that his Mạc clan were ethnic Đãn, a fishing people who lived on boats along the coasts of Fujian, Guangdong, and northern Vietnam.[5]  Đãn people once thrived, floating off the shores of Đồ Sơn, where they are credited, among other things, with the introduction of buffalo fighting.[6]  Because of Đăng Dung’s purported drifting, waterborne Đãn origins, he and his clan were derided by enemies as “duckweed,” an identity that the Mạc sometimes embraced.[7]       

Map of the 1557 battle between Mạc Kính Điển and Trịnh Kiểm. Note that the Thanh Hóa coast was about 10 km further inland than it is today. Source: Google Earth.


But in this case, Mạc Kính Điển was in unfamiliar waters, the Thanh Hóa coast.  By contrast, Trịnh Kiểm (1503–1570) understood his homeland well as a later member of Trịnh Duy Sản’s military clan, which would banish the Mạc from the Red River Delta thirty-five years later.  When Kính Điển followed Càn River upstream from the coast to the Tống Sơn, Nga Sơn hinterland, Kiểm outmaneuvered him by circling the Yên Mô mountain north of the river and striking Kính Điển from behind.  His selection for the skiff assault was equally keen.  As a native of the littoral district of Hoằng Hóa, Phạm Đức Kỳ (d.1557) was comfortable navigating the region’s waters.[8]

Of course, the burning question for martial artists is “What kind of kiếm (not a đao mind you) could cut a person in half?!”[9]  (For those in the know, Đức Kỳ used the sword technique zhan/trảm).  The parasol is also interesting.  The historian wrote this account in literary Sinitic, but for “parasol” he chose to insert a Vietnamese term.  Apparently, he felt that no word in the Sinitic lexicon could represent the instrument that he had in mind.  We also notice that the swordsman’s first thought after launching himself onto Kính Điển’s boat was to take out the guy with the parasol, suggesting that the unlucky fellow may have been charged with defending Kính Điển.  The parasol might have been an enlarged version of the rattan shield (mộc may) designed to protect his commander from projectiles—but this is speculation. 


Vietnamese folk depiction of Lady Zhao/Triệu on her elephant. Source: Wikimedia.


Girls can fight, too

We have already noted how the Yue/Việt south conjured images of pretty, coy maidens.  But fierce warriors like Lady Zhao/Triệu (226–248), a female general pictured with five-foot breasts and riding an elephant, captured the medieval Chinese imagination, too.[10]  Such stories about Yue/Việt female warriors could inspire women towards martial pursuits, including the wars of the twentieth century, and, more recently, performances like those of martial arts superstar Veronica Ngô.  As for the Vietnamese martial arts community, the most celebrated female martial artists are the Tây Sơn Five Female Phoenixes, among whom Bùi Thị Xuân is by far the most revered.[11]  An intrepid fighter, Thị Xuân led elephant troops with the Tây Sơn Uprising (1778–1802), a massive movement originating in south-central Việt Nam that completely upended the social and political order of the lands that would become Việt Nam.[12]        

A century later, Nguyễn Bá Huân (1848–1899) retold the Tây Sơn’s dramatic story in vernacular narrative verse.  In what is perhaps Bá Huân’s most endearing passage, our martial hero, Trần Quang Diệu, wanders afar in search of skilled fighters who might lend their talents to the Tây Sơn “hissing armies.”  Little did he suspect that he would encounter the tiger who nearly ended his life, nor the swordswoman who would become his wife.

For two days, [Trần Quang Diệu] arduously traveled afar,

Through dense jungles and embanked paths,

Far, far away to a stretch of a small stream;

Coming close, he dismounted his horse, intending to wash his feet.

How could he have suspected the danger that would nearly cost him his life?

From a cluster of reeds next to the creek, startlingly a tiger emerged.

A tasty morsel before the old tiger,

The tiger stretched out his sharp claws and immediately pounced to seize him.

But Diệu was no man of modest talent;

He danced with pugilistic skill, advancing and retreating quite solidly.

For two hours, they battled back and forth;

Enraged, the tiger, at last, turned to an awesome stance.

Feigning fatigue, he bowed his head,

Enticing Trần Quang Diệu to charge and attack. 

With his two front legs, the tiger flailed in unison,

Catching Quang Diệu’s shoulders—crimson blood spewed out;

Next, with both claws and teeth,

Biting, clawing in rapid succession with dangerous momentum.

Sir Trần, how exhausted he was!

Retreat was impossible, let alone advance!

Suddenly, a horse’s hooves thundered;

A young woman no different from Mộc Lan (Mulan),

Arriving at the scene, descended her horse, left her saddle;

Swinging twin swords, she charged to the rescue.

The tiger went mad beyond words;

Leaving Trần Quang Diệu, he instantly turned to Ms. Bùi.

Thị Xuân slashed his mouth and tail;

The tiger, hurt and terrified, hastily retreated to the bank of the stream.

His two legs clawed the earth menacingly;

Gathering momentum, he leaped forward, determined to crush Thị Xuân.

How praiseworthy! —a fine lady with courage,

Her swords flashed like lightening with perfect skill.

Wounded, the tiger fell at once,

Rolling around several times, and then ran straight into the jungle.

—Tale of a Headscarf Heroine (late 19th C.)[13]

One year before his death, Nguyễn Bá Huân commented on his writing about the Tây Sơn, “Now that I am old, I no longer carry my former ambitions.  I just take up brush and paper and jot things down that I heard about the past to whittle away the months and years.”[14]  Whatever his motives and historicity of his words, the storyteller’s narratives became immensely consequential for how practitioners would imagine their participation in Vietnamese martial arts, especially since the Tây Sơn legacy has come to be seen as the wellspring of many of today’s Vietnamese martial arts traditions, including so-called Traditional Vietnamese Martial Arts (Võ cổ truyền, lit. “martial arts transmitted from the past”).[15]   


Twin phoenix swords vs. iron fan. Source: ZingNews


The passage here is fascinating for many reasons.  Like Mạc Đăng Dung, three Tây Sơn fighters are reputed to have wielded “dragon knives” or pole knives in the style of the war god Sir Guan/Quan, including Trần Quang Diệu.[16]  But instead of his Golden Dragon Knife,  Bá Huân has Quang Diệu fight with his bare hands and feet (assuming that he had removed his footwear to wash) using “pugilistic skill” (quan/quyền).  In fact, Bá Huân’s narrative verses are full of descriptions of unarmed fighting techniques that still figure in (at the very least) the idiom of many of today’s Vietnamese martial arts.   

Vietnamese martial artist wielding a recreation of Mạc Đăng Dung’s “Dragon Knife that Stabilizes the South” in 2014 on the occasion of the former emperor’s ancestor veneration festival.
Vietnamese martial artist wielding a recreation of Mạc Đăng Dung’s “Dragon Knife that Stabilizes the South” in 2014 on the occasion of the former emperor’s ancestor veneration festival. Source: Thanh Niên


Of course, Bùi Thị Xuân is the true captivating presence of the passage.  Interestingly, despite her reputation for fighting atop an elephant, an image reinforced by more historical sources, here, Bá Huân associated her with neither the imposing Lady Zhao/Triệu nor the mysterious Maiden of Yue/Việt.  Instead, he casts Thị Xuân in the likeness of Mulan.  Naturally, Bá Huân felt that the romanticized northern heroine presented a more fitting countenance for Thị Xuân upon meeting her future husband.  Allusion to Mulan and the context of romance may also have inspired the storyteller’s depiction of Thị Xuân swinging svelte jian/kiếm, the “twin phoenix swords” that became her signature weapon.  

But perhaps Bá Huân’s most consequential narrative move comes later on, his ending the tale with Thị Xuân at the height of her prowess.  By contrast, other versions of Thị Xuân’s story culminate in her martyrdom.  (Quang Diệu died variously of beheading and/or the “lingering death,” while Thị Xuân and their teenage daughter were hurled, gored, and/or trampled to death by an elephant).  By this elision, Bá Huân presented us with a timeless heroine.  Whereas martyrdom can only speak to a cause, as a timeless image, Thị Xuân could inspire female pursuits of martial prowess uncircumscribed by time, place, and purpose.  This is the Thị Xuân who finds new life, for instance, in Twin Phoenix Swordsmanship and Vietnam’s martial nuns.  What it means for contemporary female martial artists to see themselves, in part, through the eyes of a self-described hopeless, frustrated old man is one thing, but it is clear that like Mulan, Thị Xuân’s story could be reiterated again and again and continues to resonate with martial artists of all ages, genders, and walks of life. 

Finally, we should consider how Bá Huân presented Thị Xuân in his concluding passages of praise, which read in part (in the voice of the Tây Sơn chief), “She is mighty and majestic atop her elephant; can she compare with Mulan and Hongyu?  How long I have admired [the latter two] in my boson!  I thought only of Queen Trưng and Lady Triệu.  Who would have known that by heaven’s luck, there should be a heroine such as Lady Bùi?!”[17]  Unlike Trịnh Duy Sản, Bá Huân crafted his verse originally in Vietnamese with a seamless synergy of North and South, literary Sinitic and the vernacular.  More precisely, he drew no lines.  Indeed, Bá Huân’s Yue/Việt heroine was of liminal constitution, at once kin to female warriors of the North and their sistren in the South.  His Thị Xuân was thus a fitting testament to the diverse movement, involving a host of Chinese, highland, Cham, Khmer, and Christian actors as well as less categoric bandits, pirates, and vagabonds that was the Tây Sơn.  Thị Xuân was along with her warrior sisters like Thị Hỏa, a Cham princess and unsung sixth phoenix who also led Tây Sơn’s elephant armies, a creature who thrived at the Yue/Việt intersection of cultures.[18]  



Bàn long cước (“Whirling dragon kick”)—Vietnamese martial artists training amidst Cham ruins in Bình Định of southcentral Vietnam. Source: ZingNews



Stick fighting isn’t just a Shaolin thing

Of monks, magic, and the cudgel:

Because [Từ Đạo Hạnh’s (?–1116)] father, Vinh, afflicted the Marquis of Diên Thành (?–1117) with deviant arts (i.e. black magic),[19] the marquis had Dharma Master Đại Điên use Dharma to beat Vinh to death and hurl him into Tô River.  Vinh’s corpse drifted to Quyết Bridge, the place of the marquis’ home.  Suddenly, the “man” stood up and pointed at the scene all day without leaving.[20]  The marquis, terrified, ran to tell Điên.  Điên recited a prayer, “The monk’s wrath shall not pass the night!”  In response to his voice, the corpse drifted away.

The master [Đạo Hạnh] thought of avenging his father, but he had no means from which to draw a plan.  One day, he laid in wait for Điên to come out and was about to strike him when a voice in the air suddenly screamed, “Halt!  Halt!”  Terrified, the master [Đạo Hạnh] dropped his staff and ran off…         

After failing against Đại Điên, Đạo Hạnh went into seclusion atop a mountain to practice devotions to the Tantric manifestation of Avalokiteśvara, the “Peacock-necked yogin” with a thousand hands and eyes.  Once he was confident of his attainment…

[Đạo Hạnh] went straight to where Điên was.  Seeing him, Điên said, “Don’t you recall what happened the previous day?”  The master [Đạo Hạnh] raised his head and looked up in the air.  All was quiet with nothing to see.  Thereupon, he pummeled Điên, who grew sick and died.[21]     

—Collection of Luminaries from the Chan/Thiền Garden (early 14th C.)[22]

This story has much to say about the ambiguous role of transgression in spiritual practice.  The Marquis of Diên Thành was a man of demonstrable truculence; he once drew a knife in front of the emperor and apparently saw monks as assassins for hire.   The other characters, though, are not as straightforward.  Đạo Hạnh’s father explicitly practiced deviant sorcery (xieshu/tà thuật), while the seeming villain, Đại Điên, wielded powers attributed to the proper Dharma (fa/pháp).  For his part, Đạo Hạnh succeeded in gaining the graces of the Goddess of Mercy only to perform murder.  

But perhaps the most interesting thing is the tale’s insistence on the physical execution of violence.  Đại Điên harnessed Dharma magic, but still physically beat Vinh to death.  Similarly, after his mystical training, Đạo Hạnh did not zap his rival monk with Buddhist sorcery nor unleash the wrath of gods against him.  Instead, Đạo Hạnh pummeled him to death.  (Although the text is not explicit, we are led to believe Đạo Hạnh cudgeled Đại Điên with his staff, since he carried it with him during his earlier aborted assault and, in Đạo Hạnh’s “training montage,” which is paraphrased above, he performed a magic trick with his staff just before seeking another shot at revenge).

I hope to say more about the significant of Đạo Hạnh’s story for Vietnamese Tantra, millenarianism, and embodied violence in a (distant) future project.  But in keeping with the thread of this essay, here I present Đạo Hạnh’s story for another reason, namely it positions the South as a Buddhist center vis-à-vis the North.  Đạo Hạnh appears in other storytelling traditions like dynastic histories and what might be called “tales of the strange” (chuanqi), but this account comes from a 14th century collection of hagiographies of Great Yue/Việt monks (making it the oldest text surveyed here in terms of both its production and content).  The work represents an effort to construct lineages for Great Yue/Việt’s Buddhist past in accordance with the Meditation Sect’s insistence on human transmission from teacher to student of the enlightenment experience or “transmission of the lamp.”[23]  As Chan/Thiền or Meditation Sect was essentially a Chinese innovation, hagiographies like Đạo Hạnh’s and the lineages they delineated served to claim Great Yue/Việt as a religious center at a time when the Mongols (1271–1368) appeared to have extinguished Sinitic “Hua/Hoa” civilization in the north.     

This emphasis on lineage stems from Chan/Thiền’s founding myth, which, upon closer inspection, follows a familiar pattern.  Bodhidharma is said to have received the “transmission of the lamp” in a direct line of succession from Buddha.  Bodhidharma then passed this esoteric tradition from India to the first “Chinese” Chan/Thiền monk, who, in turn, perpetuated a lineage that succeeded to the Sixth Patriarch, the central figure of Chan/Thiền Buddhism.  The Platform Sutrain which the Sixth Patriarch’s origin story is found, identifies him as a Yue/Việt person from the far south.  The patriarch’s obscure origins at the periphery were not only convenient for the polemical imperative to forge a lineage, they also had soteriological value.  The Six Patriarch was described as an illiterate southern bumpkin who, despite his lack of sophistication, possessed an intuitive understanding of Chan/Thiền.  His experience with Chan/Thiền was spontaneous and organic and completely unmediated by discursive thought or dispensation.  In short, he embodied southern mystery as yet another iteration of the Maiden of Yue/Việt.

But, ultimately, we are speaking of circulations, not transmissions.  As readers are well-familiar, Bodhidharma is also credited with bringing martial arts and qigong to China’s Shaolin Temple.  When we bring these stories into conversation with the mythology of the Southern Shaolin Temple, we cannot help but consider that, in the end, we are speaking not of Chinese martial arts’ transmission from north to south, but rather, as far as legends go, their remittal.   


About the Author

Trần Khải Hoài is a PhD candidate in the field of Vietnamese Literature, Religion, and Culture at Cornell University.  His connection with martial arts is as a choreographer of martial arts inspired routines for Cornell’s Chinese dance troupe Illuminations and an informant for Augustus John Roe’s The Martial Arts of Vietnam (Boston: YMAA, 2020).  


Aside from his role as a Buddhist thaumaturge, Từ Đạo Hạnh is also revered In Vietnam as the patron saint of water puppetry.Source: Chùa Phật học Xá Lợi (Relics Monastery of Buddhist Studies).


[1] Lê Văn Hưu, Phan Phu Tiên, Ngô Sĩ Liên, et. al., Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, Sinographic text (comp. 1697) in volume four of Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, ed. Phan Huy Lê, Ngô Đức Thọ, and Hà Văn Tấn (Hà Nội: NXB Khoa Học Xã Học, 1998), “bản ký,” 15.15a–b, 15.33a.

[2] Lê Quý Đôn, Đại Việt thông sử, trans. Ngô Thế Lợi (Hà Nội: NXB Văn hóa thông tin, 2007), 284–.291.

[3] Zhou Qufei observed, “Elephants can actually swim.  When the elephant slaves (trainers] reach a ford, they tether a boat to transport them.  After they receive their money, they goad the elephants across.”  Zhou Qufei, “Annan guo,” in Lingwai daida, available at Chinese Text Projected. Donald Sturgeon, passage 5.

[4] Lê Quý Đôn (1726–1784), Đại Việt thông sử (comp. 1749), Sinographic text in Đại Việt thông sử, ed. and trans. Lê Mạnh Liêu ([Sàigòn?]: Bô Văn hóa Giáo dục và Thanh niên, 1973), “Ngịch thần truyện,” 68b–69a.

[5] Dian H. Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 6–17; Trần Quốc Vượng, “Mấy vấn đề về nhà Mạc,” in Nhà Mạc và dòng họ Mạc trong lịch sử, ed. Ngô Đăng Lợi (Hà Nội: Viện Sử Học và Hội Đồng Lịch Sử Hải Phòng), 22–25.

[6] Quốc Sử Quán Triều Nguyễn, Đại Nam nhất thống chí, ed. Đào Duy Anh, trans. Phạm Trọng Điềm (Huế: NXB Thuận Hóa, 2006), tập 3, 454, 496.

[7] Kathlene Baldanza, Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia, 155–158.

[8] Phạm Đức Kỳ would attempt a similar skiff assault by jumping onto an enemy’s ship later that year, but this time he was repelled, forced to plunge back into the water, and retreat to his own boat.  His opponent turned the tables, launching onto Đức Kỳ’s boat and decapitating him (along with Đức Kỳ’s parasol bearer).    

[9] Today, kiếm usually calls to mind light double-edged straight swords, while đao suggests larger single edged chopping blades.  Most likely, the historian used the term generically as is the case with another Vietnamese word for sword, gươm, which derives from the same Sinograph as kiếm.  Considering that Trịnh Kiểm’s armies were being supplied by Lao rulers at the time, my guess is that it was a dha, Thai style single edged sword like the gươm trượng.   

[10] Edward Schafer, The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South, 81.  To be more precise, Vietnamese sources say her breasts were 3 chi/thước.

[11] The other four are Trần Thị Lan, Xuân’s aunt Bùi Thị Nhạn, and her two “disciples” Hoàng Thị Cúc, and Nguyễn Thị Dung.

[12] George E. Dutton, The Tây Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006).

[13] Nguyễn Bá Huân, “Cân quắc anh hùng truyện,” appended to Vũ Thị Ngọc Khuê, Nữ tướng Bùi Thị Xuân (Hà Nội: NXB Văn hóa thông tin, 2008), 102–103.  The term translated “headscarf” was really more of a turban than a scarf, but since the Vietnamese headdress in question was worn exclusively by women, here I use “headscarf.” 

[14] Nguyễn Bá Huân, Tây Sơn văn thần liệt truyện (Ty Văn Hóa và Thông Tin Nghĩa Bình, comp. 1898, 1979), 5–6.

[15] Augustus John Roe, The Martial Arts of Vietnam: An Overview of History and Styles (Boston, MA: YMAA, 2020), 82–91.

[16] The other two are Nguyễn Huệ with his Crow Dragon Knife and Võ Văn Dũng with his Thunder Dragon Knife.  I am unable to determine whether these Tây Sơn fighters actively cultivated a likeness to General Guan or this is a later tradition.

[17] Nguyễn Bá Huân, “Cân quắc anh hùng truyện,” appended to Vũ Thị Ngọc Khuê, Nữ tướng Bùi Thị Xuân (Hà Nội: NXB Văn hóa thông tin, 2008),118.

[18] George E. Dutton, The Tây Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam, 91–92.

[19] Here, I have reconstructed a lacuna in the source text with redactions of the Lĩnh Nam chich quái.

[20] Reading the Thiền uyển tập anh in isolation, I am inclined to read this line “Suddenly, people stood around pointing at the scene all day without leaving.”  In this reading, Vinh’s inanimate corpse drifts to the bridge and comes to a stop, and then people gather around, making a commotion that troubles the marquis.  How the line is interpreted hinges on what to make of the Sinograph ren/nhân, which can mean both a single person or several people.  Here, I translated it “’the man’” to imply Vinh’s undead apparition in accordance with most versions of the Linh Nam Chich Quai, which omit ren/nhân altogether and simply read, “Suddenly, it [Vinh’s corpse] stood up, pointing to the scene all day without leaving.”

[21] The Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái has Đạo Hạnh kill the rival monk on the spot, simply saying “[Đạo Hạnh] pummeled him to death.”

[22] Thiền uyển tập anh, Sinographic text in Nguyễn Tự Cường’s Zen in Medieval Vietnam: A Study and Translation of the Thiền uyển tập anh (Honolulu: HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997), 53b–54b.  My translation benefited greatly from Cường’s version.  Because the source text is corrupted in some places, I relied on other versions of the story in various redactions of the Lĩnh Nam chích quái (15th C.) to fill lacuna and work out problematic passages. 

[23] Nguyen Tu Cuong, “Rethinking Vietnamese Buddhist History: Is the Thiền Uyển Tập Anh a ‘Transmission of the Lamp’ Text?”  in Essays into Vietnamese Pasts, ed. K. W. Taylor and John K. Whitmore (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018), 81–115.