A Vietnamese Folk Tale: The Origin of Rice Agriculture

Terraced Rice Agriculture in Sa Pa, Vietnam

Seattle, WA

A week away from Burma’s first elections in twenty years, the world awaits to see how events play out. Most say the elections won’t be free and fair, the junta-backed USDP (Union Solidarity and Development Party) largely tipped to win. It is likely immediate change will not be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, members of ASEAN met in Hanoi, Vietnam for the 17th Summit, amidst conflicting regional interests. North Korea fired on South Korean border guards. In Indonesia, Mount Merapi erupted, killing at least 35 people, while to the west a simultaneous earthquake-cum-tsunami struck, killing an additional 408 Indonesians, leaving more missing¹.

Yet this week I choose to bring up a short and amusing Vietnamese folk tale; it explains the legend of how rice agriculture began²:

As the legend explains it, the gods did not mean for humankind to labor so intensively in cultivating rice; in fact, rice was supposed to grow naturally, effortlessly, and abundantly. The gods sent a messenger spirit to bring rice to humankind, giving him two magical pouches, each containing a different variety of seed. The first one held seeds that would grow as soon as they hit the ground and would provide a bountiful harvest free of any strain. The second, however, would require more effort, but it would cause the earth to appear beautiful if given proper care.

Now, the gods intended for the first seeds to become rice, while the second should be grass. The rice would provide plenty of nutrition to all, while the grass would cover the land and make earth more habitable and picturesque. Of course, the messenger got the two pouches confused, and this caused great hardship for the humans! Rice was extremely difficult to grow, demanding months of back-breaking labor and attention, while the grass freely grew everywhere.

At this point, the gods became angry and kicked the faulted messenger spirit out of the heavens. They sent him down to earth in the form of a beetle, made to scurry around in the grass where he would have to dodge the step of marauding humans. Bad luck for all, it seemed!

Worse yet, trouble didn’t end there: again, the legend says, the gods meant to help humankind. So they ordered the rice to ball itself up and present itself in convenient rolls to humans so that they might collect it more easily for cooking. Obediently, the rice balls rolled into the very first house in the first village. Shocked by the sight, the lady of the house struck the rice balls with her broom, flinging the grains of rice in a thousand directions. Angry and skulking, the rice took to the fields and spurned humans. As it is to this day, men and women must go to the fields to cultivate rice. It is a difficult and time-consuming trade, but it provides the world with a great source of nutrition.

¹ Figures cited in The New York Times, Sunday, 31 Oct., 2010.

² This story is told as greater length in Hayslip, Le Ly. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places: A Vietnamese Woman’s Journey From War to Peace, 2nd ed. (New York: Plume Printing, 2003).

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