Ho Van Hien
TAM AND CAM: THE TALE OF A VIETNAMESE CINDERELLA
         Tam is the Vietnamese archetype of the abused child. Tam means "broken rice", much cheaper than whole grain rice and usually reserved as staple for the poor. Cam means "bran", the partly ground husk of rice and intimately related to rice like the two half-sisters Tam and Cam. Even broken rice is white, in contrast with the darker color of bran. It is said that Tam was of fair complexion (her ivory skin, like "Snow-white") and Cam (from the bad side) was of darker skin; an indication that it was a color conscious society.

         According to an article on the Internet site www.maiyeuem.net (http://www.maiyeuem.net/truyen-ngan-157-hoang-duong-tam-cam.html), the fairy tale has probable Cham origins. Still there might be some historical basis for the story of Tam and Cam and there is a temple dedicated to Tam Cam (or to either Tam or Cam) in North Vietnam at Village (Làng) of Dương Xá, District of (Huyện) Siêu loại, Province (Tỉnh) of Bắc Ninh. According to the theory, the real Cám (who was the protagonist, not Tấm) was a beautiful orphan whose literary name (tên chữ) was Khiết Nương. When infertile 40-year-old King Lý Thánh Tông (1054-1072) was on his way to Village Dương Xá to pray for a male heir, Cám was staying apart besides an orchid, not joining the crowd watching him. He was seduced by her beauty. She was chosen as a concubine at the court and given the official name of Ỷ Lan (meaning "leaning against an orchid", a very popular girl name among Vietnamese nowadays). When she became pregnant, the jealous queen Dương (Dương Hậu) put her in jail and secretly adopted Ỷ Lan's newborn son as her own. The son later became King Lý Nhân Tông (1072-1127). He belatedly discovered that his real mother was still languishing in jail thanks to the confession of a monk, punished the Queen Mother Dương (Dương Thái Hậu) and Ỷ Lan became Queen Mother Ỷ Lan (Ỷ Lan Thái Hậu). In this same version of events, Tấm was Cám's half sister, but she did not play the role of a wicked half sister of the fairy tale. She was also chosen as concubine at the King's court and killed by the jealous Queen Dương.

         However, the mainstream history book version is quite different and relates a wicked and cruel Ỷ Lan. According to Trần Trọng Kim's Việt nam Sử lược published by Trung Tâm Học Liệu Bộ Giáo Dục (Saigon, Republic of Vietnam), when Lý Nhân Tông came to the throne, he honored his mother as Ỷ Lan Thái Phi, but the Queen Dương became Queen Mother (Dương Thái Hậu). Ỷ Lan, jealous of Queen Mother Dương's influence, incited the King to put the Mother Queen and her 72 ladies-in-waiting in jail. They all were later massacred.

        Please read the rest of the story in REMEMBERING SAIGON.
Back