Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Thrice Dead Kỳ Sầm

The 10th day of the first month of the Lunar calendar marks the end (finally) of the new year's celebration in Vietnam, which means that shops are slowly reopening, the ADRA Cao Bang staff will finally stopped whining about being the only office employees back at work, and, of course for the people of Cao Bang Province – the festival to commemorate one home-grown national hero, Mr. Kỳ Sầm.

The temple memorializing this long and many-time fallen hero is only a few short kilometres outside of Cao Bang Town. He might also be described as an almost-completely-forgotten-except-for-the-very-local-locals national hero. One aspect of the Vietnamese national pride is the sheer number of national heroes that have been immortalized through their almost constant struggle to maintain their separate identity through almost a millennium of invaders and occupiers. To best disperse the national pride to the common people, there are enough of them for each of the small communities to claim their own hero and each of the time periods during the last thousand years to boast at least a few. And, as time embellishes almost all greatness or wickedness, the less contemporary the hero the more legendary and mythical they become.

Kỳ Sầm is no exception to the small-town-hero-gone-big-time rule. According to the local telling, Mr. Kỳ Sầm was a great warrior who lived sometime in the 12th/13th centuries AD, during one of the many wars/incursions of the Chinese into northern Vietnam. It's not clear if was born in the northern lands or if he travelled there as an army general and fell in love with the people and the lands of the north and became the biggest champion of their cause. Either way, he inspired many warriors and lead many into successful battles against the Chinese, driving the invaders further and further back into Chinese territory.

In honor for his great achievements in war and in uniting the peoples of the north lands, Kỳ Sầm was granted governorship over a vast northern territory. He brought together the ethnic groups to create a province to stand against the forces to the north.

Yet, despite his great leadership, the strength and persistence of the Chinese was not easily overcome, and the war became long and drawn out. Even the great Kỳ couldn't inspire the young men to remain forever in the never-ending effort to protect and expand the homeland.

In time there came the build-up to an exceptionally important battle. Kỳ, in his preparations for the vital encounter, called together his advisors. "If I am killed in this battle," he directed them, "do not bury me in the ground. Simply lay me on the ground among the other dead and leave us there." His advisors thought with horror about the possibility of losing their great leader, but they agreed to do as he said.

As Kỳ foresaw, he was indeed killed in the next great battle. All the people mourned his loss but promised to honor his great leadership and victories in the way he had requested. They left the great Kỳ Sầm and all of those killed in the battle in their place on the field and promised to remember their leader through all time.

Three months later the Chinese again threatened the communities of the north. The people trembled in fear not having the great warrior to protect them. Then, just as they were about to surrender to the invaders, an army came riding over the hill lead by their hero and all the warriors fallen in the last battle. Kỳ Sầm had resurrected himself and his entire army to return and defend his people again.

But battles never end, and despite Kỳ Sầm's amazing victory after his resurrection the army was soon called upon again to repel the invaders. Again Kỳ called together his advisors and gave them this direction: if I am killed, bury me in a reed marsh.

And again the armies were victorious, but, in accordance with his prophecy, Kỳ was killed. The people mourned him and once again obeyed his instruction and buried him in the wasteland marsh area full of reeds beyond the rice paddies.

Months passed in relative peace. Word travelled to the Chinese side that the great warrior Kỳ Sầm was dead, and slowly the Chinese generals began to amass and army for an attack that would, if successful, finally place the northern lands under their indisputable control. The armies once again began to move.

This time the people looked with hope towards the lands where Kỳ Sầm had been buried. Many of their sons and brothers and husbands were dead and gone, but maybe simply the miraculous return of their leader could inspire further miracles on the battlefield.

And his people were not disappointed – almost before their eyes the great man appeared before them, walking out of the marsh. An even greater miracle was following him: all of the reeds of the swampland stood up as he passed and as they stepped into formation behind him, the greatest army the northlands had ever seen materialized. The Chinese army was defeated where they stood – half died from the shock of seeing such a great vision, the other half were killed by the ferocious courage and strength of the reed soldiers.

The following years passed in peace. Slowly the pain of the defeat was forgotten and again an invading army was amassed. This time a plan was made and the front attack aimed at the great northern leader, cleanly beheading him where he stood.

The leader did not fall. Rather, he bent down and picked up his head where it lay on the ground. Leaving his army to battle the invaders without him or his head, he walked back to his great house.

He went directly to his mother and presented his disembodied head to her. With great supplication he asked the woman that had brought him into the world if there is any way that a head, once separated from the body, might be restored to its rightful place. His mother looked with cold pity at the headless son standing before him. "A bamboo stalk, when cut, may regrow from its stump, but a man can never regrow a head."

This bitter finality angered Kỳ Sầm and his head spat a curse at the woman who had raised a mighty leader. "If this is the way you love your flesh and blood, let the only offerings made to you after your death be of manure and the excrements of the lowliest cows!"

And with that, the great leader died for the third and final time. The people mourned his passing by building a temple to him on the high mountain from which he had lead his resurrected army to rescue his countrymen from their enemies. To his mother, his final promise was kept – a second temple was built in her homeland where people made only offerings of animal dung in memory of her inability to help her son.

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