REFLECTIONS ON TET

            Dusk settled on the cold countryside as gray smoke rose slowly and lingered over thatched roofs here and there. In a corner of the yard of a black-tile-roof house you could just make out a miniature scene with mountains, lakes, a buffalo boy on the back of his domestic animal, and a monk meditating or praying in a tall-towered temple beside some pine trees on the bank of a creek. Inside, an old housekeeper was busy cooking and carefully preparing for the traditional celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. Offerings are placed in shining chinaware on ancestors’ red-painted altars, among the brass items ready for the New Year’s Eve rite: rice cakes in cylindrical, round, and square shapes; several types of fruits; and pork delicacies of various kinds.

Of all Oriental and Western rituals, Tet is probably the one that carries the most psychological and metaphysical impact for Vietnamese people, thanks to its thousand-year-old traditions. Tet reminds everyone abroad of emotional feelings and inevitable vague memories of more peaceful times of a country now drowning in desperation and separation halfway round the globe. An unexpected encounter between two Vietnamese strangers can become an intimate occasion thanks to the word ‘Tet’, which is an effective means of recognizing Vietnamese identity and origin. There’s no need to lecture at length about the culture of a nation, since certain particular characteristics will suffice to keep its citizens together, typically the same loving language spoken in the family and within the society where everyone feels comfortable to be with everyone else, forming a solid base far beyond the national border to defend the fatherland.

Semantically, Tet means the first early morning of the year, but to the Vietnamese it conveys a broader and deeper sense: total restoration and re-creation, an innovation of the universe that mystifies the nature of things, implying a silent yet miraculous harmony between nature, the universe, and mankind, between the living and the dead, between our ancestors and ourselves. In the sacredness of the universe at the beginning of the year, plants begin to develop and grow, green and robust; flowers blossom and spread fragrance all around. The indefinite space and time offered by the first hours of the year offer each person a chance at transformation. Following yearly three hundred sixty day cycles, Tet returns to Vietnamese rejoicing as a source of new hopes, the eager expectation of a glorious dawn, a complete clearance of all pain, suffering, misfortune, and the dangers of the past. Happiness appears on the horizon, promising signs of a marvelous spring.

As nature slowly begins to materialize once more, deep emotional feelings might develop in one’s heart about the beginning of the universe, the initial creation of indefinite time, which man eventually partitioned into years and months and days to serve the practical needs of humanity.

Tet! A sacred and ceremonial event, celebrated according to national traditions and customs like the rituals and customs of the Chinese, those masters of the calendar who are such a huge cultural influence on East Asia.

It was the year of the Goat, the four thousand six hundred twenty-eighth lunar year observed by Vietnamese. According to the lunar system, each year lasts only three hundred fifty-five days, compared to the solar system of three hundred sixty-five days. The Lunar New Year, therefore, never comes at the same time as the Western New Year. A lunar cycle repeats itself every sixty years. My neighbor, a former teacher of the past era, had to use the ten-thousand-year calendar his father had used before him to check the good and bad days and months, as he had been unable to buy a red Chinese calendar on the last day of the year from a Chinese shop owner in Tam Ky. He also had to refer to the sixty year cycle similar to the one he was missing for his reference. He used to tell the following story about the names of the year and months: “One day, the King of Heaven ordered all the animals he had created through his labors to assemble before him. On the said day, however, only 12 of them showed up: the mouse, then the water buffalo, the tiger, the cat… and finally the fat pig. To reward those present, he named a year after each one of them, and ever since, the years have been referred to with the name of one of those animals.”

According to Vietnamese customs, ”the first month is for pleasure,” meaning the whole month right after Tet should be considered a break to Vietnamese people who had to work very hard during the previous year, usually in the agricultural and handicraft sections of society. To celebrate Tet is to worship ancestors and to give oneself over to pleasure according to traditional customs; however, the length and scope of the festivities depend on regional habits and material capabilities as well as the psychological and spiritual conditions of each social class.

One famous Chinese writer in the Han period, a comic talent who used to entertain people and prevent kings and princes from doing wrong, described Tet as follows: “At the beginning of the universe, the Creator made chickens on the first day, then dogs on the second, followed on a daily basis by pigs, goats, buffaloes, horses, humans, and cereals on the eighth. That’s why I suggest we celebrate Tet from the first through the seventh day only, because by then, human beings have been created.”

In that small hamlet on a hilly slope covered by fog in the district of Tien Phuoc, bordering the mountainous region, some of the inhabitants applauded merrily, and loudly called others out to appreciate, as a helicopter appeared. They were convinced it was an unfinished plane waiting for its wings to be added. Here, Tet was celebrated through the tenth day of the first lunar month. Before that, on the 23rd day of the preceding year’s final month, a rite was performed more ceremoniously than anywhere else to see the Kitchen Gods off to heaven. According to Taoism, they were supposed to report to the Jade Emperor all good and bad activities and deeds of the family they were responsible to supervise. Above both sides of a little spare wooden altar in one corner of the kitchen were two winged hats and a big carp covered by black and red paper garments to be used as their celestial means of transportation. The gods, two males wearing hats, boots, and large-sized coats but no pants; and one female; managed well to live together quite harmoniously; nevertheless, their unusual union did create such richly imaginative myths as well as fabulous and interesting legends as the following:

“Once upon a time there was a couple, Trong Cao and Thi Nhi, who lived in terrible disharmony due to their childless state. The wife, upset at being mistreated by her husband, decided to leave him for good. Feeling exhausted, she sat down by the roadside and was lamenting her fate when a young man, Pham Lang, happened to pass by. He was so moved to see her uncommon presence in the deserted but densely mountainous area that after helping her and growing deeply attached to her, he decided to take her as his wife. Trong Cao, meanwhile, her former husband, was filled with remorse at his angry mistreatment of her, and made up his mind to set out in search of her. One day, while resting in front of the house of Pham Lang, he suddenly caught sight of his former wife coming out. She greeted him warmly and invited him inside for a meal. Then she told him to hide in the haystack in the yard to avoid being caught if her new husband returned home from work. Then she went upstairs to get ready to return to their former nest.

“Having finished his plowing, Pham Lang went home thinking he needed ashes to fertilize his rice fields. He approached the dry stack and started a fire that grew fast, causing his wife to dash into the fire to try and save her former husband. Alas! He had already died of suffocation, and she herself couldn’t escape death. The young man, eager to save his new wife, followed suit and died, too.”

The love triangle formed by these three unfortunate people aroused a compassion so deep that they were mythically transformed into Three Kitchen deities, hard-working, attentive, observing, and impartial in their judgment of the family members they were supposed to look after. Their duty, it was believed, was to report everything they had seen during the year to the Jade Emperor. Simple peasants revered them through the set of three-legged cooking support, made of clay, rock, or metal, for pots in the kitchen. The whole idea symbolized the Oriental concept of encouraging everyone to do good deeds.

Preparations for Tet traditionally involve raising a tall and branchless bamboo in the front yard of each house seven days before the New Year’s Day, decorated, if possible, on the very top with a small pretty bell, a clay fish tied to a broken piece of ceramic, and few bamboo leaves to fly to the wind. When the wind blows strongly enough, a mixture of sounds from a strange, mysterious land is produced, a land inhabited by ghosts and phantoms, signifying the arrival of sacred deities.

The transitional moment between the old and new year always takes place in a solemn and sacred rite on a moonless night at exactly midnight. It is the principal ceremony for the three-day celebration that follows, and is held in every house amid smoke and scents of incense under the trembling light of candles from the altars adorned with fruit and food offerings. Included in the decoration for the special event are colorful paintings of the four precious animals or plants hung around as a reminder of the qualities of personal characters. The rite starts with the simultaneous explosion of strings of firecrackers in the neighborhood to chase away evil and to welcome the arrival of the hopeful Spring Goddess. Tet would lose a lot of its significance without the firecrackers. In the old days, before they were available, peasants used to throw naturally sealed segments of dried bamboo into fire to cause explosions which were sometimes louder than large firecrackers.

Nobody knows who invented the ancient rule that any sound that appeared first in the transitional night would predict some kind of omen. The sound of a child brings good luck; crying, sadness; domestic animal sounds made by buffaloes or cows signify good health; cats meowing, sickness; horses neighing, wealth; and crows cawing mean very bad news indeed.

The role of a household head is indispensable during Tet. Learned men would dress in traditional costume before starting the rite, lighting a bunch of incense sticks and a brass burner of fragrant wood, pouring wine or tea in egg-sized nice cups, and murmuring prayers, greetings and farewells to the invisible deities and souls they believed surrounded them and their family. Next, he would slowly step outside to look at the dim sky to feel himself blend with the motions of nature and wonder how the coming year would be.

Suddenly our old man in the village hears a noise… He turns round and realizes it is a tiny oriole that has awakened and let out a long string of chirps. He releases a sigh of pleasure at the prospect of good fortune for the whole year. He opens the door, makes a detour around the house before re-entering it to make himself the very first person to visit his home, avoiding the chances of his family greeting an unwelcome early visitor in the first morning of Tet and being badly affected in some ways throughout the year. Sometimes, before Tet begins, a rich senior in the village is asked to assume that initial early ‘home visit’, for his appearance is believed to bring good luck.

Very early in the morning one Tet, near Saigon, as the war was becoming ever more violent, a group of kids in colorful clothes with small red paper good luck bags ran out from the neighboring houses unusually happy. They ran, danced, and laughed merrily on the gray paved street, then assembled for a lion dance in front of a small, mobile, round-faced ‘Earth deity’, as a children’s band from the Ong Ta area struck up a tune behind them. A young man, far from home, traveling North to South, from cities to the countryside, fighting the good fight against the oppressor, happened to stop by to share the atmosphere of Tet with his classmates on the second floor of the building next to a new red-tiled temple. He recited a portion of a famous work by the poet The Lu, which reflected his situation:

I’m taking a temporary rest today

While firecrackers sound around joyfully

To relax in a small rented room

And look silently at people welcoming Tet.

Looking down at the neighbor’s garden, where dark purple chrysanthemums with velvet petals blossomed next to tall yellow sunflowers slightly covered with morning dew, he couldn’t help but stare at several pretty girls talking and laughing under the early sunlight. He continued his poetic recitation:

Tomorrow, someone among those young beauties,

Would quit the game to become a wife.

            (Han Mac Tu)

Without knowing why, he suddenly felt the absence of his charming country girl from Hau Giang, who would have been his wife if his mission had succeeded. He thought sadly about his hilly home village near the Ben Hai river, where his mother had spent her whole life without ever getting the chance to revisit her cherished native Hue. He wondered, in the cold of the mountainous region during those first days of the year, if his two younger sisters and his elder widowed sister ever thought about him and worried about his whereabouts, and wondered whether he had been laid to rest somewhere or if was trying to survive behind enemy lines. He closed his eyes and dreamt, and while his mind wandered aimlessly, his friend’s sister Van Anh climbed up the stairs to inform him that her father had suggested a Kieu fortune-telling, a supernatural and traditional aspect of culture often practiced during Tet, to be attended by everybody, including him. He came down and joined his friend and his two sisters, Nguyet and Huong. Sitting around a table, they began to repeat the prayers they had been taught by his friend’s father in silence: “We humbly beg the sacred soul of Ms. Thuy Kieu to grant us a New Year prediction.” They struggled to remain serious for several minutes, before bursting into uncontrollable laughter. Then Huong, a 19-year-old student at Gia Long High School, started first. She put her hand on the Kieu book, opened it, and pointed her forefinger to the middle lines on the right-hand page. In a trembling voice, she read them aloud: “The moon’s waning and the lamp oil level’s lowering, Thinking about the lover with sadness in the heart.”

“Hey! I don’t have a lover or a suitor yet,” she said. “What does this nonsense mean?”

“Don’t try to understand the lines literally.” explained Le, her brother, “Think about some figurative implication, or vague relationship, for the real meaning. Maybe it’s a reference to your current devotion to your final exam,” he said jokingly, “All your exhaustive studying day and night for months, until there’s no oil left for your petroleum lamp.”

“You’re teasing me,” she laughed. “Our lamps use electricity, not oil.”

 Nguyet took her turn by praying to Kieu in silence for several minutes for something concrete, clear, and straight before pointing her finger to line 14 on the left page.

“That’s it!” Huong quickly stared at the verse and explained while giving a satisfied glance at her sister. “You’ve got to part with Ho when he joins the army this August. It’s your parting Fall.”

“You silly sister!” replied Nguyet. “Parting is probable but only because of his move out of Saigon. You’ve eaten the wrong foods, that’s why what you say is not only false but incriminatory. Go to bed!”

“Look! I eat anything you eat, nothing different.” Huong tried to defend herself. “I’m pretty sure I read it right. Now it’s your turn, Phong. Let’s see what Ms. Kieu will say. By the way, do you work in an office or are you a fighter? Be sincere in your request.”

“I’m a desk worker,” he answered, keeping his secret mission a secret. He opened the book and pointed to line twenty on the right-hand page:

One hundred thousand outstanding troops under your command are tightly stationed in the citadel.”

“Well, you’re going to be a fighter this time, a commander who will undoubtedly win over the communists,” said Huong, congratulating him in advance.

“If what you girls have said is going to be right, I’ll come back next Tet with mountains of war booty as gifts for your father and you all.”

“Let’s read the next lines to be sure,” said Huong, looking down in silence. “It’s completely clear,” she said with a mischievous intention to detect his feelings. “You’ll have a great victory! But I wonder why there is revenge and rewards but no… love?”

Her father, having finished tending the pink and purple dahlias and white chrysanthemums on the porch, came in to join them.

“Let me tell you a story about Kieu fortune-telling related to national affairs and Party leader Nguyen Thai Hoc,” he began. “The lines often describe the mood of a person facing an event, and any condition, whatever it is, is often mentioned vaguely through several lines that are then considered as predictions, against the author’s will. Like this: a certain dissident, detained for a long sentence in the Chi Hoa prison, started to kill his time by using the Kieu book for a free soothsaying hobby. He devised a method by dividing 3,245 lines of the book into 651 portions of 5 lines each, then cutting hard paper in the same amount of pieces and giving each piece a number for his customer to ceremoniously pick one for his fortune. One afternoon, an inmate, held for a murder crime, came to ask about his fate in court the next day. After shaking the box containing the paper pieces for some minutes, he tremblingly took out number 481 with lines referring vaguely to five years. The prisoner gave a sigh of relief and thanked the dissident. Miraculously, it turned out that he was sentenced to 5 years in prison, instead of the death sentence he had feared.  Isn’t that wonderful?”

After a short pause, he continued. “Not surprisingly, the revolutionary martyr Nguyen Thai Hoc believed in Kieu. From the founding date of his Vietnam Quoc Dan Dang party (Kuo Ming Tang) on 12-21-1927 at the office of Nam Dong Thu Xa at No. 6, Route 96, on the bank of Lake Truc Bach in Hanoi, Nguyen Thai Hoc was a leader who was tireless in his efforts to recruit more members and prepare for an armed uprising. On the afternoon of 2-9-1929, after the assassination of Bazin, a Frenchman who recruited workers for the plantations in South Vietnam and Cambodia, the French authorities began to increase their surveillance and arrest suspects for trials. On 7-8-1929, 152 of the detainees were freed, 26 sentenced to probation, 47 received sentences of 2 to 15 years in prison. As for Nguyen Thai Hoc, still at large, he was sentenced to 15 years in absentia. After a reward was offered for his arrest, he and some of his comrades had to remain in hiding. On 1-31-1930, the second day of Tet, while hiding in a farmer’s house in the village of Hung Thang in the district of Nam Sach, in the Hai Duong province, the patriotic activists could not avoid feeling dazed with their situation of being away from home during the most sacred time of the year. Unable to sleep, Nguyen Thai Hoc made tea and, to entertain his bored comrades, took out a copy of Kieu he kept with him at all times, despite the ridicule it earned him from some of his comrades. Everyone gathered around the petroleum lamp while Nguyen Thai Hoc held his Kieu book and prayed before opening it at random and pointing to four lines that seemed to suggest the attack should be postponed. Ky Con protested at this respect for superstition, but Nguyen Thai Hoc calmly explained that perseverance was needed in the service of the nation, and as the sages had said, failure to a certain extent did imply maturity.”

He paused for a moment, drawing his listeners in. “Nguyen Thai Hoc added that their party was the people’s hope, and there was no way to step back as the order for the general offensive, set for 2-10-1930, had been issued. He concluded that everyone of them was expected to be willing to sacrifice his life for the country! The order, though already given, could not actually reach the responsible units in time due to preventive measures taken against questionable party members and a close enemy intelligence watch, forcing the impatient Xu Nhu to start the attack one day ahead on 2-9 against Hung Lam and Lam Thao. He got injured, captured, and killed himself by breaking his head against a wall. On 2-10, Ngo Hai Hoang and Bui Tu Doan attacked Yen Bai, killing ten French officers and NCOs before withdrawing. In the afternoon of the same day, Ky Con ordered grenades to be thrown into the house of the French Head of the Secret Service, the Hoa Lo prison, and the police stations on Hang Trong and Hang Dau streets. Only minor damage resulted. On 2-13, the attack on the military post in Kien An failed, and in the attack on 2-15, the district chief of Phu Duc in the province of Thai Binh successfully escaped. After confiscating weapons, ammunitions, and official papers, the attackers went on to join those attacking Vinh Bao to kill the district chief Hoang Gia Mo, causing the French to retaliate by bombing Co Am village. On 2-21-1930, while attempting to escape through Dong Trieu on their way toward Kwang Si province in China, Nguyen Thai Hoc and two of his comrades were captured in the Co Vit area. So maybe he wasn’t superstitious enough: if he had listened to what he saw, he could have stopped the offensive and escaped, and his fate might not have been so tragic.”

Turning to his children, he asked, “Haven’t you produced your first writing of the year yet? I usually write a poem on the first day of Tet, following the tradition set by our ancestors to describe a scene or express some intimate feelings. Even though it is the product of an instantaneous inspiration, it has some miraculous closeness to the author’s life throughout the year, reflecting his actions, power, and destiny. Poets of the old times considered the starting of the first poem on the first day of the year a ceremonious rite for which they had to be clean and appropriately dressed before seriously dipping their white-rabbit-hair pen in the black ink pot to create fantasy Chinese characters on red pieces of paper. Excellent drawings might be produced this way, like the work of outstanding artists. These masterpieces would later be hung in the most honorable locations in the home, usually on both sides of the ancestors’ altar.”