Princess Liễu Hạnh is one of The Four Immortals worshiped by the people of Vietnam’s Red River Delta Region. In the Taoist faith, she is the thirteen daughter of the Jade Emperor. The Jade Emperor is also known as Yuanshi Tianzun, one of the Three Pure Ones, the three primordial emanations of the Tao. According to their faith, she has been incarnated on earth multiple times.
The first incarnation was as the daughter of a righteous man Le Thai Cong. He had been knocked unconscious while his wife was pregnant and had a vision of a Liễu Hạnh dropping the Jade Emperor’s favorite jade cup and smashing it into a million pieces. For this offense, Liễu Hạnh was expelled from heaven and exiled to earth. When Le Thai Cong awoke, he found out his wife had given birth to a daughter, who they named Giang Tien. This meant “Descending Fairy” in honor of her fall from the cup and heaven. Raised by Le Thai Cong and his wife, Giang Tien grew up to be a righteous woman and the proprietress of an inn. However, anyone who tried to court Giang Tien all went insane or died. What a strange coincidence.
Another version says that Liễu Hạnh was born tto Emperor Le Anh Tong instead of a lowly peasant. She grew in beauty and wisdom, and liked nothing better than to play and sing songs of her own composing next to a quiet pool in the garden. The emperor decided it was time for his daughter to marry and selected a handsome young man named Dao Lang. They seemed well suited and were happy until Liễu Hạnh became ill three years after the marriage and suddenly died. Dao Lang was devastated and kept a lock of his wife’s hair and haunted the garden where she loved to play music.
In both versions, it was a custom at that time that a year after a death a coffin is opened. When they opened Liễu Hạnh’s coffin it was strangely empty. Looking for consolation, Liễu Hạnh’s husband journeyed to an old temple of the Immortals on the second anniversary of her death. There he found his wife, and she told him of her exile from heaven. They stayed together at the temple for a while and had a son together, then Liễu Hạnh had to return to heaven. According to legend their son became a famous scholar.
The story of another incarnation of Liễu Hạnh tells of how she came back to earth and and met an orphaned student named Sinh. Liễu Hạnh thought Sinh was an incarnation of her husband and left poetry for him to court him. They fell in love and had a child, who also became a scholar. Then Liễu Hạnh had to leave her family behind to return to heaven.
Another incarnation tells of how Liễu Hạnh begged the Emperor to return to earth, and came this time with two other fairies named Que and Thi. On this time around, the three of them travelled around blessing those who were righteous and punishing those who were not. A temple was built to appease her, and then was burned to the ground by the Cảnh Trị government. After the temple burned all the animals in the area died of a mysterious disease. A new offering platform was built, and Liễu Hạnh appeared demanding the government that burned the original temple rebuild it. Not being dummies, the government built her a temple in Van Cat village and proclaimed Liễu Hạnh “Ma Hoang Cong Chua” (Golden Princess to Whom Sacrifices Are Made as to the God of War).
The earliest account of Liễu Hạnh was written by a French colonialist named A. Landes. However, one of the most famous accounts of Liễu Hạnh comes from The Story of the Van Cat Goddess writen by Đoàn Thị Điểm. In this version, Liễu Hạnh portraied her as a powerful goddess and an emancipated feminist. Sources say Đoàn Thị Điểm attributed many of her own qualities to Liễu Hạnh. Whether or not Liễu Hạnh was based on a real person is in question. Landes dates her birth to between 1428 – 1433, where Đoàn Thị Điểm places her birth in 1557.
Whether or not she was based on a real person, the cult of Liễu Hạnh took off in North Vietnam. It was brutally suppressed during the Communist Party of Vietnam’s early reign. However, her popularity has been gaining followers and acceptance steadily since 1986 and the reforms called the Đổi Mới. The Pure Brightness Festival in her honor is held on the third day of the third lunar month, which is the anniversary of her death.