Who’s Telling the Truth? Uncovering History in Nghi Vo’s When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain

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When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is the second of the cleric Chih’s adventures in the Singing Hills novellas by Nghi Vo. Though less than two hundred pages long, this novella is packed with depth when it comes to insights into culture and history of both the world of the Singing Hills and our world. In Chih’s previous adventure, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Chih encounters an old lady named Rabbit who tells them about the recently deceased empress In-yo, who she served for many years, as Chih asks her about old objects they find around her house. As Rabbit’s story unfolds, Chih discovers a queer tale of resistance unknown to any previous official accounts of In-yo, a history that could destabilize the empire of Ahn if it were written down.

We start off When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain with Chih at the mercy of three tiger sisters who threaten to kill them and their traveling companions if their account of Scholar Dieu and and the tiger Ho Thi Thao is not captivating enough. When the tiger sisters find that Chih’s version of the story does not line up with the version they know, even though the ending of both versions is the same—that is, Scholar Dieu and Ho Thi Thao end up living happily ever after (Vo 58)—Chih tells them the story how it has been to told to them: “long after [Dieu and Ho Thi Thao] were both dead, through a traveling actor who told it to a literate friend.”

Similarly, when it comes to history, oftentimes historians are working from second or thirdhand accounts of what happened, and sometimes the first written accounts appear many years or even centuries after an event has happened. How reliable are the sources we have, and what do the differences between contradictory stories reveal about history in both the fictional world of Ahn and the real world? To tackle these questions and shine light on what constitutes historical truth, let’s examine a couple real world examples with parallels to Tiger: the question of whether the Medieval Frankish king Charles the Bald was bald in life, and the hidden stories of the Chinese survivors of the Titanic.

 

Was Charles the Bald actually bald?

Before examining Tiger in depth, let’s take a look at an example of conflicting histories from history. King Charles “the Bald” (r. 843-877), grandson of the Frankish king Charlemagne and part of the Carolingian dynasty of Frankish kings. The epithet “the Bald” was not commonly used for him until the tenth and eleventh centuries. Upon his death, even though he had eight sons, the ones that made it to adulthood led rebellions against their father and were not considered suitable heirs. Upon Charles’s death, his son Louis the Stammerer inherited the throne and died two years after Charles. Within ten years, the Carolingians dynasty lost most of its power.

In Roman times and in the Middle Ages, health was ascribed to the balance between the four humors. Baldness was indicative of an “overabundance of hotness and dryness,” according to scholar Margaret Audrey Anderson. However, baldness was also associated with monks’ tonsures and was associated with piety as well (Anderson 20). And because royal epithets were most likely coined by scribes and historians writing about kings after they died, it is difficult to conclude whether these epithets were reflective of real physical characteristics of Carolingian kings, which adds a further wrinkle.

“It is unknown whether Charles the Fat was truly overweight, whether Louis the Stammerer actually had a speech impediment, and whether Charles the Simple was unwise. With a little imagination, Charles the Fat could have been gluttonous or greedy and Charles the Simple could have been uncomplicated or straightforward.” (Anderson 29)

It is these types of discrepancies that Vo replicates in her novellas, leading readers to wonder what is fact and what is fiction.

 

The tiger sisters’ story vs. Chih’s story

Despite the broad strokes of the tiger and the human version of the stories being identical—Dieu travels to take the imperial exam in the Hall of Ferocious Jade and meets Ho Thi Thao along the way, before eventually falling in love after overcoming obstacles on the trip in the city of Ahnfi where the exam is taken—there are some marked differences between the tiger sisters’ version and the Singing Hills version.

The first major discrepancy that the tigers point out as Chih retells the story is that of tiger courting customs. The first time Scholar Dieu encounters Ho Thi Thao in the form of a priestess at a roadside shrine, Ho Thi Thao eats most of her rice cakes but splits the last rice cake into two and offers the larger half to Dieu. Dieu accepts but afterwards still feels she is in danger, but Ho Thi Thao then formally introduces herself, saying “My name is Ho Thi Thao. I’ll ask for your name when I’m sure I’ll want it” (Vo 51).

At this point, the tigers interrupt Chih to explain that Ho Thi Thao splitting the rice cake and offering her name without asking for Dieu’s in return was “opening the door” to “any number of things. To a courtship. To a single night of love. To something that would last far longer. To an opportunity to know her more and better. For more” (Vo 52-53). This is new information to Chih, who makes a mental note to record this discrepancy when they return to their monastery.

Similarly, modern culture is so removed from Carolingian culture that Charles the Bald’s baldness has been taken at face value until fairly recently. It is entirely possible that the meaning of “the Bald” is entirely symbolic, referring to his inability to produce healthy male heirs because the belief of the day was that hair was tied to fertility (Anderson 38). Charles’ grandson the Count Baldwin II of Flanders (c. 865-918) inherited his epithet “the Bald,” and Medieval historians noted after his death that Baldwin was not bald but was titled such in honor of his grandfather, suggesting that it was not viewed as a negative nickname during the time period (Anderson 39-40). Unfortunately for historians, there isn’t anyone alive today to correct assumptions and explain glossed-over details that we would otherwise disregard as unimportant, the same way Chih has no idea of the importance of Ho Thi Thao telling Dieu her name.

The two stories in Tiger diverge the most when Dieu finally arrives in Ahnfi. In Chih’s version, Dieu is apprehensive about being followed by a tiger to the city of Ahnfi. Dieu traps the tiger with poppy-drugged meat. After Ho Thi Thao falls asleep, she is chained and taken away. Dieu takes the imperial exam the next day but cannot accept the terms of the exam to “accept [her] place in the heavens under the empire” if she succeeds (Vo 105). She rushes over to find the cage Ho Thi Thao is kept in and frees her after reciting poetry.

The tigers point out a glaring issue with this account—a tiger could have easily broken out of any cage and has a sense of smell good enough to smell even tiny amounts of poppy. In their version, Dieu leaves Ho Thi Thao to wake up alone so she can take the exam, leaving Ho Thi Thao heartbroken. Ho Thi Thao refuses to eat unless it is out of Dieu’s hands because they are married (since Dieu promised to share every meal with her earlier). She runs into Dieu, in a golden cage, about to be married to someone else after passing the exam. Dieu admits she has made a mistake, gives Ho Thi Thao her name, and lets her feed out of her hand. Ho Thi Thao then busts her out of the cage and takes her to the mountains, where they live happily ever after.

The differences in how the story of Ho Thi Thao and Dieu unfolds tells us about the differences in what tiger culture and human culture value. To the humans, being able to recite poetry is an important skill, especially to Dieu who has been studying these poems for the imperial exam. To the tigers, sharing food is symbolic of marriage, which is a tradition none of the humans in the story have heard of.

Likewise, we today also assume portraiture to be accurate because later portraits in Europe did try to represent royalty and the wealthy accurately—sometimes unflatteringly, such as Goya’s infamous painting Carlos (or Charles) IV of Spain and His Family (painted 1800-1801). However, it is almost impossible to prove beyond a doubt whether Charles the Bald was actually bald using portraits because portraiture at time was not concerned with physical accuracy but rather providing idealized versions of kings.

It is impossible to conclude for certain whether Charles the Bald was bald or not based on the evidence we have, but by learning about the origins of the epithet, we can better understand the intricacies of early Medieval opinion on baldness and health. Similarly, based on examining Tiger and real-world history, it is clear that like Chih, we easily make assumptions and jump to conclusions by looking at past and different cultures through the lens we know: the culture we’re surrounded by and the stories we are told to believe as truth. By examining the discrepancies between Chih’s and the tiger sisters’ stories, we gain a better understanding of the differences between human and tiger culture in the world of the Singing Hills.

 

The Forgotten Stories of the Chinese Survivors of the Titanic

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain also illuminates how commonly held historical narratives sadly overlook those not given voices to tell their stories. Accounts of famous Titanic survivors have made the rounds in the media, but it was only in 2020 when the documentary film The Six unearthed the forgotten stories of the Chinese survivors of the Titanic. Unbeknownst to many people, there were eight Chinese passengers aboard on the Titanic, and six of them had survived. Their entry to the United States was barred due to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and they were sent away to Cuba on the ship Annetta shortly after being rescued. Eventually, they made their way to the United Kingdom and fought their tooth and nail to survive in a country where racism and discrimination were just as rampant as anywhere else in the Western world.

Their stories are no less noteworthy than any other survivors; in fact, the story of Fang Lang, who was found clinging to a wooden door in the freezing ocean, was the inspiration for a famous scene in the movie Titanic. Yet most of the survivors had all chosen to bury their secrets deep within themselves, and even their close family members had little knowledge of what had transpired. After all, during this time period, the very brief mentions of the Chinese passengers in the media at the time brimmed with hostility: it was said that they survived by “disguising as women” to get on the lifeboats, or jumped into the lifeboats at first chance and hid under the seats.

 

The Tigers’ Tale

Thanks to The Six and the effort of historians and researchers, we can finally learn and remember a more accurate version of the stories of the Chinese survivors of the Titanic a century later. In fact, a whole branch in the field of history, historiography, is dedicated to studying how history is developed, interpreted, and written. Because the media prefers to highlight attention-grabbing headlines catering to the majority, the stories that have been chosen and curated are those from the majority. If they feature anything from underrepresented groups, the stories are often painted in the most lurid way possible.

We can see glimpses of this phenomenon reflected in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. The story that Chih tells is the story of Ho Thi Thao and her lover Dieu reflects only what humans imagine of tigers. As we’ve seen from the discrepancies discussed earlier, this human version sacrifices accuracy, details, and nuances in a beautifully layered story of the tiger and her lover for a Beauty and The Beast-esque romance that is tailored to the tastes of the human audience. Of course, there is some degree of doubt in the tigers’ version of the story as well, yet this version is a story of a tiger and her lover told by the tigers themselves, a story free from the mystification, misrepresentation, stigma and hostility from humans and instead embodies and resembles the culture, values and beliefs of the tigers.

 

Who’s Telling the Truth?

When reading and learning about history, many of us can easily fall prey to confirmation bias: we take the information we consume at face value, assume that they are the absolute truth, and look for other bits and pieces of “evidence” that already confirms and reinforces our existing beliefs and biases. Because of this, however ludicrous these claims may sound, we are inclined to believe in Chih’s version—the version catered toward human audience—over the story of the tigers, to believe that Charles the Bald was bald as his epithet suggests, and to believe that the Titanic Chinese passengers dressed as women in disguise to get on the lifeboats. Keeping in mind that there might be more nuances to the story beyond the words we read is one way to unlearn our tendencies, yet reading critically alone won’t be enough. We must read not just critically but also broadly: read from a variety of sources, hear from marginalized voices, and foster an environment that welcomes different perspectives.

We will never know what exactly transpired between the tiger and her lover, just like how we will likely never learn whether Charles the Bald was bald. The study of historiography is never about the absolute truth, but rather about how historians interpret and record the same historical events differently based on the sources they used, their school of traditions, their political and religious alignment, etc.—it’s about perspectives. Without the tigers’ version of the legend, we would be missing the opportunity that allowed the tigers to tell their version of the legend, some of the perspectives that shed light into the culture, values and beliefs of the tigers would be forever lost, just like the stories of Titanic’s Chinese passengers.

***

 

Sources

Anderson, Margaret Audrey. Charles the Bald: the Story of an Epithet. Diss. California Institute of Technology, 2020.

The Six 六人. Directed by Arthur Jones. LostPensivos Films, 2020.

Vo, Nghi. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain. Tordotcom, 2020.

Tina S. Zhu is a writer of stories about weirdos and a first reader at Flash Fiction Online. Her words have appeared in or are forthcoming from places like Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Fireside Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @tinaszhu or at tinaszhu.com.

Eliza Ying He is a Chinese-born writer living in California. When she’s not writing words or code, she can be found observing and befriending stray cats in her neighborhood (with varying degrees of failure). She tweets at @elizayinghe.

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