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Eliza Ying He

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

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.

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