Despite progress in industrialisation and urbanisation Viet Nam remains in essence an agricultural country with over eighty percent of its population living in the rural areas.
And the peasants of traditional Vietnam, like their counterparts everywhere in the world, are known for their horse sense and humour.
Examples of this abound in Cheo, the folk opera originating from the basin of the Red River, the seat of the Viet culture.
In Tu Thuc, the story of a man of letters in quest of a fairyland, the servant constantly turns to ridicule the Shangri La of his master’s dream.
In Quan Am Thi Kinh, the piece on a bonze ordained Bodhlsattva, the clown seats himself on the altar, and, with eyes closed and hands clasped, imitates Buddha in meditation. When asked if he wanted to get married, he jumps down with alacrity in order not to miss the chance.
The Vietnamese are no metaphysical animal. In all matters they want to remain on the human level, being a stranger to all things solemn and grandiose.
The people’s common sense leads to a huge sense of humour, which has helped them keep then optimism through all the ups and downs of their country. To them a mandarin seeing the chance of a lawsuit is like an ant smelling larded joint:
“Make yourself a mandarin and you can afford to be unjust," they say.
Or, “If you have money, people will listen
to any silly things you can say."
Ca dao (popular songs) that poke fun at anybody:
“Don't waste your breath marrying a student.
His elongated body takes too much cloth to clad.
All day long he roams about, his books under his arm
At night he takes the lamp all for himself and wants to be left alone"
The privileged are a special target:
“Poor, you are an outcast
Successful at court exams
You'll have a thousand friends."
Humour is injected into bitterness when the sorry fate of concubines is deplored:
"Sad is the fate of a concubine :
Transplanting, ploughing all day long,
At night all alone,
No husband, no sleeping mat,
Alone with the biting cold."
In the case of widows who have to wait three years to remarry, compassion is mixed with humour:
“A widow, I feel like a boat adrift.
Crying over my lot
I have to wait three years in an empty room
While outside the wind blows and the bamboo sways.
How much of springtime will be left for me?"
Even clerics are not spared:
"The monk is deep in prayer
When a young woman passes by
On her way to the fields to catch crabs,
Heart aflutter, he pushes aside the saint book
And runs after her.
'Which way has she gone? ’ He wonders
His fingers toying with the string of beads.”
At times common sense verges on rebellion:
“Mandarins come and go while people stay on.”
“Stone stelae will wear out in a hundred years
What is passed on by word of mouth remains indelible
in a thousand years.”
In spicy stories, humour can be even more piercing.