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Dear Mr. Ngan,

As a child, I often heard my mother say, “The fate of a woman is like 12 water wharves, lucky if the water is clear, though she must still endure if the water is murky.” At the time, I was very young so I did not think much about it. Later I listened to your explanation on Thuy Nga Paris video, but I was still living in Vietnam back then so I could not contact you. Now, I have come to live in the United States through a marriage sponsorship. I remember my mother’s saying, and I know I have chosen one of the “12 water wharves”. It is a “clear wharf” now, but I don’t know whether it will become a “murky wharf” in the future. I was born in the Year of the Horse. I remember that you said the 12 water wharves represent the 12 zodiac signs, but my husband says that’s not true (I am sorry!) Please give me further explanation.

 Hoang My Tram, TX

Author Nguyen Ngoc Ngan:

This letter from reader Hoang My Tram reminds me of an old story, probably about 10 years ago and I gave a clear answer in my book called Stage Memory, published in 2010. I thought that this issue was forgotten, but surprisingly, one reader is still talking about it. In light of this letter, I would like to summarize the event as follows:

In a Paris By Night show, there was a song about the fate of a woman. I took the opportunity to talk about the saying “The fate of a woman is like 12 water wharves.” Ms. Ky Duyen asked me why I referenced it as the 12 water wharves? I gave her two answers based on my hypothesis:

  1. Our ancestors’ proverbs and idioms are often rhymed. When read aloud, they sound pleasant and are easy to retain. In the saying “The fate of a woman is like 12 water wharves”, the word “woman” (“Gái” in Vietnamese) and “two” (“Hai” in Vietnamese) are rhymed. Perhaps that’s partly why this saying came about.
  2. But I feel this reason alone is not enough, because why didn’t our ancestors say, “The fate of a woman is like 22 water wharves or 32 water wharves,” instead of 12. So I made a conjecture that the saying “12 water wharves” can be related to the 12 zodiac signs (Mouse, Buffalo, Tiger, Cat, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Chicken, Dog, Pig).

I suggested this idea based on the popular notion that each year (meaning each animal of the zodiac signs) bears the fate of happiness or misery, as in the popular saying:

[quote_center]Tiger lady has a tough destiny, she can’t get married easily![/quote_center]

Or people often say:

[quote_center]People have Horse and Goat destiny signs
Why do I have the fate of a Monkey sign![/quote_center]

 In reality, all those presumptions are wrong because there is no happy or unhappy year. Many women with a Tiger zodiac sign marry easily and lead happy lives. Not all people with the Horse or Goat signs have happy lives, and not all people with Monkey signs are miserable! If we believe in fate, it is necessary to understand that fate is applicable for each individual, not each year or each animal sign. There are more than 6 billion people in the world right now. Divided by 12 zodiac signs, that means about 500 million people represent one zodiac sign. It doesn’t mean approximately 500 million people born in the Year of the Horse find it difficult to be married!

Though it is wrong, many people still believe that within the 12 age years, (meaning 12 zodiac signs), each year was predestined for happiness or misery therefore our ancestors often said: “The fate of a woman is like 12 water wharves, lucky if the water is clear, though she must still endure if the water is murky.” The 12 years are compared to 12 mysterious docks that a woman will step onto one, though she does not know whether it will lead her to happiness or misery!

There are many folk poems that express the above notion:

[quote_center] The fate of a woman is like 12 water wharves
Clear or murky, depending on her luck[/quote_center]


[quote_center]The floating love boat
12 water wharves, where should I trust my fate?[/quote_center]

 Those poetic verses remind us that in the past, a young woman did not have the right to decide her own future. Specifically, she was not allowed to attend schools or choose an independent career for herself. Everything depended on the husband, both economically and according to strict feudal regulations. Sympathizing with this sorrow, folk poems have verses such as:

[quote_center] My fate is like a red silk cloth
Floating in the wind, not knowing whose hands I will land on?[/quote_center]


[quote_center]My fate is like a drop of sudden rain
One falls into the well, one falls into the garden
My fate is like a drop of fallen rain
One falls into a luxurious house, one falls on the field![/quote_center]

 In general, a woman’s fate in the past depended completely on luck. The more beautiful, the tougher the life, not because “god is envious of beautiful women” as written by poet Nguyen Du, but because men in the feudal time had too much power. They were greedy and cruel. Beautiful ladies often became their conquering targets. Women with average physical appearance oftentimes had much easier lives. It could be recalled that in the past, men were more valued than women, and they followed the Confucian virtue “once married, a woman must follow her husband”. Even when married to a cruel husband, a woman had to endure her whole life and was not allowed a divorce like in modern times! Even if she was badly treated by her husband’s family, she could not return to her own family because her parents would actually be the ones to take her back to her husband!

Due to this harsh reality, growing up, young girls could not avoid thinking about the water wharf that was waiting for her!

When I talked about this story on Paris By Night video, and suggested we should understand “12 water wharves” as “12 zodiac signs,” and immediately some people disagreed! This is quite normal! Science is more concrete, 2 plus 2 equals to 4, so there is nothing to dispute. Literature and thoughts can be understood by everyone in very different ways, and the border between truth and falsehood is sometimes difficult to settle! Some people took this issue to ask Mr. Bao Lam, a.k.a. Bui Bao Truc, author of the famous series,  “Letters To My Friends”, which is said to contain the author’s vast knowledge. It was fortunate for me that Mr. Bui Bao Truc also agreed with me about the suggestion that 12 water wharves should be understood as 12 zodiac signs!

All those who disagreed with me looked to the book, “Vietnamese Dictionary”, by Le Van Duc (edited by Professor Le Ngoc Tru). This dictionary defines the saying as follows:

12 water wharves: 12 categories of people in society – differ in wealth levels – that whether like it or not, each woman must eventually take one as husband:

  1. Sĩ (Student)
  2. Nông (Farmer)
  3. Công (Worker)
  4. Thương (Businessman)
  5. Ngư (Fisherman)
  6. Tiều (Woodsman)
  7. Canh (Person who plants)
  8. Mục (Person who raises animals)
  9. Công (Official with title of duke)
  10. Hầu (Official with title of marquis)
  11. Bá (Official with the title of count)
  12. Tử (Official with the title of viscount)

(Vietnamese Dictionary, page 237)

       This happened a long time ago. I am only repeating this story to recall a humourous memory. I have no intention to reproach anyone. Honestly, among the audience of Paris By Night at that time, there were some people who took special interest in Nguyen Ngoc Ngan to find fault! In this case, they wrote to me, or composed articles and sent them to newspapers or uploaded them on the internet, not with constructive criticism intentions so we can learn from one another, but with intentions of attacking. They found satisfaction in the fact that they came across a Nguyen Ngoc Ngan’s error after quite a long time! This belief originated from the definition they found on page 237 of the Vietnamese Dictionary as cited above. Citing a dictionary as evidence, how can I argue against that! One person asked me to apologize on Paris By Night video because to him, I had “poisoned our culture”, and caused harm upon the young generation!

Dear readers!

12-ben-nuoc_Photo by TK Phan
12-ben-nuoc_Photo by TK Phan

Dictionaries often contain basic and trustworthy material for reference. But in this case, if remained composed, you will see that the explanation for the 12 water wharves by the Vietnamese Dictionary is not reasonable at all. It was said by our ancestors: “It is better not to read than read and believe everything written in books completely.” I am a person who likes to analyze details, so upon glancing at the definition above, I can see that the author of Vietnamese Dictionary was not prudent.

I would like to emphasize one thing: the 12 water wharves may not be 12 zodiac signs as I have suggested, but saying that the 12 water wharves are the 12 categories of people differing in wealth levels – including “Student, Farmer, Worker, Businessman, Fisherman, Woodsman, Person who plants, Person who raises animals, Official with title of duke, Official with title of marquis, Official with the title of count, Official with the title of viscount” – is a very constrained, if not careless, way to explain things.

Let me offer some examples:

  1.  First of all, among 12 different categories of people in the Vietnamese Dictionary (“Student, Farmer, Worker, Businessman, Fisherman, Woodsman, Person who plants, Person who raises animals, Official with title of duke, Official with title of marquis, Official with the title of count, Official with the title of viscount”) Farmer (Nông) and Person who plants (Canh) are overlapped because they are essentially the same thing! Both of them refer to people who work on the farms. Before 1975, the Republic of Vietnam had the Ministry of Agriculture (Bộ Canh Nông), which was in charge of agriculture, our main economic trade. The Vietnamese Dictionary divided Canh-Nông into two different classes of people. This doesn’t stand strong at all, but if we combine Canh-Nông into one category, there will only be 11 water wharves!

So Canh and Nông are overlapped, but Ngư (Fisherman) and Tiều (Woodsman) and Mục (Person who raises animal) can also be included within Công (Worker) or Thương (Businessman). They are all professional workers or people doing business. For example Woodsmen (Tiều) sell wood and firewood, Fishermen (Ngư) sell seafood, both of which are within the category Thương (Businessmen). So it didn’t feel right when the Vietnamese Dictionary listed them as 12 different classes of people, because essentially there were too many overlaps!

  1. Secondly, (Sĩ) Student, (Nông) Farmer, (Công) Worker and (Thương) Businessman can not be the 4 “classes of people with different levels of wealth in society”. They are 4 general classes of people in the old society, when science and technology was not well developed, and there were not as many careers as now. Sĩ (Student) in general are people who were white collar workers, nowadays they are called “intellectuals.” Nông (Farmer) are people who work in the agriculture sector, which is the main economic trade of a majority of Vietnamese. Công (Worker) are trade workers, such as brick layers, carpenters, people who dye cloths… when assembly-line factories did not exist like now. Thương is doing business and exchanging goods.

Those four general classes of people (Student, Farmer, Worker, Businessman) are components that made up the Vietnamese society in the past, they should not be used to compare wealth levels. The reason is within the Sĩ (Student) category, there are thousands of poor and wealthy people, not all Students (Sĩ) have the same standard of life. Sĩ can be anyone from the first doctoral candidate, second laureate, the third laureate, to highest ranking official. Sĩ can be a scholar who drafts forms and letters for a living, or an unsuccessful student who has to work as an herbalist or fortune teller and can’t even afford two meals per day!

The same situation applies for Nông (Farmer). Farmers can be very wealthy landlords and Farmers can be poor field workers who have to lease land for cultivation and pay rental fees with rice, oftentimes what’s left over is not enough for a half a year’s consumption.

It is similar for Công or Thương. In summary, the categories of Sĩ (Student), Nông (Farmer), Công (Worker), Thương (Businessman) cover a wide range of poor and wealthy people. That means marrying within the Sĩ (Student) class doesn’t mean one will be richer than those in the categories Nông, Công, Thương! Being the wife of a teacher with a few students in the Sĩ group can not be compared to being the wife of a landlord who owns hundreds acres of land!

  1. The third point which I consider as the most constrained and even unreasonable one in the Vietnamese Dictionary is the last 4 groups of people: Công, Hầu, Bá, Tử. It’s irrational because “Công, Hầu, Bá, Tử, Nam” are the 5 titles granted by the king to royal members or people who have made contributions to the court. However, the Vietnamese Dictionary left out one title and just kept 4! The Vietnamese Dictionary itself wrote as its definition of “Tước”:

“Tước: In the past, this title was granted by the king to a person to receive legitimacy and pension. The 5 titles are  Công, Hầu, Bá, Tử, and Nam” (page 1485).

But the Vietnamese Dictionary, when defining the 12 water wharves, only mentioned 4 titles Công, Hầu, Bá, and Tử! The title Nam mysteriously disappeared. Because if the title Nam was included, there would be 13 water wharves and not 12!

Not to mention that 4 titles Công, Hầu, Bá, Tử can not be the “classes of people with different levels of wealth”. They are basically on the same level and if there is a wealth difference, it would not be considerable. Just like how nowadays we say “field officers,” the different levels between lieutenant colonel, major, and colonel are not considerable. They can not be “three classes of people with different levels of wealth”!

  1. Moreover, in the past, high ranking officials mainly originated from passing the royal court’s examinations, meaning they are included in the Sĩ (Student) group. Passing the examinations is pretty much the only way to elevate one’s status in a monarchy. Even royal members must attend schools during childhood to be granted titles later. So the Sĩ (Student) group is very broad, and can include many levels of wealth. It is not one class as explained in the Vietnamese Dictionary.

Based on the Vietnamese Dictionary, some other sources used a similar definition on “the 12 water wharves” but changed it slightly as follows:

         [quote_center]  “Sĩ, Nông, Công, Thương, Ngư, Tiều, Canh, Độc, Công, Hầu, Khanh, Tướng”[/quote_center]

 Replacing “Mục” (Person who raises animals) by “Độc” (reading books) is even more irrational because “Độc” is of course included in the Sĩ group already! And “Công Hầu Khanh Tướng” is a group of people, referring to those who hold the highest titles in the royal court, either excelling in literature or martial arts.

From the above analysis, we can conclude: Suppose that someone came up with the proverb “The fate of a woman is like 12 water wharves” that I believe draws from the 12 zodiac signs. Then because the saying sounded interesting, it was widely disseminated, and everyone understood it described the uncertain life of a woman, upon the threshold of life, not knowing whether it’s lucky or ill-fortune. Just this sentence alone will suffice. There is no need for further explanation! But the next generations kept trying to make sense of the 12 water wharves, and done so irrationally like the Vietnamese Dictionary for example. This wastes our debating time and often times doesn’t really lead anywhere!

To put it in a realistic perspective, within the 12 classes of people mentioned in the Vietnamese Dictionary, one category is missing and that category accounted for a majority of Vietnamese. It is “Binh” (soldier), like we often say “Nông, Công, and Binh.” It is an imperative category because in any era, the army and war exist. Almost all families have soldiers. Getting married to a soldier must of course be one of 12 water wharves and thus it should not be left out!

I read in a document that said: the 12 water wharves may originate from the saying “the 12 conditional factors” of Buddhism. I am not sure of this, but this hypothesis is more rational than “12 classes of people” listed in the Vietnamese Dictionary. If only it was defined like in the “Dictionary of Vietnamese Proverbs and Idioms” by Author Vu Dung, Vu Thuy Anh and Vu Quang Hao as follows:

“The fate of a woman is like 12 water wharves: A woman’s fate in feudal time was feeble, floating, depending solely on her husband. She is lucky if she meets a good person. If not, she still has to endure a bad husband her whole life in silence” (page 495).

The three above authors only explained the content of the idiom, but did neither mention its origin nor presume the 12 water wharves included what classes in the society. That’s the correct way to compile a dictionary, because when not sure, things should not be written down.