Life's Four Stupidities

Published September 28, 2015 in Episode 23

Vietnamese people often use ca dao or parables and proverbs to teach their children morals and social values to live by. These life lessons are passed down from generations to generations.

This week I will be examining a Vietnamese proverb on a rather clever topic: human stupidity.

Specifically, I am looking at the four stupidities that one should never commit, at least according to this Vietnamese proverb:

Ở đời có 4 cái ngu
Làm mai, lãnh nợ, gác cu, cầm chầu

There are four types of stupidities in life
Matchmaking, bearing debt, trapping spotted doves and beating the drum

I couldn’t really believe that these four are the greatest stupidities, so I asked my Vietnamese teacher Phạm Minh Tâm from Melbourne, Australia, to enlighten me on this subject.

“Perhaps our ancestors just wanted to specify the most common types of stupidity,” she said.

Well I am bewildered, so let's go through the list one by one:

Làm mai - Matchmaking

A Vietnamese country wedding. (Photo: Mike Fernwood. CC BY SA 2.0)

A Vietnamese country wedding. (Photo: Mike Fernwood. CC BY SA 2.0)

It’s probably easy to see why làm mai or matchmaking makes the stupid list. In ancient times when marriages were arranged, the matchmaker's job was to lead the negotiation between the parents of the would be bride and groom, for a reward. It's like a blind date but you're theoretically stuck for life, and if things don't go too well, the matchmaker will always get the blame.

“It never turns out well for the matchmaker,” cô Tâm explains. “Happy couples never credit matchmakers for their happiness. Only when the relationship turns sour, they will say. ‘It’s because of the matchmaker’s introduction that I’m so miserable today”.

Lãnh nợ - Bearing another person's debt

It is also commonly referred to as co-signing or becoming a guarantor in our day and age. It’s a noble endeavor...until it becomes stupid.

“Bearing another’s debt is to provide guarantee for someone in debt. It’s simply stupid because the indebted person could just run off and you will be in debt in place of that person,” cô Tâm says.

That makes a lot of sense to me. It used to be that when you are in debt and could not pay, you, along with your family, would be enslaved by your creditors until the debt is finally paid off. The subsequent generations of family members would also receive the same fate, debt by association. It was not uncommon in Việt Nam to be in debt for three generations.

Gác cu - Trapping spotted doves

Okay, this third stupidity, gác cu, or trapping spotted doves, left me a little dumbfounded

Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis or Spilopelia chinensis), also known as the Spotted Turtle Dove - Kauai, Hawaii. (Photo: Dick Daniels/  

Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis or Spilopelia chinensis), also known as the Spotted Turtle Dove - Kauai, Hawaii. (Photo: Dick Daniels/ 

The spotted dove (Spilopelia chinensis) is a small and somewhat long-tailed pigeon which is a common resident breeding bird across its native range on the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia.

Cô Tâm says gác cu is a country practice of trapping a spotted dove, a bird commonly called Cu Gáy. “It takes a lot of efforts to do so,” she says. “Sometimes you have sit and lurk in a bush all night just to try to capture the bird.”

She further explains that in order to catch a spotted dove, you have to set up a trap using another spotted dove and place it in the territory of the bird you want to capture. When the other dove realises that its territory has been invaded, it will fly and land somewhere above and start singing to challenge the infiltrator. The two birds would then start a “sing off" for hours until they resolve the competition with a physical challenge, and that is when the trap could finally be set off.

Meanwhile the trapper has to stay very still like a sniper in the bush to wait for the dove to land. This could easily take hours and hours as the birds' battles went on.

Cầm chầu - Beating the drum

Beating the drum here refers to the act of beating a drum to chime in during a Vietnamese opera performance.

Back in the day, during opera performances, one person, usually a knowledgeable person or someone well-respected in the village, would be chosen to beat the drum whenever he wanted to praise a particular part of the performance.

Every time he hit the drum, a card would be thrown into a bucket to keep track of how many compliments were given. At the end of the performance the villagers had to put in money to pay the troupe, according to the amount of cards that were awarded. It was always a lose-lose situation for the music critic, he would be either hated by the performers or by the crowd.

Hidden meaning

According to Cô Tâm, these are not the stupidest type of stupid errors you could make. “The saying is not a universal truth, but more of a metaphor to sarcastically make fun of people who stick their nose in other people’s’ business,” she explained.

“They get involved with things that don’t concern them and they end up having to bear the consequence,” she added.

So there is a hidden meaning to the proverb after all, and it is still applicable in today's day and age.

Well I hope you have learnt something new, or rather old but still useful.

I sure learned a lot and hopefully will be come a little wiser. I still want to trap a spotted dove though, it sounds fun.