Tam and cam: the ancient vietnamese cinderella story


As we have commented before, there are hundreds of folktales around the world that have the same central plot as the famous children’s story Cinderella. This Vietnamese version is longer và continues after the girl becomes Queen. The story from here on could only happen in a folktale from a country where people believe that after we die we can be born again in non-human form. Tam is killed twice after marrying the king, each time coming back khổng lồ life in a different form. Fortunately, goodness wins out over evil và Cam soon finds herself in hot water.

Original Text / PDF (2,519 words)

General Comments

This story illustrates a possible difference between modern day, Christian influenced Western fairy tales and the original stories upon which they are based. In the version of Tam và Cam that we have simplified here the story ends with the comment:

“Tam lived longer than both of them (her stepmother and stepsister), và lived happily ever after, for she certainly deserved it.”

In Western terms it is hard lớn see how it could be argued that Tam was so good as be worthy of life-long happiness. At the end of the story she caused her stepsister Cam to lớn be boiled alive. Another version of the story has an even more horrible ending where Tam had Cam’s body cut up, cooked & turned into a sauce which she tricked her stepmother into eating with her meals. The sauce was so delicious that the stepmother ate it every day until she found Cam’s head at the bottom of the jar & immediately fell down dead. If we were able to lớn look back at original versions of many English children’s favorites, we would find examples of equally bad things happening khổng lồ those who do wrong.

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There is some disagreement about the best moral for the the original Cinderella story, which makes up the first part of the Tam và Cam plot. The version that made Cinderella famous was contained in Charles Perrault’s Stories or Tales from Times Past, with Morals (also known as Tales of Mother Goose), first published in 1697. Perrault gave two possible morals for the story:

Beauty in a woman is a rare treasure that will always be admired. Graciousness, however, is priceless và of even greater value. This is what Cinderella’s godmother gave lớn her when she taught her khổng lồ behave like a queen. Young women, in the winning of a heart, graciousness is more important than a beautiful hairdo. It is a true gift of the fairies. Without it nothing is possible; with it, one can vì chưng anything.


Without doubt it is a great advantage lớn have intelligence, courage, good breeding, and common sense. These, & similar talents come only from heaven, và it is good to have them. However, even these may fail khổng lồ bring you success, without the blessing of a godfather or a godmother.

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These can best be paraphrased as follows: 1) It is nice to lớn beautiful, but unless you are also gracious (caring, courteous, and kind) it won’t bring you everything you want; 2) Sometimes, even with all of these things, you may still need a little luck in order lớn succeed.

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There is some interesting symbolism in Tam and Cam which could explain a possible additional moral for this version. Near the beginning of the story we see this description:

“The poor little Tam worked & worked all day. Her skin became dark and her hair messy. Sometimes when she went to get water, she looked at herself in it and was surprised khổng lồ see how dark & ugly she was. She would then take up some water in her hand, wash her face and comb her long straight hair with her fingers. The soft trắng skin appeared again, and she looked pretty again. But when the stepmother saw how pretty Tam could look, she hated her more than ever & wished to lớn make her life worse.”

And then at the kết thúc of the story Tam’s stepsister Cam asks her:

“Dearest sister, how could I become as trắng as you?”

As well as the obvious thought that Tam’s light skin và Cam’s dark skin may represent good & evil, skin color could have a uniquely Asian symbolism here. In Asia there is a popular stereotype that dark-skinned people are of a lower social standing than light-skinned people. This seems lớn come from the idea that the family of dark-skinned people must be poor and uneducated and therefore have to lớn earn a living by working in the sun. Because of this, one of the biggest selling personal care products in that part of the world is skin-whitening cream. In the West the opposite applies; many people like to have a “healthy” browning of the skin to show that they have the time và money khổng lồ relax outdoors. Cam’s terrible end may not have come from all the bad things she did, but from wanting lớn change the color of her skin.

The possible additional moral? “Be happy with who you are & don’t try lớn change it.” This seems a very important teaching for a strongly class based society such as ancient Vietnam, where the last thing those in nguồn would have wanted was for the masses lớn try to lớn improve their position.