Whole leaf, torn leaf

A student of Vietnamese culture may be at a loss when trying to penetrate the meaning of a phrase so often heard today: “Let the whole leaf envelop the torn leaf!” (Lá lành đùm lá rách). Though it appears to carry little meaning on the surface, this expression has been adopted by a mutual aid association as its motto.

Whence comes such a simile? It can only originate in a “vegetal culture,” from the language of a people whose staple food is rice. In Eastern Asia, where the most popular dishes include rice, cakes and balls of crushed rice are frequently wrapped up in tree leaves for consumption. Many kinds of cakes are wrapped up in leaves before cooking, the best known being the square bánh chưng traditionally eaten at Tết, the lunar New Year. Since a cake is enveloped in several layers of leaves, torn leaves are reinforced by whole ones – hence the expression mentioned above, which alludes to mutual help practiced among people of modest means.

This solidarity is well anchored in village towns, where the spirit of family interconnectedness remains most intact. It has been tempered and tested in the course of thirty years of national war, but still remains popular today. Sadly, though, the phrase is beginning to erode due to increasing materialism, especially since the adoption of a more free market economy. As such, in the present moment, many will see rice cakes now wrapped in polyethylene packing instead of tree leaves and tied up with nylon strings instead of bamboo strips.

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