What I’ve come to realize is that in order to understand information about the Red River Delta region in early Chinese sources, one has to view that information from the perspective of a major debate that took place during the Han Dynasty period, as this is when the first information about the Red River Delta region was recorded in Chinese sources.
What was that debate about? It was about centralized control.
Up until the Qin Dynasty was established in 221 BC, political control in the Chinese world was based on a decentralized feudal order. The Qin, however, sought to change this by setting up commanderies and districts and appointing their own officials to rule over those areas.
This was new and the expression, “commanderies and districts” (郡縣), came to refer to this new style of centralized rule.
Since the Qin Dynasty only ruled until 206 BC, it is questionable to what extent they succeeded in bring their empire under centralized control, but this nonetheless offered a new model to later rulers, and the Han Dynasty rulers in particular.
There is a great book on this by Michael Puett called The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China (Stanford, 2001) in which he looks at the multiple ways in which scholars during the early Han period debated about whether the Han should follow the Qin model or return to the decentralized feudal order of the past.
Most were in favor of returning to the old order, but ultimately the Han moved in the direction of centralization, with Emperor Wudi’s conquest of the Red River Delta region and the establishment of (Qin-style) commanderies and districts there as a perfect example of this trend.
The Qin established a commandery in the far south of their empire called Xiang Commandery. While it’s unclear where that was, I would argue that it probably in the area of Guangxi.
The reason why this seems logical is because there was a person by the name of King An Dương who had recently conquered (at least part of) the Red River Delta Region, and when the Qin Dynasty collapsed, Zhao Tuo, an official who had been in charge for the southernmost part of the Qin empire, conquered King An Dương and created an autonomous kingdom in the region, which he ruled from Panyu (present-day Guangzhou).
In creating this kingdom, Zhao Tuo established two commanderies in the Red River Delta region, Jiaozhi (Giao Chỉ) and Jiuzhen (Cửu Chân). He also sent two “emissaries” (使者) to rule over these respective commanderies.
Having two people ruling over a region is certainly not “centralization” of government control, but more direct control from a central government started to come later, after Emperor Wudi sent troops to conquer the region, established commanderies and districts, and appointed officials to rule over those administrative units.
And while it is doubtful that Han Dynasty officials were at all levels of the administration, they were at the commandery level, and there were at least districts (for which there is no evidence for Zhao Tuo’s kingdom) where it appears that a combination of Chinese and local officials served.
By understanding that this system of commanderies and districts was something new at the time of the Han Dynasty, and that before this model of central control had existed there had long been a period when the Chinese world followed a decentralized feudal model, then the famous passage in the sixth century text, the Annotated Classic of Waterways [水經注, Shuijing zhu], can be seen in a new light.
This passage purportedly describes the Red River Delta region before the time that King An Dương conquered it in the mid-third-century BC. It goes as follows:
“In the past, before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters, and therefore the people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. Lạc kings and lạc marquises were appointed to control the various commanderies and districts. Many of the districts had lạc generals. The lạc generals had bronze seals on green ribbons.”
I’ve been thinking about this passage for years, because it’s very confusing. It talks about a time “before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts” but then it has people ruling over “the various commanderies and districts.” And then it also uses terms from the pre-Qin decentralized feudal political order such as kings and marquises.
Previously I’ve read “commanderies and districts” here to mean “Chinese control.” Such a reading is problematic however, because everything is described in Sinitic terms – kings, marquises, commanderies, districts, etc.
If, however, we consider that the main political distinction in the Chinese world at that time was between centralized control (commanderies and districts) and a decentralized feudal system (kings and marquises), then this passage can be understood to say something else, namely that before the Red River Delta region was governed by a central authority, it had followed a decentralized feudal system of rule.
As the only major citadel in the region, it would seem logical that Cổ Loa would have been where the “king” was. But was there only one “king” in the region? The above passage doesn’t make that clear. If anything, in saying “Lạc kings and lạc marquises were appointed to control the various commanderies and districts” it would appear that there were multiple “kings.” The above passage certainly does not indicate that there was a single “king.”
While this reading seems reasonable to me, you again have the problem of kings and marquises ruling over commanderies and districts at a time before there were commanderies and districts. . .
Ultimately, perhaps the best way to read this passage would be to see it as the way that some Chinese person tried to say that “in the past, this region was ruled differently from the way it is now.” As for how it was different. . . that’s the mystery.
For as long as Vietnamese have been writing about this topic, however, they have often tried to depict it as something more or less the same as the way Chinese ruled (with an emperor/king and officials, etc.). I don’t think that’s what this person was saying, and he is the only person who left an “observation” of this early period of history.
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The first Westerners to examine Việt history were Jesuit missionaries. By the time that Jesuit missionaries started to work in the Red River Delta in the seventeenth century, one of their colleagues in China had already made an enormous discovery, namely that Chinese history pre-dated the time of the Biblical flood.
The scholar who came to this determination was Jesuit missionary Martinio Martini who stated in his 1658 work, Sinicae Historiae [Chinese History], that “outermost Asia was inhabited before the deluge.” The way he came to this conclusion was by calculating when various astronomical phenomena mentioned in ancient Chinese texts should have occurred. From these calculations he determined that Fu Xi, whom he saw as the first verifiable Chinese ruler, had lived before the time of the Flood.
Martini based his calculations on one version of the Bible, the Vulgate. There was another version, the Septuagint, that placed the Flood earlier, but not early enough to completely discount the presence of people in China before that time.
Approximately one and a half centuries after Martini made this discovery, there was a Jesuit, or Jesuits, who examined early Việt history in a similar manner.
This person’s ideas appeared in a series of publications of letters from Jesuit missions in Asia called Nouvelles lettres édifiantes des missions de la Chine et des Indes orientales [New and Edifying Letters of the Missions of China and the East Indies].
The sixth volume in that series, published in 1821, contained letters from missionaries in Tonkin, or what we today refer to as northern Vietnam.
In an introduction to these letters, someone provided a “Chronological Table of the Kings of Tonkin” which starts with the “Hông-Mang Dynasty.” (xxxiv)
Today this mythical dynasty is referred to as the Hồng Bàng Dynasty, but the character for “bàng” 厖/龐 is also pronounced “mang,” which leads to an interesting question: Why did whoever wrote this in the early nineteenth century think that the correct pronunciation of this character in this dynastic name was “mang”?
In any case, the author of this introduction declared that the information about the Hông-Mang Dynasty was nothing more than a web of fables. The way this author came to this conclusion was by comparing the dates of the Hông-Mang Dynasty with the dates of the Biblical Flood.
The author stated that according to Việt annals, this dynasty began in 2874 BC (today, 2879 is that date that is usually referred to), which according to the Vulgate version of the Bible was 500 years before the Flood. It was thus obvious to this writer that no dynasty could have survived that event, and therefore, the records of its existence had to be mythical.
That said, this author also noted that the Septuagint version of the Bible argued that the flood had taken place earlier, in 3235 BC, and that there was a dispersal of peoples 173 years after the flood, or in 3062 BC, in which case it was theoretically possible that the Hông-Mang Dynasty had been established in 2874 BC.
Nonetheless, even if that was the case, this author argued that there were other problems with the information about the Hông-Mang Dynasty. (xxxiv-xxxv)
In particular, the annals recorded that the founder of the “Hông-Mang Dynasty” was King Kinh Dương (Kinh Dương Vương), and that he was the great grandson of the (mythical) Chinese emperor, Shen Nong/Thần Nông.
According to this author, Shen Nong/Thần Nông ascended the throne in 2818 BC. However, the Việt annals stated that King Kinh Dương started to rule from 2874 BC. So how, this author wondered, could it be possible that a great grandson could ascend the throne before his great grandfather? (xxiv)
Another problem related to the information in the annals that the Hùng kings had ruled for 18 generations. This author calculated that a generation should equal about 30 years. So 30 years multiplied by 18 would equal 540 years.
Such a short period of rule, however, would be difficult to reconcile with the idea that the Hùng kings were the descendants of Shen Nong/Thần Nông (through King Kinh Dương and Lord Lạc Long), because this would leave a 1,200 year gap between Shen Nong/Thần Nông and King Kinh Dương.
Not all that long before this Jesuit missionary wrote this piece, Vietnamese scholar Ngô Thì Sĩ had also questioned the accuracy of the dates of the Hồng Bàng dynasty. Instead of assuming that a generation was approximately 30 years, Ngô Thì Sĩ took the entire period and divided it by the number of rulers, and from that he noted that each ruler would have had to rule for 130 years, which of course was impossible.
It is interesting to see this convergence of ideas that doubted the information about Việt antiquity that was recorded in Việt historical texts, namely the fifteenth-century Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư [Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt].
Now, 200 years later, Vietnamese have reverted to believing in this past, while Westerners, after having believed in it in the politically-charged era of the 1960s-1980s, have now gone back to refuting it.
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In the previous post I wrote about this Vietnamese ultranationalist idea that there was an ancient divide in Asia between agriculturalists (= the ancestors of the Vietnamese) and pastoralists (= the ancestors of the Han Chinese).
For that idea to make sense, it’s necessary to show that agriculture emerged first somewhere to the south of the Chinese world, such as in Southeast Asia, and that it then spread northward.
This is the argument that Vietnamese ultranationalists make, and they do this by stating that rice was first cultivated in Southeast Asia.
Is there evidence that rice cultivation first began in Southeast Asia?
No, there isn’t. Instead, today the international scholarly community has come to an agreement that the earliest center of rice cultivation was in the mid and lower Yangzi region in what is today China, although there are some people who argue that the Ganges river valley in what is today India was the site of the earliest cultivation of rice.
Either way, Southeast Asia is not viewed by the international community of professional archaeologists as the earliest site for rice cultivation, and this includes professional Vietnamese archaeologists.
Nonetheless, there was a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when some archaeologists “proposed” that Southeast Asia “might have been” the place where rice was first cultivated, but they did not have solid archaeological evidence to back up their proposals, and as a result, today these positions are no longer upheld as solid archaeological evidence has been found in other places.
The idea that Southeast Asia might be where agriculture in general, and rice cultivation in particular, first began was initially proposed in 1952 by American geographer Carl O. Sauer in his Agricultural Origins and Dispersals.
Sauer made this suggested based not on archaeological evidence, but on speculation. This is what he wrote:
“As the cradle of earliest Agriculture, I have proposed Southeastern Asia. It meets the requirements of high physical and organic diversity, of mild climate with reversed monsoons giving abundant rainy and dry periods, of many waters inviting to fishing, of location at the hub of the Old World for communication by water or by land. No other area is equally well situated or equally well furnished for the rise of a fishing-farming culture.” (24-5)
In other words, Sauer first came up with a conceptual model for the environmental setting where he believed agriculture should have emerged first, and then he looked for a place on the planet which fit that model and found. . . Southeast Asia!
Again, Sauer did not provide archaeological evidence to support his claims.
American archaeologist Wilhelm Solheim and his students, Chester Gorman and Donn Bayard, however, suspected that they did find such archaeological evidence in Thailand in the 1960s when they investigated three archaeological sites: Non Nok Tha and Ban Chiang in northeastern Thailand and Sprit Cave in northwestern Thailand.
At Non Nok Tha, potsherds (i.e., pieces of pottery) were found at a level dating to roughly 3,500 BC that had imprints of cereal grains (which Solheim believed was rice), and various plant remains were found at Spirit Cave (including eventually, rice).
Solheim sent these samples to Douglas Yen at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to examine further. Yen also journeyed to Thailand to obtain more samples with Gorman.
In the meantime, Solheim published an article in Scientific American in 1972 entitled “An Earlier Agricultural Revolution,” in which he stated that “The agricultural revolution, which was thought to have first occurred some 10,000 years ago among the emerging Neolithic societies of the Middle East, seems to have been achieved independently thousands of miles away in Southeast Asia.
“This separate agricultural revolution involved plants and animals for the most part unknown in the Middle East, and it may have begun as much as 5,000 years earlier.” (34)
Solheim should have waited for Yen to complete his tests, because when Yen finally published the findings of his tests in 1977, they did not support Solheim’s claim, as Yen ultimately concluded that the rice samples from these sites represented wild rather than domesticated rice.
While the excitement of the possibility of “an earlier agricultural revolution” in Southeast Asia did still inspire some scholars, increasingly detailed, and earlier, archaeological evidence from China combined with the lack of clear evidence in Southeast Asia to lead the professional archaeological community to conclude that the mid and lower Yangzi River area is the site where rice was first cultivated (although, as I mentioned above, there are some scholars who argue that the Ganges River area was an earlier site for rice cultivation).
While that is what is believed by professional archaeologists, the idea that rice was first cultivated in Southeast Asia is widely believed at a popular level in Vietnam, and it is a central tenet of Vietnamese ultranationalism, as the supposed dichotomy between “agriculturalists” and “pastoralists” will only make sense if it can be demonstrated that the “agriculturalists” had rice first.
So what evidence is provided to support this idea? It’s the writings of Sauer, Solheim, Gorman, etc., writings that are no longer seen as accurate in the West, but which still get cited over and over in Vietnam.
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The Great Agricultural (Nông Nghiệp) – Pastoral (Du Mục) Divide, or how Kim Định and Trần Ngọc Thêm Distorted Will Durant’s Ideas
One of the core tenets of Vietnamese ultranationalism is the idea that there is a fundamental division between Han Chinese and Vietnamese.
In particular, the argument of Vietnamese ultranationalism is that the Han Chinese were originally pastoral (du mục 遊牧) while Vietnamese from the earliest times have been agricultural (nông nghiệp 農業).
As any archaeologist knows, Han Chinese have been practicing agriculture for thousands of years, but the argument of Vietnamese ultranationalism is that before they started to engage in agriculture, the Han Chinese had originally been pastoralists, and that even though they eventually turned to practicing agriculture, many of their pastoral traits – such as a penchant for violence and for oppressing agriculturalists – nonetheless persisted.
In other words, to simplify the argument, the basic point here is “Han Chinese = bad, Vietnamese = good.”
While it is completely understandable that an ultranationalist argument would propose such a clear dichotomy of good vs. bad, it is more difficult to understand how anyone could get the idea that the Han Chinese were originally pastoralists and that pastoralists are somehow more violent and oppressive than agriculturalists.
In what follows, I will try to give a sense of how these ideas developed.
One of the first people to write in detail about this was South Vietnamese philosopher Kim Đình, and in putting forth his ideas, Kim Định cited the work of the American writer, Will Durant.
Will Durant was what we could call an “independent scholar.” Although he was trained in philosophy rather than history, over the course of several decades, from the 1930s to the 1970s, he published, in collaboration with his wife, an 11-volume series on “The Story of Civilization.”
While these books were never regarded highly by professional historians, they did popularize information about world history among the general public, albeit world history as seen from the perspective of the Durants.
In his 1973 work, Việt Nho Structure (Cơ cấu Việt Nho), Kim Định cited a French translation of the first volume of Durant’s series to support his explanation of the difference between pastoral and agricultural societies.
The term for “pastoral” in Vietnamese is “du mục,” where literally “du” mean “to move about” and “mục” means “to herd” or “to shepherd.”
This is significant for Kim Định as he sees the “moving about” of pastoralists as being tied to the world of hunting where people had to move about to find their food, whereas the “herding” was closer to the world of agriculture, as it required that one domesticate animals in order to be able to herd them.
The reason why this was significant for Kim Định was because he felt that this term symbolized the place of pastoralism in human history, namely that it was the last stage of hunting and gathering, and as such, it still carried with it many of the elements of the hunting lifestyle, such as bloodletting, violence and oppression.
These elements, Kim Định argued, persisted in such societies long after they turned to agriculture.
In other words, Kim Định’s logic was that 1) hunters are the most violent and 2) pastoralists maintain many elements of the hunting lifestyle, so therefore 3) when pastoralists become agriculturalists they remain violent and cruel.
Again, in making these points Kim Định cited Will Durant’s “The Story of Civilization,” but this is not at all what Durant argues in that book. [Kim Đình cites pages 36, 41 and 76 of the French-language addition. Pages 36 and 76 correspond to pages 7 and 52 of the English-language edition. However, I cannot find anything in the English-language version that corresponds to what Kim Đình says is mentioned on page 41 of the French-language edition.]
Instead, this is what Durant wrote:
“Hunting and fishing were not stages in economic development, they were modes of activity destined to survive into the highest forms of civilized society. Once the center of life, they are still its hidden foundations; behind our literature and philosophy, our ritual and art, stand the stout killers of Packingtown [i.e., a working class area of Chicago].
“We do our hunting by proxy, not having the stomach for honest killing in the fields; but our memories of the chase linger in our joyful pursuit of anything weak or fugitive, and in the games of our children even in the word game. In the last analysis civilization is based upon the food supply. The cathedral and the capitol, the museum and the concert chamber, the library and the university are the façade; in the rear are the shambles.” (7)
In other words, Durant argued that the violence of hunters continued not only in the lives of pastoralists, but in the lives of EVERYONE, even “into the highest forms of civilized society.”
What is more, he did not portray the agricultural life as a clear improvement over earlier times, as he felt that agriculture brought many new problems to humankind. He argues, for instance, that “Agriculture, while generating civilization, led not only to private property but to slavery.” (19)
Finally, he did not argue that pastoralists were more violent than agriculturalists. Instead, the distinction that he made was between “primitive” and “civilized” man. The adoption of agriculture did not make someone immediately “civilized.” Instead, this is a process that took many centuries as it required the development of cultural practices that would control the violent nature of all “primitive” peoples, be they hunters, pastoralists, or agriculturalists.
As such, while Kim Định cited Will Durant’s work, Durant’s work does not support Kim Dình’s ideas AT ALL.
This distortion of Durant’s book was later continued by Trần Ngọc Thêm, the author of Searching for the True Nature of Vietnamese Culture (Tìm về bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam) a popularly used textbook on Vietnamese society that is deeply indebted to Kim Đình’s ideas.
In that work Trần Ngọc Thêm cites Durant in arguing that the Han Chinese were originally pastoralists. He states that “The ancestors of the Han have pastoral origins that emerged from Central Asia. According to Western sources, or [sources] from the West, this matter is very obvious.” (62) He then cites a Vietnamese translation of the section on China in Durant’s first volume to support this point.
Let me cite that section at length because 1) it does not support what Trần Ngọc Thêm wrote, but 2) one needs to read the full passage to understand what Durant was saying. [It is on page 641-42 of the English-language version.]
“No one knows whence the Chinese came, or what was their race, or how old their civilization is. The remains of the ‘Peking Man’ suggest the great antiquity of the human ape in China; and the researches of Andrews have led him to conclude that Mongolia was thickly populated, as far back as 20,000 B.C., by a race whose tools corresponded to the ‘Azilian’ development of mesolithic Europe, and whose descendants spread into Siberia and China as southern Mongolia dried up and became the Gobi Desert. The discoveries of Andrews and others in Henan and south Manchuria indicate a Neolithic culture one or two thousand years later than similar stages in the prehistory of Egypt and Sumeria. Some of the stone tools found in these Neolothic deposits resemble exactly, in shape and perforations, the iron knives now used in northern China to reap the sorghum crop; and this circumstance, small though it is, reveals the probability that Chinese culture has an impressive continuity of seven thousand years.
“We must not, through the blur of distance, exaggerate the homogeneity of this culture, or of the Chinese people. Some elements of their early art and industry appear to have come from Mesopotamia and Turkestan; for example, the neolithic pottery of Honan is almost identical with that of Anau and Susa. The present ‘Mongolian’ type is a highly complex mixture in which the primitive stock has been crossed and recrossed by a hundred invading or immigrating stocks from Mongolia, southern Russia (the Scythians?), and central Asia. China, like India, is to be compared with Europe as a whole rather than with any one nation of Europe; it is not the united home of one people, but a medley of human varieties different in origin, distinct in language, diverse in character and art, and often hostile to one another in customs, morals and government.”
In contrast to what Trần Ngọc Thêm wrote, Durant did not say here that the Han “have pastoral origins that emerged from Central Asia.” Instead, he cites the 1926 work of Roy Andrews, the leader of a “Central Asiatic expedition” on behalf of the American Museum of Natural History, to argue the opposite, namely that Chinese had been living in the region for as long as anyone could tell, and that no one knew where they might have originally come from, or what their original society might have been like.
He did argue that like people in other parts of the world, such as Europe and India, the Chinese probably consisted of a “primitive stock” which had then intermixed with “invading or immigrating stocks,” but he did not say that any of these people were pastoralists, or that the Han Chinese were originally pastoralists.
Indeed, he didn’t say anything about pastoralism.
Will Durant was not an expert on Chinese history. As a student he studied Western philosophy, and from that background he went on to write a history of world civilization.
Kim Định and Trần Ngọc Thêm both cited his work to support their argument about a supposed cultural divide between pastoralists and agriculturalists in antiquity. In doing so, however, they completely distorted what Will Durant wrote.
The ideas of Kim Định and Trần Ngọc Thêm about a supposed cultural divide between pastoralists and agriculturalists are thus based on a “double failure.”
They both failed to build their ideas on the work of experts, and they both failed to even understand the ideas of the non-expert they did consult.
This idea that there is a cultural divide between pastoralists and agriculturalists therefore has no basis in reality. It is the product of ultranationalist imagination.
It is interesting, however, that this ultranationalist imagination has felt the need to cite Western scholars.
Those Western societies, after all, were also originally pastoral. . . weren’t they?
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Vietnamese music expert and blogger Tây Bụi just drew my attention back to a topic that I have been thinking about for a long time now – Where does the word “huyền thoại” (and the related term, “huyền sử” – for more on “huyền sử” see this video and this video) come from?
What does this term mean? Well, “huyền” means “dark” or “obscure” and “thoại” can mean “talk” or “tale,” but when they are combined together they create a compound that means. . . Well, that’s the problem. I can’t figure out what it means.
Go to the popular online Vietnamese dictionary vdict.com and search for “huyền thoại” under “Vietnamese-English.” You will see that it is glossed as “legend, myth.”
Then go and search for “myth” and “legend” under “English-Vietnamese” and you will get “thần thoại” and “truyện cổ tích,” respectively.
That’s strange! If “huyền thoại” means “myth” or “legend,” then why aren’t those two terms glossed as “huyền thoại” in Vietnamese?
Today I spent some time looking at all kinds of dictionaries (Vietnamese-Vietnamese dictionaries, Vietnamese-English Dictionaries, French-Vietnamese dictionaries, English-Vietnamese dictionaries) from the various parts/periods of the Vietnamese world (colonial Vietnam, South Vietnam, North Vietnam, the diaspora and the Socialist Democratic of Vietnam [hereafter, SRV]) and I cannot find “huyền thoại” in any dictionary before the 1990s.
I have a 1996 edition of a Vietnamese-Vietnamese dictionary that was created by the Center for Dictionary Studies in Hanoi (Từ điển tiếng Việt), and Tây Bụi consulted a 1994 version of that same dictionary. They both contain this term and explain it as “story that is obscure [huyền hoặc], strange, and entirely the product of imagination; a myth [thần thoại]” (câu chuyện huyền hoặc, kì lạ, hoàn toàn do tưởng tượng; thần thoại).
Meanwhile, the term also appears in a dictionary that Nguyễn Đình Hòa published in the US in 1995 (NTC’s Vietnamese-English Dictionary). That dictionary contains a “supplement,” that is, a section at the end where Nguyễn Đình Hòa added new words that he had come across that he had not included in the main part of the dictionary. “Huyền thoại” appeared in the supplement, and it was glossed simply as “myth.”
Finally, to take the story a little further, Tây Bụi found a definition of “huyền thoại” in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Vietnam (Từ điển Bách khoa Việt Nam) published in 2002 that explains this term as “a story that is obscure, mysterious, and is invented from imagination. Huyền thoại often talk about spirits, supernatural people and extraordinary actions, are connected to some degree with history, [but] most do not have a basis in reality” (chuyện huyền hoặc, thần bí, do trí tưởng tượng hư cấu. Huyền thoại thường kể về các vị thần linh, các nhân vật siêu phàm, những hành động kì vĩ, gắn ít nhiều với lịch sử, phần lớn không có cơ sở thực tế).
What an obscure definition! Huyền thọai “are connected to some degree with history, [but] most do not have a basis in reality.” What on earth does that mean?
This is a very imprecise definition, and its imprecision becomes particularly evident when one looks at the definitions of “myth” and “legend” in a source like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
Here is how the OED defines “myth”:
“A traditional story, typically involving supernatural beings or forces, which embodies and provides an explanation, aetiology, or justification for something such as the early history of a society, a religious belief or ritual, or a natural phenomenon.”
So here the connection to history and reality is clear. It is an imagined story, but it is used to explain some phenomenon that is larger than the content of the story itself.
An historian can therefore examine myths and try to understand what that larger phenomenon is (and there are countless scholars who have done this for myths from around the world).
As for “legend,” the main meaning in English is “the story of the life of a Saint,” but there is another meaning that comes closer to what seems to be indicated by the term “huyền thoại.” To quote,
“An unauthentic or non-historical story, esp. one handed down by tradition from early times and popularly regarded as historical.”
Here again, the relationship with history is clear. A legend is not actual history, but it is something that is “popularly regarded as historical.”
Therefore, an historian can examine a legend and can demonstrate what is not authentic about it, and can use that information to talk about why people might have created the legend and why people believe the legend even though it is not true.
In other words, what both of these definitions show is that myths and legends can be analyzed and understood by historians. They are not some “obscure” topic that one cannot examine and come to a convincing explanation about.
This, however, is not the case with “huyền thọai.” How, after all, can an historian understand something that is “connected to some degree with history” but which does “not have a basis in reality”?
While I am picking on this one definition, I am doing so because I have read and heard many Vietnamese scholars use this concept of “huyền thọai” or “huyền sử” to essentially not have to make any point about the past. – “Oh, it’s huyền thọai/huyền sử. Nothing can be known for sure.” (Không biết được.)
Well, one thing that we can know for sure is that this concept of “huyền thọai” first started to get documented in the 1990s. It obviously must have been in circulation before that point, but where? When?
A quick search for the term “huyền thoại” in my local library reveals only one title from the 1960s: Nguyễn Văn Trung’s French Colonialism in Vietnam: Reality and Myths (Chủ nghĩa thực dân Pháp ở Việt Nam thực chất và huyền thoại), published in Saigon in 1963.
Then in the 1970s there are a couple of literary works from South Vietnam.
In the 1980s there are works that were published in America, like Kim Vinh Phạm’s The Liberation of Vietnam: Myth, Reality and Hope (Giải phóng Việt Nam: huyền thoại, thực tại và hi vọng).
In other words, it’s clear that up until 1990, “huyền thoại” was a term used by South Vietnamese and then South Vietnamese in the diaspora.
In the 1990s, however, this started to change, as works started to be published in the SRV that used the term “huyền thoại”
By the 2000s, many works were getting published in the SRV that employed the term “huyền thoại” (my library lists 143 such titles).
So what happened here?
Tây Bụi discusses a song from South Vietnam in the early 1970s called “Legend/Myth of a Girl” (Huyền thoại người con gái).
This was apparently the first pre-1975 song from South Vietnam to be approved by the government of the SRV for performance.
That approval came in 1991.
Although I need to document this more clearly, Kim Đình’s concept of “huyền sử” also seems to have started to “make a comeback” around that time.
So there is something about the “re-emergence” of the South at that time, but I think it is also probably related to what some scholars have referred to as “late Socialism” or “the late Socialist moment.”
The gist of this idea is that as the Soviet Union fell, and most of the various remaining Socialist countries started to transform their economies from command economies to market economies, the ideological tenets that regimes were based on not longer “had a basis in reality.”
As that happened, there was a “turn to tradition” and an accompanying “re-enchantment” of reality. Temples and churches were renovated, spirits were venerated, etc.
This, scholars argue, was motivated by a sense of uncertainty. After decades of living in a world which was based on a clear ideological divide, how could the people in Socialist countries now open their doors to a world that they had long opposed? How would this change their societies? Would it destroy everything? What should people do?
Well in this uncertain setting, the past seemed like a good resource to rely on to gain a sense of strength and stability. After all, if the nation had existed since antiquity, certainly the nation could survive through the present changes.
But wait, was there actually a nation in antiquity? Wasn’t that all a bunch of myths? How could that be used to strengthen society in this new age?
Hence the appeal of terms like “huyền thoại” and “huyền sử.” While there had been terms that had been used for decades in Vietnam to refer to the Western concepts of “myths” (thần thoại) and “legends” (cổ tích, truyền thuyết), these new terms which had probably never really caught on in South Vietnam (and hence, never appeared in a dictionary there), and which had not been used since 1975, now provided the opportunity to create a new concept.
Indeed, Kim Đình’s concept of “huyền sử” (obscure history) really provided the model for this. It was real but not real. It was malleable. One could use it as one wished, because “nothing can be known for sure.”
I therefore find this term “huyền thoại” to be filled with historical significance. It is a term that emerged in South Vietnam in the 1960s, went overseas in 1975, “went back” in the early 1990s, and was then transformed to enable Vietnamese to cope with the uncertainties of a changing world.
In so doing, this term also freed Vietnamese scholars from the need to look critically at the origins of their society, a topic that was now being used to strengthen the nation in the absence of ideology. After all, it all was just “huyền thoại” and “huyền sử.” Không biết được.
In other words, unlike in the English speaking world, where “myths” and “legends” could be clearly examined and analyzed in various ways by historians, “huyền thoại” and “huyền sử,” by their very nature as stories that “are connected to some degree with history, [but] most do not have a basis in reality” could not.
They were too obscure.
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I’m really getting tired of seeing people mention the “Âu Lạc Kingdom” (甌貉國). That was never the name of an actual kingdom, but I keep seeing people mention it again and again.
This term is used today to refer to a supposed kingdom that a certain figure by the name of King Anyang/An Dương reportedly created in the Red River Delta in the third century BC.
To be honest, we don’t really have sufficient historical evidence (be it textual or archaeological) to demonstrate that this person did actually establish a kingdom. There are written records that say that he attacked and subdued the ruling elite in the Red River Delta region, and he reportedly had a palace within the walls of an existing citadel at a place that is now known as Cổ Loa.
But beyond that, we do not have any other information about this “kingdom.” Therefore, it is difficult to say that he really had a “kingdom,” as we don’t know if he really “ruled” beyond the walls of Cổ Loa. Did he appoint officials to govern over the countryside? Did he collect taxes? There is no information about this.
There is also no mention about this “kingdom” being called “Âu Lạc,” not, that is, until some 1,700 years later in the fifteenth century when this term appeared in two texts, the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, two texts that somehow were able to “reveal” a great deal of information about antiquity that had never been recorded before. . .
I’ve written about much of that problematic information before. The name “Âu Lạc” is yet another “invented tradition” from that time.
The earliest information, and really the only “historically reliable” information (and it’s not super reliable by any means), that we have about King Anyang/An Dương comes from a sixth century text, Li Daoyuan’s Annotated Classic of Waterways [Shuijing zhu 水經注], which in turn cites a couple of slightly earlier text.
This is what that text records:
“The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region states that In the past, before Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the tidal/flood waters. The people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. A lạc king [or lạc princes] and lạc marquises were appointed to control the various commanderies and districts. Many of the districts had lạc generals. The lạc generals had bronze seals on green ribbons.”
“Later, a Shu/Thục prince led 30,000 soldiers to fight the lạc king [or lạc princes] and lạc marquises, and subdued the lạc generals. The Shu/Thục prince then declared himself to be King Anyang/An Dương.”
“Later, King of Southern Yue [Nam Việt/Nanyue] Commissioner Tuo [i.e., Zhao Tuo/Triệu Đà] led people to attack King Anyang/An Dương. King Anyang/An Dương had a supernatural person [shenren/thần nhân 神人] named Gao Tong/Cao Thông who served as his assistant and who made for King Anyang/An Dương a supernatural crossbow that could kill 300 people in one shot. The king of Southern Yue knew that he could not battle [against this], so he retreated with his troops and encamped in Wuning/Vũ Ninh District.”
“According to the Records of the Taikang Era of the Jin, this district was part of Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ [Commandery]. [Southern] Yue sent the heir apparent, named Shi/Thủy [i.e., the son of Zhao Tuo/Triệu Đà], to surrender to King Anyang/An Dương and to serve him as an official. King Anyang/An Dương did not know that Gao Tong/Cao Thông was supernatural and treated him unfairly. Tong/Thông thereupon departed, and said to the king, ‘If you possess this crossbow you can rule All Under Heaven, but if you do not possess it, you will lose All Under Heaven.’ Tong/Thông left.”
“King Anyang/An Dương had a daughter called Mei Zhu/Mỵ Châu. She saw that Shi/Thủy was honest and upright. Zhu/Châu and Shi/Thủy linked up. Shi/Thủy asked Zhu/Châu to show him her father’s crossbow. When Shi/Thủy saw it, he secretly broke the trigger. He then returned to inform the king of Southern Yue about this.
“Southern Yue advanced its troops to attack. King Anyang/An Dương fired the crossbow, but the crossbow was broken so he was defeated. King Anyang/An Dương got in a boat and went out to sea. Today behind the Pingdao/Bình Đạo District [seat] in the royal citadel are the old remains [of King Anyang/An Dương’s palace].
So that’s the story. Again, it’s difficult to tell to what extent King Anyang/An Dương established a “kingdom.”
But it’s easy to see that it was not called “Âu Lạc.”
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This is a video of a radio broadcast from WTXT radio, located somewhere in the Pacific, about the Vietnamese story about Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh (the mountain spirit and the water spirit).
For an English translation of this tale, see the following website. This story appears in the first chapter of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and in the second chapter of the Lĩnh Nam chích quái (see “The Tale of Mount Tản Viên”).
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The Internet Archive has obtained some digitized American radio broadcasts from the 1940s called “The Pacific Story.”
One broadcast was about Hanoi and was entitled “Hanoi Perfume and Gunpowder.” That broadcast contains an interesting observation about “racial” relations in Hanoi in the 1940s.
To quote the broadcast:
[Narrator] “Another noteworthy phase [?] of French administration, especially to all democracy loving people, is found in the fact that the French have governed the natives of French Indochina probably with less high-handedness than any other imperial-minded people has ruled its subjects.”
[British visitor] “I say, I notice a curious thing about your French attitude in public places towards natives.”
[British visitor] “I mean you don’t seem to draw any color line, do you?”
[Frenchman] “Uh, ‘color line’?”
“Why, every shade of racial color is gathered right here in this café. Mongols, Tonkinese, Annamites, half-castes, quarter-castes. I must say, you treat the natives as if they were you’re equals.”
[Frenchman] “We receive them all democratically.”
[British visitor] “And, uh, do you find that a good idea?”
[Frenchman] “A very good idea, monsieur. We are after all visitors to these people’s country. We accepts one’s hospitality. Why not accept him as an equal?”
[British visitor] “But nowhere else in all the East is such a thing practiced.”
[Frenchman] “Uh, oui monsieur, I know. Yes our French clubs and French drawing rooms are open to all shades and mixtures of human beings.”
[British visitor] “What? By Jove, just look at that!”
Frenchman] “What, monsieur?”
[British visitor] “A pure-blooded French woman accompanied by a dark-skinned native!”
Frenchman] “Ah but what is wrong? Is it any more scandalous than a fair-skinned Norwegian woman being accompanied by a swarthy Spaniard to the theater in Madrid?”
[Narrator] “No one seems to know why Indochina should be the only place in Asia where such color equality should exist, or whether it has developed there as a result of government policy, or because the French people have no racial prejudices.”
I’m not sure how accurate this is, but it is interesting that someone seems to have made this observation in the 1940s.
There are many other interesting broadcasts in this series that I will discuss later. For now, here is a clip of the passage cited about, as well as a remix of this same information.
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The more I read the comments that eighteenth-century scholar Ngô Thì Sĩ made about the Việt historical record the more I like this guy. Ngô Thì Sĩ did exactly what any historian should do – he read historical sources carefully, and he asked logical and critical questions about those sources.
Of course like all historians the ideas of the time and society that he lived in influenced and to some extent limited the kinds of questions he asked and the ways in which he thought about the past.
However, he was able to identify problems in the historical record through a very rational approach to reading historical sources. As such, the problems that he pointed out still make sense today, and they are ones, I would argue, that modern historians (people who have also been influenced and limited by the times and society that they have lived in) have not been able to address with the clarity and precision that Ngô Thì Sĩ did.
To take one example, Ngô Thì Sĩ points out a significant textual contradiction about the emergence of the first (mythical) Hùng king in antiquity.
In all accounts, this first king is reported to have been the son of a semi-human being and a human woman. Lord Lạc Long (Lạc Long Quân), the father, was from the “dragon” or “serpent” world (and is thus also known as the Dragon Lord [Long Quân]), while Consort Ẩu (Ẩu Cơ) was a human being.
Together these two reportedly had 100 sons, but only one of them became the first Hùng king. As for which son became this king, that is where the written sources differ.
The “original” or “earliest known” source for this topic is the fifteenth-century collection of tales, the Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện). That text records Lord Lạc Long as saying the following to Consort Ẩu:
“I will take 50 sons and return to the water palace [thủy phủ] where they will be divided up to rule over each area [xứ]. 50 sons will follow you to live on the land, and will divide the kingdom [quốc] and rule.”
The text goes on to state that, “The 100 sons obeyed and departed. Consort Ẩu and 50 sons took up residence in Phong Region (today’s Bạch Hạc District). They encouraged and esteemed each other and promoted their most dominant [hùng trưởng giả] to be ruler, calling him the Hùng king.”
Therefore, according to this account, it was one of the sons who followed his mother, and stayed on the land, who became the first Hùng king. What is more, on land there was a “kingdom,” whereas the water palace that Lord Lạc Long returned to just had various “areas.” Finally, the sons who followed the mother “esteemed each other and promoted their most dominant to be ruler.”
This account thus provides a very positive view of Consort Ẩu and her handling of the 50 sons who stayed with her on the land.
The source that contradicts the above account also comes from the fifteenth century, Ngô Sĩ Liên’s official dynastic chronicle the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư).
In this work, Ngô Sĩ Liên included some of this same information from the Arrayed Tales. However, Ngô Sĩ Liên’s account is different. This is what it says:
“50 sons were divided off to follow their mother and return to the mountains, while 50 followed their father to dwell in the south (‘Dwell in the south’ is also recorded as ‘return to the Southern Sea.’). He invested his eldest son as the Hùng king, and passed the sovereign throne on to him.”
(分五十子從母歸山，五十子從父居南。 [居南作歸南海。] 封其長為雄王，嗣君位。)
In this account everyone stays on the land, however Lord Lạc Long and Consort Ẩu still take 50 sons in two separate directions. Consort Ẩu leads 50 sons up into the mountain periphery, while Lord Lạc Long creates a kingdom “in the south” where he alone invests his eldest son as the Hùng king and passes the “sovereign throne” on to him.
This is clearly a much more male-centric and dynasty-centric account.
The passage in parentheses in Ngô Sĩ Liên’s version of this story that says “‘Dwell in the south’ is also recorded as ‘return to the Southern Sea’” was added by someone to this text when it was printed in the late seventeenth century. This person clearly noticed that there was a difference between Ngô Sĩ Liên’s account and the version in the Arrayed Tales.
This difference is likewise an issue which Ngô Thì Sĩ discussed in the eighteenth century. This is what he wrote:
“The historian [i.e., Ngô Sĩ Liên] wanted to use those who followed the father to correct the royal succession [quốc thống]. He therefore changed the text to say “50 sons followed the father to dwell in the south,” and had the Hùng king connected to this [group]. This thus caused the truth to be mistaken and forgotten. Readers can not but have doubts.”
In other words, Ngô Thì Sĩ felt that Ngô Sĩ Liên had changed the account in the Arrayed Tales in order to present a clearer royal succession (quốc thống) from father to son.
But weren’t the boys who followed Consort Ẩu also Lord Lạc Long’s sons? Why couldn’t one of them become king? Indeed, Ngô Thì Sĩ asked this very question:
“Of the sons who followed the mother, who did not still belong to the Dragon Lord? So why is it that it had to be a son who followed the father who became king while the sons who followed the mother became savages [man giả]?”
I don’t know if there was a written source at that time which said that the sons who followed their mother into the mountains had become “savages” or if that was just an idea at the time. What this comment shows however is that Ngô Thì Sĩ was questioning a belief that people at that time must have held, and that belief was a male-centric one which argued that the important people in this episode in the past had all been male.
That, however, is not what the earliest account indicated.
That Ngô Sĩ Liên produced a male-centric history is not a new idea. Years ago, for instance, historians pointed out that he added a detail about the Trưng sisters’ rebellion which made it more male-centric.
Whereas the earliest sources just say that Trưng Trắc got into some kind of legal trouble with a Han Dynasty administrator and then rebelled, Ngô Sĩ Liên added a detail that the Han Dynasty administrator killed her husband and that she rebelled to extract revenge.
In other words, by bringing her husband into the story, Ngô Sĩ Liên reduced the agency of women, as Trưng Trắc’s decision to rebel was no longer personal, but the outgrowth of a social value – loyalty to one’s husband.
People who believe that “Southeast Asian” women historically had more agency than “Chinese” women, and that “Vietnam” is “Southeast Asian” have thus been quick to point out that Ngô Sĩ Liên distorted the information about the Trưng sisters’ rebellion.
However, an even better “example” of “the historical agency of Southeast Asian women” would be the Arrayed Tales account of the rise of the first Hùng king.
Here you have a story of a woman who raises 50 sons on her own while her husband goes off to hang out in his underwater palace with the rest of the boys (kind of like the lady who runs a business while her husband goes and drinks coffee/beer/whiskey all day with his buddies).
And then through some kind of democratic process (which surely the mother helped guide), the “most dominant” (not merely the oldest – that’s “the Chinese” way) son became king.
That’s “Southeast Asia” at its most beautiful. So why, I wonder, isn’t this story presented that way?
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