Some of the earliest writings about the Red River Delta region were about its spirits. More specifically, they were about the appropriation of local spirits by the ruling elite.

This is a practice that we have clear evidence for from the period of the Tang Dynasty. At that time, an administrator by the name of Zhao Chang wrote a work in the early ninth century called a Record of Jiaozhou (Jiaozhou ji 交州記) that documented this phenomenon, and later in the fourteenth century, Lý Tế Xuyên compiled a text which also recorded information about the same phenomenon entitled Collected [Records] about the Departed Spirts of the Việt Realm (Việt Điện U Linh Tập 粵甸幽靈集).

Zhao Chang’s book is no longer extant, but it is cited at times in the Collected [Records] about the Departed Spirts of the Việt Realm, and it is also cited in an inscription that was inscribed on a bell at a Daoist temple somewhere between 1314 and 1324 known as the “Record of the Bell at Thông Thánh [Daoist] Temple in Bạch Hạc” (Bạch Hạc Thông Thánh quán chung ký 白鶴通聖觀鐘記) that was written by a Daoist master from Fujian who had taken up residence in the Red River Delta by the name of Xu Zongdao/Hứa Tông Đạo 許宗道.

stele image

This is how the inscription begins:

According to Master Zhao’s record [i.e., Zhao Chang’s Record of Jiaozhou], during the Yonghui era [650-655 AD] of the Tang, Ruan Changming served as protector general [military commissioner] of Phong/Feng Prefecture. Observing the vastness of the land, surrounded by mountains and rivers, he ordered that Thông Thánh [Daoist] Temple be constructed on the outskirts of Bạch Hạc and that statues of the Three Pure Ones [i.e., three Daoist deities] be placed inside to create a sense of majesty. He also ordered that two spaces be opened, one in front and one behind, where he planned to have statues of guardian deities of the temple created [and placed.] Unable to determine which deity was numinous, he burnt incense and incanted, “Whichever spirit here is numinous, reveal yourself so that I can create a statue in your image.

That night he dreamt that two peculiar men with gaunt faces arrived with their apprentices in tow, scolding and insulting each other, and proceeded to Changming’s Temple of Tranquil Residence.

Changming asked, “What are your names?” One was called the Earth Magistrate and the other was called the Stone Chief Minister.

Changming stated, “Whoever’s techniques are superior will reside in the front.” The Stone Chief Minister leaped over to a riverbank, but then suddenly saw that the Earth Magistrate was already there. The Stone Chief Minister leaped again to the other side of the river, but saw again that the Earth Magistrate got their first. The Earth Magistrate thereupon earned [the right to take the front position]. He has presently been invested as the Martial-Aiding Loyalty-Assisting Awe-Manifesting King.

From the Tang to the present, for centuries, his land has been divinely numinous, and prayers are fulfilled. Such has it been from past to present.




three purities

This is a very clear example of the use of Daoism to appropriate/subjugate local spirits. From this account, we see that a Tang Dynasty administrator, Ruan Changming, built a Daoist temple in Bạch Hạc, and that he summoned local spirits to appear so that they could serve as guardian, or protecting, spirits of the temple.

The description of these local spirits is negative. They are “uncivilized” in the way that they come in a group and are arguing with each other. They do not have a sense of a higher purpose.

However, Ruan Changming, the Tang Dynasty administrator, did have a sense of higher purpose. His goal was to get local spirits (and by extension, local people), to follow the way of imperially-accepted spirits, and that is what this record documents. The local spirits were given the task of “protecting” the Three Pure Ones (sanqing/tam thanh 三清), just as local people were supposed to “protect” the Tang Dynasty.

bach hac

In appropriating/subjugating these spirits, Ruan Changming ultimately began to erase the original meaning of those spirits to local people. By creating statues of those spirits, he created an image of these deities that had never existed. His story about their willingness to serve as protecting spirits for Thông Thánh Temple was also new.

As time passed, however, this information became the only information that people knew about those spirits and that temple. Indigenous beliefs were thus erased, and a new culture was created in its place. It is that culture that we today refer to as “Vietnamese culture.”

I remember visiting a cave once near Lake Inle in Burma. It had a sulphur spring inside, so when you went into the cave it felt warm and you could smell the Sulphur.


As I entered the cave, I passed by a Buddhist monk who lived on a small platform at the entrance to the cave. Then inside the cave there was a linga.


The linga was ingeniously made, so that sulfur water actually emerged from the tip of the linga, producing a constant small stream of what my guide called “magic water.”

The presence of the Buddhist monk and the linga indicated that this cave had a long history as a sacred site. Lingas are important for Brahmans and Hindus, and the presence of a linga in this cave was a sign that at some point in the past, some Brahman had probably had the linga built there.

That there was a Buddhist monk residing in the cave when I visited, was a sign of how Buddhism had come to supplant Brahmanism in Burma (a transformation that occurred centuries ago).

As such, it was easy to see the role that Brahmanism and Buddhism had played in this cave, but what about before those “foreign” teachings had arrived? Surely the local people must have known about and thought something about that cave before the arrival of those Indian teachings. What had they thought about the cave? What had they called the cave?

It’s now impossible to know, because whatever “indigenous” ideas and beliefs had existed were erased by the Brahmanical and Buddhist ideas that eventually took hold in the region, at least among the elite.

Yên Tử

I was recently looking at some writings about mountains in Vietnam, when I realized that the same phenomenon took place there as well.

Today there is a mountain in the northern part of Vietnam known as Mount Yên Tử (安子山) that is associated with Buddhism. This association with Buddhism developed during the time of the Trần Dynasty.


Before that time, however, Mount Yên Tử had certain Daoist associations.

Lê Tắc’s 1335 Brief Account of An Nam (An Nam chí lược 安南志略), the fifteenth-century Ming gazetteer the Annan zhiyuan (安南志原), and the nineteenth-century Nguyễn Dynasty commission Unified Gazetteer of Đại Nam (Đại Nam nhất thống chí 大南一统志) all indicate that this mountain was earlier associated with the Qin Dynasty-era immortal, An Qisheng 安期生.

Indeed, “Yên Tử” (安子) can be translated as “Master An.” So the name of this mountain could be understood to mean “Master An’s Mountain.”


Meanwhile, Du Guangting 杜光庭, a Daoist writer who lived during the late Tang and early Five Dynasties period wrote a text called A Record of Grotto Heavens and Blessed Lands (Dongtian fudi ji 洞天福地記) in which Mount Yên Tử was referred to as a “blessed land” (fudi/phúc địa 福地), a kind of sacred space according to Daoist thought.

Then there was a book that was produced during the time of the Song Dynasty by Daoist Li Sicong 李思聰 called Illustrations of Famous Mountains amidst the Peaks and Seas (Haiyue mingshan tu 海岳名山圖) which also referred to Mount Yên Tử as a “blessed land” and contained a poem with clear Daoist imagery which stated that,



A place where phoenix-crossing immortals cultivate purity,

And where occasionally appear gold dragons, playing in the azure pool.


From a Daoist “blessed land,” Mount Yên Tử then transformed into a Buddhist sacred mountain during the time of the Trần Dynasty, a time when Zen Buddhism enjoyed great popularity throughout East Asia among the educated elite.

But what, one wonders, did common people think of this mountain? What did people who did not know anything about Daoism or Buddhism or who could not read classical Chinese call this mountain? In other words, what were the “indigenous” ideas and beliefs about this mountain?

As was the case with the cave I visited in Burma, this is something that we do not know. Just as one can discern the presence of different foreign teachings in that cave in Burma, so can one detect the presence of foreign ideas on Mount Yên Tử, but as for “indigeneity,” that is long gone.

That said, a couple of medieval texts might provide a slight glimpse of how this mountain might have been originally viewed.

The Brief Account of An Nam says that Mount Yên Tử was also called “Elephant Mountain” (Tượng Sơn 象山), while the Annan zhiyuan says that it was also referred to as “Elephant Head Mountain” (Tượng Đầu Sơn 象頭山).

These terms were written in classical Chinese, which is not indigenous to the Red River Delta region. However, if they are meant to be translations of the meanings of a local term, then perhaps they do point to some indigenous concept – Núi Voi.


If that is the case, then we have a name that points to something indigenous, but other than that, indigeneity has been erased over time by Daoist and Buddhist worldviews.

It recently came to my attention that archaeologist Nam Kim from the University of Wisconsin has just published a book entitled The Origins of Ancient Vietnam. This is great news for anyone interested in the early history of the Red River Delta region as Nam Kim is a very capable scholar who has been working on this topic for years, including engaging in important archaeological work with colleagues in Vietnam.

That archaeological work resulted in the most precise dating for the construction of an ancient citadel that is now referred to as “Cổ Loa,” and even more importantly, it was determined that there were multiple stages of construction of that citadel over a period of a few hundred years starting roughly around the fifth century BC.

Cổ Loa is very important for the early history of the Red River Delta region because as Nam Kim explains in his book “the society responsible for founding the Co Loa settlement, the Co Loa Polity [his term], was a centralized, state-level society with enduring political institutions, one of the earliest not only for Bac Bo [i.e., the greater Red River Delta region] but for Southeast Asia.”

Indeed, Cổ Loa is the best evidence that we have of “a centralized, state-level society with enduring political institutions” in the Red River Delta in the BC period. That, one would think, should make Cổ Loa take a very important place in the history of that region, but it doesn’t, and it never has.

Instead, in both the earliest sources that record information about Cổ Loa, as well as in contemporary writings, Cổ Loa is of secondary importance. Let us see why this is the case.


In early historical sources, what was recorded was information about Cổ Loa’s conquest by someone known as King An Dương. In these accounts, we don’t really learn anything about Cổ Loa itself. The earliest mention of King An Dương’s conquest of areas of the Red River Delta were first recorded in a text called the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region (Jiaozhou waiyu ji 交州外域記) which is cited in Li Daoyuan’s sixth-century Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu 水經注):


“The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region states that ‘In the past, before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters. The people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. Lạc princes [or a lạc king] 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 prince led 30,000 troops to punish the lạc princes [or the lạc king] and lạc marquises and to subdue the lạc generals. The Shu prince thereupon came to be called King An Dương. Later, the King of Nanyue, Commissioner Tuo, recruited people to attack King An Dương.”

This text then goes on to talk about a now-famous story about a magic crossbow, and then concludes with the following comment:


“In present-day Bình Đạo District’s Sovereign Palace Citadel can be found the old area.”

I do not know what the “Sovereign Palace Citadel” (Hậu Vương Cung Thành 後王宮城) was, but it would appear that this is referring to a place which existed where King An Dương had previously established his capital (i.e., the old area).

In any case, this information is extremely vague, but the information from this passage became the main source for later explanations of what Cổ Loa once was.

An Nam Chí Lược

The above account was written by a “Chinese” writer. The first “Vietnamese” account of Cổ Loa was probably in Lê Tắc’s 1335 Brief Account of An Nam (An Nam chí lược 安南志略) where it is referred to as “The Việt/Yue King’s Citadel” (Việt Vương Thành 越王城). This is what it says:


“The Việt/Yue King’s Citadel, colloquially called Khả Lâu Citadel, has an old pond. The king takes a pearl every year and uses the water there to wash it, making its color fresh and beautiful.”

The text then contains the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region about lạc people and how King An Dương conquered the area. It then mentions that,


“In present-day Bình Địa Disctrict there still exists the remains of King An Dương’s palace.”

The text then goes on to talk about other historical issues, such as Ma Yuan’s conquest of the region in the first century AD, etc.


Somewhere around 1377, a text known as the Outline of Việt History (Việt sử lược 越史略) was compiled that placed Cổ Loa in the context of a more detailed account of the early history of the Red River Delta region. This text did this largely by bringing together extant information from Chinese texts, but it added one piece of information that did not exist in Chinese texts – the idea that prior to the arrival of King An Dương there had existed 18 generations of “Đối kings” (Đối vương 碓王). Today these mythical figures are known as “Hùng kings,” and this was perhaps just a typo.

In any case, this is what the Outline of Việt History records:

“During the time of King Cheng of the Zhou [r., 1042–1021 B.C.E.] the Việt Thường clan first presented a white pheasant [at the Zhou court]. The Spring and Autumn [Annals] called them “empty lands” (khuyết địa 闕地). Dai’s Record called them “tattooed foreheads”(điêu đề 雕題).

“During the time of King Zhuang of the Zhou [r., 696-682 B.C.E.] there was an extraordinary person in Gia Ninh region who was able to use magical arts to subjugate the various tribes, and called himself the Đối King (Đối vương 碓王). He established a capital at Văn Lang and [his kingdom] was called the Kingdom of Văn Lang. The customs were pure and unadorned, and administration was by means of tying knots. Rule was passed on for 18 generations and all were called the Đối King.

“Goujian [of the Kingdom of] Yue [r., 496–465 B.C.E.] once sent an emissary with a decree, but the Đối King resisted this.

“At the end of the Zhou Dynasty period, [the Đối King] was driven away and replaced by a Shu prince, Phán/Pan. Phán/Pan constructed a citadel at Việt Thường and called himself the An Dương/Anyang King, and no longer had communications with the Zhou.”


Whereas the Brief Account of An Nam indicated that the name of King An Dương’s citadel was called “The Việt/Yue King’s Citadel” and “Khả Lâu Citadel,” the Outline of Việt History doesn’t indicate what this citadel was called. We just learn that it was constructed at a place called “Việt Thường,” the same name as a clan that is recorded in Chinese sources to have presented tribute, in the form of a white pheasant, to King Cheng of the Zhou.

Finally, there is no mention of the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region about lạc people. Instead, we are introduced to a line of kings called the “Đối kings.”


Not much later, in the early fifteenth century, Ming dynasty officials then recorded the following information in a text known as the Annan zhiyuan:

“The Việt/Yue King’s Citadel is in Đông Ngàn District. It is also called La [i.e., snail/spiral] Citadel, as it winds around like the shape of a snail/spiral. Its construction began at the time of King An Dương. It winds around nine times. It is also called Khả Lâu Citadel, and was constructed in the past by King An Dương. The place where An Dương had his capital was in Việt/Yue territory, therefore later people called it the Việt/Yue King’s Citadel. Inside the citadel was King An Dương’s palace. Its remains still exist. Liu Zhao [in his annotation to the History of the Later Han] stated that Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi was the kingdom of King An Dương.”


Here again we do not find the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region about lạc people, but that passage does appear in an entry about a place called Lạc King Palace (Lạc Vương Cung 雒王宮) in an area referred to as Tam Đái Subprefecture (Tam Đái châu 三帶州).

This passage also says that there were eighteen generations of Lạc kings, the last of which was defeated by King An Dương.

What all of this shows us is that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were two sets of information that were cited in different ways. There was information from extant Chinese texts, dating back to the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region about lạc people and King An Dương that can be found in the sixth-century Annotated Classic of Waterways, and there was some new information about eighteen generations of Lạc or Đối kings.

With the compilation of the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư 大越史記全書) in the late fifteenth century, even more new information emerged. In that text we learn that King An Dương’s “capital was at Phong Khê” (都封溪) which is followed by an annotation that was made later that says “This is present-day Cổ Loa” (今古螺城是也). This may be the first time that the name Cổ Loa appears in a text.

We are also told that King An Dương’s kingdom was called Âu Lạc (甌貉), a term which was likewise new (probably appearing for the first time in the fifteenth-century collection of tales, the Lĩnh Nam chích quái).

And as was the case with other texts from this time period, the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt indicated that King An Dương had constructed a citadel:


“The king then built a citadel in Việt Thường. It was 1,000 trượng wide and wound around in the shape of a snail/spiral. It was thus called Loa Citadel. It was also called Tư Long Citadel (People of the Tang [Dynasty] called it Côn Lôn/Kunlun Citadel, which referred to the citadel’s great height.)”

co loa

What the work of archaeologists like Nam Kim demonstrates is that there was a citadel at the place which much, much later came to be referred to as “Cổ Loa” that long predated the arrival of King An Dương. What is more, that citadel was constructed by “a centralized, state-level society with enduring political institutions.”

It is therefore extremely important for the history of the Red River Delta region.

However, specific information about it did not appear in texts until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Where did that information come from? The information about King An Dương conquering the region came from older Chinese texts, but the idea that he had built Cổ Loa was clearly something that later people guessed, rather than knew for sure.

And as for the ideas that there had been eighteen generations of kings that had existed prior to the arrival of King An Dương and that his kingdom had been called Âu Lạc, I would agree with points that John Whitmore made in an article that I wrote about in a recent post, that these were part of an effort of people in the Sinicized world of the Trần with their Fujianese connections to create an imagined sense of place for themselves in what was to them actually a new land.

Their source of information was what they found in older Chinese texts, and in the stories they could create within the Sinitic textual tradition. So for them, Cổ Loa could only be understood from what could be surmised from texts and from what they saw around them. King An Dương had conquered the region and there were remains of a citadel at Cổ Loa, so he must have built Cổ Loa.


As such, we could say that medieval historians diminished the importance of Cổ Loa, but they did not do that on purpose. It was simply the result of how they constructed their knowledge of the world, namely, largely through a reliance on texts.

One of the great promises of archaeology is that it is potentially superior to texts, as it can show us things that texts either do not record or which they distort.

Nam Kim’s work on Cổ Loa is a great example of this, as it demonstrates that the information that medieval historians compiled was incomplete.

Unfortunately, however, more recently historians have done the reverse. Instead of using archaeology to correct inadequacies in the historical record, they have used archaeology to “prove” what textual analysis demonstrates is clearly problematic information in the historical record, and this has again diminished the importance of Cổ Loa.

In particular, the efforts of scholars in North Vietnam in the 1960s to “prove” through archaeology that eighteen generations of rulers had existed before King An Dương arrived has created a sense that this earlier period was more important.

However, archaeologists have never found a “capital” of that supposed kingdom, or anything that comes remotely close to resembling the power and social sophistication that Cổ Loa does.

Therefore, I would argue that today Cổ Loa is as unimportant to the history of the early Red River Delta as it was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when medieval historians first wrote about it. That, however, is terribly unfortunate, because as Nam Kim’s work shows, it was incredibly important.

As such, hopefully work like Nam Kim’s will lead people to realize this point, and we can then all move beyond talking about imagined places like Văn Lang and can try to learn more about actual places like “the Cổ Loa Polity,” whatever that was.

There is a big discussion going on in Vietnam these days about high school history. The Ministry of Education and Training wants to subsume the topic of history at the high school level under a topic of “citizens and the fatherland,” and many people object to that. They see history as a critical subject for teaching people “who they are,” and apparently they think that this role of history will be diminished if it is no longer a separate subject.


Reading the discussions in this debate made me think about my own experience, and made me think about how studying history in high school affected me.

There are two things that I distinctly remember from studying history in high school: seeing a woman’s breasts and watching a dog vomit. Everything else I’ve forgotten. But those two things that I do remember played an important role in training me to (at least attempt to) be a conscientious and productive citizen.

I can’t remember if it was when I was in eleventh or twelfth grade, but I had a history course where we had a special section on the Vietnam War.

My teacher actually had a PhD in history, but his years as a graduate student had coincided with the anti-war movement, and all of the associated idealistic and anti-establishment ideas of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As a result, he decided to pursue what he felt was a more meaningful path than entering the ivory tower and becoming a university professor. He became a high school teacher so that he could actually have an impact on people’s lives.


The way he attempted to do that with us was by getting us to gain a well-informed understanding of Vietnam and the Vietnam War. As was the case with many other people in the anti-war movement, our teacher strongly believe that Vietnam had always been a unified nation and that the Vietnamese had spent the past 2,000 years doing less else than fighting off the Chinese, and that Americans were therefore foolish to get involved in that country’s affairs as the Vietnamese were completely determined to prevent outsiders from getting involved in their affairs.

He also strongly believed that Hồ Chí Minh was a nationalist first, and a Communist second, and that Ngô Đình Diêm was a US puppet with no legitimacy. Finally, he also believed that the US government was often misguided in its foreign policy and could not be trusted.

To help us learn all of this information, our teacher had us read Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History, a text which more or less presents the above ideas. There was a PBS TV series that accompanied that book, and that series had just come out on VHS, so we watched the episodes of that series as we read through the book. We of course also talked about all of this in class.


While the above comments might make it sound like I remember the content of this class in detail, in actuality I know it now because I read Karnow’s book again, and watched the TV series, many years later when I was studying in graduate school. It was then that I “learned” the content and the ideas that were brought up in my high school class.

However, if I had never re-read Karnow, then I would not remember much of anything from my high school history class, except as I mentioned above, two things: a woman’s breasts and a vomiting dog.


In addition to the PBS series on the Vietnam War, our teacher also had us watch the anti-war movie, Hearts and Minds. Hearts and Minds is a very powerful movie. It masterfully juxtaposes images and sound in order to reveal hypocrisy at multiple levels.

There is one section of the film for instance that shows a high-school marching band somewhere in the US. We see wholesome Americans playing music, and someone shouts into the camera “We are number one.”


Then the film switches to a scene in a brothel in South Vietnam. Some US soldiers are hanging around in beds with some Vietnamese prostitues, and one guy plays with the breasts of one of the girls.

I saw that in my school when I was maybe 16 or 17 years old. In those days, seeing a woman’s breasts on a TV or movie screen was a big deal for teenage boys. I remember my male classmates and I sitting more or less “frozen” through that entire scene. On the one hand, we were very excited, and on the other, it felt awkward to be sitting their with our teacher.

However, ultimately the reason why I remember that moment was because we were all very impressed with our teacher. We were impressed that he would “push the boundaries,” and do something which most educators at that time would not do (after all, some parents could find out and get angry that he had shown their child “pornography”).

From that, we could see that he respected us. He felt that we had the maturity to seriously engage with the movie even though it had scenes that might “distract” us. And for that, we also respected him, because we also understood that he wanted us to see a film like Hearts and Minds because there was a larger and more important message about the misguided way in which Americans thought about themselves and the hypocrisy of the US government that he wanted to get across, and that movie, with its scenes of GIs visiting brothels juxtaposed next to the “noble” statements of politicians, delivered that message very effectively.


So I remember seeing a woman’s breasts in my high school history class. The other thing that I remember is seeing a dog vomit. It was actually our teacher’s dog, a dog named Morgan.

Our teacher brought Morgan to class every day. The classroom was in a basement room with a carpet and bad ventilation, so our classroom always smelled like Morgan, and Morgan did not necessarily smell all that great. Making things worse, Morgan would occasionally fart. . .

One day, however, Morgan vomited. We all saw it coming. Morgan was in a corner behind the teacher, but in front of all of us. We watched her stand up, take a few steps toward the center of the classroom, start to heave a bit, and then. . . BARF!!


We all sat transfixed. What, we wondered, would our teacher do? And to our amazement, and ultimately to our great admiration, he just kept on teaching.

Our teacher was lecturing at that time, and without pausing from his talk for even a fraction of a second, he reached to a tissue box that was sitting on the table, grabbed a couple of tissues, walked over to the vomit, wiped it up, and threw the tissues away, all the while continuing to lecture and to make eye contact with us students.

That was impressive!! And from that experience I learned a very valuable lesson in what it means to be a professional. Our teacher was the ultimate professional. He was completely dedicated to his job and to his students. I can even remember that on weekends he would drive a couple of hours to a university so that he could conduct research related to our class in the library there. He was serious and it was great to have him as a model of how one should engage in one’s work.


That’s what I remember from high school history. As for the information that we actually learned, even if I had remembered it, ultimately I would have had to “unlearn” it later, because essentially much of what I “learned” in that class has been challenged by scholars in recent years.

What I was taught at that time is now referred to as “the orthodox school” of scholarship on the Vietnam War, and a new generation of scholars has produced a large body of scholarship that overturns many of the ideas of the orthodox school.

What this shows me is that in the long run, the content of high school history classes just isn’t all that important. At best it’s something to be “unlearned” later. In which case, it’s what comes later that is really important.

If a society has a thriving community of professors and scholars who produce scholarship on the past that improves upon existing knowledge, then that society will ultimately be enriched by their ideas.

As for “molding citizens,” my sense is that this is something that is learned by observing the actions of teachers more than the content of what they teach. This does not mean that high school history teachers should not care about the content of their classes. They should.

My teacher cared passionately about the content of his class, and he also cared about not disrupting the class when his dog vomited. I learned a lot from him.

The Annan zhiyuan, a fifteenth-century gazetteer of the greater Red River Delta region that Ming Dynasty officials created contains a section on “people” (人物), or what it is probably better to translate as “important people.”

What made people “important” and therefore worth recording information about in this gazetteer? They were important to the Ming officials who created this text because they were people who had attempted to govern over the greater Red River Delta region in the past and who also kept this region within the sphere of influence of northern dynasties from the Han to the Ming.

Some of the first people on the list were from the territory of northern empires, from the Han to the Tang, but others were from the greater Red River Delta region and were described in this text as either Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ people (when the person was from the Red River Delta) or Aizhou/Ái Châu people (when the person was from an area roughly the same as what is today Thanh Hóa Province).


This section of the text begins with the following introductory comments:

“Confucius said, ‘Even in a village of only ten houses, you can still find someone who is loyal and trustworthy’ (Lunyu 論語, Gong zhi chang 公治長).This is even more the case with Jiaozhi, a land a thousand leagues away and a boundless expanse of mountains and rivers. Could it be that no true talents are born in its midst?

Indeed, from the time of the two Han dynasties to the Yuan there have been quite a few important people. Unfortunately, however, given their remoteness, they were unable to bear witness to an enlightened administration. With no means to develop their talent they fell into obscurity.”

The Ming officials who compiled this text found information about these individuals in treatises, local gazetteers as well as in “illegitimate chronicles” (偽紀 ngụy kỷ), which was presumably a reference to local dynastic chronicles.

Most of the people whom they compiled information about were administrators, but they also compiled information about people who had been meritorious in serving the Ming.


Here is a list of the people for whom this section of the Annan zhiyuan provides biographical information (names in both Vietnamese and Chinese indicate that this person was from one of the northern empires):

Lý Ông Trọng 李翁仲 (a mythical figure who was supposedly from Red River Delta but then went north to help the Qin Dynasty fight the Xiongnu)

Li Jin/ Lý Tiến 李進

Shi Xie/Sĩ Nhiếp 士燮

Du Huidu/Đỗ Tuệ Độ 杜慧度

Du Hongwen/Đỗ Hoằng Văn 杜弘文

Li Ji/Lý Tắc 李畟

Zhang Shun/Trương Thuận 張順

Zhang Boyi/Trương Bá Nghi 張伯儀

Đỗ Anh Sách 杜英策 (溪洞豪人 local chief of Khê Động/Aboriginal Settlement)

Khương Thần Dực   姜神翊 (愛州人 Aizhou/Ái Châu person)

Khương Công Phụ 姜公輔 (passed the jinshi [presented scholar] exam, also an Aizhou/Ái Châu person)

Khương Công Phục 姜公復 (Aizhou/Ái Châu person)

Ruan Yuanxi/Nguyễn Nguyên Hỉ 阮元喜

Qu Hao/Khúc Hạo 曲灝 (交趾人 Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ person)

Jiao Gongmu/Kiểu Công Tiện 矯公羡

Ngô Quyền 吳權 (愛州人Aizhou/Ái Châu person)

Đinh Bộ Lĩnh 丁部領 (交州華閭洞人 Giao Châu Hoa Lư Động/Aboriginal Settlement person)

Lê Hoàn 黎桓 (愛州人Aizhou/Ái Châu person)

Lý Công Uẩn 李公蘊 (交州人 Jiaozhou/Giao Châu person)

Trần Thừa 陳承(交州人 Jiaozhou/Giao Châu person)

Trần Toại 陳遂 (famous as a poet)

Trần Di Ái 陳遺愛

Trần Ích Tắc 陳益稷 (submitted to the Mongols)

Trần Tú Hoàn (?) 陳秀嵈 (submitted to the Mongols)

Trần Văn Lộng 陳文弄 (submitted to the Mongols)

Trần Kiện 陳鍵 (submitted to the Mongols)

Trần Nhữ Thạch 陳汝石 (submitted to the Ming)

Trần Lễ (?) 陳豊 (submitted to the Ming)

Trần Huân 陳勛 (submitted to the Ming)

Mạc Toại 莫遂 (submitted to the Ming)

Đỗ Duy Trung 杜維忠 (submitted to the Ming)

Lương Nhữ Hốt 梁汝笏 (submitted to the Ming)


What I find interesting about the people on this list is that some of them established dynasties of their own, and under the entries for people like Lê Hoàn, Lý Công Uẩn and Trần Thừa there is information about the Lê, Lý and Trần dynasties, respectively.

Today, these dynasties are celebrated in Vietnamese history texts for being “independent” from Chinese rule, however they are all listed here in this Ming dynasty text as being “important.”

In other words the fact that a local person ruled over the region of the Red River Delta did not seem to matter to the compilers of this section of the Annan zhiyuan, and as far as I can tell, the reason why they thought this way is because the Lê, Lý and Trần dynasties had all paid tribute to whatever dynasty had been in power in the north, and in so doing, kept the greater Red River Delta region within the northern empire’s sphere of influence.

From the perspective of the compilers of this text, these dynasties were thus all important, because like the individuals who submitted to Ming rule (listed at the end of the section), these dynasties had also “rendered obedience” (效順 hiệu thuận), albeit more indirectly.

so hoc van tan

There are many ways of deciding who from the past is “important.” The local gazetteers from the greater Red River Delta region that are still extant today (like local gazetteers from the “Chinese” world) also contain biographical information about “important people” from the region. If there were any dynastic rulers who came from a region, they were listed first. After that, men who had passed the civil service exams were listed, and finally, widows who had remained chaste were noted.

There are also many ways to “organize” information from the past. There is a kind of textbook for children that was published in Vietnam in 1882 called Elementary Inquiries (初學問津 Sơ học vấn tân) which begins by teaching about “Chinese” dynasties, “Chinese” geography and “Chinese” emperors before turning to cover the same topics for “Vietnam.” Presenting this kind of information, and in this order, was very common before the twentieth century.

What does all of this teach us? It shows us that things that were important to people in the past are not necessarily the same as the things that are important to people today, and that the way that people view the world and the past does not stay the same.

To put it another way, the past doesn’t decide what is important about the past. We do, and we live in the present.

When I was growing up, my only “window” to other societies and cultures was National Geographic, a magazine that arrived once a month and which contained glossy pictures of exotic foreign lands.

Like many families, we never threw away National Geographic. Years of issues of the magazine were stacked up in a bookcase, where every once I would go through them and look at pictures of places that interested me. It was an “archive” that was easy to access as the names of the places covered in each issue were printed on the binding: Lebanon, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Afghanistan.


National Geographic, of course, did exoticize the world for Americans. As Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins noted in their 1993 critique of the magazine, Reading National Geographic, the magazine promoted “a kind of conservative humanism that acknowledges universal values and celebrate[d] diversity while it allow[ed] readers to relegate non-Western peoples to an earlier stage of progress.”

That may be true, but this also made the world fascinating to its readers. It made one wonder what life is like in those “other” places. How did “those” people live? What was it like “there”? And ultimately, this led many people to seek to find out.

1972 image

Today, on the other hand, those “other” places are all over the place, including on everyone’s cell phones, and as a result, there is, I would argue, less mystery.

For instance, over 26 million people have watched this moving Thai insurance commercial in the past year and a half:

But do any of those 26 million people have any desire to learn more about Thailand? To study Thai?

I have my doubts. I think they will just wipe their tears and move on to a more upbeat YouTube video from some other part of the world.

Meanwhile, National Geographic has responded to the critiques of scholars like Lutz and Collins and has moved away from portraying people in other parts of the world as at “an earlier stage of progress.”

Today it focuses on topics like “insects” and “water,” and when it does feature a society, the photographs are so stylized and artistic that they no longer seem real.


So I can’t see that National Geographic will inspire anyone to learn about another society anymore, but what will?

In Southeast Asia there has been a push in recent years to make ASEAN a more cohesive region, and for that to happen, people need to learn about each other, but. . . as far as I can tell, most people just don’t care.

After all, there’s always a video on YouTube that is more interesting than a foreign society.

Today I read about Trần Ích Tắc on Wikipedia. Trần Ích Tắc was a Trần Dynasty prince who submitted to the Mongols when they attacked the Red River Delta in the thirteenth century.

The Wikpedia entry refers to this transformation as Trần Ích Tắc’s “defection” (a Cold War term that was used to refer to people like Mikhail Baryshnikov who left the Soviet Union for the West, knowing that he would never be able to return again [until the Soviet Union fell]).

We learn that “Trần Ích Tắc was the most famous prince of Trần Thái Tông [the first emperor of the Trần Dynasty] for his intelligence and broad knowledge.” We also learn that “he was denounced in Vietnamese historical books as a traitor with the derogatory name ‘Ả Trần’ (Hán tự: 妸陳, ‘the woman named Trần’).”


Ok, all of this sounds pretty straightforward. Trần Ích Tắc is someone whom “the Vietnamese” have always viewed as “a traitor” for what he did.

If one then reads the modern Vietnamese (quốc ngữ) translation of a text like the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, which contains some of the earliest accounts of Trần Ích Tắc’s actions this all seems logical, as the people like Trần Ích Tắc and others who joined the Mongols are all referred to with the derogatory spoken-Vietnamese term of “kẻ,” a term that clearly shows that Ngô Sĩ Liên, the fifteenth-century compiler of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, must have viewed Trần Ích Tắc in the same way that we do today.

But wait, what exactly is the term in the original classical Chinese text that corresponds to the terms “kẻ” in modern spoken Vietnamese? Uhmm. . . there isn’t one.

Ok, so what about Trần Ích Tắc being a “traitor”? Well. . . that’s more complex too.


Here is the entry about Trần Ích Tắc’s “defection” in 1285:

“The high official, the Marquis of Văn Chiêu, [Trần] Lộng, surrendered to Toghan, while the Chiêu Quốc Prince, Trần Ích Tắc, as well as Phạm Cự Địa, Lê Diễn and Trịnh Long all brought their families to surrender to the Yuan.

“Originally, before Ích Tắc was born, Thái Tông [i.e., Ích Tắc’s father] had a dream in which he saw a divine person with three eyes descend from Heaven and say to Thái Tông: ‘I have been granted the responsibility by the Emperor on High [Thượng Đế/Shangdi] to request that you entrust him to the emperor, and we will return him to the north.’

“Then when Ích Tắc was born there was a mark on his forehead that kind of looked like an eye, and his face was like that of the man in the dream. At the age of fifteen he was much more intelligent than others. He was well versed in texts and the various skills, but inside he harbored a desire to steal the place of heir to the throne. He often brought secret letters to Vân Đồn merchants [meaning Chinese merchants who were trading at Vân Đồn], requesting that Yuan troops come to the south. Then when the Yuan raided, he surrendered to them, in the hope of having his own kingdom. The Yuan enfeoffed him as the King of An Nam. When the Yuan were defeated, he became despondent and died in the north.”


Thượng vị Văn Chiêu hầu [Trần ] Lộng đầu hàng Thoát Hoan. Kế đó, Chiêu Quốc Vương Trần Ích Tắc và [bọn] Phạm Cự Địa, Lê Diễn, Trịnh Long đem gia thuộc đầu hàng quân Nguyên. Trước kia, khi Ích Tắc chưa sinh. Thái Tông mộng thấy thần nhân ba mắt từ trên trời xuống nói với Thái Tông: “Thần bị Thượng Đế quở trách, xin thác sinh là con vua, sau lại trở về phương Bắc.”

Đến khi Ích Tắc sinh, giữa trán có vài vết lờ mờ như hình con bắt, hình dáng giống hệt

người trong mộng. Đến 15 tuổi, thông minh hơn người, làu thông kinh sử và các thuật, vẫn còn có ý tranh đoạt ngôi trưởng đích. Ích Tắc đã từng gửi thư riêng cho khách buôn ở Vân Đồn xin quân Nguyên xuống nam. Đến nay, người Nguyên vào cướp, Ích Tắc xin hàng chúng để mong được làm vua. Người Nguyên phong làm An Nam Quốc Vương. Sau khi quân Nguyên thất bại, Ích Tắc trong lòng hổ thẹn, chết ở đất Bắc.


This is a fascinating passage for many reasons. First of all, why did a “Chinese” god like Thượng Đế/Shangdi appear to Trần Thái Tông instead of an “indigenous,” “Vietnamese” god? Well, because there were no “indigenous” gods that the Trần felt were important. The gods of “the north” were important, and that is what the Trần dreamt of.

Second, is this an actual “historical” account? No, it is probably a latter “addition” to justify or explain what happened during this period.

Third, is there any mention of “Vietnam” here? No, this has nothing to do with abstract concepts like “nations” or “citizens.” Those are concepts that were alien to people like Ngô Sĩ Liên. What he understood were families. He worked for the Lê. That was a family. Before the Lê there had been the Trần. That was also a family. Could one be a “traitor” to a family, or “defect” from a family? Ngô Sĩ Liên certainly didn’t think that way.

Instead, what Ngô Sĩ Liên sought to demonstrate was a rationale for why a member of a ruling family had chosen his own path, and the rationale he showed was that this had all been preordained by a divine force. Thượng Đế/Shangdi determined that Trần Thái Tông sired a child who wanted to become the ruler of his own kingdom, and Thượng Đế/Shangdi tried to enable this to happen. Trần Thái Tông did not follow Thượng Đế’s/Shangdi’s advice, and both Trần Thái Tông and his son suffered as a result.

What is the moral of this story? Listen to Thượng Đế/Shangdi when he communicates with you! Does this have anything to do with “traitors” or “defecting”? No.


Later, after the Yuan had been defeated, the following entry appears in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư:

“At first, when the Yuan raided, many members of the nobility and officials sent gifts to the enemy camp. Later when the bandits had been defeated, a box of declarations of surrender was obtained, but the emperor ordered it burned so as to calm those who had violated. However, as for those who had surrendered [directly to the Mongols], even though they were now at the enemy court, they were condemned to death in absentia, their property was confiscated, they were stripped of their official positions, and their royal surname [literally “national name”] was changed. Trần Kiện, for instance, the son of [Prince] Tĩnh Quốc, had his surname changed to Mai. . . Given that Ích Tắc was a close blood relative, although the punishment for his crime was the same, [the emperor] could not bear to change his surname, and dismiss his name, so [the emperor] ordered that [Ích Tắc] be called Ả Trần, to say that he was soft and weak like a woman. Therefore, records at that time referred to them as Ả Trần and Mai Kiện.”

初,元人入冦,王侯臣僚多送欵虜營。及賊敗,獲降表一篋。上皇命焚之,以安反側。惟向之降者,雖身在虜庭,亦遙議以流死,田產没官,去其國姓。如陳鍵、靖國之子改姓為枚。。。益稷以骨肉之親,治罪雖同,不忍改姓,及斥名,乃命曰妸陳,謂其柔懦似婦人也。故當時記載皆稱妸陳, 枚鍵焉。

Trước kia, người Nguyên vào cướp, vương hầu, quan lại nhiều người đến doanh trại giặc xin hàng. Đến khi giặc thua bắt được cả một hòm biểu xin hàng. Thượng hoàng sai đốt hết đi để yên lòng những [kẻ] phản trắc. Chỉ có [kẻ] nào đầu hàng trước đây, thì dẫu bản thân ở triều đình giặc, cũng kết án vắng mặt, xử tội đi đày hoặc tử hình, tịch thu điền sản, sung công, tước bỏ quốc tính. Như Trần Kiện là con của Tĩnh Quốc thì đổi làm họ Mai. . . Ích Tắc là chỗ tình thân cốt nhục, tuy trị tội cũng thế, nhưng không nỡ đổi họ xóa tên, chỉ gọi là Ả Trần, có ý chê hắn hèn nhát như đàn bà vậy. Vì thế, những ghi chép đương thời đều gọi là Ả Trần, Mai Kiện.


The fact that Trần Ích Tắc came to be referred to as “Ả Trần” was thus not simply because he was a “traitor” and had “defected.” It was because he was a beloved member of the Trần family who had chosen to follow a path of self-interest, and his family could to some extent forgive him for that. After all, Thượng Đế/Shangdi had warned them. . .

Trần Ích Tắc’s decision and the way in which his decision was explained in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư are fascinating. Wikipedia and the modern Vietnamese translation of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, on the other hand, attempt to kill the fascination of this individual and his decisions in order to force all of the past into a single framework: “the Vietnamese” have always been resisting “the Chinese” and anyone who hasn’t done this is “a traitor.”

This effort to erase meaning from the past is, I would argue, criminal. What Trần Ích Tắc did, on the other hand, is more complex, and that is precisely what the historical sources show us.

When it comes to the period of the Ming occupation of the Red River delta in the fifteenth century, there is one source that is important which is very underused, the Annan zhiyuan.

I was just looking through it when I came across a document that the Ming issued early in their campaign against Hồ Quý Ly (胡季犛), whom the Ming referred to as Lê Quý Ly (黎季犛), the man who had usurped the throne from the Trần Dynasty, which in turn led the Ming to launch a campaign to put the Trần back in power (but ended up occupying the region for a couple of decades).

This document was a bangwen 榜文, which we can probably translate as “notice,” and it should have been a document that was put on public display. This particular document was entitled “A Notice of the Regional Commander’s Campaign against Annan/An Nam” (縂兵進征安南榜文).


This document begins as follows:

“Regional Commander, General for Campaigning against the Barbarians, Duke of Cheng, Zhu Neng [states] on the matter of campaigning against the Annan/An Nam Lê rebel [i.e., Lê/Hồ Quý Ly]: ‘It is often said that raising the destroyed and continuing the severed is truly the first priority of benevolent rule, [and that] eliminating wickedness and saving the people is an imperative task for righteous soldiers.’”




To “raise the destroyed and continue the severed” (興滅繼絕) means to put back in power an overthrown dynasty, while “eliminating wickedness” (去暴) in this context meant getting rid of the person who had usurped the throne, Lê/Hồ Quý Ly.

Indeed, this long document goes on to document Lê/Hồ Quý Ly’s “crimes,” to also document the Ming emperor’s “benevolent intent,” and it concludes with an appeal for assistance in locating Lê/Hồ Quý Ly as well as any Trần descendants.


While all of that is interesting, what immediately caught my attention was the way in which these opening lines somewhat mirror, or perhaps appear to be in a dialog with, the opening lines of the Bình Ngô Đại Cáo, an announcement that was made after the Ming had left the Red River delta and a new Vietnamese dynasty had come to power.

That document began as follows:

“I have heard that the importance of engaging in acts of benevolence and righteousness is in bringing peace to the people, [and that] for campaigning troops nothing is more pressing than eliminating wickedness.”



On the one hand, I think that a lot of these documents began and ended in similar ways, but on the other hand I also wonder if the similarities between the opening passages of these two documents was due to something more specific to this historical context than literary conventions.

I’ve long argued that the 15th century document, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” (Great Proclamation on Pacifying the Ngô), does not represent a “declaration of independence” by “the Vietnamese” vis-à-vis “the Chinese” (with “Ngô” being a derogatory name for the Chinese).

Instead, it’s a declaration of victory by “the winning side” over “the losing side.” “The winning side” consisted of Lê Lợi and his supporters, while the “the losing side” were “the Vietnamese” who had collaborated with the Ming Dynasty.

I’ve always based this understanding on the text itself, and the general historical context. I’ve never been able to determine, however, why the term “Ngô” was used in this document, as I can’t find many other examples of this term in premodern texts.


Recently, historian John Whitmore published an article that examines the historical context in more detail, and which puts forth an argument about the meaning of the term “Ngô.” To Whitmore, Ngô might have referred to the Ming during their occupation of the Red River delta in the early fifteenth century, but he thinks that it mainly referred to the Sinitic cultural world of the lower Red River delta, a region that was developed in part by Chinese migrants from places like Fujian province.

This is what he says:

“The northerners whom the Vietnamese knew most intimately were those from the southeast coast of China. The maritime connection brought Fujianese and others down the coast to Dai Viet for both trade and settlement. Thus, for the Vietnamese, the term Ngo may have primarily referred to these Chinese inhabiting the littoral regions of the delta, and only secondarily to the Ming state in general. If this were the case, it was not only political power that the victors resisted, but also the power and prestige of a specific Chinese community that was currently inhabiting the coastal zone of Dai Viet, that is, the Lower Delta of the Red River.

“More than defeating the invading armies of the Ming regime, Le Loi and his mountain army opposed the thriving shared Sino-Vietnamese coastal culture of the previous three centuries. This coastal culture had led first to the Tran (Ch.: Chen) dynasty (1225-1400) centered at their base of Thien Truong in the southern Lower Delta, and then to the two-decade Ming occupation (1407-1427).

“For me, the term Ngo/Wu encompassed not just the Ming empire that had risen in the lower Yangzi valley (the former Wu area), but also the culture that had flowed down the dynamic coast of southeast China into the underpopulated Lower Delta region of what is now northern Viet Nam. The montane-littoral, highland-coastal conflict arose out of competition for control over the lowland Vietnamese and their capital of Thang Long (now Ha Noi) in the mid-river section of the Red River delta. It would have a great impact on fifteenth-century Dai Viet and would lead to much continued conflict throughout the following century.” (53-54)


In providing evidence for this argument, Whitmore begins by contrasting the Lý (1009-1225) and Trần (1225-1400) dynasties, with the Trần representing the Sinicized coastal world.

To quote, this is what he says:

“The Ly origin and their region lay in the mid-river segment of the Red River delta around what became the capital Thang Long; the Tran/Chen, originating from Fujian province on the southeast coast of China, and their base in the Lower Delta.

. . .

“Whereas the Ly became strongly Buddhist, stressing links to India, the Tran/Chen, with their coastal ties, brought in classical Chinese thought (Confucianism) as well as recent developments in Chan (V.: Thien) Buddhism.

“Economically, the Ly, as in contemporary Angkor and Pagan (in present-day Cambodia and Myanmar respectively), emphasized agriculturally productive temples in the mid-river region, with increasing trade; the Tran/Chen, following activities on the southeast coast of China, developed the Lower Delta and established a series of royal estates, along with manufacturing and foreign commerce linked to the Ngo community.

“Certainly the Tran/Chen patrilineal clan system was much stronger than the Ly pattern of intermarrying with local powers. The Tran/Chen also initially brought in a stronger administrative system, although the growing power of its princes eventually undercut it.” (54-55)

These are all well-known facts, but they take on new meaning when we see the Tran as not merely a separate Vietnamese family that contended with the Ly family for power, but as outsiders from a different cultural world who had established a base in the coastal areas and gained wealth by opening the land and engaging in international trade.


Over the body of the article, Whitmore documents the rise of this group in the coastal region, their support for the Ming, and Lê Lợi’s efforts to control them after he came to power in 1428.

This history is not easy to document because one cannot find in the sources a clear account of the rise of a group of Chinese migrants in the lower Red River delta during this time period. What Whitmore does is to piece together small details from many different sources.

To show, for instance, that the coastal region was not well developed in the twelfth century, Whitmore cites the following statement about An Nam/Annan from Fan Chengda, a Chinese official in Guangxi in the 1170s:

“Its native population is very small. Half of the people are from the province [or provinces, meaning Guangxi, and maybe Guangdong too]. Merchants heading to the south entice people to serve as female servants and male bearers. When they reach Jiao Aboriginal Settlement they are tied up and sold off.” [Adapted from James Hargett’s translation of Fan Chengda’s Treatises of the Supervisor and Guardian of the Cinnamon Sea, 203]

其國土人極少, 半是省民, 南州客旅誘人作婢仆擔夫, 至州洞則縛而賣之.

To Whitmore, this is not a description of the Lý heartland, but instead, is describing the coastal regions. Indeed, this passage goes on to say that many of these people were sold to Jiaozhou, meaning the area under the control of the Lý.

What we thus see here is a picture of the coastal region before it was fully developed, when there were not many local people there, and when Chinese merchants brought slaves to the region. And while some of those slaves were sold to places in the interior, some were undoubtedly put to work opening the lower delta.


Throughout this article, Whitmore uses many small details like this to paint a larger picture, and the picture that emerges is a very logical one. In it, we see this coastal community of Chinese migrants (and probably their local wives, or women from “the [Chinese coastal] provinces” who had been enticed there by merchants), we see people from this world collaborate with the Ming – people whom Lê Lợi would later refer to as “traitorous officials” [ngụy quan] – and we see Lê Lợi attempt to suppress this world after the Ming had left.

These were the people on “the losing side.” They were the Ngô.

For more, see John K. Whitmore, “Ngo (Chinese) Communities and Montane-Littoral Conflict in Dai Viet, ca. 1400-1600,” Asia Major 27.2 (2014): 53-85.

I was looking through digitized materials in the Australian National Archives when I came across this “mirror typed letter” that was sent to Captain J. L. Chapman, a member of Force 136, a branch of the British Special Operations Executive that fought behind enemy lines in Malaya during World War II.

Chapman 1

As one can see, it is impossible to read, but when held up in front of a mirror, it looks like this:

1 - Copy

Here’s what it says:

Dear Chappie,

I don’t know that this will reach you but here goes; Penghulu is worried stiff about those RODS you gave him. That Bastard Babu (or maybe Havildar) tipped off the boy scouts about the Ladies from Bristol. The scouts turned on the heat and demanded the roscoes. Pungie gives with the oil and weaves the following fantasy; Quote; The roscoes were under cover at the Yankee joint in prep. for a son of Paradise shindig. No Nips, no roscoes. Check your oil if they buttonhole you. Otherwise Pungie will be written off. I gave with the jive that the roscoes were a Christmas present from my watery cousins and would be dished out to Pungie only in case of the old nip one-two.

I have been rocking the home team with a lot of hot poop. Sorry I can’t beat my gums about it but will give you the office in Singapore. Needless to say, old cock. You pukka sahibs have had it. Regards to all the lads. Good luck.

P.S. I am sealing this epistle with wax. Please read and destroy.

chapman pun

I have no idea what this means, but I do see slang and humor. Slang and humor are difficult for outsiders to understand, but I never imagined that they could be used as a secret code during wartime, but obviously they can.

Fifty Viss

a collection of thoughts and writings on Burma

mini myna

on knowing the past in Singapore


Albert Einstein — 'What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right.'


About Vietnamese Cultural History and Scholarship

Digital Southeast Asia

Ideas for employing digital humanities approaches to the study of Southeast Asian history


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