Why Was Hoa Lư a “Grotto”?

I noticed in the Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư that Đinh Bộ Lĩnh, the founder of the Đinh Dynasty, was from a place called “động Hoa Lư” in what is today Ninh Bình Province. động (峒) is a word which literally means “grotto.” However, it was used by Chinese to refer to areas which were under the control of certain non-Han Chinese peoples.

In his article, “The Zhuang Minority Peoples of the Sino-Vietnamese Frontier in the Song Period” [Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 18.2 (1987), 250-269], Jeffrey G. Barlow notes that this term, động, is a Zhuang term which has the same meaning as the Tai term muang, which refers to a mountain valley and a polity, because individual Tai polities were first formed in separate mountain valleys.

This geographic description certainly fits Hoa Lư. For instance, the Khâm Định Việt Sử Thông Giám Cương Mục has the following to say about Hoa Lư:

“Hoa Lư was in the mountains parts of the two communities of Uy Viễn and Uy Tế in Ninh Bình [Province]. This area has mountain cliffs standing upright in all four directions. In the middle is an area of relatively flat and spacious land. The local people call it Hoa Lư Grotto.” [Tiền Biên 5/24b]

That same text mentions other grottoes during the period of Chinese rule, such as Khuất Lạo Grotto, Dã Năng Grotto, and Hoàng Grotto. The “Lạo” in Khuất Lạo Grotto is a good indication that the people who lived there were Tai speakers [Note: I am using the term “Tai” in the manner in which Western scholars use it, to refer to all of the various peoples who are part of the Tai language family, be they Lao, Zhuang, Black Tai, etc.]. The name, Dã Năng, doesn’t tell us much, but it is clear from the context when it appears in the historical records that this was also an area inhabited by Tai speakers. And finally, Hoàng is a name which the Chinese gave to many Zhuang [See Jeffrey Barlow’s web page on the Zhuang], so it is highly likely that Hoàng Grotto was also an area inhabited by Tai speakers.

So that leaves Hoa Lư Grotto. Hmmm . . . was Đinh Bộ Lĩnh Tai?

11 thoughts on “Why Was Hoa Lư a “Grotto”?

    1. Thanks for the comment. My point is more to wonder about why Hoa Lu was called a “dong.” The word may have originally come from a Tai language, but (Sinicized) administrators used it to refer to other peoples as well. HOWEVER, they didn’t use it for all peoples who were different. I’m not sure what the distinction was. What was different about people that led an administrator to refer to the place where they lived as a “dong”? There were many places were Muong lived. They do not all appear to have been called “dong.” Why was Hoa Lu called that? The Kham dinh Viet su thong giam cuong muc tries to explain that it comes from the fact that there was an actual cave there, but I find that unconvincing. There were other “dong” in that general area.

      1. Ở thế kỉ 13 , 陈孚 Trần Phu ( 1240-1303 ) , sứ thần cuả nước NGUYÊN , đến Đại Việt . Trong bài An Nam Tức Sự , Trần Phu có đề cập đến đôi ba tiếng Việt thời đó , chẳng hạn như :
        男子曰干多
        CAN ĐA 干多 tức là CON TỬA trong tiếng Mường , CON ĐỨA trong tiếng Việt ( con gái con đứa = con gái con trai ) .
        Trong khi đó , ở họ ngôn ngữ Tai-Kadai , BÁO là tiếng tương ứng với 男子 .
        Ở thế kỉ 15, 16 , sách An Nam Dịch Ngữ ghi lại tiếng tương ứng với SÔNG ngày nay trong tiếng Việt là KHÔNG , giống y trang tiếng Mường ngày nay là KHÔNG .

        Đứng vế mặt ngôn ngữ mà nói , lịch đại cũng như đồng đại ,Việt ( An Nam ) khác xa với nhóm TAI-KHADAI .

      2. “Trong khi đó , ở họ ngôn ngữ Tai-Kadai , BÁO là tiếng tương ứng với 男子” – Bạn trích dẫn An Nam Tức Sự và An Nam Dịch Ngữ và tôi muốn biết bạn dựa vào tài liệu nào để nói về ngôn ngữ Tai-Kadai thế kỷ 13-14.

        Tôi biết Tai-Kadai và tiếng Việt là khác nhau. Cái mà tôi không biết là TẠI SAO Hoa Lư gọi là “động.” Tại sao có những nơi gọi là “động”?

  1. Không biết gì về người Tai hay người Mường, nhưng thấy trong cuốn “Quốc Triều Hình Luật” của cố GS Nguyễn Ngọc Huy có viết một đoạn như sau về các vị vua nhà Hậu Lê (được cho) là người Mường:

    “Sau khi lên ngôi, [Vua Lê Thái Tổ] đã tự xưng là Lam Sơn Động Chủ. Tiếp theo Vua Lê Thái Tông … cũng tự xưng là Quế Lâm Động Chủ, Vua Lê Thánh Tông… là Thiên Nam Động Chủ, Vua Lê Hiến Tông là Thượng Dương Động Chủ … Vậy, chỉ trừ có Vua Lê Nhân Tông… lên ngôi lúc mới có một tuổi, các vua đầu nhà Hậu Lê đều tự xưng là động chủ. Rất có thể đây là một qui tắc do Vua Lê Thái Tổ đặt ra và các nhà vua kế vị phải noi theo.”

    Phải chăng bằng cách tự xưng này các nhà vua nhà Hậu Lê muốn nói lên rằng họ vừa là Thiên Tử của người Kinh, vừa là Động Chủ của người Mường, tương tự như Vua Càn Long vừa làm Hoàng Đế của người Trung Hoa vừa làm Chuyển luân Thánh vương (?) của người Tây Tạng?

  2. Very good observation, nhưng “động” ở đây có ý nghĩa Đạo giáo – nói đơn giản là một nơi thiêng liêng.

    I wrote somewhere on this blog about the Yao/Dao. Yao/Dao communities used Daoist ideas to structure kingship/rulership.

    I think the most influential concept in “Chinese civilization” is the idea of a bureaucracy. There was the actual “Confucian” bureaucracy, but Buddhist and Daoist communities also all emulated that bureaucracy in creating their own belief systems.

    So people like the Yao/Dao lived beyond the reach of the actual bureaucracy, but they still used bureaucratic concepts from that bureaucracy. They were just “clothed” in Daoist terminology and symbolism.

    My guess would be that this would describe the world that Le Loi came from, and would explain the use of such terms as the ones you mention here. He might have been combining the Daoist worldview that he was familiar with “Confucian” bureaucratic world that he was not ruling over.

  3. I’m a Tai-speaking person in northern Vietnam. The translation of the Chinese word 峒 should not be translated into Vietnamese as động which means cave, but instead it should be translated as đồng, meaning field. It sounds more correctly. I read “Culture, ethnic identity, and early weapons systems: the Sino-Vietnamese frontier” by Jeffrey G. Barlow on Googlebook. In that he mentions that ”dong” means ”mountain valley” and its original name in Zhuang language is ”lung”. Lacking tone, but I can figure out its meaning as ”forest valley”, based on the similarity between my language, which is a branch of southern Zhuang, and Zhuang language.

    1. Thanks for the comment. Although “grotto” is what 峒 literally means, the term came to be used in Chinese to refer to a kind of “semi-autonomous administrative district” where certain non-Han peoples in the southwestern part of the empire. Vietnamese sources in classical Chinese use the term in the same way. While the term 峒 might have originally come from a Tai/Zhuang word meaning “mountain valley” or something like that, that is not what it means in premodern texts in classical Chinese (whether written by Chinese or Vietnamese authors). Yes, many of the 峒 were probably in mountain valleys, but the term contains more meanings than that. There are “values” in the term, as it was used by Chinese and Vietnamese. It referred to a place where the people were different from the Chinese/Vietnamese, and that difference was looked down upon by the Chinese/Vietnamese.

      These are things we have to keep in mind when we translate. I would say that a term like đồng, meaning field, is too neutral. Viet worked in đồng too, right? A 峒 was a place where non-Viet lived, and it was a place that the Viet (elite) looked down on.

      In English, terms like “grotto” and “cave” are too literal. I’ve seen people use terms like “aboriginal settlement.” That’s closer to the meaning it had in classical Chinese, but “aboriginal” is a concept that wasn’t used in the past.

      If I was going to try to find the best term for translating 峒 into English, I think the term “hollow” would work for American readers. A “hollow” is a mountain valley, but in the US it is usually used to refer to mountain valleys in the Appalachian Mountains, a place which has a stereotype as a “poor” and “backward” area. If you live in a “hollow” there, then you are different from people who live in the lowlands, and those people in the lowlands probably look down on you (at least in the past).

      Words are not neutral. Some have positive meanings. Some have negative meanings. To the people who used 峒 in their writings in the past, this term had a negative meaning. When we translate, we have to try to capture the sense of what words mean. For something written in Zhuang, “lung” probably has either a neutral or maybe even a positive meaning. In classical Chinese texts, however, 峒 has a negative meaning. The two terms might ultimately be referring to the same place (a mountain valley), but different people viewed that same place differently. When we translate, it’s important to try to convey these meanings, and to not use terms that “erase” the good or the bad.

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