The “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is today one of the most famous historical documents in Vietnam. Virtually everyone in Vietnam knows at least the opening passage of this fifteenth century text. However, the way in which it has been taught, and the way it is quoted over and over, is incorrect.
This document is attributed to the literatus, Nguyễn Trãi, who reportedly wrote this declaration on behalf of the new emperor, Lê Lợi, a man who founded a new dynasty in 1428 after driving out Ming troops which had occupied the area for over 20 years.
Today Vietnamese see this document as a “declaration of independence” which declares the distinctness of Vietnam. The main evidence for this view is a line which comes near the beginning of this document which mentions that the territory and the customs of the “north” and “south” are different.
In final decades of the twentieth century we can find the words “north” and “south” used by Vietnamese writers to refer to “China” and “Vietnam,” respectively. However, that is not what these terms refer to in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo.” The reason why I say this is because it is grammatically impossible for those two words to have that meaning in this text.
When I was learning classical Chinese, one of my teachers repeated grammatical rules to me over and over like mantras. By far the mantra which I heard the most was the following: “Unless a new subject is introduced, the subject remains the same.”
Let us now look for the subject, or subjects, in the opening passage of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo.”
“Benevolent deeds are those which focus on making the people peaceful.
Troops sent to punish [rebels] take as their first aim the elimination of hostilities.
Our kingdom of Dai Viet is truly a domain of civility.
Just as the areas of its territory are distinct, so are the customs in the north and south also different.
With the establishment of our kingdom by the Trieu, Dinh, Ly and Tran, together with the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan [we] have each empired over a region.”
I have placed in bold the terms which we can understand as the subjects of these sentences. For the sentence “Just as the areas of its territory are distinct, so are the customs in the north and south also different,” the subject is still “Our kingdom of Dai Viet.” “North” here cannot possibly refer to China, because no new subject has been introduced.
So if this sentence doesn’t refer to Vietnam and China, then what does it refer to? Well let’s see, Lê Lợi was from Thanh Hóa and had just brought the entire realm under his control, a realm in which scholars in the north (Hanoi) had recently cooperated with the Ming. With that as a clue, I’ll leave it to others to figure out the rest.
The image here is not from the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, where the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was first published, but from the 1825 text, the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển. The version in this latter text adds two characters to the beginning of the text, 蓋聞, which can be roughly translated as “It has been heard that. . .” or “I have heard that. . .”