King Kinh Dương (i.e., 涇陽王, Kinh Dương Vương) is an interesting historical figure. There are no records of him in Chinese sources. He is entirely Vietnamese. Or is he?

This is what the Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư recorded about him:

“Originally, Diming, a third generation descendent of the Fire Emperor Shennong toured the south to the Five Passes, and obtained Vụ Tiên’s daughter, who gave birth to the king. The king was bright and had sagely virtue. Diming cherished him and wished to pass the throne on to him. However, the king conceded the throne to his older brother, and dared not accept this order. Diming thereupon appointed Diyi as heir apparent to rule over the north, and invested the king as King Kinh Dương to rule over the south, which was called the Xích Quỷ Kingdom.

The king married Thần Long, the daughter of Lord Dongting, who gave birth to Lord Lạc Long. (Comment: According to the “Annals of the Tang,” during Kinh Dương’s time there was a shepherd woman who claimed to be Lord Dongting’s youngest daughter. She married the second son of Jing River, but was later expelled. She entrusted a letter to Liu Yi who submitted a memorial to Lord Dongting. Therefore the marriages each generation between Jing River and Dongting have a long history.)”

The information in this comment is extremely problematic, and it is therefore not clear what exactly it is that Ngô Sĩ Liên was trying to say. The events which Ngô Sĩ Liên relates in this comment did not occur “during Kinh Dương’s time.” In fact, they probably never occurred at all. This is because there was no “Lord Dongting.” Instead, there was a “dragon lord of [Lake] Dongting” who was a figure in a famous Tang Dynasty short story (chuanqi) called “The Biography of Liu Yi” (柳毅傳, “Liu Yi zhuan”) by Li Zhaowei李朝威.

Ngô Sĩ Liên claimed to have found this information in the “Annals of the Tang,” that is, the section of Sima Guang’s Zizhi tongjian which deals with the Tang Dynasty. I have failed to find any such information there. Perhaps someone who has a searchable version of the Siku Quanshu can check for me to see if I missed it.

“The Biography of Liu Yi” takes place during the Yifeng era (676-78) of Tang Gaozong’s reign. It is about a young scholar by the name of Liu Yi who, after failing the exams in the capital, decides to go visit a friend in Jingyang (涇陽, Kinh Dương) District, Shaanxi Province. On the way he meets a woman herding sheep who he talks to and finds out that she is the daughter of the dragon lord of [lake] Dongting. Her parents had married her off to the lord of Jing River (涇川), but he treated her badly and eventually discarded her. She then entrusted Liu Yi with a letter to deliver to her father, the dragon lord of Dongting. Liu Yi at first hesitated, as he did not know how to reach the dragon lord’s underwater palace, but the woman explained a way, and Liu Yi succeeded in delivering the letter. And to make a long story short, Liu Yi eventually married the dragon king’s daughter.

I do not know of any Vietnamese scholars who have seriously addressed the similarities between this Tang Dynasty short story and the information contained in the Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư. In the 1950s, Đào Duy Anh came close. He noted that people (he didn’t say specifically who) had argued that Ngô Sĩ Liên’s comment about the “Annals of the Tang” suggested that this information about King Kinh Dương had been “copied/imitated” (bắt chước) from Chinese sources. Đào Duy Anh dismissed this idea and offered another explanation.

Đào Duy Anh pointed out that the region around the Yangzi River where lake Dongting is located was known since ancient times as the area of the two regions of Kinh/Jing 荊 and Dương/Yang 楊. The characters for these two regions are pronounced the same as those of the Kinh/Jing and Dương/Yang in King Kinh Dương (涇陽) but are written differently.

Đào Duy Anh believed that the Vietnamese had historically migrated southward into the Red River delta from areas in southern China. He therefore argued that the story of King Kinh Dương probably originated when the Vietnamese were living in the areas of Kinh 荊 and Dương 楊, and that for centuries this story was passed down orally. When it was finally written down, whoever did this chose the characters 涇陽, thereby obscuring the actual historical link with the areas of Kinh 荊 and Dương 楊. [See, Đào Duy Anh, Lịch sử cổ đại Việt Nam (Hà Nội: Văn Hoá Thông Tin, 2005), 206-9.]

This is a wonderful theory, however it is not accurate. First, today the idea that the Vietnamese migrated southward into Vietnam has long been debunked by linguists. Second, Đào Duy Anh did not actually deal with the issue of where the information in Ngô Sĩ Liên’s comment came from. Ngô Sĩ Liên clearly had his information wrong (which should not surprise anyone because if you read the Khâm Định Việt sử thông giám cương mục you find that the compilers of that text repeatedly corrected mistakes which Ngô Sĩ Liên had made). Not only is his source wrong, but what he says does not make any logical sense either.

What is important, however, is that the information in Ngô Sĩ Liên’s comment originates in a Tang Dynasty short story. Further, when King Kinh Dương emerged in Vietnamese sources, he did so in the Lĩnh Nam trích quái liệt truyện, a text in the “tales of the strange” genre, a genre known to incorporate material from various written sources, and not known for its historical accuracy or veracity. This in turn is likely the source which Ngô Sĩ Liên employed to get his basic information about King Kinh Dương. In other words, King Kinh Dương appears to be a medieval Vietnamese fabrication, albeit inspired by a Tang Dynasty short story, which Ngô Sĩ Liên then included in his history.

For more than a half century now, Vietnamese have been obsessed with the effort to link the written record with periods as far back in time as possible. A concept which does not seem to have been considered all that much is that some Vietnamese sources may simply be medieval invented traditions. This should not surprise anyone as this was happening all across Asia around this time – from Japan (the Kojiki) to Lanna (the Camadevivamsa). Why would the Vietnamese be any different?