In talking about the earliest information about Vietnamese history, one element which I passed over is the connection which is drawn to the mythical (Chinese) ruler, Shennong. This is an aspect of this story which I think most scholars would agree was invented by medieval scholars. As for why medieval scholars did this, that is an issue which I don’t think anyone has addressed convincingly.
The most common argument is to say that medieval Vietnamese scholars wanted to show that Vietnam was “the equal” of China, or even that it had a more ancient pedigree in that it traced its connection back to Shennong, rather than the later Yellow Emperor.
What I have never seen any scholar do is to discuss the larger practice of connecting one’s local area to mythical (Chinese) rulers. This was a very common practice. In the B.C. period, kingdoms like the kingdom of Chu did this, and in works like the Huayang guozhi 華陽國志 from Sichuan in the fourth century A.D. you find the same thing.
The Huayang guozhi is a text which scholars of Vietnamese history should be familiar with, because there are many parallels between what that text attempted to do for Sichuan with what the earliest Vietnamese texts attempted to do for Vietnam. In particular, in both situations scholars attempted to “invent” histories for these areas which both created a sense of autonomy, but which also demonstrated a link to the ultimate source of power (the Yellow River valley) through genealogical connections with the mythical rulers of Chinese antiquity. The Huayang guozhi is different in that Sichuan was historically divided between kingdoms like Ba and Shu, and this texts deals with those areas separately. Nonetheless, the parallels with the information about early Vietnamese history are clear in these sections. Take, for instance, the opening passage of the “Treatise on Shu”:
“Shu’s establishment as a kingdom began with [the mythical Chinese ruler] Ren Huang who placed [Shu] in the same partition as Ba.* At the time of the Yellow Emperor, his son, Changyi, married the daughter of the Shushan [lit. “Shu Mountain”] clan, who gave birth to a son, Gaoyang, who became Emperor Ku. He invested members from the collateral branches of his family in Shu where they served for generations as marquises and barons. [This] continued through the Xia, Shang and Zhou. [Zhou] Wuwang attacked Zhou [i.e., the last Shang emperor], and Shu followed him [i.e., Zhou Wuwang]. Its land connected in the east with Ba; in the south it connected with Yue; to the north it shares a divide with Qin; and to the west it covers E.”
*Ren Huang supposedly divided the known world into nine partitions (九囿, jiuyou). There were other people, such as Yu, who were credited with dividing the known world into nine parts (or “regions” 州 in Yu’s case) as well.
The Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư, meanwhile, begins as follows:
“During the time of the Yellow Emperor, the myriad kingdoms were established and Giao Chỉ was delimited in the southwest, far beyond the area of the Hundred Yue. Yao commanded Xi [Shu] to take up residence in Nam Giao to fix Giao Chỉ’s position in the south. Yu then demarcated the Nine Regions. The Hundred Yue were in the territory of Yang Region. Giao Chỉ was under its jurisdiction. Only during the reign of King Cheng of the Zhou was [Giao Chỉ] finally referred to as [the realm of the] Việt Thường clan. [The use of] the name Việt commenced from this time.”
When you combine this information with the marriages between descendents of Shennong and women in the south discussed in previous entries here, it becomes apparent that both the Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư and the Huayang guozhi were involved in the exact same project. Given that the Huayang guozhi was written centuries before the Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư (or the Lĩnh Nam trích quái liệt truyện, where the information about Vietnam was first recorded), one has to wonder if the former inspired the compiler of the latter.
“[It] pressed against the Southern Sea to the east, and came up against Ba Shu [i.e. Sichuan] to the west. To the north it reached Lake Dongting, and to the south it met the Kingdom of Hồ Tôn, that is, the Kingdom of Champa.”
The extent of this kingdom is an issue which Vietnamese scholars came to doubt. No one, however, has ever determined why whoever originally wrote this information did so in this manner. The above passage from the “Treatise on Shu” mirrors this passage in the Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư, as does the following lines from the “Treatise on Ba” in the Huayang guozhi:
“It’s land reached in the east to Yufu, and to the west it reached Ba Circuit. To the north it connected with Hanzhong, and to the south it went all the way to Qianfu.”
To be fair, talking about what is to the north, south, east and west of a polity was probably a normal practice. What is interesting, however, is that a text like the “Treatise on Shu” talks about the nine divisions of the world and how Shu was placed in one of those sections. It then talks about a marriage which links Shu with one of the mythical rulers of Chinese antiquity. And then it talks about the boundaries of the realm by saying what was to the north, south, east and west.
So is it just a coincidence that the Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư does the exact same thing?