The question of whether the earliest people to rule over the area of what is today northern Vietnam were called “Lạc” Kings or “Hùng” Kings is one which has been hotly debated for close to a century now. It was the French scholar, Henri Maspero, who began this debate when in the early twentieth century he noticed that in Chinese historical sources, the earliest sources for this topic, the characters for both lạc 雒 and hùng 雄 appeared. Maspero concluded that a Chinese scribe had erroneously written hùng 雄 instead of lạc 雒 (these two characters are very similar and there is abundant evidence that in other contexts they have been mistaken, one for the other), and that in later centuries the Vietnamese had just perpetuated this scribal error.

Maspero is regarded as a capable scholar, however his arguments in this paper left a lot to be desired. His attitude – that the Vietnamese had simply copied a mistake without realizing it – was also demeaning towards the Vietnamese, and it is therefore not surprising that it eventually engendered a great deal of debate. In the late 1960s and early 1970s this debate reached a “political” conclusion in favor of hùng (a topic which I will post about later), but it has not reached an academic conclusion.

I have read many of the articles on this topic, but probably not all of them. Therefore perhaps someone has said what I will discuss here. If someone has, however, I have never seen it. So if anyone knows of anyone else who has made this argument, please let me know.

While scholars have argued endlessly about which character, lạc 雒 or hùng 雄, is correct, I have never seen anyone discuss the larger passages in which these characters appear in early Chinese sources. The passages, however, provide the clearest clues about which term is “correct.”

There are two main sources for this debate. In particular, there is a source which uses the term lạc 雒 and another which uses the term hùng 雄. In addition to these two sources, there are other sources where this information appears, but the other sources are clearly abridged versions of two longer passages which appear in the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region and the Treatise on Southern Yue, respectively. Both of these works are now lost, but passages from them, are cited in works which are still extant.

Let us look at the first main source. The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region [交州外域記, Jiaozhou waiyu ji], is a work which textual evidence suggests dates from either the late third or early fourth century AD. The passage below is cited in a sixth century text, Li Daoyuan’s Annotated Classic of Waterways [水經注, Shuijing zhu].

交州外域記曰,交趾昔未有郡縣之時,土地有雒田,其田從潮水上下,民墾食其田,因名為雒民。設雒王雒侯主諸郡縣。縣多為雒將。雒將銅印青綬。

“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, and therefore the people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. Lạc princes 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.’”

The first point to note is that this writer does not claim to have seen this area at the time when the “lạc” people lived there on their own. This was written after the Han Dynasty had established “commanderies and districts” in the area.

The next point to note is that this character, lạc 雒, is not representing meaning. It is representing a sound, that is, a word from a non-Chinese language. What did this word mean? Many scholars have interpreted it to mean something related to the statement, “These fields followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters,” since the text then says, “therefore (因) the people. . .” 

(Note: 潮 can mean “tide,” but it also refers to rising river levels as well. In this context, “floodwaters” makes more sense to me.)

Finally, it is very problematic to see the final statements as talking about the region prior to the period of Chinese control.

Lạc princes 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.”

Who appointed (設) the lạc princes? Whose “bronze seals and green ribbons” were those? “Commanderies and districts” were part of the Chinese political system. As such, this statement seems to be saying that there were people in the area called “lạc,” and then after the Han Dynasty took control, the lạc people were appointed to govern over the area on behalf of the Chinese – a very common phenomenon at the time.

(Note: the character vương 王 can be translated as “king” or “prince.” Since this passage appears to be indicating that there were more than one of these people, I am translating it here as “prince.”

The second main source is the Treatise on Southern Yue [南越志, Nanyue zhi] (maybe 5th cent.?) in the Wide Gleanings Made in the Taiping Era [太平廣記, Taiping guangji] (10th century)

交趾之地頗爲膏腴,徙民居之,始知播植,厥土惟黑壤,厥氣惟雄,故今稱其田為雄田,其民為雄民,有君長亦曰雄王,有輔佐焉亦焉曰雄侯,分其地以為雄將。(出南越志)

“The area of Jiaozhi is quite fertile. Migrants settled there, and it was only then that [the original inhabitants?] learned how to cultivate by broadcasting seeds. The soil is dark and fertile, and the qi is strong [hùng]. Therefore, now the fields are called hùng fields, and the people, hùng people. There are leaders who are called hùng kings. There are assistants who are called hùng marquises, and the land is divided among hùng generals (This comes from the Treatise on Southern Yue).”

The first point to note here is that the reference to “commanderies and districts” is gone. This text does not indicate that it is referring to some point in the past, prior to the period of Chinese rule, as the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region did.

The next point to note is that this character hùng 雄 is representing meaning here, not sound, as the term lạc 雒 was in the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region. The qi in the land is strong [hùng], and it is because of this fact that the people in the area are called hùng as well.

In other words, this author did not simply make a scribal error and write hùng 雄 when he should have written lạc 雒. Instead, he dramatically changed this passage to match the meaning of the term hùng 雄, as “strong.” To do this he added information at the beginning about the land being fertile and the qi strong, and then he made a direct connection between this word for “strong” with the names of the fields and the people.

If the evidence of the degree to which this author “invented” information here is still not clear, we should also point out that the phrase, “the soil is dark and fertile” (厥土惟黑壤), is a very close copy of a line from the “Tribute of Yu” (禹貢, Yu gong) section of the Venerated Documents [尚書, Shangshu], where it says that “the soil is light and fertile,” (厥土惟白壤). Those who know classical Chinese will easily see that this is not a common expression. This author was definitely mimicking this line from the Venerated Documents. In the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region there is no such evidence of “borrowing” from other texts.

Finally, there is no mention in this passage of the officials being appointed. Instead, what we find here are sovereign rulers, free of outside control.

Taken together, it is clear that this second passage is an alteration of the information in the earlier Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region. The author changed the character lạc 雒 to the similar-looking hùng 雄 so that it would have meaning, rather than just represent a sound from a foreign language, the meaning of which was not clear. He then changed the entire passage by adding new information about the fertility of the land (and deleting the information about the floodwaters) so that the character hùng 雄 would have a context for its meaning to make sense. And last, he left out the historical context which the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region provided, by omitting any mention of Han Dynasty rule.

What did the Vietnamese then do? Did they simply copy this mistake, as Maspero claimed? No, they invented something new. This is a long story, the details of which will have to wait until a future post, but essentially the Vietnamese “combined” information from both of these versions. In Ngô Sĩ Liên’s Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn Thư there are sovereign Hùng kings who appointed “ministers called lạc marquises, and generals called lạc generals.”

Ultimately, however, the most we can probably say is that in the BC period there were people in the region whom the Chinese called lạc (it’s not clear why, and this term was used for people in other areas of what is today Southern China as well), and that they were recruited to administer the region on a local level for the Chinese. The terms for “prince” and “marquis” are of Chinese origin, so we can assume that the lạc did not refer to their own rulers by these terms. It also appears from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region that the people who filled these positions were appointed to rule over “commanderies and districts,” that is, over Chinese administrative units. In other words, the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region does not tell us anything about the rulers of this region prior to the period of Chinese control, other than that as a people they were called lạc, or perhaps it was just the Chinese who called them lạc.

So were there “Lạc” kings or “Hùng” kings? As far as we can tell, there were neither. There were apparently Lạc princes who collaborated with the Chinese, but that is all we know. The lạc undoubtedly had their own rulers before the Chinese arrived, but we have no way of knowing what they were called.