In the previous entry I suggested that the Tang Dynasty administrator, Gao Pian, may have been responsible for transforming a local spirit into the spirit of an historical figure, Cao Lỗ. While I was guessing that this is what might have happened, the case of the spirit of Lý Ông Trọng suggests this much more clearly.
This is what the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư records about Lý Ông Trọng (the same information appears in a bit more detail in the Việt điện u linh tập).
The [King of] Qin annexed six kingdoms and declared himself August Emperor. At that time, Lý Ông Trọng, a man from Từ Liêm [District] in Our Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi was two trượng and three thước tall. When he was still young he went to a town to labor. He was flogged by a senior official and then went to serve the Qin, where he was eventually promoted to metropolitan commandant. When the First Emperor obtained All Under Heaven, he had [Lý Ông Trọng] lead troops to garrison Lintao and awe the Xiongnu. When [Lý Ông Trọng] became old, he returned to his village and died. The First Emperor found him to be an extraordinary man. He had [Lý Ông Trọng’s] image cast in bronze and placed at the Outer Palace Gate in Xianyang. It could hold several tens of men, who would secretly rock it back and forth. The Xiongnu believed that it was the living commandant, and dared not trespass.
During the Tang, Protector-General of Giao Region Zhao Chang would often dream at night of talking with Ông Trọng about the Spring and Autumn Annals and Master Zuo’s Commentary. He then visited [Lý Ông Trọng’s] old residence and found that it was there. He had a shrine set up and made an offering. Later, at the time when King Gao [i.e., Gao Pian] defeated Nanzhao, [Lý Ông Trọng’s spirit] often responded by assisting with the submission [of rebels]. King Gao had the shrine renovated, and an image carved in wood and erected there, which he called Commandant Lý. His spirit shrine is in Thụy Hương Community, Từ Liêm District.
Does it seem strange that someone from the area of the Red River delta would go all the way off to fight the Xiongnu, a nomadic people who lived to the north of what is today China? Of course it is strange, because it is not true. Instead, this is a Chinese legend which Zhao Chang probably “imported” into the region.
There are a few references in early Chinese historical records about the Qin emperor casting huge bronze statues. From these few references many different concepts or traditions developed. For one, statues placed outside of graves came to be called “Ông Trọng/Wengzhong.” Second, a legend about “Ông Trọng/Wengzhong” developed, only he was not surnamed Lý, but Ruan.
During the period of the Ming Dynasty, Peng Dayi 彭大翼 (1552-1643) recorded the following story about Ruan Wengzhong in his encyclopedia, Reckless Investigations from a Mountain Hall (山堂肆考, Shantang sikao, 149/1b):
“Wengzhong’s surname was Ruan. He was one trượng and two thước tall. When he was young, he was a low-level district official and was flogged by a local inspector. He exclaimed, ‘Does one have to be like this?’ He then devoted himself to study. When the First Emperor of the Qin annexed All Under Heaven, he had Wengzhong lead troops to garrison Lintao and awe the Xiongnu. The people of the Qin found him to be auspicious. After Wengzhong died, a bronze image was cast and placed outside the Outer Palace Gate in Xianyang.”
Not only is the content here similar, some of the wording is identical as well. Coming from a Ming encyclopedia, this passage must have originated in earlier texts. This is a legend which had probably long been in circulation.
That is then what makes the information in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư about Zhao Chang so fascinating. Did Zhao Chang really dream about Ông Trọng/Wengzhong? The story in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư does not say anything about Ông Trọng/Wengzhong being educated. This Chinese version, however, makes it clear why Ông Trọng/Wengzhong would have been able to talk about the Spring and Autumn Annals and Master Zuo’s Commentary, as he had “devoted himself to study” for a period of time. So perhaps Zhao Chang did actually dream about him.
Why, however, would Zhao Chang have felt that Ông Trọng’s/Wengzhong’s old residence was in the area? There does not appear to be anything in this legend to suggest that. This is where I think the idea that Chinese administrators might have created some cults in the region makes sense.
This passage makes me wonder if perhaps it was the case that Zhao Chang built a shrine to Ông Trọng/Wengzhong at a place where some other spirit was already being worshipped. This was a very common practice across the Chinese world at the time. Local officials would take over a “heterodox” shrine and get the people to worship in its place an “orthodox” spirit, which was usually an upright historical figure. Perhaps this is what Zhao Chang did. He used the figure of Ông Trọng/Wengzhong, about whom perhaps he had dreamed (we can’t say for sure), and created a new shrine for him to get people to turn away from the worship of a “heterodox” spirit.
As for Gao Pian, did Ông Trọng’s/Wengzhong’s spirit really assist him? Or was this a story which Gao Pian told in order to get people to believe in the power of a spirit which supported Gao Pian, and to thereby get the people to support Gao Pian as well?
Whatever conclusions people draw about all of this, the one point which is clear is that Lý Ông Trọng was not originally “Vietnamese.” His status as a “Vietnamese” spirit and a figure of “Vietnamese” history is clearly an invention.