Was Phùng Hưng Tai? What About Ngô Quyền?

Phùng Hưng is a famous figure in Vietnamese history. In 791 he led a rebellion and attacked the main center of Tang Dynasty control in the region. In the centuries after his death, his spirit came to be worshipped and officially recognized with honorary titles by Vietnamese dynasties.

It was normal for Chinese to record information about rebellions across their empire, and they did record information about Phùng Hưng’s rebellion, but they did not mention his name. Instead, Chinese sources attribute this rebellion to a figure which Vietnamese sources state assisted Phùng Hưng with strategy, a certain Đỗ Anh Hàn. [See 新校本新唐書/列傳/卷一百七十 列傳第九十五/趙昌]

So while Vietnamese sources contain more information about this rebellion than Chinese sources do, the information which Vietnamese sources contain is actually said to come from a text, the Record of Jiao Prefecture, which the Chinese administrator who put down this rebellion, Zhao Chang, compiled [So “the Chinese” did record information about this rebellion]. This work is now lost, but it is cited in the fourteenth-century Việt điện u linh tập (hereafter, VĐULT), which contains the following information about Phùng Hưng and his rebellion:

“[2b] According to Master Zhao’s Record of Jiao Region, his surname was Phùng and his given name Hưng. For generations [his family] had served as barbarian rulers in Đường Lâm Prefecture, and were called lang quan. The king was wealthy, had courage and power, and was able to fight with tigers. His younger brother was named Hãi and was also strong. He could lift a thousand-catty stone and walk more than 10 leagues. The various Lạo all feared his name.

In the Dali era [766-779] of Tang Daizong’s reign, the Protectorate of An Nam’s/Annan’s soldiers rebelled. The king led [troops] to bring into submission neighboring settlements, and established his territory. The king changed his name to Khu Lão, and declared himself regional lord, while Hãi changed his name to Cự Lực and declared himself regional protector. The king used the strategy of a man from Đường Lâm, Đỗ Anh Hàn, to use Ngô troops to attack the [3a] Đường Lâm regional [capital], and greatly enhanced his reputation. At that time, Protector-general Gao Shiping attacked but could not defeat him. [Gao Shiping] became ill from melancholy and died. The administrative seat now had no one, so the king entered it and ruled.

In the seventh year, the king passed away. People wanted to install Hãi [on the throne] but the king’s general, Bồ Phá Cần, did not consent. He installed [on the throne] the king’s son, An, and led people to resist Hãi. Hãi then moved to Chu Nham. Later it is not clear where he was. An honored his father as the Bố Cái Great King, because the barbarian custom is to call one’s father bố and one’s mother cái.” [A. 47, 2b-3a]

The VĐULT is a very important text for understanding the transitional period from Chinese to Vietnamese rule, but it is also extremely difficult to use as there is no standard version of this text. Ultimately, all of the current versions have textual problems. The quoc ngu version which is widely used in Vietnam today is based on the most recent version of the Việt điện u linh tập, and as a result is probably the least reliable, since it as it has had the most time to be altered. The version which I have used here [A. 47] is shorter and more succinct, but it clearly contains errors.

For instance, one clear problem with this version (and actually this is in other versions as well) is that it says that “For generations [Phùng Hưng’s] had served as barbarian rulers in Đường Lâm Prefecture [唐林州].” What I have translated here as “prefecture” is châu/zhou, that very confusing term which I discussed in the previous entry. The usage of this term changed during the Tang (see the previous entry), and therefore there was no consistent administrative unit called a châu/zhou which a family could have ruled over. Further, prior to the Tang a châu/zhou was an administrative unit which was larger than a commandery, which was what we could consider a province-size entity. “Barbarian rulers” (夷長) did not rule over areas this large in the Chinese empire. As far as I know, they also did not rule over commanderies either, which is what the new châu/zhou came to replace during the Tang.

The reason why this is important is because during the Tang, Đường Lâm was the name of at times a prefecture and at times a district in the area of what is today central Vietnam. This led Keith Taylor in his Birth of Vietnam to argue that Phùng Hưng’s rebellion must have taken place in that area. Taylor was then confused, however, by the fact that the place where Phùng Hưng is now commemorated with a shrine is in an area to the west of Hanoi. He devoted an appendix to a discussion of this issue, and could not resolve it.

This issue can be resolved. The easy answer is that the Việt điện u linh tập was incorrect in labeling Đường Lâm a châu/zhou. We can see this from the fact that, as mentioned above, “barbarian leaders” did not rule over châu/zhou, be that a pre-Tang “region” or a Tang-era “prefecture.” We can also see this by examining what other Vietnamese sources say about this place name.

The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư records that Phùng Hưng was from “Đường Lâm in Giao/Jiao Prefecture” and then has a note which says “Đường Lâm was under Phúc Lộc/Fulu District.” [ngoai ky 5/6a] In this rendering, Đường Lâm was the name of a village.

The nineteenth-century Khâm Định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục concurred on this point, but recorded that Đường Lâm was in Phong/Feng Prefecture, not Giao/Jiao Prefecture. It also has a note in which it states the following about Đường Lâm:

“Đường Lâm: This is the name of an old village. The old history notes that it was in Phúc Lộc/Fulu District. Phúc Lộc/Fulu has now been changed to Phúc Thọ and is in Sơn Tây Province. In examining the Volume on Sơn Tây Province [we find that] Cam Lâm Commune in Phúc Thọ was formerly called Đường Lâm. Phùng Hưng and Ngô Quyền were both from this commune. They presently have shrines there.” [ngoai ky 4/26a-b]

I have never heard of the Volume on Sơn Tây Province [山西省冊], but it clearly must have been a text which recorded information about the province, and it stated that the place where there is today a shrine dedicated to Phùng Hưng was formerly called Đường Lâm.

Based on all of the information above, we can conclude that the Đường Lâm where Phùng Hưng was from was not in central Vietnam, but in the north, along the Red River.

So Phùng Hưng was from the Red River delta, and yet he is referred to in Vietnamese sources as a “barbarian leader.” Why would that be the case? I think there are several clues in the VĐULT, as problematic as that text is, and there is another clue in the New History of the Tang, where it states that Đỗ Anh Hàn, the man whom Vietnamese sources say assisted Phùng Hưng with strategy, was “Lao chieftan” (獠酋). Meanwhile, the VĐULT recorded that “The various Lạo all feared [Phùng Hưng’s] name.”

So “Lạo/Lao” had something to do with Phùng Hưng and the place he was from, but ethnic terms can be deceptive. It is tempting to assume that this term must refer to Tai-speaking peoples like the Lao today, but we can’t be sure if that was the case. We need more evidence.

The VĐULT states that Phùng Hưng changed his name to “Khu Lão,” while his brother changed his name to “Cự Lực.” It also mentions a man by the name of Bồ Phá Cần. Finally, Phùng Hưng is eventually called the “Bố Cái Great King, because the barbarian custom is to call one’s father bố and one’s mother cái.”

Among Tai-speaking peoples there are a few words which are very commonly used among people of authority. “Khun” is a term of respect for someone. “Phu” means “person,” but it can also mean “big [important] person.” “Pho” (sounds like “paw”) means “father” but it is also used for important people. And lastly, “phi” means “elder brother” or can be used to refer to a male who is older than oneself.

Now if you look at some of Pulleyblank’s reconstructions of how Chinese characters were pronounced during this period, some of these characters here seem to match some of these Tai words. Keep in mind that if these are Tai terms which have been transliterated into Chinese characters, that 1) this was probably done by someone who did not know whatever Tai language was being spoken, 2) the person may not have been very careful in choosing appropriate characters, and 3) Chinese characters are not very effective in replicating the sounds of foreign languages.

區 = khu[n] [term of respect]

蒲披勤 = Bồ Phá Cần = Pho? Phu? Phi Kin [“big-man elder-brother Kin”]

布 = Bố = pho [“father”]

A name like “big-man elder-brother Kin” man sound strange, but if you read early Tai chronicles from Laos and northern Thailand, there are many names like this. In any case, what should be clear is that Phùng Hưng and/or the people who lived in Đường Lâm were seen as different by the Chinese, and remembered that way by Vietnamese in later centuries. The question is, how were they different? Were they a Tai-speaking people? If so, then that is very interesting, because there is another famous person who comes from Đường Lâm – Ngô Quyền, mentioned above, the first ruler of an “independent Vietnam” after 1,000 years of Chinese rule. Could Ngô Quyền have been Tai too?

4 thoughts on “Was Phùng Hưng Tai? What About Ngô Quyền?

  1. Thanks! This is an interesting article.

    That said, it leaves me with a lot of questions (and I say this not to defend what I wrote in this post above – I’m willing to be convinced that what I say above is not correct, and I also no longer believe what I wrote above about the Tai-language connections). It concludes by saying that:

    Đến đây, chúng ta có thể xâu chuỗi các sự kiện như sau: [1] Bia ngụy tạo vào quãng 1802 đến 1821;

    Why from 1802? They say that: “Về địa danh học, văn bia này dù cố gắng ngụy tạo, nhưng vẫn vô tình để lại tên địa danh thời Nguyễn. Dòng đầu của bia ghi: 國威府福祿縣甘泉社“Quốc Oai phủ Phúc Lộc huyện Cam Tuyền xã”[17], dòng trên đồng thời cũng được khắc trên bia Phụng tự bi ký 奉祀碑記được khắc năm Tự Đức thứ 4 (1851)[18]. Qua khảo chứng về diên cách địa danh hành chính của Đào Duy Anh[19] thì đây có khả năng là bia ngụy tạo vào đời Gia Long hoặc Minh Mệnh, vì đến năm Minh Mệnh thứ 3 (1822) Phúc Lộc đã đổi làm Phúc Thọ [20].”

    This just tells us that the name Phúc Lộc was changed to Phúc Thọ in 1822. It doesn’t tell us that this name did not exist prior to 1802, so why was the inscription created in that short time period? Is it because of the style of the inscription? Is it really the case that inscriptions all over the kingdom suddenly changed when a new dynasty came to power?

    [2] Dựa vào bia này Nguyễn Văn Siêu đã khẳng định Cam Lâm vốn là Đường Lâm, quê của hai vua Phùng Hưng và Ngô Quyền;

    This article doesn’t mention Nguyễn Văn Siêu at all. There must be something that I’m supposed to know here, but I don’t. So I don’t understand what this is referring to.

    [3] Vua Tự Đức đã sai bộ Lễ công nhận đây là di tích cấp “quốc gia” và ban “sắc kiến” vào năm 1874;

    This is also not discussed or demonstrated in the article.

    [4] Sau đó, “đất hai vua” chính thức được đưa vào chính sử vào năm 1882;

    The expression “đất hai vua” does not appear in the “chính sử” in 1882. It mentions at one place that “Phùng Hưng and Ngô Quyền were both from this community” and at another that “Đường Lâm – This is the name of an old community. . . The Summary Record of Annan [records that] Ngô Quyền was from Ái Region. We do not know which is true.”

    I don’t think that it is a good idea to connect contemporary expressions in Vietnamese to information in classical Chinese texts from the past. There are many “traditions” in Vietnam that have been “invented” in the past half century. How long have people referred to Đường Lâm as “đất hai vua”? And where is the evidence for this? The above passages from the Khâm định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục do not show us that there was a tradition in the nineteenth century of calling Đường Lâm “đất hai vua.” Where is our earliest evidence for the use of that expression?

    [5] Đặng Xuân Bảng cẩn thận hơn nữa đã chú Đường Lâm thuộc về Phong Châu[22].

    I think the second comment above shows that the people who wrote the “chính sử” were “cẩn thận” too.

    And what about the text that Đào Duy Anh referred to as the Sơn Tây tỉnh chí? In the Khâm định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục this is actually the Sơn Tây tỉnh điển 山西省典. What was that text? Does it still exist?

    I also wish that they would ask the most basic question scholars should always ask – “why.” Why did someone in Son Tay make a fake inscription in the nineteenth century (if that is what happened)?

    It’s believable, but trying to say why it happened will help us better understand the past. The answers to “why” questions are always more insightful than the answers to “what” questions. Hopefully they’ll look at this more and talk about “why.” That would be interesting.

    The two passages from the Khâm định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục are as follows:

    [TB 4/26a] Đường Lâm. This is the name of an old community. The old history notes that it was in Phúc Lộc District. Phúc Lộc [TB 4/26b] has now been changed to Phúc Thọ and is in Sơn Tây Province. In examining the Sơn Tây Provincial Register [we find that] Cam Lâm Community in Phúc Thọ was formerly called Đường Lâm. Phùng Hưng and Ngô Quyền were both from this community. They presently have shrines there.

    唐林古社號舊史註在福祿縣福祿 [TB 4/26b] 今改福壽屬山西省考山西省典福壽甘霖社古號唐林馮興吳權皆其社人今有祠在焉

    [TB 5/19b] Đường Lâm. This is the name of an old community. See the note under the seventh year of the Zhenyuan era of the Tang [791 C.E.; TB 4/26a-4/26b]. The Summary Record of Annan [records that] Ngô Quyền was from Ái Region. We do not know which is true.


  2. I wrote this back in 2010. This issue of where Đường Lâm was is one that has been discussed a lot by Vietnamese scholars. Now I would say that Taylor was right. The Đường Lâm that Phùng Hưng came from and the one that Ngô Quyền came from were probably two different places.

    Could Phùng Hưng be connected to the Saek? I don’t know if we can make that direct connection, but he could have been part of a group like the Saek.

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