On numerous occasions I have had Vietnamese state to me that of all the Hundred Việt/Yue (Bách Việt) which lived in antiquity throughout the area of what is today southern China and northern Vietnam, only the Vietnamese have survived and maintained their identity, while all of the others have been assimilated as Chinese.
There are a few problems with this concept. First, there is no evidence (that I know of) which demonstrates that any of the peoples whom the Chinese collectively referred to as the Hundred Việt/Yue actually referred to themselves as “Việt/Yue.” Instead, this was a term which outsiders (the Han Chinese) used to refer to these peoples. That being the case, it’s highly unlikely that the Vietnamese were an exception to this rule and actually referred to themselves as “Việt/Yue” in antiquity.
Another problem is that the Vietnamese are not the only “Việt/Yue” who are still around, for the Cantonese are also “Việt/Yue.” The character which Cantonese use to refer to themselves 粵 is historically the same as the character which the Vietnamese use to refer to themselves 越, and the two characters were used interchangeably. If I remember correctly, Sima Qian’s Historical Records uses 越, the History of the Han uses 粵, and the History of the Later Han uses 越 again.
So rather than expressing pride at the myth that the Vietnamese are the only Việt/Yue group to have survived, what people should do is ask themselves why it is that two groups of people came to refer to themselves by using a term which outsiders had created. The answer, I believe, lies in the fact that these names did not emerge among a “people,” but among a small elite. Further, this elite was a Sinicized elite. It’s not a coincidence that these terms were used by people who were based in the two areas in the region which, by say the beginning of the Tang Dynasty in the seventh century, were the most heavily Sinicized – the Red River delta and the Pearl River delta. The elite in these areas could read Chinese, and could see that the term “Việt/Yue” had been applied to their region since antiquity. They could also read about how a Chinese by the name of Zhao Tuo had established a kingdom in the region at the end of the BC period which he called the Kingdom of Southern Việt/Yue. The elite who could read about these things, then started to use some of this information to refer to themselves.
A couple of interesting examples of this come from the early seventh century, at the time when the Sui Dynasty was collapsing and the Tang Dynasty was on the rise. The first pertains to a man by the name of Lin Shihong. I have included the Chinese text where I am getting my information, however what follows is not an exact translation.
Lin Shihong, was from Poyang in Rao Region in what is today Jiangxi Province. At the end of the Sui he joined the rebel group of Cao Shiqi, a man from his home village. Shiqi declared himself to be the Yuanxing King and established the era name of Tiancheng. In 616 he occupied the area of Yuzhang, which is today the city of Nanchang in Jiangxi province, and appointed Lin Shihong as general-in-chief. The Sui sent a contingent of soldiers to attack Cao Shiqi and he was killed in the battle. Lin Shihong fought back and killed the Sui commanding officer. With the support of more than 100,000 followers, Lin Shihong declared himself to the Southern Việt/Yue King (Nanyue wang). Not long after this he declared himself emperor, and named his kingdom Chu.
Based in Jiangxi, Lin Shihong’s kingdom would eventually extend into Guangdong. It would not last long, but there are a few elements about its existence which I find interesting. The first is that Lin initially called himself the Southern Việt/Yue King. This is the same title which Zhao Tuo had used. It could be translated as the King of Southern Việt/Yue, but Lin Shihong did not name his kingdom such. Or more accurately, perhaps he considered doing so, but then decided to name his kingdom “Chu,” the name of a powerful kingdom in the region in the BC period, and to declare himself an “emperor.”
What is interesting about Lin Shihong is that he seems to have been testing out different possibilities. He toyed with the idea of being the King of Southern Việt/Yue or the Southern Việt/Yue King, and then he turned to another icon of the south, the kingdom of Chu. He also declared himself to be an emperor, opening the possibility that there could be emperors based in the region.
In the end, Lin Shihong did not succeed, but he did try. Another interesting figure from the same period considered following the same path as Lin Shihong, but declined to do so.
馮盎字明達，高州良德人，本北燕馮弘裔孫．弘不能以國下魏，亡奔高麗，遣子業以三百人浮海歸晉．弘已滅，業留番禺，至孫融，事梁為羅州刺史．子寶，聘越大姓洗氏女為妻，遂為首領，授本郡太守，至盎三世矣．[新唐書/列傳/卷一百一十 列傳第三十五 諸夷蕃將]
Feng Ang (?-646) was from Liangde District in the area of what is today Guangdong Province. His paternal ancestors, however, had come from northern China. At some point after the northern part of China came under the control of the Northern Wei in 386 CE, a certain Feng Hong fled to Koryo, or what we today call Korea. From there he sent a son, Feng Ye, to proceed with 300 others to the area of southern China under the control of the Jin Dynasty. Feng Ye settled in Panyu, in current Guangdong Province. His son, Rong, served the Liang Dynasty and had a son of his own who married a certain Madame Xian from a great Việt/Yue family. Members of the Feng family subsequently served as local leaders and even commandery governors. It was into this influential southern family that Feng Ang was born.
At the beginning of the Renshou era of the Sui (601-604), Feng Ang was serving as the magistrate of Songkang District in the area of what is today Guangdong province when “Lao” people rebelled in two administrative regions in Guangdong. Feng Ang proceeded to the Sui capital to request permission to suppress this uprising. The Sui emperor asked one of his officials, Yang Su, what he thought, and Su expressed his surprise at Feng Ang’s request by stating that “Who would have guessed that such a person would emerge from amidst the savages!”
I find it interesting that Yang Su associated Feng Ang with savages. It is clear that his ancestors were “Chinese,” but apparently in the eyes of a Chinese in the early seventh century, a person who lived in the far south and who had intermarried with local people was a savage, regardless of who his ancestors were.
. . .遂有番禺、蒼梧、朱崖地，自號總管．或說盎曰：「隋季崩蕩，海內震騷，唐雖應運，而風教未孚，嶺越無所係屬．公克平二十州，地數千里，名謂未正，請上南越王號．」盎曰：「吾居越五世矣，牧伯惟我一姓，子女玉帛吾有也，人生富貴，如我希矣．常恐忝先業，尚自王哉？」
To make a long story short, Feng Ang went on to put down this uprising, and then he served the Sui as a general. When the Sui collapsed, Feng Ang returned to the area of Guangdong and eventually, after a great deal of fighting, came to control a vast amount of territory in the area of what is to day Guangdong, Guangxi, and even Hainan provinces. People told Feng Ang that given his power, he should declare himself King of Southern Việt/Yue. Feng Ang, however, refused. He acknowledged that he was the sole ruler in the area, and that he was more prosperous than anyone else, but he hesitated to refer to himself as a king, arguing that to claim such a title for himself would insult the accomplishments of his ancestors.
These cases of Lin Shihong and Feng Ang are interesting. In both of these cases you have men from the area of what is today southern China toying with the idea of using the term “King of Southern Việt/Yue.” Although they didn’t end up using the term, or at least not for long, it is significant that they were thinking of doing so.
One wonders if they knew that a fellow Chinese who had “gone local” had done the same thing in the area of what is today Vietnam in the sixth century. In 544 Lý Bí had declared himself Emperor of Southern Việt/Yue. Lý Bí was supposedly the seventh-generation descendent of Chinese who had fled southward to the area of what is now Vietnam at the end of the Han Dynasty. Like Feng Ang’s family, it is likely that they intermarried with local people.
In conclusion, the Vietnamese are not the only group among the Hundred Việt/Yue to have survived. The idea of being “Việt/Yue” is a concept which emerged centuries after the term “Việt/Yue” was created by the Chinese to refer to the various peoples who lived to their south. From what we can tell, the first people to consider using the term “Việt/Yue” in a self-referential sense were Chinese, or mixed-blood Chinese, in the areas of what are today Jiangxi, Guangdong and northern Vietnam. This was just the beginning. It undoubtedly took centuries for a sense of identity to emerge and spread to more than the elite.