This is another story from the Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện). This story is clearly the invention of a medieval scholar. Mention of the Việt Thường clan exists in Chinese sources. It is not clear in Chinese sources, however, where they were from, other than that it was someplace far to the south. What they stand for in Chinese sources is the power of the Chinese emperor. These people supposedly arrived from far away to present tribute (a white pheasant) to the emperor because they had seen signs in the natural world which indicated to them that there was “a sage in the Middle Kingdom.” This surprised the Chinese as they had never heard of the Việt Thường clan and did not know that the emperor’s moral virtue reached so far away that it could lead such distant peoples to make the journey to present tribute.
In this story here, a scholar has taken this information, and has specifically associated it with the area of Vietnam. He also added a conversation about local customs. This is not in the Chinese original, but all of the customs that are mentioned are the stereotypical things which the Chinese pointed out as strange about the various peoples who lived in the southern reaches of the world as it was known to them.
Finally, there is a comment in this story about how Confucius knew about Vietnam (i.e., Văn Lang), but didn’t write about it. Hmmm. . . if he didn’t write about it, then how do we know that he knew about it?
So I read something recently in Vietnamese on the Internet about this story in which the writer was arguing that this story shows that Vietnam was the equal of China during the Zhou dynasty and that the Việt Thường clan went to “study” with the Chinese ruler, who they saw as a sage, and not to present tribute.
Such an interpretation reveals a mind hopelessly enslaved by nationalism. This story has nothing to do with equality or studying with a sage. In fact, it admits what we could call cultural inequality and takes pride in the antiquity of Vietnam’s tributary relationship with its northern neighbor.
I think the person who made those comments was reading this story as if it was actually a record from the Vietnamese side. In reality, however, this is a story which a medieval Vietnamese scholar put together from various extant Chinese sources. It reveals the perspective of a member of the medieval Sinicized elite. To such a person the tributary relationship was a given. He would have known of no other possible way for the world to be organized.
In any case, here is the story. There are a couple of characters in the version of the original that I am using (A. 1200) which I can’t make out, but this doesn’t affect the overall meaning.
During the time of King Cheng of the Zhou, the Hùng king ordered his officials, called the Việt Thường clan, to present a white pheasant to the Zhou. Their words could not be understood, so Zhou Gong [the king’s main assistant] had an emissary make multiple translations and they were finally understood. Zhou Gong asked, “Why did you come?” The Việt Thường responded, “Now there have been no excessive rains in the skies nor rough waves on the seas for three years already. This means that there is a sage in the Middle Kingdom. We therefore came.” Zhou Gong sighed and said, “No governmental orders have been issued [pertaining to you]. My sovereign has not made you a vassal. Moral virtue does not reach [as far as your home]. My Lord has not bestowed gifts [upon you].” He then remembered the Yellow Emperor’s pledge that, “Giao Chỉ is beyond the bounds [of the Middle Kingdom], and it most not be violated.” He then bestowed upon [The Việt Thường] local goods, instructed them, and let them return. The Việt Thường forgot the way back. Zhou Gong ordered that they be granted five carriages, each of which was made such that it could detect the direction of the south. They rode in them past the coasts of Phù Nam/Funan and Lâm Ấp/Linyi. After a year they reached their kingdom. Therefore, south-pointing carriages often lead the way.
Later, when Confucius compiled the Spring and Autumn Annals, he considered that the kingdom of Văn Lang was in the wilds and was not yet equipped with sufficient civility. He therefore did not include information about it.
The old version [of this text] stated that Zhou Gong asked, “Why is it that in Giao Chỉ people cut their hair short, tattoo their bodies, leave their heads uncovered, walk barefoot and have black teeth?” The Việt Thường clan responded that, “We cut our hair to make it easier to enter the mountain forests. We tattoo our bodies with the designs of dragon lords, so that when we swim in the river, serpents will not violate us. We go barefoot to make it easier to climb trees. We engage in slash-and-burn agriculture and leave our heads uncovered to avoid the heat. We chew betel nut to expel impurities, therefore our teeth are black.”