There are many fields of history where “the facts” have long been figured out. That is definitely not the case with premodern Vietnamese history. To the contrary, historians have barely scratched the surface of the textual evidence for Vietnamese history, and as a result, there is still so much which we don’t know, and so much of what we think we know is not true.
I’m reminded of this every time I look at a premodern manuscript. It invariably happens like this: I find a passage which doesn’t make sense. I then start looking at other related texts to see if I can figure it out, and in the process I stumble across all kinds of new ideas and insights. This weekend it was an incomprehensible official title which set me on such a path.
In the fifteenth century, when Lê Lợi was struggling to gain control of the kingdom from the Ming and their Vietnamese supporters, he obtained the assistance of a Thái man from an area called Mường Mộc. This place would subsequently be referred to as Mộc Subprefecture (Mộc Châu), and is now a district in Sơn La Province.
The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư contains the following information about this event:
[10/35b] 嘉興鎮木忙父道車可參等歸 [10/36a] 順。授可參入内司空同平章事，知陀江鎮。
“[10/35b] The phụ đạo of Mường Mộc in Gia Hưng Defense Command, Xa Khả Tham, and others [10/36a] submitted. Khả Tham was appointed to the Inner Offices [where he served as?] Manager of Affairs, and was put in charge of Đà River Defense Command.”
“Phụ đạo” is a transliteration of a Thái title for a ruler, “phu tao.” Thái polities were referred to as “mường,” and the fact that you had a mường inside a defense command gives a sense of what this mountainous region next to the Red River delta was like. Vietnamese may have felt that they controlled the area by incorporating it into a defense command, a kind of administrative unit, but the fact that it contained a mường which was ruled over by a phu tao demonstrates that Vietnamese had little, if any, actual control over such areas.
In any case, Xa Khả Tham helped Lê Lợi and was rewarded for that. That said, it is a bit difficult to see how exactly he was rewarded, because the title which he was granted does not actually make sense. There must be a typo (a VERY common phenomenon in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư) because the characters do not constitute a clear title, so I had to guess here at what might have originally been intended.
Wanting to know what the title which Lê Lợi granted to Xa Khả Tham actually was, I turned to some other sources. Given that the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư was the earliest source for this information, later sources cannot really be taken as more accurate, but I was at least curious as to what other sources might say.
So this is what I found in the nineteenth-century Đại Nam nhất thống chí:
“Xa Khả Tham assisted Lê Thái Tổ [i.e., Lê Lợi] to pacify All Under Heaven. For his service he was granted the royal surname, invested as Minister of Works, and was allowed to rule Mộc Subprefecture as his fief. Sons and grandsons succeeded one another.”
Here we have a different title, one which consists of two characters which are contained in the longer title above. Also, this text states that Xa Khả Tham was “invested” (phong) with this title. All of this is different. This text also records that Xa Khả Tham was granted the use of the royal surname of Lê, but that was noted in a later passage of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, so that is not actually different.
So still unclear as to what title Xa Khả Tham may have been granted, I turned to one more text, Hoàng Trọng Chính’s Hưng Hóa phong thổ lục of 1778. This was a local gazetteer of the mountainous region of northern Vietnam, and this is what it had to say about Xa Khả Tham and Lê Lợi:
“Xa Khả Tham assisted Cao Hòang [i.e., Lê Lợi] with his soldiers to pacify All Under Heaven. For his service rendered, he was granted the royal surname, [the title here is a complete mess and does not make any sense!!!], and was allowed to rule Mộc Subprefecture as his fief. He was called the “Black-Robed Emperor.” His sons and grandsons succeeded one another.”
As I was discovering this information, I had in the back of my mind a comment which I read recently by the late great scholar of the Thái in Vietnam, Cầm Trọng. In 1978, Cầm Trọng wrote in Người Thái ở Tây Bắc Việt Nam, “The Thái in the Northwest are one part of the nation of Vietnam. Their consciousness of Vietnam as a unified nation has existed for a long time.” (Người Thái ở Tây Bắc là một bộ phận của dân tộc Việt Nam. Ý thức quốc gia Việt Nam thống nhất ở họ đã có từ lâu rồi.)
In 1978, this is what scholars had to say. Unfortunately, today the situation remains essentially the same. It’s unfortunate because what these passages reveal is that the story of Thái-Vietnamese relations has never been told. If people would put aside the nationalist myth that all of the peoples who currently live within the borders of Vietnam have maintained a conviction since the beginning of time in the unity of Vietnam as a nation, and would look at what historical sources—both Vietnamese and Thái—actually record, then they would find that the past was much more complex.
To be fair, there was a volume which initiated such a process. In 1977, Đặng Nhiêm Vạn edited a volume, Tư liệu về lịch sử và xã hội dân tộc Thái, which contained some information from Thái language historical sources. Unfortunately, however, these materials were summaries of these sources, rather than translations, and therefore lack the accuracy which historians require. The work was also marred by the fact that the contributors, like Cầm Trọng above, had to repeatedly emphasize that the Thái have always been part of a unified Vietnamese nation, and therefore could not examine the real complexity of the past.
The past, however, was complex. The case of Xa Khả Tham makes this evident. For if indeed Xa Khả Tham was referred to as the Black-Robed Emperor, even if it was only the people in his mường who did so, then that completely changes our understanding of “Vietnamese” history, and adds a great deal more complexity.