The Hán-Vietnamese?? (More Evils of Quốc Ngữ)

A few years ago the EFEO published the late-nineteenth century geography, the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí. They published two massive tomes which included the original classical Chinese text, as well as Vietnamese and (I think) English and French translations, as well as a third volume which contained the maps from the original text. I believe that they also produced a CD ROM as well. It is a wonderful resource. Unfortunately, the biases of contemporary Vietnamese have left their mark on this magnificent work.

I was reading the section on Hưng Hóa. This more or less corresponds to the area which is now referred to as the Northwest (Tây Bắc). In the nineteenth century, Hưng Hóa was home to people of many different ethnicities, such as Tai, Chinese and Vietnamese.

In referring to non-Vietnamese peoples, the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí is a bit vague in that it tends to refer to many such peoples as “thổ” (“locals”), whereas today we would probably be more specific and designate these peoples by such terms as Tày, Thái or Mường.

In a footnote in the Vietnamese translation to this text, the Vietnamese contributors to this project stated that “Formerly, the field of ethnography had yet to develop. The practice of recording the names of minorities just followed custom, such as [using terms like] Mán and Lạo, etc. It was also common to call people Thổ.”

They then go on to note that when the original text uses the term “thổ,” they will place in parentheses the name of the specific ethnic group which they think was likely living in the area which the text was discussing, such as “Thổ (Tày)” or “Thổ (Mường).”

As for the Chinese, in the Vietnamese translation of this text, they are referred to as “người Thanh,” which corresponds with how they were referred to in the classical Chinese version of the text, 清人, a term which refers to the fact that these people came from the area under the control of the Qing (i.e., Thanh) Dynasty.

The Vietnamese translation of this text then refers to the “Vietnamese” who lived in Hưng Hóa in the nineteenth century as “Kinh.” I found this strange as, having read many premodern Vietnamese texts, I do not recall ever having come across this term. As far as I know, this term has only been in popular use for the past 20-30 years or so. Therefore, I decided to take a look to see what term was used in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí. And when I saw what it was, I lost all respect for the Vietnamese who worked on this wonderful project of reproducing the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí.

The way in which “Vietnamese” were referred to in the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí was as “Hán” (i.e., the same “Han” that we find in “Han Chinese”). For a scholar to render this term in a modern Vietnamese translation as “Kinh” is disgraceful. By doing so the views of the people who compiled the Đồng Khánh địa dư chí are completely erased. Obviously it must be embarrassing to a Vietnamese today, having been mentally enslaved by nationalism, to find that some of his predecessors referred to “Vietnamese” as “Hán,” but this is an historical fact. Attempting to erase this fact proves nothing other than that contemporary scholars in Vietnam are unwilling to engage in scholarship which is “khoa học,” and that quốc ngữ translations destroy the past.

26 thoughts on “The Hán-Vietnamese?? (More Evils of Quốc Ngữ)

  1. I get a feeling that these translators should know Hán, Thanh, Thổ… were the original words. They should have some reasons why they changed to such things in Vietnamese translations. (but I don’t know the reasons.)

    That said, it is really BAD that there was not any notes to explain why “Han” could be translated into “Kinh.”

  2. Wong Tze Ken cited Đại Nam Thực Lục Tân Biên in this paper ( and wrote that “The Chams were also ordered to change their costumes to those of the Han tradition, which meant the costumes of the Vietnamese” and that “All disputes among Han people (Vietnamese) or between Vietnamese and a resident of Thuan Thanh shall be judged by the Phien Vuong”. (As I can’t read our own history books in their original script – tragic, huh?) Would you please check for me if the Vietnamese rulers actually refer themselves as “Han” in the 17th century?

    By the way, thank you for these fascinating posts. I’m still going thru them one by one. Can’t recall when was the last time I stay thru the night just to read something…

    • It is clear that in the 19th century the term “Han” was used at times to refer to the people we would today call the “Vietnamese.” I know that we can find this usage in texts like the Gia Dinh thanh thong chi and the Dong Khanh dia du chi. As for this citation about the 17th century, someone is borrowing my copy of that text at the moment so I can’t check, but even if it does have “Han,” it’s not the best source to use because that text was compiled in the 19th century. Yes, it contains information about earlier times, but I really get the feeling that that the style of that text is particular to the 19th century. The Dai Nam thuc luc is very difficult to read as it is filled with arcane expressions and terms. It really feels to me like some extremely educated scholars in the nineteenth century took historical documents and then “rewrote” history in their own style. While the a factual information in it can be usable, it’s dangerous to see its style as representiave of the entire period it covers. So if it uses the term Han for Vietnamese in the 17th century, I don’t think we can be sure from that text if it was really used then, or if that just reflects 19th century usage and was included at that time when the Dai Nam thuc luc was compiled and written. So was the term used in the 19th century? Yes. Was it used in the 17th century? Maybe, but we can’t use the Dai Nam thuc luc to prove that. We would need to find some other text which we can be more sure relfects the usage of that period.

  3. Thank you for your insightful response to the issue. I was at first astonished to learn from that paper that the Vietnamese elites, at late as 17th century, were still referring themselves as “Han”. But since, until I read this post, it was the only instance I had ever come across such a reference, I elected to ignore it (talking about enslaved by nationalism, huh!:).

    There are a lots to say about this “Han” thing 🙂

  4. Thank you for lots of insights here!
    I would not be surprised to learn that some of Nguyen’s Court elite called themselves Han, instead of Viet.
    The influence of Chinese (Minh Huong) in Nguyen’s court was overwhelmed by Trinh Hoai Duc, Le Quang Dinh and Ngo Nhan Tinh, the so-called Gia Dinh Tam Hùng, and their students. These are students of Vo Truong Toản, also a Minh Huong, who joined Nguyen Anh in the very early years of his movement.
    When Nguyen Anh established his court in 1802, these 3 men controlled 4 ministries out of 6. Trinh hoai Duc was also appointed a chief historian (Tổng Tài Sử Quán). He was the author of Gia dịnh Thông Chí.
    Up to now the Minh Huong still called themselves “nguoi Tau” and they are a very close-knitted community in Vietnam. So in the 18th century the Minh Huong would feel more Han than Vietnamese.
    I think that the first wave of Minh Huong like Duong Ngan Dich, Mac Cuu and Tran Thuong xuyen attempted to turned Chua Nguyen’s new territory into a Han’s nation. They tried to be assimilated into Vietnamese in order to make a reserve assimilation to achieve this purpose. However, this plot failed because of the collapse of chua Nguyen’s court and the rise of Tay Son. this is the reason the Minh huong rallied behind Nguyen Anh to restore their ambition. (my 2 cents). I believe that their secret society (Thien Dia Hoi) remains active until today.

    Keep up with good thoughts, blogger!


    • Yes, this can explain Trinh Hoai Duc’s perception, but I don’t know that it explains why you find the same usage at the end of the 19th century in the Dong Khanh Dia du chi. Was Trinh Hoai Duc so influential that he could change the way that educated Vietnamese viewed the world for decades to come? I doubt it. I just think that at that time they did not have the strict categories for dividing people like we have today – Vietnamese, Chinese, Cham, Khmer. Their terms were a lot more vague and fluid – Nam nhan, Bac nhan, tho nhan, man, etc. (to use the terms you find in Han texts). Prior to the 20th century, in both Vietnam and China, “Han” was more of a cultural distinction than an ethnic one. Although in actuality the division might have occurred along ethnic lines, that isn’t what people were referring to when they used the term “Han.” If I remember correctly, I think it is in the Dong Khanh dia du chi that in the passages about the northwest it mentions varying degrees of “Han-ness.” Some of the “tho nhan” are described as following more Han customs than others.

  5. One thing has to be noted that in the old days, the history written by “Quoc Su Quan” could not be read by many. They might publish a few copies to be circulated among the elite in the Court. The “Han thing” caught by you might be overlooked by the contemporary scholars.

    TRinh HOai Duc was was appointed chief historian of The Gia Long Court and set forth the direction for the succeeding historians. In order to unearth this mystery, we have to find out whether the Nguyen’s HIstorical Archive (Quoc Su Quan) had been run by the Minh Huong. If there were incidents that Quoc Su Quan had been recurrently run by Minh Huong then, we may concluded that Trinh Hoai Duc and his lieutenants – Le Quang Dinh and Ngo Nhan Tinh (purportedly members of Thien Dia Hoi) had penetrated into Vietnamese Court and to Quoc Su Quan to change the very substance of Vietnamese history.

    Ahh … I just have some fun to imagine of a new conspiracy theory


    • Yea, texts like the Dai Nam thuc luc are written in a very distinct style. I have shown texts like that to Chinese scholars and they have always remarked about how “archaic” it is. Whoever wrote the DNtl tried very hard to sound very educated. So withough going too far with the conspiracy theory, it might be the case that the use of Han in the limited number of text we are aware of reflects the ideas/usage of a very limited number of people. Interesting. Thanks for the input.

  6. The comment by ngancanhac is very thoughtful. No wonder the Gia Long Code was virtually a duplication of the Thanh law. It is less Vietnamese, much less, than the Hồng Đức code by Lê Dynasty. All common names are to become chinese, Chino Vietnamese rather. Bến Tre / Trúc Giang; sông Hương / Hương Giang…..
    Other point. As recently as two years ago, China (PRC) published the photos of all ethnicities. The “Chinh”, actually, are Vietnamese immigrants who settle down somewhere of the Main Land China, north of Monkay. All in the picture, except one or two, were donning – noticibly – Vietnamese garments. A friend of mine told me that he was on the spot to know that they thrived and mostly they came from Vietnamese frontline provinces. They identified themselves as người kinh versus người thượng, the mountaineers. I do believe that Chinese officials are intelligent enough to know who these dwellers are. But it is in their discretionary power to call them by the name of Chinh.
    A couple of months ago, the Chinh minority took part in a nationale sport competition.

    • Hmmmm, this is interesting. I’ve long wondered where “Kinh” came from. I don’t see it in Han sources. There the term most often used is “Nam nhan” or something like that. I also don’t see Kinh used in quoc ngu sources throughout much of the twentieth century. It is, however, commonly used now.

      I just did a search on the Internet and found one reference which says that the Chinese designated the Vietnamese in China as the “Jing/Kinh” in 1958. I don’t think this term was in common usage in Vietnam at that time. If it was, I would like to see evidence of that, as the materials I have read use terms like “nguoi Viet.”

      So when and why did Kinh strart to be commonly used? And if I’m right that Kinh was not a common term in 1958, why did the Chinese use this term?

      The ethnic policies of the Chinese and Vietnamese governments are historically very similar. Further, the Chinese created their ethnic policy first. It was much later that the Vietnamese came up with an official categorization and official names for the minorities.

      • I don’t read Chinese so I got to count on my other friend for this piece of information:) “Jing/Kinh” was first used by the Chinese after the Constans 1887 (to redraw the China-Vietnam border).

        A historian in VN told me that Lê Quý Đôn also used “Kinh” (Kinh nhân) in his writing. But I think that “Kinh nhân” is to refer to people who lived in “kinh thành” (city) at the time rather than “người Kinh” as an ethnicity.

        In any event, the usage of “Kinh” to designate an ethnicity (dân tộc Kinh), along side with Cham, Ede, Bana, Muong, Nung, etc…, is mistaken, if not fraudulent.

      • I really doubt that Kinh was used in 1887, but if someone can show me evidence of that, I’m willing to be convinced that I’m wrong.

        As for Le Quy Don, again, I would like to see where he used that term, but my guess would be that what you say here is exactly right. It would be referring to the people in the capital.

      • I have no evidence if the term ‘Kinh’ was commonly used in 1958, but as far as I remember that under Ngo Dinh Diem’s government there was a slogan which says “KInh Thương chung một gốc” (maybe to cope with the BAJARAKA movement – precursor of FULRO, established on 1/5/1958), That means that the term ‘Kinh’ had to be commonly used some time before that.

      • Thanks for this. Yea, I could see how it could make sense to use the term like this in opposition to “Thuong.”

        As for it being commonly used before that time, I have yet to find evidence of that, but I’ll keep looking. . .

    • Yes, I found the comment by ngancanhac to be very helpful. It could be that the use of “Han” to refer to “nguoi Viet” in a Nguyen Dynasty text like the Dong Khanh dia du chi represents a Minh Huong usage. However, the publication of a work like that likely required the approval of more people than the Minh Huong who worked for the Nguyen. So while it might reflect Minh Huong usage, it doesn’t appear to have offended the perceptions of Nguyen Dynasty officials at the time.

      Ultimately, “Han” in such a context did not indicate “ethnicity.” It was a reference to culture. If you read and wrote chu Han and followed the rituals and beliefs of such people then you were “Han.” What is more, there were gradations of being Han. In the Dong Khanh dia du chi, when it talks about the northwest, it mentions places where the leaders were Han but the people were Man. In other cases it talks about people who are alot like Han but not completely. In other words, people who were similar to Nguyen Dynasty officials or the villagers from those officials’ home villages were “Han.” Those who differed were Man. Things like blood and language were not as important as cultural distinctions.

      • Yu Insun of the Sookmyung Women’s University wrote in his “Vietnam-China relation in the 19th century” that the Nguyen Kings considered Vietnam is the rightful heir to the Han culture. Gia Long once called Vietnam “Middle Kingdom”. While they did their best to emulate the Chinese but they did not respect the Qing, which to them was found by an alien nation.

        The word “Hán” in the Nguyen’s mind, whatever it means, is not as important as the “Kinh” in our historical/political/cultural perception. The transition from “Hán” to “Kinh” is critical. It tells a lot about the contemporary Vietnamese. If I have to make a guess, this timing coincides with the rise of the Vietnamese nationalism in the first half of the 20th century.

        The adoption of the concept “54 dân tộc anh em”, also from China, in the modern Vietnamese political narrative makes “Kinh” indispensable. And everyone seems to believe that there is such a thing as “dân tộc Kinh”.

      • I agree with what you say here. However, I’m trying to recall where I have seen the term Kinh used, and come to think of it, I think it’s only in the past 30 years that it has been used. I don’t recall having seen it used in materials like Nam Phong or Phu Nu Tan Van in the 1920s-1930s or Nghien Cuu Lich Su in the 1950s-1960s.

        I’m starting to wonder if it only started to be used once the government officially established the 54 ethnic groups. Wasn’t that in the late 1970s?

  7. Interesting post! I agree with your finding of the term “Han” in the so-called original text of Đồng Khánh địa dư, particularly, your explaination about problems in the current translation of the term.
    I have curiosity about one more term in the second paragraph of your post: How did authors of Đồng Khánh địa dư identify Han/Kinh and Chinese? Also, which Chinese did the book mentioned (Minh or Manchu or whatever?)

  8. What do you make of these references with the term ‘Kinh’ in the Dai Viet su ky toan thu?

    Year 1401:
    “Mùa hạ, tháng 4, Hán Thương sai làm sổ hộ tịch trong cả nước, cho ghi họ Hồ có hai phái ở Diễn
    Châu và Thanh Hóa. Biên hết vào sổ những nhân khẩu từ 2 tuổi trở lên và lấy số hiện tại làm thực số,
    không cho phép người lưu vong mà vẫn biên tên trong sổ. Yết thị cho các phiên trấn hễ có người Kinh
    nào trú ngụ thì đuổi về nguyên quán. Trước đây Quý Ly có lần nói với các quan: “Làm thế nào có được
    100 vạn quân để chống giặc Bắc?”. Đồng tri khu mật sứ Hoàng Hối Khanh dâng kế sách này.”

    Year 1434
    “Trước kia, Thái Tổ khi về già có nhiều bệnh, lại thêm Quân Vương [Tư Tề] ngông cuồnng, bậy
    bạ, vua thì còn trẻ thơ, mà Trần Nguyên Hãn, Phạm Văn Xảo đều có công lao giúp nước, rất được người
    đương thời trọng vọng. Nguyên Hãn lại là con cháu nhà Trần và Văn Xảo cũng là người kinh lộ, lo rằng
    sau này họ có chí khác, nên bên ngoài thì đối xử theo lễ tiết hậu, nhưng trong lòng lại rất ngờ vực hai

    Year 1437
    “Ra lệnh cho người Minh phải mặc quần áo người Kinh và cắt tóc ngắn.”

    Year 1497
    “Ngày 16, xuống chiếu rằng: Từ nay, quan tuần ty ở dọc biên giới, nếu có khuyết viên nào, thì Lại
    bộ chọn lấy người Kinh nào ở địa phương gần đây có chiến công đánh giết được giặc, đáng được
    bổ dụng và quen thủy thổ để thuyên bổ.”

    Year 1501
    “Năm ấy, phủ Phụng Thiên bị cháy.
    Ra lệnh cho người Kinh trốn tránh xiêu giạt ra đầu thú thì đưa về làm lao dịch ở các phiên trấn.”

  9. Thanks for doing this!! What is interesting here is that most of these examples are in some kind of border context (phiên trấn). That would make sense. This is also how the term Han nhan was used in the 19th century text. Since writing this post, I came across a late-nineteenth account from a French author about an area in the northwest in which he referred to Kinh.

    So it is clear that the term existed prior to the nineteenth century, but I still can’t see that it was widely used.

    There is a big book on the conflict between the Viet and the Cham during the Ming Mang period. I haven’t looked at that work yet, but it would be interesting to see how Viet are referred to in that work.

    Finally, one of the references was to Kinh Lo nhan 京路人. What is that?

  10. In light of what has been said in this post about the word ‘Kinh’, I find the following passage in Charles Keith’s “Catholicisme, bouddhisme et lois laïques au Tonkin (1899-1914)” particularly fascinating:

    “Aussi les administrateurs français faisaient peu de distinctions à l’intérieur d’un ensemble de pratiques religieuses auxquelles ils ne connaissaient pas grand-chose. Ils voyaient dans les cultes taoïste et confucéen de l’esprit et des ancêtres des variantes d’un arrière-plan religieux essentiellement bouddhiste. Les rares distinctions établies par les Français reposaient sur des catégories raciales : les fonctionnaires définissaient les Vietnamiens des plaines (Kinh) comme bouddhistes, et pour eux toute variation dans les pratiques religieuses était un signe d’appartenance ethnique autre que Kinh. Le mot « bouddhisme » devint un vocable commode pour désigner la religion de la race annamite, une catégorie propice au classement de la déconcertante et potentiellement menaçante diversité religieuse du Tonkin.”

    Keith adds in a footnote at the end of this passage:

    “Cela donnait souvent lieu à des conclusions discutables. D’après une enquête sur les pratiques religieuses dans la province de Ha Dong en 1906, sur 604 000 habitants, on dénombrait trente mille catholiques, quatre protestants, un musulman et aucun « fétichiste » ou « païen ». Tous les autres (573 995) étaient « bouddhistes ». TTLT, résident supérieur (RS) de Ha Dong, 2795, cultes : généralités ; demande de renseignements sur la répartition des indigènes au point de vue des différentes religions, 1906.”

    If the word ‘Kinh’ had actually been used by French officials in the cited 1906 report, is it then warranted to assume that its use was quite common even at the beginning of the 20th century, despite the absence of its traces in the popular press?

    The complete article can be read here:

    • I was not sure either. Hence my conditional sentence… But given your reference, we should not be surprised if it turns out that the term had actually appeared in Keith’s source.

  11. It might have been a term kind of like Siam. That was a term that foreigners used, and that “Siamese” used in interacting with foreigners, but they didn’t use among themselves. So the term “existed,” but it wasn’t used in a way like we use terms “Thai” and “Thailand” today.

    Kinh could have had some similar kind of restrictive usage. In areas where there was a mixed population, there was a need sometimes to make a differentiation and in such cases people might use the term “Kinh,” but people didn’t go around saying “We are the Kinh,” like it is used today.

  12. Mời đây Trần Trọng Dương có viết một loạt bài ba kỳ về nguồn gốc và các cách diễn giải khác nhau về khái niệm “người Việt” đăng trên tạp chí Tia Sáng. Cho dù có đồng ý với nhận định của Trần Trọng Dương hay không thì theo tôi những người quan tâm tới vấn đề “người Việt” là gì cũng đều nên đọc loạt bài này của Trần Trọng Dương.

    Kỳ đầu: “Nguồn gốc người Việt: Một lược sử tư tưởng” ( )

    Kỳ hai: “Giống nòi hỗn huyết và sự dung hội Đông-Tây” ( )

    Kỳ cuối: “Khái niệm người Việt dưới những biến động lịch sử” ( )

    Ở cuối bài kỳ hai, tên của bài kỳ ba được ghi là “Dân tộc và dân tộc Việt Nam: từ Stalin đến Đào Duy Anh” nhưng khi bài kỳ ba được đăng thì tên của nó lại là “Khái niệm người Việt dưới những biến động lịch sử”.

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