In an article from 1968 entitled “The problem of the Hùng kings and archaeology,” Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng examined information from historical texts and archaeological artifacts in an effort to determine the following two issues:
1. The territorial extent of the kingdom of Văn Lang.
2. The correspondence between historical and archaeological sources with regards to the history of Văn Lang.
To determine the territorial extent of the kingdom of Văn Lang, the authors turn first to an historical text which were compiled at least 1,500 years after this kingdom had supposedly existed, Ngô Sĩ Liên’s fifteenth-century Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư.
Ngô Sĩ Liên recorded that the capital of Văn Lang was at Phong Châu. Nguyễn Trãi said in the fifteenth century that this was Bạch Hạc, while Phan Huy Chú, writing in the early nineteenth century, had it covering a larger region around the three provinces of Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây.
Ngô Sĩ Liên also recorded that the Hùng kings ruled over Văn Lang from what in the Western calendar would be 2879 – 258 B.C.E. This is a period which the authors of this article state corresponds with the latter part of the Neolithic and the Bronze Age.
What they essentially do then is to argue that any objects unearthed in Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây which date from the Neothlitic and the Bronze Age (actually they use “Brass Age”), are artifacts from Văn Lang. After that, they say that the extent of the kingdom can be determined by comparing the artifacts from the capital area with other regions. If artifacts from other regions look similar, then that region was part of the kingdom of Văn Lang.
The authors then note that artifacts which date from the Neothlitic and the Bronze Age have been unearthed in Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây. However, they do not describe these artifacts or attempt to categorize them in any way.
They then look at other places and note that in many of them, such as Yên Bài, Tuyên Quang, and Thái Nguyên no late Neolithic or Bronze Age sites have been found, but scattered (lẻ tẻ) objects have been collected. The implication is that these objects are the same as those from Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây, however the authors never indicate what is similar about any of the objects that have been found.
Nonetheless, they conclude that all of these archaeological findings fall within the bounds of the kingdom of Văn Lang. At present, they state that the territorial extent of Văn Lang covered a good part of the northern region of Vietnam, but they suggest that further research should be conducted in other areas, including Yunnan, to see if the bounds of the kingdom extended further than they had discovered.
From today’s perspective, the methodology of Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng is horribly flawed. Archaeologists should never use historical texts which were written centuries after the time they are examining to explain what they find. Instead, they should simply examine the objects they unearth and explain what they find.
What Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng did here was to say that an historical text which was written in the fifteenth century indicates that the kingdom of Văn Lang existed from 2879 – 258 B.C.E. in the area of Vĩnh Phúc, Phú Thọ and Sơn Tây. Therefore, any object found in that region which dates from that period must be from Văn Lang.
How do they know that a text which was written at least 1,500 years later is correct? They don’t know, and this is why archaeologists are never supposed to do what these two scholars did.
Something else which archaeologists are not supposed to do is to equate artifacts with ethnic groups or polities. An easy way to understand this is to imagine that everyone on earth suddenly died, and then thousands of years from now some alien archaeologists came and examined the earth. They would find automobiles all over the planet. From that they could conclude that planet earth was inhabited by a single ethnic group who lived in a single country since everyone all over the world had this same object, the automobile. However, if they did this they would be wrong, because material objects are not limited to single countries or ethnic groups.
Hence, the attempt by Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng to determine the territorial extent of the kingdom of Văn Lang by trying to see where similar archaeological artifacts can be found is based on a flawed methodology.
To be fair, while archaeologists today know that one should not project historical texts onto the distant past, and one should not equate artifacts with polities or ethnic groups, this was not generally known in the 1960s. That said, Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng still do not come close to supporting their claims. All they say is that artifacts had been found in various places. They don’t clearly categorize these objects or demonstrate in what exact way they are similar. Nonetheless, they conclude from their study that the kingdom of Văn Lang had truly existed and that this was supported by archaeological evidence. However, nothing they say here actually demonstrates that point.
Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng then turn to their second point, which is to examine the correspondence between historical and archaeological sources with regards to the history of Văn Lang. The text they use is the Đại Việt sử lược, which they date to 1377. There are a couple of passages in this text which mention Văn Lang, one of which says that Gou Jian, the ruler of the ancient kingdom of Yue, sent an envoy to issue a decree, but the Hùng king resisted this.
Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng cannot find any archaeological evidence to indicate that such an event ever occurred, nonetheless they say that what is important is that the Hùng king resisted!!!
From such a statement, the true intent of this “scholarship” becomes apparent, and it gets even clearer in the final paragraphs when Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng state the following:
“The problem of the Hùng kings is not simply an academic (khoa học) problem, but is also a political problem and an emotional one. It is not a coincidence that while we (chúng ta) in the North are going to great pains to research the period of the Hùng kings, and are seeing the degree to which our ancestors struggled against hardships 3-4000 years ago to establish and protect the country, in the South there are those (kẻ) who feel that the Hùng kings were just figures who were borrowed in the past from [the history of] the kingdom of Chu.”
“In positively resolving the question of the Hùng kings, not only will well resolve an academic problem which is very important for the history of Vietnam but from that we can also elevate our patriotic ardor. A nationality which 3-4,000 years ago established the society of Văn Lang with its unique Bronze Age culture, that nationality was clearly a nationality which had a exceptional vitality. That exceptional vitality enabled our nationality to exist and develop right up to the present. Today it is also precisely that exceptional vitality which enables our nationality to dare to take on the biggest and most powerful empire in the world, the American empire, and to currently defeat the American empire in this first round of a local war.”
In the late 1960s, scholars in the DRV made an intense effort to “resolve the question of the Hùng kings.” What is clear from this article is that they did not seek to “resolve” this question in an academic manner, for their “evidence” does not support an academic argument. This was a political problem to these scholars and they brought this issue to a political conclusion. Scholars in the DRV sought to demonstrate they were the ones who truly understood and protected Vietnamese history, while “those people” (kẻ) in the South were illegitimate scholars. In the process, scholars such as Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng produced hopelessly flawed scholarship. While one can understand why they did what they did at that time, unfortunately their general “findings” still influence the field of history in Vietnam today.
Nguyễn Linh and Hoàng Hưng, “Vấn đề Hùng vương và khảo cổ học” [The problem of the Hùng kings and archaeology], Nghiên cứu lịch sử 103 (1968): 18-23.