Someone had a question about an earlier post on the Bình Ngô đại cáo. Rather than respond to it there, I thought I’d just note some points about that document here.

1. The Document as a Whole

When people talk about the meaning of this text, they focus mainly on the opening lines. It’s important to look at the entire document. After the famous introductory comments, the Bình Ngô đại cáo talks about how the Hồ overthrew the Trần, and that the Ming then took advantage of this dispute to take control of the area. It then mentions the suffering that the Ming presence caused.

The text then turns to talk about the beginning of Lê Lợi’s efforts to fight against the Ming. It stresses the difficulty that he had at first in gaining supporters, and then it goes on to detail the battles that he fought.

So the first thing to note is that this document is not about “Vietnam” and “China.” It is about Lê Lợi and the difficult struggle which he engaged in.

2. Đại Cáo

When Vietnamese wrote in the past, they did not just make things up. Instead, they wrote according to certain genres. A đại cáo was a very specific type of document. It was for domestic use. I know of no case in which a đại cáo was issued by one kingdom in reference to another. The closest example of a đại cáo that I know of before the Bình Ngô đại cáo were đại cáo which were issued by the first Ming emperor in the second half of the fourteenth century. These documents were basically announcements toward powerful princes and officials to make clear to these people the limits of their power. The first Ming emperor feared challenges to his position, and the đại cáo were an attempt to prevent any such challenges from arising.

Today the đại cáo is to often referred in Vietnam as a “declaration of independence” (tuyên ngôn độc lập). First of all, the term “independence” (độc lập) didn’t exist at that time (it only entered the language in the early twentieth century), and while “declaration” (tuyên ngôn) can be found in ancient texts, it was used to mean something more along the lines of “to express a point,” and did not refer to a specific type of government document like đại cáo did.

3. The Ngô

Vietnamese today will say that the term “Ngô” is a derogatory reference to the Chinese. Other than its appearned in the line which proceeds this document, I have not found Ngô in any other premodern Vietnamese text as a term which refers to the Chinese. It is only in the early twentieth century, in works like Phan Bội Châu’s fictional account of this period that I have found it used (Hậu Trần dật sử).

So who were the Ngô? Were they the Chinese, or the Vietnamese who had collaborated with the Chinese, and who were part of the domestic audience for the đại cáo?

I understand the main audience for the Bình Ngô đại cáo to be this latter group. Just as the first Ming emperor’s đại cáo were directed at potential domestic contenders for power, the Bình Ngô đại cáo had the same purpose. It did this by reminding Hà Nội scholar-officials who had sided with the Ming that they had not supported the person who was now in power, Lê Lợi, and that usurping power like the Hồ did served no purpose but to cause suffering for the people.

It is in this larger context that the opening lines of the text then need to be read.

A. Grammar

As I stated in the earlier post, in classical Chinese grammar, the subject is assumed to remain the same until a new subject is introduced. For the first two lines below, “Our kingdom of Đại Việt” is the unquestioned subject of the first two lines. Grammatically, “north” here cannot be referring to “China.”

Our kingdom of Đại Việt is truly a domain of civility.

Just as the areas of its territory are distinct, so are the customs in the north and south also different.

With the establishment of our kingdom by the Triệu, Đinh, Lý and Trần, together with the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan [we] have each empired over a region.”

B. Văn Hiến and Phong Tục

What I’ve translated here as “civility” (văn hiến) and “customs” (phong tục) are two terms which have distinct, and even opposing, meanings. Civility was a universal quality which (Confucian) scholars aspired to obtain by following the teachings in the classics, performing the proper rituals, wearing the proper caps and robes, etc. Customs, on the other hand, were what prevailed in local areas which had yet to be fully transformed by civility.

Kingdoms did not have customs. Local areas did. So if Đại Việt was a domain of civility, it did not have its own customs. Local areas within that domain might, but not the kingdom as a whole.

On the other hand, the Chinese court might refer to the customs of “Annan/An Nam,” because the degree of civility in vassal kingdoms was not deemed to be on par with that in the Central Kingdom (i.e., “China”). As such, vassal kingdoms were like local regions in the Chinese empire, which also possessed customs.

Conclusion

These are issues which must be considered when reading the Bình Ngô đại cáo. When they are taken together, I think it becomes very difficult to read this text as a “declaration of independence.” The intended audience was not “China.” It was intended for a domestic audience. The text is saying that Đại Việt is an important kingdom and it was almost lost because of the actions of certain local people. Those local people will not play a role in the kingdom’s life anymore. They will follow the orders of those who fought their way to power. This is what đại cáo were all about.

Interestingly, although this text is now referred to as a “declaration of independence,” one could easily argue that it is being used in contemporary Vietnam the same way as the original đại cáo was in the early Lê period. I guess history does repeat itself.