The Problems with the Bình Ngô đại cáo as a Declaration of Independence

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.


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.

27 thoughts on “The Problems with the Bình Ngô đại cáo as a Declaration of Independence

  1. It’s very interesting to compare between the two stuffs. Never aware about this before. But after read your post, I totally agree that we could not take the Binh Ngo dai cao and Tuyen ngon Doc lap together.

  2. 平吳大誥
    平 = bình, bình định – to quell , to pacify .
    吳 = Ngô – Wu , one of state of the Three Kingdoms period . The way Vietnamese called China in the past .
    大誥 = A great proclaimation , an very important annoucement .
    平吳大誥 = Bình Ngô Đại cáo – A Great Proclamation upon the Pacification of the Wu .

    Actually Mr. Nguyễn Trãi wrote this in a literary form . The Vietnamese is calling it “Thiên cổ hùng văn” 千古雄文 – “The Eternal Epic” , in the old literature of Vietnam .
    The proclamation is highly appreciated not only for its value of history but also for its fine literary quality .

    If they call ( do they still ?) Bình Ngô Đại Cáo as a Declaration Of Independend , I thinhk it doesn’t mean wrong at all . Even though the Epic mainly aims to their Vietnamese people .You may also give BNĐC a name by yourself , can’ t you ? Kidding .

  3. First of all, I’ve never found evidence of the Chinese referred to as “Ngo” in any other text until the early 20th century. So we can’t say for sure that it referred to “the Chinese.” It could just as easily have been meant to signify the people who collaborated with the Chinese, or those people along with the Chinese. I recall reading a line in a manuscript version of the Lich trieu hien chuong loai chi which said that after the Ngo had been put down, the court established relations with the Ming, which indicates that the Ngo and the Ming were somehow different. However, the Lich trieu hien chuong loai chi is also very chaotic as all that exist are manuscript versions and they differ a lot. Nonetheless, the only other place I’ve seen this term used is in a work by Phan Boi Chau after he had gone to Japan, but there was a very strong anti-Chinese sentiment in Japan at that time, so we still can’t say if that was an old Vietnamese way of speaking and viewing their northern neighbor or something new which Phan Boi Chau created or re-interpreted.

    Second, scholars in the past didn’t just make up writings. They wrote in genres. A “dai cao” was a particuarly type of document which had a particular purpose. There is a dai cao/dagao in the Book of History (Shangshu), and the first Ming emperor issued three dai cao (this could not have been unknown to Nguyen Trai). All of these documents were directed at a specific domestic audience, namely those people who served the court, and their purpose was to say “I am in charge now, so you must obey me.”

    The Binh ngo dai cao emphasizes the fact that during the Ming occuption, many people didn’t fight. It says that it was just Le Loi who at first fought, and it took him a long time to get supporters. Such ideas highlight disunity, and point to the fact that there were likely many people who did not like Le Loi, such as those members of the elite in Ha Noi who had supported the Ming, and could potentially attempt to challenge him for control.

    So yes, now that the Ming are gone, you could say that it mean’s “we are on the right side of history,” but I would argue that the “we” here is the newly established and unstable Le Dynasty. And this text is an order to government officials and educated people that they will obey and follow this new dynasty because it’s leader is the person who did what was right to protect the kingdom. In making this point, Nguyen Trai emphasized that the kingdom has long stood alongside various Chinese kingdoms, and should continue to do the same.

    So if we are going to see it as a “declaration of independence” then realistically it should be seen as a “declaration of independence of a premodern absolute monarchy.”

    In doing so, then it becomes as filled with contradictions as a document like the American Declaration of Independence, where you have people who own African slaves writing that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    1. Just FYI:
      “Bình Ngô đại cáo literally means Great Proclamation upon the Pacification of the Wu in which Wu (吳, Ngô) was the ancestors’s land (now Fengyang County, Anhui) of Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang himself took the title Duke of Wu (吳國公) and later King of Wu (吳王, in Vietnamese: Ngô Vương). Therefore one could reason that Nguyễn Trãi named his work Pacification of the Wu instead of Pacification of the Ming in order to subtly emphasize the victory of Đại Việt and the failure of the Ming Dynasty which was called by its origin’s name Wu in the proclamation.”
      It might be unusual to strangers but it’s the way we address (actually ‘chửi’) those whom we don’t like. (not themselves but their ancestors).

      1. Thanks for the comment.

        Yes, Wikipedia presents that as “fact” but we have no evidence (or at least I have not seen any) that demonstrates that this is what this term means. People have debated what it means. This explanation is one theory (and it was developed in the 2nd half of the 20th century). Another is that it somehow relates to Ho Quy Ly, the person who was responsible for the downfall of the Tran Dynasty, the event which brought about all of the troubles – something which is clearly indicated in the BNDC. His ancestors were from the area of what is today Zhejiang, and during the 3 Kingdoms period, that area was part of the Kingdom of Wu/Ngo (This theory was also developed in the 2nd half of the 20th century).

        For either of these theories to be believable, I think it would be important to see some evidence from that time period. If there is no evidence about this particular term, it would be good to at least see evidence from that period that this was (as you indicate) “the way we address (actually ‘chửi’) those whom we don’t like.” Are there examples of that from this period that we can identify? I’m not sure, but evidence like that could help make an argument more believable.

      2. ‘it would be good to at least see evidence from that period that this was (as you indicate) “the way we address (actually ‘chửi’) those whom we don’t like.”’
        I think this kind of evidence can be found in many ancient books but I cannot give you the exact names at the moment.
        I can now give you two examples that are surely true but might not be 100% accurate in details.
        As far as I remember that in Tam Quốc Chí [diễn nghĩa) (三国志[演义]) there are many cases in which rival generals fight each other by mouth for hours/ days before fighting by arms. And in this vocal fight, they usually call the rival’s parents, grand parents,…, ancestors. Some classic Chinese/Vietnamese opera (hát tuồng/bội) plays reenact extremely well these scenes (hát tuồng was imported from China around the 13th century).
        Another example is the name of the founder of the Ming Dynasty, His original name is Zhū Guó Ruì (朱国瑞) was changed to Zhu Yuanzhang(朱元璋) when he joined the Hóng jīn jūn (Red Scarf Army). Zhu has an homonym 诛 (uproot), Yuan can be known as Yuan dynasty, and Zhang (璋) has a radical 玉 (precious stone [used in ancestors worship), so the whole name could be understood as ‘eradicate the Yuan ancestors’. (cannot remember where i read this)

      3. Let me say first that I have no idea what “Ngo” means in that title.

        I know what you are talking about, and although I think this text was written much later, the Hoang Viet xuan thu has a lot of stuff like that in it. So yes, I agree that this was part of the culture, but it seems to have been expressed in “popular” culture, not in official government documents like a “dai cao.”

        I was just looking at a dissertation that someone wrote in the 1990s called “Zhu Yuanzhang and the ‘Great Warnings.'” This author translated the “dai gao” that Zhu Yuanzhang produced as “great warnings” and sees them as being very “anti-officialdom.” They were documents that were “warning” officials that Zhu Yuanzhang was in charge, and that they should follow his orders, or else. . .

        Zhu Yanzhang and Le Loi were both commoners who became emperors. They had a lot in common, including the need to justify their rule to officials who did not like/support them.

        Also, I was looking at an article by Sun Laichen in a book called “Viet Nam: Borderless Histories.” He says this about the aftermath of the Ming occupation:

        “The large number of Ming people and weapons remaining in Dai Viet after the withdrawal was understandably a major concern of the Ming court, and the court repeatedly requested that Dai Viet return the Ming officials, soldiers, and weapons. Some Chinese sources claim that ‘countless’ Ming subjects still remained in Dai Viet, while a Vietnamese source states that the number was closer to several tens of thousands.”

        He also shows that some of the these Ming subjects were captured, while others “defected” to the Vietnamese side.

        When I read the Hoang Viet xuan thu, one thing I remember being surprised by was the ease with which people changed sides. I think this was common in premodern times. People at that time did not fight for their “nation.” They fought for the person who they felt deserved to rule. And this could lead them to change their minds (and sides) in the middle of a war.

        While I still don’t know what “Ngo” was referring to, the more I learn about the past, the less it makes sense to me to see everything as being between “Vietnam” and “China,” and that makes it harder and harder to see the Binh Ngo dai cao as having that as its main idea.

        Le Loi was a commoner who came to power in a multi-ethnic land and had to justify his right to rule, particularly to the educated elite in Thang Long (some of whom had sided with the Ming) who felt that they had the right to rule. The war was over. The Ming were not coming back. Le Loi’s problem now was the educated elite. They had to be “warned” just as Zhu Yuanzhang had “warned” his officials.

        That’s the historical context that makes sense to me.

  4. There is one story I found in a collection of short tales once. It was about Nguyen Trai, and it said that someone at some point showed the Binh Ngo dai cao to a Chinese official, and when that person saw that Nguyen Trai had referred to the Ming emperor as a “XXXX” (I can’t remember what word he uses, but it is derogatory), he said that would suffer for that. The story then went on to point out that Nguyen Trai indeed died a tragic death. . .

    I have to try to find that story again.

  5. Ref: comment # 3.
    I made a terrible error regarding Bình Ngô Đại Cáo. It was composed at the end of the struggle, Spring 1428. So I am so stupid when saying that Nguyễn Trãi, as a pragmatic strategist, used it as a propaganda tool to motivate people etc….Nguyễn Trãi, in the name of Lê Lợi, addressed to the people to describe the perilous endeavor that ended up with victory.
    I do agree with Leminhkhai the audience is domestic, to ascertain the legitimacy of the new king, and to call for the national union.
    I wish the comment be removed to avoid any eyesore.

    1. You are being too humble here. The point you made was more important than getting the timing of something mixed up.

      You started off that comment by saying something like the Binh Ngo dai cao is and isn’t a declaration of independence, or that it is something between a declaration of independence and not a declaration of independence. The concept of a “declaration of independence” did not exist at that time anywhere in the world. However, that document was used by the Le to say (domestically) that “we are the ones who saved the kingdom and we are the ones who are in charge now.” So yes, I think you are right that it is and isn’t a declaration of independence.

  6. So there is still a question of how to interpret “平吳.” I haven’t had any further explanation. Yet, I would like to note here some points (that might be irrelevant but) that I am not clear about.

    1) it is true that the 大誥 takes aim at not only the Ming but also the “Vietnamese” collaborators. (e.g.: 狂明伺隙, 因以毒我民;惡黨懷奸, 竟以賣我國.) But why did Nguyen Trai mention any case of the collaborators? rather, he listed a series of the Ming generals who “were defeated”?

    2) Nguyen Trai mentioned the Ho clan but had no words of the Tran people. Yes, the reason might be that he was arguing on the mandate that Le Loi took in order to be a new “Vietnamese” emperor. And yes, it doesn’t make sense to think of “declaration of independence” in an era making sense through a tributary system. So I guess the main argument of this 大誥 is to declare that there was a new “emperor” to rule the people in the “Viet” territory. Right?

    Nguyen Trai wouldn’t write this 大誥 in order to bring it to the Ming emperor. But the message in the 大誥 would be similar to what he (and Le Loi) sooner or later had to ask the Ming emperor; that is a confirmation that Le Loi was now a new king of the Viet people. I guess this is what confused many modern readers about “declaration of independence.”

    3) Meanwhile, when there are reasons to believe that the target audience of the 大誥 was domestic, if we are to think of genre as you mentioned, the audience of 大誥 would be “百姓.” What makes 大誥 different from one to another might not be the audience but what the composition would declare. What’s wrong in saying that?

    1. So who were the 百姓? Do you really think that Le Loi sent representatives to all of the villages and had them read this very sophisticated document in classical Chinenese to them. . .

      As I’m sure you know, the literal meaning 百姓 is the “hundred surnames,” and in reality that is probably an accurate way of viewing who this document was intended for. The 百姓 in a context like this were the IMPORTANT 百姓, meaning the educated people, as they were the main threat to Le Loi.

  7. “north” cannot be referring to “China.”, you say?
    The original sentence is:
    山 川 之 封域 既 殊, 南 北 之 風 俗亦 異 。
    Sơn xuyên chi phong vực kí thù, Nam Bắc chi phong tục diệc dị.

    The preceding sentence is:
    惟, 我 大 越 之 國, 實 為文 獻 之 邦 。
    Duy, ngã Đại Việt chi quốc, thật vi văn hiến chi bang.

    The following sentence is:
    自 趙 丁 李 陳 之肇 造 我 國, 與 漢 唐 宋元 而 各 帝 一 方 。
    Tự Triệu Đinh Lý Trần chi triệu tạo ngã quốc, dữ Hán Đường Tống Nguyên nhi các đế nhất phương.

    So no, I would not be so sure. There is little meaning in declaring that mountains and rivers define the boundaries without having the other country, which is China, in mind. That is powerful imagery. It is a kind of sovereignty that is inalienable, just like how the mountains are unmovable and the rivers timeless (though thanks to modern science, we know that to be false). The following sentence is just a dead giveaway, as an unambiguous comparison between the two countries. These lines are all meant to establish Vietnam as an entity that has always existed on an equal footing with China, with its own culture and sovereignty, and China has no business there. That is the dominant theme and something Nguyen Trai tries to assert.
    Besides, at the time of the declaration (1428), “north vietnam” wouldn’t really be a distinct concept. Even if one couldn’t decipher what “north” refers to, the next line provides an unambiguous answer. “一 方”. There you have it. Now you know what the directions were supposed to refer to.

    And the difference between “văn hiến” and “phong tục” means “So if Đại Việt was a domain of civility, it did not have its own customs” ? Eh, I’m astounded by your leap of logic. Superstitious beliefs or backwards customs, better known as “hủ tục”, hopefully will disappear with civilization. But to insist that “phong tục” disappears? Nope. China occupied Vietnam for about a millennium. But their “phong tục” didn’t disappear. I can say with 100% certainty you don’t even understand what the word means (which is surprising).

    >the term “independence” (độc lập) didn’t exist at that time
    Irrelevant. It is simply how we describe the concept today. That people back then didn’t use the same words, doesn’t mean they didn’t understand the concept of an independent country. After all, they died fighting for it.

    >usurping power like the Hồ did served no purpose but to cause suffering for the people.
    The text said The Hồ made the people suffer and resent them. That people shouldn’t mimic them is… something rather self-explanatory. And you suggest that this obvious implication is the main point of the text? Is this like saying guns were created to kill deer? Well, they do kill deer. But as you know, there is more to it than that.

  8. I just want to share with you my thought (2 cents) why Nguyễn Trãi referred to the Minh as Ngô.


    “Ngay ở đề tựa Bình Ngô Sách, ông đã gọi Trung Hoa là giặc Ngô. Đây là cách dùng chữ để nhấn mạnh rằng rằng thái độ ngạo mạn của Trung Hoa gọi nguời Việt là Di, là mọi rợ, (như khi Minh đế phong Chu Năng làm “Chinh Di” Đại Tưóng Quân), là một điều xúc phạm đến truyền thống văn hoá lâu đời của Đại Việt. Ông muốn nhắc lại cho mọi ngưòi biết rằng chính Minh Thái Tổ Chu Nguyên Chương khi còn là giặc cỏ cũng tự phong là Ngô Vương. Xuất xứ của Chu Nguyên Chương là từ Ngô Việt, một bộ phận của Bách Việt đã bị đồng hoá vào Trung Hoa. Ông gọi cuộc chiến nầy là cuộc chiến “bình Ngô” để trả lại Minh Thành Tổ chữ “chinh Di” mà ông dùng để gọi Đại Việt. “Bình Ngô” cũng xác định cuộc chiến nầy là một cuộc chiến văn hoá, để đối đầu với chiến dịch “chinh Di” của Minh Thành Tổ nhằm đồng hoá Đại Việt. Chính vì thế trong phần mở đầu của Bình Ngô Đại Cáo Nguyễn Trãi khẳng định giá trị truyền thống lâu đời của văn hoá phương nam:

    “Như nưóc Việt ta từ trước, vốn xưng văn hiến đã lâu,
    Sơn hà cương vực đã chia, Phong tục bắc nam cũng khác”.”

    1. Thank you for the comment.

      This is a beautiful explanation, but it needs to be backed up with some historical evidence. If Nguyen Trai was upset about the usage of the term “chinh Di,” then we need to see evidence of this from some other writing. Where is the evidence?

      How do we know that Nguyen Trai was responding to the Ming usage of the term “chinh Di”? Did he record something about this? If he didn’t, then an explanation like this is untenable because it is not based on any evidence.

      Particularly problematic here, however, is the use of the term “văn hoá.”. “Văn hoá” meaning “culture,” which is the way it is used here, is a concept which only entered into the East Asian worldview in the late 19th century from the West. Vietnamese reformers only started talking about “văn hoá” in the early 20th century.

      Nguyen Trai talked about “van hien” not “van hoa.” The two concepts are extremely different. The point of being van hien was to be the same. There was no “Vietnamese” van hien. There was just van hien. The idea of “van hoa” was different. Yes, there was supposed to be a Vietnamese van hoa, just like there was a French van hoa and a German van hoa, but these were ideas that were only developed in Europe in the 19th century, and were first introduced into Vietnam in the early 20th century.

      In the Binh Ngo dai cao, Nguyen Trai did not talk about a concept which was unknown to him.

      So I have a lot of problems with modern “rationalizations” about what people think Nguyen Trai was thinking because 1) they don’t back them up wiht historical evidence and 2) they use modern ideas which did not exist at the time of Nguyen Trai.

      I think this is a really big problem as people are not aware of what concepts were introduced into Vietnam in the early 20th century. It’s really important to know how and what changed at that time.

  9. You can see “Ngo” as “Chinese” (or “Han”) in Du dia chi. For example:

    Phủ gồm có 50 phủ. Châu gồm có 41 châu. Huyện gồm có hơn 10 huyện. Nhân hộ gồm ba trăm mười vạn đinh. Nhà Lê chia thiên hạ làm 10 đạo. Hộ bộ đệ tiến số dân là năm trăm vạn sáu nghìn năm trăm đinh. Nhà Lý chia thiên hạ làm 24 lộ (1). Hành-khiển dâng số hộ là ba trăm ba mươi vạn một trăm đinh. Nhà Trần chia thiên hạ làm 12 xứ (2). Viện quan dâng sổ vàng thì hạng đại nam, trung nam (3) có bốn trăm chín mươi vạn đinh, hạng hoàng nam (4) có hai trăm mười vạn bốn nghìn ba trăm đinh.
    Bản triều thống nhất, chia thiên hạ làm 15 đạo (5) gồm có 56 phủ, 187 huyện, 54 châu, (…) hương, 9728 xã, 294 thôn, 59 phường, 119 châu (bãi), 116 trang, 534 động, 465 sách, 58 sở, 74 trại, 16 nguyên, 110 duềnh. Đinh số là bảy mươi vạn chín trăm bốn mươi suất.

    Ấy là mục lục số châu, huyện, hộ khẩu qua các triều đại. Sau khi Nhị Hồ (6) bị bắt, người Minh kê số lấy được có 48 phủ châu, 168 huyện (7), 3.169.500 hộ, 112 con voi, 420 con ngựa, 35.700 con trâu, 8.865 cái thuyền. Sauk hi [Lê] Thái-tổ đã bình định được Ngô (8), chuẩn định số đinh thì Sơn-nam có 140.000 suất, Hải-dương có 110.000 suất, Sơn-tây và Kinh-bắc đều có 100.000 suất, Thanh-hóa có 70.000 suất, Nghệ-an có 50.000 suất, An-bang và Thái-nguyên đều 20.000 suất, Tuyên và Hưng đều có 18.000 suất, Cao-bằng và Lạng-sơn đều có 11.200 suất, Thăng-hoa có 540 suất.

    Người trong nước không được bắt chước ngôn ngữ và y phục của các nước Ngô (1), Chiêm, Lào, Xiêm, Chân-lạp để làm loạn phong tục trong nước.
    “Vô” là lời cấm chỉ. Tiếng Ngô nói đầu lưỡi, phải dịch rồi mới biết; tiếng Lào nói trong họng; tiếng Xiêm, Chiêm, Chân-lạp nói trong cổ như tiếng chim quẹt; nhưng đều không được bắt chước để loạn tiếng nói nước nhà. Người Ngô bị chìm đắm đã lâu ở trong phong tục người Nguyên, bện tóc, răng trắng, áo ngắn có tay dài, mũ, xiêm rực rỡ như từng lớp lá. Người Minh tuy khôi phục lại lối ăn mặc cũ của thời Hán, thời Đường, nhưng phong tục vẫn chưa biến đổi. Người Lào lấy vải lông quấn vào người như áo cà sa nhà Phật. Người Chiêm lấy khăn che đùi mà để lộ hình thể. Người Xiêm-la, người Chân-lạp lấy vải bọc tay và gối như bó thây chết. Các tục ấy đều không nên theo để làm loạn phong tục.
    Lý thị nói: Từ khi người Nguyên vào Trung-quốc, về sau thiên hạ biến thành nói tiếng Hồ, mặc áo Hồ (2). Không thay đổi chỉ có nước ta cùng họ Chu ở Kim-lăng, họ Triệu ở Kim-sơn mà thôi. Đến khi Thái-tổ nhà Minh lên làm vua, sai Dịch Tế Dân sang thông hiếu, vua Dụ-tông sai Doãn Thuấn Thần sang cống sính nhà Minh. Vua Minh úy lạo hỏi quốc sứ, khen phong tục, y phục vẫn giống như văn minh Trung-hoa, ban cho bài thơ ngự chế rằng: “An-nam tế hữu Trần, phong tục bất Nguyên nhân, y quan Chu chế độ, lễ nhạc Tống quân thần” (tạm dịch: An nam có Trần thị, phong tục chẳng theo Nguyên, chế độ Chu vẫn giữ, lễ nhạc Tống không quên). Rồi cho bốn chữ “Văn hiến chi bang” (nước văn hiến). Lại nhấc sứ nước ta lên trên sứ Triều-tiên ba cấp; khi sứ về, lại sai Ngưu Lượng đem long chương và ấn vàng cùng đi sang để khen thưởng nhà vua (4).

  10. Yea, this text is REALLY problematic. It has been copied and recopied so many times that I think it is now basically completely unreliable. And I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this way.

    1. No, that’s the problem, I don’t know that it was published. What is more, it definitely was altered at various times. Ngo Thi Si added to it in the late 18th century, and then others did so in the mid-19th century. In the meantime, if there ever was an “original,” it has been lost, so all we have now are the “expanded” versions.

      As for the existence of the term “Ngo,” what I would want to know is when the text that has that term in it (if such a Han text actually exists) was copied. Phan Boi Chau used the term “Ngo” in his Hau Tran dat su, but he was writing in a unique time period. At that time, Japanese were using the term “Shina” in a derogatory sense to refer to China. That was something new for Japanese in the late 19th century (and it appears in the writings of some Vietnamese reformers in the early 20th century who were influenced by this usage), and I would argue that PBC’s use of Ngo in a derogatory sense was new to the early 20th century. It is part of the emergence of nationalist thought at the time.

  11. As for your comment that you NEVER found any document in Vietnam in which “Wu” was used to refer to the Chinese before the 20th century, let me give you a couple of examples.

    “Hoàng Lê nhất thống chí”, a historical novel written in the late 18th century by a group of Vietnamese scholars tells a story of Lê Chiêu Thống when he was in Beijing asking the emperor of Qing for military help to defeat the Tây Sơn. When the emperor of Qing refused to even meet with Lê Chiêu Thống, he and a few of his mandarins were loitering around the emperor’s palace, pleading with the guards to let him see the emperor. The guards got angry at Lê Chiêu Thống’s insistence and had a mild altercation with him. Upon that happening, one of Lê Chiêu Thống’s mandarin shouted:

    – Bọn chó Ngô dám làm nhục vua ta.

    , which could be roughly translated as:

    – The Wu dogs dare to violate our king.

    Clearly they Viet mandarin was referring to the Chinese when he said “Wu”. As for the historical accuracy of that incident, I can’t verify it but the fact is a Vietnamese novel written way before the 20th century did use the term Wu to refer to the Chinese in general.

    Another interesting fact that can prove that the word Wu/Ngô has been used in Vietnam to refer to China and the Chinese for a very long time has to do with the plant of corn. In the north of Vietnam, we call corn “ngô” and it is not a coincidence. In the 16th century, a Vietnamese mandarin named Phùng Khắc Khoan went to China as an ambassador. While in China, he acquired some corn seeds and brought them back to Vietnam because he had the idea that this plant could be a valuable source of food for his people. Until that point in time, the Viet had never grown corn so they called that plant “ngô” because it had originally come from China. At least until this very day, Vietnamese people in the north still call that plant “ngô”.

    As for your claim that Ngô in “Bình Ngô đại cáo” actually means the Hanoi scholars who collaborated with the Ming, do you have any historical evidence to back it up?

    Another question is: if “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is not about Vietnam and China, why did Nguyễn Trãi denounce the crimes committed against the Vietnamese by the Ming occupiers? Why did he mention a series of battles between Lam Sơn force and the Ming generals and their troops? Even going so far as calling the Ming emperor a “cunning kid” (giảo đồng)? Why did he even bother to draw the parallels between the dynasties in the two countries?

    I agree with you that the intended audience of this proclamation is the domestic audience and “declaration of independence” is a modern connotation of the text. Given the mindset of the ancient Vietnamese that a legitimate dynasty has to be recognized by China and the wish of the Lam Sơn leaders to keep peace with their defeated but sill giant neighbour, one can understand why they would not have provoked the Chinese further by trying to advertise a text calling the Chinese emperor a sly kid. But to say that this text has nothing to do with the relationship between Vietnam and China seems to border on being preposterous.

  12. Since the your whole premise lies on the fact that you couldn’t find any Vietnamese texts before the 20th century that used “Ngô” for Chinese, let me give you another one. It’s a poem by Hồ Xuân Hương called “Sư hổ mang”. The opening line is:

    Chẳng phải ngô cũng chẳng phải ta

    “Chẳng phải ta” means “not our people”, the Viet. So what does “ngô” stand for here?

  13. Thanks for the comments. I revisited this issue in a more recent series of posts.

    There was this post and a video that followed it:

    And then comments from readers to the above post led me to produce this series of posts (which also contain good comments from readers):

  14. …以知審刑院事陶公僎為 審刑院使兼禮部尙書. 公僎頗諳故典及吳俗. 時有明國使將來, 帝欲公僎 掌應接事, 故有是命 …
    ….dĩ Tri Thẩm Hình Viện Sự Đào Công Soạn vi Thẩm Hình Viện Sứ kiêm Lễ bộ thượng thư. Công Soạn pha am cố điển cập NGÔ tục. Thì hữu Minh quốc sử tương lai, Đế dục Công Soạn chưởng ứng tiếp sự, cố hữu thị mệnh….
    …..lấy Tri Thẩm Hình Viện Sự Đào Công Soạn làm Thẩm Hình Viện Sứ kiêm Lễ bộ thượng thư. Công Soạn rất am hiểu điển cũ và phong tục người NGÔ. Bấy giờ sứ nhà Minh sắp sang, vua muốn Công Soạn giữ việc ứng tiếp, cho nên có lệnh này….
    Sorry to dissapoint you Mr. leminhkhai. Here “NGO” means CHINESE PEOPLE, NOT “traitorous officials” [ngụy quan] like you always thought. You just let your mind go too far.

    1. Thanks for the comment, but this is a post that I wrote a long time ago.

      I revisited this issue in a more recent series of posts. There is a lot of information to go through, and some of the comments by readers (Winston Phan in particular) are really helpful.

      There was this post and a video that followed it:

      And then comments from readers to the above post led me to produce this series of posts (which also contain good comments from readers):

  15. fyi: for distant future thought.
    In a lengthy article on the Tốt Động-Chúc Động victories , the author notes the Thanh Oai post was called “Ngô binh đấu thành”. It was square with walls about 150 meters long. Then it says “Tài liệu địa lý học lịch sử của ta và truyền thuyết dân gian địa phương đều cho rằng thành này do quân Ming xây dựng và thường gọi là “Ngô binh đấu thành”….
    I wonder if Thanh Oai post was filled by local recruits?? It was just a small static security post for the Thanh Oai bridge. Logic says use locals instead of combat troops.

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