In the nineteenth century, the Nguyễn Dynasty commissioned the compilation of a new official history of the kingdom. Emperor Tự Đức read this history and commented on various episodes. His “imperial appraisals” are included in the published final version of the text, known as the Khâm định Việt sử thong giám cương mục.

In the second half of the twentieth century, this text was translated from classical Chinese into modern Vietnamese. In comparing the original and the translation, it is interesting to see the subtle ways in which new perspectives were introduced.

For example, this is what Emperor Tự Đức had to say about Lý Bí, a man who declared himself emperor in the sixth century, but was then defeated by the army and tactics of Chen Baxian, a general sent down by the Liang Dynasty.

“As for the Southern Emperor [Nam Đế] of the Lý, although he did not have the strength to hold out [against the Liang], thus causing his endeavor to not succeed, that he could take advantage of the times, rise up and serve as emperor himself over his kingdom was sufficient to lead the way for the Đinh and [Later] Lý. Is his fame not magnificent?”

(Nam đế nhà [Tiền] Lý dẫu sức không địch nổi giặc Lương đến nỗi công cuộc không thành, nhưng đã biết nhân thời cơ vùng dậy, tự làm chủ lấy nước mình, đủ làm thanh tế mở đường cho nhà Đinh, nhà Lý sau này. Vậy việc làm của LýNamđế há chẳng hay lắm sao?)

What is interesting about the Vietnamese translation is that it adds two words which are not present in the original, “Liang bandits” (giặc Lương). The original does not say who it is that Lý Bí could not hold out against (李南帝雖力不敵致不成). Translators can add that information, but they should put that information in brackets to indicate that it is not actually in the text, and they should be careful to chose words which don’t alter the views of the author.

Did Emperor Tự Đức see Chen Baxian and his army as “bandits”? The only way to tell is to look at his other comments and try to gain a sense of how he viewed the past.

Let’s look at what Emperor Tự Đức had to say about Ngô Quyền’s defeat of a Southern Han army, led by Liu Hongcao, at the Bạch Đằng River in the tenth century.

“That which Ngô Quyền faced was a small Han pretender kingdom. Hongcao was a weakling. That there was a victory at the Bạch Đằng [River] was because of luck. What is there worth praising? Those who have faced the tactics of a Chen Baxian and have not followed in the path of Lý [Bí] or Triệu [Quang Phục], are very few indeed.”

(Ngô Quyền gặp được ngụy triều Nam Hán là một nước nhỏ, Hoằng Tháo là thằng hèn kém, nên mới có được trận thắng trên sông Bạch Đằng. Đó là một việc may, có gì đáng khen. Nếu gặp phải tay Trần Bá Tiên, mà bảo rằng Ngô Quyền không phải theo gót LýNamĐế, Triệu Việt Vương, thì ít có lắm!)

In this comment Emperor Tự Đức does not refer to Chen Baxian as a “bandit,” and he does not think very much of Ngô Quyền’s victory. From a comment like this one, it’s easy to see that Emperor Tự Đức probably did not view the past in the same way as the scholars in the second half of the twentieth century who translated the Khâm định Việt sử thong giám cương mục.

In fact, the subtle insertion of new views is extremely common in modern Vietnamese translations of classical Chinese texts. To take another example related to Ngô Quyền in this same text, when the Southern Han ruler was considering sending an army to attack Ngô Quyền, one of the Southern Han officials warned that “Ngô Quyền is fierce and cunning, and should not be taken lightly.” (吳權桀黠未可輕也)

This was translated into modern Vietnamese as “Ngô Quyền is a very capable person, and should not be taken lightly.” (Ngô Quyền lại là người giỏi lắm, chớ nên coi thường.)

So was Ngô Quyền capable or cunning? That of course depends on one’s perspective, but when translators change or hide the perspectives of the past, then one is only left with one perspective, that of the translator.

But of course the Chinese have always been bandits, and the Vietnamese have always been capable. And everyone has always thought that way. . .