Under its entry for the year 1300, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư contains a good deal of information about the general, Trần Hưng Đạo, as that was the year he passed away. Among the information which is provided there, is a brief conversation which had once supposedly transpired between Trần Hưng Đạo and Emperor Trần Thánh Tông.

Trần Thánh Tông said in reference to the impending arrival of a Mongol army, “With the bandits’ strength like this, I can surrender to them.” Trần Hưng Đạo then reportedly replied, “First cut off my head, and then surrender.” [6/11a]

This is today an extremely famous line. It appeared in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư as an example of Trần Hưng Đạo’s character in a discussion of various episodes from his life. When, however, did Trần Hưng Đạo actually say this?

The Mongol Yuan attacked Đại Việt on three occasions: 1257–1258, 1284–1285, and 1287–1288. So the conversation between Trần Thánh Tông and Trần Hưng Đạo must have occurred either before the invasion of 1257, 1284 or 1287.

As it turns out, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư does record information about a conversation between these two men before one of the invasions. However, it is quite different from the conversation above.

In 1286, upon learning that the Mongol Yuan Dynasty was planning to attack again, Trần Thánh Tông asked Trần Hưng Đạo, “What do you think of the bandits’ strength this year?”

Trần Hưng Đạo responded that “Our kingdom has been at peace for a long time. The people do not know about military matters. Previously when the Yuan came and raided, there were those who surrendered or fled. By relying on the potent awe of the imperial ancestors, Your Highness’s divine [perspicacity] and martial [awe] wiped clean the dust of the nomadic barbarians.* If they come again, our troops are trained at fighting, while their army fears a distant campaign. What is more, they have taken as a warning the defeat of Heng and Guan.** They do not have the heart to fight. As I see it, they are sure to be defeated.” [5/51a-b]

[*Literally “Hu dust,” “Hu” was a term which the Chinese used to refer to nomadic peoples who lived to the north of their realm. The dust in this expression refers to the dust kicked up by their horses while they were on campaigns. It has an overall derogatory sense, and that is why I have translated it loosely as “the dust of the nomadic barbarians.”]

[**Li Heng and Li Guan were two Yuan officers who were killed in the second invasion.]

When the Mongols attacked in 1284-1285 there indeed had been people who had surrendered. In fact, there were members of the Trần royal family who had gone over to the Yuan side. And prior to that attack, a good deal of time had passed during which the kingdom had been at peace.”

Hence, there is much about this entry for 1286 which makes historical sense, and which simply seems realistic. Trần Hưng Đạo knew that common people would not make good fighters. He also knew that distant campaigns wore down the morale of soldiers. His assessment of the status of both sides therefore seems quite realistic.

Finally, his attributing previous victories to the divine awe of the imperial ancestors is not very realistic by today’s standards, but it does fit the language and cultural ideas of that time.

So it is interesting that on the one hand we have this realistic statement attributed to Trần Hưng Đạo, and on the other we have a statement of bravado attributed to him. Further, one is associated with a specific historical moment, while the other is not.

What, I wonder, did Trần Hưng Đạo actually say?

I made the translations above based on the original passages in classical Chinese. However, the Vietnamese translations are as follows:

Xem như khi Thánh Tông vờ bảo Quốc Tuấn rằng: “Thế giặc như vậy, ta phải hàng thôi.” Quốc Tuấn trả lời: “[Bệ hạ] chem. đầu tôi trước rồi hãy hang.” [6/11a]

Vua hỏi Hưng Đạo Vương Trần Quốc Tuấn: “Thế giặc năm nay thế nào?” “QuốcTuấn trả lời: “Nước ta thái bình lâu ngày, dân không biết việc binh. Cho nên, năm trước quân Nguyên vào cướp, thì có kẻ đầu hàng chốn chạy. Nhờ uy tín của tổ tông và thần võ của bệ hạ, nên quét sạch được bụi Hồ. Nay nếu nó lại sang thì quân ta đã quen việc chiến trận, mà quân nó thì sợ phải đi xa. Vả lại, chúng còn nơm lớp cái thất bại của Hằng, Quán không còn chí chiến đấu. Theo như thần thấy, phá được chúng là điều chắc chắn.” [5/51a-b]