Mang Savages in the Red River Delta

I have long wondered about place names like Phù Đổng. This is the name of a village in the Red River delta. Many of the place names there are in Hán and the characters make sense, such as “rising dragon” for Thăng Long. Phù Đổng, however, is representing sounds, and it’s either the sounds of something in old Vietnamese or another language, because today it doesn’t make any sense.

In many Tai languages, Phù Đổng makes sense as phudong or the “forested mountain/hill” (ภูดง). However, I think linguists argue that Tai words with this “ph” in them are not ancient. They emerged around the time that Southwestern Tai started to develop around say 800 A.D. or so. That is also the time when linguists think Tai peoples started to migrate out of the Guangxi area into mainland Southeast Asia.

In the first half of the twentieth century there was a theory that these Tai peoples had created a kingdom in the area of Yunnan Province called Nanzhao in the eighth and ninth centuries, and had migrated into mainland Southeast Asia when that kingdom went into decline.

This view was challenged by Chinese scholars, who argued that Nanzhao had not been a Tai kingdom, but a kingdom of Tibeto-Burman peoples. This is the view which most scholars follow today.

I have long been suspicious of this view, and I’ve recently started to look at materials from that time period. It is clear to me now that Chinese scholars challenged the idea that Nanzhao had been Tai for political reasons, namely that they did not want Thailand to incite any of the ethnic minorities in the southwest to think of leaving China.

It is also clear to me now that Tai peoples were definitely involved in that kingdom. It may have been multi-ethnic, but Tai peoples definitely played a role. I still need to look at this more closely, but materials from that time make it obvious that Tai were active in the region.

One of the main sources for the Nanzhao period is a book called the Manshu (The Book of Savages), which is about Nanzhao and the various peoples who were in the area at that time. One group it mentions is called the “Mang Savages” (茫蠻).

“Mang” is how the Chinese wrote the Tai term “muang,” meaning a polity. The leader of a Tai muang was called a cao (pronounced like “jao”), and that is exactly what the Manshu says that the Mang Savages called their rulers “mang zhao” (茫詔), which in Tai word order would be the reverse, cao muang.

The Manshu lists a bunch of different groups of Mang Savages who were living in the area of what is today northern Burma, perhaps the ancestors of the Shan who live there today. However, it also makes mention of Mang Savages in the Red River delta.

The Manshu states that on the 21st day of the 12th lunar month in the third year of the Xiantong era [863 A.D.] there was a regiment of 2-3,000 Mang Savage men congregated on the bank of the Tô Lịch River in An Nam.


The Tô Lịch River today flows within the bounds of Hà Nội city. In the ninth century it would have been more distant from the citadel. Nonetheless, this is right in the center of the “Vietnamese” world.

So what happened next? Where did those 2-3,000 men go? Did they settle in Phù Đổng?

14 thoughts on “Mang Savages in the Red River Delta

  1. Interesting information!
    In his Thần người và đất Việt and Những bài dã sử Việt (Lịch sử một thần tích: Phù Đổng Thiên vương), Tạ Chí Đại Trường had the same explaination of “Phù Đổng” (ie., pù-đống in Tai/or Tay language, i don’t remmember exactly). Your last question is very worth thinking about!

  2. Yea, I think Tran Quoc Vuong also claimed that “phu dong” comes from Tai. However, I don’t think people have a clear idea of when Tai-language speakers started to be present in the Red River delta. There is a young Thai linguist in Bangkok who has convinced me that it’s quite late (roughly around 1,000 AD). So with that in mind, when I came across this comment in the Manshu, it made sense. This is roughly the time when (according to my linguist friend) Tai-language speakers were moving away from the area of what is now southwestern China.

  3. Pay attention to the emergence of Xung Thien than vuong (then Phu Dong thien vuong) around 9th-11th century AD on some ancient texts such as: Viet dien u linh tap, Thien uyen tap anh ngu luc, Linh Nam chich quai,… It seem to be no accidental!

    1. Yea, Xung Thien than vuong is the last of several deities that were important for Phu Dong. To try to link that spirit with Tai-speaking peoples, we would need some more information that is identifiably Tai.

      There is more evidence, from works like the Annan zhiyuan, that we can use to see Tai-speaking peoples active around Mount Tan Vien, and maintaining a cult to “my nuong” (a Tai term for “princess”).

      I don’t see “ethnic” evidence in the Xung Thien than vuong cult, but it is definitely true that Phu Dong was a very “potent” and active place.

      1. Thanks for the comment.

        Yes, I see what you mean, but 1) this comes from a Chinese text and 2) a point I try to make is that when Chinese wrote about other peoples they were not “exact/precise.”

        I kind of wrote about this issue here:
        Chinese scholars look for information to be “exact” or “precise,” but it’s not.

        Actually, no one who wrote about other people in the past were “exact/precise.” The information that they recorded, especially about names, was always very imprecise.

        Below are some examples from North America of Native American names that outsiders “misunderstood/got wrong” etc.:

        A’aninin (“white clay people”) Gros Ventre (French word for “big belly,” unclear why the French called them this.)

        Anishinaabe (“original people”) Today the Anishinaabe have two tribes: Ojibway/Ojibwe/Chippewa (Algonquian Indian for “puckered,” referring to their moccasin style) and Algonquin (probably a French corruption of either the Maliseet word elehgumoqik, “our allies,” or the Mi’kmaq place name Algoomaking, “fish-spearing place.”)

        Attikamekw (“whitefish people”) Attikamekw, also T�te-de-Boule (French word for “ball head,” unclear why the French called them this.)

        Baxoje/Pahoja (“gray snow”) Ioway (from a word in their language meaning “sleepy,” unclear how this came to be a tribal name.)

        Beothuk (possibly “kinfolk”) Unfortunately the Beothuk are extinct today. They were more commonly known as Red Indians (English, after their extensive use of red ochre dye.)

    1. The term Mang/Mu’o’ng comes from a Tai word, but not only Tai peoples could be named in this way. Mang Savage could also include the Viet-Muong speakers who were living in the uplands villages (those who are the Muongs now). At least, when Vietnamese scholars are describing “the ancient Muongs” they notice that both Tay-Thai and Muong were named as Mang.

  4. Keith Taylor has argued,I think convincingly, that Moung is an ethnic category that emerged during the colonial period and was to a large extent created by the French. Before the 20th century, Vietnamese scholars did not write about the Muong.

    As for the work I cite here, and the terms that it contains – like cao, it is unquestionably referring to Tai-language speakers.

  5. Chances that if the Vietnamese adapted the word ”phudong” sometime in 800s AD, then they must have changed it from Proto-Tai form ”budong” to ”phudong” for some reason. If it’s not the case, then this word may have been adapted by the Vietnamese from the Tai much later when *b evolved into *ph and the people that the Vietnamese adapted this word from may be Southwestern Tai speakers because ”phu” does not exist in Central Tai. That means that the traditions of the Saint Giong (Thánh Gióng) associated with the place name may also be a recent invented one besides the Hong Bang clan traditions.

      1. Sorry no. I’m not a linguistic specialist. I just read one of your 2014 articles here It seems that you are coming up with the answer. You should write a new article about that then.

        Ever since I read your two articles ”the Hong Bang clan as a Vietnamese invented…” and ”the Tai position in the Vietnamese past”, everything related to premodern Vietnamese history is kind of fake in my view. The stories of the Trung sisters and the Saint Giong are either fake or unrelated to the Vietnamese.

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