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.

鹹通三年十二月二十一日,亦有此茫蠻,於安南蘇歷江岸聚二三千人隊。

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?