Everyone knows that the Hùng Kings supposedly ruled for 18 generations. However, where does that information come from?

The earliest sources on the Hùng Kings are the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, both of which were completed in the late 15th century. Neither of these texts say anything about 18 generations.

Meanwhile, there is a Chinese source which is based on information which was collected in the early 15th century, during the period when Vietnamwas controlled by the Ming Dynasty, which does mention 18 generations. However, this work, Gao Xiongzheng’s Treatise on Annan (Annan zhiyuan), records that “Lạc” Kings ruled for 18 generations, not Hùng Kings.

This information is in a section on ancient sites (cổ tích), and is meant to explain some old ruins called the “Lạc King Palace” (Lạc Vương Cung). This information was then cited in the nineteenth-century official history, the Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục as evidence for the claim that there had been 18 generations of Hùng Kings.

The Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục first records the following:

“King Kinh Dương had a son, Sùng Lãm, who was called Lord Lạc Long. Lord Lạc Long married Âu Cơ, who gave birth to 100 sons. These were the ancestors of the Hundred Yue. The eldest was encouraged to serve as the Hùng King. He succeeded to the sovereign throne and established a kingdom called Văn Lang, with its capital at Phong Region. The position passed through 18 generations, all of which were referred to as Hùng Kings.”

The Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục then follows this with a note explaining the phrase “passed through 18 generations.”

“Gao Xiongzheng’s Treatise on Annan [records that] before Giao Chỉ had commanderies and districts there were lạc fields which followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters. Those who open these fields for cultivation were lạc people. Those who ruled over these people were lạc kings. Those who assisted were lạc generals. They all had bronze seals on green ribbons. This was called the Kingdom of Văn Lang. Its customs were pure and simple, and tying knots was used for administration. It was passed down through 18 generations.”

This passage up through the words “green ribbons” actually originated in an early Chinese text, and it consists of the only recorded information about indigenous rulers in the Red River delta prior to the establishment of Chinese rule.

The final two sentences in the above passage were not in that original text, and are Vietnamese creations. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Vietnamese scholars created an antiquity for their land, and they did so by building on whatever limited written records about the past already existed.

What is interesting is that the information which Gao Xiongzheng recorded seems to represent a snapshot of this tradition as it was being invented. He recorded information about “Lạc” Kings ruling for 18 generations. Whereas the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư would later record information about “Hùng” Kings with no reference to how many generations they ruled.

That it is taken for granted today that the Hùng Kings ruled for 18 generations appears to be because Vietnamese scholars in the 19th century consulted Gao Xiongzheng’s work and included this information in the Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục.

So we now know that the Hùng Kings ruled for 18 generations thanks to the fact that Vietnamese scholars in the 19th century consulted a work by a Chinese scholar from the 15th century which recorded information about Lạc Kings who ruled for 18 generations in antiquity. . .