Over a year ago I posted a blog entry on The Invention of Lý Ông Trọng in which I argued that there was no evidence that a man by this name had lived in the Red River delta in the third century B.C. and had gone off to fight the Xiongnu for Qin Shihuangdi. I argued instead that a Tang Dynasty administrator by the name of Zhao Chang had “imported” this story into the region and used it to create a story about a local spirit.
I still believe that this story about Lý Ông Trọng is an invention. However, I recently found some information which indicates that there once had been a man by the name of Ông Trọng who was connected to the Red River delta.
The real “Ông Trọng” was a Han Dynasty administrator by the name of Yao Jun. His courtesy name was Wengzhong (i.e., Ông Trọng). Originally from the area of what is today Zhejiang Province, he served as the governor of Jiaozhi Commandery in the final years of Han Dynasty rule. Somewhere around the time that the Han Dynasty fell, Wengzhong quit his job and headed into the mountains to follow a Daoist master.
It is perhaps because of this act that Yao Jun is not mentioned in official dynastic histories. However, his story was recorded in other sources. I found a reference to Yao Jun in Ou Daren’s Baiyue xianxian zhi [Treatise on the Previous Worthies of the Hundred Yue], (sixteenth century), 4/8b.
Ou Daren cites the fifth century Garden of Surnames (Xing yuan), by He Chengtian, and Ge Hong’s Biographies of Immortals (Liexian zhuan) as his sources for information about Yao Jun. The original version of Ge Hong’s famous fourth-century work, however, did not includeYao Jun, so perhaps he was added to a later version.
During the Tang period this figure was mentioned by two scholar-officials who were exiled to the south, Shen Quanqi and Liu Zongyuan.
In either the late seventh or early eighth century, when Shen Quanqi was in the Red River delta on his way to exile in the area of what is today north-central Vietnam, he composed a poem which contained the following two lines: “Commissioner Tuo once ruled over a kingdom/Wengzhong has long roamed the springs.”
Meanwhile, in the early ninth century, when Liu Zongyuan was heading into exile for the second time, he stated in a poem which he composed for a friend while they were together in Hengyang, in what is today Hunan Province, the following: “The old road of the Wave Suppressor is amidst the wind and smoke/Wengzhong’s ruins are flattened by grass and trees.”
“Commissioner Tuo” is Zhao Tuo, the Chinese official who created a kingdom for himself based in the area of what I today Guangdong Province in the late third century B.C., while the “Wave Suppressor” is a reference to Ma Yuan, the famous Chinese general who put down the Trưng sisters’ uprising in the first century A.D.
So during the Tang period Wengzhong was a figure who was associated with the south, but there was nothing in these references to suggest that he was a person who was from the region and had gone off to the far north to defend the land against the Xiongnu. Instead, these references pointed to the Han Dynasty administrator who had quit his post and gone off to become a Daoist.
Zhao Chang, who served in the Red River delta in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, appears to have taken this Wengzhong/Ông Trọng and created a new story for him. It is not clear if people at that time were worshiping the real Ông Trọng or if Zhao Chang simply used that name as his inspiration, for the tale that was created about Lý Ông Trọng had nothing to do with that earlier Daoist.
Yet in creating a new biography for Wengzhong/Ông Trọng, Zhao Chang did not invent entirely new information. Instead, he found inspiration in a passage about another kind of “wengzhong/ông trọng,” namely, statues of people. “Wengzhong/Ông trọng” is a name for statues which protect tombs. It is also the name of a particular statue which the Qin apparently built.
There is a reference in the Huainanzi, a philosophical text from roughly the second century B.C., to the Qin Dynasty casting bronze figures. In his commentary to the Huainanzi, the early-third-century scholar, Gao You, explained that, “In the 26th year of the First Emperor of Qin’s reign, with All Under Heaven having just been annexed, there was a giant who appeared in Lintao. He was 5 zhang tall and his footprints were 8 chi long. So an image was drawn of him and a metal statue was cast in his likeness. This was Wengzhong (i.e., Ông Trọng) Junhe.”
This passage has an obvious parallel in the Việt diện u linh tập where it records that “When the First Emperor had Annexed All Under Heaven, he had [Lý Ông Trọng] lead troops to hold Lintao and awe the Xiongnu.”
In other words, while there had once been a Han Dynasty administrator in the Red River delta named Ông Trọng who had quit his job and gone off to become a Daoist, Tang Dynasty administrator Zhao Chang created a new story about this figure which was inspired by a different “ông trọng.”
What is important to note is that this new Lý Ông Trọng is an invention. No such person ever existed. However, he was eventually included in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, and is thus now a part of “Vietnamese history.”
I mentioned in the earlier post that his story is also recorded in some Chinese works as well. I originally thought that this indicated that the story was first created in China and that Zhao Chang then used it to create a new story for a local spirit in the Red River delta.
What I now realize is that Zhao Chang probably created the story himself, and that it made it into Chinese sources later. Chinese sources referred to him as Ruan Wengzhong (Nguyễn Ông Trọng). During the Lý Dynasty it was taboo to use the surname Lý. Therefore, that this figure is referred to as Nguyễn in Chinese sources is likely a sign that this story was picked up by some Chinese writer during the Lý.