Keith Taylor began his 1983 work on early Vietnamese history, The Birth of Vietnam, with the following sentence: “The earliest traditions of the Vietnamese people, as revealed in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái, an accumulation of popular lore edited in the fifteenth century, are associated with the Hùng kings who ruled the kingdom of Văn Lang.” (pg. 1)
Then in an appendix to this work in which he reviews a debate which began in the twentieth century over whether the earliest rulers in the Red River delta were called Hùng or Lạc, Taylor states that “I personally want to study this question more than I have before committing myself on it; in the meantime, I use the term Hùng as it has traditionally been used by Vietnamese historians.” (pg. 307)
It is a shame that this latter statement is more or less “hidden” in the back of this scholarly study, because this work has been read by many as “proof” of the existence of the Hùng kings and of a “Vietnamese antiquity.” However, all of this is suspect, and in that latter comment, Taylor revealed that he was aware of this.
Having spent the past few years looking at this issue and all of the relevant sources, it is now obvious to me that what we today think of as “Vietnamese antiquity” is largely a medieval invention.
How was “Vietnamese antiquity” invented? In the following way:
1) “The Chinese” recorded information about the far south in official histories and some short treatises which are now lost, like the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region (Jiaozhou waiyu ji) and the Record of Guang Region (Guangzhou ji), but are cited in extant histories, the Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu), the Wide Gleanings from the Taiping Era (Taiping Guangji), etc.
2) A couple of Tang Dynasty administrators wrote treatises, both of which were called the Record of Jiao Region (Jiaozhou ji). These are no longer extant, but passages of them are cited in the 14th-century Vietnamese text the Collected Records of the Departed Spirits of the Việt Realm (Việt Diện u linh tập lục). This same text sometimes also cites a non-extant 12th-century Vietnamese history, Đỗ Thiện’s Historical Records (Sử ký). In fact, it sometimes cites Đỗ Thiện’s Historical Records for information which was in those Tang-era Records of Jiao Region, as Đỗ Thiện apparently relied on those earlier Chinese works.
Now, some of the information recorded in the two Records of Jiao Region were about spirits. It is clear that Tang Dynasty administrators tried to domesticate spirits by creating personalities and stories for them (as Chinese officials were doing all across the empire at that time). In so doing, they created information about antiquity. There is one spirit, for instance, called Lý Ông Trọng, who was supposedly a man from theRed River delta who went off to fight the Xiongnu during the time of Qin Shihuangdi.
No such person ever existed. He was created by someone, and my guess is that it was probably Zhao Chang, a Tang Dynasty administrator. (See the previous posts on that topic here and here). However, Lý Ông Trọng is a part of Vietnamese history now because of #4 below.
3) Vietnamese scholars created stories about antiquity, such as the story of the Hùng kings which we find in the 15th-century Collected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái).
4) Finally, Ngô Sĩ Liên based his late 15th-century Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư) on all of the above sources.
When it comes to early history, this work is derivative in that much of what it says comes from Chinese sources. Meanwhile, whatever information it contains about early history which Chinese sources do not record, like the stories about Lý Ông Trọng or the Hùng kings, is not real. It was either invented during the Tang by Tang Dynasty administrators or created later by Vietnamese scholars for similar or related purposes.
The one exception is that there is some material for the Tang period which was probably contained in either or both of the two Records of Jiao Region and which then made it into Vietnamese sources but which never made it into Chinese ones.
What historians have never done is to seriously attempt to determine which information in Vietnamese sources is historical and which information is invented. This outline above can hopefully help people do this.