At the turn of the twentieth century, Vietnamese intellectual learned a great deal about the West and began to transform the way they thought about themselves and their land. I was looking at one of the earliest Vietnamese texts to attempt to create a new history for Vietnam. It is from the early twentieth century and is called the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư [Reformed primary education national history textbook].

The text begins with a section on “the initial development of our kingdom’s race” (我國種族之初發達, ngã quốc chủng tộc chi phát đạt). “Race” (chủng tộc) was of course a new concept for Vietnamese intellectuals at that time. That the authors of this work conceived of “our kingdom’s race” (ngã quốc chủng tộc) is a clear sign that people at the time were still experimenting with this term.

The text credits (the mythical) King Kinh Dương (Kinh Dương Vương) with establishing the first kingdom, and describes its extent as follows:

“At that time the kingdom’s borders pressed against the Southern Sea to the east, and came up against Ba Shu to the west (Today this is the Northern Kingdom’s Sichuan[Province].). To the north it reached Lake Dongting (Today this is the Northern Kingdom’s Sichuan [Province].), and to the south it touched touched Hồ Tôn (this was the name of a kingdom. Later it was annexed by Linyi/Lâm Ấp the Kingdom of Champa. Today it is Bình Định [Province].).”

“Thời đó, biên giới nước này đông giáp biển Nam Hải, tây đến Ba Thục (nay là Tứ Xuyên ở Bắc Quốc), bắc đến hồ Động Đình (nay là Hồ Nam ở Bắc Quốc), nam giáp nước Hồ Tôn (tên quốc, bị Lâm Ấp thôn tính, nay là Bìng Định.).”

The text then contains a statement which Emperor Tự Đức had earlier made that,

“In looking over these events, [we see that] more than half of Our Việt land was lost to the Middle Kingdom. What a pity that enlightened rulers and capable officials appeared so infrequently, and that therefore [we] were unable to regain even an inch of land! This is a very regrettable matter!”

“Xét chung từ trước đến sau, đất đai của nước Việt ta bị mất về Trung Quốc đã đến quá một nửa, tiếc rằng vua sáng tôi hiền các triều đại cũng nhiều người lỗi lạc hiếm có ở trên đời, mà vẫn không thể nào lấy lại được một tấc, đó là việc đáng ân hận lắm!”

 —–

So according to this textbook, “the initial development of our kingdom’s race” had begun when King Kinh Dương established a kingdom which stretched from what is today central Vietnam all the way to what is now central China. Further, this text implies that Emperor Tự Đức had thought this way, and regretted that all of this land had been lost.

Let’s see what Emperor Tự Đức actually thought and wrote.

This idea that there had once been a kingdom which reached all the way up to Lake Dongting and Sichuan Province is how the mythical Hùng kings’ kingdom was described in Ngô Sĩ Liên’s fifteenth-century Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư. In the nineteenth century, however, the compilers of an official history which was commissioned by the Nguyễn Dynasty, the Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục, argued that no kingdom had ever covered such a territory. They stated the following:

Comments: Before the Trần and the Lê, the territory of the realm reached the sea in the east, had a border with Yunnan to the west, Champa to the south, Guangxi to the north, Guangdong to the northeast, and Lão Qua to the southwest. In consulting the information recorded in the Characteristics of the Territorial Administrations of All Under Heaven and the Famous Sites of the Realm, we find that An Nam reached the sea in the east, Yunnan and Lão Qua to the west, Champa to the south, and Guangxi to the north. This is more or less the same. [My note: Gu Yanwu’s (1613-83) Characteristics of the Territorial Administrations of All Under Heaven [Tianxia junguo libing shu] and Wang Xiangzhi’s (13th cent.) Famous Sites of the Land [Yudi jisheng], are two prominent Chinese geographical works.]

Then the current dynasty’s arrayed sages established a royal enterprise in the southern reaches. Great Emperor Thế Tổ [i.e., Gia Long] pacified this sacred realm, and came to possess all Việt. The eastern border is the great sea. [The realm] borders Yunnan to the west, Cao Man [i.e., Cambodia] to the south, and Guangdong and Guangxi to the north. The vastness of the realm is unprecedented. However, it is still separated from Dongting, Ba and Shu by a great distance. The old history is therefore inaccurate when it records that the kingdom of Văn Lang came up against Ba and Shu to the west and reached Lake Dongting to the north.

 

Lời cẩn án – Địa giới nước ta từ Trần (1225-1399), Lê (1428-1527) về trước, phía đông giáp biển, phía tây giáp Vân Nam, phía nam giáp Chiêm Thành, phía bắc giáp Quảng Tây, phía đông bắc giáp Quảng Đông, phía tây nam giáp Lão Qua. So sánh với các sách dư địa quận quốc thiên hạ chép nước An Nam phía đông giáp biển, phía tây giáp tỉnh Vân Nam và nước Lão Qua, phía nam giáp nước Chiêm Thành, phía bắc giáp tỉnh Quảng Tây thì đại lược cũng giống nhau.

Đến Quốc triều ta, liệt thánh gây dựng cơ sở ở miền Nam, rồi Thế tổ Cao hoàng đế ta đại định đất nước, thống nhất cả nước Việt: đông giáp biển cả, tây giáp Vân Nam, nam giáp Cao Miên, bắc giáp Quảng Đông và Quảng Tây: bờ cõi rộng rãi, chưa có đời nào được thế. Nhưng cách hồ Động Đình và đất Ba Thục còn xa lắm, thế mà Sử cũ chép nước Văn Lang phía tây giáp Ba Thục, phía bắc giáp Động Đình, chẳng cũng xa sự thực lắm dư!

Emperor Tự Đức more or less agreed with these views. In his “imperial appraisal” (lời phê) to this passage, he stated that,

Imperial Appraisal: According to the Comprehensive Gazetteer of the Great Qing [Da Qing yitong zhi], Guangxi along with Hunan, Hubei, Yunnan and Sichuan together constitute the land of the ancient [kingdoms of] Chu and Shu. How can one know where [the territory] reached? There is much information that Việt histories have long lost, and which can no longer be determined. Most matters are like this.

Lời phê – Theo sách Đại Thanh nhất thống chí ngày nay, Quảng Tây với Hồ Nam, Hồ Bắc, Vân Nam và Tứ Xuyên, tức là đất Sở và Thục xưa đó. Nào biết giáp giới những đâu! Đại để nhiều sự việc trong Việt sử thất truyền đã lâu, không còn dựa vào đâu mà khảo đính được nữa. Mọi việc khác cũng đại loại như thế đấy.

—–

So Emperor Tự Đức did not really know how extensive the kingdom had once been. In which case, what was he referring to when he made the statement about the loss of land? That comment was made in reference to the 111 B.C. incorporation into the Han Dynasty realm of a kingdom which the Qin Dynasty administrator, Zhao Tuo/Triệu Đà, had created and which perhaps covered of parts of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces, as well as parts of the Red River delta.

So this textbook exaggerated when it implied that Emperor Tự Đức had believed that the kingdom had once been so large. It also misquoted him, as his statement referred to a different extent of territory.

Finally, the compilers of this textbook also failed to include the entire statement which Emperor Tự Đức had made. His imperial appraisal had actually ended with these words:

“It is also not just at present that regaining territory is difficult. How sad this is!”

“Thế mới biết việc thu hồi đất đai đã mất, từ đời trước đã là việc khó, chứ không những ngày nay mà thôi. Thật đáng thương tiếc.”

While Emperor Tự Đức was the first to start losing land, his views of the past were much more rational than the compilers of the Cải lương mông học quốc sử giáo khoa thư. In the early twentieth century, the land was gone, and intellectuals turned to emotions and myths. Nationalism was beginning to take hold.