I was looking through the fourteenth century Brief Treatise on An Nam (An Nam chí lược) a while ago and came across a passage on “Lạo Tử” (獠子). This term refers to a type of people who at that time lived in an area stretching from what is today southwestern China through parts of northwestern Vietnam and eastern Laos.

This first character can be pronounced Liêu in Vietnamese and Liao in Chinese. However, when referring to these peoples who inhabited an area from southwestern China into the Vietnam-Laos border regions, this character is usually pronounced Lạo/Lao.

While it would be tempting to call these people “Lao,” in actuality this term probably referred to various peoples, from Lao to Black Tai to even some speakers of languages that were not part of the Tai language family.

In any case, this is what the Brief Treatise on An Nam had to say about them:

Lạo Tử is another name for savages. There are many in Huguang and Yunnan. Some serve Giao Chỉ.* There are also some who tattoo their foreheads and bore their teeth. There are quite a few different types of them. It was recorded in the past that there are Head-Shaped Lạo Tử, Red-Pants Lạo Tử and Nose-Drinking Lạo Tử.** They all live in cliff caverns or nest huts. They drink wine through reeds. They are fond of warring with enemies and they beat bronze drums. They value big ones. When a drum is first completed, they place it in a courtyard with wine and invite their fellow kind. Those who come fill [the courtyard] to the gates. The daughter of the notable takes a gold or silver hairpin and strikes the drum, after which she leaves it with the owner. Some say that the bronze drums were the gongs used by Zhuge Liang when he campaigned against the savages [in 225 A.D.].

*“Huguang” refers to the area of what is today Hunanand Guangxi Provinces. “Giao Chỉ” (Chn., Jiaozhi) is an old name for the Red River delta region. It is not clear how the Lạo Tử “served” (服役, phục dịch) Giao Chỉ as this term can refer to labor or military service.

**The name “Head-Shaped Lạo Tử” (頭形獠子, Đầu Hình Lạo Tử) is likely a mistake for the name “Flying-Head Lạo Tử” (飛頭獠子, Phi Đầu Lạo Tử). That at least is how a certain type of Lạo Tử was referred to in Chinese sources, and all of these other names are the same as names of Lạo Tử that are mentioned in Chinese sources.

This is from Lê Tắc 黎崱, An Nam chí lược 安南志略 [Brief treatise on An Nam], (Siku quanshu ed., orig. comp., 1333) 1/20a. The Vietnamese translation below is based on a slightly different version of this text which says that “most of them know how to use crossbows and beat bronze drums” where the above text has “they are fond of warring with enemies and they beat bronze drums.”