Nguyễn Phương on the Origins of the Vietnamese Nation

Nguyễn Phương was a Catholic priest and historian who worked at the University of Hue in the 1960s. In 1965 he published a book entitled Việt Nam thời khai sinh [Vietnam at the Time of its Birth] (Huế: Phòng Nghiên Cứu Sử, Viện Đại Học Huế, 1965).

Many of the chapters in this book had been published individually in journals over the proceeding years, so the contents of this book were probably not a surprise to many readers when the book was finally published. Reading it today, however, it is quite surprising to see what Nguyễn Phương had to say, particularly regarding the origins of the Vietnamese people.

While Nguyễn Phương recognized that people began living in the Red River Delta in distant antiquity, and while he acknowledged that the Trưng sisters had fought to protect their freedom, none of these people, he argued, were the ancestors of the Vietnamese.

The only thing they held in common with the Vietnamese, he contended, was that they had lived before the Vietnamese on the land which would eventually become Vietnam.

Who then were the Vietnamese?

After examining the views of traditional literati and of French scholars from the first half of the twentieth century, Nguyễn Phương argues that the Vietnamese are Chinese who emigrated into the region during the 1,000 years of Chinese rule (dân Việt Nam là người Trung Quốc di cư sang trong thời Bắc thuộc).

There are a lot of details to Nguyễn Phương’s argument which I don’t have time to discuss now, but I thought I’d put the relevant chapter from his book here, as it is not very well known, nor is it easily available.

I don’t agree with Nguyễn Phương’s argument. Those who say that the Vietnamese nation was formed in antiquity and survived through 1,000 years of Chinese rule constitute one extreme. Nguyễn Phương’s idea that the “Vietnamese” are “Chinese” who migrated into the area is the opposite extreme.

The reality was somewhere in between these two extremes. The Vietnamese nation was formed through the contact and interactions of different peoples. How and when exactly that happened, however, has yet to be clearly explained.


28 thoughts on “Nguyễn Phương on the Origins of the Vietnamese Nation

  1. My wife, who grew up in the region near the ancestral palaces of the Hùng kings, has long insisted that the Vietnamese are Chinese for the most part. She believes that true Vietnamese have a larger big toe that points slightly toward the other toes. There aren’t many people like that anymore owing due to all of the inter-mixing with the Chinese over the centuries.

    1. That’s really interesting. The term “Giao Chi/Jiaozhi,” an old Chinese term for the Red River Delta region, can literally be ready to mean “crossed toes.” There’s been alot of debate about where the term comes from and what it literally means. During the French colonial period some peole did go around inspecting people’s toes. I saw an article from the 1930s or so on that. So I wonder if her ideas are a modern “invented tradition” or if they’ve been around longer. My guess would be that it’s a modern idea, but I have no idea how it would have made it’s way to a popular level. Interesting.

      1. My wife says she learned this in the 1980s from the old people in the village – people born around 100 years ago.

      2. Hmmm, and that means that they would have been kids when the French were going around looking at people’s feet. . . First of all, equating one’s body with ethnicity/race screams “modernity.” This totally looks like the type of things that Europeans were saying in the 19th century when they were going around measuring the skull sizes of “natives.” I’ve never seen anything written before the 20th century which even remotely comes close to a topic like this. My guess would be that this is something which the French invented, and that somehow made it into popular consciousness. I’m open to being disproved on this point though.

    1. In the South, as far as I’m aware, during 50’s,60’s, we were taught this way (Giao Chỉ =crosed-toes) at school, and I saw with my own eyes some old people with crossed-toes too. I learnt that Giao Chỉ has anoher interpretation just a few years ago.

    2. One big problem is that “chỉ” can mean toes, feet or legs. I just took a quick look at the Chen Jinghe article, and it looks like many of the explanations before the French started talking about this related more to ideas of crossed legs or feet than toes. One explanation was that the “savages” (man) slept in a kind of circle with their heads facing out and their feet crossing each others feet in the center. Another explanation was that men and women bathed in the same river, and “therefore” it’s called Giao Chi (crossed legs??? feet??).

      Chen found someone in the 6th century who argued that it means “crossed toes” because the big toe turned away from the others and when someone stood their two big toes would therefore cross each other.

      This was the idea that the French picked up on.

      If you think about it, it was probably the only explanation that they could find “proof” of in the current society. People didn’t sleep in a circle with their feet crossed, and I guess men and women didn’t bathe in the same river and cross their legs. . . We can blame Confucianism for that – it takes all of the fun out of life.

      In any case, crossed toes was the obvious choice. But in actuality there is really no way to know for sure what the original meaning was.

      1. Actually “chi” (with ? punctuation or “dau hoi”) means toes while “chi” (without punctuation or “khong dau”) means feet or hands. For example: “than the nguoi ta co ba phan: dau, minh va tu chi”.

      2. ah, but that’s yet another character. Tu chi = 四肢 = the four extremities, i.e., the arms and legs.

        The definition for the “chi” 趾 in “Giao Chi” is 1. 脚 (leg or foot) 2. 脚指头 (toe)

        My sense is that it was used in classical Chinese mainly to refer to legs and feet, and not to toes. For it to refer to toes, some more explanation was necessary. That is why, I think, there were more explanations for “Giao Chi” which talked about legs/feet rather than toes.

      3. Have we or others ever conducted a study on the toes of Muong people? It is believed that Muong was the original Red River delta people without intermixing with Chinese at all or pure Viet.

      4. The historian, Keith Taylor, wrote an article several years ago in which he more or less deconstructed the idea that the Muong are an “original” people. His point was that it was only in the 20th century that the concept of “original” people came into people’s minds, and that they then looked around and (more or less randomly) identified this group, the Muong, who had never really been clearly identified as a unified group before. What is more, the people whom we today refer to as the Muong show lots of signs (particularly in their language) of contact with other peples. So it’s really hard to say that they represent anything “original.”

        With the issue of “crossed toes,” my guess is that this is just what happens to anyone who goes barefoot in the tropics. When you walk around on soft soil a lot, your toes will probably naturally separate in order to give you traction in the soft soil. I seem to recall people noting that people on Borneo also have big toes that stick out to one side. I wouldn’t be surprised if people in places like the Amazon have the same type of feet. So my guess is that it’s environmental rather than genetic. However, I suppose that I need to go to the Amazon and look at people’s toes to prove this one though. . .

  2. I think the belief that Giao Chi people have ‘crossed toes’ have been popularised in Vietnam some time in the 19th century, perhaps through the French education as well as through the elite’s strong awareness of the need to position the Vietnamese as a ‘pure’ nation in the historical context of that time. The meaning associated with ‘crossed toes’ was later transformed by the mass people and they often referred to it to indicate the distance between the big toe and the rest of the foot. My grandmother who passed away at the age of almost 100 years old in 2006 told me a lot about ‘nguoi Giao Chi va ngon chan cai’, and sometimes she even teased me that ‘you’re not Vietnamese as your biggest toe is too close to all the little toes” (sorry for this poor expression in English).

  3. Hi guys,

    I was born in Thanh Hoa, and my grandma who passed away had Giao Chi toe. My feet are pretty normal but I can see a little bit of Giao Chi toe that left in me. Not sure if that can say anything about my genetic.

  4. You know I think after first believing that it was a “racial” sign, French scholars in the colonial period eventually concluded that Giao Chi toe was something that happened to people after they spent years standing on soft soil/mud.

    Sure enough, if you go look at the feet of people who spend their lives in rice fields in places like Indonesia, you will find. . . Giao Chi toe! So either the Giao Chi race has gone on to dominate many areas outside of Vietnam, or it’s just something that naturally happens to people in certain environments.

  5. Could you suggest some books relating to this problem, I mean, some reliable ones of the origin of Vietnamese writtten by Western authors; now I don’t believe in what I was taught and what were written by Vietnamese authors..

  6. To be honest, Western authors haven’t written much about that topic. Keith Taylor published “The Birth of Vietnam” in 1983, and that book basically said the same thing that scholars in Vietnam were saying at that time – that there was a Vietnamese culture before the Chinese came and that it “survived” through 1,000 years of Chinese rule.

    His new book, “A History of the Vietnamese,” more or less ignores the question of origins, but says that the people who lived in the Red River delta at the end of the thousand years of Chinese rule were completely different from the people who had lived there before that time, however he doesn’t clearly document how they were different and why.

    Humility aside, I think that if you want to đi tìm chân lý. . . then reading the posts on this blog will help the most. . . 😉

  7. LMK: “Keith Taylor published “The Birth of Vietnam” in 1983, and that book basically said the same thing that scholars in Vietnam were saying at that time – that there was a Vietnamese culture before the Chinese came and that it “survived” through 1,000 years of Chinese rule.”

    This is almost exactly the point David Marr has made about “The Birth” in his annotated bibliography of Vietnam published in 1992. Taylor, Marr says, “is perhaps too ready to accept proprietary Vietnamese claims over Dongson civilization which preceded Chinese colonization.”

    The funny thing is this: based on recent publications by Taylor that I have come across, I get the impression he is becoming increasingly rightwing… If my impression is correct (big if), then one may argue that the change you notice in “A History” has been more or less anticipated by that notoriously leftwing Marr more than 20 years ago…

    Another point about which one may wonder is whether Nguyễn Phương had ever commented (in print) on tracts authored by Lương Kim Định…

  8. Actually, if one reads “The Birth of Vietnam” carefully, one can see that Taylor was more careful than people assume. He has a footnote which says something like “on the issue of Hung and Lac, I want to think about it more, but for now I’m writing what Vietnamese historians have said,” or something like that. Also, in the main text he says things like “Vietnamese archaeologists have written that” etc. So one could look at that text and argue that it’s already evident from statements like that that Taylor would not necessarily stick by the ideas there over the long run.

    As for going rightwing, I don’t think his ideas fit neatly in either of those categories – rightwing or leftwing. And I think that describes a lot of the new generation of scholars in the West who work on Vietnam, particularly those who focus on the war years, but what they say inevitably comes in dialog with a long history of scholarship that, in many cases, is more clearly rightwing and leftwing.

    In any case, I agree that it’s interesting that Marr made that point back in 1992.

    As for Nguyen Phuong on Luong Kim Dinh, I haven’t seen anything like that, but perhaps it’s there. It’s only recently that people both in and outside of Vietnam have started to try to understand what was going on in the South. I know of one person who has been doing a lot of “digging” and has found journals and books etc. that I don’t think people were aware of.

    Personally, I’d be interested in seeing anything that anyone in the South said about Luong Kim Dinh before 75. Seeing what supporters said would also be interesting, in order to see what resonated with them.

  9. I am clearly a Vietnamese with 5 known generations of the paternal ancestors settling in Ben Tre on the bank of the Mekong river. My genome has been analyzed by the US-based organization Genograhics, and the genetic markers indicate that my ancestors set out from Africa some 60,000 years ago, arrived in Iran some 35,000 years ago, and reached southern China some time later.

    So I am of Chinese descent (as well as African descent) even though I was born in Saigon. My wife is another clear Vietnamese, and her genome says that her maternal ancestors were southern Chinese also.

    Both of us consider ourselves Vietnamese and we support Vietnam in any conflict with China.

    If you guys in this forum have your genes analyzed, I suspect the result would be similar to mine. The analysis costs 100 USD from Genographics.

    1. Thanks a lot for this comment!! I was not aware of the Genographics project and that you could have your DNA included in it. I might have to give it a try. . . 🙂

      The biggest problem with the way that people (Ha Van Thuy, etc.) talk about DNA is that they believe that there is a link between DNA and things like nations and cultures. But nations are “imagined communities” that are made up of peoples with diverse DNA, and cultures are socially created, they are not connected to DNA.

      The iPhone has transformed the world. That has nothing to do with DNA. Steve Jobs (I’m assuming) saw himself as an American. That also has nothing to do with DNA.

      So looking at DNA is interesting for what it tells us about how humans have moved about the earth (individually and in groups), but it doesn’t tell us about much else. It certainly doesn’t tell us anything about what people in the past thought or what their social or cultural lives were like (other than telling us that people with different DNA have slept with each other a lot throughout history. . .).

    2. Hi , I ‘m very , very curious to know how you and your wife look back to the 1000 -year period between Hai Bà trung and Ngô quyên : was it chiinese ” domination ” or belonging ?
      _ the mixed origins of VN people are reflected somehow in the composition of Vn language : one third is Mon- Khmer or nôm words , one third is false nôm Han-derived and these two components are transcritible by nôm characters one – third is Han viêt which is transcriptible by Han characters . The “pure ” nôm words are somehow low-level , popular ( bình dân ) , Han derived are of higher level and Han viêt words express usually very sophisticated concepts
      _ there are grossly two kinds of VN culture : the popular , rural one expressed in ca dao and the Han viêt , văn ngôn (wen yan ) one . The first can be found in Khai tri’ dictionary , most words and expressions are “pure” nôm
      _ Villages in North VN usually have two names : a popular ( nôm , bình dân ) one and a “literary ” one ( tên chữ ) : my birth village ‘s names are
      làng ” Nhót ” ( a kind of reed ) and làng Ðông Phù ( phù = river , flow )
      _ the literati who were succesful in examinations ( trạng ) have also two kinds of surnames ,a literary , Han viet one and the other , the nôm name of their village
      _ my opinion is that the VN case is very much similar to the Latin American one : a aboriginal ” ( like the ” indios ” ) substrata ruled by an upper crust of ” “chinese ” literati immigrants or conquerors ( like the spanish creoles)
      which mingled together

      1. good question re domination vs belonging. High school history made me feel that we Vietnamese were dominated, even though my ancestors could be those Chinese dominators. Nowadays I try to think with a more detached, scientific view. Anyhow if China attacked Vietnam now, my relatives and friends would suffer, so I must support Vietnam.

        Agree that Vietnam was a mixture of several bloodlines, with the Chinese line being dominant as they were the smarter ones (a controversial statement, I know)

        There has been several waves of migration out of Africa. One of the earlier ones was some 70,000 years ago, moving along the southern coast of Asia, giving rise to the aboriginal peoples including those in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Perhaps some of them settled in Vietnam also.

        The most recent migration was some 60,000 years ago, moving into Middle East. From there one branch moved North and became Europeans. Another moved East along Central Asia and became Asians. This wave pushed people from earlier waves to the margin, but of course there was some interbreeding between the waves.

      2. On one level I agree with you, on another level, I think that it is much much more complex than “Chinese vs. aboriginal” because we have to ask ourselves “what is Chinese? and what is aboriginal?”

        The people who are often referred to as “Chinese” are as diverse as the peoples of Europe. Like the peoples of Europe, they speak mutually-unintelligible languages. The main difference with Europe is that whereas both Europe and China had a classical language that served as a lingua franca in the past (Latin and classical Chinese), in modern China a vernacular lingua franca was created (Mandarin), where as no such lingua franca was created in modern Europe (but now English is).

        So were all the “Chinese” administrators who served in the Red River delta the same? Or were they from different parts of “China” and therefore as different from each other as French people and Spaniards?

        And as for the “aboriginals,” were they really one coherent group? If so, who were they? Cham?

        Were then to Thai peoples fit in?

        Vietnam is not “part Chinese/part indigenous” because there is no homogenous entity that we can call “China” and there is no homogenous entity that we can call “indigenous” in the area that we today refer to as Vietnam.

  10. @ Ho Le Khoa
    [ Anyhow if China attacked Vietnam now, my relatives and friends would suffer, so I must support Vietnam.]
    You have patriotic feelings for today VN
    Formerly , in the past feudal times , patriotic love was embodied in the king
    ( trung quân a’i quôc ) . Nowadays , many countries have no more kings ; minds evolved , people are able of abstract concepts . So patriotic feelings turned to the ” nation ” , nationalism .
    A special case , GB , whose patriotism is expressed in the motto ” for queen and country ”

    Today’s VN and China are different polities of the ones in the days of Hai bà Trung . A relevant comparison / VN was at first limited to Tonkin ; then it extended southwards then spraang a southern VN polity , rival of the northern and a ( ” civil” ) war ensues .
    China and VN evolved the same way then they parted their wways , never to be reunited , contrarywise to Nguyên and Trinh polities

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