When medieval Việt scholars wrote the first histories of the Red River Delta region, they structured their histories around the political principle of an “orthodox line of succession” (正統, chính thống) from one ruler to another.
The [Đại] Việt sử lược began this line of succession with Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo, a man who was from the area of what is today Hebei Province, but who established his own kingdom in the area of what is today Guangdong Province and declared himself to be an “emperor” in the late third century BCE.
An envoy from the Han Dynasty subsequently convinced Zhao Tuo to stop using the term “emperor,” and his successor therefore appears in Chinese sources and the [Đại] Việt sử lược as “King Văn/Wen” (Văn vương/Wenwang), “king” being an acceptable term for the ruler of a polity which had declared its allegiance to the Han, which is what Zhao Tuo was supposedly persuaded to do.
The later Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư extended the “orthodox line of succession” further back into history to the mythical Kinh Kinh Dương, and passed through the Hùng kings to Zhao Tuo.
Like Chinese histories, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư also indicated that Zhao Tuo gave up using the title of “emperor” and it refers to his successor as “King Văn/Wen.”
In fact, the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư does not merely follow the content of earlier Chinese dynastic histories on this point, the information it offers is in many cases word-for-word the same.
This leads to various questions: Are works like the [Đại] Việt sử lược and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư part of a separate Việt historical tradition? Or are they medieval creations which relied on extant Chinese written sources? Put another way, do they contain any historical memory, or were they compiled by people who simply looked at what had already been written by Chinese scholars?
Archaeology can help us answer these questions. In the 1980s, Chinese archaeologists unearthed the tomb of what they believe was Zhao Tuo’s successor, “King Văn/Wen.” Much to their surprise, however, they found in the tomb a seal for “Emperor Văn/Wen” (文帝行璽).
While Chinese and Việt historical sources indicate that Zhao Tuo stopped using the title, “emperor,” this archaeological find indicates that this is not what happened. Instead, his successor continued to use the title, “emperor.”
As I mentioned above, the first Việt histories were structured around the concept of the political principle of an “orthodox line of succession.” The fact that Zhao Tuo had declared himself “emperor” was very important for these works, as he was the first person in “the South” to do so.
Given how important this concept was, why don’t these works indicate that his successor also used the title of emperor?
They don’t mention this because there was no historical memory and no historical tradition in the region. The [Đại] Việt sử lược and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư are the products of a process of historical invention that took place in the medieval period. There is no memory in these works.
This then leads us to an even bigger question. If Việt historians did not remember “Emperor Văn/Wen,” then how could they have remembered the even earlier Hùng kings?