“Nước non bờ cõi đã chia, phong tục Bắc Nam cũng khác.”
This famous line comes from the fifteenth-century “Bình Ngô đại cáo” (Great Proclamation upon the Pacification of the Ngô) by Nguyễn Trãi. Today it is often translated as something like:
“Just as the territories of the mountains are rivers are distinct, so are the customs of the North and South also different.”
“North” and “South” are interpreted as a reference to what we would today call “China” and “Vietnam,” and these two words are always capitalized in the Vietnamese versions as “Bắc Nam” to indicate this point.
As common sense as this reading has become, it is quite recent.
Trần Trọng Kim did not capitalize those two terms in his Việt Nam sử lược (1921). The editions that get published in Vietnam today follow this usage (at least the ones I’ve seen).
I have a 1950 second edition of a book printed in Saigon called Quốc văn cụ thể by Bùi Kỷ. He also did not capitalize “bắc nam.” And given that he does capitalize “Việt,” I would think that this means that he did not think that “bắc nam” here was referring to the “North” and “South.”
In 1952, Ưng-Quả made what I believe is the first French translation of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” and published it in the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient. He translated that line and the one before it as follows:
“Or notre État de Đai-Việt est incontestablement un pays où fleurissent la culture et les nobles institutions qui s’y rattachent. Les montagnes et les fleuves donnent à sa physionomie physique des aspects différents; du sud au nord les moeurs et les coutumes font d’autre part la variété (de sa physionomie morale).”
The way Ưng-Quả interpreted this line was that the mountains and rivers provided variety to Đại Việt’s physical character, whereas the different customs and mores provided variety to Đại Việt’s moral character. In other words, he clearly saw the “north” and “south” as referring to areas within the Kingdom of Đại Việt.
I then have a third edition of Mạc Bảo Thần’s translation of the Lam Sơn thực lục from 1956. This work was published in Saigon. Here again, “bắc” and “nam” are not capitalized, although “Việt” is.
Then there is Trường Bửu Lâm’s English translation from 1967. He says in his brief introduction to the translation that “The opening passage invokes the principle of the autonomy of Vietnam in its relationship to China and claims for Vietnam a destiny separate from China’s.”
Trường Bửu Lâm then translated the opening passage as follows:
“Our state of Dai Viet is indeed a country wherein culture and institutions have flourished. Our mountains and rivers have their characteristic features, but our habits and customs are not the same from north to south.”
Finally, we can look at a 1972 translation of Bùi Huy Bích’s Hoàng Việt văn tuyển that was published in Saigon. It also does not capitalize “north” and “south.”
So there clearly appears to have been a tradition of reading that line with the “bắc” and “nam” as un-capitalized and as referring to differences within Đại Việt. This tradition appears to have begun during the colonial period, and it continued to be upheld in South Vietnam.
What happened in other areas?
In 1949, there was a history published in Thuận Hóa by Dương Kỵ called the Việt sử khảo lược. It cited the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” but not the passage which mentions “north” and “south.”
Also in 1949, Phạm Văn Sơn published his Việt Nam tranh đấu sử, although I am not certain where it was published. It does cite that passage from the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” but it does not capitalize “bắc” and “nam.”
Moving to Hanoi, Nguyễn Duy Phương’s 1945 Lịch sử độc lập và nội các đầu tiên Việt Nam cites the translation of Trần Trọng Kim who of course did not capitalize those terms.
In 1951, Nguyễn Ngọc Kim published a work in Hanoi on the author of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” entitled Nguyễn Trãi: Thân thế và sự nghiệp. Nguyễn Ngọc Kim likewise did not capitalize those terms, and in the passage of his text before he presents the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” he mentions “our Southern heroes” (anh hùng Nam ta) and capitalizes the word for “South.”
So it seems clear that Nguyễn Ngọc Kim felt that it was necessary to capitalize that term when one referred to the “the South” as a country. And yet in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” he did not capitalize that term.
One work which I have not been able to consult, but would love to, is an article in a 1955 issue of the journal Văn sử địa in which it was debated whether the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” should be included in Vietnamese literature. The conclusion was that it should, but it is interesting that such a discussion took place.
Jumping ahead to 1972, we find that an anthology of Vietnamese literature in French translation was published in Hanoi, and that here the translation makes it perfectly clear that the “bắc” and “nam” were now being interpreted to mean “Bắc” and “Nam.” To quote,
“Terre du Sud, elle a ses fleuves, ses montagnes,
Ses moeurs, ses coutumes, distinctes de ceux du Nord.”
“The land of the South has its rivers and mountains,
And its mores and customs that are distinct from those of the North.”
And finally, when the collected works of Nguyễn Trãi were published in Hanoi in 1976, “bắc” and “nam” were now “Bắc” and “Nam.”
What these above works indicate is that the current reading of that now-famous line in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was decided upon in North Vietnam at some point in the 1950s-1960s.
That being the case, I think it is logical to ask some questions: Is that reading accurate? How do we know? Why was that reading agreed upon at that place and at that time? Was it because the scholars there produced work that was more insightful than scholars had before? Was it superior to the work of their contemporaries in South Vietnam? Or should we look to other factors, such as the influence of nationalism and wartime politics, to explain this change?
Why did bắc nam become Bắc Nam?