The Foreign Origins of Premodern Monarchs

Some people are very defensive about the issue of the origins of people like Lý Công Uẩn and the Trần family that founded the Trần Dynasty. There are accounts that indicate that these people were from Mân (or what is today Fujian Province) and this gets some people upset.

First, from such accounts we cannot tell for certain what the ethnicity of such people was. All this indicates is that they were “outsiders” who took up residence in the Red River Delta.

Second, and more importantly, that some premodern rulers were not native to the place they governed over should not surprise us, as this was an extremely common phenomenon in world history.

Just by coincidence, I came across an article from an American newspaper called The Clinton Morning Age from 1903 which was about “Kings of Foreign Blood.” That article begins as follows:

“It is strange how little really native blood the royal families of Europe have in their veins. The king of Greece is generally called a Dane, being second son of the King of Denmark, but as the king of Denmark was a prince of Schleswig-Holstein, the Danish and Grecian reigning houses are both of German extraction. . .”

A little over a decade after this article was written, the name of the royal house of the United Kingdom was changed from the German “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” to the English “Windsor” due to anti-German sentiment at the time. As for the blood that flows through the veins of the royal family, that did not change.

Then there is the great “Russian” novel, War and Peace. What language does it begin in? French. And who speaks those opening lines in French? Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid of honor of the empress, and a woman with a German surname.

The world that many people today want to imagine existed in the past (a world of separate nations where everyone united together for a common purpose) simply never existed. It is a product of our twentieth-century imagination.

If there was unity in the past, it was among the transnational elite, rather than within kingdoms. The Russian ruling family had more in common with aristocrats in Paris (hence their preference to use French in War and Peace) than they did with the peasants in their backyards.

The rise of nationalism in the twentieth century changed this. But just as the name “Windsor” can’t eliminate the “German” blood that flows through the veins of the “English” royal family, the twentieth century nationalist imagination of the past doesn’t eliminate the evidence that the past was different. It just makes the differences in the past feel uncomfortable to people today who have been brought up to believe that their nationalist view of the past is true. That, however, is the problem with nationalism, not with history.

Here is the full article from the The Clinton Morning Age:

2 thoughts on “The Foreign Origins of Premodern Monarchs

  1. The origin of the Tran family was written about in Dai Viet su ky toan thu (a Vietnamese source) so people in VN should not be upset about it. The fact that it comes from a Vietnamese source doesn’t guarantee its veracity. However, it could at least shut up the Viet nationalists.
    However, you’ve based the origin of Ly Cong Uan on a couple of very questionable Chinese sources. I can understand why it’s not so palatable to many people in VN. The parallel that you draw with the European royal families is interesting but doesn’t hold much water here because it disregards the contemporary East Asian dynamic. In contemporary Europe, there is no one power that wants to co-opt and absolve all “good” things and claims those things as belonging to it like China is doing now and has always been doing in Asia.

  2. Your apparent ranting fits well with how Liam Kelley describes the heightened anti-China nationalism seen in Vietnam that was brewed in the beginning of the 20th century. You used “very questionable Chinese sources” to discredit the origin story of Ly Cong Uan; but those sources (as recorded in the wiki reference here are the best we have so far, so let’s see if other scholars can uncover a different origin narrative.

    Liam used “European royal families” as examples of how members from an outside realm could readily reach the top spot in another nation through royal familial relationship. That’s my understanding. Yet you attempted to discredit that concept by branching off to something very different, essentially to attack China. You said stuff like Europe has a different dynamics, that no country there is taking credits for all “good” things, and use that to attack China as if China has been taking credits for all “good” things. So what do you mean by “good”, in evil quotations (as Liam often would say). I suppose that must be about the conflicts over Paracel and Spratly rocks. Or what else can it be? If I’m correct, that’s it’s about territory, then countries in Europe now still have plenty of unresolved conflicts (e.g., so right away your assertion has failed.

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