“Kẻ” is a Vietnamese word which many scholars have attempted to explain. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation. In this post here I am going to provide a summary of what the Taiwanese scholar, Chen Jinghe (Trần Kinh Hóa), wrote about this term in 1950.

[Chen Jinghe 陳荊和, “Yuenan Dongjing difang zhi techeng ‘Kẻ’” 越南東京地方之特稱“Kẻ” [The unique name “Kẻ” in the Tonkin region of Vietnam], Guoli Taiwan daxue wen shi zhe xuebao 國力臺灣大學文史哲學報 1 (1950): 201-235.]

I’m not clear where kẻ came from, and I’m not sure if it is related to cổ/gu 古 as Chen Jinghe argues in his article. A lot has been written about this, and Chen Jinghe’s article probably doesn’t add much that is new, but it was an impressive piece of work for a young scholar to produce in 1950, and it is still worth reading.

As far as I know, unlike his article on the term “Giao Chỉ” that I discussed here, this article was never translated into Vietnamese. I’ve attached the original Chinese version below. For those who cannot read Chinese, I’m providing a summary of his (long) argument here.

Chen Jinghe – Ke

What follows are Chen Jinghe’s ideas. Not mine. This is a summary of his article.

Since the final centuries of the BC period, place names in the Red River delta have historically been written with two Chinese characters. However, they also had demotic (i.e., Việt or some other language) names which consisted of a single “word” preceded by a term for some physical marker like hồ (lake), chợ (market) or chùa (temple). These demotic names which follow a physical marker can be categorized in one of three ways:

1. At times a word which has the same or similar sound as one of the Chinese characters is used.

2. At times a word which has the same meaning as one of the Chinese characters is used.

3. At times a word which is unrelated in sound and meaning to the Chinese-character name is used.

While many demotic names are preceded by some physical marker, like hồ, or chợ, or chùa, many are preceded by this term kẻ. The most famous example is the demotic name for Hanoi = Kẻ Chợ (Chợ = market).

However, Chen Jinghe found other examples from the writings of French scholars in the twentieth century, as well as French missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (he had to find examples there because the Vietnamese did not write these names themselves. They recorded the Chinese versions of village names).

Place names that began with kẻ were found all over northern Vietnam, but as you moved into the center they started to lessen in number, and disappeared in the south. So it is by no means the case that these were only in the “borderlands.” Some examples (diacritics not provided in the article) from northern Vietnam include:

Ke Loi, Ke Tuom, Ke Noi, Ke Mai, Ke Chinh, Ke Bac, Ke Mle, Ke Som, Ke Blou, Ke Thap Tuc, Ke Dou Tri, Ke Vac, Ke Rua, Ke Coi, and on and on. . .

Most early Vietnamese dictionaries simply say that kẻ means “person.” However, Gustave Hue’s Dictionnaire Annamite-Chinois-Francais (Saigon: Trung Hoa, 1937) also says that it is a numeral for villages, and that it precedes the name of Vietnamese villages.

This doesn’t satisfy Chen, so he keeps looking for answers. Here he makes an interesting discovery. In the seventeenth century there were four large administrative units around Hanoi, which more or less corresponded to the four directions the official names of which were as follows: Sơn Nam [mountain + south], Sơn Tây [mountain + west], Kinh Bắc [capital + north], and Hải Dương [sea + sun].

A work published in France in 1653 (Divers Voyages et Missions du P. Alexandre de Rhodes), however, refers to these four administrative regions as Kenam [nam = south], Ketay [tây = west], Kebac [bắc = north], and Kedom [“dom” = đông = east].

Then below each of these names, the map has in French “or the residents of the south/west/north/east” etc. So it says, for instance, “Ketay ou Habitans (sic.) a l’Occident. These were probably the colloquial names of these regions, and they were somehow translated as meaning “residents” rather than places.

While this may have just been a case of something getting lost in translation, it gets Chen Jinghe onto the topic of looking at kẻ as meaning “person” or “people.” He finds that European travelers around the same time recorded that the Vietnamese referred to the “savages” in the mountains as “ke moi.” The meaning in Vietnamese of moi on its own is “savage,” and is a derogatory term for the peoples in the Central Highlands.

He also notes that kẻ is used in limited ways in spoken Vietnamese to mean person/people. There are expressions like kẻ giầu người nghèo [person rich person poor = “some are rich, some are poor”] where kẻ is combined with the more common Vietnamese word for person, người.

He then goes off on a long digression about premodern Vietnamese social structure and argues that Vietnamese lived in compact, specialized villages, and that kẻ could mean not “person” but “a group of people” in such a setting. And indeed, in its limited modern usage, kẻ is sometimes used like that, to refer to a group of people of a certain type (kẻ chợ = people who live in a lively town environment).

Turning to a related topic, Chen Jinghe then also points out that there are many official Chinese place names in Vietnam that start with a “k/g” sound. Here he lists many village names which start with characters like cổ/gu 古.

He cites the work of a Chinese scholar — Xu Songshi 徐松石, Taizu, Zhuangzu, Yuezu kao 泰族徨族粵族考 [Research on the Tai, Zhuang and Yue (i.e., Cantonese)] (Yongning, Zhonghua shuju, 1946), 208-9 — who says that the character cổ/gu 古 used in place names comes from Zhuang and that is has been interpreted in many ways, from meaning “I” to a classifier (個), to meaning a mountain with no vegetation on it (which he says is “khaw,” from where we get the common term in Central Thai for mountain, “khaaw”). He also mentions that such place names can be found from Anhui all of the way to Guangxi, an area where he argues Tai speakers historically inhabited.

Xu Songshi also cites a work which was published in 1877 — Xu Yanxu’s 徐延旭 Yuenan jilue 越南輯略 [Brief compilation on Vietnam] — which apparently contains a map of the districts in Vietnam when it was under Chinese control in the early fifteenth century. It has district names such as the following:

Cỏ Bảng 古榜, Cổ Lão 古老, Cổ Lễ 古禮, Cổ Dũng 古勇, Cổ Nông 古農 (and many more names that begin with cổ/gu), Na Ngạn 那岸, Đa Cẩm 多錦, Tư Dung 思容, Điều Yên 調安.

According to Xu Songshi, cổ, na (field), đa, tư, and điều are all Zhuang words. But he doesn’t say what these other words mean.

Based on this connection with Tai-speaking peoples that Xu Songshi made, Chen Jinghe then argued that cổ/gu 古 was related to the Tai word for person, “khon.” He argued further that kẻ and khon came from a common source, and that cổ/gu 古 was one of the ways that it was transcribed in Chinese.

He then lists the word for person in several languages. In addition to the various cases of kon, kun, can, he also has the following:

White Tai: Ke (adult, for peoples around 25-40 — and for this he cites Georges Minot, “Dictionnaire Tay-blanc Francaise,” BEFEO 40 (1940), 92.) [This is not very convincing because they also have the word kun for person/people (p. 102).]

Red Tai: Po ke (male person) and Me ke (female person) — R. Robert, Notes sur les Tay Deng de Lang Chang, Thanh-hoa, Annam (Hanoi: Impr. d’Extrême-Orient, 1941), 128. I checked this and saw that there is also the term ke mo, “sorcerer” (p. 129).

In conclusion, all of the above information can be summarized as follows:

You apparently have place names stretching from central Vietnam to Anhui which were written starting with the Chinese character cổ/gu 古, or other similar sounding characters. Xu Songshi and then Chen Jinghe argued that this represents a Tai word for person/people.

You also have all of these spoken place names that start with kẻ in northern and north-central Vietnam. Chen Jinghe and others argues that this word can mean person/people.

Chen Jinghe then concluded that this was a sign that there historically were Tai in the Red River Delta. Today I don’t think Tai linguists would agree, as they see Tai-speaking peoples remaining in the area of what is today Guangxi until around 1,000 AD, when they started to migrate out of that region.