What do Đông Sơn Bronze Drums have to do with the Việt?

Đông Sơn bronze drums are beautiful artifacts that attest to the sophistication of the people who made them, but how were those people related to the people who eventually came to refer to themselves as the Việt?


I was thinking about this question while reading an entry in Lê Tắc’s fourteenth-century Brief Treatise on An Nam (An Nam chí lược) about the “Lạo Tử” (獠子).

Lạo Tử were “savages” who lived in areas stretching from modern Hunan Province to northern Vietnam. Lê Tắc describes some of their characteristics, and then says the following about them:

“They are fond of warring with enemies and they beat bronze drums. They value big ones. When a drum is first completed, they place it in a courtyard with wine and invite their fellow kind. Those who come fill [the courtyard] to the gates. The daughter of the notable takes a gold or silver hairpin and strikes the drum, after which she leaves it with the owner.”

[For the entire passage, click here.]


In this passage, Lê Tắc clearly indicates that bronze drums were important for the Lạo Tử. He also makes it clear that he considered them to be “savages.”

What this shows is that Lê Tắc saw himself as different from people who made use of bronze drums. What is more, Lê Tắc was Việt. So if Việt in the fourteenth century saw themselves as different from people who made use of bronze drums, then how were they related to the people who had created Đông Sơn bronze drums in the same area during the first millennium BC?

Were they the same people, but their culture had changed? If that is the case, then that was a major change. In fact, it means that they changed so much that they came to identify themselves in opposition to the people they used to be.

In such a situation, what continues? If people change their lives this dramatically, is there something that doesn’t change? If so, what? And how can we identify it?

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