Not long ago I wrote (here) about an article by Bác sĩ Kiều Quang Chẩn in which he argues that the custom of headhunting probably existed in the Red River Delta during the Đông Sơn period. Part of his argument is that images of what look like people holding decapitated heads appear on some bronze drums.

While we cannot be sure if the people who made the bronze drums were headhunters, we do feel confident in assuming that bronze drums were important for them.


This then made me ask a couple of days ago (here) what happened to the people for whom the Đông Sơn bronze drums were important, because in the fourteenth century we can see Lê Tắc, categorizing people who used bronze drums as “savages.”

I think the answer lies in a passage from the earliest source purported to be about the Red River Delta, the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region [交州外域記, Jiaozhou waiyu ji], which is cited in Li Daoyuan’s sixth-century Annotated Classic of Waterways [水經注, Shuijing zhu]. The passage I am referring to is very famous and goes as follows:


“The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region states that ‘In the past, before Jiaozhi [i.e., Giao Chỉ] had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters. The people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. Lạc princes and lạc marquises were appointed to control the various commanderies and districts. Many of the districts had lạc generals. The lạc generals had bronze seals on green ribbons.’”

This passage is confusing in that it is supposed to be about a time before Han Dynasty rule over the area (i.e., before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts) and yet it mentions lạc officials ruling over Han Dynasty administrative units(i.e., commanderies and districts), and using Han Dynasty symbols of rule (i.e., bronze seals on green ribbons).

I argued a long time ago (here) that this passage seems to actually be recording information about collaboration. In talking about lạc officials ruling over Han Dynasty administrative units, and using Han Dynasty symbols of rule, this passage seems to be indicating that some “Đông Sơn headhunters” eventually became Han Dynasty local officials.

Another point that is interesting about this passage is its description of lạc fields as employing “the rising and falling of the floodwaters.” While some people say that this should be translated as “tides” instead of floodwaters, either way what I would argue is that it represents the use of inundation (i.e., floodwaters) for rice cultivation.

Why is that important? Because as I mentioned here, anthropologist Richard O’Connor has argued that there was a major transition in mainland Southeast Asia from one type of agro-cultural complex to another, where the utilization of floodwaters was replaced by irrigated wet-rice cultivation.


With this in mind, the famous passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region can indicate to us what happened to the “Đông Sơn headhunters.” In collaborating with the Han Dynasty and using bronze seals on green ribbons instead of bronze drums as status symbols (and perhaps by giving up headhunting as well), their earlier high culture came to be replaced by a new high culture.

And by eventually switching from cultivation by using floodwaters to irrigated wet-rice cultivation, numerous aspects of their common culture likely changed as well.

In other words, while many people have cited the above passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region to argue that there was a “nation” in the Red River Delta before “the Chinese” came, I would argue that this same passage is really about the impending disappearance of a people and their culture.

It points to the first signs of social and cultural changes, changes that would ultimately lead to the disappearance of the “Đông Sơn headhunters.”

The images above are from / Bibliothèque nationale de France.