Several months ago a reader asked me to respond to an article (here) that essentially makes an argument that has been made many times before, namely that the Việt are the last of the “Hundred Việt/Yue” (Bách Việt), and that they avoided being assimilated by the Han by moving southward and maintaining their independence.

The author of the article argues that the Việt maintained a consciousness of being Việt throughout the centuries and that they maintained the cultural heritage of the Hundred Việt, although the author never clearly explains what constitutes that cultural heritage.

I started to write a response (here) by pointing out that we don’t have evidence that any of the people whom “the Chinese” labeled the Hundred Việt/Yue in the first millennium BC actually called themselves “Việt/Yue” or had a consciousness of themselves as “Việt/Yue” (with perhaps the one exception of the elite in the Kingdom of Yue).

jade suit

What we do have evidence of is that over a period of many centuries from the end of the BC period to around 1,000 AD there were various Sinicized elite figures (Zhao Tuo, Lý Bí, Lin Shihong, Feng Ang, etc.) who used the term Việt/Yue in the names of polities that they established.

Does this mean that they named their kingdoms after the people who lived there? We have no evidence of this. What seems likely is that they were simply using a literary term that was associated with that region of the world.

One of the reasons why the term Việt does not seem to refer to a people or a “consciousness” or a “cultural heritage” during the first millennium AD is that we do not have evidence of a culture that was shared by the commoners and the elite.

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From what scholars have discovered of the Hundred Viêt/Yue culture, it resembled the world of what I have called the “Đông Sơn headhunters” (here) more than that of Zhao Tuo or Lý Công Uẩn. That world clearly disappeared.

This is a point that many historians have recognized. In the 1960s, for instance, historian Nguyễn Phương argued that the Việt were Han who had migrated into the Red River delta during the first millennium AD (see here) and replaced the earlier inhabitants. This was not his original idea. Instead, it is a view that scholars in Vietnam started to express in the early twentieth century when they were first exposed to the concept of race.

This idea that there were large numbers of migrants who basically changed the culture of the Red River delta is not supported by historical or archaeological evidence. However, one does not need a large population to bring about significant cultural and linguistic change.

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To understand this we need to think about two articles that I’ve written about on this blog: Richard A. O’Conner’s “Agricultural Change and Ethnic Succession in Southeast Asian States: A Case for Regional Anthropology” (here) and John Phan’s “Re-Imagining ‘Annam’: A New Analysis of Sino-Viet-Muong Linguistic Contact” (here).

As I’ve written before, John Phan argues that the Vietnamese language was created when some speakers of a Chinese dialect switched to speaking a local language (like the Normans in England) somewhere around the ninth-tenth centuries, and Richard O’Conner argues that people like the “Việt” came into existence through participation in wet rice agriculture. In particular, he contends that people of different ethnicities gradually formed into a single “ethnic group” as they came to follow the same rituals and communicate with the officials (using the “new” language that John Phan identifies) who oversaw the control of water, collection taxes, etc.

What I see happening is this. Rather than there being one group of the “Hundred Việt” that “survived,” what likely happened is that in the period near the end of the Tang dynasty, there were members of the elite in the area of what is now southern China and northern Vietnam who started to carve out their own spheres of influence and who started to create a local sense for themselves (this actually happened all over the Tang empire at that time).

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They did not do this by identifying with the local people. Indeed, they tended to view many of the people around them as “savages” (man). Instead, they utilized some information that existed in written sources (like the records of Zhao Tuo’s Kingdom of Southern Yue/Việt) to create titles for their local polities and to connect their new realms to information in ancient texts.

In such an environment, it makes sense that someone like Lý Công Uẩn could move from the area of what is today Fujian and end up ruling over a kingdom in the Red River delta. He could do so because the elite across this region shared a common elite culture.

Today many people have the desire to ethnically differentiate some of the people who lived during this extended time period. People want to argue that Nong Zhigao/Nùng Trí Cao, for instance, was “Tai,” while Feng Ang was “Chinese,” etc.

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In reality, the elite across this region probably shared more cultural similarities with each other than they did with the people they ruled over. There was no reason for any of the small polities at that time to be ruled over by people who were ethnically homogenous because they were unified by an elite culture, and it is unlikely that the elite in any of these places were ethnically all the same.

If Lý Công Uẩn was indeed from Fujian, it is unlikely that everyone in his government was ethnically the same as him. What did unite the ruling elite is that they shared a common culture, and communicated in a common language (which was undoubtedly a second language for some).

And if John Phan is correct, then the language spoken by the elite in the Red River delta at the the time that Lý Công Uẩn came to power was still quite new. Further, if this language was formed when speakers of a local Chinese dialect “switched over” to speaking a local language and brought much of their vocabulary with them in the process, then it probably would not have been very difficult for a Sinicized person from Fujian to learn that language, as it probably shared many words with his own language.

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With time, all of this changed, and it changed as this elite culture slowly spread to the common people. How did this happen? In part through the processes that O’Connor refers to. By following the orders of the elite to engage in wet rice agriculture, by following the rituals that the elite established, by listening to the stories that the elite created about local spirits in an effort to bring those spirits (and the local people who believed them) under their authority, and by communicating with the elite in the language that the elite spoke, the common people gradually changed (of course the process was not entirely one-way, but I would argue that the elite influence on the non-elite was much more significant – as has been the case everywhere around the world).

This process took centuries, and in fact it is still ongoing. There are still people in Vietnam today who are in the process of becoming Việt.

Therefore, what I would argue is that it is not the case that the Việt are the “last of the Hundred Việt,” but instead that they are the “first of the Hundred Việt,” as the culture and language that is now recognized as “Việt” only started to come into existence near the end of the first millennium AD, and it is through this process that a group of people started to refer to themselves as “Việt” (rather than being labelled by outsiders with that term, as had been the case in the first millennium BC with the Hundred Việt/Yue mentioned in sources from that time period), and to imagine themselves as a descendent group of the “Hundred Việt/Yue.”

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In creating this culture, the elite made use of information that had been recorded about that region of the world in the past (this is where some of the information in texts like the Lĩnh Nam chích quái, for instance, comes from) and the use of the term “Việt” was, in hindsight, one of the most important pieces of information from the past that they employed.

But it was a term that they discovered, not one that they inherited. For the people whom “the Chinese” originally referred to as “the Việt/Yue” did not know that they were “the Việt/Yue.” We have no idea how they referred to themselves, for those people – the Đông Sơn headhunters and all of the various peoples who lived across what is now southern China – and their cultural heritage, were long gone by the time that Lý Công Uẩn arrived on the scene.