In many histories of Vietnam, there is a period that is referred to as “thời Bắc thuộc” or “the period of Chinese rule.” This term is meant to refer to a period from 111 BC to 939 AD when the area of what is today the Red River Delta and parts of north-central Vietnam was a territory of various “Chinese” empires.
This term is used so widely that I don’t think many people ever question its usefulness, but we should. What is so important about “thời Bắc thuộc” that it makes sense to designate those thousand years as a separate time period?
Premodern Vietnamese histories such as the Việt sử lược and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư created an imagined lineage of autonomous polities in the region, starting either with the kingdom of Nam Việt/Nanyue that Triệu Đà/Zhao Tuo established in the third century BC, or even earlier with the (imagined) Hùng kings. The annexation of Nam Việt/Nanyue by the Han empire placed the region “under the jurisdiction” (thuộc) of the Han Dynasty, and these histories then compiled together information from Chinese sources about the various officials who ruled over the Red River Delta for the next thousand years.
This was an imagined political history. We do not have solid evidence, for instance, to demonstrate that the Kingdom of Nam Việt/Nanyue, which was based in what is today Guangdong Province, extended into the Red River Delta. Therefore, the creation of a history that linked the Kingdom of Nam Việt/Nanyue with Ngô Quyền’s tenth-century kingdom, and with an intervening period when the region was “under the jurisdiction” of various dynasties to the north, was precisely that – a creation. And it was a creation based on political motives.
In the twentieth century, colonial-era French scholars like Henri Maspero saw the thousand-year period of Chinese rule as one that had been of critical importance as “the Chinese” had introduced “the Vietnamese” to a higher level of civilization. This of course nicely matched what some French argued they were doing through their colonial rule, and was therefore a political statement, whether Maspero was conscious of this or not.
Then in the post colonial era, Vietnamese scholars did what countless other anti-colonial nationalist scholars around the world did at that same time – they took the narrative that the colonizers had created and inverted it, placing the colonized on top.
In the case of the narrative about the “Chinese period,” this meant arguing that it had not been so important. Scholars argued that there had already been a sophisticated polity and culture in the Red River Delta before the period of Chinese rule and that the people and culture from that period persevered through the succeeding one thousand years, despite Chinese attempts to “assimilate” them.
American historian Keith Taylor followed the work of Vietnamese scholars and produced an article in English in 1980 entitled “An Evaluation of the Chinese Period in Vietnamese History” that made the same argument. Unlike many Vietnamese scholars at that time, however, Taylor was self-reflexive about what he was doing, and made the following point at the end of his essay:
“I am aware that, by replacing Maspero’s assumption of beneficent imperial influence with the currently popular assumption of indigenous continuity, I, no less than he, exemplify prevailing patterns of thought. Yet, I believe that, in regard to this topic, the outlook of my generation is broader than the outlook of Maspero’s generation.”
Over three decades later, I would say that the current generation should take on an even broader outlook. Why even talk about the “Chinese period” in the first place?
If we take history to be the study of past human societies, then how does designating a period of one thousand years and calling it “the Chinese period” help us understand past societies? What society (or societies) does it help us understand?
When I look at the past, I see a “bronze drum culture” that extended from present-day Thanh Hóa northward to the current provinces of Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong. Yes, the arrival of representatives of various “Chinese” regimes seem to have brought an end to that cultural world, but after that, I don’t see that “Chinese rule” did much else.
Instead, as we head into the first millennium AD, I see more developments taking place beyond the area of Chinese rule along the coast of what is now south-central Vietnam. There the emergence of the confederation of polities that we collectively call “Champa” seems to me to be the where the most evidence for talking about the development of human societies in that larger region for that time period lies.
As for Chinese rule, the one time that it seems important to me is when it falls apart. Here again though, like the bronze drum culture, this is not a development that was restricted to the Red River Delta. Instead, after the Tang Dynasty became weakened by the An Lushan Rebellion of 755-763, much of the Tang empire started to develop in independent and local ways as the various military commissioners (jiedushi 節度使) who controlled much of the empire followed their own paths and created more localized identities.
So a vast bronze drum culture zone, the emergence of the Cham world, and the breaking apart of the Tang Dynasty and the emergence of local rulers – these are three major developments that I think a history of the coastal area of the eastern part of the Southeast Asian mainland should deal with.
So what does the concept of “thời Bắi thuộc” have to do with any of this? How does it help us understand the development of human societies in that part of the world?
I can’t see that it helps much at all. It is a concept that emerged for political reasons, and that has been employed for political reasons. As a tool for helping us understand human societies in the past, I can’t see that it has much use.