In his 1983 work, The Birth of Vietnam, Keith Taylor stated that by the time of the establishment of an autonomous polity in the Red River delta in the tenth century, the people there “had learned to articulate their non-Chinese identity in terms of China’s cultural heritage” (xxi).
The idea here is that there was a coherent group of people in the region who were different from the Chinese, and that through contact with the Chinese they changed, and they then “learned to articulate their non-Chinese identity in terms of China’s cultural heritage.” So their identity was still “non-Chinese” but they expressed that “non-Chinese” identity “in terms of China’s cultural heritage.”
This sounds contradictory, but let’s put that aside for a moment and look at a recent study on ethnicity in the past in East Asia in the area to the south of the Yangzi River.
In a volume entitled Empire at the Margins: Culture, Ethnicity, and Frontier in Early Modern China, Wing-hoi Chan has an article on an “ethnic group” known as the She 畲. During the Ming Dynasty period these people were found in the border regions between what is today Guangdong, Fujian and Jiangxi provinces.
Modern historians have argued that the She were indigenous to the region, and that when groups of Hakka migrants moved into the area, they came into conflict with the She. Chan, on the other hand, has offered a much more complex and nuanced explanation of who the She were.
He argues that the She were originally Han Chinese who migrated into that mountainous region to evade taxation. In this unregulated area beyond the state’s control, some of these people sought to ally themselves with groups of Yao, peoples who were (perhaps) indigenous and who, as we saw in posts below, had created a space for themselves on the periphery of the Chinese empire by employing extant textual information (written earlier by “Chinese” authors) about “savages” in the south to define who they were in relation to the (Chinese) state.
Then later, as the Ming Dynasty extended its administration into areas where the She lived, some of the She who lived in these regulated areas of the empire came to be known as Hakka.
What Chan is therefore saying is that the same group of people could be Han, and then become non-Han, and then become Han again. What is more, their ethnicity at a given time was to a large extent determined by their relationship to the state at that time.
What this shows is that ethnicity is malleable. It is something that people create in order to define themselves in relation to others. And it appears when there is some kind of need to define oneself in relation to others. (Alternately, it can be something that one group sees in another group when they come into contact.)
With that in mind, let’s look at the area of the Red River delta. The ruling families of both the Lý and the Trần dynasties are recorded to have come from Mân (Chn., Min 閩) or what is today Fujian Province, whereas the family that established the short-lived Hồ Dynasty at the turn of the fifteenth century was said to have come from the area of what is today Zhejiang Province.
While the ruling elite in the Red River Delta likely included more people then these families and therefore was probably multi-ethnic, it is clear that they were “Sinicized.” When they created a sense of identity for themselves starting in the tenth century AD on the edge of the imperial Chinese world (and I would say that this was a political identity at first, that then became an ethnic identity later), they did so in such a thoroughly Sinitic manner that it is virtually impossible to see anything “indigenous” in the political identity that they created for themselves (see the post below on “The Yao versus the Việt”).
So instead of Taylor’s claim that people in the Red River delta “had learned to articulate their non-Chinese identity in terms of China’s cultural heritage,” I would argue that the political elite in the Red River delta in the tenth to fifteenth centuries were themselves members of “China’s cultural heritage.” They had no “non-Chinese identity” that they could express.
The people who did have such an identity were people in the area that this elite viewed as “savages” (man 蠻), and saw themselves in opposition to. The elite were different, and it is the elite who started to define at that time what we now understand to be “Việt.” Ethnicity is malleable indeed.