In the eleventh lunar month of the fifth year of Emperor Gia Long’s reign (1806), Minister of the Ministry of War Lê Quang Định submitted to the emperor a completed text entitled the Treatise on the Unified Territory (Nhất thống dư địa chi 一統輿地志).

Lê Quang Định had earlier been ordered by the emperor to examine maps and records from throughout the kingdom, from Thuận Hóa in the center all of the way south to Hà Tiên and north to Lạng Sơn.

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Lê Quang Định was to record information about each citadel (thành 城), encampment (dinh 營), defense command (trấn 鎮) and circuit (đạo 道). He was also to record information about the terrain, roads, rivers, borders, bridges, markets, customs and local products throughout the land.

After working on this project for three years, Lê Quang Định presented his completed text to Emperor Gia Long in 1806. At the same time, he submitted a memorial (biểu 表) in which he introduced the rationale for having produce the text.

In that document, there is a passage where Lê Quang Định talks about how the Nguyễn Dynasty had come to control the entire land. This is how it has been translated into Vietnamese:

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“May được trời cao giúp rập, thánh triều ta từ miền đông kế tục khôi phục lại nước Nam. . .”

And this is what the original text says: 肆皇天之敷佑聖朝,由東土而嗣興南服. . .

My loose translation at the moment is: “With the assistance of August Heaven (Hoàng Thiên 皇天) to the Sacred Court (Thánh Triều 聖朝), it inherited and revived (tự hưng 嗣興) the Southern Submitted Zone (Nam Phục 南服) from the Eastern Land (đông thổ 東土).”

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Now I have a problem with translating “Nam Phục” (the Southern Submitted Zone) as “nước Nam” (the Southern Country), but putting that aside for the moment, I have a really big problem with translating “đông thổ” (the eastern land) as “miền đông” (the eastern region).

If this is referring to some “eastern region,” then where is it? And where are other instances where that area was referred to as “đông thổ”?

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“Đông Thổ” can mean “the Eastern Land,” and in this sense it is an old name for the Middle Kingdom. Given that this passage is saying that the Nguyễn Dynasty “inherited” (tự 嗣, a hierarchical verb indicating motion from a superior to an inferior, or someone older to someone younger) and revived the “Southern Submitted Zone” (Nam Phục 南服, a Sino-centric term referring to “the south”), can’t this be a reference to the fact that the Qing Dynasty had invested Gia Long as the ruler of Việt Nam?

If that is not the case, then where was “đông thổ”? I’ve always thought of the Nguyễn as starting in the south and unifying the land by moving northward. Where then was the “eastern region,” and why is unification seen as starting from that area?

[The translation I’m referring to here comes from the following work: Lê Quang Định, Hoàng Việt nhất thống dư địa chí, trans., Phan Đăng (Nhà xuất bản Thuận Hóa, 2005).]