In the early nineteenth century, Phan Huy Chú recorded a lot of geographical information. He has a “Treatise on the Territory” section in his massive Cataloged Record of the Institutions of Successive Dynasties (Lịch triều hiến chương lọai chí 歷朝憲章類誌).
That work, however, was never published. Nonetheless, much of the same geographical information that he recorded there was published in 1833 in his Treatise on the Territory of the August Việt (Hoàng Việt địa dư chí 皇越地輿誌).
One thing that Phan Huy Chú did in these works is that he attempted to connect places in the Nguyễn Dynasty realm with ancient place names. What is interesting is that he didn’t see a succession of kingdoms in the same area, but instead, placed different kingdoms in different areas.
One such place was the Việt Thường Kingdom. “Việt Thường/Yuechang” is the name of a clan that presented tribute to the Zhou Dynasty court in antiquity. There is very little early information about these people, but accounts of their mission became increasingly detailed over the centuries, and as such, much that we “know” about these people is mythical.
That, however, did not matter to Phan Huy Chú. As he saw it, the Việt Thường Kingdom had been in the area where Thuân Hóa, Quảng Nam and Nghệ An were in his day.
Phan Huy Chú then says that there had been a Lạc Long Kingdom (obviously the kingdom of Lord Lạc Long or Lạc Long Quân) that had existed in the area of Hà Nội and Tuyên Quang, while there had been “Lạc Long lands” (Lạc Long địa 貉龍地) in the area of Lạng Sơn.
The ancient kingdom of Văn Lang, where the Hùng kings were said to have ruled, had been located, Phan Huy Chú contended, in the area of what was in his day Sơn Tây and Hưng Hóa.
Then there had been an Âu Lạc Kingdom in Thái Nguyên, and a Vũ Ninh Commandery in Kinh Bắc. This final term, Vũ Ninh, appears in works like Ngô Sĩ Lien’s fifteenth-century Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư 大越史記全書) where it is listed as one of the fifteenth regions (châu 州) that the kingdom of Văn Lang had supposedly been divided into.
So Phan Huy Chú must have known that works like Ngô Sĩ Lien’s Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt indicated that most of these kingdoms did not exist simultaneously. So why did they all have to be in different areas?
Phan Huy Chú offered a picture of the ancient geography of the region where he lived that is radically different from what we can find in books today.
Is that because modern scholars discovered “the truth”? Or have modern scholars stayed just as far away from addressing historical reality as Phan Huy Chú did?