Any time I read something in English about the premodern history of the Red River Delta and find an author saying that a work from that region mentions “China,” I immediately know that something is wrong.

“China” is a modern term that refers to a modern secular nation-state, and there is therefore no such term in premodern writings.

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I was recently reading an article in English in which the author has the fourteenth-century scholar, Hồ Tông Thốc, mentioning “China” in a preface to one of his works. I know that Hồ Tông Thốc didn’t talk about “China,” so I checked to see what he actually wrote.

Hồ Tông Thốc’s text is no longer extant, but the preface from it is preserved in a nineteenth-century work by Phan Huy Chú. There it states the following:

“At the dawn of far antiquity, when all was obscure and had yet to be differentiated, there were still exaggerated tales in the Central Lands [Trung Thổ].” (太古之初,混茫未判,中土猶有漫茫之說)

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I would never translate “Trung Thổ” (the “Central Land[s]”) as “China.” When we do so we take a word that is loaded with contemporary connotations and apply it to a concept that had other connotations. “China” is a modern secular nation-state. The term “Central Lands” has a sense of geomantic potency to it, and was used by people who believed that there was a “powerful center” in the world.

The author who has Hồ Tông Thốc mentioning “China” relied on the modern Vietnamese translation of this text. There instead of writing “Trung Thổ” the translator put “Trung Quốc,” the term that is now regularly used to refer to the modern secular nation-state of “China.”

When I was checking the original I saw another place where the English-language article I was reading and the modern Vietnamese translation differed from the original classical Chinese text. The translation and the article in English both have Hồ Tông Thốc mentioning “Hồng Bàng,” whereas that name is not in the original. In particular, the translation has a phrase that goes “from the time of the Hồng Bàng” (từ đời Hồng Bàng) whereas the original has “from the beginning of the time of chaos [hồng hoang 洪荒].” (自洪荒之始)

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I’ve talked about all of this before, and I’m certain that I will talk about it again. Modern Vietnamese translations repeatedly give the sense that there has been this enduring awareness of difference and equality between “Vietnam” (in this case “Hồng Bàng”) and “China.”

Premodern writings don’t show that. Instead, they demonstrate a sense of belonging to a potent world, but a world in which that potency was not equally distributed. There were “Central Lands,” and there were places that, as this text states, were “at the end of Heaven/the heavens” (thiên mạt 天末). The modern Vietnamese translation expresses this term much more neutrally as “in a faraway region” [ở vào cõi xa]. Here again, I would argue that such a translation loses the connotations of the unequally distributed potency in the world that the original conveys.

The past that was recorded in classical Chinese cannot be accessed through the existing modern Vietnamese translations. We need better translations and more people who can read the originals.

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