I keep coming across writings in English in which people talk about how Việt Nam came to be called Việt Nam, and nobody has the story right. Humility aside, the most accurate account of this that I know of in English is in an academic work that I published years ago, but nobody reads anything that I publish through academic channels, so I think it’s time for me to put that information here as there is probably a higher chance that people will actually see it if it is here in cyber space.
Many people have come up with their own ideas about where the name must come from. Other people have relied on what Alexander Woodside wrote 40 some years ago in his Vietnam and the Chinese model. However, for the story of how the name “Việt Nam” came about, Woodside relied on information in the Đại Nam hội điển, which condenses information in the Đại Nam thực lục (Veritable Records of Đại Nam). I can’t recall at the moment what exactly he said, but I remember that it was incomplete. To really understand what happened (or what people said happened), you have to look at Vietnamese sources like the Đại Nam thực lục, as well as Chinese sources like the Qing shilu (Veritable Records of the Qing).
After the Nguyễn Dynasty came to power in 1802, a delegation was sent to Beijing to request a new name for the kingdom. Nguyen Phúc Ánh 阮福暎, the founder of the kingdom, was a descendant of the Nguyễn clan which had ruled over (and expanded) the southern part of the Lê Dynasty domain for the previous 200 years. So long did the Nguyễn rule over this region that they came to view it as their rightful domain.
So in the late eighteenth century when the Tây Sơn Rebellion and a military campaign led by the nemesis of the Nguyễn, the Trịnh clan, brought down their royal enterprise, the surviving members of the Nguyễn clan were left with an intense sense of having been wronged, and this in part motivated the Nguyễn to seek to retake territory that they believed was rightfully theirs (Đại Nam thực lục, 16/17b).
In the process however, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh not only retook from the Tây Sơn the region that his ancestors had governed over, but also lands further to the north, specifically, the Lê heartland that had been controlled by the Nguyễn clan’s rivals, the Trịnh, and which more recently the Tây Sơn had conquered from both the Trịnh and the Lê, driving the Lê ruler into exile in the Qing empire where he subsequently died.
With these military victories a fait accompli, and with reportedly no Lê descendants to reclaim the throne on the Lê’s behalf, the Nguyễn found themselves ruling over the largest kingdom that had ever existed in this region. Such a novel domain obviously deserved a new name, one which would demonstrate that their “territory was not something with which the [kingdoms of the] Trần, Lê or earlier could compare” (疆域非陳黎以前之比, Đại Nam chính biên liệt truyện, 11/2a).
At the same time, the Nguyễn did not wish to forsake the memory of what they saw as their ancestral lands. These lands, which now constituted the southern part of this larger realm, were located in an area which many Việt scholars believed had once been the home of the Việt Thường/Yuechang 越裳, a clan that is mentioned in early Chinese texts. Combined now with these lands was the region of An Nam 安南, which had previously been ruled by the Trịnh clan on behalf of the Lê.
As a way to signify that this new domain covered both of these areas, the Nguyễn ruling elite chose to combine the character “Nam” from “An Nam” with the “Việt” in “Việt Thường” to create the new name, “Nam Việt” 南越.
While a diplomatic delegation was sent to Beijing in the early nineteenth century to request that the Qing emperor allow the Nguyễn to make this change, Nguyễn Dynasty official Trịnh Hoài Đức 鄭懷德 first brought up this topic with Qing officials in Guangdong province (Bang giao lục, 3/12a-b).
The governor of neighboring Guangxi province, Sun Yuting 孫玉庭, heard about this and was troubled by this new name, for he remembered Zhao Tuo’s old kingdom of Nanyue (Nam Việt) from the second century BC which had encompassed much of Guangxi and Guangdong provinces. Sun wondered if such a name was an omen that the Nguyễn might seek to become even more of a nuisance than the Tây Sơn had been with their support of piracy in the region.
As a result, late in 1802 Sun Yuting memorialized the throne and urged the emperor to not allow the Nguyễn to change the name of their kingdom to “Nam Việt” (Qing shilu, Jiaqing reign, 106/25a). The emperor heeded Sun’s advice.
On 18 July 1803, the Qing Dynasty’s Jiaqing emperor thus ordered that this new kingdom be named “Việt Nam” 越南, instead of “Nam Việt,” and that Nguyễn Phúc Ánh be invested as its king. The emperor explained this decision by noting that the character “Việt” would come first to honor the territory earlier maintained by the Nguyễn clan’s ancestors (Qing shilu, Jiaqing reign, 115/15a).
The Đại Nam thực lục provides a more detailed (and slightly different) account of the Qing emperor’s comments. It records that the emperor explained that the character “Việt” stood at the fore of this new title to represent that their kingdom was succeeding an old domain and that they were continuing the ways of the ancient sages. As for the character “Nam,” it showed that the Nguyen had expanded the old land of Nam Giao/Nanjiao 南交 (an ancient term that the Chinese had created to refer to the far south of the world as it was known to them at that time – first millennium BC), and had received a new mandate (Đại Nam thực lục, 23/1a).
After urging the Qing emperor to not approve usage of the name “Nam Việt,” Sun Yuting later noted in a memorial to the throne that in addition to the above meaning, “Việt Nam,” which can literally mean “South of the Việt/Yue,” was also a good name because it indicated that this domain was south of the area where the “Hundred Việt/Yue” (百越, Bách Việt/Baiyue) had once lived, that is, the large region stretching from Zhejiang province through Fujian, Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. This comment again demonstrated Sun Yuting’s concern with possible threats to the region under his jurisdiction, Guangxi province (Qing shilu, Jiaqing reign, 111/11b).
The information above comes from something I researched and wrote 14 years ago (I think I wrote a lot more “poetically” back then – lots of fancy words in what I wrote then). I didn’t go back and check the sources again. However, I think what I have here shows that the ideas that were involved in selecting this name were much more complex than one finds in English-language writings on this topic.
English-language writings on this issue usually associate the Nguyên’s initial request to name the kingdom Nam Việt to some kind of “cultural memory” of Zhao Tuo’s ancient kingdom of Nanyue. However, the only person who connected any of this to Zhao Tuo’s ancient kingdom was Sun Yuting, the governor of Guangxi, not the Qing Dynasty emperor or anyone in Vietnam.
Ultimately, the name Việt Nam is related to the Nguyễn clan’s southward expansion of the Lê Dynasty realm. What it signifies is that the Nguyễn created and ruled over something bigger than An Nam. It is a recognition of imperial expansion.