How Việt Nam Became Việt Nam

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).

A 2959

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.

15 thoughts on “How Việt Nam Became Việt Nam

  1. what about ( why bien dong becomes called south China sea) and I wonder if that is a reason why China climbed the sea belong to them, can you please find out where has a name came from?

    • The Manchus attacked Ming China and took over the capital Beijing in 1644 and took over the country . however , a remnant southern Ming dynasty persisted in Quang toung for 20 years . After finishing off the southern Ming , the Ching stopped at the frontier of Vietnam which at that time was in the midst of the Trinh Nguyên north -south civil war ; The Ching apparently were not interested by conquering Vietnam , although VN was in very weak situation .
      The VN could go on fighting each other without worrying about Manchu
      ” China ” during more than a 100 years . In 1789, only at king Lê chiêu Thông ‘ s behest , the Ching intervened in VN but were repulsed by Quang Trung Again , and more than a 100 years later , in 1883 , the Ching intervened at Vietnamese urging against the French colonialists
      This doesn’t paint a picture of ” China ” watching day and night to take over Vietnam .

      According to me , Minh Mang changed the name of the country to Dai nam
      not out of a mind of defying ” China ” but to glorify the exalted situation of the country . At that time , VN has extended and occupied half of Cambodia and 2/3 of Laos

      • I agree that Minh Mang probably wanted to glorify the exalted situation of the country, but that “exalted situation” had a lot to do with things that were happening internally too. Good “Confucians” don’t exalt conquest, even though they do conquer. They exalt the presence of their “benevolent rule.” Minh Mang, for instance, tried to bring the northern and southern parts of his realm under his direct control (after Le Van Duyet died in the south, for instance). And in terms of laws, rituals, etc. there were a ton of things that Minh Mang initiated. The areas of what is today Laos, or the areas of what is today northwestern VN that he sent people to rule over directly, all would have still been “savage/barbarian” to him, and that’s not much to exalt, although it was probably a factor.

        And yes, I completely agree with what you say about the Vietnam-China relationship. If there is any “enduring” or “timeless” lesson that we can learn from the past 1,000 years of interactions (which I don’t actually think we can, because I think that times and conditions change and every generation deals with different issues – but I will follow this line of thought simply to point out the lack of logic in current ideas about the history of that relationship), it would be that factions in VN have repeatedly sought the assistance of a government to the North, and have been somehow betrayed in the process. The Tran wanted to be saved from the Ho, but the Ming occupied the kingdom. The Le wanted help against the Mac, but the Ming didn’t bother once Mac Dang Dung surrendered, and the Mac were able to continue to exist. The Le wanted to be rescued from the Tay Son, but the Qing recognized the Tay Son. North Vietnam wanted help fighting against the South and the US, but Mao shook hands with Nixon, and then later there was the border war.

        This then gets back to your question about why there is this idea that “VN” was “dominated” by “China.” Again, it’s a nationalist victim narrative. Victim narratives take complex situations in which “A” is at least in part to blame, and put the blame on “B.” The idea of the “century of humiliation” in China has a lot to do with the fact that Chinese governments over that period were incompetent and couldn’t effectively deal with foreign countries (be they from the West or Japan). However, that side of the story is not acknowledged. Instead, you just point out that “those other people” are bad, but EVEN THOUGH they are, WE have endured. So that’s where the glorification comes from. It comes from the idea that even though all of those big bad other people out there want to hurt little us for no good reason, we have “succeeded” in not letting them completely dominated us (even though they might dominate us for centuries). So we are great.

        Yes, it is illogical in some ways, but that’s what a lot of nationalist thought is. It appeals to emotions rather than logic.

  2. I think at that time guangdong was yuedong and guangxi was yuexi.
    Yuenan sound like a chinese province!
    Minh Mang rename vn to Đại Nam because of this reason??

  3. Tôi rất thú vị với nghiên cứu này của GS.
    Trước giờ tôi có thắc mắc là tại sao vua Minh Mạng đổi quốc hiêu thành Đại Nam? và nhất loạt các sách thời ấy dùng chữ Đại Nam chứ không dùng Việt Nam .. ĐN thực lục, ĐN Nhất thống chí … Không thấy VN đâu cả.
    Tôi có ngờ rằng thời Thanh, Quảng Đông, Quảng Tây còn là Việt Đông , Việt tây .. Như thế Việt Nam là .. rất thích hợp với một tỉnh trong đế quốc!
    Có thể vì lý do đó mà triều đình VN , không dùng từ Việt Nam chăng?

  4. China Ming intervenes to help Korea repulse a Japanese invasion in 1592
    the Imjin war (chiên tranh Nhâm thin ). The Ching came to VN rescue at the start of French colonization .Mao came to help North Korea and VN in the 20th century . The ” Chinese ” intervened because they felt threatened by a
    dangerous invader , because their vital interests were involved .
    But the Ching interventions at the behest of the different VN contestants , the Lê , the Mac , etc seemed purely disinterested, spurred only by a sense of confucian duty ,as a overlord toward a vassal . Does It not seem incredible to us who are living in the present world of cold blooded interest, of passionate ,of intense greed that somebody could act only out of a sense of honor .
    But the intervention failed due to the difficulties of the terrain :the Ching court probably was not deeply interested in the matter,considering the poor communication means between Beijing and Vietnam at that time . Local governors were given general instructions and left to fend by themselves . They most probably dispatched unmotivated local militias which were armed and fed on their meager local budgets .
    So ,at the first meaningful resistance , the ” Chinese ” rertreated quickly ;
    What’s more , the VN usually resorted to their secret weapon , the huge bribe . So ,the local ” chinese ” governors quickly gave up the battle and let down the contestants they were supposed to help .

    • If you look at the Chinese historical records for the Mac incident, what you see is that there was a debate at the court. Some said we have the duty to protect the Le, other said, no those people are barbarians. It’s best just to leave them alone.

      These same debates happened at other times as well.

      So while “honor” was one reason, it was decided upon in an environment where there were other ideas, and what would be interesting would be to look closely at who was behind which ideas, and what the general situation at the court was like at that time. There were always factions and internal competition at the Chinese court, and decisions were made in that context, in part, for the sake of making one’s own faction look better than another, and not necessarily for a noble cause. People might use noble ideas to make their points, and some of the things they did might be noble, but it wasn’t entirely for that reason that people did things. They also made certain decisions so that they could gain more power and influence at the court, and that had nothing to do with VN.

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