On 31 May 1802, Nguyễn Phúc Ánh, the first ruler of the Nguyễn Dynasty declared that Gia Long 嘉隆 would be his reign title (Đại Nam thực lục, 17/1a-2a). Many writings in English claim that Nguyễn Phúc Ánh chose this name to symbolize that he had unified the entire area from “Gia” Định, or Saigon, to Thăng “Long,” or Hanoi (See for instance, Thomas Hodgkin, Vietnam: The Revolutionary Path [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981], 100).
However, there is a problem with this explanation. I’m going to present something here about this topic that I researched and wrote about 14 years ago. In looking at it now, I notice a problem with the information that I have, and I’ll discuss that at the end.
Somewhere around the time that Nguyễn Phúc Ánh decided upon his reign title, a delegation was sent to Beijing to seek from the Qing Dynasty emperor approval for this name, as well as for the name that Gia Long wanted to call his kingdom, Nam Việt, which I discussed in a recent post below.
The name, Gia Long, consisted of two characters, one of which, gia/jia 嘉, was the same as the character in the reign title of the Qing Dynasty emperor at that time, Jiaqing 嘉慶, while the other character, long/long 隆, was the same as a character in the preceding Qing Dynasty emperor’s reign title, Qianlong 乾隆. Qing Dynasty officials at the court in Beijing supposedly wondered about this, and asked one of the members of the delegation, Nguyễn Gia Cát 阮嘉吉, why his ruler had selected this name.
Nguyễn Gia Cát responded by noting that, “Our Kingdom, from the time of the Trần, Lê and even earlier, has seen its northern and southern portions administered separately. Our current king began [his effort to retake the domain] in Gia Định [i.e. Saigon], and completed [this endeavor] in Thăng Long [i.e. Hanoi]. Therefore, he took the reign title of Gia Long. If we were to deceive you about this, it would be in vain.” (我國陳黎以前，南北分治。今我國王起於嘉定，成於昇隆，故號嘉隆，徒敢謾也。Anonymous, Bắc Ninh toàn tỉnh địa dư chí 北寧全省地輿誌 [Geographic Gazetteer of Bắc Ninh Province], (1891), A. 2889, 1/24a.)
Nguyễn Gia Cát thus argued that the reign title Gia Long consisted of the character, gia/jia 嘉, from Gia Định 嘉定 (i.e., Saigon) and the long/long 隆, from Thăng Long 昇隆 (i.e., Hanoi). However, at the time Nguyễn Gia Cát put forth this argument, the character long/long in Thăng Long was the character for dragon 龍, also pronounced long/long, not the character meaning prosperity, 隆 long/long, that was in Gia Long’s reign title.
Later, in 1805, Gia Long did in fact change the second character in the name Thăng Long from dragon 龍 to prosperity 隆 in order “to present the idea of peace and prosperity” (the character thăng/sheng 昇 means “peace”) which he then felt was prevailing through his domain (Đại Nam thực lục, 27/7b).
So what I now notice about this information is that I apparently got the story about Nguyễn Gia Cát’s response from an 1891 work, the Bắc Ninh toàn tỉnh địa dư chí. That’s almost 100 years after the fact. So where did that story come from? Is that information recorded in the Qing shilu (Veritable Records of the Qing)? I’m not sure.
What we know for sure, based on the Đại Nam thực lục, is that the title Gia Long was proclaimed in 1802, and that the “long” in Thăng Long was changed in 1805, and that in making that change, that “long” in “Thăng Long” came to match the “long” in the title “Gia Long.”
The other thing that I think we know for sure is that the title “Gia Long” (at least initially) had nothing to do with the fact that Nguyễn Phúc Ánh unified the area from “Gia” Định to Thăng “Long.” But as for where that story comes from, I’m still not sure.
If anyone has an explanation, please let me know.