A kind reader has encouraged me to look at an old Vietnamese map of the Mekong region known as the Đại Man quốc đồ 大蠻國圖 (Map of the Great Savage Kingdom).

There is a text appended to this map that was written by a certain Nguyễn Án in Hanoi in 1800, when that city was under the control of the Tây Sơn Dynasty.

We know of this map and text because they are included in a collection of maps know as the Hồng Đức bản đồ 洪德版圖 (Maps from the Hồng Đức Era). The Hồng Đức era was in the fifteenth century, and many of the maps in the Hồng Đức bản đồ were created later, so this work is not exactly a collection of “maps from the Hồng Đức era.” However, by the nineteenth century there was a collection of maps that had that title.

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This collection of maps was then published in book form by the Institute of Archaeology in Saigon in the early 1960s. What is more, the scholars there translated the classical Chinese and Nôm place names on these maps into modern Vietnamese.

That was a fantastic contribution, and one only wishes that the Institute of Archaeology in Saigon could have continued to produce works like this, as today our knowledge of the Vietnamese past would surely be so much richer as a result.

In any case, as wonderful as the publication of the Hồng Đức bản đồ in the early 1960s in Saigon was, today we can find certain limitations with it. First of all, the maps were published in negative form, and that can make them difficult to read. And second, as knowledgeable as the scholars who produced this work were, there were some things that they didn’t know, and the work therefore needs to be updated.

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This is certainly the case with the “Map of the Great Savage Kingdom.” In examining the map and the translations/transliterations that were made in Saigon, I can detect problems, but I don’t know that I can solve all of them. So I will share here what I know and see, and hopefully more knowledgeable people can help provide more information.

The scholars at the Institute of Archaeology in Saigon divided the maps in the Hồng Đức bản đồ into grids, and then on separate pages they transliterated into modern Romanized Vietnamese the terms in classical Chinese and Nôm that appeared on the maps. This was helpful, but I still find it extremely difficult to view a map in this way.

Therefore, using Photoshop and a different version of the map that I have obtained, I input the place names in Romanized form. Unfortunately, Photoshop does not like Vietnamese fonts (at least not on my computer), so I had to write the names without diacritics. If you want to see the diacritics, consult this image:

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So here is the version of the map that I made with Romanized place names on it. “M.” is an abbreviation for “mường 芒,” the Tai term for a “polity.” As for “Tr.,” it is an abbreviation of “trình 呈,” but I’m not sure what that was.

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And here is a translation, with commentary, of the accompanying text:

“The Great Savage Kingdom is to the southwest of Our Việt (我粵 – notice the use of the character for “Cantonese” rather than “Vietnamese” here. . .). To the south it comes up against Siam and Champa. To the north it connects to the Inner Lands’ (内地 – a very respectful term for “China”) Yun[nan] and Gui[zhou]. It’s more or less the area of the old [kingdoms of] Lão Qua and Miến Điện. There are many types and groups of people, but the Great Savage [kingdom] is the most dominant. The clothing and language there is more or less the same as in Lao Long citadel.”

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The translators of the Hồng Đức bản đồ translate the next sentence to say that three officials were sent from the Great Savage Kingdom to [Hanoi?] in 1800, “Chậu-bố, Ban-cơ and Chu-công.” I don’t think that this is correct. First of all, if this was more than one person, the text would probably indicate that by saying something like “A, B, C 等臣.”

Second, I’ve noticed that in the letters that people like the Siamese sent to the Vietnamese, the entire titles and names of the Siamese were transliterated by using Hán or Nôm, and therefore, the two-character name pattern that the translators used is out of place with the way that “savages” expressed themselves. And third, the name listed here starts with a Nôm character that the translators transliterated as chậu, which is clearly the Tai term for a prince or lord, cao.

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So to continue, “In the canh thân year of the Cảnh Thịnh reign [1800], the official Chậu Bố Ban Cơ Chu Công delivered a [palm]leaf letter along with such goods as donkeys, horses and rhinoceros horn in order to establish friendly relations.”

“Their leader calls himself Phả Ma Kỳ Sất (頗麻奇叱).” The translators say in a footnote that Phả Ma refers to Burma, however, I think it’s clear from the map that the Great Savage Kingdom was not Burma.

My guess would be that this is a transliteration of something like “Thammathirat,” or “King of the Dharma,” which would have been part of a longer title for a king (the final character, 叱, can also be pronounced as “rất” and that would make the transliteration even closer).

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After this the text switches to Nôm and it gets confusing. First, it says that at the edge of this territory of the Great Savage Kingdom the sun passes below the earth.

Then the translators of the the Hồng Đức bản đồ have a phrase (bưa vừa lớn) that makes absolutely no sense to me. I think that phrase is saying that there are “three [types of] big people” (ba vị lớn) in the Great Savage Kingdom, and the text then goes on to explain who those people are: there are (1) rich people, (2) people who control gold, silver or jade mines, and (3) people who have white or red elephants.

The text then switches back to classical Chinese and cites some age-old wisdom that “each of the nine regions (the divisions of “China” in antiquity) has its own character, and over 1,000 leagues there are different customs.” The point here is to say that the information that the author has provided about the Great Savage Kingdom might seem odd, but there are different customs in the world, so it should be believed.

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So this is what I understand about this map and text. Obviously I still have questions. The biggest is – where was the “Great Savage Kingdom”? I’m assuming that this was Vientiane. In 1800, the ruler there was Inthavong. Was “Thammathirat” also part of his title?

Any comments that anyone might have about this post would most certainly be appreciated.