The Map of the Great Savage Kingdom

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.


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.


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:


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.



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.”


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.


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).


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.

Han text

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.

14 thoughts on “The Map of the Great Savage Kingdom

  1. Ahh, your maps are of much superior quality indeed, the negatives are really, really bad – even though at the time it probably was ground-breaking.

    I stumbled about “Phả Ma Kỳ Sất” as well; what about “Phra Ma[ha] Ka-sat”?

    Do the original signs (頗麻奇叱 ) have any relevant meaning that would allow interpretation? I guess the literati would have been tempted to attach a denotation besides reproducing to some extent the sound of the „savages’” names. (That is at least what western companies do when translating their brand names into modern Chinese characters.)

  2. Oh BRILLIANT!!!! I think you are exactly right!!! No, there is no meaning to these characters. They are meant to represent sounds, and I think you are exactly right. Of course, it is “Phra Ma[ha] Ka-sat”!!! Perfect!!!! Thank you!!!!!

  3. “Unfortunately, Photoshop does not like Vietnamese fonts (at least not on my computer), so I had to write the names without diacritics”,
    I have the same problem and one possible solution is to type in Word then copy and paste to Pholoshop (a bit inconvenient but it works!).

  4. Hmmm… „thình“ seems to mean something like “to address” or “to explain”, and only that, right?
    But since the cartographers already used the indigenous term “muang” for cities, they might have referred to several “chiang” (like in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rung) as well. If the upper part of the map would for example cover Sipsongpanna or Sipsong Chu Tai, that would be a likely solution, since there were a lot small “muang” and “chiang” spread over these regions.

    P.S.: Thanks a lot for the romanized names of localities! This is very handy.

  5. Yes, the “trinh” here is being used for sound rather than meaning, but it clearly indicates some kind of administrative unit. Once again, I think you are right – it must be “chiang.”

    If you look at the top where “Trình Hùng” is, in that same box it says on the right “name unknown.” Then if you go below that and look at “Trình Phú,” in the right of that box it has “Xà ? Cướng.” Then below that is another box that has “Trình Thiên” and on the right is “Nai Sài, Nai Khóa.” Then finally, if you look at the lower map where it has “Siam Citadel gov./admin. center,” on the right in that box it also says “name unknown.” I find all of this confusing. What names are not unknown? What is “Nai Sài, Nai Khóa” Is that referring to people?

    Oh, and above that on the bottom map is a box that has “Hiệu Nguyên [they see 元, where I see 六]-phàm-trình-la-soạn-án-nhà-bông.” I cannot figure this out. There is Nôm here.

    At the upper-right-hand corner of the top map, it indicates that the border with “China” (the “Northern Kingdom”) is there. So I’m assuming that the 12 Động (or “aboriginal settlements”) just below that, with an administrative center at M. Lặc, which is also known as M. Lư, is referring to the Sip Song Chu Tai.

    On the lower map, it has Lao Long and Lao Thành and then below that it says is the border with Champa (Chiêm Thành).

    So this is definitely a “distorted” map. It seems to be what Laos and Siam look like if you stand somewhere near Dien Bien Phu and you write down what someone who has just come from that direction tells you.

  6. I´m not sure about all those muang and chiang. The few other maps of the region that I have do not agree with the names on that particular map of the mainland.

    I agree about Sipsong Chu Tai; M. Lư might hint at a Muang Lü, a polity of Tai Lü people?

    About this strange “Nai Sài, Nai Khóa”; this probably does not refer to people like นาย (=chief, mister) but ใน, in order to distinguish directions? So that this might have meant „ในซ้าย ในขวา“ = “to the left, to the right”? Not that this makes much more sense as an isolated piece of information, but in the context of mapping it seems more likely.

    Indeed, this map is really not the finest example of accuracy. I obviously had remembered something different and after checking at my old computer it turned out that five years ago I had worked on the map from page 166, which is indeed about Cambodia (and the camps of Ming loyalists (?)).

  7. Good point. Yea, the „ในซ้าย ในขวา“ explanation gives me an even stronger sense that this is perhaps a map that was “told” do someone. I could imagine, for instance, that a Lao was trying to explain that there was a citadel on both sides of the river, and that this somehow just got literally written down as “Nai Sài, Nai Khóa.” Just a guess.

    One more point, the map does record how many days it takes to get from one place to another. So someone involved in the making of this map knew how long it took to move about this region.

    And I agree, I had always assumed that this map was better than it is. This is the first time that I’ve ever looked at it closely.

    I’ll take a look at the other map in a day or so. This is fun!

  8. On a side note, since the text mentions 南夾暹羅占城 (to the south it comes up against Siam and Champa), this apparently is an indication that the Tây Sơn still acknowledged Champa as an independent polity in 1800.

  9. Yes, I had the same thought.

    That said, from our past conversations, I know that you have a very nuanced understanding of the past, so just for the benefit of others who might read these lines, I would like to qualify a bit what you say here, and I think you are going to agree with this, but let me know if you don’t.

    “the Tây Sơn still acknowledged Champa as an independent polity.”

    First, we don’t know who made this map, and we don’t know to what extent (if any) it represents anything that “the Tây Sơn” thought. I think it’s even difficult to talk about “the” Tây Sơn as political power was diffuse at times. And we certainly can’t conclude anything from this map about any official relations between the Tây Sơn and Champa.

    Second, there is a note connected to this map that mentions 1800, but it is unclear if that note is connected to the map, or if someone came across the map later and then appended a note to it about the earlier arrival of an envoy.

    Third, there was no such thing as an “independent polity” in this part of the world at that time in history. Every place was a tributary/vassal of someplace else.

    So I think what we can say from this map is that “some unidentified Viet person/people” understood that “a polity” historically known to the Viet as Chiem Thanh still existed “sometime around 1800.”

    Sorry to be so picky about this, especially since through our previous conversations I know that you have a very good understanding of the past.

    Part of the reason why I am writing all this is because I woke up this morning to find a discussion in my email about the comments that a Vietnamese historian made about the Viet annexation of Khmer lands in the Mekong delta. That historian’s views are hopelessly distorted by 20th-century understandings of nations, sovereignty, etc. Unfortunately this is the case with pretty much everything that comes out of present-day Vietnam, so I try to place information here that points out the problems with viewing the past in that manner.

    Like I said, I think you look at the past in similar ways, so please don’t take my “deconstruction” of that phrase personally. I think you and I are on the same page, but other people will read that line and understand something else.

  10. When the map at least to some extend corresponds to reality as it was, then the so called “Siamese Citadel” ought to be Bangkok, which is indeed quite close to the sea and on the right side of the river (of course there is a 50/50 chance for either anyway). This would mean that the painting of the map really took place after 1782, which is relatively close to 1800.

    Then there is a town “Tr. Thien” in the upper part of the map, right hand, which used to be “savage”. Did Vientiane send tribute to the Vietnamese side during that time and received for example a seal/proper recognition as a state?

    There still is the biggest box left, the “Centre of the Savage Kingdom”… Maybe this refers to Ava or Amarapura? I suppose the exploits of King Hsinbyushin of the Konbaung dynasty against all his neighbours and even the Qing armies would have made his kingdom deserve a centre position of attention. Interestingly all routes from that box lead upwards to the north, or they describe the way down from the north towards the capital of the Savage Kingdom.

    I´m not sure if I understood the Vietnamese text correctly, but it seems a Burmese embassywas sent to the Tay Son, see the quote:

    P.S.: Is there a way to post pictures here?

    1. Yes, one embassy visited the Tay Son by way of Hung Hoa. 2 embassies tried to visit after Gia Long came to power, but “because the route was so long they did not make it” (in which case, I wonder how the Vietnamese knew that they had tried).

      Yea, I don’t know the history of that period in this region well. But I would wonder if Trinh Thien was some place like Muang Phuan. I don’t see Luang Prabang or Chiang Mai, so I’m feeling like the big place there is Vientiane, as there definitely was interaction between Viantiane and the Tay Son.

      And no, unfortunately I don’t think that there is a way to post pictures in the comments here. It certainly would be convenient to be able to do so.

  11. Yes, that sounds vague enough. 🙂

    There is a great example in the map I just put up. On the first map, #4 is Chiem Thanh/Champa, and then #3 is “100 Quang troops” (with Quang referring to Quang Nam/Dang Trong/Cochinchina. I think that’s a great example that shows how “independent” Champa was by that time (let’s say the 18th century). Yes, something still existed, but. . .

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