When we attempt to understand the past, there are two things that historians have to do that are very important, and they are interrelated.

1. First, we have to try to distance ourselves from the present, that is, we have to try to identify what is different about the way we think today, and we have to try to not use our present ideas to think about and explain the past.

2. We have to try to understand how people, places and ideas in the past were different, because they were different, and they were different everywhere.

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In writing about the idea of stranger kings, the question about the origins of Lý Công Uẩn, the founder of the Lý Dynasty (1009-1225), came up again. The question is whether he was from Mân/Min (i.e., Fujian) or the Red River Delta. I’ve exchanged some messages with some people over the past day about this, and have read another article on that topic.

The one thing I notice is that in examining this issue, people are not really doing the two things above that historians are supposed to do, or at least not doing them as well as they could.

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For instance, whenever I read articles that have been written in Vietnamese about this topic, I find that they all contain words like “nước ta” (“our country”) and “Việt Nam.” This is a problem because there was no “Việt Nam” in the eleventh century, and nothing that existed then belongs to anyone today.

The Lý Dynasty domain was not “our country.” When we write about it that way, then it becomes very difficult to distance ourselves from the present. Today we would not let a “foreigner” rule over “our country,” so how can we talk about such a phenomenon in “our country” in the past?

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The way we can talk about it is by examining how different the world was back then. This is something else that I don’t see people doing. Scholars are examining the question of the origins of Lý Công Uẩn by looking at the specific textual information that relates to this issue.

Some people do this well. I think that Nguyễn Phúc Anh has done a good job of literally “mapping out” the various texts, how they differ, and what conclusion we should come to based on the specific textual information about Lý Công Uẩn’s origins.

That said, I don’t think that this article, or any of the other articles that I’ve read on this topic, will really convince people because no one is making an effort to show people that the past was different from the present. Everyone is still talking about the past as being the past of “nước ta” and/or “Việt Nam.”

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How was the world of Lý Công Uẩn different from our world today? To understand that we need to step back from the specific passages about his origins and look at the larger context of the times.

We know from countless studies now that the idea of the nation basically did not exist anywhere in the world at that time (at least not in the way that we conceive of it today), and thus there was no such thing as a “national consciousness.” Rulers in those days, all over the world, didn’t care much about the people they ruled over. And the people who were ruled over didn’t really care if a “foreigner” was their ruler.

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In the case of the Red River Delta, in the aftermath of the eighth-century An Lushan Rebellion, the Tang Dynasty empire was more or less divided up between various military commissioners (jiedushi 節度使) who gradually started to create their own hereditary “local kingdoms.” And when the Tang Dynasty finally came to an end, the succeeding period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms when numerous dynasties/kingdoms were established in various places was a direct result of these historical developments.

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The other point that is important is that these military commissioners could be “mobile.” They fought amongst each other. As I write this, I can’t remember the details off the top of my head, but if we go back and look at what happened during the period of the late Tang in the far south of the empire, we see this happening (and there are earlier examples as well).

It’s in this context that kingdoms were established in the Red River Delta starting in the tenth century. These kingdoms were not created because “the people” had a “national consciousness” and rose up to demand “independence.” They were created because people who were part of a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, mobile military elite fought with each other for control of territory.

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So in such a context there is nothing surprising about someone from Mân/Min coming to power in the Red River Delta. When we then look at the traces we can find of Mân/Min contact with this region, or of Mân/Min cultural influences there, this becomes even less surprising.

Take “crossing competitions” (jingdu 競渡) for instance. These were a kind of imitation naval battle/boat race that also came to have religious functions. They were a “southern” cultural practice (“southern” here meaning “south of the Yangzi River”), and they were held numerous times during the period of the Lý Dynasty.

How did that practice spread to the Red River Delta? Probably the same way that a lot of Buddhist ideas/practices spread to the region – through the movement of peoples. Where those people from Mân/Min?

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The Red River Delta in the tenth and eleventh century was part of a large region that had formerly constituted the edge of the Tang Dynasty empire. There was much that was shared by the elite across that region, and powerful people – be they Buddhist monks or military strongmen – moved about across this region as well.

This was not “Việt Nam,” and it is not “nước ta.” It was a different time and a different world.

If we distance ourselves from the present and appreciate how different the past was, then we can easily see this, and we can easily understand how someone from Mân/Min could come to power in the Red River Delta.