In the second half of the twentieth century, the bronze drum became a symbol of “the antiquity of Việt nation.”

However, from the time that the people we refer to as the Việt started to record information about themselves until the present – a time period roughly equivalent to the thousand years of the second millennium AD – bronze drums were never part of the cultural lives of the Việt. Instead, it is people whom the Việt perceived to be different from themselves, and whom the Việt looked down upon, who employed bronze drums in their cultural lives.

As such, no Việt prior to the twentieth century ever saw bronze drums as a symbol of “the antiquity of the Viêt nation.” Indeed, for many centuries most Việt probably lived and died without ever having seen, or heard of, a bronze drum.

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As for the Việt who wrote about bronze drums before the twentieth century, they also didn’t know anything about them. In the few instances when they wrote about bronze drums, they did so by citing information from extant “Chinese” sources. This is because they did not know anything about the drums themselves.

Let’s look, for instance, at what Lê Tắc had to say about bronze drums in his fourteenth-century An Nam chí lược 安南志略. In that work, Lê Tắc associated bronze drums with a different ethnic group, the Lão/Liêu Tử 獠子, a group of people whom Lê Tắc referred to in derogatory terms as “savages” (man tử 蠻子). This is what he wrote:

“Lão/Liêu Tử is another name for savages. There are many in Huguang and Yunnan. Some serve Giao Chỉ. There are also some who tattoo their foreheads and bore their teeth. There are quite a few different types of them. It was recorded in the past that there are Head-Shaped Lão/Liêu Tử (頭形獠子 – probably a mistake for ‘Flying-Head Lạo Tử’ 飛頭獠子), Red-Pants Lão/Liêu Tử (赤裸獠子) and Nose-Drinking Lão/Liêu Tử (鼻飲狻子). They all live in cliff caverns or nest huts. They drink wine through reeds. They are fond of warring with enemies and they beat bronze drums. They value big ones. When a drum is first completed, they place it in a courtyard with wine and invite their fellow kind. Those who come fill [the courtyard] to the gates. The daughter of a notable takes a gold or silver hairpin and strikes the drum, after which she leaves it with the owner.”

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So in this text, bronze drums are associated with a people who are different from the Việt – Lão/Liêu Tử, whom Lê Tắc derogatorily labeled “savages.” It would be convenient to say that this name refers to the same people that we today call the “Lao,” but that’s probably not accurate, as the use of bronze drums was probably not limited to the ancestors of the people whom we today call the Lao.

In any case, none of the details that Lê Tắc provided were his own. Instead, they can be found in earlier “Chinese” sources. Some people will argue that Lê Tắc probably wrote this way because he wrote this book when he was in “China,” but the nineteenth-century geographical text, the Đại Nam nhất thống chí 大南一統志, likewise cited “Chinese” sources to explain what bronze drums were.

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There is a passage in that work on a shrine called the Shrine of the Spirit of the Bronze Drum (Đồng Cổ Thần Tự 銅鼓神祠), which I will write about later, and at the end of that passage several “Chinese” texts are cited to explain what bronze drums are. And I think it is significant to note that the Vietnamese translation of this text omits this information (yet one more example of why the quốc ngữ versions of Hán texts are hopelessly flawed).

This is what that text says:

“According to the History of the Later Han [Hou Hanshu 後漢書], Ma Yuan obtained Lạc Việt bronze drums in Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi. The Record of Guang Region [Guangzhou ji 廣州記] [records that] the Li and the Liao cast drums out of bronze. Only those that are tall are valued, and over a meter wide. When a drum is first completed, it is hung in a courtyard. Wine is placed there and they invite their fellow kind. The daughter of a notable takes a gold or silver hairpin and strikes the drum, after which she leaves it with the owner. Also, the History of the Sui [Suishu 隋書] the various savages all cast large bronze drums. When there was some incident they would sound it and people would arrive like clouds. . .”

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So prior to the twentieth century, bronze drums, which are now the symbol of “the antiquity of the Việt nation,” were basically unknown to the Việt.

So why is it that it is only after Europeans dug bronze drums out of the ground in the twentieth century and introduced the concept of nationalism to the Việt that the Việt started to see the bronze drums as such important symbols?

Oh, I think I just answered my own question. . .