Vịet, “Chinese,” Savages and Bronze Drums

Having talked in the previous post about how bronze drums were not important to the Việt in the past, there is one case in which they were, and that is in regards to a shrine known as the Shrine of the Spirit of the Bronze Drum (Đồng Cổ Thần Tự 銅鼓神祠) which was in the area of Thanh Hóa Province on a mountain called Mount Đan Nê, but which was also known as Mount Khả Lao (可牢山).

There is a passage about this shrine in the nineteenth-century geographical text, the Đại Nam nhất thống chí 大南一統志. That passage is a bit confusing because in addition to the shrine on Mount Đan Nê, an altar dedicated to this spirit was also later set up in the capital. So this information is about one spirit who was honored in two locations.

I will translate the passage here and then comment on it below.


[17 hạ/5a] The Shrine of the Spirit of the Bronze Drum [Đồng Cổ Thần Tự 銅鼓神祠] is on Mount Đan Nê (also called Mount Khả Lao) in Yên Định District. In the past, when the Hùng king [17 hạ/5b] went on a campaign against Champa [Chiêm Thành 占城], he stationed his troops on Mount Khả Lao. At night he dreamed that a divine man [thần nhân 神人] declared that “I will obtain for you a bronze drum and bronze drumstick to aid you in obtaining a victory in battle.” When the two sides faced off, the sound of a metallic drum came through the air, and as predicted, [the Hùng king] obtained a complete victory. [The Hùng king] invested [the spirit] as the Great King of the Bronze Drum [Đồng Cổ Đại Vương 銅鼓大王].

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When Lý Thái Tông was heir apparent, he received orders to campaign against Champa. At night he dreamt that a man dressed in military garb and holding a precious sword directly stated that “I am the spirit of the bronze drum. Let me follow you and establish merit.” When the situation had been pacified, Lý Thái Tông erected a temple to make sacrifices to [the spirit].

Later, after the emperor had ascended the throne, he dreamt that the spirit came with a poem which indicated that there were three princes planning to overthrow him. It turned out to be true. The emperor then invested [the spirit] with the additional title of “Alliance Master of All Under Heaven” [Thiên Hạ Minh Chủ 天下盟主] and promoted it to the rank of an upper-level spirit. Every year an altar was erected before the shrine and the various officials were ordered to read an oath which said, “The way of officials is bound with to cardinal relationships [cương thường 綱常]. If one is unfilial as a son or disloyal as an official, let the spirit make its silent observations and then eradicate his family.”


During the early years of the Lê restoration, Mạc troops harassed the districts of Vĩnh Ninh (now Vĩnh Lộc) and Yên Định. The naval forces of the Lê moored on the upper reaches of the Mã River. At night they heard three strikes of a drum come from several hundred leagues away. A Lê general sent someone to investigate, and he learned that the drum sound had come from Mount Khả Lao.

The next morning they went in pursuit of the Mạc troops. When they met in battle, the wind became fierce and the water level rose. The [Lê] naval forces raised their sails and took advantage of the wind. Their bravery increased one hundred fold. The Mạc troops were completely defeated.

In the Hoàng Định era [the spirit] was invested [with a new title]. [17 hạ/6a] There was a poem which went, “The wind and waves on the river greatly aided the military’s victory.” This was indeed the case.

During the Cảnh Hưng era, there was often a yellow parasol seen in the Obeisance to Heaven Hall [Triều Thiên Quán 朝天館]. Only after three days would [the apparition] disappear. Then one day as evening was setting in, dark clouds converged from the four directions, and there was fierce wind and rain. Looking from afar, people saw a black dragon wind its way down from Heaven to the temple [of the Spirit of the Bronze Drum]. When morning broke, they went and found its traces. Its numinous power was still like this.

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From the Lý through the Lê, in the spring of each year when the army would go on a campaign, the officers and soldiers would make an oath, and would respectfully invite the spirit to oversee [the ritual]. The Lê junior mentor, Nguyễn Văn Khải, had a poem which went [This poem does not appear in the Vietnamese translation of this text that I have seen. Poems take a long time to translate. For now I will just translate the two lines that relate to the point that I wish to make about this passage.]:




The overturned ladle on the alter eradicates the drought demon,


The sounding of the drum drives away the mad savages.





Within the shrine there is a bronze drum that is about 100 catties in weigh. It is about one xích and five thốn in diameter, and over two xích tall. The inside is empty, and it does not have a base. Its edges are slightly damaged. Its face has nine concentric circles on it. The waist [of the drum] is tied [or wrapped with something?] so its midriff is concealed. On four sides it is tied with rope. It has swastika character [vạn tự 卍字] writing like tadpoles. Over time it wore away and now it is indecipherable. It is said that this was made during the time of the Hùng kings.

At the end of the Lê, the usurping Tây [Sơn] trespassed here and took [the drum] back to Phú Xuân. Later, a man from Hậu Lộc District [17 hạ/6b] found it on a riverbank. The provincial [authorities] declared that it should be returned to the shrine. It is still there today.


– The above passage begins by talking about a Hùng king going on a military campaign against Champa [Chiêm Thành]. While I think that it is obvious that there were no Hùng kings, even if we believe that there were, this passage is still problematic as there is no record of this in any historical chronicle, and Champa did not exist in the time that this would have been (first millennium BC).

What is not problematic is this general idea that a king had a dream in which a spirit manifested itself and offered its assistance. This is a “trope” or “theme” that we can find in many other stories from the past created by the educated elite all across the “Sinitic world,” from the Red River Delta to the Korean Peninsula. We see it again here in reference to Lý Thái Tông.


What kind of assistance did the spirit provide? Assistance in attacking people who were different from the Việt.

Here I find it interesting that the place where the shrine was located was called Mount Đan Nê, or Mount Khả Lao. “Đan Nê” and “Khả Lao” are not Việt names, and this suggests that the people who, at least originally, lived there were different from the Việt. Meanwhile, as I mentioned in the post below, the educated Việt in the past associated the bronze drums with people who were different from them.


So the people who used bronze drums were different from the Việt, and the Việt created a temple on Mount Đan Nê/Khả Lao (a place that was, at least originally, the home of people who were different from the Việt) that was dedicated to the spirit of the bronze drum. That spirit then helped the Viêt when they fought against people who were different from them – “The sounding of the drum drives away the mad savages.”

What this looks like to me is that the Việt took something powerful (i.e., the bronze drum) from “savages” and then tried to use the power associated with that object to help them defeat “savages.”


In the first century AD, the “Chinese” general, Ma Yuan, reportedly took bronze drums from this region, melted them, and recast them as bronze horses. This was also likely done in part to take away power from the ruling elite in the region, whom Ma Yuan viewed as “savages.”

Roughly 1,000 years later, we find the Việt doing the same thing.

So what is the relationship between the savages with bronze drums that Ma Yuan attacked, and the savages with bronze drums 1,000 years later that the Việt attacked? And who were the Việt at that time (~1100 AD)? Why were they so similar to a “Chinese” general like Ma Yuan, and so unlike the people that Ma Yuan had defeated? Why did they view people who had bronze drums as “savages”?

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