I went to a talk last night by a very famous scholar who was talking about the Neolithic Revolution. This guy made the point that all of the early states in the world that he knows of (Mesopotamia, China, Greece, Rome, etc.) needed two things in order to form – a type of grain (wheat, rice, etc.) and slaves.
According to this scholar, wherever you see the earliest states forming you see a surplus of grains being produced, and an enslaved population who does a lot of the work.
This made me think about the earliest description we have of the Red River Delta – a few lines from a text called the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region [交州外域記, Jiaozhou waiyu ji] which is cited in Li Daoyuan’s sixth-century Annotated Classic of Waterways [水經注, Shuijing zhu]:
“The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region states that ‘In the past, before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the tidal/flood waters. The people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. Lạc princes and lạc marquises were appointed to control the various commanderies and districts. Many of the districts had lạc generals. The lạc generals had bronze seals on green ribbons.’”
People have talked a lot about what 潮水 means. It’s most literal meaning is “tidal waters,” but I’ve seen definitions of 潮 that that simply mean something like “rising water,” and therefore it could mean “floodwaters.”
Regardless of how we want to translate it, it seems to indicate a kind of agriculture that relies on the natural movement of water. The speaker I listened to last night referred to this as “inundation agriculture.” Essentially the way this works is that when a river floods, people throw rice seeds in the water, and then when the water recedes, the rice grows.
This is one of the most simple ways of growing rice.
So this makes me wonder about Văn Lang – the kingdom that Vietnamese scholars said existed in the first millennium BC. If for a state to emerge it was essential to have grain/rice and slaves, then what evidence do we have that these two elements existed in the Red River Delta in the first millennium BC?
Inundation agriculture could produce a surplus of rice, but not a very large one, so if there was a state that was based on this type of agriculture, it probably was limited in size and wealth.
And then as for slaves, why is it that I’ve never heard anyone talk about slaves in the kingdom of Văn Lang? If this was the norm in early states, why doesn’t anyone talk about this in the case of Văn Lang? Were there no slaves in Văn Lang?
If there weren’t, then how can we explain why Văn Lang was different from all other early states on the planet?