A recent comment about the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” a document that was written at the end of the Ming occupation of the Red River Delta in the early fifteenth century, got me thinking about the genre of “resistance literature” or “national identity literature” that many people today see this document as belonging to.

One of the first places that I ever encountered this document was in a collection of English-language translations of documents produced by Vietnamese over the centuries called Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention: 1858-1900. The documents in this collection were all translated and expertly annotated by scholar Trương Bửu Lâm, and published in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam/American War.

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While this collection focused on the period from 1858 to 1900, when the French were establishing their rule over Vietnam, Trương Bửu Lâm included some earlier documents to place the nineteenth century “response to foreign intervention” in a larger historical context.

These earlier documents are today all very famous, namely the “Nam quốc sơn hà” poem that some people attribute to Lý Thường Kiệt, Trần Hưng Đạo’s appeal to his soldiers (commonly known as the “Hịch tướng sĩ”), Nguyễn Trãi’s “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” and Nguyễn Huệ’s appeal to his army.

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Indeed, many works in Vietnam today refer to the first and third of the above documents as “declarations of independence,” and all of these documents are repeatedly pointed to as evidence of an enduring “national consciousness” and of an equally long tradition of “resistance to foreign aggression/intervention.”

How, however, do we know that this is how these documents have always been understood and what they mean?

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A little over a decade before Trương Bửu Lâm produced his English-language translation of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” Ưng-Quả published a French-language translation of the same document in the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient (46.1 [1952]: 279-95).

In the introduction to his translation, Ưng-Quả noted that the original text of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” had appeared in the past in such historical texts as the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and the Khâm định Việt sử Thông giám cương mục, and in literary collections such as the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển and the Ức Trai [thi] tập.

Further, Ưng-Quả also claims that the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” had been maintained orally among the scholar elite who studied for the civil service examinations in the past as they saw it as a “model of the genre.”

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If that is the case, then what “genre” did it fit into? Was there a section in the civil service examinations on “resistance literature” or “declarations of independence”? A look at how the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” appears in the late-eighteenth-century literary collection, the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển, can help answer these questions.

The “Bình Ngô đại cáo” can be found in the fifth chapter of the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển, a chapter devoted to proclamations (誥), decrees (制) and patents (冊). This is because the purpose of the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển was not to demonstrate any kind of theme or main idea, but instead, to provide examples of high-quality writings in various genres.

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Chapter One is therefore devoted to classical rhyme-prose (古賦). Chapter Two contains records (記), such as records of journeys to various places. Chapter Three is a collection of epitaphs (銘), and Chapter Four contains elegies (祭文).

There are all genres of writing that the educated elite at that time needed to master, and the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was included in this collection of writings as one example of one genre of writing that aspiring scholars needed to learn.

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So how did the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” get transformed from an example of a genre of writing that scholars needed to learn to an example of “resistance literature”? For that to happen, many other things had to happen. In particular, an entire world view had to change, and that is precisely what happened in Vietnam in the twentieth century.

We can see the results of these changes in works like Phạm Văn Sơn’s Việt Nam tranh đấu sử (A History of Vietnam’s Fights and Struggles). Published in 1949 at the height of the resistance war against the French, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is not discussed in this book as a good example of a literary genre that scholars need to learn, because scholars did not need to learn how to write “proclamations” anymore. That world had come to an end.

Instead, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is presented in this book (together with Trần Hưng Đạo’s earlier appeal to his soldiers) as a work which was meant to inspire people to fight.

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What were they to fight for? The nation, of course, for as Ưng-Quả explained three years later, this was the great significance of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” – it demonstrated the existence of a national sentiment.

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Earlier works like the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư had not explained the importance of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” like this. In fact, they did not say anything about this document. When, however, we see the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” in the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển next to other writings that have nothing to do with “national sentiment,” we can nonetheless get a sense of the different way in which that document was viewed in the past.

Similarly, when we see how it is presented in a modern work like Phạm Văn Sơn’s Việt Nam tranh đấu sử, we can also see where the current view of that document came from.