The Bình Ngô đại cáo and the Modern Emergence of Resistance Literature

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.

pat cov

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.

pat toc

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?


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.”


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.


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.


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.

pvs bndc

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.


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.

9 thoughts on “The Bình Ngô đại cáo and the Modern Emergence of Resistance Literature

  1. [Trương Bửu Lâm included some earlier documents to place the nineteenth century “response to foreign intervention” in a larger historical context. ]
    Where is the continuum between the medieval events and the “modern” ones ? More , what’s the relation between those medieval events ; they took place at 1 or 2 or 3 hundred -years intervals . What’s the common point between Song , Mongols and Ming dynasties ? The corresponding VN dynasties had not much in common , they overthrew each other or were overthrown .
    “National or ethnic consciousness ” and nationalism did’nt exist in medieval times , the “people ” had no voice ; they were the subjects of that or this king
    ” Chinese ” and VN historiography told only of the histories of reigning dynasties . The famed compendium of ” Chinese “history , the “24 history books ” relates also the history of ” barbarian ” emperors , Mongols , Manchus , northern Wei without making difference between « Hans or barbarians kingdoms .
    The people in old times bowed to whichever wins the “mandate of heaven ” , i.e. grabs the power . Patriotic feeling in those times equals loyalty to the king .
    “Nationalism ” was invented by modern occidental thinking , giving the voice to ethnies and common people . It’s quite commendable . But why did modern historians among them Vietnamese ones fall under the stupid compulsion to retroactively interpret past events with the new reading frame? like presenting the Hundred- years War as a struggle between English and French people while it’s a fight between two french-speaking feudal overlords .
    The French and catholic colonialists did that with Vietnam’s past history , inventing the famed and infamous ” 1000 – year chinese domination ” (as I said in another post , that domination story may actually be a “secret ” history of the Catholics ) . This 1000 year concept presupposes a monolithic , monocultural , mono ethnic ” China ” and « Vietnam « ; it is debunked in Dr Kelly ‘s article ” Demystifying mainland SEAsia ”
    The VN under colonial rule absorbed thru a kind of osmosis their overlords ‘s sham history and made it their own .They have a love – hate relationship with that history : on one side , they are proud of their supposed millenarian resistance to domination ; on the other side , they ‘re deeply humiliated , they try to compensate , they nurture a deep , unfounded hatred towards the ” Chinese ”
    They are victims of a kind of ” false memory syndrom « ; in vietnamese , «  ăn phải đũa «  having chopsticks stuck half throat «  means learning bad things from someone else
    What compounds the disaster is Vietnamese usual and abysmal ignorance of « northern , i,e, chinese history « .
    They perceive everything through the distorted lenses of their hatred ; whatever is said or happens with the Chinese as it does these days , they have a knee- jerk reaction , they trot out their «  resistance « and swear eternal revenge . One can tell them a hundred times , the 1000 year were an intellectual fantasy or that 1000 years afterwards «  China « and Vietnam mostly went their own ways , each having others fishes to fry
    They don’t know that China under the Mings went to the rescue of Korea then withdrew their troops and that the Ming or Ching interventions in Vietnam were motivated at first by the «  Chinese « ‘s sense of duty as suzerains , they came at the behest of legitimate VN rulers .
    The VN are attached to the fiction of a domineering China , bent on spending all their waking hours watching and longing to take over VN again ; they get angry , enraged when one tries to dissuade them from that fantasy .

  2. I agree, but I would add that when you mention things like this – “The VN under colonial rule absorbed thru a kind of osmosis their overlords ‘s sham history and made it their own” – that it should be emphasized that this is not unique to Vietnam. Instead, virtually every colonized society in the world did this.

    One of the biggest “problems” with (much of) the scholarship on Vietnam is that Vietnam is often portrayed as somehow “different” from all other societies on the planet. What many people have not done is to learn about the larger region and other parts of the world and then looked at Vietnam from that perspective.

    This, however, is something that Keith Taylor does in his new book, and I just read a review of it in which the reviewer points out this “problem” that I just mentioned and notes how Taylor doesn’t repeat it in his new book.

    Here is the link to that review:

    And here is the quote:

    First, his challenge to Vietnamese “essentialism” – the idea that Vietnam has been a self-conscious “nation” for millennia – brings that society more into line with what we know of the rest of the region. In every other country, scholars have tried to trace the evolutionary rise of “national” culture and consciousness, rather than assuming that it was primordial (although some people still persist in believing that Lapu-Lapu was somehow “Filipino,” Queen Suriyothai was “Thai,” and Dipanagara was “Indonesian”). Taylor, by drawing Vietnam into the same universe of evolving consciousness, removes one of the anomalies in the study of Southeast Asian history, where for decades we have had to dance around the propositions that “nationalism” emerged gradually everywhere else in the region but sprang fully-formed from the brow of some primeval proto-Vietnamese ancestor in the Red River delta.

  3. When I was 18 , I believed in the tenet ” VN were not assimilated to Chinese culture despite the thousand years of domination “. Much later on , I realized that after only 80 years of French domination , VN changed half of their cultural traditions , in peculiar “quan ” ( clothing & haircut ) and hôn ( marriage ) . About marriage ,I wince each time I see westernized women dressed in white, because for older VN, white is the color of grief and old age . So how could VN have resisted chinese assimilation after 1000 years while after 80 years , they have already evolved .
    So the sky began to fall more on my belief when I learned that VN have ” Han ” names and surnames as well as well as Han towns and provinces ‘ denominations and quasi identical cultural traditions as well as 60% of Vnvocabulary is ” chinese ” . So the famed resistance to assimilation is a sham .
    About the word domination ” , it is translated in VN by either đô hộ ( =
    protection ) or thuộc ( = belonging or membership ) .
    So I would say that Vietnam ( as a geographical concept ) and its people belonged ( thuộc ) to the ” Han ” political and cultural sphere and they were dominated ( đô hộ ) by the French .

  4. I like the distinction you make between thuộc and đô hộ. If you read old Vietnamese texts, thuộc was just a fact. During the colonial period, however, đô hộ became something bad, and when it did, everything that had happened before was reinterpreted to fit that view. An Nam became “the pacified South.” “Bình Nam” is the “pacified South.” “An” is an adjective, not a transitive verb. You can’t “an” anything. An Nam is the “calm South,” and it is “calm” because it “enjoys” the “moral benevolence” (đức) that spreads southward from the imperial capital. . .

    Yes, of course that is not a neutral term, but the logic behind it was different from the logic that the colonial world was based on. But since the “Protectorate of An Nam” used the same words as the Tang Dynasty’s “Protectorate of An Nam,” and since the Vietnamese world view change 180 degrees in the 20th century, the period of “belonging” to various empires to the north became a period of “domination.”

  5. Let’s talk about the ” northern ” domination ” or belonging = bắc thuộc
    First Bắc thuộc ( lần I ) (207 TCN – 40) under Tsin and Triêu Dà
    Second Bắc thuộc ( lần II ) (43 – 541) under Han empire
    Third Bắc thuộc ( lần III ) (602 – 905) under Sui and Tang empires
    What is the ( real ) continuity between those rulers ?
    According to “chinese ” historic conceptions , when a new ruler takes the power , he gives the country a new name ; and a new ( country and ) dynasty is born . And that’s it , no continuity whatsoever claimed with the former dynasty . The mandate of heaven has moved to another person . The followers of the vanquished may have fought out of loyalty ( trung ) for the former ruler but not out of ” patriotic ” impulses . The others bowed to the new rulers as was the attitude of the ” Chinese ” with Mongol or Manchu conquerors
    And the ruled ,did they stay the same people during all these 1000 years ?
    To say that VN people were dominated by ” chinese ” people from – 207 B.C until 905 .means that at the start of that domination time , a full blown Vn ethnie , culture existed and persisted , unassimilated for 1000 years ; such assertions are not substantiated by historical facts

  6. I am interested by Document n°7 : (Anonymous ) An appeal to resist the French ( 1864 ) . Anybody has the full document ?
    Was it a document mentionned by Paul Mus and found on the Ga ong ( or Go công ) river bank ? Tjank you .

    1. This is what Truong Buu Lam wrote in the book about this document: “The original is in Vietnamese. The complete text of this document may be found in Hoang Ngoc Phach and Le Tri Vien, So tuyen van tho yeu nuoc va cach mang (Hanoi, 1959), 1, 95-100; a longer version of the same document may be found in Bao Dinh Giang and Ca Van Thinh, Tho van yeu nuoc Nam Bo cuoi the ky thu XIX (Hanoi, 1962), 241-47.”

      I’ll just add that this brings up a topic that I think needs to be examined – how it is that Vietnamese language sources from the nineteenth century only made it into print in the second half of the 20th century. Some can probably be documented, but some can’t. So where/when did they come from?

      1. _ I can’t find these documents on Internet ; can anibody have tips ?
        _ anyway , I have a French translation of a proclamation found in 1862 according to Paul Mus :
        [ Tous les habitants de la province de Go công, d’un commun accord, formulent cette déclaration. En perdant le gouvernement de notre roi nous sommes dans la même désolation qu’un enfant qui a perdu son père et sa mère. Votre pays appartient aux mers occidentales, le nôtre aux mers de l’Orient. Comme le cheval et le buffle diffèrent entre eux, nous différons par la langue, par l’écriture et les mœurs. L’homme fut créé autrefois en races distinctes. Partout il a la même valeur mais sa nature n’est pas la même. La reconnaissance nous attache à notre roi. Nous vengerons ces injures et nous mourrons pour lui. Si vous persistez à porter chez nous le fer et la flamme, le désordre sera long, mais nous agirons selon les lois du Ciel .Mais si vous refusez de partir , nous ne cesserons de lutter pour obéir à la volonté du Ciel. Nous redoutons votre valeur, mais nous craignons le Ciel plus que votre puissance. Nous jurons de nous battre éternellement et sans relâche. Lorsque tout nous manquera, nous prendrons des branches d’arbre pour en faire des drapeaux et des bâtons pour armer nos soldats. ]

  7. Well, I have (not for the first time) ended up here more-or-less accidentally; while reading Jacques Dalloz’s ‘The War In Indo-China 1945-54’ I felt compelled to look up various further information online, and became distracted in trying to find a better cover scan of the above monograph (thanx for that, professor- the one I’d found previously was pretty terrible).
    I was struck by the phrase in the first comment-reply above, “…I would add that when you mention things like this – ‘The VN under colonial rule absorbed thru a kind of osmosis their overlords ‘s sham history and made it their own’ – that it should be emphasized that this is not unique to Vietnam. Instead, virtually every colonized society in the world did this.”. Not only have I read about that particular phenomenon occurring throughout the colonised world, from Ireland to SEA and beyond, but I have seen that process taking place with my own eyes (and with an alacrity by which I was truly shocked) within the post-modern neo-colonial context of my beloved home city of Detroit. I was reading earlier this week a description by the late IRA leader Seán MacStíofáin of his own shock at the essentially brainwashed condition of the majority of Irish people vis-a-vis the colonial/neo-colonial situation of the respective portions of Ireland during the early 1950s. I suspect that often-times those of us who are of a more scholarly bent underestimate both the tendency of most people to clutch at even obvious lies if that path seems most likely to avoid trouble, and also the speed at which this process can take place.

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