Periodically there are articles that appear in the Vietnamese press about the “ancient Việt script” (chữ Việt cổ). There are people in Vietnam who are determined to show that there was a “Việt” script that was used in antiquity before classical Chinese (Hán) was adopted by people in the Red River Delta, and whenever someone publishes a book about this, there are articles in the press about this topic.
I never pay much attention to this topic because I have never seen any convincing evidence that there was ever an “ancient Việt script.”
However, what I find interesting is that the people who try to make this claim keep pointing to a certain script and claiming that it represents the “ancient Việt script.” The script that I am referring to is the Tai Dam, or “Black Tai,” script.
There was a Vietnamese scholar in the nineteenth century, Vương Duy Trinh, who made an initial effort to document this script in a text about songs from the area of Thanh Hóa (Thanh Hóa quan phong).
His rendering of this script is probably not very accurate, but it is easy to see from what he wrote that the script he was looking at was likely a Tai Dam script. Vương Duy Trinh said that this script could be found in the “Ten Châu” (Thập Châu 十州), a reference to administrative districts in the mountains stretching along the current Laos-Vietnam border to the north of Thanh Hóa.
Vương Duy Trinh noted that “People often say that our country does not have writing. I do not think that is correct. The Ten Châu are in the territory of our country. Up in the Ten Châu there is still this writing, but for some reason down in the markets [of the lowlands] there is not. The writing of the Châu is the writing of our country.”
(Người ta thường nói rằng nước ta không có chữ. Tôi nghĩ rằng không phải. Thập Châu vốn là đất nước ta. Trên Châu còn có chữ, lẽ nào dưới chợ lại không. Lối chữ Châu là lối chữ nước ta đó.)
Later in the nineteenth century, Gustave Dumoutier wrote an article about the Black River (Sông Đà) in which he included a very interesting document about that region that was written in Latin by a Vietnamese Catholic by the name of Nguyen Minh Dang.
In this document, Nguyen Minh Dang notes that up in this mountainous region only the Lao and the Chao (a Tai term for a king) had writing, and that this script consisted of 36 letters and 25 diacritical marks (36 chữ, 25 dâu). I am not sure how Nguyen Minh Dang came up with these numbers, but Tai scripts contain consonants, vowels and diacritical marks, and this is what Nguyen Minh Dang was probably referring to.
Nguyen Minh Dang then goes on to talk in his document about how the mountain regions came to be conquered by the Annamites (the Việt), and how there were some people in the mountains who could speak some Vietnamese and who followed the customs of the “Hoa dân” (華人), a term which was used to refer to the educated elite in the Việt and Chinese worlds at that time.
So did Nguyen Minh Dang think that the script that some people in the mountains used was an “ancient Việt script”? He does not say anything about that, but he does connect the people in the mountains to the ancient Việt past.
Nguyen Minh Dang begins his document by talking about how “once upon a time” the Hùng king ruled over all the mountain regions, but that the mountains were divided into many parts. Overseeing this divided world were two influential polities.
The supreme polity was called Muong Pha and was ruled over by the Chao Pha, a powerful being who created the four seasons and brought life to the world, while the inferior polity was called Muong Din and was ruled over by the Hùng King.
“Muong” is a Tai word for a “polity” or “kingdom.” “Pha” means “sky” or “heaven” and “din” means “land.”
What is interesting about this passage is that it demonstrates a view of the world in which a Tai ruler is represented as more powerful than a Việt counterpart, but at the same time, this is all presented in a “Việt” context, as the Chao Pha ruled at a time when the Hùng King governed over all the mountains.
According to Vietnamese tradition, the Hùng Kings’ supposedly ruled during the first millennium BC. So does this mean that this document in Latin that a Vietnamese Catholic wrote in the late nineteenth century about the worldview of Tai-language speakers in the mountains along the Black River contains information that these people “preserved” for some 2,000 years?
Certainly not, as linguists argue that Tai-language-speaking peoples only migrated into this region in large numbers about 1,000 years ago.
So why do we have Việt and Tai worldviews intermixed in a document like this? I think it is there for the same reason that there are Vietnamese scholars today who try to argue that the Tai Dam script is an “ancient Việt script.”
Tai and Việt peoples were rivals for centuries. Over time, however, the Việt have come to dominate the Tai. In the process, the Việt have also come to dominate what is said and known about the Tai.
In the nineteenth century, Vương Duy Trinh claimed that the Tai Dam script was a script that was from “our country” (nước ta) and Nguyen Minh Dang claimed that the Hùng Kings had ruled over the mountains. These were statements that “appropriated” the Tai into the Việt world, and this process continues today each time a Vietnamese scholar claims that the Tai Dam script is an “ancient Việt script.”