A reader asked where the idea that the millennium when the Red River Delta was part of various “Chinese” empires can be seen as something like “1000 years of Chinese domination.” It’s an interesting question, because in Vietnamese historical texts from before the twentieth century this period is simply referred to as the time of “belonging to the North” (Bắc thuộc), a term that did not have the connotations of “domination” or “colonization” that came to be associated with that period in the twentieth century.

So where did that way of viewing the past come from?

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I’m still not sure, but I found the past presented that way in a book from 1910 called On & Off Duty in Annam by Gabrielle M. Vassal, the British wife of a French army doctor who worked in Indochina from 1907-1910.

It’s not easy to determine where exactly Vassal got her knowledge of Vietnamese history from. There are aspects of it that are no longer believed today but which had been written about by various French authors by that time – such as the theory that the Vietnamese were part of a race that was distinguished by their “separated toes” (Giao Chỉ), and the idea that there had been two groups in the Red River Delta in antiquity who had competed with each other (some French authors interpreted the story of Sơn Tinh and Thủy Tinh this way).

However, there are other ideas that Vassal has that seem to be either her own creations (such as her idea that the Hong Bang dynasty ruled over “Qui (foreign devils),” an interesting way of interpreting the meaning of the mythical kingdom of Xích Quỷ). In any case, let us look at what she wrote about the early history of the Vietnamese, or the “Annamese” as she referred to them.

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“The Annamese are descended from the Giao-Chi, once established in the south of China. Giao-Chi means separated big toe; this is a peculiarity which the Annamese have not yet lost, and which enables them to use their big toe in a most skillful manner. The Giao-Chi may be traced back to the remotest antiquity. Nearly three thousand years before our era they occupied Yunnan, the Quan-Si, Quan Toung, and Tonking.

“A Chinese prince sent his son Loc Tuc to govern the Giao-Chi. It is the origin of the Hong Bang dynasty, which reigned over those Qui (foreign devils) for more than two thousand years. It is only in the third century B.C. that we can emerge from this legendary period.

“At that time intestine struggles divided the Giao-Chi country into two parts: the Van-Lang to the people of the plain and deltas, the Thai to those of the hill-country. China seized this opportunity of establishing a new Chinese dynasty. In the year in B.C. she conquered the country and kept it in subjection till A.D. 968. The Annamese were therefore governed by Chinese mandarins, who accustomed them to Chinese civilization during more than a millennium. The literature and moral code of Confucius gave a definite shape to Annamese thought and religion. That their national spirit was still alive is proved from time to time in the repeated insurrections and heroic rebellions against their conquerors. From 39-36 B.C. an Annamese woman, after proclaiming the independence of her country, expelled the Chinese for a time, and reigned under the name of Tru’ng Vu’ong.

“But it was not till the middle of the tenth century that the foreigner was driven out and the first national dynasty established.” (5-6)

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Vassal then goes on to talk about the Cham and the minority peoples in the Central Highlands, or what she called the “Mois,” as follows:

“Placing himself at the head of an army of 260,000 men, [Lê Thánh Tông] attacked the Chams in their capital and exterminated them. For fifteen centuries the Chams had inhabited the larger part of Annam proper. As the representatives of Hindoo civilization, they have left remarkable monuments of their past glory. Only a few survivals now remain. This rapid extinction of a powerful and civilized race by the Annamese is a problem of the highest interest.

“The Mois, on the other hand, have survived the disturbances and revolutions of the country’s history. Faraway in the remote mountainous regions of Annam they have retained their primitive habits. An incongruous collection of wretched tribes may there be found who have sacrificed everything to their love of freedom. At all events, they have succeeded in occupying an immense hinterland, the possession of which their neighbors did not find it worth while to dispute with them.” (7)

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The way that Vassal describes the past very much reflects the way that educated Europeans viewed the world at that time (the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), what we can call the age of high imperialism.

Talk of “nations” and “races” that fought for “freedom” or faced “extinction” or “domination,” and contrasting between “civilized” and “primitive” peoples, were all expressions that were part of the Social Darwinist worldview of that time.

We can’t find the past presented this way in texts written by Vietnamese before the twentieth century. However, in the Western world at that time, Chinese were often depicted in negative terms, and were seen as threatening to overrun various places outside of China, such as the Philippines, America, and Hawaii:

“The fear of an Asiatic invasion is neither a bugaboo nor a superstition. It is an ever present and menacing danger. The new era in China means an era of emigration on the part of her crowded millions. The Mongolian hive is swarming. We must shut them from America or they will ruin our civilization as locusts destroy a harvest.” (“Hawaii and the Chinese,” The San Francisco Call, October 24, 1897, page 6.)

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Vassal doesn’t have such a negative view of the Chinese, but her more neutral comments still depict the Chinese as capable of overrunning a foreign land, like Vietnam:

“The Chinese are naturally very numerous in Indo-China; after many centuries they have acquired an exceptional position here, and gained the respectful title of “cai-chu” (uncles). In their dealings with the Annamese they are, as it best profits them, either discreetly or insolently superior. Except in Tonking, it is they who carry on all the small trade. They are unrivalled shopkeepers, devoted to their work, clever, honest, and very united among themselves. They do not cultivate rice-fields, but they monopolize the rice trade, building manufactories to shell the rice and chartering boats to export it. . . .They are perhaps Indo-China’s best colonists, and those who make the greatest profits. There can be no question of evicting them at present as the Americans have done in the Philippines (Chinese Exclusion Act). The French have simply tried to limit Chinese immigration by raising heavy taxes on the Celestials, so as to re-establish the equilibrium in favor of the Annamese.” (3)

5

In other words, according to Vassal, it was only thanks to French taxation of the Chinese (and Chinese reluctance to pay taxes. . .) that Indochina was not overrun by Chinese, thereby tipping the equilibrium against the Vietnamese.

What is more, Vassal does not give any indication that Vietnamese felt any animosity towards the Chinese. She gives examples later in her book (157-158) of how Chinese succeeded at that time in getting Vietnamese to gamble away their money, and she repeatedly shows throughout the book how dominant Chinese were in the economy, but she does not mention any resentment towards the Chinese for any of this.

Chinese merchant

Vassal’s perspective is of course just that – one perspective. However, I think it is easy to see how she came to view the past in the way she did. She was living in a world where lands were being conquered and colonized, and she spent three years in a French colony where she was surrounded by evidence of Chinese economic domination.

Add to that the fact that Social Darwinism was a popular way of viewing the world at that time, and I think it is easy to understand how someone like Vassal would see Chinese domination in the Vietnamese past.

As for how Vietnamese eventually came to see Chinese domination in their past, I am still not sure, as a year after Vassal published her book, Vietnamese scholar Ngô Giáp Đậu wrote about the role of Chinese in Vietnamese history very differently.