So I visited the History Museum in Hanoi a few weeks ago where they currently have a small (but wonderful) exhibit marking 70 years since the discovery of the first Đông Sơn artifacts.

1

On the one hand, it was fantastic to be able to stand next to a bronze drum and to examine it closely.

2

On the other hand, as I looked closely at some of the artifacts on display, I felt as if I had been betrayed by the scholars who have written about Đông Sơn culture, as there is obviously so much more to say about Đông Sơn culture than scholars have discussed to date.

3

For instance, while apparently some scholars have noted that there are images of people engaging in sexual intercourse on some Đông Sơn bronze artifacts, I never realized that those images were on burial jars.

jarai

This is incredibly significant because this links the Đông Sơn culture to a larger (non-Việt) world, as in as late as the twentieth century (and perhaps today as well) Austronesian-language speakers like the Jarai placed similar images on their tombs.

5

Another image that surprised me was the presence of water buffalo on bronze drums.

6

A great deal has been written about the images of birds on bronze drums, and numerous Vietnamese scholars have argued that these birds represent the “totem” of the “Lạc” people, a people whom Vietnamese scholars claim were the original inhabitants of the Red River delta. But there are water buffalo on bronze drums too, so why don’t people talk about the water buffalo as a totem of the “Lạc” people?

7

I was also surprised to find beautiful bells.

8

The elephant image on this bell is exquisite.

9

The Chinese characters on this bell, meanwhile, lead to interesting questions.

10

As Han Xiaorong pointed out years ago, Vietnamese and Chinese scholars have spent much of the past half century claiming that the bronze drums (and by extension, Đông Sơn culture) were “Vietnamese” or “Chinese” (“Who Invented the Bronze Drum? Nationalism, Politics, and a Sino-Vietnamese Archaeological Debate of the 1970s and 1980s,” Asian Perspectives, 43.1 (2004): 7-33.). The historical reality, however does not match current national borders.

The couple engaging in sexual intercourse on a funerary jar, the water buffalo, the elephant, and Chinese writing all indicate this. Instead, what we find on bronze objects in the area stretching from the Yangzi to the Cả River is evidence of an elite cultural world where members of the elite across this vast region interacted and exchanged objects (and perhaps ideas) with each other.

11

This article by Wei Weiyan, Shiung Chung-Ching- “Viet Khe Burial 2: Identifying the Exotic Bronze Wares and Assessing Cultural Contact between the Dong Son and Yue Cultures,” Asian Archaeology 2 (2014): 77-92 – makes this point.

These authors find that there are objects in a tomb in an area near what is today Hải Phòng that clearly came from areas to the north, but that one can also find a dagger like those in the images above and below that was representative of the Đông Sơn culture that has been found in a tomb in Hunan.

12

So what all of this indicates is that there was a world in the first millennium BC that was sophisticated, but which was neither “Vietnamese” nor “Chinese” and which was not the “origin” of “Vietnamese” or “Chinese” history.

It is a past world that has disappeared. While we can never fully recover that past world, we can still learn a lot about it if we put aside the need to find “Vietnamese” or “Chinese” history at this time, and if we just look at the water buffalos, the elephants, the daggers and the people engaging in sexual intercourse on their own terms.