Historicizing the Ngô

I’ve long argued that the 15th century document, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” (Great Proclamation on Pacifying the Ngô), does not represent a “declaration of independence” by “the Vietnamese” vis-à-vis “the Chinese” (with “Ngô” being a derogatory name for the Chinese).

Instead, it’s a declaration of victory by “the winning side” over “the losing side.” “The winning side” consisted of Lê Lợi and his supporters, while the “the losing side” were “the Vietnamese” who had collaborated with the Ming Dynasty.

I’ve always based this understanding on the text itself, and the general historical context. I’ve never been able to determine, however, why the term “Ngô” was used in this document, as I can’t find many other examples of this term in premodern texts.

title

Recently, historian John Whitmore published an article that examines the historical context in more detail, and which puts forth an argument about the meaning of the term “Ngô.” To Whitmore, Ngô might have referred to the Ming during their occupation of the Red River delta in the early fifteenth century, but he thinks that it mainly referred to the Sinitic cultural world of the lower Red River delta, a region that was developed in part by Chinese migrants from places like Fujian province.

This is what he says:

“The northerners whom the Vietnamese knew most intimately were those from the southeast coast of China. The maritime connection brought Fujianese and others down the coast to Dai Viet for both trade and settlement. Thus, for the Vietnamese, the term Ngo may have primarily referred to these Chinese inhabiting the littoral regions of the delta, and only secondarily to the Ming state in general. If this were the case, it was not only political power that the victors resisted, but also the power and prestige of a specific Chinese community that was currently inhabiting the coastal zone of Dai Viet, that is, the Lower Delta of the Red River.

“More than defeating the invading armies of the Ming regime, Le Loi and his mountain army opposed the thriving shared Sino-Vietnamese coastal culture of the previous three centuries. This coastal culture had led first to the Tran (Ch.: Chen) dynasty (1225-1400) centered at their base of Thien Truong in the southern Lower Delta, and then to the two-decade Ming occupation (1407-1427).

“For me, the term Ngo/Wu encompassed not just the Ming empire that had risen in the lower Yangzi valley (the former Wu area), but also the culture that had flowed down the dynamic coast of southeast China into the underpopulated Lower Delta region of what is now northern Viet Nam. The montane-littoral, highland-coastal conflict arose out of competition for control over the lowland Vietnamese and their capital of Thang Long (now Ha Noi) in the mid-river section of the Red River delta. It would have a great impact on fifteenth-century Dai Viet and would lead to much continued conflict throughout the following century.” (53-54)

Ly

In providing evidence for this argument, Whitmore begins by contrasting the Lý (1009-1225) and Trần (1225-1400) dynasties, with the Trần representing the Sinicized coastal world.

To quote, this is what he says:

“The Ly origin and their region lay in the mid-river segment of the Red River delta around what became the capital Thang Long; the Tran/Chen, originating from Fujian province on the southeast coast of China, and their base in the Lower Delta.

. . .

“Whereas the Ly became strongly Buddhist, stressing links to India, the Tran/Chen, with their coastal ties, brought in classical Chinese thought (Confucianism) as well as recent developments in Chan (V.: Thien) Buddhism.

“Economically, the Ly, as in contemporary Angkor and Pagan (in present-day Cambodia and Myanmar respectively), emphasized agriculturally productive temples in the mid-river region, with increasing trade; the Tran/Chen, following activities on the southeast coast of China, developed the Lower Delta and established a series of royal estates, along with manufacturing and foreign commerce linked to the Ngo community.

“Certainly the Tran/Chen patrilineal clan system was much stronger than the Ly pattern of intermarrying with local powers. The Tran/Chen also initially brought in a stronger administrative system, although the growing power of its princes eventually undercut it.” (54-55)

These are all well-known facts, but they take on new meaning when we see the Tran as not merely a separate Vietnamese family that contended with the Ly family for power, but as outsiders from a different cultural world who had established a base in the coastal areas and gained wealth by opening the land and engaging in international trade.

junks

Over the body of the article, Whitmore documents the rise of this group in the coastal region, their support for the Ming, and Lê Lợi’s efforts to control them after he came to power in 1428.

This history is not easy to document because one cannot find in the sources a clear account of the rise of a group of Chinese migrants in the lower Red River delta during this time period. What Whitmore does is to piece together small details from many different sources.

To show, for instance, that the coastal region was not well developed in the twelfth century, Whitmore cites the following statement about An Nam/Annan from Fan Chengda, a Chinese official in Guangxi in the 1170s:

“Its native population is very small. Half of the people are from the province [or provinces, meaning Guangxi, and maybe Guangdong too]. Merchants heading to the south entice people to serve as female servants and male bearers. When they reach Jiao Aboriginal Settlement they are tied up and sold off.” [Adapted from James Hargett’s translation of Fan Chengda’s Treatises of the Supervisor and Guardian of the Cinnamon Sea, 203]

其國土人極少, 半是省民, 南州客旅誘人作婢仆擔夫, 至州洞則縛而賣之.

To Whitmore, this is not a description of the Lý heartland, but instead, is describing the coastal regions. Indeed, this passage goes on to say that many of these people were sold to Jiaozhou, meaning the area under the control of the Lý.

What we thus see here is a picture of the coastal region before it was fully developed, when there were not many local people there, and when Chinese merchants brought slaves to the region. And while some of those slaves were sold to places in the interior, some were undoubtedly put to work opening the lower delta.

bay

Throughout this article, Whitmore uses many small details like this to paint a larger picture, and the picture that emerges is a very logical one. In it, we see this coastal community of Chinese migrants (and probably their local wives, or women from “the [Chinese coastal] provinces” who had been enticed there by merchants), we see people from this world collaborate with the Ming – people whom Lê Lợi would later refer to as “traitorous officials” [ngụy quan] – and we see Lê Lợi attempt to suppress this world after the Ming had left.

These were the people on “the losing side.” They were the Ngô.

For more, see John K. Whitmore, “Ngo (Chinese) Communities and Montane-Littoral Conflict in Dai Viet, ca. 1400-1600,” Asia Major 27.2 (2014): 53-85.

18 thoughts on “Historicizing the Ngô

  1. 1/ This helps explain the high level of collaboration in the Red River Delta during the Ming occupation. I remember reading a famous article by K.W. Taylor in which it is claimed that there were so many collaborators in this region that Nguyễn Trãi had felt a stranger in his own land at the time.

    2/ I wonder whether it is historically correct to draw a comparison between Lê Lợi’s repressive policy towards the Red River Delta population with the punitive policy implemented by the Communist regime in the South after April 1975. Note the similarity in the way military and civil servants of the defeated regime were which the designated by Northern victors: Ngụy quân, Ngụy quyền …. Your reference to Bên Thắng Cuộc is not a coincidence, I guess…

    1. I think you can draw a comparison to the end of that specific conflict, or more generally to the end of any internal conflict in pretty much any society anywhere. I also think that this is much more representative of how human beings operate than the idea that they always unite against foreign aggression. What I like about John’s paper is that it makes this period much more human/historical and much less mythical/propagandistic. I also think it makes this period WAY more interesting, precisely because it makes it more realistic.

      The other thing it does is to point to a more complex way of looking at the role of “Chinese” in “Vietnamese” history. What Taylor (following John Phan) argues in his new book is that the ruling elite that came to power in the 10th century was essentially a local Chinese community that had intermarried with locals (so it was a hybrid society – and this doesn’t mean that all of the elite men were of Chinese origin, just that such a group formed an initial core of the elite). What Whitmore argues here is that the Tran and the coastal world of that time period were another local Chinese community that had intermarried with locals. I think we could push things further and argue that something similar was happening in the 18th century in the south. I think the French altered this natural process of Chinese integrating into Vietnamese society and creating something new, but ultimately if one looks at the broad sweep of Vietnamese history, one could argue that there is a repeated pattern of Chinese integrating into, and transforming, Vietnamese society.

      People have talked about the “Confucianization” of Vietnamese society/culture over time and have seen it as some kind of internal process where members of the Vietnamese elite decide at certain times to adopt certain Sinitic ideas or practices. But if you look at it from this other perspective, we can see another logic. The big moments of increased Sinitic culture come during the Tran (who are from this Sinitic coastal world that Whitmore describes), during the early Le (after the Ming occupation), and during the Nguyen (after tons of Chinese had migrated to the southern 1/2 of what is now Vietnam). I think we can detect a pattern here. . .

  2. I agree with Pr. Kelly that [ the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” (Great Proclamation on Pacifying the Ngô), does not represent a “declaration of independence” ]
    Actually there are two characters for ” cáo ” :
    _ cáo 吿 means proclamation
    _ 誥 cáo which is in ancient books linked with ” Binh Ngô ” means : teaching , lecture ; so Binh ngô should be understood as an admonition towards
    the other contestants and not meant for the Mings .
    About these competitors for independance , the late Pr Hoàng Xuân Hãn , a famous VN scholar who was close to Bao Dai and Pr Tran trong Kim listed some of them in an interview in 1996 : Đông Triều party , Tuyên Quang party (Đông Triều,Tuyên Quang are two provinces ) , the Trân dynasty offspring “Trần Giản Định , Trần Trùng Quang ” ,etc …
    http://thuykhue.free.fr/hxh/lichsu.html ,
    In this interview , Pr Hoang conceded , HCM and the Viet minh did ruthlessly
    get rid of numerous political rivals but recognizes HCM’s achievement , attaining independance for VN
    That the way it is : see the internecine fights during the early years of the French Revolution or of the Russian revolution . It happened the same during Chinese independance war against the Mongols : Zhu yuan zhang
    won his most famous victory , the Po-yang battle , not against the Mongols but against another competitor Chen Youliang ; he disposed of others before finallly turning on to the Mongols

    1. Yes, and then there are at least a couple of examples of “dai cao/dagao.” There is one in the Book of Documents (Shangshu/Shujing) and there was one that was issued, if I remember correctly, during the early Ming after some princes revolted. And yes, they are “warnings” to others to “behave.”

  3. LMK: “The big moments of increased Sinitic culture come during the Tran (who are from this Sinitic coastal world that Whitmore describes), during the early Le (after the Ming occupation), and during the Nguyen (after tons of Chinese had migrated to the southern 1/2 of what is now Vietnam). I think we can detect a pattern here. . .”

    1/ … which, as historical discussions tend to do, brings us to the present and its most pressing problem: the (im)possibility for Vietnam to escape from China’s orbit. Since Vietnam’s ruling elite consider a tacit alliance with the Northern neighbor to be absolutely necessary for their survival, this country would remain firmly rooted therein as long as they are able to nip in the bud any rival that could contest their power. It is arguable that the tenability of your observation largely depends on what would happen, should the current regime collapse. If those who then emerge as the new helmsmen decide to pivot to the West the way South Korea has done, then the pattern which you may have discerned in Vietnamese history would cease to exist or could no longer be extrapolated… Otherwise, you may be right…

    2/ I am curious which role JW has assigned to the Mạc dynasty in his Montane-Littoral narrative…

  4. Actually, I think this way of looking at the past shows that the Sino-Vietnamese relationship in the present is very different from what it was in the past, and I think the problem that people have is that they can’t see this because they have to imagine an “unchanging” history.

    Prior to the 20th century, for most of the time “China” didn’t give a damn about “Vietnam.” A long, long, long time ago I was going to write a dissertation on the “Orientalizing” discourse of the Chinese. I was going to look at Chinese writings about Vietnam over a 2,000 year period and show how they had created “tropes” about “the south” that painted it in derogatory terms, like the Western writings about the Orient that Said wrote about.

    What I found, upon reading Chinese sources, is that the Chinese basically never created much information about Vietnam, and the little information they did create, just got repeated over and over. So if something came to an emperor’s attention during the Tang, he would ask “Where??” And the answer would be “An Nam/Annan, you know, that place that used to be called Jiaozhi way back when.” “Oh, that place.” Fast forward several centuries to the Ming: “Where??” “An Nam/Annan, you know, that place that used to be called Jiaozhi way back when.” “Oh, that place.” Fast forward several centuries to the Qing: “Where??” “An Nam/Annan, you know, that place that used to be called Jiaozhi way back when.” “Oh, that place.”

    Meanwhile, through all these centuries actual Chinese were living within the boundaries of “Vietnam,” interacting with people, and in some cases, bringing cultural and societal change.

    It’s only in the second 1/2 of the 20th century that Vietnam has started to matter to China, and it is also in this time period that being Chinese in Vietnam has become a problem.

    I think we’re in a totally new world now, but that is a point which not many people recognize, and people therefore keep looking to the past for patterns that can help us understand the present. When it comes to the Sino-Vietnamese relationship, they’re not there. Everything since 1945/49 has been a new game.

  5. What you said about Jiaozhou being unimportant to Chinese empires was mostly correct. However, do you think Jiao’s importance to Chinese empires lied in the urge to expand South to create a haven in case Northern part of the empires overrun by Northern barbarians?. Jiao seemed to be important to Han empire (the most important port), and to Ming empire (maybe because they saw the tragic end of Southern Song’s last king and decided to expand further south). These eras were also witnessing the large scale and intense Sinicization.

  6. About the Wu ( Ngô ) in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” , is it the same Ngô as the kingdom of Ngô of the Warring States , whose king Phù Sai fought and lost to Việt king , Vương Câu Tiễn .The Wu kingdom is situated in the
    Shanghai – Su Chou – Hang chou ( today’s Giang Tô _ Kiang su and Triêt
    giang _ Che kiang provinces )
    The region is home to the Wu dialect . More than half of Japanese vocabulary is from chinese origin , transcripted by chinese characters ; these characters have two pronunciations : the kun ( or Japanese ) yomi and the “on or ( Chinese ) yomi-s . There are mainly 3 kinds of chinese pronunciations : Han, Tang and Wu

    1. Beaten by the Mongols , Southern Song loyalists took refuge in Dai Viet and fought along the side of Tran troops . The capital of the southern Song was i Hang chou . The Song remnants settled in Vietnam ; maybe , they were called Ngô and took part in the civil strifeon the side of the pro Ming faction against Lê loi faction

      1. The Hoa people and Ming collaborators in Red River Delta was called Ngô at the time, maybe because they sided with the Ming, which was also called Ngô (since the founder of the Ming dynasty came from Wu area (Jiangsu). However, evidence showed that Le Loi (himself a Muong) came out from Thanh Hoa and brought with him many Muong ethnics, while the ethnics of Red River Delta (Hoa and Viet) were called Kinh. Red River Delta was always difficult to control for Le and Nguyen because the people there tend to look down on these leaders (who were from Thanh Hoa, and whose ethnics must be Muong in the beginning). Mainstream Vietnam history described the elites in Red River Delta as Si Phu Bac Ha.

  7. After reflexion , I think “Ngô” is nothing derogatory . In those times , there
    were many kinds of immigrants coming from different regions to settle in Dai viet . In modern times , in Cholon , there are Cantonese , Fou kien , Hakka
    or Chao tcheou ( =Teo chiew = Triêù châu = Tiêù ) I think , the somehow derogatory VN generic for Chinese “Tàu” comes from Tiêù .
    About the Mings , the first emperor was from peasant stock ; it must have been irritating for Yung lo emperor that Hô quy Ly pretended to be offspring
    of the mythical emperor Shun and renamed Dai viet as Dai Ngu ( name of Shun’s realm ) , it maybe was one motivation among others for Yung lo to attack Hô .

  8. Hi:

    I started reading “Phép Giảng Tám Ngày” (Catechismvs, written by Alexandre de Rhodes and published in 1651) and notice that in the first day (Ngày Thứ Nhít) alone, the author used the term “ngô” three times to refer to China, Chinese:

    1. vì ſao tlao᷄ ſắch ou᷄ khou᷄, nước ngô gọi là thánh, ràng (nữa ŏa phụ thạch bổ thien) đần bà gọi là ŏa đội đá ꞗá blời.

    2. vì chưng tlao᷄ chữ ngô có chữ thien là blời, giải thì có hai chữ, một là chữ nhít, hai là chữ đại nghĩa là một cả.

    3. vì chưng Thíc ca làm cội rễ bụt Ngô, mà ſinh ra đã có blời tlước ba nghìn nam.

    https://vi.wikisource.org/wiki/Ph%C3%A9p_gi%E1%BA%A3ng_t%C3%A1m_ng%C3%A0y/Ng%C3%A0y_th%E1%BB%A9_nh%C3%ADt

    This is my understanding of the text:

    1. “vì sao trong sách ông Khổng, nước Ngô gọi là thánh, rằng “Nữ Oa phụ thạch bổ thiên, đàn bà gọi là Oa đội đá vá trời.”

    2. “vì chưng trong chữ Ngô có chữ thiên là trời, giải thì có hai chữ, một là chữ nhất, hai là chữ đại, nghĩa là một cả”

    3. “vì chưng Thích Ca làm cội rễ bụt Ngô, mà sinh ra đã có trời trước ba nghìn năm”

    There is no doubt that de Rhodes used “Ngô” for anything having to do with China and Chinese. And I don’t find the usage to be derogatory at all as he was talking about Chinese saint, Chinese buddha, Chinese words.

    Considering that de Rhodes lived in both Đàng Trong and Đàng Ngoài and had frequent and extended contacts with the Vietnamese whom he wanted to convert before publishing this work, I believe this must be a universal term that the Vietnamese used to refer to China and Chinese in the 17th century — at least during the latter part of the Lê Dynasty and surely nearer to the time Nguyễn Trãi wrote “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo”.

    Can these references be considered “premodern” enough for you and therefore the term “Ngô” used in “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” was indeed meant for China?

    Regards
    Winston Phan

    1. Great!! This is very interesting and helpful, but it still leaves me with a lot of questions.

      1) The one thing we can determine is that at a common level, Ngô obviously referred to things that cold be identified as “Chinese.”

      2) There were also people who could be identified as “Chinese” in VN during this period.

      3) The term was rarely used in written sources, where terms like “the Ming” or “the North”, etc. were more common.

      As for the Binh Ngo Dai Cao, there is still no way that I can be convinced that it was directed at “China” rather than at “the losing side” within VN as the content makes the latter too evident, and there is no evidence that anyone in China ever read it. The purpose of a “dai cao,” after all, is for someone to hear it.

      That said, I think that to say that the group of collaborators were referred to as “Ngô” could be inaccurate, although there were undoubtedly local Ngô among them.

      Alternately, while the Dai Cao is directed at the people who did not support Le Loi, the use of Ngo as Chinese in the title could be meant to signify that “now that the Chinese have been defeated, listen to us!” That still works for me.

      In any case, thank you very much for pointing this out, and please point out more if you come across other points!!!

      Finally, I find “bụt Ngô” a little bit odd. “Chinese” Buddha? As opposed to?? Any ideas?

      Thanks again!!!

    2. Theo như tôi hiểu thì ba câu trích trong “Phép giảng tám ngày” đó có ý là như thế này:

      1. “vì ſao tlao᷄ ſắch ou᷄ khou᷄, nước ngô gọi là thánh, ràng (nữa ŏa phụ thạch bổ thien) đần bà gọi là ŏa đội đá ꞗá blời”

      ý là:

      Vì sao trong sách của ông Khổng [chỉ Khổng Tử], người được người nước Ngô gọi là thánh, lại có viết rằng “女娲負石補天” (nữ Oa phụ thạch bổ thiên), có nghĩa là người đàn bà tên là Oa (娲) đội đá vá trời?

      2. “vì chưng tlao᷄ chữ ngô có chữ thien là blời, giải thì có hai chữ, một là chữ nhít, hai là chữ đại nghĩa là một cả”

      ý là:

      Vì sao trong chữ Ngô [chỉ chữ Hán] lại có chữ “thiên” 天 (có nghĩa là trời) do hai chữ “nhất đại” 一大 (ý là chỉ có một và là lớn nhất) hợp thành?

      3. “vì chưng Thíc ca làm cội rễ bụt Ngô, mà ſinh ra đã có blời tlước ba nghìn nam do”

      ý là:

      Vì sao trước khi Thích Ca (释迦), người được đạo Phật của người Ngô xem là thuỷ tổ, ra đời ba nghìn năm thì đã có trời rồi?

      1. Khi đọc xin thay hai chữ “娲” và “释” bằng hai chữ “媧” và “釋”. Khi gõ chữ do không để ý nên tôi đã chọn nhầm chữ Hán.

      2. 1. Vì sao trong sách của ông Khổng [chỉ Khổng Tử], người được người nước Ngô gọi là thánh, lại có viết rằng “女媧負石補天” (nữ Oa phụ thạch bổ thiên), có nghĩa là người đàn bà tên là Oa đội đá vá trời? (Nếu trời là đấng tối cao thì tại sao trời lại có thể bị sập, khiến cho người đàn bà tên là Oa phải đi đội đá vá trời?)

        3. Vì sao trước khi Thích Ca (釋迦), người được đạo Phật của người Ngô xem là thuỷ tổ, ra đời ba nghìn năm thì đã có trời rồi? (Nếu Thích Ca thực sự là thuỷ tổ của vạn vật thì tại sao lại có trời trước khi Thích Ca ra đời? Sao không phải là Thích Ca xuất hiện trước rồi sau đó Thích Ca tạo ra trời?)

  9. …以知審刑院事陶公僎為 審刑院使兼禮部尙書. 公僎頗諳故典及吳俗. 時有明國使將來, 帝欲公僎 掌應接事, 故有是命 …
    ….dĩ Tri Thẩm Hình Viện Sự Đào Công Soạn vi Thẩm Hình Viện Sứ kiêm Lễ bộ thượng thư. Công Soạn pha am cố điển cập NGÔ tục. Thì hữu Minh quốc sử tương lai, Đế dục Công Soạn chưởng ứng tiếp sự, cố hữu thị mệnh….
    …..lấy Tri Thẩm Hình Viện Sự Đào Công Soạn làm Thẩm Hình Viện Sứ kiêm Lễ bộ thượng thư. Công Soạn rất am hiểu điển cũ và phong tục người NGÔ. Bấy giờ sứ nhà Minh sắp sang, vua muốn Công Soạn giữ việc ứng tiếp, cho nên có lệnh này….
    Sorry to disapoint you Mr. leminhkhai. Here “NGO” means CHINESE PEOPLE, NOT “traitorous officials” [ngụy quan] like you thought. You just let your mind go too far.

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