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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.