Today I read about Trần Ích Tắc on Wikipedia. Trần Ích Tắc was a Trần Dynasty prince who submitted to the Mongols when they attacked the Red River Delta in the thirteenth century.

The Wikpedia entry refers to this transformation as Trần Ích Tắc’s “defection” (a Cold War term that was used to refer to people like Mikhail Baryshnikov who left the Soviet Union for the West, knowing that he would never be able to return again [until the Soviet Union fell]).

We learn that “Trần Ích Tắc was the most famous prince of Trần Thái Tông [the first emperor of the Trần Dynasty] for his intelligence and broad knowledge.” We also learn that “he was denounced in Vietnamese historical books as a traitor with the derogatory name ‘Ả Trần’ (Hán tự: 妸陳, ‘the woman named Trần’).”

wiki

Ok, all of this sounds pretty straightforward. Trần Ích Tắc is someone whom “the Vietnamese” have always viewed as “a traitor” for what he did.

If one then reads the modern Vietnamese (quốc ngữ) translation of a text like the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, which contains some of the earliest accounts of Trần Ích Tắc’s actions this all seems logical, as the people like Trần Ích Tắc and others who joined the Mongols are all referred to with the derogatory spoken-Vietnamese term of “kẻ,” a term that clearly shows that Ngô Sĩ Liên, the fifteenth-century compiler of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, must have viewed Trần Ích Tắc in the same way that we do today.

But wait, what exactly is the term in the original classical Chinese text that corresponds to the terms “kẻ” in modern spoken Vietnamese? Uhmm. . . there isn’t one.

Ok, so what about Trần Ích Tắc being a “traitor”? Well. . . that’s more complex too.

1st

Here is the entry about Trần Ích Tắc’s “defection” in 1285:

“The high official, the Marquis of Văn Chiêu, [Trần] Lộng, surrendered to Toghan, while the Chiêu Quốc Prince, Trần Ích Tắc, as well as Phạm Cự Địa, Lê Diễn and Trịnh Long all brought their families to surrender to the Yuan.

“Originally, before Ích Tắc was born, Thái Tông [i.e., Ích Tắc’s father] had a dream in which he saw a divine person with three eyes descend from Heaven and say to Thái Tông: ‘I have been granted the responsibility by the Emperor on High [Thượng Đế/Shangdi] to request that you entrust him to the emperor, and we will return him to the north.’

“Then when Ích Tắc was born there was a mark on his forehead that kind of looked like an eye, and his face was like that of the man in the dream. At the age of fifteen he was much more intelligent than others. He was well versed in texts and the various skills, but inside he harbored a desire to steal the place of heir to the throne. He often brought secret letters to Vân Đồn merchants [meaning Chinese merchants who were trading at Vân Đồn], requesting that Yuan troops come to the south. Then when the Yuan raided, he surrendered to them, in the hope of having his own kingdom. The Yuan enfeoffed him as the King of An Nam. When the Yuan were defeated, he became despondent and died in the north.”

上位文昭侯弄降于脱驩,既而昭國王益稷及范巨地、黎演、鄭隆等皆挈家降元。初,益稷未生時,太宗夢見神人有三眼,從天而下,言於太宗曰:「臣為上帝所責,願託於帝。後乃北㱕。」及益稷生,額中有文,隱然如眼形,貌似所夢之人。年十五,聰明過人。通書史及諸技術,潜有奪嫡之心。嘗挾私書寄雲屯商客,乞元師南下。至是元人入冦,遂降之,冀有其國。元封為安南國王,及元敗,衂心懷愧,卒于北地。

Thượng vị Văn Chiêu hầu [Trần ] Lộng đầu hàng Thoát Hoan. Kế đó, Chiêu Quốc Vương Trần Ích Tắc và [bọn] Phạm Cự Địa, Lê Diễn, Trịnh Long đem gia thuộc đầu hàng quân Nguyên. Trước kia, khi Ích Tắc chưa sinh. Thái Tông mộng thấy thần nhân ba mắt từ trên trời xuống nói với Thái Tông: “Thần bị Thượng Đế quở trách, xin thác sinh là con vua, sau lại trở về phương Bắc.”

Đến khi Ích Tắc sinh, giữa trán có vài vết lờ mờ như hình con bắt, hình dáng giống hệt

người trong mộng. Đến 15 tuổi, thông minh hơn người, làu thông kinh sử và các thuật, vẫn còn có ý tranh đoạt ngôi trưởng đích. Ích Tắc đã từng gửi thư riêng cho khách buôn ở Vân Đồn xin quân Nguyên xuống nam. Đến nay, người Nguyên vào cướp, Ích Tắc xin hàng chúng để mong được làm vua. Người Nguyên phong làm An Nam Quốc Vương. Sau khi quân Nguyên thất bại, Ích Tắc trong lòng hổ thẹn, chết ở đất Bắc.

Shangdi

This is a fascinating passage for many reasons. First of all, why did a “Chinese” god like Thượng Đế/Shangdi appear to Trần Thái Tông instead of an “indigenous,” “Vietnamese” god? Well, because there were no “indigenous” gods that the Trần felt were important. The gods of “the north” were important, and that is what the Trần dreamt of.

Second, is this an actual “historical” account? No, it is probably a latter “addition” to justify or explain what happened during this period.

Third, is there any mention of “Vietnam” here? No, this has nothing to do with abstract concepts like “nations” or “citizens.” Those are concepts that were alien to people like Ngô Sĩ Liên. What he understood were families. He worked for the Lê. That was a family. Before the Lê there had been the Trần. That was also a family. Could one be a “traitor” to a family, or “defect” from a family? Ngô Sĩ Liên certainly didn’t think that way.

Instead, what Ngô Sĩ Liên sought to demonstrate was a rationale for why a member of a ruling family had chosen his own path, and the rationale he showed was that this had all been preordained by a divine force. Thượng Đế/Shangdi determined that Trần Thái Tông sired a child who wanted to become the ruler of his own kingdom, and Thượng Đế/Shangdi tried to enable this to happen. Trần Thái Tông did not follow Thượng Đế’s/Shangdi’s advice, and both Trần Thái Tông and his son suffered as a result.

What is the moral of this story? Listen to Thượng Đế/Shangdi when he communicates with you! Does this have anything to do with “traitors” or “defecting”? No.

defeat

Later, after the Yuan had been defeated, the following entry appears in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư:

“At first, when the Yuan raided, many members of the nobility and officials sent gifts to the enemy camp. Later when the bandits had been defeated, a box of declarations of surrender was obtained, but the emperor ordered it burned so as to calm those who had violated. However, as for those who had surrendered [directly to the Mongols], even though they were now at the enemy court, they were condemned to death in absentia, their property was confiscated, they were stripped of their official positions, and their royal surname [literally “national name”] was changed. Trần Kiện, for instance, the son of [Prince] Tĩnh Quốc, had his surname changed to Mai. . . Given that Ích Tắc was a close blood relative, although the punishment for his crime was the same, [the emperor] could not bear to change his surname, and dismiss his name, so [the emperor] ordered that [Ích Tắc] be called Ả Trần, to say that he was soft and weak like a woman. Therefore, records at that time referred to them as Ả Trần and Mai Kiện.”

初,元人入冦,王侯臣僚多送欵虜營。及賊敗,獲降表一篋。上皇命焚之,以安反側。惟向之降者,雖身在虜庭,亦遙議以流死,田產没官,去其國姓。如陳鍵、靖國之子改姓為枚。。。益稷以骨肉之親,治罪雖同,不忍改姓,及斥名,乃命曰妸陳,謂其柔懦似婦人也。故當時記載皆稱妸陳, 枚鍵焉。

Trước kia, người Nguyên vào cướp, vương hầu, quan lại nhiều người đến doanh trại giặc xin hàng. Đến khi giặc thua bắt được cả một hòm biểu xin hàng. Thượng hoàng sai đốt hết đi để yên lòng những [kẻ] phản trắc. Chỉ có [kẻ] nào đầu hàng trước đây, thì dẫu bản thân ở triều đình giặc, cũng kết án vắng mặt, xử tội đi đày hoặc tử hình, tịch thu điền sản, sung công, tước bỏ quốc tính. Như Trần Kiện là con của Tĩnh Quốc thì đổi làm họ Mai. . . Ích Tắc là chỗ tình thân cốt nhục, tuy trị tội cũng thế, nhưng không nỡ đổi họ xóa tên, chỉ gọi là Ả Trần, có ý chê hắn hèn nhát như đàn bà vậy. Vì thế, những ghi chép đương thời đều gọi là Ả Trần, Mai Kiện.

end

The fact that Trần Ích Tắc came to be referred to as “Ả Trần” was thus not simply because he was a “traitor” and had “defected.” It was because he was a beloved member of the Trần family who had chosen to follow a path of self-interest, and his family could to some extent forgive him for that. After all, Thượng Đế/Shangdi had warned them. . .

Trần Ích Tắc’s decision and the way in which his decision was explained in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư are fascinating. Wikipedia and the modern Vietnamese translation of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, on the other hand, attempt to kill the fascination of this individual and his decisions in order to force all of the past into a single framework: “the Vietnamese” have always been resisting “the Chinese” and anyone who hasn’t done this is “a traitor.”

This effort to erase meaning from the past is, I would argue, criminal. What Trần Ích Tắc did, on the other hand, is more complex, and that is precisely what the historical sources show us.