Why is Cổ Loa so Unimportant?

It recently came to my attention that archaeologist Nam Kim from the University of Wisconsin has just published a book entitled The Origins of Ancient Vietnam. This is great news for anyone interested in the early history of the Red River Delta region as Nam Kim is a very capable scholar who has been working on this topic for years, including engaging in important archaeological work with colleagues in Vietnam.

That archaeological work resulted in the most precise dating for the construction of an ancient citadel that is now referred to as “Cổ Loa,” and even more importantly, it was determined that there were multiple stages of construction of that citadel over a period of a few hundred years starting roughly around the fifth century BC.

Cổ Loa is very important for the early history of the Red River Delta region because as Nam Kim explains in his book “the society responsible for founding the Co Loa settlement, the Co Loa Polity [his term], was a centralized, state-level society with enduring political institutions, one of the earliest not only for Bac Bo [i.e., the greater Red River Delta region] but for Southeast Asia.”

Indeed, Cổ Loa is the best evidence that we have of “a centralized, state-level society with enduring political institutions” in the Red River Delta in the BC period. That, one would think, should make Cổ Loa take a very important place in the history of that region, but it doesn’t, and it never has.

Instead, in both the earliest sources that record information about Cổ Loa, as well as in contemporary writings, Cổ Loa is of secondary importance. Let us see why this is the case.


In early historical sources, what was recorded was information about Cổ Loa’s conquest by someone known as King An Dương. In these accounts, we don’t really learn anything about Cổ Loa itself. The earliest mention of King An Dương’s conquest of areas of the Red River Delta were first recorded in a text called the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region (Jiaozhou waiyu ji 交州外域記) which is cited in Li Daoyuan’s sixth-century Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu 水經注):


“The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region states that ‘In the past, before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters. The people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. Lạc princes [or a lạc king] and lạc marquises were appointed to control the various commanderies and districts. Many of the districts had lạc generals. The lạc generals had bronze seals on green ribbons.’”


“Later, a Shu prince led 30,000 troops to punish the lạc princes [or the lạc king] and lạc marquises and to subdue the lạc generals. The Shu prince thereupon came to be called King An Dương. Later, the King of Nanyue, Commissioner Tuo, recruited people to attack King An Dương.”

This text then goes on to talk about a now-famous story about a magic crossbow, and then concludes with the following comment:


“In present-day Bình Đạo District’s Sovereign Palace Citadel can be found the old area.”

I do not know what the “Sovereign Palace Citadel” (Hậu Vương Cung Thành 後王宮城) was, but it would appear that this is referring to a place which existed where King An Dương had previously established his capital (i.e., the old area).

In any case, this information is extremely vague, but the information from this passage became the main source for later explanations of what Cổ Loa once was.

An Nam Chí Lược

The above account was written by a “Chinese” writer. The first “Vietnamese” account of Cổ Loa was probably in Lê Tắc’s 1335 Brief Account of An Nam (An Nam chí lược 安南志略) where it is referred to as “The Việt/Yue King’s Citadel” (Việt Vương Thành 越王城). This is what it says:


“The Việt/Yue King’s Citadel, colloquially called Khả Lâu Citadel, has an old pond. The king takes a pearl every year and uses the water there to wash it, making its color fresh and beautiful.”

The text then contains the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region about lạc people and how King An Dương conquered the area. It then mentions that,


“In present-day Bình Địa Disctrict there still exists the remains of King An Dương’s palace.”

The text then goes on to talk about other historical issues, such as Ma Yuan’s conquest of the region in the first century AD, etc.


Somewhere around 1377, a text known as the Outline of Việt History (Việt sử lược 越史略) was compiled that placed Cổ Loa in the context of a more detailed account of the early history of the Red River Delta region. This text did this largely by bringing together extant information from Chinese texts, but it added one piece of information that did not exist in Chinese texts – the idea that prior to the arrival of King An Dương there had existed 18 generations of “Đối kings” (Đối vương 碓王). Today these mythical figures are known as “Hùng kings,” and this was perhaps just a typo.

In any case, this is what the Outline of Việt History records:

“During the time of King Cheng of the Zhou [r., 1042–1021 B.C.E.] the Việt Thường clan first presented a white pheasant [at the Zhou court]. The Spring and Autumn [Annals] called them “empty lands” (khuyết địa 闕地). Dai’s Record called them “tattooed foreheads”(điêu đề 雕題).

“During the time of King Zhuang of the Zhou [r., 696-682 B.C.E.] there was an extraordinary person in Gia Ninh region who was able to use magical arts to subjugate the various tribes, and called himself the Đối King (Đối vương 碓王). He established a capital at Văn Lang and [his kingdom] was called the Kingdom of Văn Lang. The customs were pure and unadorned, and administration was by means of tying knots. Rule was passed on for 18 generations and all were called the Đối King.

“Goujian [of the Kingdom of] Yue [r., 496–465 B.C.E.] once sent an emissary with a decree, but the Đối King resisted this.

“At the end of the Zhou Dynasty period, [the Đối King] was driven away and replaced by a Shu prince, Phán/Pan. Phán/Pan constructed a citadel at Việt Thường and called himself the An Dương/Anyang King, and no longer had communications with the Zhou.”


Whereas the Brief Account of An Nam indicated that the name of King An Dương’s citadel was called “The Việt/Yue King’s Citadel” and “Khả Lâu Citadel,” the Outline of Việt History doesn’t indicate what this citadel was called. We just learn that it was constructed at a place called “Việt Thường,” the same name as a clan that is recorded in Chinese sources to have presented tribute, in the form of a white pheasant, to King Cheng of the Zhou.

Finally, there is no mention of the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region about lạc people. Instead, we are introduced to a line of kings called the “Đối kings.”


Not much later, in the early fifteenth century, Ming dynasty officials then recorded the following information in a text known as the Annan zhiyuan:

“The Việt/Yue King’s Citadel is in Đông Ngàn District. It is also called La [i.e., snail/spiral] Citadel, as it winds around like the shape of a snail/spiral. Its construction began at the time of King An Dương. It winds around nine times. It is also called Khả Lâu Citadel, and was constructed in the past by King An Dương. The place where An Dương had his capital was in Việt/Yue territory, therefore later people called it the Việt/Yue King’s Citadel. Inside the citadel was King An Dương’s palace. Its remains still exist. Liu Zhao [in his annotation to the History of the Later Han] stated that Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi was the kingdom of King An Dương.”


Here again we do not find the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region about lạc people, but that passage does appear in an entry about a place called Lạc King Palace (Lạc Vương Cung 雒王宮) in an area referred to as Tam Đái Subprefecture (Tam Đái châu 三帶州).

This passage also says that there were eighteen generations of Lạc kings, the last of which was defeated by King An Dương.

What all of this shows us is that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were two sets of information that were cited in different ways. There was information from extant Chinese texts, dating back to the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region about lạc people and King An Dương that can be found in the sixth-century Annotated Classic of Waterways, and there was some new information about eighteen generations of Lạc or Đối kings.

With the compilation of the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư 大越史記全書) in the late fifteenth century, even more new information emerged. In that text we learn that King An Dương’s “capital was at Phong Khê” (都封溪) which is followed by an annotation that was made later that says “This is present-day Cổ Loa” (今古螺城是也). This may be the first time that the name Cổ Loa appears in a text.

We are also told that King An Dương’s kingdom was called Âu Lạc (甌貉), a term which was likewise new (probably appearing for the first time in the fifteenth-century collection of tales, the Lĩnh Nam chích quái).

And as was the case with other texts from this time period, the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt indicated that King An Dương had constructed a citadel:


“The king then built a citadel in Việt Thường. It was 1,000 trượng wide and wound around in the shape of a snail/spiral. It was thus called Loa Citadel. It was also called Tư Long Citadel (People of the Tang [Dynasty] called it Côn Lôn/Kunlun Citadel, which referred to the citadel’s great height.)”

co loa

What the work of archaeologists like Nam Kim demonstrates is that there was a citadel at the place which much, much later came to be referred to as “Cổ Loa” that long predated the arrival of King An Dương. What is more, that citadel was constructed by “a centralized, state-level society with enduring political institutions.”

It is therefore extremely important for the history of the Red River Delta region.

However, specific information about it did not appear in texts until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Where did that information come from? The information about King An Dương conquering the region came from older Chinese texts, but the idea that he had built Cổ Loa was clearly something that later people guessed, rather than knew for sure.

And as for the ideas that there had been eighteen generations of kings that had existed prior to the arrival of King An Dương and that his kingdom had been called Âu Lạc, I would agree with points that John Whitmore made in an article that I wrote about in a recent post, that these were part of an effort of people in the Sinicized world of the Trần with their Fujianese connections to create an imagined sense of place for themselves in what was to them actually a new land.

Their source of information was what they found in older Chinese texts, and in the stories they could create within the Sinitic textual tradition. So for them, Cổ Loa could only be understood from what could be surmised from texts and from what they saw around them. King An Dương had conquered the region and there were remains of a citadel at Cổ Loa, so he must have built Cổ Loa.


As such, we could say that medieval historians diminished the importance of Cổ Loa, but they did not do that on purpose. It was simply the result of how they constructed their knowledge of the world, namely, largely through a reliance on texts.

One of the great promises of archaeology is that it is potentially superior to texts, as it can show us things that texts either do not record or which they distort.

Nam Kim’s work on Cổ Loa is a great example of this, as it demonstrates that the information that medieval historians compiled was incomplete.

Unfortunately, however, more recently historians have done the reverse. Instead of using archaeology to correct inadequacies in the historical record, they have used archaeology to “prove” what textual analysis demonstrates is clearly problematic information in the historical record, and this has again diminished the importance of Cổ Loa.

In particular, the efforts of scholars in North Vietnam in the 1960s to “prove” through archaeology that eighteen generations of rulers had existed before King An Dương arrived has created a sense that this earlier period was more important.

However, archaeologists have never found a “capital” of that supposed kingdom, or anything that comes remotely close to resembling the power and social sophistication that Cổ Loa does.

Therefore, I would argue that today Cổ Loa is as unimportant to the history of the early Red River Delta as it was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when medieval historians first wrote about it. That, however, is terribly unfortunate, because as Nam Kim’s work shows, it was incredibly important.

As such, hopefully work like Nam Kim’s will lead people to realize this point, and we can then all move beyond talking about imagined places like Văn Lang and can try to learn more about actual places like “the Cổ Loa Polity,” whatever that was.

4 thoughts on “Why is Cổ Loa so Unimportant?

    1. Good question! If people did this, I don’t know what it actually would have looked like, but the concept was the same, I think, as quipu.

      However, this term appears in texts more like a literary device, or trope, rather than an actual description of reality. If only seen it used in abstract discussions of the course or human history, where there is this idea that before writing people did thinks like “administer by tying knots.” But in making those statements, writers talk about a time centuries or thousands of years earlier.

      1. As I understand it , when you say , “Cổ Loa is unimportant ” , does it mean that it’s not relevant , it has nothing to do , no continuity with post Ngô quyên Vietnam ? Then Nam Kim ‘s book should be called ” Origins of Proto- or Pre Vietnam .

        _ giao in Giao châu , today, along with khu means suburb , outlying district ; maybe , Giao châu meant outer territories , marches ?

        _ quipu , knots in chinese character is written 縄
        Knots used formerly as writing or computing seems to be known in many areas
        An era of prehistoric Japan from 14000 to 300 BC is called Jōmon 縄文 because [ the pottery style characteristic of the first phases of Jōmon culture was decorated by impressing cords into the surface of wet clay ]
        A part of Okinawa’s name is transcripted in chinese characters with 縄 ,
        the whole name is 沖 縄 Xung thằng in VN ( thằng = giây thừng , rope )

      2. I think Co Loa is THE MOST IMPORTANT place in the early history of the Red River Delta. The archaeological remains indicate this, so much so that it should be at the center of any narration of history for that period. Instead, “Van Lang” is at the center, but “Van Lang” is a medieval invention. So by asking “why is Co Loa so unimportant,” I’m asking people like Vietnamese historians, “Why on earth do you treat Van Lang and the Hung Kings as if they were real, when you have completely clear evidence of something that was definitely real sitting right there in front of your eyes?!!”

        But no, I don’t think there is any continuity between Co Loa and anything later, just as there is no continuity between the bronze drum culture and anything later. Co Loa and bronze drums belonged to a culture, or cultures, that were totally transformed in the centuries that followed. “The Vietnamese” are the product of those transformations.

        As such, I wouldn’t use “Viet” to refer to anything at the time of Co Loa. I would call a book like this something like “Co Loa and the Origins of a Complex Society in the Red River Delta.” But publishers realize that readers’ ideas change slower than those of some academics, so they would undoubtedly want “Vietnam” or “Viet” in the title.

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