The more I read the comments that eighteenth-century scholar Ngô Thì Sĩ made about the Việt historical record the more I like this guy. Ngô Thì Sĩ did exactly what any historian should do – he read historical sources carefully, and he asked logical and critical questions about those sources.
Of course like all historians the ideas of the time and society that he lived in influenced and to some extent limited the kinds of questions he asked and the ways in which he thought about the past.
However, he was able to identify problems in the historical record through a very rational approach to reading historical sources. As such, the problems that he pointed out still make sense today, and they are ones, I would argue, that modern historians (people who have also been influenced and limited by the times and society that they have lived in) have not been able to address with the clarity and precision that Ngô Thì Sĩ did.
To take one example, Ngô Thì Sĩ points out a significant textual contradiction about the emergence of the first (mythical) Hùng king in antiquity.
In all accounts, this first king is reported to have been the son of a semi-human being and a human woman. Lord Lạc Long (Lạc Long Quân), the father, was from the “dragon” or “serpent” world (and is thus also known as the Dragon Lord [Long Quân]), while Consort Ẩu (Ẩu Cơ) was a human being.
Together these two reportedly had 100 sons, but only one of them became the first Hùng king. As for which son became this king, that is where the written sources differ.
The “original” or “earliest known” source for this topic is the fifteenth-century collection of tales, the Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện). That text records Lord Lạc Long as saying the following to Consort Ẩu:
“I will take 50 sons and return to the water palace [thủy phủ] where they will be divided up to rule over each area [xứ]. 50 sons will follow you to live on the land, and will divide the kingdom [quốc] and rule.”
The text goes on to state that, “The 100 sons obeyed and departed. Consort Ẩu and 50 sons took up residence in Phong Region (today’s Bạch Hạc District). They encouraged and esteemed each other and promoted their most dominant [hùng trưởng giả] to be ruler, calling him the Hùng king.”
Therefore, according to this account, it was one of the sons who followed his mother, and stayed on the land, who became the first Hùng king. What is more, on land there was a “kingdom,” whereas the water palace that Lord Lạc Long returned to just had various “areas.” Finally, the sons who followed the mother “esteemed each other and promoted their most dominant to be ruler.”
This account thus provides a very positive view of Consort Ẩu and her handling of the 50 sons who stayed with her on the land.
The source that contradicts the above account also comes from the fifteenth century, Ngô Sĩ Liên’s official dynastic chronicle the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư).
In this work, Ngô Sĩ Liên included some of this same information from the Arrayed Tales. However, Ngô Sĩ Liên’s account is different. This is what it says:
“50 sons were divided off to follow their mother and return to the mountains, while 50 followed their father to dwell in the south (‘Dwell in the south’ is also recorded as ‘return to the Southern Sea.’). He invested his eldest son as the Hùng king, and passed the sovereign throne on to him.”
(分五十子從母歸山，五十子從父居南。 [居南作歸南海。] 封其長為雄王，嗣君位。)
In this account everyone stays on the land, however Lord Lạc Long and Consort Ẩu still take 50 sons in two separate directions. Consort Ẩu leads 50 sons up into the mountain periphery, while Lord Lạc Long creates a kingdom “in the south” where he alone invests his eldest son as the Hùng king and passes the “sovereign throne” on to him.
This is clearly a much more male-centric and dynasty-centric account.
The passage in parentheses in Ngô Sĩ Liên’s version of this story that says “‘Dwell in the south’ is also recorded as ‘return to the Southern Sea’” was added by someone to this text when it was printed in the late seventeenth century. This person clearly noticed that there was a difference between Ngô Sĩ Liên’s account and the version in the Arrayed Tales.
This difference is likewise an issue which Ngô Thì Sĩ discussed in the eighteenth century. This is what he wrote:
“The historian [i.e., Ngô Sĩ Liên] wanted to use those who followed the father to correct the royal succession [quốc thống]. He therefore changed the text to say “50 sons followed the father to dwell in the south,” and had the Hùng king connected to this [group]. This thus caused the truth to be mistaken and forgotten. Readers can not but have doubts.”
In other words, Ngô Thì Sĩ felt that Ngô Sĩ Liên had changed the account in the Arrayed Tales in order to present a clearer royal succession (quốc thống) from father to son.
But weren’t the boys who followed Consort Ẩu also Lord Lạc Long’s sons? Why couldn’t one of them become king? Indeed, Ngô Thì Sĩ asked this very question:
“Of the sons who followed the mother, who did not still belong to the Dragon Lord? So why is it that it had to be a son who followed the father who became king while the sons who followed the mother became savages [man giả]?”
I don’t know if there was a written source at that time which said that the sons who followed their mother into the mountains had become “savages” or if that was just an idea at the time. What this comment shows however is that Ngô Thì Sĩ was questioning a belief that people at that time must have held, and that belief was a male-centric one which argued that the important people in this episode in the past had all been male.
That, however, is not what the earliest account indicated.
That Ngô Sĩ Liên produced a male-centric history is not a new idea. Years ago, for instance, historians pointed out that he added a detail about the Trưng sisters’ rebellion which made it more male-centric.
Whereas the earliest sources just say that Trưng Trắc got into some kind of legal trouble with a Han Dynasty administrator and then rebelled, Ngô Sĩ Liên added a detail that the Han Dynasty administrator killed her husband and that she rebelled to extract revenge.
In other words, by bringing her husband into the story, Ngô Sĩ Liên reduced the agency of women, as Trưng Trắc’s decision to rebel was no longer personal, but the outgrowth of a social value – loyalty to one’s husband.
People who believe that “Southeast Asian” women historically had more agency than “Chinese” women, and that “Vietnam” is “Southeast Asian” have thus been quick to point out that Ngô Sĩ Liên distorted the information about the Trưng sisters’ rebellion.
However, an even better “example” of “the historical agency of Southeast Asian women” would be the Arrayed Tales account of the rise of the first Hùng king.
Here you have a story of a woman who raises 50 sons on her own while her husband goes off to hang out in his underwater palace with the rest of the boys (kind of like the lady who runs a business while her husband goes and drinks coffee/beer/whiskey all day with his buddies).
And then through some kind of democratic process (which surely the mother helped guide), the “most dominant” (not merely the oldest – that’s “the Chinese” way) son became king.
That’s “Southeast Asia” at its most beautiful. So why, I wonder, isn’t this story presented that way?