I’m really getting tired of seeing people mention the “Âu Lạc Kingdom” (甌貉國). That was never the name of an actual kingdom, but I keep seeing people mention it again and again.
This term is used today to refer to a supposed kingdom that a certain figure by the name of King Anyang/An Dương reportedly created in the Red River Delta in the third century BC.
To be honest, we don’t really have sufficient historical evidence (be it textual or archaeological) to demonstrate that this person did actually establish a kingdom. There are written records that say that he attacked and subdued the ruling elite in the Red River Delta region, and he reportedly had a palace within the walls of an existing citadel at a place that is now known as Cổ Loa.
But beyond that, we do not have any other information about this “kingdom.” Therefore, it is difficult to say that he really had a “kingdom,” as we don’t know if he really “ruled” beyond the walls of Cổ Loa. Did he appoint officials to govern over the countryside? Did he collect taxes? There is no information about this.
There is also no mention about this “kingdom” being called “Âu Lạc,” not, that is, until some 1,700 years later in the fifteenth century when this term appeared in two texts, the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, two texts that somehow were able to “reveal” a great deal of information about antiquity that had never been recorded before. . .
I’ve written about much of that problematic information before. The name “Âu Lạc” is yet another “invented tradition” from that time.
The earliest information, and really the only “historically reliable” information (and it’s not super reliable by any means), that we have about King Anyang/An Dương comes from a sixth century text, Li Daoyuan’s Annotated Classic of Waterways [Shuijing zhu 水經注], which in turn cites a couple of slightly earlier text.
This is what that text records:
“The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region states that In the past, before Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the tidal/flood waters. The people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. A lạc king [or lạc princes] 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/Thục prince led 30,000 soldiers to fight the lạc king [or lạc princes] and lạc marquises, and subdued the lạc generals. The Shu/Thục prince then declared himself to be King Anyang/An Dương.”
“Later, King of Southern Yue [Nam Việt/Nanyue] Commissioner Tuo [i.e., Zhao Tuo/Triệu Đà] led people to attack King Anyang/An Dương. King Anyang/An Dương had a supernatural person [shenren/thần nhân 神人] named Gao Tong/Cao Thông who served as his assistant and who made for King Anyang/An Dương a supernatural crossbow that could kill 300 people in one shot. The king of Southern Yue knew that he could not battle [against this], so he retreated with his troops and encamped in Wuning/Vũ Ninh District.”
“According to the Records of the Taikang Era of the Jin, this district was part of Jiaozhi/Giao Chỉ [Commandery]. [Southern] Yue sent the heir apparent, named Shi/Thủy [i.e., the son of Zhao Tuo/Triệu Đà], to surrender to King Anyang/An Dương and to serve him as an official. King Anyang/An Dương did not know that Gao Tong/Cao Thông was supernatural and treated him unfairly. Tong/Thông thereupon departed, and said to the king, ‘If you possess this crossbow you can rule All Under Heaven, but if you do not possess it, you will lose All Under Heaven.’ Tong/Thông left.”
“King Anyang/An Dương had a daughter called Mei Zhu/Mỵ Châu. She saw that Shi/Thủy was honest and upright. Zhu/Châu and Shi/Thủy linked up. Shi/Thủy asked Zhu/Châu to show him her father’s crossbow. When Shi/Thủy saw it, he secretly broke the trigger. He then returned to inform the king of Southern Yue about this.
“Southern Yue advanced its troops to attack. King Anyang/An Dương fired the crossbow, but the crossbow was broken so he was defeated. King Anyang/An Dương got in a boat and went out to sea. Today behind the Pingdao/Bình Đạo District [seat] in the royal citadel are the old remains [of King Anyang/An Dương’s palace].
So that’s the story. Again, it’s difficult to tell to what extent King Anyang/An Dương established a “kingdom.”
But it’s easy to see that it was not called “Âu Lạc.”