The first Westerners to examine Việt history were Jesuit missionaries. By the time that Jesuit missionaries started to work in the Red River Delta in the seventeenth century, one of their colleagues in China had already made an enormous discovery, namely that Chinese history pre-dated the time of the Biblical flood.

The scholar who came to this determination was Jesuit missionary Martinio Martini who stated in his 1658 work, Sinicae Historiae [Chinese History], that “outermost Asia was inhabited before the deluge.” The way he came to this conclusion was by calculating when various astronomical phenomena mentioned in ancient Chinese texts should have occurred. From these calculations he determined that Fu Xi, whom he saw as the first verifiable Chinese ruler, had lived before the time of the Flood.

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Martini based his calculations on one version of the Bible, the Vulgate. There was another version, the Septuagint, that placed the Flood earlier, but not early enough to completely discount the presence of people in China before that time.

Approximately one and a half centuries after Martini made this discovery, there was a Jesuit, or Jesuits, who examined early Việt history in a similar manner.

This person’s ideas appeared in a series of publications of letters from Jesuit missions in Asia called Nouvelles lettres édifiantes des missions de la Chine et des Indes orientales [New and Edifying Letters of the Missions of China and the East Indies].

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The sixth volume in that series, published in 1821, contained letters from missionaries in Tonkin, or what we today refer to as northern Vietnam.

In an introduction to these letters, someone provided a “Chronological Table of the Kings of Tonkin” which starts with the “Hông-Mang Dynasty.” (xxxiv)

Today this mythical dynasty is referred to as the Hồng Bàng Dynasty, but the character for “bàng” 厖/龐 is also pronounced “mang,” which leads to an interesting question: Why did whoever wrote this in the early nineteenth century think that the correct pronunciation of this character in this dynastic name was “mang”?

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In any case, the author of this introduction declared that the information about the Hông-Mang Dynasty was nothing more than a web of fables. The way this author came to this conclusion was by comparing the dates of the Hông-Mang Dynasty with the dates of the Biblical Flood.

The author stated that according to Việt annals, this dynasty began in 2874 BC (today, 2879 is that date that is usually referred to), which according to the Vulgate version of the Bible was 500 years before the Flood. It was thus obvious to this writer that no dynasty could have survived that event, and therefore, the records of its existence had to be mythical.

That said, this author also noted that the Septuagint version of the Bible argued that the flood had taken place earlier, in 3235 BC, and that there was a dispersal of peoples 173 years after the flood, or in 3062 BC, in which case it was theoretically possible that the Hông-Mang Dynasty had been established in 2874 BC.

Nonetheless, even if that was the case, this author argued that there were other problems with the information about the Hông-Mang Dynasty. (xxxiv-xxxv)

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In particular, the annals recorded that the founder of the “Hông-Mang Dynasty” was King Kinh Dương (Kinh Dương Vương), and that he was the great grandson of the (mythical) Chinese emperor, Shen Nong/Thần Nông.

According to this author, Shen Nong/Thần Nông ascended the throne in 2818 BC. However, the Việt annals stated that King Kinh Dương started to rule from 2874 BC. So how, this author wondered, could it be possible that a great grandson could ascend the throne before his great grandfather? (xxiv)

Another problem related to the information in the annals that the Hùng kings had ruled for 18 generations. This author calculated that a generation should equal about 30 years. So 30 years multiplied by 18 would equal 540 years.

Such a short period of rule, however, would be difficult to reconcile with the idea that the Hùng kings were the descendants of Shen Nong/Thần Nông (through King Kinh Dương and Lord Lạc Long), because this would leave a 1,200 year gap between Shen Nong/Thần Nông and King Kinh Dương.

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Not all that long before this Jesuit missionary wrote this piece, Vietnamese scholar Ngô Thì Sĩ had also questioned the accuracy of the dates of the Hồng Bàng dynasty. Instead of assuming that a generation was approximately 30 years, Ngô Thì Sĩ took the entire period and divided it by the number of rulers, and from that he noted that each ruler would have had to rule for 130 years, which of course was impossible.

It is interesting to see this convergence of ideas that doubted the information about Việt antiquity that was recorded in Việt historical texts, namely the fifteenth-century Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư [Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt].

Now, 200 years later, Vietnamese have reverted to believing in this past, while Westerners, after having believed in it in the politically-charged era of the 1960s-1980s, have now gone back to refuting it.