What I’ve come to realize is that in order to understand information about the Red River Delta region in early Chinese sources, one has to view that information from the perspective of a major debate that took place during the Han Dynasty period, as this is when the first information about the Red River Delta region was recorded in Chinese sources.
What was that debate about? It was about centralized control.
Up until the Qin Dynasty was established in 221 BC, political control in the Chinese world was based on a decentralized feudal order. The Qin, however, sought to change this by setting up commanderies and districts and appointing their own officials to rule over those areas.
This was new and the expression, “commanderies and districts” (郡縣), came to refer to this new style of centralized rule.
Since the Qin Dynasty only ruled until 206 BC, it is questionable to what extent they succeeded in bring their empire under centralized control, but this nonetheless offered a new model to later rulers, and the Han Dynasty rulers in particular.
There is a great book on this by Michael Puett called The Ambivalence of Creation: Debates Concerning Innovation and Artifice in Early China (Stanford, 2001) in which he looks at the multiple ways in which scholars during the early Han period debated about whether the Han should follow the Qin model or return to the decentralized feudal order of the past.
Most were in favor of returning to the old order, but ultimately the Han moved in the direction of centralization, with Emperor Wudi’s conquest of the Red River Delta region and the establishment of (Qin-style) commanderies and districts there as a perfect example of this trend.
The Qin established a commandery in the far south of their empire called Xiang Commandery. While it’s unclear where that was, I would argue that it probably in the area of Guangxi.
The reason why this seems logical is because there was a person by the name of King An Dương who had recently conquered (at least part of) the Red River Delta Region, and when the Qin Dynasty collapsed, Zhao Tuo, an official who had been in charge for the southernmost part of the Qin empire, conquered King An Dương and created an autonomous kingdom in the region, which he ruled from Panyu (present-day Guangzhou).
In creating this kingdom, Zhao Tuo established two commanderies in the Red River Delta region, Jiaozhi (Giao Chỉ) and Jiuzhen (Cửu Chân). He also sent two “emissaries” (使者) to rule over these respective commanderies.
Having two people ruling over a region is certainly not “centralization” of government control, but more direct control from a central government started to come later, after Emperor Wudi sent troops to conquer the region, established commanderies and districts, and appointed officials to rule over those administrative units.
And while it is doubtful that Han Dynasty officials were at all levels of the administration, they were at the commandery level, and there were at least districts (for which there is no evidence for Zhao Tuo’s kingdom) where it appears that a combination of Chinese and local officials served.
By understanding that this system of commanderies and districts was something new at the time of the Han Dynasty, and that before this model of central control had existed there had long been a period when the Chinese world followed a decentralized feudal model, then the famous passage in the sixth century text, the Annotated Classic of Waterways [水經注, Shuijing zhu], can be seen in a new light.
This passage purportedly describes the Red River Delta region before the time that King An Dương conquered it in the mid-third-century BC. It goes as follows:
“In the past, before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters, and therefore the people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. Lạc kings 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.”
I’ve been thinking about this passage for years, because it’s very confusing. It talks about a time “before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts” but then it has people ruling over “the various commanderies and districts.” And then it also uses terms from the pre-Qin decentralized feudal political order such as kings and marquises.
Previously I’ve read “commanderies and districts” here to mean “Chinese control.” Such a reading is problematic however, because everything is described in Sinitic terms – kings, marquises, commanderies, districts, etc.
If, however, we consider that the main political distinction in the Chinese world at that time was between centralized control (commanderies and districts) and a decentralized feudal system (kings and marquises), then this passage can be understood to say something else, namely that before the Red River Delta region was governed by a central authority, it had followed a decentralized feudal system of rule.
As the only major citadel in the region, it would seem logical that Cổ Loa would have been where the “king” was. But was there only one “king” in the region? The above passage doesn’t make that clear. If anything, in saying “Lạc kings and lạc marquises were appointed to control the various commanderies and districts” it would appear that there were multiple “kings.” The above passage certainly does not indicate that there was a single “king.”
While this reading seems reasonable to me, you again have the problem of kings and marquises ruling over commanderies and districts at a time before there were commanderies and districts. . .
Ultimately, perhaps the best way to read this passage would be to see it as the way that some Chinese person tried to say that “in the past, this region was ruled differently from the way it is now.” As for how it was different. . . that’s the mystery.
For as long as Vietnamese have been writing about this topic, however, they have often tried to depict it as something more or less the same as the way Chinese ruled (with an emperor/king and officials, etc.). I don’t think that’s what this person was saying, and he is the only person who left an “observation” of this early period of history.