By the time medieval Việt scholars first started to compile historical records, Chinese scholars had already produced a considerable amount of historical information about the Red River Delta region. Medieval Việt scholars relied on that information to write about the history of the region.
More specifically, in examining Chinese dynastic histories, Việt scholars were able to recover the names and actions of various officials who had served in the Red River Delta region during the roughly 1,000 years when that area was under the control of various Chinese dynasties, and to document certain events.
The authors of these works also relied on Chinese sources to write about the history of the region prior to the time that it had come under Chinese control, a period that we can refer to as “antiquity.” This, however, was problematic, because the information in Chinese sources on antiquity, be it the antiquity of the Red River Delta region or of any other area, was limited and was often written long after the time it described.
Even more problematic is the fact that some of this information changed over time.
This phenomenon that I’m referring to is clear when we look at certain terms, such as Giao Chỉ, Nam Giao, Việt Thường and Lạc Vương. Let’s start with Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi (交阯 or 交趾), a term that was commonly used to refer to the Red River Delta region in early Chinese texts.
The Han Dynasty established an administrative unit, called a commandery, by that name in the Red River Delta region in 111 BCE during the reign of Emperor Wu (r., 141–87 BCE), so the term, Giao Chỉ, certainly came to be used at that time. Was it known and used prior to that time? It does appear in certain texts from the late Warring States period, however none of those texts have been preserved unaltered from that time period.
So while the emergence of this term is difficult to determine, what is clear is that in late Warring States and early Han sources the term Giao Chỉ came to be used in discussions of the actions of mythical rulers from distant antiquity who purportedly lived at times when there is no evidence of contact between the Han Chinese heartland in the Yellow River valley and the Red River Delta region.
These discussions were part of a phenomenon where scholars in the late Warring States period and in the early years of Han Dynasty rule would mention in their writings certain individuals whom they claimed had lived in distant antiquity. In doing so, however, these scholars did not attempt to provide a clear historical overview or narrative of the ancient past. Instead, they discussed individuals from antiquity at different times in their writings as ideal models, or “sages,” for their contemporaries to follow.
It is in this context that some of the works that were produced in the late Warring States and early Han Dynasty periods made reference to Giao Chỉ.
The term appeared in descriptions of the boundaries of the realm of certain mythical ancient rulers. Since there is no evidence that any of these rulers (even if we could prove that they were not mythical) actually controlled an area that reached the Red River Delta region, we can conclude that these statements were meant to depict the idea of an ideal realm, and by extension, to point to the supposed moral excellence of the ruler whose realm was described as extending that far to the south.
I’ll give examples of three mythical rulers whose realms are described in certain texts as extending all of the way to Giao Chỉ. They are, in chronological order from the earliest to the latest, Shen Nong, Zhuan Xu and Yao.
So, for instance, the third century BCE philosophical text, Master Han Fei (Han Feizi 韓非子), says of the territory under Yao’s control that “to the south his land reached Giao Chỉ, and to the north it reached Youdu [lit., ‘the dark city’].” (其地南至交趾，北至幽都)
A century later, Liu An wrote in the Master of Huainan (Huainanzi 淮南子) of the realm controlled by the earlier mythical ruler, Shen Nong, that “His land to the south reached Giao Chỉ, and to the north it reached Youdu.” (其地南至交阯，北至幽都)
Then a little bit after that, Sima Qian’s first-century history, the Historical Records (Shiji 史記), said of Zhuan Xu’s domain that “to the north it reached Youling [lit., ‘the dark ridge’] and to the south it reached Giao Chỉ/Jiaozhi.” (北至於幽陵，南至於交趾)
Again, there is no historical evidence that any of these rulers actually existed (although of course there must have been rulers in the area of the Yellow River at the times when these mythical rulers were said to have existed), and there is no evidence that before the final centuries BCE, when these texts were written, any Chinese ruler had ever ruled over a domain that extended all of the way to a place called Giao Chỉ.
So this information is not historically accurate, but it does tell us something about the thoughts of the people who composed texts in the late Warring States and early Han Dynasty periods. We see that having a kingdom that extended all of the way to Giao Chỉ was presented as an “ideal image” of a perfect kingdom.
And we also see that when they wrote they took a statement and repeated and slightly changed it, repeated and slightly changed it, repeated and slightly changed it.
Repetition and slight change. . . There is something very human about that. So much of the music that human beings around the world have created throughout history is based on repetition and slight change.
Western art music turned away from this starting in the Enlightenment, but now pop music is filled with repetition – loops.
There is something fundamental about repetition. It’s one of the ways that human beings communicate. We do it this way through music, and I would argue that we do it in texts as well.
In any case, this is an idea that I’m thinking about, and to explore this idea I will attempt to make a series of videos about the “repeated words” in early Chinese texts that medieval Việt scholars believed referred to the Red River delta.
These words or names were repeated in multiple texts, and changed slightly with every repetition.