In making the video of Trần Trọng Dương’s discussion of Lý Ông Trọng, I was reminded of something I wrote about Lý Ông Trọng years ago and which I thought I had made public, but I now see that I never did.

The gist of the story is that there was an official in the Red River region at the end of the period of Han Dynasty rule whose name was Yao Jun and whose “courtesy name” (字) was “Wenzhong/Ông Trọng.” Yao Jun abandoned his post and went off into the mountains to become a Daoist.

There was also a kind of bronze statue called “wenzhong/ông trọng” that was supposedly constructed during the period of the Qin Dynasty in order to scare off the Xiongnu, a nomadic people who lived to the northwest of the Chinese heartland.

During the period of Tang Dynasty rule, a Chinese administrator in the Red River Plain by the name of Zhao Chang created a story about a local spirit. Zhao Chang took the name “Ông Trọng” as an inspiration for his story, as this was a name that educated Chinese at that time who knew about the history of the Red River delta region were familiar with (it appears in Tang Dynasty era poems about the region, for instance). However, Zhao Chang used the information about fighting the Xiongnu to write this story as his ultimate goal was to create a story about a local spirit that served the ruling dynasty in order to encourage local people to do precisely that. The story that he created is the story of Lý Ông Trọng.

What follows is a more detailed explanation of this that comes from the following article: Liam C. Kelley, “Constructing Local Narratives: Spirits, Dreams, and Prophecies in the Medieval Red River Delta,” in China’s Encounters on the South and Southwest: Reforging the Fiery Frontier Over Two Millennia, edited by James A. Anderson and John K. Whitmore (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 78-105.

wenzhong_ong trong

The earliest information about Lý Ông Trọng comes from a work called the Record of Jiao Region (Jiaozhou ji) which is cited in the 14th century work, the Collection of the Departed Spirits from the Việt Realm (Việt điện u linh tập), hereafter Departed Spirits. There were two books entitled Record of Jiao Region. The first was compiled by a Chinese administrator by the name of Zhao Chang, who served in the region of the Red River delta from 791 to 806 and the other was compiled by Zeng Gun, who served there from 866 to 880. Since the story about Lý Ông Trọng in the Departed Spirits makes reference to Zhao Chang, we can assume that the Record of Jiao Region that it cited for this information was the later book compiled by Zeng Gun in the ninth century.

According to this Record of Jiao Region, Lý Ông Trọng was a giant, who stood some two trượng tall. When he was young he served the district office, but quit after he was flogged by the commander-in-chief. He then engaged in study and became well versed in the classics and histories. Eventually he went off to serve the Qin Dynasty, where the First Emperor of Qin had Lý Ông Trọng lead troops to garrison Lintao, in what is today Gansu Province, to “awe the Xiongnu.” When he became old, having reached the position of metropolitan commandant, he returned to his village. Finally, the Record of Jiao Region reports that at some point the First Emperor (Qin Shihuangdi) had an image of Lý Ông Trọng cast in bronze and placed at the Outer Palace Gate in Xianyang, the Qin Dynasty capital in what is today Shaanxi Province. This bronze image was so big that it could hold dozens of people. These people inside would secretly rock the image back and forth, and this would lead the Xiongnu to believe that it was actually Lý Ông Trọng himself, and they would stay away.

This story shows clear signs of being a fabrication. First of all, it contains anachronisms. The position of metropolitan commandant (sili xiaowei) was not created until 89 B.C.E., long after the Qin Dynasty had ceased to exist, and the position of commander-in-chief (dudu) was created even later, perhaps in the early years of the common era. [Charles O. Hucker, A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985), 451 and 544.]

Further, there is no evidence in Chinese sources that Lý Ông Trọng or anyone like him, had ever done what he is credited with having done in the Record of Jiao Region. Yet for all the clear signs of fabrication here, there are poems from the Tang period which make reference to a “Wengzhong,” the Chinese pronunciation of “Ông Trọng,” in contexts which relate to the southern regions of the empire.

In either the late seventh or early eighth century, when Shen Quanqi was in the Red River delta on his way to exile in Huan Region, the area of what is today north-central Vietnam, he composed a poem which contained the following two lines: “Commissioner Tuo once ruled over a kingdom/Wengzhong has long roamed the springs.” [Li Fang, et al., Wenyuan yinghua [Blossoms and flowers from the garden of literature], (Siku quanshu ed., orig. comp., 986), 289/14b.]

Meanwhile, in the early ninth century, when Liu Zongyuan was heading into exile for the second time, he stated in a poem which he composed for a friend while they were together in Hengyang, in what is today Hunan Province, the following: “The old road of the Wave Suppressor is amidst the wind and smoke/Wengzhong’s ruins are flattened by grass and trees.” [Liu Zongyuan, Liu Hedong ji [Collected workds of Liu Hedong], (Siku quanshu ed., orig. comp., ninth cent.), 42/28b.]

“Commissioner Tuo” is Zhao Tuo, the Chinese official who created a kingdom for himself based in the area of what is today Guangdong Province in the late third century B.C.E., while the “Wave Suppressor” is a reference to Ma Yuan, the famous Chinese general who put down the Trưng sisters’ uprising in the first century C.E. Hence, these two lines are clearly making allusions to famous people who were historically active in the southern part of the world as it was known to Chinese at the time these two poets penned these lines. Further, the parallelism of these two lines makes it obvious that “Wengzhong” must refer to another such person.

Liu Zongyuan is one of the most celebrated Tang Dynasty poets, and his collected works contain explanations for passages and terms in his poems which are difficult to understand. These explanations were added during the period of the Song Dynasty, and given how contrived and unconvincing the explanation for “Wengzhong” is, it is clear that the commentator was not sure of what this term referred to. The commentary notes that in the third century C.E., Emperor Ming of the Wei had cast two metal statues and called them “wengzhong.” This same commentary also notes that outside a temple in Henan Province, far to the north of Hengyang, was a temple outside of which stood stone wengzhong. [Ibid.]

Indeed, wengzhong is a term which was used to refer to stone or metal statues which guarded tombs. However, a temple in Henan has no place in a poem which is about heading into exile in the south. Further, that term’s place in these two poems make it evident that it is meant to refer to a person, a counterpart to Zhao Tuo and Ma Yuan.

As it turns out, there was in fact an historical person who had lived in the area of the Red River delta and whose name was Wengzhong. Actually, that was his courtesy name (字). His given name was Yao Jun. Originally from the area of what is today Zhejiang Province, he served as the governor of Jiaozhi Commandery in the final years of Han Dynasty rule. Somewhere around the time that the Han Dynasty fell, Wengzhong quit his job and headed into the mountains to follow a Daoist master. It is perhaps because of this act that Yao Jun is not mentioned in official dynastic histories. However, his story was apparently recorded in a collection of immortals, and that is likely how Shen Quanqi and Liu Zongyuan were familiar with him. [I found a reference to Yao Jun in Ou Daren, Baiyue xianxian zhi [Treatise on the previous worthies of the Hundred Yue], (Siku quanshu ed., orig. comp., sixteenth century), 4/8b. Ou Daren cites the fifth century Garden of Surnames (Xing yuan), by He Chengtian, and Ge Hong’s Biographies of Immortals (Liexian zhuan) as his sources for information about Yao Jun. The original version of Ge Hong’s famous fourth-century work, however, did not include Yao Jun, so perhaps he was added to a later version.]

Indeed, Shen Quanqi’s reference to Wengzhong “roam[ing] the springs” has an unmistakable Daoist sensibility to it. However, that this information was not known to the Song-era scholar who wrote explanations for Liu Zongyuan’s poems is important, as it shows that Wengzhong’s biography was not well known, and that therefore someone could create a new biography for him.

That appears to be exactly what Tang administrator Zhao Chang did in the late eighth or early ninth century. Yet in creating a new biography for Wengzhong, Zhao Chang did not invent entirely new information. Instead, he found inspiration in a passage about the other kind of “wengzhong,” namely, statues of people. There is a reference in the Huainanzi, a philosophical text from roughly the second century B.C.E., to the Qin Dynasty casting bronze figures. In his commentary to the Huainanzi, the early-third-century scholar, Gao You, explained that, “In the 26th year of the First Emperor of Qin’s reign, with All Under Heaven having just been annexed, there was a giant who appeared in Lintao. He was 5 zhang tall and his footprints were 8 chi long. So an image was drawn of him and a metal statue was cast in his likeness. This was Wengzhong Junhe.” [Huainan honglie jie [Luminous book of Huainan explained], (Siku quanshu ed., orig. comp., eleventh century), 13/11b.]

This passage has an obvious parallel in the Departed Spirits where it records that “When the First Emperor had Annexed All Under Heaven, he had [Lý Ông Trọng] lead troops to hold Lintao and awe the Xiongnu.” Thus, it is likely that Zhao Chang took this account with its reference to “Wengzhong” as his inspiration and created a more elaborate tale about an “Ông Trọng” from the Red River delta who went off to awe the Xiongnu far away in Lintao for the First Emperor of the Qin.

In addition to recording Lý Ông Trọng’s biography, the Departed Spirits also contains information about Zhao Chang’s encounter with Lý Ông Trọng’s spirit. It states that during the beginning of the Zhenyuan era (785-805 C.E.) of Tang Dezong’s reign, when Zhao Chang was protector-general of An Nam, he often dreamed that Lý Ông Trọng came and talked about the Zuo Commentary (Zuozhuan), the classics and histories. This detail of course reminds one of the historical record of Shi Xie’s interest in the Zuo Commentary. Zhao Chang then reportedly visited Lý Ông Trọng’s old residence and ordered that a shrine be built and that his spirit be sacrificed to. Finally, the Departed Spirits goes on to report that later when Gao Pian came to the Red River delta to fight the Nanzhao armies, that he also dreamt that Lý Ông Trọng assisted him. Gao Pian thereupon ordered that Lý Ông Trọng’s shrine be renovated, and that he be sacrificed to as a spirit of good fortune.

Since the Lý Ông Trọng described in this story had never existed, it is doubtful that Zhao Chang visited his residence. It is also doubtful, although not impossible, that the other Ông Trọng/Wengzhong, Yao Jun, was worshipped in the area. As a Daoist, it is more likely that his spirit would have been off “roam[ing] the springs,” as Shen Quanqi had recorded.

What I suspect is that this is a classic example of a phenomenon that we can find examples of all over East Asia (and really all over the world). There was probably a local spirit in the Red River Plain. It may not have been a spirit of a person, but could have been a spirit of something in the natural. Worship of such spirits was a problem for local rulers as people could get “inspired” by the spirit to resist the local ruler.

So what Chinese officials did all over the empire was to “appropriate” such local spirits by creating stories about them which were meant to “educate” the people in ways that would get them to follow their authority. In doing so they did not just make up stories out of nothing, but often used bits and pieces of information from older texts that somehow related to the local area where they were governing.

So in the case of Zhao Chang, he probably tried to appropriate a local spirit by creating a story about it which showed that this spirit was really a man by the name of Lý Ông Trọng who had been loyal to the ruling dynasty, and the moral of this story was that the local people should be like Lý Ông Trọng and also be loyal to the ruling dynasty. Further, in creating this story he used the fact that there had once been a person in the region called “Ông Trọng” (an official who left office to become a Daoist) as inspiration, but since that story did not support the idea that local people should be loyal to the ruling dynasty, he used information from a story about another kind of “Ông Trọng” (a statue to scare away the Xiongnu) that did support the idea that local people should be loyal to the ruling dynasty, and built a story about a local spirit who loyally served the ruling authorities – Lý Ông Trọng.