The Ngô in the Dư Địa Chí were not the Ming

There is a fifteenth-century document that is today very famous in Vietnam. It is called the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” (The Great Proclamation on Pacifying the Ngô) and today it is seen in Vietnam as a kind of “declaration of independence” that was made after the Ming Dynasty forces were driven out of the Red River Delta after some two decades of occupation.

For years I have had problems with this interpretation of this document, and there are many posts on this blog which deal with this topic. I do not see this document as a “declaration of independence” but as a “declaration of victory” of one faction in the Việt world over another faction.

The faction that was victorious at that time was the group of people who had supported Lê Lợi, the man who drove out the Ming and established the Lê Dynasty. From the perspective of some of the elite in the Hanoi area (and perhaps in more coastal regions like Hải Dương), Lê Lợi was a kind of “country bumpkin,” and as such, they did not support him. Instead, they chose to collaborate with the Ming.

The “Bình Ngô đại cáo” makes this very clear, as it emphasizes how for many years Lê Lợi had to struggle more or less on his own against the Ming.

That is a very odd narrative for a “declaration of independence.” Shouldn’t a “declaration of independence” emphasize how “all of the people united together” to resist the foreign invader?


That is one point that is problematic about the current interpretation of this document. The other is that people today see the term “Ngô” in the title as indicating “the Ming.” But that is clearly not what this term referred to.

Clear evidence for this comes from a text that was produced by a scholar who supported Le Lợi, Nguyễn Trãi. That text is called the Dư địa chí (The Treatise on the Territory) and it contains a passage which states the following:

“The people of the kingdom should not follow/imitate the national languages or dress of the Ngô, Chiêm [i.e., Cham], Lao, Xiêm [i.e., the Siamese] and Chân Lạp [i.e., the Khmer] as this causes chaos for national customs.”



If we just read that one line, then it looks like Nguyễn Trãi must have used the term “Ngô” here to refer to “the Chinese.”

However, he goes on to explain that “The Ngô people have long fallen into following Yuan [meaning the Mongol Yuan Dynasty] customs. They let their hair down, have white teeth, wear short shirts with long sleeves, and caps and robes of variegated colors like layers of leaves.”

(Người Ngô lâu ngày nhiễm thói tục của người Nguyễn, tóc xõa, răng trắng, áo ngắn mà tay áo dài, mũ xiêm lòe loẹt, lớp lớp như lá. 吳人久淪元俗,被髮白齒,短衣長袖,冠裳燦爛,如葉之重者.)

That’s an odd statement to make about “Chinese,” isn’t it? After all, Chinese always had white teeth. It’s only the Việt who had teeth that were not white. So if “having white teeth” is a sign of having “long fallen into following Yuan customs,” then this statement clearly can’t be about “the Chinese.”

What is more, some versions of this text then state that “Although the Ming people have returned to wearing the caps and robes of the Han and Tang, their [meaning the Ngô] customs have still not changed.”

(明人雖復漢唐衣冠之舊而其俗未變. Người Minh tuy khôi phục áo mũ Hán Đường xưa, nhưng thói tục của họ [tức người Ngô] vẫn không đổi.


This passage in the Dư địa chí is followed by a comment by one of Nguyễn Trãi’s contemporaries, Lý Tử Tấn, which states that:

“After the Yuan people entered the Middle Kingdom, All Under Heaven was transformed and followed Hu [meaning “northern/nomadic barbarian”] customs and the Hu language. The only ones to not change were Our Domain and the Zhu clan from Jinling and the Zhao clan from Jin/Wangshan.”

The “Zhu clan from Jinling” is clearly a reference to the ruling family of the Ming Dynasty. As for the Zhao clan, that is also obviously a reference to the ruling family of the Song Dynasty, although different versions of this text identify the Zhao with different place names (Jinshan, Wangshan, etc.).

So according to Lý Tử Tấn, the Ming ruling family did not “fall into following Yuan customs.” So the Ming ruling family was clearly not the Ngô. And according to Nguyễn Trãi “Ming people” went back to wearing the caps and robes of the Han and Tang, so the “Ming people” were clearly not the Ming ruling family as according to this account, the Ming ruling family never changed the way they dressed.

Nor did the Việt ruling elite change the way they dressed, for Lý Tử Tấn notes that when the Ming Dynasty came to power, the Trần Dynasty sent envoys to the Ming, and they were praised for the fact that they still dressed in old-style (i.e., Song style) robes.


So the Ming ruling family was not the Ngô, and the people the Ming ruled over were not the Ngô either. What is more this text indicates that Nguyễn Trãi and Lý Tử Tấn agreed with the practices of the Ming and its people, while they clearly did not like the cultural practices of the Ngô.

So who were the Ngô?!!

Again, I think John Whitmore is right in thinking that the Ngô were members of the coastal “Chinese” community in Đại Việt, and that these people had collaborated with the invading Ming forces, and that as a “local power” they had the potential of challenging Lê Lợi’s legitimacy after the Ming left.

They were thus a group that Nguyễn Trãi needed to “declare pacification” over in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo.”

In other words, as I’ve always argued, this document was saying that “we are in charge now, and you will follow our orders.”


What else can the Dư địa chí tell us about the Ngô? We can speculate that the Ngô were a group of people who probably had ties with the Chinese world through trade, but who were probably not as scholarly as someone like Nguyễn Trãi, and that therefore they didn’t think much about having to dress in a certain way.

Perhaps some of these people were “Chinese” who upon arriving in Đại Việt they had originally “gone native” and died their teeth black and tied their hair up like the Vietnamese elite, but in the years before the Ming came to power, they had “fallen into following the customs of the Yuan” and had let their hair down and had stopped dying their teeth, as well as changed the way they dressed.

Or perhaps this was a “hybrid” community of Chinese and Vietnamese, some of whom had intermarried, and perhaps it was the Vietnamese among this community whom Nguyễn Trãi was criticizing for having changed their ways and were no longer blackening their teeth and tying up their hair.

This is speculation, but the one point that the Dư địa chí makes perfectly clear, is that “the Ngô” were not “the Ming.” This term referred to someone else. And as I’ve always argued, I think it refers to a local group – the people who did not support Lê Lơi so that he had to struggle against the Ming on his own, a point that, again, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” clearly emphasizes.


22 thoughts on “The Ngô in the Dư Địa Chí were not the Ming

  1. This is a good piece of evidence supporting your position on the topic. However, as you said, there are many posts on this topic with arguments and counter-arguments throughout the years and it is a little difficult to keep track of all of them. Can you somehow put them together so that the readers can follow in one post rather than having to go through all the posts? That is, if you have the time!

    Again, it is very interesting and thanks for digging up the evidence. Although I can argue that it is extraneous evidence outside of the writing (the document itself, BNDC) and may be ruled irrelevant compared to the direct evidence found in the document!

  2. The “Ngô” may not be the “Ming” but “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is clearly about Lê Lợi’s victory against Ming dynasty. You don’t need to dig up many documents, just read the text itself:

    “Đinh mùi tháng chín, Liễu Thăng đem binh từ Khâu Ôn kéo lại
    Năm ấy tháng mười, Mộc Thạnh chia đường từ Vân Nam tiến sang.”

    “Ngày hăm lăm, bá tước Lương Minh đại bại tử vong
    Ngày hăm tám, thượng thư Lý Khánh cùng kế tự vẫn.”

    “Lương Minh” and “Lý Khánh” are Chinese generals.

    1. Thanks for the comment.

      Yes PART of the Binh Ngo dai cao is about Le Loi’s victory over the Ming. I’ve never said that it didn’t talk about that. But OTHER PARTS talk about other things, such as 1) how the Ho created a mess that brought the Ming to the region in the first place, and 2) how Le Loi had to struggle to find people to support him.

      So think about the contents of the entire document. If you admit that the Ngo are not the Ming, then who are the Ngo? And why does the document talk about people who didn’t support Le Loi? Could some of those people be the Ngo? If it’s a “declaration of independence,” then is there any evidence anywhere that any Chinese person ever read/heard this document? Isn’t the point of a “declaration of independence” that you “declare” to people (including the people who used to control you) that you are “independent”? Doesn’t it make more sense that “the Ngo” were the people who were intended to hear/read this declaration? A “dai cao” is a document that was used by people who were victorious over others to “declare” their victory and say that “you will now follow our orders.” This was never “declared” to the Ming. It was declared domestically, which should mean that the “Ngo” were a domestic group of people.

      The problem is that this document has been taught over and over in Vietnamese schools, but only certain parts of the document get taught, and those parts are explained in one way. However if you 1) look at all of the parts of the document, 2) think about the context of the times (especially the rivalries between different Vietnamese groups), 3) think about how there were Viet who collaborated with the Ming, 4) think about how there were Viet (people like the elite in Hanoi) who did not like Le Loi, and 5) think about the problems with the way that the term “Ngo” has been explained. . . If you consider all of those things, then I am confident that you will end up realizing that the Binh Ngo dai cao is about something much more complex than “the Vietnamese versus the Chinese.”

      1. And here is another way of looking at this issue. In 1945-1946, the population of Chinese in Vietnam became a “problem,” because Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam to be independent, but there was a Chinese army that the Allies sent to occupy the northern 1/2 of the country.

        What would the local Chinese do in that situation? Would they stand by the Vietnamese? Or would they collaborate with the Chinese and perhaps do something that would harm Vietnamese interests?

        Now think about the fifteenth century. You also had a Chinese population (and probably hybrid population that had intermarried with Vietnamese). What did they do during the Ming occupation? Did they join forces with Le Loi? Did they collaborate with the Ming? Did they do neither of the above?

        The basic point is that, like any country in the world, Vietnam has never had a population that completely unifies or completely agrees with each other. Look at any society anywhere at any time and you will find divisions.

        However, the way that Vietnamese history is taught in Vietnam is as a story of a population that has ALWAYS been unified and has ALWAYS shared the same ideas and beliefs.

        This view of the past is a product of the 1960s when the North Vietnamese government WANTED Vietnamese to be unified and WANTED them to share the same ideas and beliefs.

        But there is a difference between reality and what people want. Seeing the Binh Ngo dai cao as simply a document about “the Vietnamese” victory over “the Chinese” is what people WANT to think happened, but if you look at the details you see lots of divisions, just as there were major divisions in the 1960s. That is the reality. And like I said, it’s a reality that Vietnamese share with basically every other group of human beings that has ever existed and which ever will exist.

      2. I see your point. I grew up in Hanoi and lived oversea for 4 years. I know what they teach at school and I’m upset about it. But you don’t do justice to the text if you turn it upside down just to make a point about Vietnamese schooling system.

        1/ When somebody “declare independence” of a country, I don’t think they have to speak to foreigners. I don’t think the United States sent somebody to England to declare independence, nor the Chinese sent people to all the countries that used to occupy their land to declare independence. They did it in their own land, to their own crowd. There’s nothing wrong with that.

        2/ When teachers in Vietnam use the text to imply what they want students to believe, they are wrong. You would also be wrong if you misinterpret the text to influence people. What matters is what Nguyễn Trãi wanted to say. And it looks like he did want to declare independence.

        3/ Nguyễn Trãi make it abundantly clear who was the enemy he defeated. Of course he also defeated other groups but what matters is who he wanted his audience to pay attention to. He put it close to the beginning of the text, you can read it and judge it yourself:

        “Duy ngã Đại Việt chi quốc,
        Thực vi văn hiến chi bang.
        Sơn xuyên chi phong vực ký thù,
        Nam bắc chi phong tục diệc dị.
        Tự Triệu Đinh Lý Trần chi triệu tạo ngã quốc,
        Dữ Hán Đường Tống Nguyên nhi các đế nhất phương.
        Tuy cường nhược thì hữu bất đồng,
        Nhi hào kiệt thế vị thường phạp.”

        4/ Maybe Nguyễn Trãi himself is not that different to modern teachers in trying to forge a sense of unification that wasn’t there. That would be his fault. But you will need something else to prove it.

      3. Hopefully what I am writing in this series will clarify some things. The American Declaration of Independence is the first “declaration of independence” in world history. If you look closely at what was unique about that document/event, and then look at all of instances of nations declaring independence after that and how they did it, you will see that the term “declaration of independence” is something very historically specific.

        The things that make the 1776 US Declaration of Independence and the 1945 Vietnamese Declaration of Independence “declarations of independence” are not present in the “Binh Ngo dai cao,” nor are they present in any other document from anywhere in the world prior to the US Declaration of Independence in 1776.

        So to get back to the contemporary Vietnamese educational system, why do you suppose people teach that the “Binh Ngo dai cao” is a “declaration of independence”? 😉

  3. In Đại Việt Sử Ký Toàn thư, page 66a
    “Những người nguyên nô tỳ của nhà nước, những quan lại ngụy, thổ quan chống đối mà ra thành đầu hàng, những kẻ cha là ngừời Ngô mẹ là người Việt, bọn gian ác phản nghịch, và người Ai Lao, Cẩu Hiểm, Chiêm Thành hết thảy là nô tỳ của nhà nước, đã bổ đi làm các loại công việc mà phải tội, con cái còn bé thay đổi họ tên làm dân thường và lấy vợ lấy chồng ở các huyện xã khác, thì con trai, con gái, cháu ruột, cháu gọi bằng chú bác của bọn ấy, họ tên là gì, chính bản thân phải tới Châu Lâm viện để duyệt tuyển.”

    Ngô people wasnot Viet people. Ngo people was the Ming people came to Dai Viet and became government officer but they cannot back to Ming after Le Loi’s victory.

    1. I will translate this but sorry for my bad english.

      “The people who was slave of royal family/king/government, (Viet people) who support Ming and became Ming’s government officer, local officer who opposed then surrendered, the people who has Ngo father and Viet mother, the people who was ruthless and rebellious, Laos people, Cẩu Hiểm people, Chams people become slave of royal family/king/government, was forced to do public interest …”

      In this sentence, we can see term Viet vs term Ngo twice. First, it was “ngụy quan” and then Ngo father and Viet mother.

      1. Thank you VERY VERY VERY much for pointing this out.

        To let other readers know, this is from 1471, after the Cham had been “pacified” and this passage comes from a government order (Thánh 9, ra sắc chỉ rằng:). This passage is talking about all of the people who were a “problem” in the Le Dynasty’s effort to conquer the Cham.

        My argument about the “Binh Ngo dai cao” has always been that it is a document like this one here – it is a document that is addressed to people who were a “problem” during Le Loi’s effort to drive out the Ming.

        As for your conclusion:
        “Ngô people was not Viet people. Ngo people was the Ming people came to Dai Viet and became government officer but they cannot back to Ming after Le Loi’s victory.”

        That’s possible (there were many Chinese soldiers who stayed, for instance, and who fought for the Le after that). And it would mean that these people who had “Ngo father and Viet mother” would have been maybe in their 40s or 50s in 1471.

        That explanation, however, makes it difficult to understand all of the information in the Du dia chi about the Ngo, because that information says that there was a difference between how Ming people (Minh nhan) and Ngo people dressed.

        I therefore still think that this term at that time was used to refer to members of the Chinese community in Dai Viet in general (rather than a smaller group of people who came with the Ming and stayed), and that community, as this passage shows, was a Sino-Viet community, as the Chinese and Viet intermarried.

        When the Ming people changed the way they dressed, the Ngo people did not because they were outside of the Ming empire living in Dai Viet, and they were probably not forced to dress a certain way by the Dai Viet government. That’s what I think that passage in the Du dia chi is saying. And by mentioning “white teeth,” it might not mean that the Ngo had changed because of being influenced by Yuan/Nguyen customs from some other color of teeth, but that expression – “white teeth and their hair flowing down” – could have been meant to express how different the people in the Chinese community in Dai Viet were from the Viet ruling elite.

        Which gets to another point: this term Ngo seems to appear when a Viet person is angry. This document from 1471 is a good example of that, and the “Binh Ngo dai cao” is also a good example of that.

        I live in a place, Hawaii, that is multi-ethnic. People generally get along fine. However, when there is a problem between people of two ethnic groups, then people can easily start to use “bad names.” So people will usually talk about “a Chinese guy.” But if that guy does something bad, then people will say, “oh, that f#^%ing Pake”! (“Pake” is the Hawaiian word for “Chinese.” Now it is used when someone is angry at a Chinese, or it is also used to mean “stingy,” like “Why you so pake? Buy it!!”)

        My guess would be that you had the same situation in Dai Viet. There was a Chinese (or Sino-Viet) community, and normally things were fine. But if something went wrong, like members of that community served the invading Ming forces, then they became “Ngo.”

        This is very normal, but I think people have trouble seeing this in the Vietnamese past as no one talks about divisions in society and nobody talks about anything negative. But there is good and bad everywhere. Some people can be on your side, some people can be “fake/traitorous officials” (ngụy quan). Someone can be a “Chinese” one day and a “f$$^ing Pake” the next.

        So again, thank you VERY VERY VERY much for pointing this passage out. We might not have the complete answer to the “Ngo mystery” yet, but what you say here gets us much much closer to solving it.

      2. “When the Ming people changed the way they dressed, the Ngo people did not because they were outside of the Ming empire”

        They may also be in the Ming empire without changing the dress code. We know that Ming empire is huge and the central government is in the northern part. Maybe they don’t have that much control over the southern part bordering Vietnam.

  4. Hi again

    There are many issues that you raised regarding this particular document, the Bình Ngô Đại Cáo. In this post, I will introduce a writing that hopefully will put this “Ngô mystery” to rest.

    So the problem as we see it is that this document (BNDC) clearly talked about how the narrator (Lê Lợi via Nguyễn Trãi) defeated the Chinese under the Ming dynasty during the 15th century, with the super majority of the document talking about and showing his struggles to victories against the Ming Chinese.

    However, the problem is that the title itself is not clear on that fact. Instead of using “Ming”, the author (be it LL or NT) opted to use a different word, “Ngô”. And that is the source of confusion. (I will have my opinion as to why he chose this word instead of the the word “Ming” as he had used in the document at a later time)

    You (LMK) and perhaps John K. Whitmore are of the opinion that this word indicates a separate group of Chinese or expatriate Chinese, or Chinese Vietnamese, or Vietnamese collaborators, but not the Ming Chinese.

    You introduced Nguyễn Trãi’s Dư Địa Chí which said that there was a group of people called “Ngô” who followed “Nguyên” or Yuan customs. Then there was a footnote which showed that a Zhou clan (Ming) did not follow these customs.

    I would argue that those are indirect and circumstantial evidence at best. There was nothing in there that said what you said, i.e. that there was a separate group of Chinese called Ngô as opposed to another group of Chinese called Ming.

    In contrast, here is Nguyễn Trãís writing in 1427 for Lê Lợi in a letter to Vương Thông asking him to surrender to him, pointing out the dire situation to VT:


    Kính thư gửi quan Tổng binh cùng liệt vị đại nhân. Kể ra người dùng binh giỏi là ở chỗ biết rõ thời thế mà thôi. Được thời có thế, thì mất biến thành còn, nhỏ hóa ra lớn; mất thời không thế, thì mạnh hóa ra yếu, yên lại thành nguy; sự thay đổi ấy chỉ trong khoảng trở bàn tay. Nay các ông không hiểu rõ thời thế, lại trang sức bằng lời dối trá, thế chẳng phải bọn thất phu hèn kém ư? Sao đủ để cùng nói việc binh được? Trước đây lòng mưu giả trá, mặt thác giảng hòa, rồi cứ đào hào đắp lũy, ngồi đợi viện binh, tâm tích không rõ, trong ngoài khác nhau, sao đủ khiến ta chắc tin mà không ngờ được? Cổ nhân có nói: “Tha nhân hữu tâm, dư thổn đạc chi” (Bụng dạ người khác, ta lường đoán biết), nghĩa là thế đó. Xưa kia Tần thôn tính sáu nước, chuyên chế bốn biển, đức chính không sửa, thân mất nước tan. Nay Ngô mạnh không bằng Tần, mà hà khắc lại quá, không đầy một năm tất nối nhau mà chết, ấy là mệnh trời, không phải sức người vậy. Hiện nay phương Bắc có kẻ địch Thiên-nguyên(3), trong nước có mối lo các xứ Tầm-châu(4), một khu Giang-tả(5) không tự giữ xong, huống còn mưu toan cướp nước khác ư! Các ông không hiểu sự thế, bị người đánh thua, lại còn chực dựa uy Trương Phụ(6), thế là đại trượng phu chăng? Hay cũng chỉ là đàn bà thôi? Sự thế ngày hay, dẫu cho thượng vị(7) có đem quân đến nữa, cũng chỉ chóng chết mà thôi, huống là Trương Phụ chỉ tự đến nộp mạng thì sang đáng nói! Xưa Hán Chiêu Liệt(8) chỉ là di phái họ Lưu, mà Khổng Minh làm cho đại nghiệp phục hưng dược, huống hồ con cháu hoàng Trần, mệnh trời đã cho, lòng người đã theo, thì Ngô sao có thể cướp được!

    In Hán Việt, the related parts are as follows:

    “Kim Ngô chi cường bất cập Tần, nhi hà khốc đãi thậm”
    “Thiên mệnh dữ chi, nhân tâm qui di chi, phi Ngô quốc sở năng đọat dã …”

    I have the Hán in hand, but I can’t type it in. However, this source can be found in “Quân Trung Từ Mệnh Tập”, “Tái Dụ Vương Thông Thư”. Nguyễn Trãi Toàn Tập Tân Biên, NXBVH, pp. 533-548.

    As you can see, right here the author used the term “Ngô” to clearly point to the Ming — as a dynasty, a regime, or as a country, but definitely not as a group of people. In one single letter, the author employed the term twice, the first time to compare it to an old dynasty (Qin, Tần) in the past, the other to call it a country (Ngô quốc).

    Thus, it is very clear what Ngô here means: Ming court or Ming China. There is no mystery about what this term means in this document. It does not indicate a group of other Chinese or the collaborators. It indicates a regime, a dynasty, or a country.

    And how is this document related to the BNDC? If we read Quân Trung Từ Mệnh Tập where all letters and documents written during the war with the MIngs were collected, we can see that those letters laid the foundation for the BNDC later on, because they said many of the same things that were written in BNDC. Furthermore, they were written under Lê Lợís name, similar to BNDC. Certainly, Lê Lợi must have a part in all of these writings, for they were written in his name.

    On the other hand, the Dư Địa Chí is a work of Nguyễn Trãís only. And what you cited was about a group of Chinese called Ngô, which is so remotely related to the “Ngố in the title of BNDC.

    In short, if we are to use extraneous documents to explain another document, it is best that they are related and written by the same person(s). And we would want touse an interpretation that is the clearest. Both seem to favor the interpretation that the “Ngô” in Bình Ngô Đại Cáo means “Ming” and not any other way.

    1. Thanks for the comment, and great post!!

      I’m going to have to trace down the Han version of that (I always need to see originals), and that same document should appear in works like the Bang giao luc and the Yuejiao shu.

      Assuming, however, that what you say here is correct, then the one thing that I could conclude right away is that “Ngo” is a very complex/problematic term. Here it is used to criticize the Ming, but in the Du dia chi the Ming are praised while the Ngo are criticized. A friend pointed out that a comment (apparently from the late 1600s) at the end of the Lam Son thuc luc says that the Ming tried to change the way that the Viet dressed, but the Du dia chi happily claims that the Viet were praised by Zhu Yuanzhang for continuing to dress in a pre-Yuan/Nguyen style.

      Clearly we need to get a better understanding of who said what, when, and why because it’s obvious that there is no clear “us” (Viet) vs. “them” (Chinese) in this period.

      So I’ll go track down those sources, but that could take a few days as I do still have to “work.” 🙂

  5. Let’s look at what Nguyễn Trãi said in “Dư Địa Chí” in full reagarding what you brought up in this post:


    Người trong nước không được bắt chước ngôn ngữ và y phục của các nước Ngô (1), Chiêm, Lào, Xiêm, Chân-lạp để làm loạn phong tục trong nước.
    “Vô” là lời cấm chỉ. Tiếng Ngô nói đầu lưỡi, phải dịch rồi mới biết; tiếng Lào nói trong họng; tiếng Xiêm, Chiêm, Chân-lạp nói trong cổ như tiếng chim quẹt; nhưng đều không được bắt chước để loạn tiếng nói nước nhà. Người Ngô bị chìm đắm đã lâu ở trong phong tục người Nguyên, bện tóc, răng trắng, áo ngắn có tay dài, mũ, xiêm rực rỡ như từng lớp lá. Người Minh tuy khôi phục lại lối ăn mặc cũ của thời Hán, thời Đường, nhưng phong tục vẫn chưa biến đổi. Người Lào lấy vải lông quấn vào người như áo cà sa nhà Phật. Người Chiêm lấy khăn che đùi mà để lộ hình thể. Người Xiêm-la, người Chân-lạp lấy vải bọc tay và gối như bó thây chết. Các tục ấy đều không nên theo để làm loạn phong tục.
    Lý thị nói: Từ khi người Nguyên vào Trung-quốc, về sau thiên hạ biến thành nói tiếng Hồ, mặc áo Hồ (2). Không thay đổi chỉ có nước ta cùng họ Chu ở Kim-lăng, họ Triệu ở Kim-sơn mà thôi. Đến khi Thái-tổ nhà Minh lên làm vua, sai Dịch Tế Dân sang thông hiếu, vua Dụ-tông sai Doãn Thuấn Thần sang cống sính nhà Minh. Vua Minh úy lạo hỏi quốc sứ, khen phong tục, y phục vẫn giống như văn minh Trung-hoa, ban cho bài thơ ngự chế rằng: “An-nam tế hữu Trần, phong tục bất Nguyên nhân, y quan Chu chế độ, lễ nhạc Tống quân thần” (tạm dịch: An nam có Trần thị, phong tục chẳng theo Nguyên, chế độ Chu vẫn giữ, lễ nhạc Tống không quên). Rồi cho bốn chữ “Văn hiến chi bang” (nước văn hiến). Lại nhấc sứ nước ta lên trên sứ Triều-tiên ba cấp; khi sứ về, lại sai Ngưu Lượng đem long chương và ấn vàng cùng đi sang để khen thưởng nhà vua (4).


    Now let’s look at the pertinent parts which you cited:

    1. ” Người trong nước không được bắt chước ngôn ngữ và y phục của các nước Ngô (1), Chiêm, Lào, Xiêm, Chân-lạp để làm loạn phong tục trong nước.”

    What Nguyễn Trãi was saying as I understand the above sentence is this:

    “People in the (our) country should not copy the languages and costumes of the countries of Ngô, Champa, Laos, Siam, Chenla (because) that will create chaos in the customs of the (our) countrỵ”. (the parentheses are mine to clarify the meaning).

    And this is your translation of the same:

    “The people of the kingdom should not follow/imitate the national languages or dress of the Ngô, Chiêm [i.e., Cham], Lao, Xiêm [i.e., the Siamese] and Chân Lạp [i.e., the Khmer] as this causes chaos for national customs.”

    We can see a big difference between the two versions. In mine, the author clearly makes a distinction between the language and costume of his country versus the languages and costumes of the other, foreign countries.

    In yours, it looks as if the Ngô, Chams, etc. could be parts of the country itself as minority groups in the kingdom.

    Since I don’t have the Han source, I am not 100% sure that mine is correct, it is after all the translation of a translation. However, the context of this sentence clearly shows a demarcation between what is “ours” versus “theirs”, “domestic” versus “foreign”, “Viet” versus “Ngô.

    2. “Người Ngô bị chìm đắm đã lâu ở trong phong tục người Nguyên, bện tóc, răng trắng, áo ngắn có tay dài, mũ, xiêm rực rỡ như từng lớp lá. Người Minh tuy khôi phục lại lối ăn mặc cũ của thời Hán, thời Đường, nhưng phong tục vẫn chưa biến đổi.”

    And your translation:

    “The Ngô people have long fallen into following Yuan [meaning the Mongol Yuan Dynasty] customs. They let their hair down, have white teeth, wear short shirts with long sleeves, and caps and robes of variegated colors like layers of leaves. Although the Ming people have returned to wearing the caps and robes of the Han and Tang, their [meaning the Ngô] customs have still not changed.”

    I do not find the “white teeth” part relevant or helpful to your conclusion that the Ngô could not be “Chinese” and could be part of the Viet. Because it is clear that the Viet or the country of Dai Viet were not under Yuan rule and therefore never followed Yuan customs. Althoug the “white teeth” notion is indeed an odd part and may call into question Nguyễn Trãi’s knowledge of customs at that time, it does not in any way show that Nguyễn Trãi considered or aven alluded to the Ngô as part of the Viet.

    It is actually the opposite. In this sentence, Nguyễn Trãi was clearly critical of the Chinese “Ngô” for abandoning their own customs and followed the Yuan. It is consistent with his former argument that one should follow one’s own customs and not copy the foreign ones like the Ngô or Chinese did when they became part of the Yuan empire.

    As for the second sentence, it is even clearer to me that Nguyễn Trãi used the term “Ngô” to mean anything that is broadly “Chinese” or “China” as opposed to the narrower “MIng” or “Han”, or “Tang”. In using Ming, he was clearly comparing one dynasty to another, What he was saying was that the Ming court tried to restore the customs of the Han and the Tang courts but despite such effort, the Ngô (Chinese people) have not changed.

    In short, what Nguyễn Trãi did here was actually attempting to draw the line between Viet and Chinese (Ngô) in admonishing the Viet and showing the bad example that was the Ngô: because they have followed Yuan customs for so long, their ruling dynasty Ming could not change them back the way they should be.

    Unlike your reference, he did not draw a distinction between two supposedly existent groups of Chinese: Ming Chinese and Ngô Chinesẹ Rather, he was contrasting the Chinese people’s habits to the ruling Ming court’s effort.

    3. As for the commentary by Lý Tử Tấn, I see nothing supporting your conclusion that the Ngô was a subgroup of Dai Viet. What I see is that he was very proud that his own country along with the Ming and the Song did not follow the customs of the Yuan. He said nothing about the “Ngô”. And even if he did say anything about it, it would not carry much weight as what Nguyễn Trãi said about the Ngô.

    In short, looking more closely at the Dư Địa Chí, I actually find more support for the conclusion that the term “Ngô” as used by Nguyễn Trãi means Chinese or China in the broadest sense. That term would include the Chinese living in Vietnam as well as Chinese living in China or anything that is Chinese. “Ming”, to him, on the other hand, is a narrower term, meaning the court, the ruling dynasty, or the period. “Ngô” therefore, can include Ming.

    I can think of a more current term that is similar to “Ngô”: it is “Tàu”. It is slightly derogatory but also very common and means anything that is Chinese or China itself.

    Hopefully I can get to the “Ngô” in Bình Ngô Đại Cáo in the next post.

    1. Sorry to not get to this earlier, but I’m going to talk about this in a future post, and I think from your later comment you already get it.

      Yea, Nguyen Trai never went to Xiem La or Chan Lap. This is not about “the world.” It is about “the world in Dai Viet.” It’s about the interactions of foreigners in Dai Viet with “nguoi trong nuoc.” 🙂

  6. I am way out of my depth in this area of study, but I find it really interesting. I have an underlying question. At this period time what made a person a Việt? It’s clear that the people who picked up the pen to espouse geo-political claimed that they were Việt, but is there any evidence that there was popular sense of a populace believing themselves to be Việt?

    It’s apparent that the designation Việt was used as an identity to designate something (and presumably something superior) to other designations. I’m struck how much of this Việt identity was defined by language and costumes. This was a period of time when few people were able to travel to encounter distant people. I suppose that diplomats and the military could have. But the mass of population probably just rolled with the events of their immediate environment.

    This anxiety about language and costumes strikes me as remaining intact to the present day – ideas like mất gốc, the concern for preserving an essential culture, a tính dân tộc. The truth of the matter is that people’s identities are always an internal contest among personal predilections and external realities. I tend to think, like I think Mr. Khải thinks, that the Red River region was multi-cultural to some degree or other – in addition to the Việt (if we can say with certainty who the Việt were) there Chinese immigrants of various vintages, ethnic minorities, captives from other regions and their descendants who were won in warfare. There was not a prevailing, popular sense of what being Việt meant. That’s why I imagine that the diversity of languages and costumes was an internal problem — the subjects of this polity did not have the same level of understanding of or commitment to Việt-ness as the leadership did. The correction of this diversity was a necessary political step to creating greater unity within the region.

    This is, of course, speculation because as far as I have seen we don’t have much evidence about how the wider mass of people lived – what languages they spoke, what costumes they wore. I imagine that it was a bit of a hodgepodge. Some people were probably multi-lingual or spoke various pidgin languages.

    1. I completely agree with you and Mr. Khải that the Red River Delta was multi-cultural to some degree, with immigrants from China, captives from Champa and various ethnic groups among the so-called “Viet”. I believe it was a well-known fact that Lê Lợi himself was not a Viet but rather a “Mường”, a closely related but distinct minority group in Vietnam.

      And I also agree that the elite probably had more of an identity consciousness than the mass, as you stated above.

      However, I think the “Ngô”, was an unmistakable term pointing directly to China or Chinese as opposed to the rest of the populace in Dai Viet. While it might not be entirely clear what it meant to be a “Viet” at that time, it probably was not too difficult to know what a “Ngô” was, especially when that Ngô person was your colonial master, taking everything of value from you, mistreating you, dressing differently from you and speaking in their own supposedly superior language than your own.

      There is one more fact that has not been brought up: I find it very interesting that Nguyễn Trãi used the term “Ngụy” to clearly point out the Viet collaborators who collaborated with the Chinese. (BTW, this is the term later used by the North Vietnamese for the South Vietnamese as part of “Mỹ Ngụy”.)

      In Bình Ngô Đại Cáo, this is the relevant quote:

      “Cuồng Minh tứ khích, nhân dĩ độc ngã dân
      Ngụy đảng hoài gian, cánh dĩ mãi ngã quốc.”

      (LMK used the online version of BNDC which has the term “ác” instead of “ngụy”. However, I am almost 100% sure that it is “ngụy” if you cross check with all of the other versions of BNDC)

      If one is familiar with this type of writing in old Chinese classics, the Ming are put side by side with the “Ngụy”, clearly showing two distinct groups in the author’s eyes.

      So yes, even though it is not clear what made a Viet culturally, it was clear to Nguyễn Trãi who was a “Ngô” and who was a “ngụy”, at least in political term as shown in the BNDC.

      And since we are talking about an extremely political and historical document here, I believe the above reasoning is more applicable, especially since Mr. Khải does not offer any concrete evidence showing the term “Ngô” as used in BNDC was meant for a group who was not “the Ming”.

      1. I was using Ngô Tất Tố’s transliteration, but I changed “ngụy” to “ác” because that is what was in the Han text in Ưng Quả’s article. That article is available free online, just search for the title with the world “persee” and you should be able to find it.

        Ultimately, I think that in this context “ngụy” and “ác” refer to the same thing, but yea, now that you mention it, this is worthy looking into to see which terms are used where. Thanks for pointing that out.

        As for the meaning of “Ngô,” this is tough. It’s not a generic word for “the Ming” or for “Chinese.” It’s also not a word for the Chinese or Sino-Viet community in Dai Viet, as Whitmore (and I) wondered.

        My guess at this point is that the Ming soldiers who stayed behind were “Ngo.” But the key to the issue, I think, is in trying to figure out why Nguyen Trai used that term in one (1) letter to Wang Tong, and in none of his other letters to anyone (as far as I can see). I’m going to write about that in a bit.

        Look at the way in which Nguyen Tu Tan in the Du Dia Chi wrote about the Ming. This was a time and place when/where the Ming were to educated Vietnamese like the Pope was to educated people in Europe. Not all popes were good, and not all Ming emperors were good, but the Pope and the Ming were still the “sacred center” of the world to the educated people around them.

        “Ngo” clearly has negative connotations. You don’t call the Pope a “Ngo,” even if you hate the guy’s guts, unless this is perhaps a way to criticize the guy without offending the larger world order in which you believe. . .

    2. You are dead on target, my friend.

      So I’ve seen many people proudly cite that passage by Nguyen Trai as a sign that “the Vietnamese had their own culture.”

      Another way to look at it is to say that Nguyen Trai was xenophobic/racist (traits that are alive and very well in Vietnam today).

      What’s different is that Nguyen Trai was in this elitist world where “good” style was what the people at the Ming court wore. Obviously most people in his kingdom, and most of the people across the Ming empire didn’t dress like that either, but foreigners were particularly bad, and probably the worse were Chinese who didn’t dress like the Ming.

      I’m now thinking that the “Ngo” here refers to Chinese soldiers who stayed behind (and there were a significant number that stayed behind). First of all, the foot soldiers in any Chinese army in the past (and certainly well into the 20th century) were the dregs of society. Of course they didn’t dress in a “van hien” way. The Ming soldiers who stayed behind, however, were even worse, as they had participated in an illegitimate effort to incorporate Dai Viet into the Ming empire. His comments about their having been affected by Mongol Yuan customs even though the Ming had changed is perhaps a way to particularly look down on those people as “low life scum.” I will write about this, but that’s my guess at the moment.

      But yea, the basic point is that Nguyen Trai didn’t like foreigners. But how many people in his kingdom came close to resembling him? And where did he draw the line between what was ok and what wasn’t ok?

      I was looking at some writings my Ming officials who were in the Red River delta region today and they describe a world of incredible diversity.

      As for the term “Viet,” note that it is never used in the “Binh Ngo dai cao” to refer to a people. “Viet” starts as a term used to refer to a political enterprise – “Nga Viet” (our Viet), “Dai Viet.” When does it start to refer to a people collective as “the Viet”? Early 20th century writings talk about the inhabitants of that area as “Nam nhan” (Southern people). . .

  7. So the word Việt may not have had racial / ethnic meaning at all at the time? It may have functioned more like a political or hegemonic system or ideology? It’s seeming like there was a heterogeneous mass of people in the Red River delta that over time became consolidated into a group with ethnic identity. Mr. Phan helpfully reminded us that Lê Lợi was Mường. Again what did it mean to be Mường at the time? It might have just been a way of dressing and some difference in language. With a change of clothes and a new way of speaking could one convert to become a Việt?

    1. I came across this in a letter that Nguyen Trai wrote to “aboriginal soldiers.” I don’t know who those people were, but he said about them that:
      “You are all Western Việt people [西越之人 Tây Việt chi nhân], people who wear caps and robes [衣冠之族 y quan chi tộc].

      The second expression is literally, that they are from the caps and robes lineage/race 族 tộc. The concept of “race” didn’t exist at that time, but Song Dynasty era Neo-Confucian scholars used that term to refer to people like them, sort of like “our type.”

      So they were “Western Viet” and “people of the caps and robes type.” Yea, ethnicity must be in there somewhere, but other ways of categorization are as well, so that makes it particularly difficult to understand how the educated elite viewed other people.

  8. Trong lịch sử đất trung nguyên trước khi có nước Trung hoa thống nhất, đã có hai giống Ngô Việt đánh nhau. Ngô của Phù sai và Việt của Câu Tiễn. Người Việt cũng có câu: Giặc bên Ngô không bằng bà cô bên chồng. Giặc bên Ngô là nói giặc từ phương Bắc.

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