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.