Let’s now look at the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” to see to what extent we can find evidence that it was created by “representatives of the people” who had decided together to break away from an empire and to enter “a pre-existing international order” as “equal to other, similar states” by seeking the approval of the other states in that international order.
Let’s begin by looking at who the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” talks about and try to see to what extent it represents the expression of “representatives of the people.”
The “Bình Ngô đại cáo” starts out by talking about the kingdom of Đại Việt and makes the case that this kingdom has long existed as a separate kingdom and that no one has been able to change that reality.
From the opening passages it certainly looks like this will be a document about “the people,” but let’s look at what follows. The document goes on to say that,
“Recently, the tyranny of the Hồ regime incited hatred and rebelliousness in people’s hearts. The mad Ming took advantage of this opening and poisoned our people. Evil factions harbored treachery and sold our kingdom.”
Khoảnh nhân Hồ chính chi phiền hà, trí sử nhân tâm chi oán bạn. Cuồng Minh tứ khích, nhân dĩ độc ngã dân; ác đảng hoài gian, cánh dĩ mãi ngã quốc.]
So yes, here there is also a sense of an “us,” as this passage mentions “our people” and “our kingdom.” However, there is a definite difference between saying “our people” and saying “we.” “Our people,” I would argue, is more of an elitist and paternalistic expression which represents a pre-democratic worldview, which is what we should expect to find in a document like the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” given that Đại Việt had long been an absolute monarchy.
It literally means “my people” (我民 ngã dân) and is thus similar to a European absolute monarch’s view of “my subjects.”
“We,” on the other hand, is an expression and concept that reflects a more democratic worldview, which again is something that we should expect to see in a document like the American Declaration of Independence (although of course that “democratic worldview” at that time did not include slaves, women or even men who did not own land).
Nonetheless, there is a premodern, elite sense of “we-ness” expressed in this document that is typical of what existed in kingdoms controlled by absolute monarchies in many parts of the world at that time.
Who else is in this document? The document mentions the “mad Ming” (狂明 cuồng Minh), but it also mentions “evil factions” (惡黨 ác đảng).
We know from sources like the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư and the letters written by Nguyễn Trãi that members of those “evil factions” did not just “sell our country” and then go home. Instead, there were members of those “evil factions” who collaborated with the Ming throughout the entire period.
The document then goes on to talk about all of the terrible things that happened over the next 20 years. Who were the people who did all of those terrible things? Was it just the “mad Ming”? Or did members of those “evil factions” participate too?
The document is not clear as there is no clear subject for the actions that it describes. One would assume that collaborators played a role, but the document does not explicitly say that.
The term “Ming” is only mentioned that one time in reference to the “mad Ming.” In the rest of the document we find the titles and given names of the Chinese officers that Lê Lợi fought against, like Liu Sheng and Wang Tong. And the term “rebel” appears five times (賊 tặc).
That term appears in a passage that mentions that Lê Lợi vowed to not live together with “traitorous rebels” (逆賊 nghịch tặc).
When referring to people who invaded “Vietnam” from “China,” the terms that were usually used were terms like “northern rebels” (北賊 bắc tặc) or “northern bandits” (北寇 bắc khấu) or simply “rebels” (賊 tặc).
“Traitorous rebels” (逆賊 nghịch tặc) is a term that was usually used for internal enemies, like “traitorous factions” (逆黨 nghịch đảng) or “traitorous outlaws” (逆匪 nghịch phỉ). However, theoretically it could have been used here to refer to the Ming army which was “betraying” or “going against” the rightful way that things should be.
This is the only time that the expression “traitorous rebel” is used. However, the term “rebel” (賊 tặc) on its own is used four more times. The document mentions that Lê Lợi began his uprising “right when the strength of the rebels was at its peak” (正賊勢方張之日 Chính tặc thế phương trương chi nhật). It mentions two rebels that were killed, Trần Hiệp (陳洽) and Lý Lượng (李亮). Trần Hiệp was Chiense, and I’m assuming that Lý Lượng was as well. Finally, there is a reference to “rebel leaders” (賊首 tặc thủ) getting captured, and one reference to “bandits” (寇 khấu).
So while there is no consistent term that is used to refer to “the enemy,” and while we know that members of those “evil factions” collaborated with the Ming, the document itself is clearly a narrative of a fight against the occupying Ming army, as it makes frequent reference to the Ming Dynasty officers that Lê Lợi and his soldiers fought against, such as Liu Sheng, Huang Fu and Wang Tong.
Who fought against the Ming army? This is where the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” gets interesting, because the portion of the text which narrates the war against the Ming is told from a first-person perspective. That is, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” does not say that “we” fought the Ming, but instead, it says that “I” (予 dư) fought the Ming. Who is “I”? It is Lê Lợi.
“I rose from Lam Sơn” (予奮跡藍山 Dư phấn tích Lam Sơn)
“I therefore tried to cultivate a will as would overcome all hardship” (故予益厲志以濟於艱 Cố dư ích lệ chí dĩ tế vu nan)
“I had, first of all, the best of our troops posted at various strategic positions” (予前既選兵塞險，以摧其鋒 Dư tiền ký tuyển binh tái hiểm dĩ tồi kỳ phong)
“Furthermore, I also placed some regiments in control of the roads” (予後再調兵截路 Dư hậu tái điều binh tiệt lộ)
“I myself chose to act in accordance with the merciful spirit of the Thearch on High [Thượng Đế]” (予亦體上帝好生之心 dư diệc thể thượng đế hiếu sinh chi tâm)
“I myself had no higher concern than the security of the troops” (予以全軍為上 )
The above quotes follow, with a few modifications, follow Trương Bửu Lâm’s translation (attached below). I have only cited the sentences where the pronoun “I” (予 dư) actually appears in the text. However, a basic rule of classical Chinese is that the subject remains the same unless a new subject is introduced.
Therefore, even though the pronoun “I” (予 dư) only appears six times, the subject of parts of the intervening passages is still understood to be “I.”
That is why Trương Bửu Lâm used the pronoun “I” a total of (if I didn’t count incorrectly) 19 times in his translation of the portion of the text that deals with the fight against the Ming.
So the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was clearly not created by a group of “representatives of the people.” It does mention that the kingdom of Đại Việt has a right to exist, and it mentions “our/my people/subjects.” However, the majority of the text talks about what “I” (Lê Lợi) did.
Before we draw any conclusions about that, let’s first consider to what extent the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” expresses a decision to break away from an empire and to enter “a pre-existing international order” as “equal to other, similar states” by seeking the approval of the other states in that international order.