Because I’ve always realized that the history of the Ming occupation of Đại Việt is not a simple story of “the Vietnamese” fighting “the Chinese,” but instead is a very complex story of a competition between “multiple sides” (Vietnamese who supported Lê Lợi, Vietnamese who opposed Lê Lợi, Vietnamese who collaborated with the Ming, Vietnamese who were loyal to the Trần, non-Việt peoples who fought for the Ming, rich people who just wanted to protect their own interests, Chinese who fought against Lê Lợi, Chinese who fought alongside Lê Lợi, factions at the Ming court, different Ming Dynasty emperors, the Ming officials on the ground in Đại Việt, etc.), I’ve always understood that the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” like the đại cáo/dagao in the Classic of Docments (Kinh Thư), has to be addressing these divisions between people rather than celebrating some unity (as most writings by Vietnamese historians on this topic have done) that clearly did not exist at that time.
I have therefore always tried to see in what way the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” addresses the problems of the time, and particularly the problems within Đại Việt that Lê Lợi faced as he came to power.
In doing this, there is a term (Ngô) and an expression (about different territories and customs in the “south and north”) that I have tried to understand, as I’ve always felt that they must be pointing to some of the “problematic people” that Lê Lợi had to deal with after he came to power. What is more, this term and expression are vague enough that they leave open the possibility for interpretation, and they have been debated about extensively over the years not just by me but by many other people as well.
I now have a clearer understanding of what those terms meant at that time and in that context, as well as how and why they were used. Over the next few posts we will therefore look at the term Ngô and the expression about “south and north.” We will begin here with some background information about the expression “south and north” (or “South and North”).
The question of what “south” and “north” refers to in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is a question that scholars who write in Western languages have perhaps had to think more about than scholars who write in Vietnamese.
The reason for this is because when you translate the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” into a Western language, you cannot avoid making a decision about what those two terms mean.
When, however, you translate from the original classical Chinese into modern Vietnamese, you can simply transliterate 南北 as “nam bắc/Nam Bắc,” without indicating what exactly those two terms refer to. (Yes, there was a change in the twentieth century from not capitalizing these two terms [nam bắc] to capitalizing them [Nam Bắc]. And yes, that seems to indicate a change in perception, but it could also just reflect a change in writing style. For more on this, please read this post.)
So scholars who write in Western languages have had to make a decision about those two terms, and they have disagreed about what those terms mean.
The first person to translate the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” into a Western language appears to have been the Vietnamese scholar, Ưng Quả. His translation was published in the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient in 1952, and the passage about “south” and “north” went as follows:
“Now, our state of Đại-Việt is undoubtedly a country where culture flourishes along with its associated noble institutions. The mountains and rivers give its physical appearance different aspects; from south to north manners and customs are another variety (of its moral character).”
[Or notre État de Đai-Việt est incontestablement un pays où fleurissent la culture et les nobles institutions qui s’y rattachent. Les montagnes et les fleuves donnent à sa physionomie physique des aspects différents; du sud au nord les moeurs et les coutumes font d’autre part la variété (de sa physionomie morale).]
In other words, it is clear that Ưng Quả viewed “south” and “north” as referring to two regions in Đại Việt, or perhaps more generally as a reference to “regional diversity” in Đại Việt.
Continuing in this vein, in 1961 North Vietnamese scholar, Cao Xuân Huy and French writer, Pierre Gamarra, published together a translation of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” in the French literary magazine, Europe, which likewise emphasized diversity within Đại Việt.
In this poetic translation, the two translators did not mention “south” and “north.” Instead, the translators wrote that “She [meaning Đại Việt] has her rivers, her mountains and her frontiers everywhere. She has her manners and her customs.”
[Elle a ses fleuves, ses montagnes, ses frontiers de toutes parts. Elle a ses moeurs et ses coutumes.]
In 1967, Vietnamese scholar Trương Bửu Lâm published the first English-language translation of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” in his Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention, 1858-1900 which included the following passage:
“Our state of Dai Viet is indeed a country wherein culture and institutions have flourished. Our mountains and rivers have their characteristic features, but our habits and customs are not the same from north to south. Since the formation of our nation by the Trieu, Dinh, Ly, and Tran, our rulers have governed their empire exactly in the manner in which the Han, T’ang, Sung and Yuan did theirs.”
Here again we see that Trương Bửu Lâm understood “south” and “north” as referring to diverse regions and customs in Đại Việt.
As far as I know, it’s only in the 1970s, in North Vietnam, that “south” and “north” in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” started to be translated in ways that made it clear that the translators saw these two terms as referring to “Vietnam” and “China.”
In a 1972 collection of translations entitled, Anthologie de la littérature vietnamienne, Nguyễn Khắc Viện translated the passage about “south” and “north” as follows:
“The land of the South, she has her rivers, her mountains, her manners, [and] her customs, [that are] distinct from those of the North.”
[Terre de Sud, elle a ses fleuves, ses montagnes, ses moeurs, ses coutumes, distinctes de ceux du Nord.]
Similarly, someone identified simply as D.T.B. wrote in a 1974 book entitled Vietnam: A Historical Sketch that “With its own rivers and mountains, ways and customs, different from those of the North,” which makes it clear that this translator viewed “south” and “north” as referring to “Vietnam” and “China.”
In a 1979 article entitled “Nguyen Trai’s Binh Ngo Dai Cao 平吳大誥 of 1428: The Development of a Vietnamese National Identity,” Stephen O’Harrow surveyed the above translations, and sided with the view that “south” and “north” should refer to “Vietnam” and “China.”
He translated that passage as follows:
“As mountain and river make for various lands, so our Southern ways must differ from the North.”
So by 1979 there were two views about this passage. Why was that the case? I would say that one reason is because the wording of the document is vague enough for both versions to be possible.
I don’t have any reason to doubt the competence of Ưng Quả, Cao Xuân Huy, and Trương Bửu Lâm in reading classical Chinese. That these scholars interpreted the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” in the way that they did therefore suggests two things to me: 1) that the wording in that document is such that it is possible to translate it in that way, and 2) that the idea that “south” and “north” must be interpreted to mean “Vietnam” and “China” was not as dominant or widespread in the 1950s and 1960s among educated Vietnamese as it later came to be.
So this is the basic information that I had about the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” before I ever read it in its original classical Chinese. Once I did read it, I saw that both readings were theoretically possible.
Who then was I to believe? Should I have believed Ưng Quả, Cao Xuân Huy, and Trương Bửu Lâm, that is, Vietnamese scholars who were raised and educated in Vietnam? Or should I have believed Steve O’Harrow, an “outsider” who had interpreted the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” differently than they had.
Ultimately I came to realize that the only way to “decipher” this text would be to try to gain a better understanding of the context in which it was written, and what its purpose was. For this, Steve O’Harrow’s article was a good starting point as he made a serious effort to determine what the context and purpose of this document was.
Ưng Quả had described the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” as follows:
“The Bình Ngô đại cáo is an important proclamation about the pacification of the territory of the former Annam that had been invaded by the Ngo (a name for the Chinese in general and designating here the Ming), proclamation addressed to the people by Lê Lợi.”
[Le Bình Ngô đại-cáo est une importante proclamation au sujet de la pacification du territoire de l’ancien Ânnam envahi par les Ngô (appellation donnée aux Chinois en général et désignant ici les Minh), proclamation adressée au peuple par Le Lợi.
Meanwhile, in his brief introduction to his translation, Trương Bửu Lâm stated that:
“The opening passage invokes the principle of the autonomy of Vietnam in its relationship to China and claims for Vietnam a destiny separate from China’s.”
In other words, Ưng Quả and Trương Bửu Lâm described the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” in rather straight-forward terms as a “proclamation” that was announced to “the people” and which showed the people that “Vietnam [had] a destiny separate from China’s.”
But who were “the people” and why did Nguyễn Trãi feel that he needed to tell them that “Vietnam [had] a destiny separate from China’s”? Didn’t they already know that? Was it just to make them feel happy to hear that information again?
These are questions that Stephen O’Harrow sought to answer in his 1979 article. His basic argument was that the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was not addressed to “the people,” but instead, to “the educated elite.”
First, O’Harrow pointed out that the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is far too erudite for any common person to understand, and secondly, and more importantly, he also pointed out that when Lê Lợi came to power, there were many people who did not support him, and that it is in this historical context that one should read the “Bình Ngô đại cáo.”
To quote, O’Harrow stated that:
“One problem which plagued Le Loi throughout his long campaign against the Ming was the need to attract and hold the allegiance of capable lieutenants. This question is spoken of in the Binh Ngo Dai Cao:
奈以人才秋葉。俊傑晨星。[Nại dĩ nhân tài thu diệp, tuấn kiệt thần tinh; Lại ngặt vì tuấn kiệt như sao buổi sớm, nhân tài như lá mùa thu.]
At my side, alas, worthy men were as rare as stars at dawn, as [rare as] autumn leaves of green.”
O’Harrow goes on to say that:
“. . . without some measure of co-operation from the educated elite in pre-modern Vietnam it was difficult to establish or maintain a functioning administrative structure. This being the case, it must have proven necessary to create for Le Loi an aura of a great man, destined to rule and worthy of allegiance. All the more so since Le Loi belonged to a social class which normally would have precluded him from securing such co-operation.” (164)
O’Harrow argues that Nguyễn Trãi was a kind of “propagandist” for Lê Lợi who tried to make this uneducated man from an “isolated backwater” (164) acceptable as a ruler for the educated elite, the people whose support Lê Lợi desperately needed in order to be able to rule over Đại Việt.
Further, O’Harrow argues that while Nguyễn Trãi wrote individual letters during the Ming occupation period to members of the elite who did not support Lê Lợi in an effort to gain their assistance, the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was a message that was must have gained wider recognition as it came after the conflict had ended and was meant to address multiple members of the educated elite.
To quote again,
“After military victory had been achieved, it remained for Nguyen Trai to write a victory proclamation in the new ruler’s name which would seat him among the immortals, fit to govern and to command the respect not only of the troops and peasants, his cronies and kin, but of the mandarins heretofore hesitant [to support him]. It is in the Binh Ngo Dai Cao, this victory proclamation, that Nguyen Trai appeals to a sense of Vietnamese national identity, revealing some interesting elements of what apparently composed the educated fifteenth-century view of themselves.” 
O’Harrow therefore tried to put the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” into a more specific historical context than earlier translators of this text had. Ưng Quả had discussed the general context in which the document was produced, but he did not point out that Lê Lợi lacked supporters, which is a crucial point for O’Harrow’s argument (and one which I completely agree is essential for understanding this document).
Ultimately, O’Harrow argues that this document was created by Nguyễn Trãi in order to convince members of the educated elite to support Lê Lợi.
He sees the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” as a “victory proclamation” in which Nguyễn Trãi appealed “to a sense of Vietnamese national identity” and sought to present Lê Lợi as the perfect person to rule over Đại Việt.
I completely agree with Stephen O’Harrow that the main purpose of this document was to try to get members of the educated elite class to support Lê Lợi. However, the context in which this took place was not as simple or benign as O’Harrow depicted it in that article, and the idea that there was some kind of “a sense of Vietnamese national identity” is likewise a more complex topic than O’Harrow discussed in that article.
Let’s therefore take a closer look at this issue.