In the opening passage of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” there is a section which states that: “Our kingdom of Đại Việt is truly a domain of civility [文獻之邦 văn hiến chi bang]. Just as its territorial areas are distinct, so are the customs of the South and North also different.”
[惟我大越之國，實為文獻之邦。山川之封域既殊，南北之風俗亦異。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. Như nước Đại Việt ta từ trước vốn xưng nền văn hiến đã lâu. Núi sông bờ cõi đã chia phong tục Bắc Nam cũng khác.]
These statements are now seen as a clear expression of a sense of a Vietnamese national identity. While Steve O’Harrow saw this as an early form of a sense of Vietnamese national identity, most writings from Vietnam today see this as a manifestation of a more long-lasting and unchanging sense of national identity.
These statements are now interpreted to mean that Nguyễn Trãi was saying that Đại Việt was a “civilized country” like “China,” and that it was a separate country with distinct territorial areas and distinct customs.
But where did these ideas come from, and why were they included in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo”? Was it because it made people in the fifteenth century feel good, like it does today?
As the post on “Lê Lợi’s Legitimacy Problem” indicated, the situation on the ground at that time was very complex, and there were plenty of people who were not happy that Lê Lợi had come to power.
So how can we understand what Nguyễn Trãi was trying to express with those words?
One way we can attempt to do this is to see if the concepts expressed in those lines had been expressed before, and to see if earlier expressions of those concepts can give us a clearer sense of what they meant.
In fact, Nguyễn Trãi did express similar ideas in a couple of other writings.
One example is a letter that Nguyễn Trãi wrote to the Ming soldiers who were defending Bắc Giang citadel 北昌城 (also referred to as Xương Giang citadel 昌江城). That letter began with the following statement:
“I have heard that although there are southern and northern peoples, the Way [道 đạo] has no this [Way] and that [Way]. There is no place that does not have benevolent and exemplary men. Although our An Nam is far beyond the passes, it is called a domain of Poetry and Documents [詩書之邦 thi thư chi bang – i.e., a place where people follow the cultural/ritual norms in the Classic of Poetry and Classic of Documents].”
Ta nghe nói: Người có người xứ nam, người xứ bắc. Đạo thì không có đạo nọ, đạo kia. Hạng người có đức, hạng người quân tử, thì không đâu là không có. Nước An Nam tuy xa ngoài núi ngũ Lĩnh mà vẫn gọi là nước Thi Thư.]
The concept here seems to be similar to the concept that is expressed in the “Bình Ngô đạo cáo.” The difference would be that while in the “Bình Ngô đạo cáo” Nguyễn Trãi was saying that Đại Việt is “civilized” (like the Middle Kingdom) AND it is a separate land, in this document Nguyễn Trãi was saying that Đại Việt is “civilized” (like the Middle Kingdom) EVEN THOUGH its people are different.
Why would he make that point?
This is interesting because Nguyễn Trãi’s ideas in this letter represent a kind of (Vietnamese) Confucianized version of a (Chinese) Buddhist concept. That concept is recorded in a text known as The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (六祖壇經 Liu zu tan jing).
The “Sixth Patriarch” in this title refers to Huineng 惠能, one of the patriarchs of the Chan/Zen Buddhist tradition in China.
Huineng was from the area of what is now Guangdong Province, an area that was known to Chinese as “Lingnan” (嶺南 Lĩng Nam) meaning the area to the south of the Five Passes that today run along the northern border of Guangxi and Guangdong provinces. This area was perceived by Chinese in the past as a “barbarian” region.
At one point when Huineng was studying Buddhism, he went to meet the man who was then the Fifth Patriarch, Hongren 弘忍. According to The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, their conversation went as follows:
The Patriarch [meaning Hongren] asked: “Where are you from that you come to this mountain to make obeisance to me? Just what is it that you are looking for from me?”
Huineng responded: “I am from Lingnan, a commoner from Xinzhou. I have come this long distance only to make obeisance to you. I am seeking no particular thing, but only the Buddha-dharma.”
The Patriarch said: “If you’re from Lingnan then you are a barbarian. How can you become a Buddha?”
Huineng replied: “Although people from the south and people from the north differ, there is no north and south in Buddha nature. Although my barbarian’s body and your body are not the same, what difference is there in our Buddha nature?”
Although we today tend to think that the worlds of “Buddhists” and “Confucian scholars” in the past were separate, that was not the case. People preferred one tradition or the other, but Confucian scholars knew a lot about Buddhist ideas and Buddhists knew a lot about Confucian ideas.
It is clear to me that Nguyễn Trãi was playing with this Buddhist concept, and using it to make a case for a kind of “Confucian moral equivalence” between northern and southern peoples.
However, like Huineng, Nguyễn Trãi had to make this point to the Ming officials that he wrote his letter to in order to counter their belief that his status as a “southern person” made him unequal to them as “northern people.”
Why did he do this? Because he was trying to get the Ming officers who were occupying Bắc Giang citadel to surrender.
Nguyễn Trãi went on to note in this letter that “Therefore, everything that we do abides by the principle of righteousness, responds to Heaven and accords with the people.”
Thế cho nên, chúng ta đây, phàm làm việc gì cũng theo đúng lể nghĩa, theo trời, thuận người.]
He said this to try to convince the officers and soldiers in the citadel that they would not be harmed if they surrendered. As Nguyễn Trãi explained,
“If you are willing to come out of the citadel and make peace with us, we will look upon you as our brothers, as our own flesh and blood, so what need will there be to only ensure the lives of women and children?”
Các người nếu ra được khỏi thành, cùng ta hòa thân thì ta coi như anh em, ruột thịt, đâu phải chỉ riêng có lợi bảo toàn tinh mệnh vợ con thôi.]
In other words, Nguyễn Trãi’s argument here was that “although southern people and northern people are different, our land is nonetheless a domain of Poetry and Documents. Therefore, we are southern people who follow the proper Way (道 đạo) and you can trust us.”
I have always had a problem with the part of the opening passage of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” that says “Our kingdom of Đại Việt is truly a domain of civility. Just as its territorial areas are distinct, so are the customs of the South and North also different” because “civility” (文獻 văn hiến) and “customs” (phong tục 風俗) were two very different concepts to an educated scholar like Nguyễn Trãi.
Nguyễn Trãi took great pride in being someone who followed the way of “civility,” that is, in being someone who followed the cultural and ritual norms that one finds in works like the Classic of Poetry and the Classic of Documents. That is what was important to him, and in his writings he always made reference to norms and ideas from this world of “civility.”
“Customs,” however, were something more local and regional. Customs were not something that educated scholars like Nguyễn Trãi were interested in.
Today many Vietnamese read that line and take great pride in thinking that Nguyễn Trãi was declaring that “Vietnamese culture” was different from “Chinese culture.” Ok, but what exactly were the customs that he was referring to that explained this difference?
Nguyễn Trãi never explained, and no premodern Vietnamese scholar ever talked about this. Instead, scholar after scholar after scholar talked about “civility,” something that made their land similar to the North, rather than different from it.
In reading the letter that Nguyễn Trãi wrote to the Ming soldiers who were defending Bắc Giang citadel and the passage in the The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch that the opening lines in that letter are based on, I can now see a logic to this passage.
Identities are formed through interactions. People can only develop a sense that they are “people from place A” when they interact with “people from place B,” etc.
In the medieval period, the Việt came into brief contact with the Mongols and the Ming, but they had a more extended interaction with the Cham.
Why though is it that the “sense of national identity” that we see in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is expressed in relation to “China”?
It is because of language, writing and education. The educated elite in Đại Việt shared the classical Chinese language with their northern neighbors (“the Chinese”). And like the educated elite in “China,” they were educated to believe that ancient texts written in classical Chinese provided a guide for the ideal way to live, namely the way to live a life of “civility” (文獻 văn hiến).
At the same time, however, educated Vietnamese realized that over the centuries “Chinese” authors had written a great deal about the “customs” (phong tục 風俗) of the “barbarian” peoples who lived to the south of their world. This included things like tattooing, cutting hair short, going “naked,” etc.
During the time of the Ming occupation, the people of An Nam were often still referred to by “the Chinese” as “barbarians” (夷 di) or “savages” (蠻 man).
So in the face of all of this “literary evidence” or this “Chinese discourse” about “the south,” Nguyễn Trãi, like Huineng, could not deny that “customs” were different in “the south.”
However, also like Huineng, Nguyễn Trãi was more interested in a higher ideal. While Huineng was interested in “the Buddha nature” (佛性 Phật tính), Nguyễn Trãi was interested in “civility” (文獻 văn hiến).
What both of these men shared, is that they both sought to gain recognition for their ability to attain these ideals from the people (“the Chinese”) who believed that these men were incapable of attaining those ideas since they were “barbarians.”
This is why, I now think, the odd combination of both “civility” and “customs” is present in the opening passage of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo.”
While I don’t think that the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was addressed to “the Chinese,” I do think that the opening passage of that text, like any expression of identity, reflects the outcome of an interaction between different peoples.
And in this case, it is the outcome of an interaction between a Vietnamese scholar who felt that he lived in a world of “civility” and the ideas of “Chinese” (the people who defined the concept of “civility”) who felt that An Nam was a world of “barbarians.”