The term “Ngô” is one which scholars have long debated about. As we saw earlier, Ưng Quả explained the term “Ngô” as a general name for the Chinese, and said that in the context of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” that it referred to the Ming.
This is what most people today think, but this is difficult to justify as the term appears extremely rarely in Vietnamese sources, and most of the times that it does it is in the writings of Nguyễn Trãi.
As for where such a term might have come from, there have been various theories that attempt to connect the term with the Ming Dynasty founder or with Hồ Quý Ly, the man who overthrew the Trần, which is what led the Ming to send an army to the region.
I won’t repeat those theories here. Anyone interested can find them discussed in Stephen O’Harrow’s 1979 article, which is available on Academia.edu.
The problem, again, is that the term appears so rarely in pre-twentieth century sources that it is difficult to gain a sense of what it meant. One thing that is clear is that “Ngô” was definitely a derogatory term, and that might partly explain why it doesn’t appear that often in texts, as authors who wrote about events after the fact might have chosen to use more neutral terms.
That said, in the letters that Nguyễn Trãi wrote during the time of the Ming occupation, letters which the previous post demonstrated could be very forceful, the term also rarely appears. So far I’ve only found it in two letters, one that was addressed to the Ming military officer, Wang Tong, and one that was written to the aboriginal soldiers that we looked at earlier.
I am going to talk about the letter written to Wang Tong here, but the argument that I will make is also applicable to the letter to the aboriginal soldiers.
Nguyễn Trãi exchanged numerous letters with Wang Tong. Wang Tong was based at Hanoi, and that citadel was the last to fall to Lê Lợi’s forces, and it did so because Wang Tong surrendered.
What is more, it is through Wang Tong that the request was sent to the Ming capital to invest Trần Cảo as the King of An Nam, and Nguyễn Trãi was very grateful to Wang Tong for assisting with that.
As such, in some of the letters that Nguyễn Trãi wrote to Wang Tong, Nguyễn Trãi was extremely polite, referring to Wang Tong as “your honor” (大人 đại nhân).
During the fighting, Nguyễn Trãi was also respectful to Wang Tong, and referred to him in most of his letters as “sir” (卿 khanh).
Then there at least a couple of letters in which Nguyễn Trãi referred to Wang Tong by the disrespectful term “you” (爾 nhĩ).
In reading these different terms of address and the letters that they appeared in, a clear pattern emerges.
In the middle of the war when the Ming agreed to recognize a descendant of the Trần Dynasty, Nguyễn Trãi was very happy and wrote letters to Wang Tong in which he used the term “your honor” (大人 đại nhân).
The Ming did not keep their promise to recognize a Trần descendant and the war resumed. In the letters that followed, Nguyễn Trãi referred to Wang Tong as “sir” (卿 khanh).
In many of the letters that Nguyễn Trãi wrote to “sir” Wang Tong, he argued about issues of righteousness. However, as more and more citadels were captured by Lê Lọi’s forces and Wang Tong’s position weakened, Nguyễn Trãi turned to sending “sir” Wang Tong “instructions” (諭 dụ) to surrender.
In these instructions, Nguyễn Trãi pointed out why Wang Tong could not prevail. In particular, Nguyễn Trãi pointed to all of the problems he was facing in the Red River Delta, and then pointed out that the dynasty was facing even bigger problems in other parts of the empire. The point of this information was therefore to convince Wang Tong that he was bound to lose.
However, Wang Tong still did not surrender.
So Nguyễn Trãi got even more forceful and started to refer to Wang Tong as “you” and also referred to “your kingdom” (爾國 nhĩ quốc) and “your court” (爾朝廷 nhĩ triều đình) and stated that “your monarchs keep dying year after year” (爾國主連年死喪 nhĩ quốc chủ liên niên tử táng), a reference to the fact that the Yongle emperor had died in 1424 and the Hongxi emperor had died a year later in 1425.
This was all extremely insulting language and is a sign to me that Nguyễn Trãi was getting very frustrated that Wang Tong was not surrendering.
Before he reached this level of frustration, however, in one of his “instructions” to “sir” Wang Tong, Nguyễn Trãi used the term “Ngô.”
He pointed out that in the past the Qin Dynasty had tried to annex other kingdoms but had ultimately failed and that at present Ngô was nowhere near as strong as Qin had been, and therefore it was destined to fail in its effort to annex An Nam. [今吳之強不及秦 Nước Ngô ngày nay, mạnh thì không bằng Tần]
He also said that the August Trần descendant had received the mandate of Heaven, that the people followed him, and that this was not something that the Ngô kingdom could steal. [非吳國所能奪也 thì nước Ngô muốn đoạt sao được]
Finally, Nguyễn Trãi argued that the southern people in his citadel who longed for their old ruler and the Ngô people who were suffering hardship would end up harming “sir” Wang Tong. [但恐城中男人之懷舊主，及吳人之不勝困苦，其害卿等 Chỉ e trong thành, các người nam thì nhớ chủ cũ, các người Ngô, thì không chịu đựng được khốn khổ, rồi hại khanh]
The use of the term “Ngô” here is not a general term for “Chinese,” nor is it a general term for the Ming. Instead it seems to have a moral connotation to it. It’s something more like “the false Ming” (ngụy Minh).
However, it would have been totally disrespectful of Nguyễn Trãi to literally call the Ming “false” (ngụy), so perhaps the term “Ngô” had more or less the same connotation, but was less direct, and therefore possible to say. (Think of the medieval European context. How would someone curse a bad pope without cursing the institution of the pope, and without having God punish you for cursing the pope? I think it’s something like that.)
The reason why I think this way is because in this letter Nguyễn Trãi seems to be trying to break Wang Tong away from the Ming. He doesn’t insult or criticize Wang Tong, but instead, he tries to show Wang Tong that he is alone, and that the Ngô kingdom and the Ngô people are not going to stand by him.
Why? Because what they are doing is illegitimate. It is “false” (ngụy). And therefore, Wang Tong should distance himself from the Ngô. It is as if Nguyễn Trãi was saying “Don’t keep supporting those jerks. They are not going to stand by you. They are losers. Surrender and save yourself.”
When, however, Wang Tong didn’t surrender, then Nguyễn Trãi implicated him directly with the Ming and their illegitimate actions by labelling both him and them disrespectfully as “you”: you, your court, your kingdom, your monarchs keep dying year after year, etc.
In the end, Wang Tong did surrender, and in fact he surrendered before the Ming court gave the order to do so. Is that because he decided to distance himself from the Ngô?
There is no way to know for sure. One thing that is clear, however, is that after Wang Tong did surrender, Nguyễn Trãi went back to referring to him as “your honor” (大人 đại nhân).
Finally, what I’ve written here can only be understood by reading the sources in their original language – classical Chinese. The people who have translated these texts into modern Vietnamese have done a bad job of rendering the terms that enable us to see the different levels of politeness that Nguyễn Trãi employed.
When referring to Wang Tong as “sir,” Nguyễn Trãi used the expression 卿等 (khanh đẳng) which literally means “sir and others,” that is, “sir Wang Tong and the people under his authority.”
I have seen that translated as “lũ ngươi,” meaning something like “you bunch,” which is disrespectful, whereas 卿等 (khanh đẳng) is respectful.
Meanwhile the term for “you” can likewise be written as 爾等 (nhĩ đẳng), meaning “you and others (under your authority).” I have seen that translated as “các ông,” meaning something like “you respected elders.” 爾等 (nhĩ đẳng) has the opposite meaning of this. It is used to refer to someone inferior, like a child, and is derogatory when used to refer to an equal or a superior.
As such, what I have written in this post cannot be understood by consulting modern Vietnamese translations of Nguyễn Trãi’s writings.
Or to express this point more broadly: one cannot understand the Vietnamese past if one can’t read historical sources in their original language.