In the 1950s, students in America were taught that Thomas Jefferson was a great man because he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
Then in the 1960s, African-Americans fought for equal rights, there was a feminist movement, and an intellectual/academic movement known as post-modernism emerged.
Historians responded by looking for African-Americans and women in the American past, and by questioning written sources, rather than simply accepting as “truth” what was written in the past.
Today students in America are taught that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” but they are also taught that Jefferson owned slaves from Africa, and that women were not allowed to vote in America at that time. In other words, students are now taught to not accept what was written in the past as “the truth,” but instead are encouraged to understand the past in all of its complexity.
This does not mean that the statement “all men are created equal” is no longer important. It is. It is just that people are taught to not see that statement in simplistic terms, and by extension, they are taught to not see their society, country and the world in simplistic terms.
In looking into the early-fifteenth-century Ming occupation of Đại Việt over the past few days, and thinking about what I have read about this period in Vietnamese, it is obvious to me that historical scholarship in Vietnam today, and the general knowledge of the past of the Vietnamese public, is similar to what existed in America in the 1950s.
As someone who has benefited from all of the intellectual transformations that took place in America in the 1960s – 1990s (a period that Vietnamese scholars did not participate in), I have tried to show in the previous posts how this period can be examined in ways that bring out the complexity of the past.
This is what is missing from Vietnamese writings on this period. Vietnamese historians begin their examination of the past with certain ideas already set in their minds. 1) The conflict in the early fifteenth century was between “the Vietnamese” and “the Chinese,” and 2) “the Vietnamese” had a clear sense of their national identity, and this can be seen clearly in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo.”
I have a very different view of this period. I see the early fifteenth century in Đại Việt as an utterly horrible period in which all of the worst human traits – greed for power, deceit, betrayal, treachery, disregard for common people, etc. – all came to the fore. What is more, these negative human traits were not displayed by the Chinese alone, but by Vietnamese as well.
Lê Lợi was a power-hungry general who had massive amounts of innocent blood on his hands when he gained control of Đại Việt. He betrayed the Trần and thought nothing of killing innocent civilians who happened to be in Ming-controlled citadels.
The Ming officers who were stationed in Đại Việt were also definitely not angels. They forced common people to work for them, and those common people ended up dying when Lê Lợi’s forces captured their citadels.
At the same time, it is also obvious that this was not a clear-cut conflict between Lê Lợi and the Ming as there were many Vietnamese who collaborated with the Ming, and some Chinese who collaborated with Lê Lợi.
What is more, all of these people lied to each other and betrayed each other.
It is in this context that the “Great Pronouncement” (đại cáo) was issued.
Yes, Nguyễn Trãi declared in that document that Đại Việt was a domain of civility, but its new leader had come to power in a very uncivil manner, by killing innocent civilians and soldiers who had surrendered.
Yes, Nguyễn Trãi declared that the territories of the South and the North were different, but he had earlier used this point, unsuccessfully, to try to convince a Vietnamese collaborator to stop supporting the Ming effort to make Đại Việt a province of the Ming empire.
And yes, Nguyễn Trãi declared that the customs in the South were different from those in the North, but like Huineng’s interaction with the Fifth Patriarch, that was more like an acceptance of the “Chinese” view that the people in An Nam were “barbarians” than of a proud sense of difference.
Does all of this mean that Nguyễn Trãi’s “Great Pronouncement” was not important? No, it was very, very important.
When viewed from the perspective of East Asian political history, it is a masterpiece. Just as the Zhou Dynasty “Great Pronouncement” was an innovative document that used the (at that time new) idea of the mandate of Heaven to justify the rule of a new dynasty, so did Nguyễn Trãi’s (at that time new) claim of the South’s rightful existence as a separate kingdom justify Lê Lợi’s rule (and perhaps his elimination of Trần Cảo), as Lê Lợi was the only one who sought to maintain the South’s separate existence, or so the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” claimed.
I realize that people will say that this idea of the South’s separate existence was already present from an earlier time (Nam quốc sơn hà), but I find that hard to believe. If it did exist, it obviously didn’t prevent educated Vietnamese from collaborating with the Ming.
Instead, what I’ve come to see over the past week is that rather than it being the case that there was “a sense of Vietnamese national identity” that existed PRIOR to the Ming occupation that Nguyễn Trãi appealed to in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” I would now argue that a sense of identity started to be created DURING the Ming occupation as Nguyễn Trãi struggled with Ming officials and Vietnamese collaborators to gain recognition for the existence of a separate kingdom in the South.
Ultimately that makes perfect sense, as identities are created through interaction.
I’m going to stop this series here. There are some issues that I didn’t get to, but I’ve already spent a week of my life on this series so it’s time to move on. (I think the Ngô in the Dư địa chí refers to Ming soldiers who stayed behind, and the later reference in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư about people with Ngô fathers likewise refers to people whose fathers were Ming soldiers who stayed behind. However the positive comments about the Ming in the Dư địa chí by Lý Tử Tấn support my idea that the term “Ngô” was something more specific than “the Ming” or “the Chinese.” Again, I think Nguyễn Trãi used that term to refer to Ming Dynasty policy at a certain time as “false” [ngụy], but then perhaps the troops that stayed in the Red River delta continued to be called by that term. However, Lý Tử Tấn obviously didn’t see the Ming in that way.)
Again, I really want to thank the readers who pushed me to take a closer look at this time period. There is much, much more than can be done here, but I think the posts that I have made point in a much more accurate and productive direction than the dominant narrative of a conflict between “the Vietnamese” and “the Chinese” and of “a sense of Vietnamese national identity” that has existed since time immemorial.
Finally, I have to admit that I think the dominant Vietnamese narrative does a great disservice to the past. By painting the past in black and white, of course it eliminates anything “bad” about the Vietnamese (which helps make people feel good about themselves), but it also fails to acknowledge how totally brilliant and innovative Nguyễn Trãi was.
In the end, I can’t find much to like about Lê Lợi, but Nguyễn Trãi was a genius.