In 1976, Edward Schafer published a book about “the South” in the medieval Chinese imagination called The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South. Filled with fascinating details about everything from plants to people, Schafer’s book demonstrated how vast and rich the information in Chinese sources is for the region of what is now Guangdong and Guangxi provinces, as well as northern and parts of central Vietnam, in the first millennium CE.
At the same time, however, in focusing on how Chinese “thought” about the south, The Vermilion Bird is not an ideal work to read in order to gain a sense of “what actually happened” in that region during that time period. This is a gap that Keith Taylor’s 1983 work, The Birth of Vietnam, partially filled as it provided a very detailed narrative of the history of the Red River Plain, part of the larger region that is examined in The Vermilion Bird, from the earliest times up through the period of Tang Dynasty rule.
Another important contribution toward establishing a picture of the early history of this region came in 1997 when Charles Holcombe published an article entitled “Early Imperial China’s Deep South: The Viet Regions through Tang Times” (Tang Studies 15-16, [1997-8]: 125-157).
What Holcombe essentially argued in this article was that in the first millennium CE Hanoi and Guangzhou were like two Sinicized islands that were more like each other than the surrounding areas. Holcombe also argued that over the course of this period trade became more centralized at Guangzhou and that this led the Red River Plain to become more peripheral to the Chinese world by the time of the Tang.
As helpful as these three works are for learning about various aspects of the early history of the area that stretches from what is today central Vietnam to Guandong Province in China, to really gain a solid understanding of the history of this region would require a bold work of synthesis that would place Taylor’s detailed study of the Red River Plain in the larger context of an equally detailed understanding of the history of the areas of Guandong and Guangxi provinces at the same time, and that would examine the region between Hanoi and Guangzhou that Holcombe did not discuss, and that would discover how the many products from the natural world that Schafer wrote about tie into the historical developments of the region.
Fortunately for all of us who are interested in the early history of that region, such a synthesis has just been completed. It is Catherine Churchman’s The People between the Rivers: The Rise and Fall of a Bronze Drum Culture, 200–750 CE (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
Churchman’s monograph focuses on the mountainous lands between the Red and Pearl River deltas in the period from roughly the end of the Han Dynasty up to the period of Tang Dynasty rule.
The people who lived in this region were known to Chinese authors as “Li” and “Lao” peoples, or more generally as “savages” or “barbarians.” Indeed, they were distinct in some ways from their counterparts in the Yellow River valley, and there is no better sign of this than the (Heger II style) bronze drums that they produced from around the second or third century CE until around the eighth century CE when their separate polities ultimately came to be incorporated into the Tang Dynasty realm.
Churchman documents the history of the rise and fall of Li and Lao polities during this period, and in the process, she also ultimately rewrites the history of the larger region, particularly as it has been represented by modern Vietnamese historians.
So what is this history? To grossly simplify Churchman’s richly documented and detailed study, it is as follows:
The Qin and Han Dynasties expanded their authority southward to the Pearl and Red River Plains. In the process, they largely bypassed the mountainous region in between, and after the Han Dynasty collapsed, there was no dynasty that was strong enough to take direct control of that region until the time of the Tang Dynasty.
This does not mean, however, that the land between the rivers remained isolated. Instead, what Churchman demonstrates is that there were polities in that region that became increasingly powerful over that same time period through their interactions with various Chinese states. In particular, in accepting nominal titles from Chinese dynasties, local rulers gained trade privileges that then provided them with the wealth and resources to expand their domains.
While this region did ultimately end up being incorporated into the Chinese empire, through conquest and gradual political expansion, Churchman’s main focus is to examine a very different development that occurred prior to that – the rise and expansion of Li 俚 and Lao 獠 polities.
While that is the gist of the overarching historical narrative that Churchman presents, there are many other issues that she covers that enrich our understanding of the history of not only the land between the two rivers but also the Pearl and Red River Plains themselves.
First and foremost, she does a wonderful job of explaining how we should understand terms like “Li” and “Lao.” While many scholars have viewed such names as designating ethnic or linguistic groups, Churchman demonstrates that they are more like markers on a continuum of political recognition. (Erica Fox Brindley’s recent book on the Yue similarly problematizes the term “yue” 越.)
To simplify Churchman’s more complex discussion, people who were completely outside of the world of Chinese administration were “Lao,” people who participated fully within the world of Chinese administration were “people” 人 (Chn., ren; Viet., nhân), and local chiefs who accepted titles from Chinese administrators were “Li.”
Again, this is a simplification of Churchman’s discussion of this issue, but the important point is that the divide between “Li” and “ren/ nhân/people” was ambiguous as local peoples who participated in Chinese administrations inhabited an ambiguous space, and as evidence of this Churchman presents several illuminating examples of how the same individual could be referred to in different sources in different ways, from “Li” to “barbarian chief” to “person” to the title that the local Chinese administrator had given him.
Adding to this ambiguity is the fact that the style of rule of Chinese administrators in the south also changed over time. In particular, following the Han Dynasty period many Chinese administrators essentially became hereditary local lords, as many of the various Chinese states between the Han and Tang either did not have the resources or were too short-lived to dispatch officials to the region, and as a result, chose simply to approve of the continued service of the men who were already there.
As such, on one level there was not all that much difference between hereditary Chinese governors in the south and the hereditary Li chiefs who ruled over mountainous regions on their behalf. On another level though, the fact that those Li chiefs continued to produce bronze drums as a sign of their political power and legitimacy was a sign that some differences did indeed exist.
This trend towards the rule of hereditary officials was eventually put to an end in the Pearl River delta as Chinese states, such as the Liang dynasty (502–587), sent their own officials or members of the royal family to take up positions there. However, it continued in the Red River Plain.
While the history of the Red River Plain is not the focus of Churchman’s monograph, she does bring up numerous points about the history of that region, and taken together these points represent a full challenge to the narrative of that region that was produced by Vietnamese historians in the twentieth century and which was presented in English in Keith Taylor’s 1983 work The Birth of Vietnam.
That narrative is that there was a distinct society, culture and language in the Red River Plain before the Qin and Han extended their empires into that region, and that for 1,000 years, the inheritors of that society, culture and language resisted Chinese rule and eventually became “independent” again.
Taylor’s more recent A History of the Vietnamese offers a very different understanding of this period by arguing that the people whom we today refer to as “the Vietnamese” are in countless ways a product of 1,000 years of incorporation in Chinese empires. Churchman doesn’t address this issue of cultural and social change in the Red River Plain, but by discussing that region alongside the Pearl River Delta and the lands between the Red and Pearl rivers she makes it obvious that the Red River Plain did not fit the characterization of a “rebellious” region.
In fact, Churchman demonstrates clearly that the narrative of maintaining cultural distinctness and resisting incorporation into the Chinese empire is a much more appropriate narrative for the lands between the rivers than it is for the Red River Plain.
Whatever cultural and social distinctness existed in the Red River Plain came to a rather abrupt end as Đông Sơn bronze drums ceased to be produced and as that region became comparatively peaceful following Ma Yuan’s crushing of the Trưng Sisters’ rebellion in the first century CE.
By contrast, for the next few centuries a bronze drum cultural world continued to exist in the mountains to the north of the Red River Plain, and the Li and Lao peoples proved to be much more rebellious than their counterparts to the south.
Finally, Churchman makes it clear that by the time of the Tang Dynasty the Red River Plain had become increasingly distant from, and peripheral to, the concerns of Chinese courts. Advances in shipbuilding had made it possible for ships to sail across the open sea directly to Guangzhou instead of following the coast and stopping in the Tonkin Gulf as they had done during the time of the Han Dynasty.
Also, with no serious effort to replace hereditary Chinese officials, unlike what happened in the Pearl River Delta, the “independence” of the region in the tenth century can be more accurately seen as more the result of imperial neglect than of the manifestation of a popular will.
While I find this characterization of the period of Chinese rule of the Red River Plain to be accurate, and while Churchman’s detailed examination of the rise and fall of bronze drum kingdoms in the lands between the rivers is clear and convincing, we are left with one obvious and essential question: what happened to the earlier bronze drum kingdom(s) of the Red River Plain?
The recent book by Nam Kim on the ancient citadel of Cổ Loa (The Origins of Ancient Vietnam, Oxford University Press, 2015) makes it clear that there was a powerful kingdom in the Red River Plain in the first millennium BCE. Churchman shared with me in an email correspondence that she thinks that it may have been easier to control such a large state in a river plain after eliminating or subjugating its rulers than it was to try to conquer numerous mountain polities.
Indeed, this is a central aspect of Churchman’s argument for the bronze drum kingdoms in the lands between the rivers – as kingdoms became larger and more connected to Chinese empires, they ultimately became easier to subjugate and fully incorporate once a Chinese empire had the military resources to do so.
This then reminded me of a famous passage in Li Daoyuan’s sixth-century Annotated Classic of Waterways (水經注, Shuijing zhu) in which he cites an earlier text called the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region (交州外域記, Jiaozhou waiyu ji) for information about the Red River Plain.
This is what the passage says:
“The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region states that ‘In the past, before Jiaozhi had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters. The people who opened these fields for cultivation were called lạc people. Lạc princes and lạc marquises were appointed to control the various commanderies and districts. Many of the districts had lạc generals. The lạc generals had bronze seals on green ribbons.’”
I have long struggled to understand this passage because it purports to describe the region before it had “commanderies and districts,” which is shorthand for saying “before it was under ‘Chinese’ rule,” and then it goes on to talk about people controlling districts and having the accoutrements of “Chinese” rule – bronze seals on green ribbons.
If this was really a time before the Qin and Han Dynasties sought to control the region, then shouldn’t the local rulers have had bronze drums?
While Churchman does not discuss this passage in her book, in discussing the bronze drum kingdoms between the two rivers she points out that one of the forms of Chinese indirect rule in the region was to establish what she calls “left-hand districts” (zuoxian 左縣), or what one could probably also call “subsidiary districts.”
These were districts that were under the control of local (Li/Lao) rulers, but were nominally recognized by the Chinese administrator of an officially established district nearby.
And how did that Chinese ruler indicate that he was recognizing a local person as the ruler of a left-hand district? By granting him a bronze seal on a green ribbon (or more generally, a seal and a sash).
In other words, this earliest passage that we have about the Red River Plain looks to be not about a time before that region came under Chinese control, but before it became under “complete” or “direct” Chinese control.
As Churchman explains in her book, during the second half of the Han Dynasty period such efforts were made by Chinese administrators, and the Trưng Sisters’ rebellion, she argues, may have been a reaction to efforts on the part of Chinese administrators to transform indirect rule into direct rule.
That rebellion was of course put down, and from that point onward there is essentially no more evidence of the world of bronze drum kingdoms or chiefs or bronze drum culture in the Red River Plain. Instead, it’s in the lands between the Red and Pearl Rivers that this world continued and evolved, as Churchman so ably demonstrates.
In conclusion, I could write much more about this book as well as about the ideas that it inspires, suffice it to say that our understanding of the early history of the area stretching from what is today central Vietnam to the provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong in China has just taken a massive step forward thanks to the work of Catherine Churchman.
The People between the Rivers: The Rise and Fall of a Bronze Drum Culture, 200–750 CE is a masterpiece of synthesis and insight that provides a lucid overarching framework for several centuries of regional history as well as nuanced discussions of countless ground-level issues, from problematizing the concepts of “Sinicizaton” and “ethnicity” to mapping out trade patterns between the Red River Plain and southern China. It is indeed a masterpiece.