A friend recently scanned and sent me some pages from a new book by Vietnamese author Tạ Đức on bronze drums in Vietnam called The Origin and Development of the Đông Sơn Bronze Drums (Nguồn gốc và sự phát triển của trống đồng Đông Sơn).

This friend sent those pages to me because some of the ideas that I have posted about bronze drums on this blog are criticized in this book. In particular, I have argued that the cultural world of the people who used bronze drums for rituals and as symbols of power in the Red River delta in the first millennium BC is different from the cultural world of the people whom we today refer to as the Vietnamese (see, for instance, here, here and here).

The people we today refer to today as the Vietnamese created a culture (starting in the first millennium AD, and continuing through the centuries after that) through interactions with the people who lived to their north (the “Chinese”), and as they did so, they rejected the indigenous bronze drum cultural world.

This is a process that Catherine Churchman has clearly documented in a recent work on the Li and Lao peoples who inhabited the mountainous region between the Red and Pearl River deltas (The People between the Rivers: The Rise and Fall of a Bronze Drum Culture, 200–750 CE). In that work, Churchman clearly demonstrates how the Li and Lao gradually “Sinicized” their cultural and political lives, and in the course of this transformation, bronze drums ceased to be important to their world.

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Tạ Đức wants to argue that bronze drums continued to be important for the Vietnamese. Let’s look at one of his arguments – his argument that bronze drums were still important during the Đinh period (968-980), that is, the earliest period of Vietnamese autonomy after a thousand years of being part of various Chinese empires.

Tạ Đức notes that in the 1934 issue of the Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient there is a report about a bronze drum that was found in the village of Thượng Lâm (in what was then Hà Đông province). The people from the École Française wanted to place this bronze drum in a museum.

However, the village authorities refused to do this because they said that according to a prayer (bài khấn) that was ordered composed in 1509 by Emperor Lê Tương Dục, this bronze drum had been obtained by Emperor Đinh Tiên Hoàng in the tenth century while he was putting down 12 contenders for power at that time (12 sứ quân), and that he then gave this bronze drum to the village of Thượng Lâm to use while worshiping two spirits, Cao Sơn and Quí Minh.

The village authorities showed the people from the École Française this document, but the people from the École Française believed it to be fake, as its contents were exactly the same as the contents of a 1772 stone inscription from a nearby temple in Kim Liên (in what was then also Hà Đông province) dedicated to the spirit of Cao Sơn, the only difference being that the text in Thượng Lâm contained a passage about Đinh Tiên Hoàng and a bronze drum (which the scholars from the École Française suspected the village authorities in Thượng Lâm had added after the bronze drum had been found).

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While the French scholars doubted the authenticity of this document, Tạ Đức thinks it is legitimate, and as proof of this he states that there are many places in northern Vietnam that worship Cao Sơn and that the texts about Cao Sơn at various temples are similar in that they were all written by Nguyễn Bính, a Lê Dynasty official.

(Theo tôi, các học giả Pháp đã nghi ngờ vô lý bởi ơ Bắc Bộ, rất nhiều làng cùng thờ cúng thần Cao Sơn, các thần tích về thần giống nhau vì chúng có cùng một tác giá là Nguyễn Bính – một quan văn thời Lê.)

It is true that (by the nineteenth century, an important detail that Tạ Đức does not mention) there were various temples in northern Vietnam that worshiped Cao Sơn, but it’s not clear to me how that supports his argument that bronze drums were important during the tenth century.

And as for Nguyễn Bính, he lived in the second half of the sixteenth century. If he is the one who wrote about the bronze drum that Đinh Tiên Hoàng supposedly obtained in the tenth century, how did he get that information?

After all, the 1772 inscription in Kim Liên that did not contain information about bronze drums was supposedly an inscription of a document that the Lê official, Lê Tung, composed in 1510, many decades before Nguyễn Bính wrote hagiographies of spirits. Lê Tung didn’t say anything about bronze drums. So how is it that Nguyễn Bính, a scholar who lived later, was able to learn about events that Lê Tung did not know about, and that occurred close to 600 years before his time?

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In writing about the report in the Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient, there is an important detail that Tạ Đức doesn’t mention. That report makes the following comment about the bronze drum that was found in Thượng Lâm in the 1930s: “Shortly after its discovery, this drum was indeed placed in the communal hall of the village. . .”  (Peu après sa découverte, ce tambour a été en effet placé dans le đình du village. . .).

So if this drum was placed in the communal hall AFTER it was “discovered,” where was it BEFORE it was “discovered”? If, as Tạ Đức argues, this bronze drum had been given to Thượng Lâm village by Đinh Tiên Hoàng in the tenth century for use in worshiping the two spirits, Cao Sơn and Quí Minh, shouldn’t it have been in the temple for those spirits already?

And shouldn’t there be some record from the more than 1,000 years between the tenth century and the 1930s that there was a bronze drum in this temple?

From the report in the Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient, it looks like this drum was found in the village (not in a temple), and then moved to the communal hall. So there is no evidence in this report to suggest that this bronze drum had anything to do with the worshiping of the spirits of Cao Sơn and Quí Minh, other than the fact that village authorities produced a document that contained 1) the text of an inscription from a nearby temple and 2) a passage about Đinh Tiên Hoàng obtaining a bronze drum in the tenth century and giving it to this village (a passage which French scholars at that time believed to be fake).

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Tạ Đức goes on to argue that there is no reason to think that bronze drums were not used in Vietnam in the tenth century. As evidence of this he notes that Chinese sources from that time period note that there were people in the south of their empire called the “Lão” who had bronze drums, and Tạ Đức says that the Lão were the same as the Việt.

That is COMPLETELY FALSE. Chinese documents (and Vietnamese documents like the An Nam chí lược) make it EXTREMELY CLEAR that the Lão were not the same as the Việt, and that no one (neither Chinese nor Vietnamese) saw the Lão as the same as the Việt.

This is a topic that I’ve written about in the posts linked to above.

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So there are problems with Tạ Đức’s logic and evidence, but the issue of the relationship between the spirit, Cao Sơn, and bronze drums is very interesting. And in investigating it, I’ve come to realize that it completely supports the view of Vietnamese history that I have been writing about for years.

Tạ Đức is looking at the past through a nationalist lens. What this means is that he thinks that the nation and its culture have always existed in a recognizable form, and he is looking for evidence of the nation and of an unchanging national culture in the past.
I try to look at the past from an historical perspective, which means that I try to document change over time, because every society changes (dramatically) over time.
And the information about the spirit, Cao Sơn, clearly demonstrates how Vietnamese society has changed over time.

 

And the information about the spirit, Cao Sơn, clearly demonstrates how Vietnamese society has CHANGED over time.

1772

The 1772 inscription about Cao Sơn, which is attributed to a 1510 text by Lê Tung, says that the Lê emperor sent some officials to the south to put down unrest in 1509 (in an area near what later became Ninh Bình province).

At a village called Phụng Hóa, these men came across a temple that had a stone inside that was called the “High Mountain Great King” (Cao Sơn Đại Vương 高山大王). “Cao Sơn Đại Vương” is a 100% Sinitic title. The fact that this spirit was called by this name shows that a member of the Sinicized elite must have named this spirit.

However, the fact that the spirit was represented by a stone also suggests that there may have been an earlier, animist, cult at this sight.

This is something that occurred countless times in East Asia in the past. Local people would have a cult for a nature spirit, and then a member of the (Sinicized) elite would come along and “transform” the spirit into one that served the interests of the elite. The reason why they did this was to try to bring people under the authority of the government by getting them to believe in, and obey, spirits that the government approved of.

That said, in the early sixteenth century the Lê emperor went a step further. After his officials successfully put down the unrest in the Ninh Bình area, the emperor ordered that a temple for Cao Sơn Đại Vương be erected in Kim Liên, near the capital, so that this powerful spirit who had aided his officials in suppressing a rebellion could continue to be honored.

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Moving ahead in time to the nineteenth century, texts like the Unified Gazetteer of Đại Nam (Đại Nam nhất thống chí) claimed that the spirits worshiped in the two Cao Sơn temples (in Phụng Hóa and Kim Liên) were actually children of the mythical figure, Lạc Long Quân. What is more, there were now other temples that also claimed to be dedicated to Cao Sơn, and where this spirit was identified as a son of Lạc Long Quân: one in Thượng Lâm (where the bronze drum was later found in the 1930s), and one in Sơn Tây (in the temple for the spirit of Mount Tản Viên).

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What was going on here? I think it’s obvious.

In 1509 some Lê officials came across a temple in Ninh Bình that contained a nature spirit that had been “Sinicized” by some member of the local elite as the Cao Sơn Đại Vương (High Mountain Great King).

This was not long after the first account (the Lĩnh Nam Chích Quái – 1492) of the mythical figure, Lạc Long Quân, appeared. So it makes sense that this spirit at that time had nothing to do with Lạc Long Quân.

However, in the centuries that followed, knowledge about this mythical figure spread, and eventually stories emerged that linked Cao Sơn to Lạc Long Quân (or more specifically, to his sons).

That said, it would appear that those connections emerged after the inscription about Cao Sơn was made in Kim Liên in 1772, because if people believed at that time that Cao Sơn was a son of Lạc Long Quân, you would think that they would have made an inscription that mentioned that, rather than to simply reproduce a record from 1510 that did not mention anything about Lạc Long Quân.

The 1772 inscription also doesn’t say anything about bronze drums. This is because bronze drums had nothing to do with this religious cult at this time (or at any time before). Instead, it is only in the 1930s, when a bronze drum was found in Thượng Lâm – a village that had a temple dedicated to Cao Sơn, and which like the nearby Kim Liên temple, was now saying that this spirit was a son of Lạc Long Quân – that bronze drums became connected to this spirit.

But that connection only occurred because Europeans in the early twentieth century started to discover bronze drums in the region and draw people’s attention to these artifacts from the past.

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Again, Tạ Đức wants to see continuity across time. He wants to imagine that there has been a single Vietnamese nation and a single Vietnamese culture that has endured through time.

However, the only way one can make this argument is by distorting historical evidence, because no society persists through time without undergoing massive changes, and the historical record documents those changes.

If, on the other hand, we look at historical evidence in its historical context, we can see those changes.

At some point in the distant past there was a nature spirit in the area of Ninh Bình. At some point before 1500, a member of the Sinicized elite transformed that spirit into Cao Sơn Đại Vương. Then in 1510 that spirit was brought from Ninh Bình to the capital. At some point after that (probably in the nineteenth century), ideas that first emerged in the fifteenth century about a mythical figure by the name of Lạc Long Quân came to be associated with this spirit. And in the 1930s, as the French were discovering evidence of the distant past through archaeology, a bronze drum came to be associated with this spirit at one of the temples dedicated to Cao Sơn.

From animism (the stone), to Sinicization (calling the stone “Cao Sơn Đại Vương”), to the creation of a local identity based on Sinitic concepts (the story of Kinh Dương Vương, Lạc Long Quân, etc. with all of its connections to Tang Dynasty era texts – see my article on this), to the embrace of modern nationalism with its claim that “nations” and their unique cultures endure through the centuries (the “discovery” of bronze drums as “Việt” culture). . . all of this can be seen in this story about the spirit Cao Sơn.

When one looks at the past through a nationalist lens, as Tạ Đức does, then one can’t see these changes, as everything that one sees must be interpreted as a sign of the continued existence of the nation and of an unchanging national culture.

When, however, one looks at the past from an historical perspective, all of these changes become obvious, and they are fascinating to see and think about.

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