Who Were the Yue?

In her Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BC-50 CE, historian Erica Brindley opens the book with a chapter entitled “Who were the Yue”?

That may seem like an easy question to answer given that starting from the final centuries of the first millennium BCE one can find many references in Chinese sources to “Yue” 越/粵 peoples who lived to their south, peoples who were sometimes also collectively referred to as the “Bai-yue” 百越/百粵 or “Hundred Yue.” So surely it must be possible to go through those sources and get a sense of who those people were and to piece together some of their history.

In actuality, however, that is not the case, and in this chapter Brindley clearly documents how little we can actually determine with certainty about the Yue from early Chinese texts.

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Sargon and Hùng: Heroes of the Ancient World!!

I was amazed to find the other day on the French National Library’s web site that in 1892 a Frenchman by the name of Abel des Michels published a French translation (with notes) of a work that I recently translated into English, The Prefatory Compilation (Tiền biên) of the Imperially Commissioned Itemized Summaries of the Comprehensive Mirror of Việt History (Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục).

I had never heard of this person. So this is fascinating to see.


But there is something else that I found in this book that is even more interesting.

As is well known, Vietnamese histories trace the beginning of an imperial tradition in the Red River Delta to the southward spread of descendents of the (mythical) ancient “Chinese” ruler, Shen Nong.

The Imperially Commissioned Itemized Summaries of the Comprehensive Mirror of Việt History, for instance, records that, “Originally, Di Ming/Đế Minh, a third generation descendent in the clan of the Fiery Emperor Shen Nong/Thần Nông toured the south to the Five Passes, and took as his consort the Vụ Tiên maiden. She gave birth to a son, Lộc Tục, who had sagely virtue. . .”

The story then continues up to the establishment of a line of kings in the Red River Delta known as the Hùng kings.

note 1

note 2






In his first footnote, Abel des Michels notes that there were a couple of scholars at that time – Terrien de Lacouperie and William St. Chad Boscawen – who argued that “Shen Nong” was the same as “Sargon,” also known as “Sargon of Akkad,” one of the most famous rulers of ancient Babylon in the area in the Middle East that we refer to in antiquity as Mesopotamia.

Abel des Michels wasn’t sure if these scholars correct, but he noted that if they were correct, then it would be interesting to note that there was a connection between the Hùng kings and ancient Mesopotamia.


While today we might laugh at ideas like this as crazy, I think we should capitalize on them and make a Hollywood movie about this. Let’s tie together Mesopotamia and the Hùng kings. We’ll create a movie where Sargon of Akkad travels to China and becomes Shen Nong, and then his descendents establish the reign of the Hùng kings in the Red River Delta.


The first thing we will need is a handsome man. My idea would be to have the same actor play Sargon/Shen Nong and the first Hùng King, so that the connection will be obvious.

I would prefer someone like Kaneshiro Takeshi, but we might need someone with a more muscular body.


Then there are the women. In the ancient Mesopotamian work, the Epic of Gilgamesh, which takes place before the time of Sargon of Akkad, a character by the name of Enkidu is “tamed” by a temple prostitute. This has been interpreted as symbolizing the transition from a life in nature to a life in “civilization.”


In contrast, in the Vietnamese annals a descendent of Shen Nong marries a kind of “serpent/dragon woman” (Thần Long). So in that case, it seems like it was the man who “civilized” the woman.


So what we can do in the movie is to take that basic idea from the Epic of Gilgamesh and apply it to Sargon of Akkad. We will have Sargon of Akkad sleep with a temple prostitute and become “civilized,” and then his descendent can marry Thần Long and “civilize” her. That will create at least two good love scenes in the movie.


However, in looking for pictures for this post, I came across this “tigress.” I definitely think we need her in the movie too. So I propose that when Sargon of Akkad travels to China to become Shen Nong, that he meets this “tigress” who tries to temp him back to nature, but he resists!! So now we can have three love scenes in the movie. That should be enough.

The end result is that we will have a movie that ties together the histories of Mesopotamia, China and Vietnam. Even better, it will be filled with handsome men and beautiful women.

Finally, we can include the bronze drums and the “Việt” creation of the Yijing/Kinh dịch in all of this as well. There will be room for everyone in this movie.

And just to help get us started, I’ve created a sample of the dialog between the Mesopotamian god Ishtar and Sargon, when Ishtar is telling Sargon to go to the east and become Shen Nong.

“Sargon, your tasks here are complete. Go east my son, until you come to China, where you will become known as Shen Nong, the great agriculturalist. From there your descendants will spread southward. They will start a new line of kings, the Hùng kings. They will make drums of bronze, and on those drums they will create symbols, those symbols will. . . (coughing).”

Digitizing Cultural Heritage

A few years ago I was extremely pleased to see that the National Library of Vietnam was starting to digitize some of the Hán Nôm manuscripts that it holds. It did this in collaboration with an American organization, the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation (VNPF).


This is what the VNPF says about the project on its web site (here): “The National Library of Vietnam (NLV) in Hanoi holds a special collection of some 4000 ancient texts in Hán and Nôm, the former ideographic writing systems of Vietnam. Since 2006, the NLV has co-operated with The Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation (VNPF) to preserve this important cultural heritage through the creation of a digital library. What you see in the images and metadata on this website are the first steps for creating a digital library for scholarly research, teaching, and learning in Vietnam and abroad.”

This is all wonderful. However, when I actually use this digital library I sometimes get frustrated because it employs a premodern catagorization system for this digital-age resource.


In the past, Confucian scholars in East Asia divided texts into four categories: Confucian classics, history, philosophy and literature (kinh sử tử tập 經史子集). Where did Buddhist texts fit in this scheme? They didn’t. Confucian scholars didn’t think such texts were worth reading, so they were not worth categorizing and preserving either.

In reality we know that people whom we can refer to as “Confucian scholars” did in fact read Buddhist and Daoist texts. However, when it came to creating an official collection of works (such as the Qing-era Siku Quanshu project), texts from those traditions were excluded.

Many of the texts that the National Library of Vietnam preserves are precisely the type of texts that Confucian scholars would never have included in any collection (and this is what makes that collection so precious). In addition to Buddhist texts, the National Library has morality books (thiện thư 善書) and collections of spirit writing (giáng bút 降筆).


These are all texts that fell outside of the categories of kinh sử tử tập, so ideally one should use a different categorization system to categorize such texts (because they don’t fit into any of those categories).

By far the most “advanced” people in creating such digital libraries are the South Koreans. Like the Vietnamese, the Koreans have a rich textual heritage. However, the South Koreans are far ahead of most other people on the planet in “updating” their cultural heritage for the digital age.

They have created a wonderful resource called the “Database of Korean Classics.” You need to know Korean to use it effectively (which I don’t), but if you just go and click on a few links you can get the sense of what they have done.

Korean database

Essentially what people in South Korea are doing is taking texts that were originally written in classical Chinese, inputting the text so that it can be searched, translating the texts into modern Korean, and including scanned images of the originals.

This is fantastic, and it is also clearly the direction that everything is heading. So while the digital library that the National Library of Vietnam and the Vietnamese Nôm Preservation Foundation have started to build is wonderful, there is still so much more that can and should be done. Think of how fantastic it would be if such a digital database could eventually be created for Vietnam’s written cultural heritage.

Cold War Confucian Diasporas

The world we live in influences the way that we look at the past. Before the second-wave feminist movement in the US in the 1960s, the field of women’s history did not exist. Once women became more empowered, then people “discovered” that there had been women in the past too. . . and started to write about them.


The process of globalization that has become so visible since the end of the Cold War has likewise led historians to look at the past differently. Just as “border crossing” is common today in multiple forms, so have historians now discovered many ways in which people and goods in the past crossed various kinds of borders.

One way that historians have done this is by looking at diasporas. There are many cases throughout history in which we find certain populations of peoples being scattered away from their homelands, and in the past twenty years many such historical diasporas have been studied and theorized extensively.

That said, there is one type of diaspora that I think is special and yet I haven’t seen it theorized as such, and that is what I call the “Cold War Confucian diaspora.”

In the twentieth century, during the Cold War, there were three “Confucian” nations in Asia that became divided, leading to the creation of diasporas: Vietnam, Korea and China.


In 1949, China became divided when the Nationalists fled to Taiwan. This created an interesting situation in that the Nationalists originally came from all over China, and then after 1949 these people from many different local “homelands” became stranded together on an island and could not return.


A few years after that, the Korean War left the Korean Peninsula divided, and people who originally came from the other side of the divide when the war ended, were forced to remain where they were.


Finally, with the fall of Saigon in 1975, many Vietnamese fled overseas and ended up in various countries. This dispersal of peoples led to the formation of what I think many people see as a more typical form of diaspora (i.e., people scattered from a homeland).

While the dispersal of peoples therefore took different forms in these three cases, there were two elements that united them all. The first was that these diasporas formed as part of the ideological confrontation of the Cold War. What this meant was that these dispersals were irreversible.

If you were a Nationalist who fled to Taiwan, you could not go back to the mainland. . . ever. The same held true for Koreans who found themselves on the side of the border that was not where there home was, and for Vietnamese who went overseas. There was no going home for any of these peoples.

KMT soldiers

The other common element between these three places was that they were all part of what we could call the “greater Confucian cultural world.” I don’t like the word “Confucianism” because it is so vague. However, what I think everyone who uses that term can agree upon is that filial piety is central to whatever we want to call Confucianism.

The fact that the peoples in these three diasporas were part of a cultural world that valued filial piety so highly and made it so central to their cultures, combined with the fact that the Cold War created a boundary that could never be crossed, made (I would argue) the disasporic experience for these peoples particularly traumatic (because they could not perform basic filial duties, like cleaning the graves of their ancestors, etc.).

Being forced by war to leave one’s home is of course traumatic for anyone. And of course it is very difficult (and probably erroneous) to argue that some forms of trauma are more severe or serious than others.

Nonetheless, I do think that this “Cold War-Confucian” combination was unique, and I hope that someone will examine this more deeply someday by making a comparative study of these three “Cold War Confucian diasporas.”