Khoa Học and the Bình Ngô Đại Cáo

Continuing from the entry below, there is another way to look at this same issue.

Of course we can never be certain what a writer had in his/her mind when s/he quoted the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” and wrote “bắc nam.” Even though an author did not capitalize these terms, s/he might have still thought in her/his mind that these two terms referred to what we today call “China” and “Vietnam,” respectively.

However, when authors translated the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo” into foreign languages, there was no ambiguity about what they thought. And as we saw below, there was an original French translation (1952), and an English translation (1967) that clearly saw “bắc nam” as referring to distinctions within Đại Việt, and then a second French translation (1972) that saw those same terms as referring to “the North” and “the South,” that is, to “China” and “Vietnam.”

This later French translation was produced in North Vienam, and it represents the understanding of that line that is widely believed to be accurate today.

North Vietnam in 1972 was a place where scholars believed that historical scholarship is “scientific” (khoa học). Today this term is still employed, although I find it difficult at times to understand what it really means. I’m never sure if I should translate it as “scientific” or simply “academic.”

Either way, I think that people would agree that knowledge that is “khoa học” is supposed to be produced and verified in ways that demonstrate its correctness (just as “scientific” and “academic” knowledge is).

Regardless of how that is done, I think that it is the norm in scientific/academic communities that the manner in which information gets to be accepted by scientists/academics follows a similar path.

1. There is an existing idea/view of something.

2. A scientist/academic (or a group) then challenges the existing idea/view by putting forth a new idea/view that is based on evidence.

3. The rest of the scientific/academic community then examines the argument and evidence for this new idea/view, and if they are convinced by the evidence, then they agree with and adopt this new idea/view.

In other words, for a “scientific/academic” idea/view to be accepted, an argument with supporting evidence has to be put forth, and other scientists/academics have to accept that argument based on the persuasiveness of the evidence.

In the case of the “Bình Ngô Đại Cáo,” it is clear that the current understanding of the line that refers to “bắc nam/Bắc Nam” has not always been the way it is now. In which case, there must have been a time when someone made an argument for understanding that line to be referring to “China” and “Vietnam,” and that person must have supported that argument with evidence, and that evidence must have convinced the rest of the scientific/academic community in Vietnam of its correctness.

So who made that argument, and what was the evidence that s/he provided to support the argument? I have been looking and looking for this, but I cannot find it anywhere.

If, however, it turns out that no such argument was ever made, then how do we know that the current understanding is “khoa học”?

This question is particularly important when we consider that there were intelligent and well-trained scholars in the 1950s and 1960s who did not read that line in the way that it is read today.

Who made the argument that they were wrong? Where was that argument made and published? What evidence was used to support the view that is accepted today?

Why did bắc nam become Bắc Nam?

“Nước non bờ cõi đã chia, phong tục Bắc Nam cũng khác.”

This famous line comes from the fifteenth-century “Bình Ngô đại cáo” (Great Proclamation upon the Pacification of the Ngô) by Nguyễn Trãi. Today it is often translated as something like:

“Just as the territories of the mountains are rivers are distinct, so are the customs of the North and South also different.”

“North” and “South” are interpreted as a reference to what we would today call “China” and “Vietnam,” and these two words are always capitalized in the Vietnamese versions as “Bắc Nam” to indicate this point.

As common sense as this reading has become, it is quite recent.

Trần Trọng Kim did not capitalize those two terms in his Việt Nam sử lược (1921). The editions that get published in Vietnam today follow this usage (at least the ones I’ve seen).

I have a 1950 second edition of a book printed in Saigon called Quốc văn cụ thể by Bùi Kỷ. He also did not capitalize “bắc nam.” And given that he does capitalize “Việt,” I would think that this means that he did not think that “bắc nam” here was referring to the “North” and “South.”

In 1952, Ưng-Quả made what I believe is the first French translation of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” and published it in the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient. He translated that line and the one before it as follows:

“Or notre État de Đai-Việt est incontestablement un pays où fleurissent la culture et les nobles institutions qui s’y rattachent. Les montagnes et les fleuves donnent à sa physionomie physique des aspects différents; du sud au nord les moeurs et les coutumes font d’autre part la variété (de sa physionomie morale).”

The way Ưng-Quả interpreted this line was that the mountains and rivers provided variety to Đại Việt’s physical character, whereas the different customs and mores provided variety to Đại Việt’s moral character. In other words, he clearly saw the “north” and “south” as referring to areas within the Kingdom of Đại Việt.

I then have a third edition of Mạc Bảo Thần’s translation of the Lam Sơn thực lục from 1956. This work was published in Saigon. Here again, “bắc” and “nam” are not capitalized, although “Việt” is.

Then there is Trường Bửu Lâm’s English translation from 1967. He says in his brief introduction to the translation that “The opening passage invokes the principle of the autonomy of Vietnam in its relationship to China and claims for Vietnam a destiny separate from China’s.”

Trường Bửu Lâm then translated the opening passage as follows:

“Our state of Dai Viet is indeed a country wherein culture and institutions have flourished. Our mountains and rivers have their characteristic features, but our habits and customs are not the same from north to south.”

Finally, we can look at a 1972 translation of Bùi Huy Bích’s Hoàng Việt văn tuyển that was published in Saigon. It also does not capitalize “north” and “south.”

So there clearly appears to have been a tradition of reading that line with the “bắc” and “nam” as un-capitalized and as referring to differences within Đại Việt. This tradition appears to have begun during the colonial period, and it continued to be upheld in South Vietnam.

What happened in other areas?

In 1949, there was a history published in Thuận Hóa by Dương Kỵ called the Việt sử khảo lược. It cited the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” but not the passage which mentions “north” and “south.”

Also in 1949, Phạm Văn Sơn published his Việt Nam tranh đấu sử, although I am not certain where it was published. It does cite that passage from the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” but it does not capitalize “bắc” and “nam.”

Moving to Hanoi, Nguyễn Duy Phương’s 1945 Lịch sử độc lập và nội các đầu tiên Việt Nam cites the translation of Trần Trọng Kim who of course did not capitalize those terms.

In 1951, Nguyễn Ngọc Kim published a work in Hanoi on the author of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” entitled Nguyễn Trãi: Thân thế và sự nghiệp. Nguyễn Ngọc Kim likewise did not capitalize those terms, and in the passage of his text before he presents the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” he mentions “our Southern heroes” (anh hùng Nam ta) and capitalizes the word for “South.”

So it seems clear that Nguyễn Ngọc Kim felt that it was necessary to capitalize that term when one referred to the “the South” as a country. And yet in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” he did not capitalize that term.

One work which I have not been able to consult, but would love to, is an article in a 1955 issue of the journal Văn sử địa in which it was debated whether the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” should be included in Vietnamese literature. The conclusion was that it should, but it is interesting that such a discussion took place.

Jumping ahead to 1972, we find that an anthology of Vietnamese literature in French translation was published in Hanoi, and that here the translation makes it perfectly clear that the “bắc” and “nam” were now being interpreted to mean “Bắc” and “Nam.” To quote,

“Terre du Sud, elle a ses fleuves, ses montagnes,

Ses moeurs, ses coutumes, distinctes de ceux du Nord.”

“The land of the South has its rivers and mountains,

And its mores and customs that are distinct from those of the North.”

And finally, when the collected works of Nguyễn Trãi were published in Hanoi in 1976, “bắc” and “nam” were now “Bắc” and “Nam.”

What these above works indicate is that the current reading of that now-famous line in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was decided upon in North Vietnam at some point in the 1950s-1960s.

That being the case, I think it is logical to ask some questions: Is that reading accurate? How do we know? Why was that reading agreed upon at that place and at that time? Was it because the scholars there produced work that was more insightful than scholars had before? Was it superior to the work of their contemporaries in South Vietnam? Or should we look to other factors, such as the influence of nationalism and wartime politics, to explain this change?

Why did bắc nam become Bắc Nam?

The Problems with the Bình Ngô đại cáo as a Declaration of Independence

Someone had a question about an earlier post on the Bình Ngô đại cáo. Rather than respond to it there, I thought I’d just note some points about that document here.

1. The Document as a Whole

When people talk about the meaning of this text, they focus mainly on the opening lines. It’s important to look at the entire document. After the famous introductory comments, the Bình Ngô đại cáo talks about how the Hồ overthrew the Trần, and that the Ming then took advantage of this dispute to take control of the area. It then mentions the suffering that the Ming presence caused.

The text then turns to talk about the beginning of Lê Lợi’s efforts to fight against the Ming. It stresses the difficulty that he had at first in gaining supporters, and then it goes on to detail the battles that he fought.

So the first thing to note is that this document is not about “Vietnam” and “China.” It is about Lê Lợi and the difficult struggle which he engaged in.

2. Đại Cáo

When Vietnamese wrote in the past, they did not just make things up. Instead, they wrote according to certain genres. A đại cáo was a very specific type of document. It was for domestic use. I know of no case in which a đại cáo was issued by one kingdom in reference to another. The closest example of a đại cáo that I know of before the Bình Ngô đại cáo were đại cáo which were issued by the first Ming emperor in the second half of the fourteenth century. These documents were basically announcements toward powerful princes and officials to make clear to these people the limits of their power. The first Ming emperor feared challenges to his position, and the đại cáo were an attempt to prevent any such challenges from arising.

Today the đại cáo is to often referred in Vietnam as a “declaration of independence” (tuyên ngôn độc lập). First of all, the term “independence” (độc lập) didn’t exist at that time (it only entered the language in the early twentieth century), and while “declaration” (tuyên ngôn) can be found in ancient texts, it was used to mean something more along the lines of “to express a point,” and did not refer to a specific type of government document like đại cáo did.

3. The Ngô

Vietnamese today will say that the term “Ngô” is a derogatory reference to the Chinese. Other than its appearned in the line which proceeds this document, I have not found Ngô in any other premodern Vietnamese text as a term which refers to the Chinese. It is only in the early twentieth century, in works like Phan Bội Châu’s fictional account of this period that I have found it used (Hậu Trần dật sử).

So who were the Ngô? Were they the Chinese, or the Vietnamese who had collaborated with the Chinese, and who were part of the domestic audience for the đại cáo?

I understand the main audience for the Bình Ngô đại cáo to be this latter group. Just as the first Ming emperor’s đại cáo were directed at potential domestic contenders for power, the Bình Ngô đại cáo had the same purpose. It did this by reminding Hà Nội scholar-officials who had sided with the Ming that they had not supported the person who was now in power, Lê Lợi, and that usurping power like the Hồ did served no purpose but to cause suffering for the people.

It is in this larger context that the opening lines of the text then need to be read.

A. Grammar

As I stated in the earlier post, in classical Chinese grammar, the subject is assumed to remain the same until a new subject is introduced. For the first two lines below, “Our kingdom of Đại Việt” is the unquestioned subject of the first two lines. Grammatically, “north” here cannot be referring to “China.”

Our kingdom of Đại Việt is truly a domain of civility.

Just as the areas of its territory are distinct, so are the customs in the north and south also different.

With the establishment of our kingdom by the Triệu, Đinh, Lý and Trần, together with the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan [we] have each empired over a region.”

B. Văn Hiến and Phong Tục

What I’ve translated here as “civility” (văn hiến) and “customs” (phong tục) are two terms which have distinct, and even opposing, meanings. Civility was a universal quality which (Confucian) scholars aspired to obtain by following the teachings in the classics, performing the proper rituals, wearing the proper caps and robes, etc. Customs, on the other hand, were what prevailed in local areas which had yet to be fully transformed by civility.

Kingdoms did not have customs. Local areas did. So if Đại Việt was a domain of civility, it did not have its own customs. Local areas within that domain might, but not the kingdom as a whole.

On the other hand, the Chinese court might refer to the customs of “Annan/An Nam,” because the degree of civility in vassal kingdoms was not deemed to be on par with that in the Central Kingdom (i.e., “China”). As such, vassal kingdoms were like local regions in the Chinese empire, which also possessed customs.


These are issues which must be considered when reading the Bình Ngô đại cáo. When they are taken together, I think it becomes very difficult to read this text as a “declaration of independence.” The intended audience was not “China.” It was intended for a domestic audience. The text is saying that Đại Việt is an important kingdom and it was almost lost because of the actions of certain local people. Those local people will not play a role in the kingdom’s life anymore. They will follow the orders of those who fought their way to power. This is what đại cáo were all about.

Interestingly, although this text is now referred to as a “declaration of independence,” one could easily argue that it is being used in contemporary Vietnam the same way as the original đại cáo was in the early Lê period. I guess history does repeat itself.

Phan Ngọc, Stalin and the Bình Ngô Đại Cáo

I came across a syllabus for a course on Vietnamese culture at one of the major universities in Vietnam. I was looking through the materials which this professor had the students reading, and came across Phan Ngọc’s Bản sắc văn hoá việt nam. I’m not sure how to translate this title. To me “bản sắc” (literally, 本色 “original color” or “basic color”) means something like the “basic characteristics” of something. Therefore I would translate this title as The Basic Characteristics of Vietnamese Culture. However, I see Vietnamese today translating “bản sắc” as “identity,” so the title could be Vietnamese Cultural Identity.

In any case, I decided to take a look at Phan Ngọc’s Bản sắc văn hoá việt nam, and as I flipped through it, I came across a passage where he states that the content of the opening passage of the Bình Ngô đại cáo accords with Stalin’s definition of a nation, and that as a result, the Bình Ngô đại cáo is the “first declaration of the self-determination of a nation” (Bản tuyên ngôn đầu tiên về quyền tự quyết dân tộc) and the “first definition of a nation-state” (định nghĩa đầu tiên của nhà nước dân tộc) to appear in the world. [pg. 41]

Phan Ngọc then goes on to demonstrate the connection between the Bình Ngô đại cáo with Stalin’s definition of a nation by stating the following:

“Nguyễn Trãi . . . 465 years before Stalin, realized that a nation is a unified entity which includes the four elements of geography (“The borders of the mountains and rivers are divided [off]”), customs (“The customs of North and South are also different”), history (“From the Triệu, Đinh, Lý, Trần, so many generations have established a foundation of independence”), and unified political authority (“Together with the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan, each side powerfully occupied one area”).” [pg. 41]

“Nguyễn Trãi . . . trước Stalin 465 năm đã thấy dân tộc là một thể thống nhất gồm bốn yếu tố là địa lý (“Núi song bờ cõi đã chia”), phong tục (“Phong tục Bắc Nam cũng khác”), lịch sử (“Từ Triệu, Đinh, Lý, Trần bao đời xây nền độc lập”), chính quyền thống nhất (“Cùng Hán, Đường, Tống, Nguyên mỗi bên hùng cứ một phương”).” [pg. 41]

What Phan Ngọc reveals in this single sentence is that he does not understand the Bình Ngô đại cáo, he hasn’t thought seriously about Vietnamese history, and he does not know Stalin’s definition of a nation.

Let us begin with this final point first. Stalin’s definition of a nation is as follows:

“A nation is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological makeup manifested in a community of culture.”

“Dân tộc là một khối cộng đồng người ổn định được thành lập trong lịch sử, dựa trên cơ sở cộng đồng về tiếng nói, lãnh thổ, sinh hoạt kinh tế và tâm lý biểu hiện trong cộng đồng văn hoá.”

From what Phan Ngọc says, we are to understand that Stalin defined a nation as a “a unified entity which includes the four elements of geography. . . customs. . . history. . . and unified political authority. (một thể thống nhất gồm bốn yếu tố là địa lý. . . phong tục. . . lịch sử. . . [va] chính quyền thống nhất)

This is not the same as what Stalin stated. Stalin’s definition is about people. It attempts to define a nation as a community of people who live in an area, speak the same language, and share the same economy and psychological outlook, all of which is reflected in culture. Phan Ngọc says nothing about language, economy or psychological makeup.

Instead, he mentions history, customs and unified political authority. Yes, Stalin did mention culture, but customs and culture are not the same. Stalin also stated that a nation had to be “historically evolved,” but that is not the same as “history.” And of course Stalin did not say anything about political authority.

So Phan Ngọc’s attempt to relate Stalin’s definition of a nation to the Bình Ngô đại cáo fails because he doesn’t really know Stalin’s definition of a nation. It also fails because Phan Ngọc relies on a terrible translation of the Bình Ngô đại cáo. This translation is actually very popular, and can be found in countless books in Vietnam, but, as we will see below, it doesn’t come close to faithfully rendering the original text into modern Vietnamese. Further, it is also very nationalistic, and unhistorical in that it uses words which indicate concepts which did not exist in the 15th century when the Bình Ngô đại cáo was written.

For instance, there are no words in the original which can be translated as “divided” (chia), “so many generations” (bao đời), “established a foundation of independence” (xây nền độc lập), or “powerfully occupied” (hùng cứ). Indeed, the word “independence” (độc lập) did not even exist at that time. It only entered the Vietnamese language in the early 20th century, close to 500 years after this text was written.

Well if the phrase, “established a foundation of independence,” is not in the Bình Ngô đại cáo, then what is there that has been mistranslated in this manner? The Bình Ngô đại cáo states the following:



“Just as the limits of its mountains and rivers are distinct, so are the customs from north to south also different.

From [the times of] the establishments of our kingdom by the Triệu, Đinh, Lý and Trần, together with the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan [we] have each empired over a region.”

The phrase, “established a foundation of independence,” which Phan Ngọc employed, is 肇造我國, or what I have translated as “establishments of our kingdom.” In this phrase, the term which means “to establish” is 肇造, a term which actually means to “first establish.” It is used to describe the establishment of a dynasty.

To get back to Stalin, even though he did not talk about unified political authority, if one hears that “From the Triệu, Đinh, Lý, Trần, so many generations have established a foundation of independence,” one can easily get the sense of an “historically evolved” unified political authority. As long as a reader doesn’t actually know what Stalin said, that sentence could lead someone to see the existence of a nation. However, not only is this not what Stalin said, it is also not what the Bình Ngô đại cáo said either.

So Phan Ngọc demonstrates that he does not know Stalin’s definition of a nation, and that he does not understand the Bình Ngô đại cáo. He also demonstrates that he has not thought seriously about Vietnamese history.

As Nguyễn Trãi looked to the past, he saw multiple “establishments” of “our kingdom.” Why would he write in this manner? Maybe because it represents how disjointed the historical reality had actually been.

The first kingdom to be established was that of the Triệu. Actually, it would be more accurate to refer to this kingdom as that of the Zhao, because its founder was Chinese, Zhao Tuo. Established at the end of the third century BC, it covered the area of what is today Guangdong and Guangxi provinces in China, as well as northern Vietnam.

Zhao Tuo’s kingdom lasted for less than a century. Then the area of northern Vietnam was incorporated into the Han Dynasty’s empire. Approximately 1,000 years later, a family from the Red River delta known as the Đinh ruled briefly in the 10th century. Given how short-lived this dynasty was, and the fact that it was proceeded by a period when the region was divided between warlord families, it is hard to believe that this was really a time of “unified political authority.” Further, given that a thousand years had passed since Zhao Tuo’s kingdom had come to an end, and given the fact that Zhao Tuo was Chinese and his kingdom had included Guangdong and Guangxi, it is extremely difficult to see any meaningful “historical evolution” here either.

It is also difficult to find “historical evolution” in the realm of “unified political authority” for subsequent centuries. Yes the Lý and Trần, ruled for a long time, but the Trần were from Fujian and grabbed power from the Lý. That is an “historical evolution” of sorts, but I would call it the “usurpation of political authority by a Chinese family.” It does not fit well with the idea that this was part of an “historically evolving” nation.

Then add to this the fact that in these centuries from the Triệu to the Trần it is unlikely that there was a common language. In the Red River delta you had Viet, Tai, Muong and Chinese people all living there. What language did they all share in common? What was their shared psychological makeup? And what evidence do we have in this period of a shared economic life?

I’ve already written pages about this one sentence, and I could write pages more. What is clear to me is that Phan Ngọc’s Bản sắc văn hoá việt nam is a horribly flawed book.

North and South in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo”

The “Bình Ngô đại cáo” is today one of the most famous historical documents in Vietnam. Virtually everyone in Vietnam knows at least the opening passage of this fifteenth century text. However, the way in which it has been taught, and the way it is quoted over and over, is incorrect.

This document is attributed to the literatus, Nguyễn Trãi, who reportedly wrote this declaration on behalf of the new emperor, Lê Lợi, a man who founded a new dynasty in 1428 after driving out Ming troops which had occupied the area for over 20 years.

Today Vietnamese see this document as a “declaration of independence” which declares the distinctness of Vietnam. The main evidence for this view is a line which comes near the beginning of this document which mentions that the territory and the customs of the “north” and “south” are different.

In final decades of the twentieth century we can find the words “north” and “south” used by Vietnamese writers to refer to “China” and “Vietnam,” respectively. However, that is not what these terms refer to in the “Bình Ngô đại cáo.” The reason why I say this is because it is grammatically impossible for those two words to have that meaning in this text.

When I was learning classical Chinese, one of my teachers repeated grammatical rules to me over and over like mantras. By far the mantra which I heard the most was the following: “Unless a new subject is introduced, the subject remains the same.”

Let us now look for the subject, or subjects, in the opening passage of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo.”





Benevolent deeds are those which focus on making the people peaceful.

Troops sent to punish [rebels] take as their first aim the elimination of hostilities.

Our kingdom of Dai Viet is truly a domain of civility.

Just as the areas of its territory are distinct, so are the customs in the north and south also different.

With the establishment of our kingdom by the Trieu, Dinh, Ly and Tran, together with the Han, Tang, Song and Yuan [we] have each empired over a region.”

I have placed in bold the terms which we can understand as the subjects of these sentences. For the sentence “Just as the areas of its territory are distinct, so are the customs in the north and south also different,” the subject is still “Our kingdom of Dai Viet.” “North” here cannot possibly refer to China, because no new subject has been introduced.

So if this sentence doesn’t refer to Vietnam and China, then what does it refer to? Well let’s see, Lê Lợi was from Thanh Hóa and had just brought the entire realm under his control, a realm in which scholars in the north (Hanoi) had recently cooperated with the Ming. With that as a clue, I’ll leave it to others to figure out the rest.

The image here is not from the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, where the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” was first published, but from the 1825 text, the Hoàng Việt văn tuyển. The version in this latter text adds two characters to the beginning of the text, 蓋聞, which can be roughly translated as “It has been heard that. . .” or “I have heard that. . .”