The Foreign Origins of Premodern Monarchs

Some people are very defensive about the issue of the origins of people like Lý Công Uẩn and the Trần family that founded the Trần Dynasty. There are accounts that indicate that these people were from Mân (or what is today Fujian Province) and this gets some people upset.

First, from such accounts we cannot tell for certain what the ethnicity of such people was. All this indicates is that they were “outsiders” who took up residence in the Red River Delta.

Second, and more importantly, that some premodern rulers were not native to the place they governed over should not surprise us, as this was an extremely common phenomenon in world history.

Just by coincidence, I came across an article from an American newspaper called The Clinton Morning Age from 1903 which was about “Kings of Foreign Blood.” That article begins as follows:

“It is strange how little really native blood the royal families of Europe have in their veins. The king of Greece is generally called a Dane, being second son of the King of Denmark, but as the king of Denmark was a prince of Schleswig-Holstein, the Danish and Grecian reigning houses are both of German extraction. . .”

A little over a decade after this article was written, the name of the royal house of the United Kingdom was changed from the German “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha” to the English “Windsor” due to anti-German sentiment at the time. As for the blood that flows through the veins of the royal family, that did not change.

Then there is the great “Russian” novel, War and Peace. What language does it begin in? French. And who speaks those opening lines in French? Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid of honor of the empress, and a woman with a German surname.

The world that many people today want to imagine existed in the past (a world of separate nations where everyone united together for a common purpose) simply never existed. It is a product of our twentieth-century imagination.

If there was unity in the past, it was among the transnational elite, rather than within kingdoms. The Russian ruling family had more in common with aristocrats in Paris (hence their preference to use French in War and Peace) than they did with the peasants in their backyards.

The rise of nationalism in the twentieth century changed this. But just as the name “Windsor” can’t eliminate the “German” blood that flows through the veins of the “English” royal family, the twentieth century nationalist imagination of the past doesn’t eliminate the evidence that the past was different. It just makes the differences in the past feel uncomfortable to people today who have been brought up to believe that their nationalist view of the past is true. That, however, is the problem with nationalism, not with history.

Here is the full article from the The Clinton Morning Age:

Lý Công Uẩn in Film and TV

There were several films and TV series made recently about Lý Công Uẩn. They were meant to coincide with the 1,000-year anniversary of Thăng Long/Hà Nội, but some were not completed in time and others were criticized.

One production that was heavily criticized was “Lý Công Uẩn—Đường tới thành Thăng Long” [Lý Công Uẩn—The Road to Thăng Long]. This 12-part TV series was a joint production of the Trường Thành Company in Hanoi and EASTV in Hong Kong. Trường Thành provided the money, and EASTV produced the series.

Shot mainly in Zhejiang Province and costing about 100 billion dong or 5.3 million dollars, the final product was criticized in Vietnam as essentially a “Chinese film in Vietamese.”

Let’s think about this. The director and one executive director were Chinese, while one executive director was Vietnamese. Together they created a TV-series that looks very “Chinese.”

Now, there is historical evidence that Lý Công Uẩn was from Mân [i.e., what is now the area of Fujian Province] and that he had Mân people working for him. And as I wrote here, the Trần were also reportedly from Mân.

Then look at the early “Vietnamese” materials we have. The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư is modeled after Sima Qian’s Shiji [Historical Records]. The Thiền uyển tập anh emulates Daoyuan’s Jingde chuandeng lu [Record of the Transmission of the Lamp (compiled) in the Jingde Era]. The Truyền kỳ mạn lục follows the style of Qu You’s Jiandeng xinhua [New Tales Told by Lamplight]. The Lĩnh Nam chích quái explicitly states in its preface that it is written in the style of Gan Bao’s Soushen ji [In Search of the Supernatural].

So what is the problem with creating a TV series about Lý Công Uẩn that looks “Chinese” in content and style when Lý Công Uẩn himself and some of his officials probably were from an area in what is today “China” and when the educated elite at that time created history and stories about themselves which employed forms of expression that had already been created by “Chinese”?

I don’t think there is a problem with any of this. However, I still don’t like “Lý Công Uẩn—Đường tới thành Thăng Long,” not because it looks “Chinese” but because it looks too much like a “low quality modern Chinese historical drama.”

Simply put, everything about it looks fake. I feel like I’m on an artificial movie set. I don’t feel like I’m being taken back a thousand years in time.

A film which does succeed better in taking me back in time is “Khát Vọng Thăng Long” [This title has been translated as “Aspirations of Thăng Long” and “The Prince and the Pagoda Boy”].

Although the presentation of this movie in its trailer (and that is all I’ve seen) is very much influenced by Hollywood, and while the martial arts scenes will make people think of modern “Chinese” films, the colors, costumes and scenery in this movie do not look as fake as those in “Lý Công Uẩn—Đường tới thành Thăng Long.”

That said, the costumes in this movie are still not as realistic as they could be. When I heard years ago that films about Lý Công Uẩn were being made, I wondered if anyone would consult historical texts to find information about what people looked like at that time.

One extremely valuable work is a record which, Chen Fu (also known as Chen Gangzong), an envoy from the Yuan Dynasty court, compiled after visiting Đại Việt in 1293.

This work records that men at that time all shaved their heads. Indeed, it said that “the people are all monks.” The only individuals who covered their heads were officials, who wrapped a blue/green (thanh 青) turban around their heads.

In this respect, Khát Vọng Thăng Long is somewhat accurate in the turbans that it has officials wearing. But if when Chen Fu said about the late thirteenth century applied to the period around the founding of the Lý Dynasty then under that turban we should not see any hair.

On this question of hair, Lê Quý Đôn recorded in his Kiến văn tiểu lục that the Ming Dynasty official, Huang Fu, banned the cutting of hair, and that it was therefore only from the early fifteenth century that men let their hair grow long.

In 1293, Chen Fu also recorded that people went barefoot, and that the skin on their feet was very thick. He also said that men and women bathed together in the same river (that scene would have to appear in a Hollywood movie!).

Chen Fu also recorded that slaves had tattoos on their foreheads which indicated who they belonged too, such as “quan trung khách” (官中客) to indicate that they belonged to an official.

Finally, Chen Fu said that men and women both wore clothes that were black.

So while Khát Vọng Thăng Long does seem to do a better job at capturing the past than the TV series Lý Công Uẩn—Đường tới thành Thăng Long, there is more that could be done. Nonetheless, it looks like this movie does succeed in taking its viewers to someplace other than an artificial movie set.

And on the issue of these films being too “Chinese,” again, the elite in the Red River Delta at the time of Lý Công Uẩn shared a great deal with the elite in areas to their north, particularly culture and religion, but even blood. Making a movie that depicts a land that was completely unique would be just as problematic as making it “too Chinese.”

The best solution is just to aim for historical accuracy. But of course it’s also a good idea to add a sexy river bathing scene (Hollywood style) so that people will buy tickets to watch. Or even better, do it Bollywood style with lots of young men and maidens singing and dancing as they frolic in the water. . .

Felling Lizards in Medieval Vietnam

Aren’t Buddhists not supposed to harm living things? Isn’t that one of the most basic concepts of Buddhism?

That’s what I thought anyway. Then I read the following passage about the medieval Vietnamese zen master Giác Hải in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái:

“During the time of Lý Nhân Tông [1066-1127 C.E.], [Giác Hải] and Daoist adept Thông Huyền were summoned to Lương Thạch Temple in Liên Mộng to attend to [the emperor]. Suddenly [two] lizards began to shriek at each other, making a sound that grated on one’s ears. The emperor ordered Huyền to stop them. Huyền uttered an incantation under his breath, and this felled the first. The emperor laughed and said to the master [i.e., Giác Hải], “That leaves one for the monk.” The master uttered an incantation at it, and after a short while it also fell. The emperor found this to be extraordinary and composed a poem which went,

The heart of Giác Hải is [vast] like the sea,

The way of Thông Huyền is abstruse.

Their supernatural powers able to bring about transformations,

One is a Buddha, the other an immortal.

Because of this, the master’s fame quickly spread across All Under Heaven. Monks and commoners relied on him.”

Ok, so I guess we don’t have definite evidence that Giác Hải actually “harmed” the lizard. Maybe he just put it to sleep for a while. . . Then again, maybe not. . . Hmmm. . .


Thời Lý Nhân Tông, sư thường cùng Thông Huyền chân nhân được triệu vào ngồi hầu trong chùa Lương Thạch ở Liên Mộng. Bỗng có đôi tắc kè gọi nhau, nhức tai điếc óc. Vua truyền Thông Huyền ngăn nó lại, Huyền lặng nhẩm thần chú, một con rơi xuống trước. Vua cười bảo: “Hãy còn một con xin để nhường nhà sư.” Sư đọc thần chú, trong nháy mắt con còn lại cũng rơi xuống nốt. Vua kinh lạ, làm thơ rằng:

Giác Hải tâm như hải,

Thông Huyền đạo diệc huyền.

Thần thông năng biến hóa,

Nhất Phật, nhất thần tiên.

Từ đó danh tiếng sư vang động thiên hạ, các vị tăng cùng kẻ tục đều dốc lòng tin theo.