Where Vietnamese Antiquity Came From

Keith Taylor began his 1983 work on early Vietnamese history, The Birth of Vietnam, with the following sentence: “The earliest traditions of the Vietnamese people, as revealed in the Lĩnh Nam chích quái, an accumulation of popular lore edited in the fifteenth century, are associated with the Hùng kings who ruled the kingdom of Văn Lang.” (pg. 1)

Then in an appendix to this work in which he reviews a debate which began in the twentieth century over whether the earliest rulers in the Red River delta were called Hùng or Lạc, Taylor states that “I personally want to study this question more than I have before committing myself on it; in the meantime, I use the term Hùng as it has traditionally been used by Vietnamese historians.” (pg. 307)

It is a shame that this latter statement is more or less “hidden” in the back of this scholarly study, because this work has been read by many as “proof” of the existence of the Hùng kings and of a “Vietnamese antiquity.” However, all of this is suspect, and in that latter comment, Taylor revealed that he was aware of this.

Having spent the past few years looking at this issue and all of the relevant sources, it is now obvious to me that what we today think of as “Vietnamese antiquity” is largely a medieval invention.

How was “Vietnamese antiquity” invented? In the following way:

1) “The Chinese” recorded information about the far south in official histories and some short treatises which are now lost, like the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region (Jiaozhou waiyu ji) and the Record of Guang Region (Guangzhou ji), but are cited in extant histories, the Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu), the Wide Gleanings from the Taiping Era (Taiping Guangji), etc.

2) A couple of Tang Dynasty administrators wrote treatises, both of which were called the Record of Jiao Region (Jiaozhou ji). These are no longer extant, but passages of them are cited in the 14th-century Vietnamese text the Collected Records of the Departed Spirits of the Việt Realm (Việt Diện u linh tập lục). This same text sometimes also cites a non-extant 12th-century Vietnamese history, Đỗ Thiện’s Historical Records (Sử ký). In fact, it sometimes cites Đỗ Thiện’s Historical Records for information which was in those Tang-era Records of Jiao Region, as Đỗ Thiện apparently relied on those earlier Chinese works.

Now, some of the information recorded in the two Records of Jiao Region were about spirits. It is clear that Tang Dynasty administrators tried to domesticate spirits by creating personalities and stories for them (as Chinese officials were doing all across the empire at that time). In so doing, they created information about antiquity. There is one spirit, for instance, called Lý Ông Trọng, who was supposedly a man from theRed River delta who went off to fight the Xiongnu during the time of Qin Shihuangdi.

No such person ever existed. He was created by someone, and my guess is that it was probably Zhao Chang, a Tang Dynasty administrator. (See the previous posts on that topic here and here). However, Lý Ông Trọng is a part of Vietnamese history now because of #4 below.

3) Vietnamese scholars created stories about antiquity, such as the story of the Hùng kings which we find in the 15th-century Collected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái).

4) Finally, Ngô Sĩ Liên based his late 15th-century Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư) on all of the above sources.

When it comes to early history, this work is derivative in that much of what it says comes from Chinese sources. Meanwhile, whatever information it contains about early history which Chinese sources do not record, like the stories about Lý Ông Trọng or the Hùng kings, is not real. It was either invented during the Tang by Tang Dynasty administrators or created later by Vietnamese scholars for similar or related purposes.

The one exception is that there is some material for the Tang period which was probably contained in either or both of the two Records of Jiao Region and which then made it into Vietnamese sources but which never made it into Chinese ones.

What historians have never done is to seriously attempt to determine which information in Vietnamese sources is historical and which information is invented. This outline above can hopefully help people do this.

How the Hùng Kings Obtained a Citadel

The Hùng Kings are an invention. They were not invented out of nothing, but instead were fashioned out of extant written sources. This process of creation, however, was not clean. A lot of literary debris was left behind, and this is extremely obvious in the way in which the Hùng kings came to possess a citadel.

The earliest recorded information about rulers in the Red River delta can be found in the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region (Jiaozhou waiyu ji), a Chinese work from either the late third or early fourth century A.D. This work is no longer extant, but passages from it are preserved in a sixth-century text, Li Daoyuan’s Annotated Classic of Waterways (Shuijing zhu). This is what it says,

“The Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region states that ‘In the past, before Jiaozhi [Việt, Giao Chỉ] had commanderies and districts, the land had lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters, and therefore the people who opened these fields for cultivation were called Lạc people. Lạc kings/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. Later the son of the Thục/Shu king led 30,000 troops to attack the Lạc king. The Lạc marquises brought the Lạc generals under submission. The son of the Thục/Shu king thereupon was called King An Dương. Later, King ofSouthern Yue [Nam Việt/Nanyue] Commissioner Tuo [i.e., Zhao Tuo] raised troops and attacked King An Dương.’”

Notice that this passage says nothing about “Hùng kings.” That is because the Hùng kings are a medieval invention. They were created in the fifteenth century, and incorporated into Ngô Sĩ Liên’s Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Viêt sử ký toàn thư).

The above passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region was one source of inspiration for the myth of the Hùng kings. Prior to the point where the myth of the Hùng kings was created, a myth started to develop about first Kinh An Dương and then the Lạc kings based on this passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region.

In a section on ancient remains (cỏ tích), the Brief Record of An Nam (An Nam chí lược), a text compiled in the fourteenth century by a Vietnamese who had switched sides during the second Mongol invasion and lived the rest of his life in China, has an entry on a place called “Việt King Citadel” (Việt Vương Thành) which cites the above passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region.

This entry does not directly state who built or inhabited this citadel. Instead, it simply appends the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region, implying that this could have been a citadel built by King An Dương or perhaps Zhao Tuo. That said, it does indicate that this citadel was also called Khả Lũ Citadel by common people. Khả Lũ Citadel was another name for Cổ Loa, a citadel not far to the north of present-dayHanoi and which was reportedly built by King An Dương.

The fifteenth-century Treatise on Annan (Annan zhiyuan), a Chinese text which was compiled based on information collected during the Ming occupation period, also contains an entry for Viêt King Citadel in a section on ancient remains. However, the Treatise on Annan does not associate this site with the information about the Lạc kings and King An Dương from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region. Instead, it connects that information to a separate site of ancient remains known as “Lạc King Palace” (Lạc Vương Cung).

At the same time, in its entry on Lạc King Palace, the Treatise on Annan adds some new information which the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region did not record. It states that “[The kingdom] was called the Kingdom of Văn Lang. Its customs were pure and simple. Records were kept by tying knots. Rule was passed on for 18 generations. It was destroyed by the Thục/Shu king. At present the remains of the Lạc palace still exist.”

Where did this new information come from? There is no way of knowing. However, the expression “records were kept by tying knots” (結繩為治) was a formulaic way of describing a pre-literate society. It is a sign that this information was not an actual account of a past society, but more likely the creation of a medieval scholar.

This exact same information later appeared in the official Qing Dynasty geography, the Unified Gazetteer of the Great Qing (Da Qing yitong zhi).

The remains of this Lạc King Palace which the Treatise on Annan mentioned were in what was at the time Tam Đái Subprefecture, an area which later became Vĩnh Tường Prefecture in Sơn Tây Province, far away from Cổ Loa where the information from the the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region had earlier been used to describe where some ancient remains had come from.

This idea that there were some ancient remains in Sơn Tây Province continued. However, over time they came to be associated with an earlier figure, the mythical King Kinh Dương (Kinh Dương Vương), rather than the historical King An Dương. In particular, in Sơn Tây Province’s Bạch Hạc Distict there was a mound of earth which people referred to as “King Kinh Dương’s Citadel” (Kinh Dương Vương Thành).

Then in the twentieth century, the Hùng kings “took over” that citadel. And they did so in a text called the Unified Gazetteer of Đại Nam (Đại Nam nhất thống chí).

The Unified Gazetteer of Đại Nam (Đại Nam nhất thống chí), was a geography which the Nguyễn Dynasty ordered compiled in the 19th century. It wasn’t fully completed until the early 20th century when it was to be printed. However, only part of the text ended up getting printed, and the section on Sơn Tây Province never made it into print.

Therefore, the information which that text contains about King Kinh Dương’s Citadel comes from draft manuscript versions of that text. This text was translated into modern Vietnamese in both South and North Vietnam. And while the translations differ, in both cases the Hùng kings came to take over King Kinh Dương’s Citadel.

This is what the version published in Saigon recorded (this is the only version which I have the Hán text for, which is what I am translating):

The abandoned citadel of King Kinh Dương. Behind Hoa Long Temple in Việt Trì Village, Bạch Hạc District there is a mound of earth. It is said that it is the remains of his old citadel.

According to the Unified Gazetteer of the Great Qing, it is said that “Hùng King Palace is in Tam Đái Subprefecture. [The quốc ngữ translation has “Lạc” here, as does the Unified Gazetteer of the Great Qing, but the Hán text of the Unified Gazetteer of Đại Nam has “Hùng.”]

The Annotated Classic of Waterways [states that], “Before Jiaozhi [Việt, Giao Chỉ] had commanderies and districts, there were lạc fields. These fields followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters. Those who opened these fields for cultivation were called Lạc people. Those who ruled these people were Lạc kings/princes. Below them were Lạc marquises [the character actually means “emissary” and is mistaken for a character meaning “marquis”]. [The kingdom] was called theKingdom of Văn Lang. Passed on for 18 generations, it was destroyed by the Thục/Shu king. The remains of the palace still exist.

According to the Historical Records [i.e., the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt], “The Hùng king established his capital in Phong Region [Phong Châu].” Note, This is the same as Bạch Hạc Distict. We therefore suspect that this is the cite of the Hùng king’s old citadel, and that by popular custom it has been erroneously referred to as Kinh Kinh Dương’s citadel.


Let’s try to summarize this information:

13th/14th century = The Brief Record of An Nam (An Nam chí lược) mentions a “Việt King Citadel” (Việt Vương Thành) in Cổ Loa which it appears to attribute to King An Dương. It cites the information from the the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region to support this claim.

15th century = The Treatise on Annan (Annan zhiyuan), also records that the remains of the Viêt King Citadel were in Cổ Loa, but it does not connect this site with the information from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region.

The Treatise on Annan connects the information from the the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region to a place in Sơn Tây Province which it calls the “Lạc King Palace” (Lạc Vương Cung). It also includes new information that “[The kingdom] was called the Kingdom of Văn Lang. Its customs were pure and simple. Records were kept by tying knots. Rule was passed on for 18 generations. It was destroyed by the Thục/Shu king. At present the remains of the Lạc palace still exist.”

18th century = The Unified Gazetteer of the Great Qing (Da Qing yitong zhi) contains the same information about Lạc King Palace in Sơn Tây Province as the Treatise on Annan.

19th century = Local gazetteers for Sơn Tây Province which likely date from the nineteenth century mention a “Kinh Kinh Dương Palace” (Kinh Dương Vương Cung) but do not connect this place to the information from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region.

Late 19th-early 20th centuries = The Unified Gazetteer of Đại Nam (Đại Nam nhất thống chí) cites the Unified Gazetteer of the Great Qing to indicate that the Lạc King Palace which it mentions is the same as the King Kinh Dương Palace which people in Sơn Tây Province speak of. This text also cites the information about Lạc people and kings from the the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region (by citing the Annotated Classic of Waterways where that information is preserved).

It then cites the fifteenth-century Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt to indicate that this is where the Hùng kings’ capital was, and that therefore this is the remains of the Hùng kings’ citadel.

Amazing! From King An Dương, to the Lạc kings, to King Kinh Dương, to the Hùng kings, and from Cổ Loa to Sơn Tây, the passage from the Record of the Outer Territory of Jiao Region was repeatedly used to attribute significance to ancient remains.

Why did this happen? It happened because that passage is the ONLY recorded information which we have about the early history of the Red River delta. Everything else, from King Kinh Dương to the Hùng kings, was invented. And because it was invented, it wasn’t rooted in any real tradition.

It is only in the twentieth century that the Hùng kings have become “real.” This acquisition of a citadel in the Unified Gazetteer of Đại Nam was an early step in that process.

The Real Ông Trọng

Over a year ago I posted a blog entry on The Invention of Lý Ông Trọng in which I argued that there was no evidence that a man by this name had lived in the Red River delta in the third century B.C. and had gone off to fight the Xiongnu for Qin Shihuangdi. I argued instead that a Tang Dynasty administrator by the name of Zhao Chang had “imported” this story into the region and used it to create a story about a local spirit.

I still believe that this story about Lý Ông Trọng is an invention. However, I recently found some information which indicates that there once had been a man by the name of Ông Trọng who was connected to the Red River delta.

Continue reading

The 18 Generations of Hùng Kings

Everyone knows that the Hùng Kings supposedly ruled for 18 generations. However, where does that information come from?

The earliest sources on the Hùng Kings are the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, both of which were completed in the late 15th century. Neither of these texts say anything about 18 generations.

Meanwhile, there is a Chinese source which is based on information which was collected in the early 15th century, during the period when Vietnamwas controlled by the Ming Dynasty, which does mention 18 generations. However, this work, Gao Xiongzheng’s Treatise on Annan (Annan zhiyuan), records that “Lạc” Kings ruled for 18 generations, not Hùng Kings.

This information is in a section on ancient sites (cổ tích), and is meant to explain some old ruins called the “Lạc King Palace” (Lạc Vương Cung). This information was then cited in the nineteenth-century official history, the Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục as evidence for the claim that there had been 18 generations of Hùng Kings.

The Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục first records the following:

“King Kinh Dương had a son, Sùng Lãm, who was called Lord Lạc Long. Lord Lạc Long married Âu Cơ, who gave birth to 100 sons. These were the ancestors of the Hundred Yue. The eldest was encouraged to serve as the Hùng King. He succeeded to the sovereign throne and established a kingdom called Văn Lang, with its capital at Phong Region. The position passed through 18 generations, all of which were referred to as Hùng Kings.”

The Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục then follows this with a note explaining the phrase “passed through 18 generations.”

“Gao Xiongzheng’s Treatise on Annan [records that] before Giao Chỉ had commanderies and districts there were lạc fields which followed the rising and falling of the floodwaters. Those who open these fields for cultivation were lạc people. Those who ruled over these people were lạc kings. Those who assisted were lạc generals. They all had bronze seals on green ribbons. This was called the Kingdom of Văn Lang. Its customs were pure and simple, and tying knots was used for administration. It was passed down through 18 generations.”

This passage up through the words “green ribbons” actually originated in an early Chinese text, and it consists of the only recorded information about indigenous rulers in the Red River delta prior to the establishment of Chinese rule.

The final two sentences in the above passage were not in that original text, and are Vietnamese creations. In the late 14th and early 15th centuries, Vietnamese scholars created an antiquity for their land, and they did so by building on whatever limited written records about the past already existed.

What is interesting is that the information which Gao Xiongzheng recorded seems to represent a snapshot of this tradition as it was being invented. He recorded information about “Lạc” Kings ruling for 18 generations. Whereas the Lĩnh Nam chích quái and the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư would later record information about “Hùng” Kings with no reference to how many generations they ruled.

That it is taken for granted today that the Hùng Kings ruled for 18 generations appears to be because Vietnamese scholars in the 19th century consulted Gao Xiongzheng’s work and included this information in the Khâm định Việt sử thông giám cương mục.

So we now know that the Hùng Kings ruled for 18 generations thanks to the fact that Vietnamese scholars in the 19th century consulted a work by a Chinese scholar from the 15th century which recorded information about Lạc Kings who ruled for 18 generations in antiquity. . .

Mang Savages in the Red River Delta

I have long wondered about place names like Phù Đổng. This is the name of a village in the Red River delta. Many of the place names there are in Hán and the characters make sense, such as “rising dragon” for Thăng Long. Phù Đổng, however, is representing sounds, and it’s either the sounds of something in old Vietnamese or another language, because today it doesn’t make any sense.

In many Tai languages, Phù Đổng makes sense as phudong or the “forested mountain/hill” (ภูดง). However, I think linguists argue that Tai words with this “ph” in them are not ancient. They emerged around the time that Southwestern Tai started to develop around say 800 A.D. or so. That is also the time when linguists think Tai peoples started to migrate out of the Guangxi area into mainland Southeast Asia.

In the first half of the twentieth century there was a theory that these Tai peoples had created a kingdom in the area of Yunnan Province called Nanzhao in the eighth and ninth centuries, and had migrated into mainland Southeast Asia when that kingdom went into decline.

This view was challenged by Chinese scholars, who argued that Nanzhao had not been a Tai kingdom, but a kingdom of Tibeto-Burman peoples. This is the view which most scholars follow today.

I have long been suspicious of this view, and I’ve recently started to look at materials from that time period. It is clear to me now that Chinese scholars challenged the idea that Nanzhao had been Tai for political reasons, namely that they did not want Thailand to incite any of the ethnic minorities in the southwest to think of leaving China.

It is also clear to me now that Tai peoples were definitely involved in that kingdom. It may have been multi-ethnic, but Tai peoples definitely played a role. I still need to look at this more closely, but materials from that time make it obvious that Tai were active in the region.

One of the main sources for the Nanzhao period is a book called the Manshu (The Book of Savages), which is about Nanzhao and the various peoples who were in the area at that time. One group it mentions is called the “Mang Savages” (茫蠻).

“Mang” is how the Chinese wrote the Tai term “muang,” meaning a polity. The leader of a Tai muang was called a cao (pronounced like “jao”), and that is exactly what the Manshu says that the Mang Savages called their rulers “mang zhao” (茫詔), which in Tai word order would be the reverse, cao muang.

The Manshu lists a bunch of different groups of Mang Savages who were living in the area of what is today northern Burma, perhaps the ancestors of the Shan who live there today. However, it also makes mention of Mang Savages in the Red River delta.

The Manshu states that on the 21st day of the 12th lunar month in the third year of the Xiantong era [863 A.D.] there was a regiment of 2-3,000 Mang Savage men congregated on the bank of the Tô Lịch River in An Nam.


The Tô Lịch River today flows within the bounds of Hà Nội city. In the ninth century it would have been more distant from the citadel. Nonetheless, this is right in the center of the “Vietnamese” world.

So what happened next? Where did those 2-3,000 men go? Did they settle in Phù Đổng?

Deconstructing the Myth of the Antiquity of the Vietnamese Nation

The online journal, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies, has recently published two articles which deal with the period when “Vietnam” was under “Chinese” rule.

Michael Churchman’s “Before ‘Chinese’ and ‘Vietnamese’ in the Red River Plain: The Han-Tang Period,” looks at the textual evidence for this period and argues none of the people mentioned for this period match our current understanding of the terms “Vietnamese” and “Chinese.” His argument is thus that there were no “Chinese” and “Vietnamese” yet. This is an argument which Charles Holcombe has also made. Churchman’s article, however, looks at this issue in more detail.

Then there is an article on linguistics by John Phan, “Re-Imagining ‘Annam’: A New Analysis of Sino-Viet-Muong Linguistic Contact.” Phan argues that the Vietnamese language emerged when speakers of a local Chinese dialect, what he calls “Annamese Middle Chinese,” switched to speaking a variant of Proto-Vietnamese around the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Prior to this point, he argues, there were a variety of languages/dialects which were spoken in the Red River Plain, and many of them had adopted words from Chinese. However, the switch by some Chinese speakers to using one variant of Proto-Vietnamese led to massive changes in that dialect/language. (I’m not a linguist, but I think I have his argument right).

These studies are helpful in deconstructing the myth of the antiquity of the Vietnamese nation.

The articles can be viewed here:


The Lao Story of the Betel Leaf and the Areca Nut

The “Story of the Betel Leaf and the Areca Nut” is a famous “Vietnamese” story. I have Vietnamese in scare quotes here because the Vietnamese are not the only people who have this story, and it probably did not emerge among the Vietnamese. The reason I say this is because the Vietnamese version is highly Sinicized/Confucianized, whereas those elements are absent in other versions of the story.

What follows is a summary of a Lao version of this story. It comes from a French translation by Pierre-Bernard Lafont of the story which was published in the Bulletin de la Société des Études Indochinoises in 1971. Lafont’s translation in turn was based on some Lao manuscript which the EFEO obtained in 1925.

Obviously it would be better to see a Lao original version, so if anyone who knows where one would be ever reads this, please let me know.

The Lao story is about Sam Luong, Sam Lan and Ing Dai. They are three friends and they study together. Ing Dai is actually a girl, but the other two do not know this. She is also from another village, but is staying in a different village with relatives so that she can go to school. The there are inseparable, and they even sleep on the same bed at times. Then things start to change because Ing Dai’s body starts to change.

At the beginning of the story, they go swimming, and Sam Luong notices that Ing Dai’s breasts have gotten larger, but s/he says that she was bitten by insects the night before, and that they therefore were swollen.

Sam Luong, believing this explanation, then invites Ing Dai to go look for girls with him. S/he agrees, but then when they are passing Ing Dai’s relatives house she tells Sam Luong to go ahead, and to come back to the house later. Ing Dai then goes in and changes into girl’s clothes, and starts to blacken her teeth. When Sam Luong comes back, he sees a beautiful young girl blackening her teeth. Not knowing that it is Ing Dai, he asks if he can blacken his teeth together with her. She says yes, and . . . he leaves early the next morning at the sound of the cock’s crow.

The two then live a double life. They study together during the day, and then make love at night. Sam Luong still doesn’t realize that his classmate during the day is the same person as the girl he stays with at night.

Then Ing Dai is called back to her home. She leaves, and leaves a note for Sam Luong in which she reveals her true identity. Sam Luong goes looking for her. When he finds her, the two are very happy and spend the night together. The next morning, Ing Dai’s mother finds the two sleeping side by side, and gets angry. She says that she will never give her permission for them to marry.

Sam Luong goes back home, but before he does he talks with Ing Dai. They decide that they would rather die than be apart. Then Sam Luong comes up with a plan. He says that he will pretend to die. After he does, he wants Ing Dai to tell her parents that his wish is to be placed in a stone coffin which is big enough to hold two people.

Sam Luong leaves, and pretends to get sick on the way back and then “dies.” His parents go to cut down a tree to make a coffin, but the axe can’t cut the tree. So they send for Ing Dai to see if she knows if Sam Luong had any final wish. She tells them, and they make a stone coffin. Then when it is being transported to the cemetery, Ing Dai asks for the people carrying it to stop and open it. She then gets into the coffin, and somehow it is closed again and the people can’t open it.

The parents of Sam Luong and Ing Dai are sent for, as is the cao muong [i.e., the leader of the muong]. The cao muong orders that the best friend of Sam Luong and Ing Dai, Sam Lan, come to answer questions. The coffin is opened and the two are alive. The parents get angry at the trouble the young people have caused and wish them all dead.

Magically, all of the three young people die right there on the spot, and then they transform. Sam Lan becomes lime, Ing Dai becomes betel leaf, and Sam Luong becomes an areca nut.

Lê Lợi and the Black-Robed Emperor

There are many fields of history where “the facts” have long been figured out. That is definitely not the case with premodern Vietnamese history. To the contrary, historians have barely scratched the surface of the textual evidence for Vietnamese history, and as a result, there is still so much which we don’t know, and so much of what we think we know is not true.

I’m reminded of this every time I look at a premodern manuscript. It invariably happens like this: I find a passage which doesn’t make sense. I then start looking at other related texts to see if I can figure it out, and in the process I stumble across all kinds of new ideas and insights. This weekend it was an incomprehensible official title which set me on such a path.

In the fifteenth century, when Lê Lợi was struggling to gain control of the kingdom from the Ming and their Vietnamese supporters, he obtained the assistance of a Thái man from an area called Mường Mộc. This place would subsequently be referred to as Mộc Subprefecture (Mộc Châu), and is now a district in Sơn La Province.

The Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư contains the following information about this event:

[10/35b] 嘉興鎮木忙父道車可參等歸 [10/36a] 順。授可參入内司空同平章事,知陀江鎮。

“[10/35b] The phụ đạo of Mường Mộc in Gia Hưng Defense Command, Xa Khả Tham, and others [10/36a] submitted. Khả Tham was appointed to the Inner Offices [where he served as?] Manager of Affairs, and was put in charge of Đà River Defense Command.”

Phụ đạo” is a transliteration of a Thái title for a ruler, “phu tao.” Thái polities were referred to as “mường,” and the fact that you had a mường inside a defense command gives a sense of what this mountainous region next to the Red River delta was like. Vietnamese may have felt that they controlled the area by incorporating it into a defense command, a kind of administrative unit, but the fact that it contained a mường which was ruled over by a phu tao demonstrates that Vietnamese had little, if any, actual control over such areas.

In any case, Xa Khả Tham helped Lê Lợi and was rewarded for that. That said, it is a bit difficult to see how exactly he was rewarded, because the title which he was granted does not actually make sense. There must be a typo (a VERY common phenomenon in the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư) because the characters do not constitute a clear title, so I had to guess here at what might have originally been intended.

Wanting to know what the title which Lê Lợi granted to Xa Khả Tham actually was, I turned to some other sources. Given that the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư was the earliest source for this information, later sources cannot really be taken as more accurate, but I was at least curious as to what other sources might say.

So this is what I found in the nineteenth-century Đại Nam nhất thống chí:


“Xa Khả Tham assisted Lê Thái Tổ [i.e., Lê Lợi] to pacify All Under Heaven. For his service he was granted the royal surname, invested as Minister of Works, and was allowed to rule Mộc Subprefecture as his fief. Sons and grandsons succeeded one another.”

Here we have a different title, one which consists of two characters which are contained in the longer title above. Also, this text states that Xa Khả Tham was “invested” (phong) with this title. All of this is different. This text also records that Xa Khả Tham was granted the use of the royal surname of Lê, but that was noted in a later passage of the Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư, so that is not actually different.

So still unclear as to what title Xa Khả Tham may have been granted, I turned to one more text, Hoàng Trọng Chính’s Hưng Hóa phong thổ lục of 1778. This was a local gazetteer of the mountainous region of northern Vietnam, and this is what it had to say about Xa Khả Tham and Lê Lợi:


“Xa Khả Tham assisted Cao Hòang [i.e., Lê Lợi] with his soldiers to pacify All Under Heaven. For his service rendered, he was granted the royal surname, [the title here is a complete mess and does not make any sense!!!], and was allowed to rule Mộc Subprefecture as his fief. He was called the “Black-Robed Emperor.” His sons and grandsons succeeded one another.”

As I was discovering this information, I had in the back of my mind a comment which I read recently by the late great scholar of the Thái in Vietnam, Cầm Trọng. In 1978, Cầm Trọng wrote in Người Thái ở Tây Bắc Việt Nam, “The Thái in the Northwest are one part of the nation of Vietnam. Their consciousness of Vietnam as a unified nation has existed for a long time.” (Người Thái ở Tây Bắc là một bộ phận của dân tộc Việt Nam. Ý thức quốc gia Việt Nam thống nhất ở họ đã có từ lâu rồi.)

In 1978, this is what scholars had to say. Unfortunately, today the situation remains essentially the same. It’s unfortunate because what these passages reveal is that the story of Thái-Vietnamese relations has never been told. If people would put aside the nationalist myth that all of the peoples who currently live within the borders of Vietnam have maintained a conviction since the beginning of time in the unity of Vietnam as a nation, and would look at what historical sources—both Vietnamese and Thái—actually record, then they would find that the past was much more complex.

To be fair, there was a volume which initiated such a process. In 1977, Đặng Nhiêm Vạn edited a volume, Tư liệu về lịch sử và xã hội dân tộc Thái, which contained some information from Thái language historical sources. Unfortunately, however, these materials were summaries of these sources, rather than translations, and therefore lack the accuracy which historians require. The work was also marred by the fact that the contributors, like Cầm Trọng above, had to repeatedly emphasize that the Thái have always been part of a unified Vietnamese nation, and therefore could not examine the real complexity of the past.

The past, however, was complex. The case of Xa Khả Tham makes this evident. For if indeed Xa Khả Tham was referred to as the Black-Robed Emperor, even if it was only the people in his mường who did so, then that completely changes our understanding of “Vietnamese” history, and adds a great deal more complexity.

A White Pheasant and the Sino-Vietnamese Tributary Relationship

This is another story from the Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện). This story is clearly the invention of a medieval scholar. Mention of the Việt Thường clan exists in Chinese sources. It is not clear in Chinese sources, however, where they were from, other than that it was someplace far to the south. What they stand for in Chinese sources is the power of the Chinese emperor. These people supposedly arrived from far away to present tribute (a white pheasant) to the emperor because they had seen signs in the natural world which indicated to them that there was “a sage in the Middle Kingdom.” This surprised the Chinese as they had never heard of the Việt Thường clan and did not know that the emperor’s moral virtue reached so far away that it could lead such distant peoples to make the journey to present tribute.

In this story here, a scholar has taken this information, and has specifically associated it with the area of Vietnam. He also added a conversation about local customs. This is not in the Chinese original, but all of the customs that are mentioned are the stereotypical things which the Chinese pointed out as strange about the various peoples who lived in the southern reaches of the world as it was known to them.

Finally, there is a comment in this story about how Confucius knew about Vietnam (i.e., Văn Lang), but didn’t write about it. Hmmm. . . if he didn’t write about it, then how do we know that he knew about it?

So I read something recently in Vietnamese on the Internet about this story in which the writer was arguing that this story shows that Vietnam was the equal of China during the Zhou dynasty and that the Việt Thường clan went to “study” with the Chinese ruler, who they saw as a sage, and not to present tribute.

Such an interpretation reveals a mind hopelessly enslaved by nationalism. This story has nothing to do with equality or studying with a sage. In fact, it admits what we could call cultural inequality and takes pride in the antiquity of Vietnam’s tributary relationship with its northern neighbor.

I think the person who made those comments was reading this story as if it was actually a record from the Vietnamese side. In reality, however, this is a story which a medieval Vietnamese scholar put together from various extant Chinese sources. It reveals the perspective of a member of the medieval Sinicized elite. To such a person the tributary relationship was a given. He would have known of no other possible way for the world to be organized.

In any case, here is the story. There are a couple of characters in the version of the original that I am using (A. 1200) which I can’t make out, but this doesn’t affect the overall meaning.



During the time of King Cheng of the Zhou, the Hùng king ordered his officials, called the Việt Thường clan, to present a white pheasant to the Zhou. Their words could not be understood, so Zhou Gong [the king’s main assistant] had an emissary make multiple translations and they were finally understood. Zhou Gong asked, “Why did you come?” The Việt Thường responded, “Now there have been no excessive rains in the skies nor rough waves on the seas for three years already. This means that there is a sage in the Middle Kingdom. We therefore came.” Zhou Gong sighed and said, “No governmental orders have been issued [pertaining to you]. My sovereign has not made you a vassal. Moral virtue does not reach [as far as your home]. My Lord has not bestowed gifts [upon you].” He then remembered the Yellow Emperor’s pledge that, “Giao Chỉ is beyond the bounds [of the Middle Kingdom], and it most not be violated.” He then bestowed upon [The Việt Thường] local goods, instructed them, and let them return. The Việt Thường forgot the way back. Zhou Gong ordered that they be granted five carriages, each of which was made such that it could detect the direction of the south. They rode in them past the coasts of Phù Nam/Funan and Lâm Ấp/Linyi. After a year they reached their kingdom. Therefore, south-pointing carriages often lead the way.

Later, when Confucius compiled the Spring and Autumn Annals, he considered that the kingdom of Văn Lang was in the wilds and was not yet equipped with sufficient civility. He therefore did not include information about it.

The old version [of this text] stated that Zhou Gong asked, “Why is it that in Giao Chỉ people cut their hair short, tattoo their bodies, leave their heads uncovered, walk barefoot and have black teeth?” The Việt Thường clan responded that, “We cut our hair to make it easier to enter the mountain forests. We tattoo our bodies with the designs of dragon lords, so that when we swim in the river, serpents will not violate us. We go barefoot to make it easier to climb trees. We engage in slash-and-burn agriculture and leave our heads uncovered to avoid the heat. We chew betel nut to expel impurities, therefore our teeth are black.”

A Fox Corpse, West Lake, and the Divided Population of Medieval Vietnam

The Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lĩnh Nam chích quái liệt truyện) is a collection of short tales which was compiled in the fifteenth century (although some of its content may have been first drafted earlier). Vietnamese scholars today argue that it contains stories which “the people” passed down through the centuries. They therefore see this work as evidence of the antiquity of the “Vietnamese nation.” When one reads the Arrayed Tales, however, it is clear that this is not the case.

Let us examine this issue by looking at one of the tales in this work, “The Story of the Fox Essence” (狐精傳).


The citadel of Thăng Long [lit., “rising dragon”] was formerly called the land of Long Biên. In antiquity no one resided there. Then when Lý Thái Tổ sailed in a boat to the Nhị River crossing, there was a pair of dragons who led the boat. He therefore named it thus [i.e., Thăng Long], and made it the capital. Today it is the capital citadel.

Earlier, to the west of the citadel was a small stone mountain, and to the east it was cushioned by the Tô Lịch River. In a cavern below the mountain there was a white fox with nine tails which was over 1,000 years old. It could transform into a monster and change in myriad ways. It could become a person or a ghost and would move about among the people. At that time, below Mount Tản Viên savages made houses of wood frames and grass. There was a spirit which was numinous and the savages worshipped it. The spirit had long taught the savages to cultivate and weave. It made white robes and clothed them. They were therefore called the “White-Robed Savages.”

The nine-tailed fox transformed into a white-robed person and went amongst the savages. Together with them it sang songs and seduced savage men and women, and then hid them in its small stone cavern. The savages suffered from this. Dragon Lord then dispatched a group from the Six Boards of the Water Palace to draw water upward to attack and smash the small stone cavern. The nine-tailed fox fled. [The group from the Six] Boards of the Water Palace pursued it, destroyed the cavern, and captured and ate the fox. The destroyed area became a deep reservoir. Now it is called “Fox Corpse Pool” (this is the current West Lake). They then erected a shrine (current Kim Ngưu Temple) to suppress the monstrousness [of the nine-tailed fox]. On the western shore of the lake is an open flat area. People have fields which they cultivate. Now this is called Fox Grotto. Where the land is high and pleasing, people have houses where they live. This is now called Fox Village. As for the fox’s cavern, it is now called Lỗ Khước Village.


This story is about a fox essence (狐精), a term which is sometimes translated as “fox spirit.” The fox can be found in fables from all around the globe, but this story here is clearly inspired by the massive number of fox stories from the Chinese literary tradition. Mention of a nine-tailed fox who was over 1,000 years in age are both clear indications that the author of this piece was influence by Chinese fox stories. Therefore, it is clear that this story was not a story which came from “the people,” but from a person literate in Chinese.

The ending of this story makes this point even clearer. Essentially, the place names at the end of the story all relate to the Chinese word for “fox” (hu 狐), a word which a literate Vietnamese at the time would have known from reading Chinese texts and would have pronounced “hồ.” I translated the meaning of some of these terms in the text above, but if we look at how the original characters are pronounced, we can see the play on words which is at work in this story.

Fox Corpse Pool = Hồ Thây Đầm 狐屍潭

West Lake = Hồ Tây in Vietnamese, but written in Chinese in the opposite order (Tây Hồ 西湖)

Fox Grotto = Hồ Động 狐洞

Fox Village = Hồ Thôn 狐村

My guess would be that “Fox Grotto” and “Fox Village” were originally referred to as “Hồ Grotto” and “Hồ Village,” and that people did not know the meaning of “Hồ.” Some scholar who was familiar with these place names then created this story which linked the “hồ” in these two names with the Chinese term for “lake” (hồ) which we find in “West Lake” (Hồ Tây) and then created a fox story to link all of these names together because 1) the Chinese word for fox (hồ) sounds the same as the Chinese word for “lake” (hồ) as well as the names of this grotto and village (both hồ), and 2) he had read plenty of Chinese fox stories. In the end, his story led to a “fox corpse” (Hồ Thây), a term which sounds strikingly similar to the term for West Lake (Hồ Tây). [Note: the one name in this story which does not make sense is Lỗ Khước Village, but in other versions it is Hồ Lỗ 狐魯 or Lỗ Hồ 魯狐 which could make sense as meaning something like “fox pit,” as “lỗ” means a “hole” or “pit” in Vietnamese and “hồ” is the Chinese word for “fox.”]

In other words, only someone who was literate could have understood this story, so it is not a story of “the people.” Its content also points to divisions among the inhabitants of the Red River delta at the time. Mention of “savages” around Mount Tản Viên is one example of this. Mention of a “grotto” near West Lake is another. The term “grotto” is one which the Chinese created to refer to administrative units in border areas which were ruled over by non-Chinese peoples. That there was a grotto near West Lake could be due to the fact that the name was established during the period of Chinese rule and continued to be used afterward, or it could be because the Vietnamese elite at the time had established it because the people living in that area were seen as somehow alien.

There is more which can be said about this story, but the point which I wish to make here is to simply note that 1) it is an elite story, and 2) it points to divisions among the population of the Red River delta. In other words, it is not a story which was passed down by “the people,” because “the people” (in the singular) did not exist.