Việt-Nam Khảo-Cổ Tập-San #1

At the beginning of 1956, the president of the Republic of Vietnam ordered the establishment of the Historical Research Institute (Viện Khảo-Cổ) under the Ministry of Education.

This institute had a broad mission. It was to research about the history and culture of Vietnam from the past to the present and to do so in a multidisciplinary manner.

In 1960 the institute began publishing a journal, the Transactions of the Historical Research Institute (Việt-Nam Khảo-Cổ Tâp-San).

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An Important Text for Vietnamese History that Very Few People Read

In 1932, the École française d’Extrême-Orient published in Hanoi a text called the An Nam chí nguyên/Annan zhiyuan 安南志原. This publication contained an introductory study by Émile Gaspardone in which he attributed this work to a seventeenth century Chinese scholar-official by the name of Gao Xiongzheng 高熊徵, and tried to explain it’s incomprehensible title (The Source of the Treatise on Annan?).


This book has been in libraries in Western countries since that time, but I’ve seen very few scholars cite it. I know that I have seen John Whitmore and Li Tana both cite it, but I can’t recall having seen any other scholars working in Western countries use this work (there probably have been one or two others, but not many).

The same applies to Vietnamese scholars. Although several manuscript editions of this text exist in Vietnam, I think the only scholar I’ve seen cite it is Tạ Chí Đại Trường, but I’m not sure if he came across it while he was in Vietnam or after he went overseas (and again, there must be other people who have cited it, but not many).

Also, as far as I know, this text has never been translated into modern Vietnamese, even though it is one of the earliest texts we have concerning Vietnamese history.

I once asked someone why that is the case, and that person’s response was that “It is because it’s Chinese. . .”


In 1992, Zhang Xiumin 張秀民 published an essay on this text in which he argued that it is a combination of two texts: the Annan zhi jiyao 安南志既要 [Summary of the Treatise on Annan] by Gao Xiongzheng and the Jiaozhi zongzhi 交阯縂志 [Comprehensive Gazetteer of Jiaozhi].

According to Zhang Xiumin, the Jiaozhi zongzhi is a local gazetteer (difang zhi 地方誌) that was compiled in the early fifteenth century during the Ming occupation. As such, this is an extremely important text as it contains some of the earliest information recorded about that region.

Vietnamese scholars are skeptical of information about the region that was preserved in “China.” They suspect that this information was altered for political purposes.

Personally I find such suspicions to be very difficult to document, and also difficult to believe. Meanwhile, one of the most valuable texts for understanding Vietnamese history remains un-read, un-researched, and un-translated year after year after year.

For those who read Chinese, I’ve attached Zhang Xiumin’s essay below.

Zhang Xiumin

The Đại Nam nhất thống toàn đồ and the Mapping of the Mekong

I asked in a post below where the Đại Nam nhất thống toàn đồ (Complete Map of Unified Đại Nam) comes from. I see it a lot, and it is often referred to as dating from the 1830s, but I’ve never seen a source for this map. I’ve only found it reproduced in other works, such as the Nam Bắc Kỳ hội đồ (Illustrated Maps of the Southern and Northern Regions).


I finally decided to investigate this matter a bit and found that this map apparently appears in a 1929 work by P. A. Lapique called A Propos des Iles Paracels. Further, it apparently says below the map in that work that the map was extracted from the Hoàng Việt địa dư (Geography of the August Việt [Domain]) of the Minh Mạng era (1830s).

There are problems with this assertion, and some scholars have noted this. First of all, we have no evidence that the Hoàng Việt địa dư ever contained a map. Second, some of the terms on the map only came into use later. As a result, one discussion of this map that I read concluded that the map must date from some time between 1854 and 1875.


All of this is fine and logical, but there is one aspect about this map which I haven’t seen anyone address (though perhaps someone has mentioned this somewhere and I’m just not aware of it).

The Đại Nam nhất thống toàn đồ has the Mekong River running right though it, and the Mekong River wasn’t even explored until the late 1860s.

Further, in looking at (what I believe is) the first published full account of that expedition, Francis Garnier’s Voyage D’Exploration en Indo-Chine that was published in 1885, 12 years after Garnier’s death, I see that there is no map of the Mekong in this work.

exped book

So this made me wonder when the earliest map of the Mekong River appeared. I don’t have the answer yet, but one thing that I realize is that the Mekong started to appear on maps long before people actually understood it and were truly able to “map it.”


This 1764 map (Carte des royaumes de Siam, de Tunquin, Pegu, Ava Aracan, &c.) has the Mekong, but it’s not very accurate.


This one from 1780 (Les Isles Philippines, celle de Formose, Le Sud de La Chine, Les Royaumes de Tunkin. . .) is more accurate and realistic. But how did that happen? Did somebody go and map the region more accurately in the intervening years?


And then there is this one from 1864 (Map of the Burman Empire Including also Siam, Cochin-China, Ton-King, and Malaya. J…). This was created before the French Mekong expedition took off. This map represents the region in quite a bit of detail, and yet if you read the accounts of the expedition, the travelers got very confused at times about where they were.


Nineteenth-century Vietnamese maps also show the Mekong, but not very accurately.

This gets us back to the Đại Nam nhất thống toàn đồ. The one thing that is clear is that this is not a 100% “Vietnamese map.” Instead, I would argue that it is a “composite map” that combines together information from earlier Vietnamese and Western maps.

The detail with which the Mekong is depicted, appears to come from Western maps. And that line around islands also seems to have been inspired by a Western map, as you don’t see this on other Vietnamese maps (as far as I know).


What remains unclear to me is whether the Đại Nam nhất thống toàn đồ was based to some extent on a Western map that was made before or after the Mekong had been fully explored.

Given that Westerners had already made maps of the river before it had been fully explored, it is possible that the Đại Nam nhất thống toàn đồ could have been created between 1854 and 1875. Indeed, there was a serious effort in those years to produce geographical information about the kingdom.

If that is the case, however, then we have to be really suspicious about what it represents, and what the map makers actually knew.

If Westerners made maps without really knowing the territory, and if Vietnamese then made maps that were in part based on such Western maps. . . then to what extent can we say that these maps represent reality?

Nguyễn Phương’s Lost History

I’ve written briefly about the work of the historian Nguyễn Phương on this blog before. Nguyễn Phương published a book in Vietnamese in Huế in the 1960s called Việt Nam thời khai sinh [Vietnam at the Time of its Birth] (Huế: Phòng Nghiên Cứu Sử, Viện Đại Học Huế, 1965).

It essentially argued that the Vietnamese were people who migrated southward into the Red River Delta in the first millennium AD. By the tenth century their numbers had become big enough, and they had developed common interests, and this all led to the emergence of a separate state in the region at that time.


Over a decade after publishing that work, Nguyễn Phương wrote a book in English on the same topic, entitled “The Ancient History of Việt-Nam: A New Study.” This book, however, was never published.

I don’t know the details of Nguyễn Phương’s life, but in the acknowledgements section of “The Ancient History of Việt-Nam,” he makes it clear that he left South Vietnam in 1975, and then was offered a grant to go study in the US. This is what he wrote:


I left Vietnam last year, when it stopped to be free. . . Homeless and stateless, when I was month after month confined in St. John’s Island, Singapore. All my work, all my career, seemed condemned to be ended for ever. . . Fortunately, I was accepted into the United States, where [the] Ford Foundation gave me a fellowship to study history. Of course I was deeply grateful for this grant.

But how much I was more so, when the subject agreed upon was the ancient history of Vietnam, because while studying it, I felt that I still have a country that had successfully managed to be free.

So thanks to [the] Ford Foundation, I know more about the basic part of Vietnam history. Now I am happy to present it to the benevolent Foundation and to the public.

Nguyen Phuong

November, 1976

Ancient History

“The Ancient History of Việt-Nam” is quite different from Việt Nam thời khai sinh. The later work is not merely an English-language translation of the earlier work.

Nonetheless, the main argument is the same – that “Chinese colons” grew in numbers and overtook the “autochthons” or indigenous people and became, by the tenth century AD, the Vietnamese.

To quote,

“It was these descendants of Chinese colons who grew into the majority of the population, especially after the defeat of Trưng Trắc, that constituted the Vietnamese. They were gradually aware of their common interests, of their identity, and of the possibility, even the necessity, of being politically independent from China.”

“As the uprising of Trưng Trắc was the last attempt of the autochthons to regain tribal power, the uprising of the colon Lý Bí was the first attempt of the Vietnamese to initiate a new country.”

“Lý Bí failed as Trưng Trắc did, but Trưng Trắc marked an end, while Lý Bí a beginning, which would come into full realization with Đinh Bộ Lĩnh.” (pg. 181)


I once heard that Nguyễn Phương spent the time writing this book at Cornell University. At that time, the main historian there who worked on Vietnam was O. W. Wolters.

Nguyễn Phương’s ideas did not fit with those of O. W. Wolters. For Wolters, Vietnam was part of Southeast Asia, and therefore the Vietnamese had to be different from the Chinese. In his writings on Vietnam, he repeatedly emphasized that even though Vietnamese wrote in Chinese, it meant something different. He thus argued that the Vietnamese “drained” Chinese texts of their original meaning and used them for their own purposes. . .

I’m not sure why Nguyễn Phương’s manuscript never got published, but the only copy of it that I know of is in the Cornell University library. While Nguyễn Phương stated in his acknowledgements that he was presenting the completed work to the Ford Foundation and to the public, no “public” has ever seen it, as far as I know. It is a “lost history.”


Nguyễn Phương’s idea that it was migrants to the Red River Delta who became the Vietnamese when their numbers grew big enough that they became the majority is too simplistic of an explanation for what may have taken place in the past. For instance, one could make the argument that a minority elite could have established cultural practices and norms that over time came to be adopted by the majority.

So I don’t agree with Nguyễn Phương’s argument, but I find it to be much closer to the truth than what O. W. Wolters wrote about Vietnam. And while it can take a long time, I think the truth eventually gets revealed and accepted.

I was at a conference recently where a senior scholar presented a very good paper on Vietnamese history that was much more in line with the views of Nguyễn Phương than those of O. W. Wolters. . .

I’m attaching below files of Nguyễn Phương’s two works, the one that was published and the one that we might call his “lost history.”

“The Ancient History of Việt-Nam”

Nguyen Phuong C2-3 Nguyen Phuong C4-5 Nguyen Phuong C6-7 Nguyen Phuong C8-9 Nguyen Phuong Epilogue Nguyen Phuong Intro & C1

Việt Nam thời khai sinh


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.

Việt Nam’s Glorious History of. . . Conquest

In the early twentieth century, Vietnamese historical writing changed dramatically. After producing historical scholarship for centuries that highlighted the achievements and failures of monarchs, in the early twentieth centuries some Vietnamese scholars began to produce historical scholarship that focused on “the nation” (dân tộc).

This was a way of writing history that had originated in the West. As Vietnamese scholars became familiar with this way of viewing the past, they also learned about other popular concepts in the West at that time, such as the theories of evolution and Social Darwinism.

We saw evidence of this in Dương Bá Trác’s “An Examination of Việt History” (Việt sử khảo) that we discussed in the previous post. In that work, Dương Bá Trác argued that Việt Nam had not evolved much in the past because it had lacked competition from neighboring kingdoms.

Four years after Dương Bá Trác published that article in the journal Nam Phong, Lê Dư, writing under the pseudonym of Sở Cuồng, published in that same journal an article that was also influenced by these same new theories.

Entitled “Việt Nam’s Glorious History” (“Việt Nam quang vinh chi lịch sử” 越南光榮之歷史), Lê Dư’s article encourages people to follow the guidance of the French to modernize the nation. While perhaps Lê Dư intended for people to read between the lines and to envision a future without the guidance of the French some day. Whatever the case may have been, he tried to inspire his fellow Vietnamese by showing them the vitality and achievements of their ancestors.

What exactly were their achievements? According to Lê Dư there were two main achievements in the past. The first was that Việt Nam was never annexed by its powerful northern neighbor. And the second was that Việt Nam had instead annexed other kingdoms itself.

Lê Dư begins his essay by saying that the Middle Kingdom [and since he uses Trung Quốc 中國 rather than Chi Na 支那, as Dương Bá Trạc did, my translation here is different] had annexed numerous kingdoms in Asia in the past. Kingdoms like Qi, Chu, Yan, and Zhao were all destroyed.

“How ferocious and powerful the Middle Kingdom is!” Lê Dư says. And yet somehow Việt Nam was historically able to exist beside this ferocious and powerful land without being (permanently) annexed.

As remarkable as this was, what made Việt Nam’s history even more impressive to Lê Dư was that it had not only avoided being annexed by its “ferocious and powerful” northern neighbor, but that it had annexed other kingdoms itself.

Lê Dư notes that when Việt Nam was established at the time of the Hùng kings, its territory was no bigger than that of a province in the Middle Kingdom. Nonetheless, Việt Nam was able to expand from its tiny land and to encompass the area of several kingdoms. “Is that not the most glorious and remarkable of achievements?” Lê Dư rhetorically asks.

Lê Dư then goes on to discuss some of the kingdoms that Việt Nam came to annex. He starts with Champa [Chiêm Thành 占城] and notes that the area of this kingdom was not small, as it extended from the sea in the east to Ai Lao in the west, and from Hoàn Châu in the north to Water Zhenla [Thủy Chân Lạp 水真臘] in the south.

He then mentions a few key moments in the gradual conquest and annexation of Champa over a roughly 500-year period from 1044 to 1691. Lê Dư then concludes this passage by declaring that “The final day of the extermination of the kingdom of Champa is the day of commemoration for the completion of the martial achievements of Our Việt.”


Lê Dư then goes on to recount how the area of Water Zhenla, which he says is the same as the eastern part of present-day Cambodia [Cao Man 高蠻], was similarly annexed to become the southern third of Việt Nam, or Nam Kỳ.

He then concludes by reiterating the point that “Our Việt Nam not only did not get annexed by the Northern Kingdom, but was able to annex several kingdoms to expand its territory to this great extent.”

And finally, he calls on his fellow Vietnamese to honor this heritage by moving towards an even brighter future that the guidance of the French in modernizing people’s knowledge affords.

This article is not unique. To the contrary, there were many writings by Vietnamese intellectuals in the early twentieth century that glorified the historical expansion of Vietnamese control and the conquest of the Cham and Khmer.

This perspective is of course very different from the one that we tend to hear today – the history of “Vietnamese resistance to foreign aggression” – but in the end these two perspectives are in many ways the same.

Both the glorification of conquest of others and the glorification of resistance against others are ultimately political statements, rather than historical ones. The complexity of the past can never be reduced to single perspectives or categorizations. However, that is precisely what Lê Dư attempted to do in this article, and what countless writers who have promoted the resistance to foreign aggression narrative have done in the past half century.

The drawn map above comes from Phạm Văn Sơn’s 1949 work, The History of the Struggle of Vietnam [Việt Nam tranh đấu sử].

The two other images above come fromèque nationale de France.

The citation for the essay discussed in this post is Sở Cuồng [Lê Dư], “Việt Nam quang vinh chi lịch sử” 越南光榮之歷史 [Việt Nam’s Glorious History], Nam Phong 58 (4/1922): 20-21.

Dương Bá Trác on the Historical Evolution of Vietnamese Society

A few months ago I wrote a post on a scholar from the early twentieth century, Dương Bá Trác, and his ideas about the origins of the Vietnamese race as expressed in an article that he wrote entitled “An Examination of Việt History” (Việt sử khảo) that appeared in Vietnamese and classical Chinese (or Hán) in the same issue (December 1918) of the journal Nam Phong.

Later in that same essay, Dương Bá Trác discusses what the Vietnamese version calls “the level of evolution” (tiến hóa trình độ), and what in the Hán version is labeled as “the level of the citizens” (quốc dân trình độ 國民程度). What does this refer to? Let us let Dương Bá Trác explain.

Dương Bá Trác says that in distant antiquity, people’s knowledge was simple and crude. As the world became more open-minded (khai thông 開通), humankind evolved. This, he says, is the law of natural development (thiên diễn công lệ 天演公例).

Although China (Chi Na 支那) was historically powerful, Dương Bá Trác  argues that its power had limits. And while it did launch numerous southern invasions, Dương Bá Trác states that the strategy of the kingdom was to present documents filled with empty words declaring to be a vassal of the Middle Kingdom and then the kingdom was left in peace.

Meanwhile, to the west, Ai Lao was within the kingdom’s sphere of influence. Siam and Burma were not enemy kingdoms. Therefore, there was no competition in the area surrounding the kingdom, and all was at peace in the four directions.

What is more, within the kingdom there were sufficient resources for people’s livelihood. “To travel there was no need for steam ships or trains. To live there was no need for tall buildings or beautiful pavilions. There was no need for food and clothing to be luxurious or attractive.”

And whether it be digging a well or cultivating a field, there was nothing that people had to do, because nature had provided them with so much.

It is therefore not surprising to Dương Bá Trác that such a people who enjoyed a life of ease and did not have to compete would lack the impetus to evolve like Europeans did. Nonetheless, the people had evolved over time, and Dương Bá Trác divided this process of evolution into three periods.

The Vietnamese translation simply lists the three periods, which it labels the primitive (hồng hoang) age, the savage (giã man) age, and the semi-civilized (bán khai) age.

The Hán version of this text, however, provides details about each period. It calls the first the primeval (hỗn độn 混沌) age and says that it lasted from the time of the Hùng kings to Kinh An Dương. At that time there were stories about things like a sac with 100 eggs (the children of Lạc Long Quân and Âu Cơ), a turtle claw and goose feathers (from the story of Mỵ Châu and Trọng Thủy) because the people then were like the people in the Middle Kingdom in high antiquity who lived in caves in the wild and who ate raw meat and blood.

This period was followed by the era of savagery which began when the region came under the internal jurisdiction (nội thuộc) of the Eastern Han. At that time people learned to use weapons and to write, however their writings were hollow.

The savagery of this age, however, can be seen in the cruel manner in which people engaged in warfare. During the time of Le Thánh Tông, for instance, the corpse of the ruler of Champa, Trà Toàn, was decapitated and his head was stuck on the front of a boat.

In addition, the court relied on geomancy and the common people believed in prophecies. This, according to Dương Bá Trác, was far from the world of rationality in Europe.

The third era that Vietnamese society had evolved into was the “half-open-minded era” (bán khai thông半開通). At the end of the Tự Đức reign, before “new learning” had entered the kingdom, there were already those who requested that people be sent overseas to study military techniques in Europe. They also requested that the ports be opened so that trade could be undertaken with the myriad countries.

Now, according to Dương Bá Trác, the times had changed and there were great opportunities for the land to evolve and to head into the civilized (khai hóa 開化)  age.

The Hán version at this point is damaged, and there is some text that is not visible, but it does not appear to mention what the Vietnamese translations does, which is that the civilized country of Great France was guiding the Vietnamese into the civilized age. Nonetheless, the Hán version makes it clear that at the very least what made the civilized age “civilized” was that it was Westernized.

There is much that one could say about this short passage. First, it is interesting to see the ways in which Dương Bá Trạc attempted to reinterpret Vietnamese history by using the categories of race (discussed in the earlier post) and evolution. Second, it is also interesting to note that these categories are no longer used.

This then leads one to think about how Vietnamese history is organized and interpreted. The way that Vietnamese history is represented changed significantly over the course of the twentieth century. Dương Bá Trác’s ideas here represent some efforts from the early twentieth century. There were many others who followed him, and who offered different explanations for how we should understand Vietnamese history.

While it is easy to find flaws in Dương Bá Trác’s ideas, it is also easy to find flaws in concepts like the grand narrative of “resistance to foreign aggression” that is used today to categorize the Vietnamese past. Here it is particularly interesting to see how Dương Bá Trác felt that Vietnam had not been threatened enough in the past, and that this lack of “competition” had led it to stagnate and not evolve.

While we don’t have to believe Dương Bá Trác’s argument, the fact that he came up with a view of the Vietnamese past which was in many ways the opposite of the widely-held view today of a long history of resistance to foreign aggressors does call into question how valid the present view is.

Obviously there is more than one way to view the Vietnamese past. As for the most accurate depiction of Vietnamese history, I think all of this suggests that there is still room to “evolve” into yet another age.

(There is a pdf file of the Vietnamese version of Dương Bá Trác’s essay at the bottom of the earlier post – here.)

(Also, the two images above come fromèque nationale de France.

Early Vietnamese History Translations

I just saw an announcement on an email listserv that I’m on for a site which has translations of texts that deal with early Vietnamese history.

The site has English-language translations and searchable Hán text for the following materials:

1. The Outer Annals (Ngoại kỷ) of the Complete Book of the Historical Records of Đại Việt (Đại Việt sử ký toàn thư)

2. 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)

3. The Arrayed Tales of Selected Oddities from South of the Passes (Lính Nam chích quái liệt truyện)

The link to the page is here. Enjoy!!

Chen Jinghe’s 1950 Study of Kẻ

“Kẻ” is a Vietnamese word which many scholars have attempted to explain. I have yet to hear a convincing explanation. In this post here I am going to provide a summary of what the Taiwanese scholar, Chen Jinghe (Trần Kinh Hóa), wrote about this term in 1950.

[Chen Jinghe 陳荊和, “Yuenan Dongjing difang zhi techeng ‘Kẻ’” 越南東京地方之特稱“Kẻ” [The unique name “Kẻ” in the Tonkin region of Vietnam], Guoli Taiwan daxue wen shi zhe xuebao 國力臺灣大學文史哲學報 1 (1950): 201-235.]

I’m not clear where kẻ came from, and I’m not sure if it is related to cổ/gu 古 as Chen Jinghe argues in his article. A lot has been written about this, and Chen Jinghe’s article probably doesn’t add much that is new, but it was an impressive piece of work for a young scholar to produce in 1950, and it is still worth reading.

As far as I know, unlike his article on the term “Giao Chỉ” that I discussed here, this article was never translated into Vietnamese. I’ve attached the original Chinese version below. For those who cannot read Chinese, I’m providing a summary of his (long) argument here.

Chen Jinghe – Ke

What follows are Chen Jinghe’s ideas. Not mine. This is a summary of his article.

Since the final centuries of the BC period, place names in the Red River delta have historically been written with two Chinese characters. However, they also had demotic (i.e., Việt or some other language) names which consisted of a single “word” preceded by a term for some physical marker like hồ (lake), chợ (market) or chùa (temple). These demotic names which follow a physical marker can be categorized in one of three ways:

1. At times a word which has the same or similar sound as one of the Chinese characters is used.

2. At times a word which has the same meaning as one of the Chinese characters is used.

3. At times a word which is unrelated in sound and meaning to the Chinese-character name is used.

While many demotic names are preceded by some physical marker, like hồ, or chợ, or chùa, many are preceded by this term kẻ. The most famous example is the demotic name for Hanoi = Kẻ Chợ (Chợ = market).

However, Chen Jinghe found other examples from the writings of French scholars in the twentieth century, as well as French missionaries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (he had to find examples there because the Vietnamese did not write these names themselves. They recorded the Chinese versions of village names).

Place names that began with kẻ were found all over northern Vietnam, but as you moved into the center they started to lessen in number, and disappeared in the south. So it is by no means the case that these were only in the “borderlands.” Some examples (diacritics not provided in the article) from northern Vietnam include:

Ke Loi, Ke Tuom, Ke Noi, Ke Mai, Ke Chinh, Ke Bac, Ke Mle, Ke Som, Ke Blou, Ke Thap Tuc, Ke Dou Tri, Ke Vac, Ke Rua, Ke Coi, and on and on. . .

Most early Vietnamese dictionaries simply say that kẻ means “person.” However, Gustave Hue’s Dictionnaire Annamite-Chinois-Francais (Saigon: Trung Hoa, 1937) also says that it is a numeral for villages, and that it precedes the name of Vietnamese villages.

This doesn’t satisfy Chen, so he keeps looking for answers. Here he makes an interesting discovery. In the seventeenth century there were four large administrative units around Hanoi, which more or less corresponded to the four directions the official names of which were as follows: Sơn Nam [mountain + south], Sơn Tây [mountain + west], Kinh Bắc [capital + north], and Hải Dương [sea + sun].

A work published in France in 1653 (Divers Voyages et Missions du P. Alexandre de Rhodes), however, refers to these four administrative regions as Kenam [nam = south], Ketay [tây = west], Kebac [bắc = north], and Kedom [“dom” = đông = east].

Then below each of these names, the map has in French “or the residents of the south/west/north/east” etc. So it says, for instance, “Ketay ou Habitans (sic.) a l’Occident. These were probably the colloquial names of these regions, and they were somehow translated as meaning “residents” rather than places.

While this may have just been a case of something getting lost in translation, it gets Chen Jinghe onto the topic of looking at kẻ as meaning “person” or “people.” He finds that European travelers around the same time recorded that the Vietnamese referred to the “savages” in the mountains as “ke moi.” The meaning in Vietnamese of moi on its own is “savage,” and is a derogatory term for the peoples in the Central Highlands.

He also notes that kẻ is used in limited ways in spoken Vietnamese to mean person/people. There are expressions like kẻ giầu người nghèo [person rich person poor = “some are rich, some are poor”] where kẻ is combined with the more common Vietnamese word for person, người.

He then goes off on a long digression about premodern Vietnamese social structure and argues that Vietnamese lived in compact, specialized villages, and that kẻ could mean not “person” but “a group of people” in such a setting. And indeed, in its limited modern usage, kẻ is sometimes used like that, to refer to a group of people of a certain type (kẻ chợ = people who live in a lively town environment).

Turning to a related topic, Chen Jinghe then also points out that there are many official Chinese place names in Vietnam that start with a “k/g” sound. Here he lists many village names which start with characters like cổ/gu 古.

He cites the work of a Chinese scholar — Xu Songshi 徐松石, Taizu, Zhuangzu, Yuezu kao 泰族徨族粵族考 [Research on the Tai, Zhuang and Yue (i.e., Cantonese)] (Yongning, Zhonghua shuju, 1946), 208-9 — who says that the character cổ/gu 古 used in place names comes from Zhuang and that is has been interpreted in many ways, from meaning “I” to a classifier (個), to meaning a mountain with no vegetation on it (which he says is “khaw,” from where we get the common term in Central Thai for mountain, “khaaw”). He also mentions that such place names can be found from Anhui all of the way to Guangxi, an area where he argues Tai speakers historically inhabited.

Xu Songshi also cites a work which was published in 1877 — Xu Yanxu’s 徐延旭 Yuenan jilue 越南輯略 [Brief compilation on Vietnam] — which apparently contains a map of the districts in Vietnam when it was under Chinese control in the early fifteenth century. It has district names such as the following:

Cỏ Bảng 古榜, Cổ Lão 古老, Cổ Lễ 古禮, Cổ Dũng 古勇, Cổ Nông 古農 (and many more names that begin with cổ/gu), Na Ngạn 那岸, Đa Cẩm 多錦, Tư Dung 思容, Điều Yên 調安.

According to Xu Songshi, cổ, na (field), đa, tư, and điều are all Zhuang words. But he doesn’t say what these other words mean.

Based on this connection with Tai-speaking peoples that Xu Songshi made, Chen Jinghe then argued that cổ/gu 古 was related to the Tai word for person, “khon.” He argued further that kẻ and khon came from a common source, and that cổ/gu 古 was one of the ways that it was transcribed in Chinese.

He then lists the word for person in several languages. In addition to the various cases of kon, kun, can, he also has the following:

White Tai: Ke (adult, for peoples around 25-40 — and for this he cites Georges Minot, “Dictionnaire Tay-blanc Francaise,” BEFEO 40 (1940), 92.) [This is not very convincing because they also have the word kun for person/people (p. 102).]

Red Tai: Po ke (male person) and Me ke (female person) — R. Robert, Notes sur les Tay Deng de Lang Chang, Thanh-hoa, Annam (Hanoi: Impr. d’Extrême-Orient, 1941), 128. I checked this and saw that there is also the term ke mo, “sorcerer” (p. 129).

In conclusion, all of the above information can be summarized as follows:

You apparently have place names stretching from central Vietnam to Anhui which were written starting with the Chinese character cổ/gu 古, or other similar sounding characters. Xu Songshi and then Chen Jinghe argued that this represents a Tai word for person/people.

You also have all of these spoken place names that start with kẻ in northern and north-central Vietnam. Chen Jinghe and others argues that this word can mean person/people.

Chen Jinghe then concluded that this was a sign that there historically were Tai in the Red River Delta. Today I don’t think Tai linguists would agree, as they see Tai-speaking peoples remaining in the area of what is today Guangxi until around 1,000 AD, when they started to migrate out of that region.

Chen Fu’s Visit to Đại Việt in 1293

I mentioned in the post below about the various Lý Công Uẩn films that there is an account that a Chinese envoy who visited Đại Việt in 1293 CE wrote. It is called the Annan jishi (An Nam tức sự) and it contains interesting information about life in the Red River Delta region at that time.

Of course 1293 was later than the time of Lý Công Uẩn, but works like this one can help us understand what life was like in those centuries better than our current imaginations can. So it is worth reading.

Professor Trần Nghĩa translated this work into Vietnamese in the early 1970s. I don’t have the actual publication information, but I think his translation appeared in Tạp chí văn học in 1972.

For anyone interested, I’m attaching his translation here, along with a copy of the text in its original form, classical Chinese.

The original version can be found in Chen Fu 陳孚, Annan jishi 安南即事 [Present Matters in Annan], (1293 C.E.), in Gu Sili 顧嗣立, Yuan shixuan erji 元詩選二集 [The Second Collection of Yuan Poetry], (1702 C.E.), Siku Quanshu ed., 6/52b-6/59a.

Tran Nghia – Chen Fu

Annan jishi