In the 1950s, students in America were taught that Thomas Jefferson was a great man because he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
Then in the 1960s, African-Americans fought for equal rights, there was a feminist movement, and an intellectual/academic movement known as post-modernism emerged.
Historians responded by looking for African-Americans and women in the American past, and by questioning written sources, rather than simply accepting as “truth” what was written in the past.
Today students in America are taught that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal,” but they are also taught that Jefferson owned slaves from Africa, and that women were not allowed to vote in America at that time. In other words, students are now taught to not accept what was written in the past as “the truth,” but instead are encouraged to understand the past in all of its complexity.
The term “Ngô” is one which scholars have long debated about. As we saw earlier, Ưng Quả explained the term “Ngô” as a general name for the Chinese, and said that in the context of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” that it referred to the Ming.
This is what most people today think, but this is difficult to justify as the term appears extremely rarely in Vietnamese sources, and most of the times that it does it is in the writings of Nguyễn Trãi.
So Nguyễn Trãi wrote about “southern people” and “northern people” in a letter to the Ming officers who were occupying Bắc Giang citadel. He then brought up the topic of a territorial division between “the South” and “the North” in a letter that he wrote to a certain Đả Trung 打忠 and Lương Nhữ Hốt 梁如笏, a Vietnamese collaborator.
I’m not sure who Đả Trung was. There was a Ming officer by the name of Hà Trung/He Zhong 何忠 who served in the region, and I can imagine that it would be possible for someone to mistakenly write “đả” 打 instead of “hà” 何. So perhaps this refers to Hà Trung/He Zhong.
In any case, Lương Nhữ Hốt was a Vietnamese collaborator, and as we will see below, the letter makes it clear that there were Ming troops in the citadel where Lương Nhữ Hốt was stationed, so we can assume that this letter was written to both a Vietnamese collaborator and Ming officers. The purpose of the letter was to get these men to surrender.
In the previous post we saw that Nguyễn Trãi wrote to the Ming soldiers who were defending Bắc Giang citadel 北昌城 (also referred to as Xương Giang citadel 昌江城) and tried to get them to surrender by promising them that if they did so, they would be accepted as “brothers.”
What actually happened in the end? After months of fighting, Bắc Giang citadel eventually fell to Lê Lợi’s forces.
In the opening passage of the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” there is a section which states that: “Our kingdom of Đại Việt is truly a domain of civility [文獻之邦 văn hiến chi bang]. Just as its territorial areas are distinct, so are the customs of the South and North also different.”
[惟我大越之國，實為文獻之邦。山川之封域既殊，南北之風俗亦異。Duy ngã Đại Việt chi quốc, thực vi văn hiến chi bang. Sơn xuyên chi phong vực ký thù, Nam bắc chi phong tục diệc dị. Như nước Đại Việt ta từ trước vốn xưng nền văn hiến đã lâu. Núi sông bờ cõi đã chia phong tục Bắc Nam cũng khác.]
Because I’ve always realized that the history of the Ming occupation of Đại Việt is not a simple story of “the Vietnamese” fighting “the Chinese,” but instead is a very complex story of a competition between “multiple sides” (Vietnamese who supported Lê Lợi, Vietnamese who opposed Lê Lợi, Vietnamese who collaborated with the Ming, Vietnamese who were loyal to the Trần, non-Việt peoples who fought for the Ming, rich people who just wanted to protect their own interests, Chinese who fought against Lê Lợi, Chinese who fought alongside Lê Lợi, factions at the Ming court, different Ming Dynasty emperors, the Ming officials on the ground in Đại Việt, etc.), I’ve always understood that the “Bình Ngô đại cáo,” like the đại cáo/dagao in the Classic of Docments (Kinh Thư), has to be addressing these divisions between people rather than celebrating some unity (as most writings by Vietnamese historians on this topic have done) that clearly did not exist at that time.
I have therefore always tried to see in what way the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” addresses the problems of the time, and particularly the problems within Đại Việt that Lê Lợi faced as he came to power.
After defeating the Ming army that had occupied Đại Việt for some 20 years, Lê Lợi faced a new problem, one that he was unprepared for. He had to find a way to rule over Đại Việt and to show people that he had the legitimacy to do so.
Why was this a problem? There are a couple of main reasons.
Shortly before he died in 1043 BC, King Wu of the Zhou (周武王 Zhou Wuwang) succeeded in overthrowing the Shang Dynasty and establishing a new dynasty under his family name – the Zhou. With his death, however, this newly established Zhou Dynasty faced an uncertain future.
Does the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” represent a decision to break away from an empire and to enter “a pre-existing international order” as “equal to other, similar states” by seeking the approval of the other states in that international order?
Let’s now look at the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” to see to what extent we can find evidence that it was created by “representatives of the people” who had decided together to break away from an empire and to enter “a pre-existing international order” as “equal to other, similar states” by seeking the approval of the other states in that international order.
Let’s begin by looking at who the “Bình Ngô đại cáo” talks about and try to see to what extent it represents the expression of “representatives of the people.”