How Nguyễn Phúc Khoát Declined to Become Emperor

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, “Vietnam” was under the rule of a single dynasty, the Lê Dynasty, but the land was actually divided in two, with each half ruled over by a separate family – the Trịnh in the north and the Nguyễn in the south (or Đàng Trong, as that region was also known).

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Trịnh had long been granted the title of “prince” (vương 王) by the Lê emperor, while the Nguyễn had long held the lesser title of “commandery duke” (quận công 郡公).

Then in 1744, Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh, an official in Đàng Trong, appears to have requested that the head of the Nguyễn family, Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, declare himself to be an emperor (see the previous posts for a detailed discussion of that issue).

Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, however, did not take the title of emperor, but instead, assumed the title of “prince” like his Trịnh counterpart in the north.

What follows is a translation of Nguyễn Phúc Khoát’s announcement of his change in title.

There is a lot about this document that needs to be explained, and therefore, the straight translation that follows will at times not make sense. However, we’ll explain what this document means in future posts, and will begin at the end of this post by looking at the passages where Nguyễn Phúc Khoát rejected the idea of becoming emperor.



On the Kỷ mùi day, His Highness ascended to the princely position at the main residence in Phù Xuân and issued an edict granting amnesty to all within the borders.

詔曰,                       The edict stated:

天地施作解之仁,    Heaven and Earth extend the benevolence of their mercy,

普垓埏而大洽,        Reaching the farthest extremes and spreading everywhere.

王后順乘乾之道,    The sovereign follows the principle of ascending the ultimate,

嘉品彙以維新,        Blessing all things and bringing about renewal.

金玉式昭,               [As] gold and jade shrine with brightness,

絲綸誕播。                  [May] this imperial decree be broadcast far and wide.

我國家,                       Our dominion,

烏州發迹,                  Rose to prominence in Ô châu,

駿命肇邦。               With a grand mandate, a realm was created.

皇祖虎視一方,         The imperial progenitor glanced like a tiger on one region,

半壁之山河有截,     The distinct half of a realm;

神宗龍驤七縣,        The divine forefather pranced like a dragon on seven districts,

重金之土宇幾收。    A soon-to-be acquired territory of riches.

霸圖方大經營,         The hegemonic plan enlarged their labors,

天眷誔增式廓。         Heaven’s assistance expanded the scale.

明廟載揚,               Praise to the illustrious ancestor!

撻武東浦之狐潜。Whipping up martial [prowess], he struck fear in the hiding foxes in Đông Phố.

考王於穆,               Hail to the paternal prince!

右文鼓南民于魚躍。He valued civil affairs and roused the leaping fish for the southern people.

四方仰光華之治,     The glorious administration is admired by people from the four directions,


累世流豐芑之仁。     And the benevolence of education has been transmitted through the generations.

玉檢可封,                  The jade case should be sealed;

尚鬱山川之望,         To keep amassing the hope of the mountains and rivers,

桓圭未改,                  The audience tablet has not changed;

長懸葵藿之心,     To long maintain the intent of the sunflower and bean leaf.

肆予冲人紹兹令緒,Having inherited from my predecessors such a brilliant mighty enterprise,

方布七年之政,        I have only declared my rule for seven years,

未宣六月之威,        And have yet to announce the mightiness of the sixth month.

深思統未混,            Considering carefully that unity has still not been achieved,

賊未平,                   And that bandits have still not been pacified,

奮發期繩祖武,        I am making efforts to follow my ancestors’ footsteps.

詎意僉合謀,            To my surprise, others have strategized together,

神合吉,                   And the spirits have created auspiciousness together;

慇懃屢請徽稱,        Sincerely requesting numerous times [that I accept] the beautiful name,

日者大小具孚,        Recently old and young all showed their trust,

濟蹌在列,               Respectfully presenting themselves [before me].

龍或躍,                   The dragon is hesitating to leap,

而乾爻在四,            The line of Càn/Qian is on the fourth,

猶用撝謙,               It is still necessary to wave the banner of modesty.

馬利貞,                   The horse is advantageous and firm,

而坤義迪三,            The meaning of Khôn/Kun has opened the third,

普同勸進,               All encourage [me] to advance [to the throne].

度德屢辭于在四,    Appraising my moral strength, I have declined repeatedly,

同心難遏于三千,    Feeling sympathy, it is difficult to suppress [the desire of] the many.

匪出我懷,               Although not coming from what I harbor inside,

姑從輿望,               I will provisionally follow the people’s wish,


乃於今年四月十二日,And on this twelfth day of the fourth lunar month of the current year,

踐王位,                   Step upon the prince’s throne,

肆赦境内,               And grant amnesty to all within the borders,

于以闡八葉重光之慶,In order to extol the glorious blessings of eight generations,

于以孚四方利見之情,And in order to be sincere to the sentiments of the four directions for an advantageous meeting

維爾臣民式霑美化,You officials and people will be blessed with a beautiful transformation.

於戲,                           Alas!

新天命于一德,         Renewing the mandate of Heaven with uniform virtue,

載光公劉后稷之輿圖,Conveyed glory to the territory of Gong Liu and Hou Ji,

措人世于太和,         Ordering human affairs with great harmony,

冀覩有虞成周之宇宙。Offered hope to see the domain of You Yu and Cheng Zhou.


There are two passages in this document where Nguyễn Phúc Khoát responds directly to Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh’s request that he declare himself to be an emperor. At the end of his petition, Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh noted that Nguyễn Phúc Khoát controlled much more territory than the Shang Dynasty did in antiquity (and that he therefore had the potential to create an empire), and yet that he was still an “audience tablet” holder, that is, an official serving an emperor – the Lê Dynasty emperor in this case.

Nguyễn Phúc Khoát responded to that comment by stating the following:

玉檢可封,                  The jade case should be sealed;

尚鬱山川之望,         To keep amassing the hope of the mountains and rivers,

桓圭未改,                  The audience tablet has not changed;

長懸葵藿之心,            To long maintain the intent of the sunflower and bean leaf.

The term “jade case” (ngọc kiểm 玉檢) is a very specific term that was first mentioned in an annotation to a passage in the History of the Han (Hanshu 漢書) about Emperor Wu of the Han’s performance of the Feng and Shan 封禪 sacrifices at Mount Tai.

These sacrifices were practiced from the Zhou Dynasty period onward. In performing this ritual, the emperor erected a stone on which was carved his (military) accomplishments, and he made announcements to Heaven and Earth.

The texts that contained those announcements were sealed in different containers, one being a “jade case,” as these texts were considered to be the private communications between the emperor and Heaven.

The Feng and Shan sacrifices were a very important ritual for establishing and maintaining the relationship between the emperor and Heaven. However, by saying that “The jade case should be sealed; to keep amassing the hope of the mountains and rivers,” Nguyễn Phúc Khoát appears to have indicated that it was not time yet for him to have such a relationship with Heaven, and the following line explains why.

By saying that “The audience tablet has not changed; to long maintain the intent of the sunflower and bean leaf,” Nguyễn Phúc Khoát was indicating that he was still a Lê Dynasty official, that is, someone who still held an audience tablet when (theoretically) meeting with the emperor.

And further, just as sunflowers (qùy 葵) and bean leaves (hoắc 藿) always turned towards the sun, so did Nguyễn Phúc Khoát always look towards the Lê emperor as his sovereign.


As we saw in the previous post, Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh also requested that “The ninth layer [don] the dark robes and cap and fly the banner of modesty.” This line is filled with symbolic expressions and we can translate it into common language by saying something like “the emperor (meaning Nguyễn Phúc Khoát) wear the imperial robes and act with the modesty” (with the assumption being that an upright ruler is supposed to rule with modesty).

Nguyễn Phúc Khoát responded to this line by making reference to the Classic of Changes (Yijing 易經), where the expression “fly the banner of modesty” (huy khiêm 撝謙) comes from.

龍或躍,                   The dragon is hesitating to leap,

而乾爻在四,            The line of Càn/Qian is on the fourth,

猶用撝謙,               It is still necessary to wave the banner of modesty.

The first hexagram in the Classic of Changes is Càn/Qian 乾. Like all hexagrams, it consists of six lines, and each line is explained in the text.

The fourth line is explained as follows: “Hesitating to leap, it still stays in the depths, so suffers no blame” (hoặc dược tại uyên, vô cữu 或躍在淵,無咎).

This is how Richard John Lynn translates this line in his The Classic of Changes: A New Translation of the I Ching as Interpreted by Wang Bi (Columbia, 2004) [See the images above and below]. I like that translation but the first part has been translated more literally by others as something like “as if leaping, it is still in the depths/deep.”

The “it” referred to here is a “dragon,” and that is clear from the other parts of the explanations for the lines of the Càn/Qian hexagram where the term “dragon” is used.

Dragons were symbolic of emperors, and this line has thus been traditionally understood to refer to so someone who perhaps has the potential to become an emperor, but because the time is not right, he therefore “hesitates to leap” and “stays in the depths” where he “suffers no blame” for trying to advance himself at the wrong time.

As someone who was “hesitating to leap” into becoming an emperor, Nguyễn Phúc Khoát stated that “it is still necessary to wave the banner of modesty,” and in doing so, he appears to have played with this expression. Whereas Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh used the expression “waving the banner of modesty” to refer to how an emperor acts, Nguyễn Phúc Khoát used it more literally to mean that he needed to continue to be humble, as it was not time yet for him to become emperor.


These are extremely important passages for understanding this event, however the language used in these passages are what I would call Level Three difficulty (see this earlier post on the different levels of linguistic difficulty in this text), as they require that one look up characters and then do further research to try to understand what Nguyễn Phúc Khoát meant.

And as I mentioned before, the Vietnamese translations of Hán writings at this level of difficulty tend to be unsatisfactory, and the translation here is no exception.

For instance, for “The jade case should be sealed, to keep amassing the hope of the mountains and rivers,” the Vietnamese translation has “A letter is put in a jade case, the hope of the mountains and rivers still waits” (Phong thư vào ngọc kiểm, nguyện vọng non sông còn chờ.).

There is then a footnote explaining that the “jade case” was a kind of case for books that was laminated with jade, and that the emperor would record his accomplishments on a stone and put it in this case. (Ngọc kiểm: Nắp hòm sách dát ngọc, xưa nhà vua khắc đá ghi thành công, bỏ vào hòm dậy nắp như thế phong lại.)

As far as I can tell, this footnote doesn’t help a reader understand what Nguyễn Phúc Khoát wrote.

Part of the problem is that the translators did not seem to understand what exactly this “jade case” was or how it was used.

In the Feng and Shan sacrifices, the emperor 1) had a stone engraved and erected, and he 2) had the statements that he made to Heaven and Earth sealed in cases.

If you look up the term “jade case” (ngọc kiểm 玉檢) in a Chinese-Chinese dictionary, it will provide the passage where the term first appeared. That passage that appears in dictionary definitions, however, is too short to understand without seeing the larger textual context where it comes from, and without doing some research on the Feng and Shan sacrifices.

For those who can read Hán, the image below contains what one finds in dictionary definitions as well as the larger textual passage where that line appears. From that larger textual passage, one can see that carving one’s accomplishments in a stone and erecting it was a separate matter. (And for more on this topic, see Jing Wang’s The Story of Stone [Duke, 1991].)


As for the passage from the Classic of Changes, the Vietnamese translation likewise does not help a reader to fully understand what this means. The translation says that “Following the fourth line of the hexagram for Càn/Qian [= Kiền], the dragon may have leapt, and still waiting for the right time, must be modest.” (Theo hào bốn quẻ Kiền, rồng hoặc đã nhảy, còn chờ thời nên khiêm tốn.)

Ok, so one can get a general idea of what this passage is about from this translation (that Nguyễn Phúc Khoát was saying something about the time not being right yet), but saying “the dragon may have leapt” (rồng hoặc đã nhảy) makes it impossible to understand what the actual idea in the Classic of Changes is and why Nguyễn Phúc Khoát made reference to it.

There is no “maybe” in this passage in the Classic of Changes, and nothing has happened yet. Yes, the dragon “appears as if leaping,” but it has not leapt, and it is not going to leap. That’s the whole point.

There is much more about this document that we can talk about, but we’ll save that for future posts. For now, the one thing that should be clear is that while in 1744 Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh and others encouraged Nguyễn Phúc Khoát to declare himself emperor, Nguyễn Phúc Khoát refused to do so.

Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh’s 1744 Request that Nguyễn Phúc Khoát Become Emperor

According to the official chronicles of the Nguyễn Dynasty, the Đại Nam thực lục (hereafter ĐNTL), in 1744 Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh, an official in Đàng Trong, presented a petition to his ruler, Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, the “Nguyễn lord” of Đàng Trong, encouraging him to “rectify the princely position,” or more simply put, to assume the title of “prince.”

In fact, however, this does not appear to be what Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh actually did.

From the way that the ĐNTL is structured, we can see that there are two types of information about this event. The section in blue below contains the information that says that Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh petitioned the ruler to “rectify the princely position.”

That information was written by a person in the nineteenth century who contributed to the project of compiling this chronicle.

The information written in smaller characters, and surrounded by the pink line below, is supposed to come from the actual petition that Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh wrote in 1744.

Only parts of that document are quoted here, and in the previous two posts we have looked at two passages. Both of those passages employed imperial imagery. The lines that follow have even more terms that denote an emperor.


We can see this immediately in the first two lines:

“The officials (liệt tích 列辟) array themselves at court and request that,

“The ninth layer [don] the dark robes and cap and fly the banner of modesty.”

列辟羅廷而申請,    Liệt tích la đình nhi thân thỉnh,

九重端冕以撝謙。    Cửu trùng đoan miện dĩ huy khiêm.

“Ninth layer” (cửu trùng 九重) is a term for the emperor. In the East Asian cultural tradition, Heaven supposedly had nine layers, and the emperor as the highest person in the realm was likened to the highest layer of Heaven, the “ninth layer.”

Further, as the highest person in the realm, only the emperor was allowed to wear the “dark robes and cap” (đoan miện 端冕), a term that first appears in the ancient Record of Rites (Liji 禮記).

Finally, as the most morally upright person in the realm, the emperor could “fly the banner of modesty” (huy khiêm 撝謙), or “stir up modesty,” as this expression is sometimes translated.

This expression comes from the Classic of Changes (Yijing 易經) where it is used in the commentary on the hexagram Qian 謙, meaning “modesty.” Essentially the point of the commentary on this hexagram is that the ultimate behavior for people in positions of superiority, such as an emperor, is to act with modesty.


In premodern East Asia it was believed that if there was an emperor who was upright and ruled with modesty, that this would be marked by some kind of favorable signs in the celestial sphere.

Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh addressed such beliefs by talking about how the celestial world would respond to Nguyễn Phúc Khoát’s donning of the dark robe and cap of an emperor. To quote, he said that:

“The stars will automatically revolve around the Purple Enclosure;

“The sun will rightly rise along the Yellow Path.”

星自拱于紫垣,        Tinh tự củng vu Tử viên,

日允生于黃道。        Nhật duẫn sinh vu Hoàng đạo.

The “Purple Enclosure” (Tử viên 紫垣), also known as the “Purple Forbidden Enclosure” (Tử vi viên 紫微垣), is an area of the sky near the celestial north pole. When viewed from the northern hemisphere, stars appear to revolve around this spot.

Meanwhile the “Yellow Path” (Hoàng đạo 黃道) is the ecliptic, the path that the sun appears to follow in the sky.

On the one hand, these two lines are saying that the celestial realm would respond positively by continuing to operate in normal ways, but the first line also has imperial connotations.

Just as vassal states all surround an imperial center, so does the Purple Enclosure occupy a central place in the sky, surrounded by stars, and therefore it came to symbolize the imperial center – the capital, where the emperor resided, surrounded by his kingdom and vassal states.

Finally, Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh went on to make a comparison between the ancient Shang Dynasty empire and the type of empire that he felt Nguyễn Phúc Khoát could create. To quote:

“With 70 leagues of territory, [the Shang] developed the foundation of the dark bird (huyền điểu chi cơ 玄鳥之基),

“Even more so is the case with 3,000 leagues of terrain, and yet [you are] still occupying the position of an audience tablet [holder] (hoàn khuê chi vị 桓圭之位).”

以七十里之疆宇,    Dĩ thất thập lí chi cương vũ,

自開玄鳥之基,        Tự khai huyền điểu chi cơ,

矧三千里之輿圖,    Thẩn tam thiên lý chi dư đồ,

尚踐桓圭之位。        Thương tiễn hoàn khuê chi vị.

I’m not sure where the “seventy leagues” number comes from, but the term “dark bird” (huyền điểu 玄鳥) is surely a reference to the Shang dynasty, as the founder of the Shang lineage was reportedly conceived when a dark bird dropped an egg in his mother’s mouth.

Then in the second line the term “audience tablet” (hoàn khuê 桓圭) refers to a kind of tablet that vassal lords would traditionally hold when they met with the emperor.

Depending on their rank, the vassal lords would have different types of tablets, and when they had an “audience,” or meeting, with the emperor, they would look at their “audience tablets” rather than look at the emperor, which was considered disrespectful.

So what Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh appears to have been saying in these two lines was that the Shang Dynasty began from a small amount of territory, whereas Nguyễn Phúc Khoát controlled much more land, and yet he was continuing to serve the Lê Dynasty by maintaining his position as an “audience tablet [holder].”


Let us now look at all of the passages from Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh’s petition and the comments that introduce it (the introductory comments are in bold):

The sixth year [of Nguyễn Phúc Khoát’s reign], a giáp tý year [1744], the fourth lunar month of summer: At that time there was an auspicious sign of an udumbara tree blossoming. Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh and other officials presented a petition requesting that His Highness (Thượng ) rectify the princely position.

It more or less said:

Rectifying names and duties in a kingdom is the starting point of renewal;

Establishing rites and music for an age will accumulate moral virtue in excess.

It also said:

With the establishment of hegemonic intention, the yellow flag revealed itself in the southeast; With royal marks [indicating] the grand transversal, the imperial jade seal rushed to the north of the Wei.

The officials array themselves at court and request that,

The ninth layer [don] the dark robes and cap and fly the banner of modesty.

The stars will automatically revolve around the Purple Enclosure;

The sun will rightly rise along the Yellow Path.

With 70 leagues of territory, [the Shang] developed the foundation of the dark bird,

Even more so is the case with 3,000 leagues of terrain, and yet [you are] still occupying the position of an audience tablet [holder].


What the language here makes very clear is that Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh and others were requesting that Nguyễn Phúc Khoát declare himself to be an emperor.

We’ll start looking in the next post at how Nguyễn Phúc Khoát responded to this request.

Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, Liu Bang and the Grand Transversal

In 1744 Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh, an official in Đàng Trong, presented a letter to his ruler, Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, the “Nguyễn lord” of Đàng Trong, encouraging him to take the title of “prince.”

Only excerpts from that document remain, but as we saw in the previous post, the first two quoted lines are filled with Confucian ideas.

The same is true of the next two lines. What is more, also like the first two lines, these two lines have been inadequately translated into Vietnamese, making it impossible for a reader of the Vietnamese translation to understand their meaning.

The two lines can be translated more or less literally as follows:

“With the establishment of hegemonic intention, the yellow flag revealed itself in the southeast; With princely marks [indicating] the grand transversal, the imperial jade seal rushed to the north of the Wei.”

霸圖峙立,黃旗自表于東南,    Bá đồ trĩ lập, hoàng kì tự biểu ư đông nam,

王兆大橫,玉璽已馳于渭北。    Vương triệu đại hoành, ngọc tỉ dĩ trì ư Vị bắc.


These lines fall somewhere between Level Two and Level Three of this chart. The characters used are for the most part quite common, but they are referring to some events, and it’s unclear what events those are, or who was involved in them. Therefore, understanding these lines requires that one do some research.

So how do you figure something like this out? You first look for the structure of the sentences. Sentences in classical Chinese are often written in parallel couplets, and that is true of these two sentences. Once you identify the parallel structure, you then look at the corresponding parts.

Both sentences end with a geographic term: “the southeast” (đông nam 東南) and “north of the Wei” (Vị bắc 渭北). And the second halves of both sentences begin with a term that denotes “the emperor” or “imperial power”: “the yellow flag” (hoàng kì 黃旗) and “the imperial jade seal” (ngọc tỉ 玉璽).

Between these terms in each sentence are a verb and a preposition: “revealed itself in” (tự biểu ư 自表于) and “rushed to” (dĩ trì ư 已馳于).

So it’s not all that difficult to figure out what the second halves of the sentences say:

“. . . the yellow flag revealed itself in the southeast;”

“. . . the imperial jade seal rushed to the north of the Wei.”

But what the heck does that mean?!!??


Experience tells me that anytime you see the term “bá” 霸, meaning “hegemon,” you are probably looking at a reference to Xiang Yu 項羽, one of the people who contended for power after the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE) came to an end, and who was known at that time as the “bá vương” 霸王 or “hegemon king.”

However, there is also a chance that the term could be referring more generally to a time when there were multiple people contending for power, such as during the Three Kingdoms period.

So the key to deciphering these two lines lies in trying to figure out what the first four characters of the second line mean: vương triệu đại hoành 王兆大橫. I was able to do so, and with some additional historical research what I discovered is that these two sentences refer to events from the lives of the first two emperors of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang 劉邦 and Liu Heng 劉恆.

Liu Bang was initially an official for the Qin Dynasty, and was sent to serve in “the southeast” but then turned against the Qin. Others did as well, including Xiang Yu, the “hegemon king” (bá vương 霸王) of the state of Western Chu. In the end, however, Liu Bang succeeded in defeating Xiang Yu and established the Han Dynasty, thus gaining the right to identify himself with the “yellow flag” of an emperor.

After Liu Bang died there was rivalry for control of the dynasty, and at one point his son, Liu Heng, performed turtle-shell divination in order to see if he should accept the offer to ascend the throne.

At the time, Liu Heng was serving as “prince of the state of Dai” (代王), an area located in the northern region of the empire (i.e., “north of the Wei”). The crack that appeared in the turtle shell was a “grand transversal” (大橫), which may have referred to a long horizontal line, and which was interpreted to mean that Liu Heng would become a “heavenly prince” (thiên vương 天王) (i.e., “princely marks”).

Liu Heng reportedly asked the person who interpreted the divination that given that he already was a prince, what more could this mean? The diviner stated that “heavenly prince” meant a “son of Heaven” (thiên tử 天子), that is, the emperor.[1]

Liu Heng agreed to become emperor, the only person who could use the “imperial jade seal.”


Turning to the Vietnamese translation of these two sentences, the translator(s) made a literal translation of these lines, but as my own English translation above demonstrates, just translating the words isn’t sufficient to enable a reader to understand what these two lines mean.

For that, one has to explain what they are referring to. There is no such explanation in the Vietnamese translation, and as a result, I don’t think anyone can read the Vietnamese translation and figure out what these lines are about.

It also takes quite a bit of work to figure out what the original Hán text means.

So regardless of whether an historian consults the original Hán or the Vietnamese translation, these two lines are difficult to understand (but not impossible if one works with the Hán original).

However, these two lines are very important for understanding this event in 1744 when Nguyễn Phúc Khoát became a “prince.”

Like the first two lines discussed in the previous post, these two lines are filled with imagery and ideas from the Confucian (or East Asian scholarly) tradition.

Also like the first two lines, these two lines seem to imply that Nguyễn Phúc Khoát could become someone much more powerful than a prince: he could become an emperor, like Liu Bang and Liu Heng.

[1] See Hanshu 漢書 [History of the Han], “Wendi ji” 文帝紀 [Annals of Emperor Wen], and Edward L. Shaughnessy, “Arousing Images: The Poetry of Divination and the Divination of Poetry,” in Divination and Interpretation of Signs in the Ancient World, edited by Amar Annus (Chicago: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2010), 62-63.

A Blossoming Udumbara Tree and the Rectification of Names in 1744 Đàng Trong

Following on the previous two posts, it is time to start looking at the documents relating to the 1744 event where Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, the “Nguyễn lord” of Đàng Trong, elevated his status from “commandery duke” to “prince.”

The passage in the Nguyễn chronicles about this event indicates that in 1744 there was an auspicious sign in the form of an udumbara tree blossoming (ưu đàm khai hoa 優曇開花). This is a concept that comes from Buddhism. The udumbara tree, known in English as the cluster fig tree (Ficus racemosa), produces fruit without flowering, and supposedly only flowers once every 3,000 years.

In Buddhist texts, such as in the Lotus Sutra, the flowering of an udumbara tree is used to symbolize something very special and rare, such as the appearance of a Buddha.

Apparently inspired by this auspicious event, an official by the name of Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh submitted a request to the Nguyễn ruler that he “rectify the princely position” (chính vương vị 正王位). The concept of “rectifying positions” (chính vị 正位) is related to the practice of the “rectification of names” (chính danh 正名), a major concern of Confucian scholar-officials from the time of Confucius onward.

The idea behind the practice of the rectification of names is that names and reality have to directly correspond for there to be order in society. As such, in the case here the idea was that Nguyễn Phúc Khoát needed to “rectify the princely position” by actually declaring himself to be a “prince” because in the eyes of people like Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh (and presumably others) that is what he already was in the society of Đàng Trong at that time, but he was still being called a “commandery duke” (quận công 郡公).


Only excerpts from the document that Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh submitted are recorded in the ĐNTL, however, from those passages one can see that Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh clearly felt that “rectifying the princely position” was simply a first step that would lead to something much more significant, namely, to Nguyễn Phúc Khoát becoming an emperor.

For instance, Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh’s document reportedly stated that, “Rectifying names and duties in a kingdom is the starting point of renewal (duy tân 維新). Establishing rites and music for an age will accumulate moral virtue in excess.” (正名分於一國,維新之始,興禮樂於百年,積德之餘。)

These two sentences are filled with core Confucian ideas. Confucian scholars argued that not only was rectifying names essential for bringing order to society, but establishing the proper rites and music for regulating human behavior, and the relationship between the human world and Heaven, was likewise essential. What is more, Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh argued that such acts could lead to “renewal.”


This term “renewal” (duy tân 維新) was closely associated with a famous line in an ode in the Classic of Poetry about King Wen of the Zhou (Zhou Wen Wang 周文王) which states that “Although the Zhou was an ancient state, its mandate [from Heaven] was renewed” (Chu tuy cựu bang, kì mệnh duy tân 周雖舊邦,其命維新).

The King Wen that this ode celebrates was born as Ji Chang 姬昌. His family was from the state of Zhou which at that time was under the authority of the Shang Dynasty (16th century – 1046 BCE). Ji Chang served the Shang as Viscount of the West (Xi Bo 西伯) and gained a reputation for his good governance at a time when the Shang Dynasty emperor was infamous for the opposite.

After Ji Chang died, his son defeated the Shang Dynasty and established his own dynasty, the Zhou Dynasty (1046-256 BCE). He then granted his late father the title of “king,” which is why he is now referred to as “King Wen of the Zhou.”


Hence, the idea behind the line in the Classic of Poetry that “although the Zhou was an ancient state, its mandate was renewed” is that Heaven had already granted a form of mandate to the Zhou state, but the benevolence of Ji Chang’s governance led Heaven to “renew” its mandate, thus justifying the new position of the Zhou as a dynasty under Ji Chang’s son.

From a sentence like this one, it appears that Nguyễn Đăng Thịnh was arguing that by rectifying names and duties, such as by calling Nguyễn Phúc Khoát a “prince” rather than a “commandery duke,” and by establishing the proper rites and music, it would be possible for the Nguyễn realm to eventually “renew” its mandate and become a dynasty, just as King Wen’s benevolent rule reportedly enabled the same transformation to take place for the Zhou in antiquity.


These two sentences are not particularly difficult to read in Hán. They fall somewhere between Level One and Level Two in the categorization (above) that I discussed in the previous post.

A reader might need to do some research to understand what the term “renew” (duy tân 維新) meant at the time, as it did have a very specific meaning related to the “renewing” of Heaven’s mandate. It is also necessary to figure out how to punctuate these two sentences.

Although neither of those tasks are all that difficult, the Vietnamese translation does not do a good job of rendering the meaning of these two sentences into Vietnamese.

It has: “Rectify names and duties when a kingdom is starting to renovate (đổi mới), organize rites and music after the moral virtue of a hundred years has been accumulated.”

(Chính danh phận khi nước buổi đầu đổi mới, sửa lễ nhạc sau khi tích đức trăm năm.)


The person who translated these two sentences did not punctuate them correctly, and therefore did understand them properly.

These two sentences are in a typical “topic” and “comment” format:

正名分於一國,        Topic: Rectifying names and duties in a kingdom

維新之始。               Comment: is the starting point of renewal.

興禮樂於百年,        Topic: Establishing rites and music for an age

積德之餘。               Comment: will accumulate moral virtue in excess.

Beyond misunderstanding the grammar of the sentence and translating it inaccurately, an even bigger problem is that translating the very specific term “duy tân” (renew) as “đởi mới” (renew/renovate) makes it impossible for a reader to see the connotations that are connected to a term like duy tân.

These are only the first two sentences of many more to come, but we are off to a bad start. . .

See you in the next post.

Premodern Vietnamese Historical Sources, And What Historians Don’t Tell You about Them

As I stated in the previous post, in 1744 Nguyễn Phúc Khoát, the “Nguyễn lord” of Đàng Trong (the southern half of the Lê Dynasty empire) elevated his status from that of a commandery duke (quận công 郡公) to that of a “prince” (vương 王), which was the same rank that his counterpart in the north, the “Trịnh lord,” held.

One important difference, however, was that the Trịnh lord was granted the title of “prince” by the Lê emperor, whom he served, whereas Nguyễn Phúc Khoát granted himself the title, without the approval or knowledge of the Lê emperor.

Therefore, this act of declaring himself to be a prince was a definite breach of authority. However, it needs to be understood in its context, and that is something that I argue historians so far have not done.

Instead, as I also noted in the previous post, this event has been placed in a narrative that imagines the Nguyễn as willfully seeking to differentiate themselves from the Confucian society of the north by creating a less-Confucian society in the south.

More specifically, historians have argued that Nguyễn Phúc Khoát declared himself to be a “king” and that this event more or less marked an official break with the world of the Lê Dynasty.


The information about this 1744 event can be found in an official Nguyễn Dynasty chronicle known as the Đại Nam thực lục [Veritable Records of Đại Việt; hereafter, “ĐNTL”]. What historians have written to date about this event is based on “some” of the information in the ĐNTL about this event, not “all” of the information.

To understand why this is the case requires some explanation about the nature of premodern Vietnamese historical sources and about how modern historians read and make use of those sources.

The ĐNTL, like many other pre-20th-century Vietnamese historical sources, was written in Hán (i.e., classical Chinese), and has been translated into modern Vietnamese.

The original Hán version of the ĐNTL is difficult to read. It is the product of a different society from ours today; a society where the elite became literate by learning the Confucian classics in Hán.

When we want to understand what people from that time and place wrote, we have to work hard. First, there is no punctuation in the ĐNTL, so the reader has to figure out where sentences and terms begin and end, etc.

Second, the ĐNTL has varying levels of difficulty.


On the one hand, there are passages that are relatively easy to understand for someone who has some facility in classical Chinese, and that at most only require one to look up some terms to be certain that one understands the text correctly (“Level One” in the image below).

Then there are passages that require even someone with facility in classical Chinese to look up terms in order to understand the text (“Level Two” below). For such terms, a Chinese-English dictionary is not adequate, as such dictionaries are too limited in their coverage and do not include vocabulary from classical texts. Fortunately, there are now good Chinese-Chinese dictionaries online that do explain such terms.

Finally, there are passages that are extremely difficult to understand as they contain many specialized terms from ancient texts like the Classic of Poetry (Shijing 詩經) and the Classic of Documents (Shujing 書經). To understand such passages require a reader to not only look up terms in a Chinese-Chinese dictionary, but to then look at the texts where those terms were originally used to gain a clear sense of how they were used and in what context, or to see how those terms were defined by later commentators (“Level Three” below).

Additionally, passages of that level of difficulty usually require a reader to do some research as well. So, for instance, if the ĐNTL that makes reference to terms or information a text like the ancient Classic of Changes (Yijing 易經), then a reader will have to do some research to understand how the Classic of Changes was used and read, and how a reader should understand the information that is in that (arcane) text.


So there are levels of difficulty that one encounters in attempting to read the ĐNTL in its original form – Hán. What happens when someone translates a text like the ĐNTL into modern Vietnamese? How do translators deal with those levels of difficulty?

Level One is not a problem. Text that is not difficult to understand in Hán can easily be translated into Vietnamese, and basic information can be explained in footnotes if needed.

Vietnamese translations can also handle much of the difficulty that one encounters at Level Two, however sometimes the footnotes do not provide enough information for a reader to truly understand a certain reference, and sometimes rather than translating a difficult-to-translate term, translators will simply transliterate it into Hán-Việt (that is, to just use the Vietnamese pronunciation of the Hán characters), making it difficult for a reader to know what the term really means.

Finally, at Level Three Vietnamese translations become a big problem. It is clear to me that in general the people who have translated Hán texts into modern Vietnamese have tried to make their translations as readable for a common reader as possible. That approach is not sufficient when it comes to translating text that is at the difficulty level of Level Three.

In particular, by translating into modern Vietnamese very specialized terms in the Hán original text that come from ancient works like the Classic of Poetry and the Classic of Documents, readers cannot see the ways in which scholars in the past used ideas from those texts to express themselves. As such, a lot gets “lost in translation” at that level.


Therefore, regardless of whether one is reading the Hán original of a premodern text like the ĐNTL or a Vietnamese translation, there are “levels of difficulty” to each of these texts.

In the Hán original, difficulty comes from the presence of arcane terms and references that are hard to understand. Meanwhile the inadequate way in which those terms and references are translated into Vietnamese then creates difficulties for the reader of the translated version of the text because the translation doesn’t accurately show the ideas that are in the original text.

So how do historians deal with these issues? In general, historians do not tell their readers what they are able to understand from a text like the ĐNTL or its translation. However, if one can read all three levels of these texts, it becomes easy to see that most historians do not (or cannot) read the information that we find at Level Three.

Instead, they build their ideas from Level One and some of Level Two.

This is a point which I think most readers don’t realize. When we read a work by an historian that is based on “the sources,” we assume that the historian can read “the sources.” In the case of scholarship on pre-20th-century Vietnamese history, however, that is not the case.

Instead, historians read “some” of what is written in works like the ĐNTL (and often only “some” of the information in the translated version of that text) and then base their ideas on that limited reading. The narrative about Nguyễn Đàng Trong and the way that Nguyễn Phúc Khoát’s adoption of the title of “prince” has been explained have both been based on precisely such limited readings/understandings of the ĐNTL.

By contrast, in the following post we will look at Nguyễn Phúc Khoát’s adoption of the title of “prince” by looking at all three levels of difficulty in the original Hán version of the ĐNTL.

LMK Vlog #08: The Son of Heaven (Thiên tử 天子)

It is well known that Vietnamese emperors in the past saw themselves as the “Son of Heaven” (Thiên tử 天子), that is, as the main intermediary between the supreme power of Heaven and human affairs.

Although this is common knowledge, I can’t think of a single scholarly study that is dedicated to this topic, or to any related topic, such as the various rituals that were performed to maintain the relationship between the emperor and Heaven, the most important of which was the Nam Giao 南郊 sacrifice.

Why is it that something that was so important to at least the Vietnamese ruling elite in the past seems to have been of such little importance to historians in more recent times? That is the topic that the following video addresses:

Emperor Thành Thái’s Edict to Establish the Quốc học in 1896

In 1896, the Nguyễn Dynasty established a school at the royal capital in Huế for teaching French.

Known in Vietnamese as the Quốc học, its original name in classical Chinese was Quốc học trường 國學場, meaning the “national learning school,” and it was referred to in French as the “Collège national.” (And yes, it is significant that “national learning” at this time meant learning French. . .)

Continue reading

Emperor Tự Đức as a Reformer

In English-language writings on Vietnamese history, the Nguyễn Dynasty has long been depicted as resistant to reform. In this depiction, people like Emperor Tự Đức are said to have been so absorbed in the world of Confucian tradition that they did not recognize the need to change.

My suspicion is that this view of the past was probably first developed by French authors during the colonial period as a way to justify their rule, and it later fit the needs of twentieth-century Vietnamese nationalists as well, and has become part of the nationalist narrative of Vietnamese history.

In terms of English-language scholarship, I think that this view has persisted simply because there has been so little work done in English on the Nguyễn Dynasty, because when one looks at the historical record, it is clear that the depiction of the Nguyễn Dynasty as resistant to reform definitely needs to be revisited.

Continue reading