Vietnam Notebook: Early History, Nam Viet to Gia Long

Physical anthropology and the archaeological record reveal that the Red River Delta has been host to wet rice cultivation as far back as 3500 B.C. There has been some population movement into Indochina from China and probably a certain amount from the sea, but basically the people who live in northern Vietnam today are descended from the people who lived there 5000 years ago. Chinese civilization originated in what is today extreme northwest China. The whole of southern China was occupied by the Yüeh, who were related to the Vietnamese and were the original inhabitants of southeastern China.
Over a period of many centuries the Chinese eventually displaced or assimilated the indigenous population of southeast China, learning paddy rice cultivation from them in the process. By the time the Chinese arrived on their borders the Vietnamese had built up an autonomous culture and were practicing advanced wet rice cultivation in the Red River Delta Yet, in the eyes of the Chinese these people were still barbarians. The Chinese have a long and successful track-record of cultural assimilation, in the process China’s influence became dominant across Asia. Interestingly, Vietnam is the only Asian nation with borders contiguous to highly populated regions of China that was not totally absorbed. Most certainly Vietnam was heavily influenced, but the Vietnamese were able to preserve a clearly separate identity. How? Most significantly it was due to their geographic semi-isolation.
The mountain ranges separating China from Vietnam are very treacherous and at certain times and places they become non-navigable. There are some passes through which trade and invading armies can move, but only with great difficulty. But why bother when all the good rice-growing land was already taken across the mountains in the Red River Delta? As a result, for centuries, the Chinese never made it through the mountains of northern Vietnam in large numbers. Merchants made it through. Merchants always get through! Eventually though enough of an army did get across in 124 B.C. to conquer the locals and establish political control.
Chinese rule over Vietnam, 111 B. C. to 939 A. D. and the March South:
Han China overthrew the Yüeh kingdom of Nam Viet in 111 B.C. initiating over a thousand years of Chinese rule. At the same time, the Vietnamese expansion to the south proceeded. The Vietnamese refer to the steady expansion at the expense of the previous inhabitants as “The March South”. The Han brought in efficient administration and a strong centralized government. In addition they raised taxes to support the local garrisons and officials. The Han weren’t overly oppressive, but even so, there was friction with their Viet tributes.

An important difference between the two cultures can be found in the fact that the Vietnamese are considered to be a predominately matrilineal culture, whereas the Confucian Chinese are extremely patriarchal. For instance, the first serious uprising against the Han was led by two sisters, Trung Tac and Trung Nhi, in 40 A.D. One beef was with the tax man and as such they called for the abolition of Han taxes, but the principal reason for the revolt was a desire to force out the foreign rulers from the north so the Viets could revert back to the traditional, decentralized Vietnamese feudal style of government. Although initially successful, the Chinese came back early the next year with a professional army from the north under a veteran general, Ma Yüan. The Vietnamese forces led by the rebel sisters were forced into battle on the southern edge of the Red River Delta in the spring of 42 A.D. and decisively defeated. According to Vietnamese legend the Trung sisters committed suicide rather than accept defeat. The Chinese sources say otherwise– in their version the women’s heads were sent to the Chinese court after being captured and executed.

Whatever the true case may be, the Trung sisters hold a very high place in the pantheon of Vietnamese military heroes and are looked upon as symbols of Vietnamese independence to this day. Then, in 248 A.D., two centuries after the Trung sisters’ defeat, a revolt against the Chinese erupted in the regions south of the Red River Delta. The leader of the revolt was Lady Trieu Anh, who is said to have led her troops into battle astride her war elephant. The legend states that she had three foot long breasts which she slung over her shoulders and she carried a huge, razor-sharp silver sword. Like the Trung sisters, Trieu Anh is said to have committed suicide rather than accept defeat. Unlike them, she is known only from Vietnamese sources. Trieu Anh’s revolt represents the last overt gasp of traditional, pre-Chinese, Viet culture as a symbol of resistance. And again, it is a symbol in the guise of a warrior woman, this time with exaggerated female and martial qualities.

The Han Chinese retained political control and ruled for several centuries, and as mentioned they were not overly oppressive in doing so. At the same time the March South proceeded, delta by delta. The further south the Vietnamese expanded, the looser the degree of control the Chinese exercised over them. The relationship between the Han and the Vietnamese was rocky at times, but if nothing else it was predictable, and as such the two peoples were able to function together for a long period.

All that changed abruptly in the seventh century with the founding of the T’ang dynasty (618-907 A.D.). The T’ang were one of the most powerful dynasties in Chinese history. In fact, by 751A.D. T’ang armies had conquered as far west as the Talus River in Central Asia where they were stopped by the Arabs. Unlike the Han before them, the T’ang were tough masters, they were serious about collecting taxes. Under the Han, taxation was a method employed to support the garrisons and governing officials. To keep the lights on basically. Beyond that it was largely symbolic—exotic tributes like elephant tusks to shower on the emperor in China for example. But the T’ang began heavily taxing ordinary rice growers. As a result, significant numbers of Vietnamese fled from their rice paddies and migrated into the nearby hills. There they continued to live as before, growing rice in terraced paddies in the upland valleys or dry rice when necessary. These displaced people became the Muong. Muong language is in the same family as Vietnamese, in fact the name of the family is Muong-Viet. Muong is a language stuck in time in some sense, it is the same as that which a Vietnamese would have spoken in the eighth and ninth centuries. The Muong are animists, meaning they believe that ghosts and spirits preside over specific places and behavior. Animist beliefs persist among Vietnamese also, but in a watered down form that was influenced by Taoist, Buddhist, Confucian, and even Christian teachings. The isolated Muong were not privy to those philosophies. The Muong follow a sort of feudal social organization, and in a sense their society is a throwback to pre-Chinese times. Looking ahead, many of the Muong tribes will side with the French against the Vietminh, actively fighting on the French side. A few thousand Muong were evacuated to the Central Highlands of South Vietnam in the aftermath of French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Many were not. Their fate is unknown.

Vietnamese attempts to throw out their T’ang rulers were intermittent and the intensity of the struggle varied as a function of how strong the Chinese empire was at any given time. Much of the thousand year struggle for independence was, in fact, a series of civil wars fought out between pro- and anti-Chinese factions with the victors, whether pro- or anti-Chinese, promptly seeking recognition from the Chinese emperor. At some point in the process, the Chinese changed the name of the country from Nam Viet to Annam, meaning “pacified south.” For three hundred years Vietnam was racked by guerrilla wars in which the Vietnamese fought on both sides. Ultimately the T’ang dynasty collapsed in 907 A.D., and after a civil war between pro-Chinese and pro-independence factions the Vietnamese established their independence under Ngo Quyen. The defeated pro-Chinese faction appealed for help to the Southern Han dynasty. The Southern Han had come back to power in southern China with the fall of the T’ang. They responded by sending an invasion fleet in January of 939, right at the peak of the dry campaigning season.

The Battle of Bach Dang (939 A.D.): the Chinese plan was apparently to bring their fleet up the Bach Dang river at the northeastern tip of the Red River Delta, not far from modern Haiphong, and disembark their army upriver to control the delta region. The Vietnamese under Ngo Quyen met them near the mouth of the river. What followed was the Battle of Bach Dang, January 939, a major turning point in Asian history. The Vietnamese planted sharpened stakes in the bottom of the river estuary just underwater at low tide. Ngo Quyen must have had excellent intelligence. He apparently knew when and where the Chinese were arriving. As the Chinese fleet approached he ordered his ships into the river just beyond the stakes but in plain view of the Han attackers. The Chinese took the bait and gave chase. Their fleet came in at high tide, then the tide went out and the Chinese ships were stranded. The Vietnamese in their smaller craft surrounded the Chinese and burned and destroyed their ships. After a thousand years of struggle, Vietnam was finally independent.

The Chinese influence: the Vietnamese adopted the chu nôm system of writing, based on Chinese ideographs, but it still relies on Vietnamese phonetic values. Confucian values became dominant and Buddhism became a major religious force in Vietnam, but animism and ancestor worship continued to have strong influence. The Chinese occupied Vietnam for so long that the Vietnamese borrowed tones from Chinese and incorporated them into their language but the language itself remained defiantly Vietnamese. All of these things point to the complex relationship that the Vietnamese have with Chinese culture. On one hand, many Vietnamese resented their Chinese occupiers and wanted them out. On the other hand, many Vietnamese, particularly those who wanted to get ahead, developed a deep respect for Chinese culture and language. They learned to write in Chinese, they emulated Chinese behavior in many respects, like dress, cuisine, Confucianism, and so on.

Buddhism: Buddhism entered Indochina from the north in the form of Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhism also entered Indochina from India. Known as Theravada Buddhism, it became the dominant form in the South and is the variant associated with temples and saffron-robed monks. With it came considerable Indian cultural and political influence. Of the two forms of Buddhism, the Mahayana version is more prevalent; it permeates Vietnamese and Laotian society. Theravada is an organized religion; Mahayana is more philosophy than a religion– the form of Mahayana Buddhism with which we’re most familiar is Japanese Zen Buddhism. Laos has been affected by Buddhism much like northern Vietnam with Mahayana being the dominant form. Therevada Buddhism dominates in Thailand, where it is the state religion, and it has significant influence in Cambodia.

Independence and the Mongol Invasions:

Vietnam, or more properly Nam Viet, the land of the Southern Viets, remained independent until the Mongols invaded in the 1280s. The Mongols had conquered China in the early 1200s; they devastated Central Asia and Russia and almost overran western Europe in the 1230s. They invaded Japan in the 1270s and were defeated by bad luck—their fleets wrecked by the famous Kamikaze, the divine wind and storm. They were tough, tenacious and superbly organized. They had their own breed of horses that could survive on grass alone. They had a weaponry advantage in the form of the Turco-Mongol composite recurved bow. It had a 150-plus pound draw force and could get off six shots in a minute that were deadly accurate. The arrows could penetrate plate armor at moderate ranges.

So how did the Vietnamese stop the Mongols? The Mongols had little difficulty in dispersing the Vietnamese field armies or in capturing and controlling the capital. But the Vietnamese pulled back into the rice paddies and swamps and started grinding down their enemy in a war of raids, ambushes and attrition. This pattern will repeat itself throughout the ages as we shall see. In 1285 the Vietnamese defeated the Mongols in battle. In 1288, the Mongols mounted a counter offensive, a naval invasion aimed at the Dragon’s Belly area up the Bach Dang River. This was the Second Battle of Bach Dang, fought on 9 April 1288. The tactics were different but the result was the same as in 939. Vietnamese victory.

With victory under their belts, the Vietnamese continued to be an aggressive people. Always expanding ever southward they continued to push native peoples into the mountains, or they assimilated them.

Southern Expansion and Civil War, AD 1000-1757:

The Ly dynasty had led the Vietnamese to independence but it soon declined and its emperors became figureheads. They were replaced in the 1200s by the Le dynasty. Meanwhile the relentless march southward proceeded. Then in the 1580s there was a dynastic war between the northern Trinh family and the Nguyen family, who controlled southernmost Vietnam, with both sides claiming to be the true protectors of the Le emperors. It turned into a century and a half civil war that split Vietnam in half, perhaps unsurprisingly right about where the demilitarized zone would be established in 1954.

In the eighteenth century a rebellion erupted led by three brothers from the town of Son Tay in Nghe Anh province. The Son Tay rebellion was based on resistance to over-taxation and over-rule by the mandarins. By 1786, they had eliminated the Trinh in the north and they had the Nguyen clan on the ropes in the south. Then fate took over. First, the defeated Nguyen prince in the south, Nguyen Anh, sought refuge with a French Jesuit missionary, Father Pigneau de Béhaine. The good Father put him in touch with French officials and adventurers in India who were interested in getting involved in Vietnam. Second, the self-proclaimed last of the Le emperors escaped to China and sought the help of the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Emperor responded by sending a Chinese army that invaded from the north in 1788, took Hanoi, and put the “legitimate” Le emperor on the throne.
Using tactics resembling those used centuries before against the Mongols, the eldest of the Son Tay Brothers, Nguyen Hue, let the Chinese have Hanoi, and then faded back into the swamps and rice paddies to raid and harass the occupying forces. Then he organized a counter attack. It was well planned and perfectly executed. Launched on 30 January 1788—Têt—it caught the Chinese garrison dispersed through the city, busily celebrating the Lunar New Year. The foreign invaders were violently put to route. Nguyen Hue was a powerful and charismatic figure and by all accounts a genuine Vietnamese patriot. Had he not died in 1792, he might well have founded a stable dynasty. But…

Meanwhile, Nguyen Anh had linked up with his French backers in India and an expedition under Pigneau sailed for Vietnam in 1789 (the year of the French Revolution). Nguyen Anh was a determined and competent leader and the few hundred French mercenaries he had recruited in India turned out to be the decisive factor. In early February 1802, ten years after Nguyen Hue’s death, Nguyen Anh’s forces defeated the last Son Tay holdouts in the Saigon area. Four months later the Nguyen Dynasty was founded and he was installed as the Gia Long Emperor. Vietnam’s long civil war was finally over. The Nguyen Dynasty was to rule Vietnam, at least on paper, until after the final French defeat at the hands of the Vietminh in 1954.

Buttinger, Joseph. The Smaller Dragon
Duiker, William J. Sacred War.
Karnow, Stanley, Vietnam: A History.

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