We’re Now Available on Acast!


Early this morning I got an email from Acast, a popular podcast host based in Sweden, and was informed that the History of Southeast Asia Podcast has now been accepted into their growing stable.  This is the fifth place on the World Wide Web where you can listen to it, along with Blubrry (the host), iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play.  I feel good about this one because when the podcast was just getting started, three months ago, I submitted it to Acast and they said they were too busy to consider it, but they’ll have it now.  Here’s where to go to listen:


Episode 5, Ancient Burma and Nanzhao


Episode 5 is now online.  This time, the main topic is how the nation of Burma, also called Myanmar, got started.  We see the Burmese and tribes related to them settle northern Burma, followed by a special look at Arakan, a province that often went its own way.  Also in this episode, we see the Mons, a tribe we met previously, move the capital of their state in southern Burma, from Thaton to Bago.  Finally, we meet Nanzhao, Burma’s northern neighbor from the eighth to the thirteenth century.


Remember, you can also access the podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.

(Transcript, added 10/05/2019)

Episode 5:  Ancient Burma and Nanzhao

Greetings, dear listeners!  I will begin this episode with two bits of shop talk.  The first is an announcement about how this podcast is spreading.  On August 30, 2016, it became available on Stitcher.  At that point, I had finished recording the previous episode, so I could not announce the Stitcher acceptance there; all I could do was announce it in the program notes.  Then on September 7, the podcast was also accepted on Google Play.  So now you have four places online where you can listen to the episodes:  Blubrry, iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play.


The second item concerns the research for this podcast.  While all of the episodes I have uploaded so far have been recorded in the summer of 2016, I did most of the research long ago, in the 1970s and 1980s.  Back then we did not have the World Wide Web to help us find information; there was no Google and no Wikipedia to give us quick answers.  Usually research meant hitting the books, and if I did not have a book at home with the information I was looking for, I had to go to a library.  As a result, I spent a lot of my free time in libraries, never thinking that someday I would have a way to share with the world what I found.  For research purposes, the library that helped the most was a college library two miles from my home, that was built in 1885.  Now you may live in a place where 1885 isn’t considered very old for a college – you might live near an Ivy League school in New England, for instance – but that was when I lived in Florida, and not many people lived there before the introduction of air conditioning, so if I was looking for something written more than a few years before I was born, that library was the place to go.  Of course, I am glad that these days I don’t have to make a special trip to the library, when checking to make sure that the content I am giving you is up to date.


Anyway, when Southeast Asia was the subject I was researching, the number and quality of the sources depended on the country.  The Philippines and Vietnam were the easiest countries to study, because the United States was involved in both for a long time.  In fact, I have books about both countries at home, and one of the books, Stanley Karnow’s “In Our Image,” got its title because it concentrates its attention on how Americans influenced the Philippines.


On the other hand, the country that I found hardest to research was Myanmar, or as we called it in those days, Burma.  One reason for the lack of sources was isolationism; for almost fifty years, from 1962 to 2011, Burma was ruled by a military junta that got along with almost nobody, and was damn proud of it.  Thus, only a few outsiders could get in, few of the people living there got out, and news stories from there were rare.  In my case, the only people I have ever met from Myanmar were a waitress at a Vietnamese restaurant in Florida, and the sushi chefs at the Kroger supermarkets in my current home town.  The second reason was the lack of US involvement in Burma, which was limited to a few World War II battles, and compared with D-Day in France or MacArthur’s return to the Philippines, those battles are not considered very important.  Finally, there will probably be some confusion from all the name changes that came about at the end of the 1980s, when the Burmese government insisted that foreigners use the Burmese language names for every place in the country, starting with calling their country Myanmar.  So here’s my disclaimer:


  1. I did not make up any of the Burmese names you will be hearing, like Naypyidaw, the country’s new capital.
  2. If I make any errors with the names, you can be certain they are spelling errors as well as pronunciation errors. What this means for you is that you will have to remember two names for almost every place, in order to keep track of what’s going on.
  3. This week, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese Foreign Minister and State Counsellor, came to Washington to meet with US President Obama about lifting the longstanding trade sanctions on her country. Therefore, if you are listening to this episode in September 2016, it has a tie-in with current events.  Nice timing!


This episode will focus on how Myanmar or Burma got started, so for the reasons I just mentioned, you will hear some facts and stories you probably haven’t heard before, and you’re not likely to find them even if you search in the usual places online.  Then we are going to look at a kingdom I briefly mentioned in the last episode, called Nanzhao, in southwest China.  You may remember in the introduction episode I called myself an “historian of the obscure,” and now you will learn what I meant by that.  Or as another podcast puts it, today we are going on a “deep dive.”  Is everyone ready for the adventure?


(cheer sound effect)

I knew you would.  Now as they say when a submarine submerges, dive, dive, dive!

(klaxon sound effect)

The Pyu Millennium

More than two hundred years ago, Dr. Samuel Johnson said that “Languages are the pedigree of nations.”  We’re going to run with that assumption while tracing the origins of the peoples of Burma.  In short, we believe the Burmese and Chinese languages are related because the people who speak them are related, too.  Linguists group most of the languages of China and Burma into one phylum or family of languages, called the Sino-Tibetan family.  When it comes to numbers of speakers, the Sino-Tibetan family is one of the largest, with nearly 1.3 billion speakers in today’s world.  Of those, 96 percent are Chinese, thanks to China’s success as a nation over the ages.  Take out the Chinese, and what you have left are some 60 million people, speaking between 250 and 300 languages; we collectively call them Tibeto-Burmans.


We now believe that while Chinese civilization got started in the central part of the Yellow River valley, the Tibeto-Burmans were their western neighbors; they lived in the uppermost part of the valley, in Gansu Province, and around Kokonor Lake in Qinghai Province.  Then when the Chinese expanded to control the whole Yellow River valley, they behaved like the Borg on Star Trek; everyone who stayed put was assimilated into the Chinese state.  Those who speak Tibeto-Burman languages today are descended from those who preferred physical hardship over bondage, and got out before they became Chinese.


They definitely experienced physical hardship wherever they went.  Those Tibeto-Burmans who went west climbed onto the Tibetan Plateau, where they endured thin air, lots of snow, and possible run-ins with the abominable snowman; they became the Tibetans.  The rest of them headed south.  We will call this group Burmans, not Burmese, because several tribes would split off over the ages, and the ancestors of the Burmese cannot yet be distinguished from the ancestors of the others.  In the late twentieth century, archaeologists discovered bronze age artifacts from two civilizations that once existed in Sichuan Province.  They named them the Sanxingdui and Jinsha cultures; whoever they were, they weren’t Chinese.  Chinese records from the Age of Warring States mention two states in Sichuan called Shu and Ba; it has been suggested that the artifacts found came from those two states, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we find evidence that the people living in Shu and Ba were Tibeto-Burmans.  If that is the case, then like the Man Viet kingdom in the last episode, the people in those states did not get far enough away from the Chinese; both states were conquered by 316 B.C.


As they continued south, the Burmans encountered jungles as well as mountains.  Some of them settled in south Chinese provinces like Yunnan and Guizhou; most of the present-day ethnic minorities in this area, like the Yi, the Naxi and the Yao, speak Tibeto-Burman languages.  The Hmong, a major hill tribe in both south China and Laos, may also be related to the Burmans, but there isn’t agreement on this.  We will come back to the Hmong in a future episode.  When the Burmans passed through Yunnan, they must have come to Lake Dian.  Those of you who listened to Episode 2 will remember that Lake Dian had a bronze age culture which produced amazingly fancy bronze drums.  If the Burmans did not know the techniques of rice agriculture previously, they learned them here.  Later on, well into the first millennium A.D., the Burman tribes would try making their own drums, but because they did not have the metal ores needed for bronze, they would make ceramic drums instead.


Eventually some Burman tribes reached the upper reaches of the Irrawaddy River.  We believe the river’s name comes from Airavati, which is Sanskrit for “elephant river.”  By following the Irrawaddy downstream, the tribes came to Burma.  Because this happened before anyone nearby could read or write, we don’t know exactly when they arrived.  Our guess is that the arrival date was between 500 and 200 B.C., because at this stage, they only settled in Upper or northern Burma.  The Mons, a tribe we met in Episodes 2 and 3, were already settled in Lower Burma, the Irrawaddy delta and the lands southeast of it.  You may remember that the capital of the first Mon state was Thaton, on the nearest part of the Malay peninsula.  From the Irrawaddy the Burman tribes spread out into surrounding areas, they founded a number of city-states, the B.C. years became the A.D. years, and either in 107 or 167 A.D., the city-states came together to form a confederation named Pyu.

The Pyus prospered from the occasional merchant who used the Irrawaddy to go between India and China.  They also got along well with the Mons and with the Indians.  Lengthy contact with these two groups allowed them to pick up Indian culture, especially Buddhism and writing in Sanskrit, and whatever Chinese culture they still had disappeared at this point.  After they learned the Sanskrit alphabet, they modified it to create the Burmese alphabet.  The Burmese alphabet looks like a bunch of circles because the early Southeast Asian civilizations used palm leaves as their writing material.  The secret of making paper had only been discovered in China recently, and it had not been passed to any other nation yet; besides, in Southeast Asia’s climate, leaves were just as durable.  The palm leaves were cut into strips before they were used, and writing straight lines along the grain tended to split the leaves, so by writing in circles instead, scribes could minimize the chance of this happening.  The first Pyu calendar, based on the Buddhist calendar used in India, was introduced in the year 80 A.D., and in 638 it was replaced by the calendar Myanmar uses today.

Chinese visitors reported that Pyu had a remarkably elegant and humane society.  Fetters, chains and prisons were unknown, and the only punishment for criminals was a few strokes of the whip.  The men wore gold ornaments in their hats and the women wore jewels in their hair; both sexes wore bright blue clothing.  Pyus lived in wooden houses with roofing tiles of lead and tin, they used golden knives and surrounded themselves with art objects of gold, green glass, jade and crystal.  The palaces, Buddhist monasteries and parts of their city walls were built with glazed bricks.  Finally, like the Funan civilization to the east, the Pyus had an efficient water management system.

The same Chinese records that gave us this information also reported that the Pyu confederation contained eighteen city-states, of which nine had walls around their cities.  However, archaeological digs over the past century have found twelve walled cities, of which five are quite large, plus several smaller towns without walls.  Three of the cities, Halin, Beikthano, and Sri Ksetra, are important enough that UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, put them on its World Heritage List in 2014, meaning these are archaeological sites that must be preserved for the benefit of all humanity.  What makes these three sites important is that Beikthano was the oldest, Halin was the largest, and for most of Pyu’s existence, Sri Ksetra was the capital, thanks to its good location, just above the point where the Irrawaddy River began to split into the streams of the wide Irrawaddy delta.  We estimate that the entire population of the Pyu states never exceeded a few hundred thousand, because when census data begins to appear, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Burma had a population of about 2 million.

Back in Episode 3, I recommended a website that listeners can visit to see artifacts from Funan, the first civilization in Cambodia.  Now I will recommend another website for pictures of artifacts from the Pyu civilization.  The URL is https://www.pyukingdom.com.  Once again, that is https://www. P-Y-U and then kingdom, dot-com.  Definitely some nice eye candy here!

At some point in the seventh century, the capital of the Pyu confederation was moved upstream to Halin, though Sri Ksetra remained the commercial center, due to its control over commerce on the Irrawaddy.  Then in 754, Nanzhao, a kingdom we will be looking at later in this episode, began raiding upper Burma.  This marked the beginning of the end of good times for Pyu, because the Nanzhao raids increased until they were coming almost every year.  The worst raid took place in 832, when a group of horsemen called the Mranma or Bamars captured Halin, and took away 3,000 Pyu prisoners.  But instead of returning to Nanzhao, the Bamars decided to stay, settling down in the upper Irrawaddy valley.  These were the direct ancestors of the Burmese majority in present-day Myanmar, so we can start calling them Burmese now.

A few years after taking over, the Burmese got a new king, Pyinba, and in 849 he founded a new city, Bagan, near the junction of the Irrawaddy and Chindwin Rivers.  Though the Burmese adopted the culture of their Pyu subjects, not everyone approved of having them in charge.  In the nearly twelve centuries since the Burmese arrival, they have had trouble getting along with other Burman peoples.  This is especially true of the Karens, also called Kayins, the largest Burman group besides the Burmese.  The Karens live next to the Mons in in southeast Myanmar; for most of history since the ninth century, they have been implacable opponents of Burmese rule.  And speaking of the Mons, in 825 they built a new capital city to replace Thaton, named Bago (formerly Pegu), on the east edge of the Irrawaddy delta.

The Burmese have a list of kings going all the way back to 107 A.D., and nowadays they will claim that their first kingdom was Tagaung, a Pyu city-state located about 125 miles north of Mandalay.  However, we already saw the Burmese move into the Irrawaddy valley in the ninth century, so this is most likely a made-up history.  Tagaung probably belonged to a non-Burmese tribe previously, and the Burmese took Tagaung’s list of kings for themselves, to give the impression that from the beginning, the Burmese were the rightful rulers over all the Burman tribes.  The other problem with the early Burmese history is that no inscriptions have been found mentioning the first thirty-seven kings.  Except for Pyinba, the founder of Bagan, they are nothing but names to us; we can’t verify when they actually ruled, or how many of them existed at all.

The picture begins to clear up for us with the first king to leave inscriptions, a usurper named Nyaung-u Sawrahan, who ruled from 931 to 964.  Nyaung-u Sawrahan is also called the Cucumber King, and the story of how he got the crown is worth telling here, because it shows that some cultures have very unusual ideas about who is qualified to be king.  The previous king, Theinkho, took a long trip away from the capital.  One version of the story says he led an army to war and lost the battle; another version says he was simply on a hunting trip.  Whatever the case, while he was headed home he came upon a farm with a delicious-looking crop of cucumbers.  He decided to stop there, and picked a cucumber to eat it.  What happened next was clearly caused by a breakdown of etiquette; Theinkho didn’t seek to get permission before taking the cucumber, and Nyaung-u Sawrahan, the farmer who owned the field, didn’t greet the king with appropriate words like, “Your Majesty, pardon, but thou asketh not for that cucumber.”  Instead, Nyaung came running and screaming, and beat the king to death with his shovel!

(manscream and dischord sound effects)

Yeah, kind of like that.  The queen was also there, and normally you would expect her to declare Nyaung an outlaw and order him slain on the spot.  Instead, she had him subdued, tied up, and taken to the palace.  She was afraid that the people might rise up in revolt when they heard that the king was dead; she may also have been concerned about who would take care of her now.  After all, in ancient times the question of who would take care of the widows was always a major concern.  So she crowned the farmer as the new king, and brought him out when conditions looked safe.  The Cucumber King is credited with turning his original farm into a beautiful garden, and bringing a generation a peace to Burma.  Not bad for a peasant who was nobody until the old king took a liking to his crop!  Since a century will go by before another interesting Burmese king comes along, we will break off our Burmese narrative here, and turn our attention to a territory that for most of history, has been a special case.



The northwest coast of modern Myanmar, between the Irrawaddy delta and the border of modern Bangladesh, is now called Rakhine, R-A-K-H-I-N-E.  However, it has only really been a part of the Burmese state since 1784.  Before that date it was usually an independent kingdom, called Arakan, and because all of my sources use the old name, we will call it Arakan in this podcast until we get to the late twentieth century.  Anyway, Arakan is a wedge-shaped land, 350 miles long.  In the south it narrows to a point; in the north, it is 90 miles across at its widest.  You can see a map that shows what I am talking about on the page at Blubrry.com that hosts this episode; here Arakan is colored yellow, and the rest of Burma is pink.

A mountain range that used to be named the Arakan Yoma separates Arakan from the rest of Burma; nowadays it is named the Rakhine Yoma, of course.  Whatever you call those mountains, they provide several small rivers for irrigating rice fields – and they also make communications difficult.  The Arakanese are closely related to the Burmese–in fact they speak an archaic Burmese dialect that is no longer used by the Burmese themselves–but the barriers of nature have made them more interested in India and the sea than in their brethren across the mountains.  Most of them are Buddhists, but Buddhism has never been the state religion the way it has been in the rest of Burma.  In fact, there is a community of Bengali Moslems in Arakan today, called the Rohingyas.  These folks are here because Arakan tolerated Islam when it was an independent state seeking commerce with India.  However, nowadays they are viciously persecuted by the Buddhist majority, because the junta that ruled the country in recent years promoted a militant form of Buddhism.

Arakanese legends claim that they have lived in the land for at least five thousand years, and that their first king, Marayo, founded the kingdom in either 3325 or 2666 B.C.  Like the Burmese, Arakan has a lengthy list of kings, in this case 113 monarchs, going from the beginning date (whenever it was), to 788 A.D.  They go on to say that the first capital was Dhanyawadi, also called Dannavati, that three kingdoms or dynasties rose and fell by 327 A.D., and that from 150 A.D., onward, the rulers were Buddhists.  Next, they assert that a new family of rulers, the Chandra dynasty, took charge in 327 A.D., and they moved the capital to Waithali, also called Vesali.  Of course none of these claims can be proven, and there is no archaeological evidence to back them up.  And while we know which ruins in the area are Dhanyawadi and Waithali, most of the artifacts found in those cities date to the fourth century A.D. and later, suggesting that neither was an important community before that time.  Also interesting is the fact the oldest inscriptions are written in Sanskrit, hinting that Arakan’s founders were Indian, not Burman.

With the founding of the Waithali dynasty in 788, inscriptions become common enough for us to verify the historical record as basically correct.  The first evidence of the Arakanese themselves dates to the tenth century, so they probably originated as one of the Pyu tribes, migrating as far west as possible when Pyu was destroyed.  The northern half of the country was conquered by Anawrahta, the greatest Burmese king of the eleventh century, but it remained a semi-independent province, with its own hereditary monarch, until full independence was regained two and a half centuries later.  And now, let us return north and see what happened to the Tibeto-Burmans who did not leave China.



Before we continue, I need to make a correction.  When I mentioned Nanzhao in the previous episode, I called it the first Thai state.  Well, scholars used to believe the Thais founded this kingdom, and at its peak, it did rule over the land where the Thais lived, before they moved to present-day Thailand.  In fact, Encyclopedia Britannica still calls it a Thai state.  However, the names of Nanzhao’s rulers followed Tibeto-Burman grammar rules, so we now believe that from the beginning to the end of the kingdom, they were more likely Tibeto-Burmans, members of either the Akha or Yi tribes.  Sorry about that, folks!


As the Tibeto-Burmans migrated south and west, Chinese expeditions followed, and during the Han dynasty they reached the southwest corner of present-day China, what is now called Yunnan Province.  This is the area where the Lake Dian culture was based, and we noted that the Chinese conquered it in 109 B.C., though the culture stuck around for a couple more centuries.  Chinese records from this period call the Tibeto-Burmans Wu Man, meaning “Black Barbarians.”


Over the next few centuries the Chinese claimed Yunnan, but did not have a firm grip on it.  This became a liability in the seventh century, when the Chinese gained a new enemy – the Tibetans.  Today we tend to imagine Tibet as a land full of peaceful monks, meditating in the Himalayas, but in the seventh century the Tibetans were only starting to convert to Buddhism, so at this stage they were not peaceful at all.  To the Chinese they were fearsome raiders, very much like the Xiongnu, Turks, and other tribes in Mongolia that were a constant danger to them.  Because China’s capital at this time was in a northwestern province, not very far away from Tibet, the Tibetans threatened it more than once, and they also threatened to annex all of southwest China.


At first the Chinese tried to defend the southwest by themselves.  This was the era of China’s mighty Tang dynasty, so they should have been able to do it.  It wasn’t enough, though.  In 713 they decided it would be more cost-effective if the non-Chinese tribes in the region became partners of theirs, so they formed anti-Tibetan alliances with six city-states in western Yunnan.  One of the princes of these states, Piluoge of the Mengshe tribe, was more ambitious than the rest; between 728 and 737 he brought all six city-states under his rule.  Then in 738 he built a new capital city, called Taihe, in the rich Erhai Valley, and there he sat on his throne, clad in tiger skins.  The Chinese approved Piluoge’s annexations, recognized him as a vassal ruler, and gave both him and his kingdom the name Nanzhao, meaning “Southern Prince.” Prosperity came immediately, since Nan Zhao’s geography made it easy to defend, and the land route of the Indochina trade passed through here.  Chinese culture also arrived, as Nanzhao craftsmen sought to imitate Chinese architecture and textiles.

Piluoge was followed by his son, Geluofeng, who ruled Nanzhao from 748 to 779.  Suddenly the Chinese had second thoughts about the kingdom they had helped create.  In 750 the nearest Chinese governor tried to rob some envoys Nanzhao sent to the emperor’s court.  Geluofeng retaliated by renouncing the alliance, attacking and killing the offending governor, and grabbing that governor’s territory.  Then he turned the tables by sending another embassy, this time to Tibet, and forging a new alliance with the Tibetans!  Of course the Tibetans were delighted at this switch; they gave Geluofeng two titles, “younger brother” and “eastern emperor.”  Four Chinese armies invaded between 752 and 754, but thanks to the rugged terrain and a climate too hot for the Chinese soldiers, Nan Zhao defeated them every time.  Then in 755 the bloodiest civil war of all time, the An Lushan Rebellion, shook China, and the Chinese had too much on their plates to bother Nanzhao anymore.  When that civil war ended, China was so badly wasted that the Tang dynasty never recovered.  Now Nan Zhao took the offensive, conquering all of eastern Yunnan, plus the provinces of Guizhou and Guangxi.  Nan Zhao’s best years were in the 9th century, when the previously mentioned raids into Burma and Vietnam were made.  From 829 to 873 Nanzhao even occupied Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, giving Nanzhao a claim to China’s largest province.

Chengdu was where Nanzhao’s winning streak ended.  In 902 a usurping official killed the Nanzhao emperor and the heir apparent, and founded a new dynasty.  This dynasty did not last long, though, and two more dynasties rose and fell even more quickly.  Finally in 937, a statesman named Duan Siping founded Nanzhao’s last dynasty.  By this time the capital had been moved from Taihe to Dali, a city a few miles away, so some history texts will call Nanzhao the Dali Kingdom after 937.  Whatever name you prefer, the kingdom had twenty-two rulers over the next 316 years, from 937 to 1253.  One curious fact I found is that Buddhism became the state religion around 1050, and the Dali kings were so religious that ten of them abdicated to become monks.  Regarding foreign policy, after the Chinese recovered Sichuan, China and Nanzhao decided that friendship was the best policy, so they got along fine until the Mongol Empire conquered both nations in the thirteenth century.

Join me next time when we will leave the Southeast Asian mainland and go south to the islands below the Malay Peninsula.  Here we will meet Srivijaya and the other early kingdoms of pre-Islamic Indonesia.  Once again, if you like what you heard, consider making a donation to support the podcast, using the Paypal button on the Blubrry.com page where you played or downloaded this episode.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


We’re Now on Google Play!


Two days ago I submitted the History of Southeast Asia Podcast to Google Play, the best website for downloading apps for mobile devices.  Last night the podcast was accepted, but I waited until now to announce it, because it took a little while to find it on the Google Play search engine.  Now you have four places online where you can listen:  Blubrry (go there if you want to download the episodes), iTunes, Stitcher, and Google Play.

The History of Southeast Asia Podcast

Episode 4, Early Vietnam


Episode 4 of my History of Southeast Asia podcast is now up!  Actually this is the fifth episode, if you count the introduction.  In the past, we took a general look at events happening all over Southeast Asia.  However, in this episode we concentrate our attention on the east coast of the Southeast Asian mainland, going up to 938 A.D.  Here we see the beginning of two nations: Vietnam and Champa.  Only one of them is around today; guess which one it is.


(Transcript, added 10/01/2019)

Episode 4:  Early Vietnam

Greetings, dear listeners!  Before we begin, I have a bit of old business regarding a past error.  In Episode 1, I gave the impression that modern man already knew about the splendid Cro-Magnon paintings in the caves of France, before the discovery of Java Man in 1891.  Well, while I was preparing this episode, I found out I was wrong.  The Lascaux Cave, which contains the best examples of caveman art, was only discovered in 1940, and among the other French caves containing art that I looked up, the first to be discovered turned up in 1901, ten years after Java Man was found.  Therefore, I have edited the first part of Episode 1, removing the misleading sentence, and uploading an updated MP3 file.  Let the record show I won’t intentionally post errors on the World Wide Web, if I can help it.


If you downloaded Episode 1 after mid-August 2016, or listened to the episode on the website after that date, kindly disregard everything I just said after “Greetings, dear listeners.”


Now where were we?  Oh yeah.  If this is the first time you have listened to this podcast, we have been covering the earliest states in Southeast Asia, which started appearing around two thousand years ago.  The last episode saw the rise and fall of the loosely organized kingdoms in Cambodia, Thailand and northern Malaya, before today’s Cambodians and Thais arrived to take their place.  For this episode we are going to take a narrower focus than we have used up to this point.  Whereas we previously looked at things happening all over Southeast Asia, for this episode we are going to concentrate our attention on one place, the land we call Vietnam.


Another change is that we have more written records on early Vietnam than we had on ancient states like Funan, because the Chinese got involved in Vietnam early on, giving us both the Chinese and the Vietnamese sides of the story.  Because of the increased supply of sources, I won’t be saying “we can’t be sure” or “we don’t know much about this” as often as I did previously.  Can we have some applause for that?


(Play applause clip)


Thank you.  One thing I should point out regarding Vietnamese geography is that for most of history, the land of Vietnam was three countries, not one.  Usually, the Vietnamese only ruled the northern third of the land, the area around the Red River delta; the French called this land Tonkin when it was a colony of France.  This is where you’ll find Hanoi, the capital, and its seaport, Haiphong.  The rugged land in the middle of present-day Vietnam became another kingdom we will meet in this episode:  Champa, the realm of the Chams.  Of course, Champa isn’t around today, and in a future episode of this podcast, you will find out why.  Finally, the southern third of the land used to be part of Cambodia, until the Vietnamese took it around 1700.  This is the area with the Mekong River delta and Ho Chi Minh City – you can call it Saigon if you are fifty years old or more.  And now let’s get into the narrative!


(Kutut music clip)


The origin of the Vietnamese people is uncertain.  We mentioned in Episode 2 that the Vietnamese language resembles the Mon-Khmer tongues, suggesting they are distant relatives of the Mons and Khmers, but there are also a few similarities with Thai and the Malay languages.  Furthermore, lengthy contact with the Chinese has caused the introduction of some Chinese grammar into the Vietnamese language, namely the use of tones to give several meanings to one word, and the restriction of every word to one syllable, or a combination of two or three syllables where one won’t do.


The Vietnamese themselves make their first appearance around 1000 B.C., when Chinese records reported a tribe that called itself “Viet”; the Chinese name for it was “Yue.”  The Viets lived at the mouth of the Yangtze River, and most of their kingdom was on that mighty river’s south bank, where modern China has the province of Zhejiang.  Their capital was Guiji; nowadays it is Shaoxing, a city on Hangzhou Bay.  At this time China was ruled by a feudal monarchy, the Zhou dynasty, and the Viet tribe grew into a state, which the Chinese also called Yue; an alternate name is Yuyue.  During the early years of the Zhou dynasty, Yue became a vassal of China.  Sima Qian, a Chinese historian who lived in the second century B.C., reported that the kings of Yue claimed descent from Yu, a legendary king who founded China’s first dynasty.  In other words, the Yue were saying they would be Chinese too, if the Chinese hadn’t kicked out that early dynasty and replaced it with another one.  The claim of Chinese descent may have been invented to justify Yue’s relationship with China at this stage.  Thus, Yue came to be seen as the southeastern corner of the growing Chinese state.


The next time we hear from Yue is during the years when China breaks up, between 770 and 481 B.C.  Chinese historians call this time the Spring and Autumn Period, and during this time, there was on and off fighting between the Chinese states.  At the end of this period, Yue had an exceptionally talented ruler, named King Goujian; he ruled from 496 to 465 B.C.  Chinese historians like to rank Goujian with four other excellent leaders during the Spring and Autumn period; they will call Goujian the “last of the Five Hegemons”; this means he was the best leader in China during his lifetime.  As soon as Goujian came to power, his kingdom was attacked by Wu, a rival kingdom based on the north bank of the Yangtze.  When the two sides met in battle, Goujian employed a really bizarre tactic; the Yue army was led by three ranks of desperadoes who frightened the enemy by beheading themselves!  Though Yue won the battle, this tactic was not often used for obvious reasons.  One or two historians that I read have suggested that the suicide squad was made up of condemned criminals with nothing to lose.  When Yue and Wu had a rematch in 493 B.C., Goujian was captured and forced to serve the king of Wu.  However, Goujian was able to recover from this setback, rebuild the state of Yue, and weaken Wu by sending bribes to those close to the enemy king.  Then in 473 B.C., after Wu was weakened by petty wars with other Chinese states, Goujian struck north and conquered Wu.


By this time the Spring and Autumn era was over, and the end of the war between Yue and Wu showed how things had changed.  Wu was the first major Chinese state to be completely destroyed in this zone of increasing conflict.  Yue now had both the north and south banks of the lower Yangtze, including the land where the city of Shanghai would someday be built.


The next two and a half centuries in Chinese history is called the Age of Warring States, because it was an era when the Chinese states fought almost constantly.  However, Yue did not do so well in this civil war, because the state to the west of it, Chu, was a tougher opponent.  Chu gained a reputation for ruthlessness when it conquered one state after another and exterminated the ruling families of conquered states.  We have a story about two lords of a state defeated by Chu who expected the worst and brought coffins with them when they came to surrender.  They were spared, but others were not so lucky.  In this way Chu came to dominate all of south-central China.


In 334 B.C. Chu conquered Yue, and those people of Yue who did not want to become slaves of Chu fled southward.  Some of them settled in Fujian Province, and they founded a kingdom which they called Man Viet, and the Chinese called it Minyue.  Those of you who listened to Episode 2 will remember this is the area the Malays might have come from, before they appeared on Taiwan.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t far enough away.  In 221 B.C. China was reunited under the Qin dynasty, and a Chinese military expedition to the south conquered the land around present-day Canton and Hong Kong; this meant China surrounded the Man Viet kingdom on three sides:  the north, the west, and the south.


Instead of stopping in the Man Viet kingdom, some Viet refugees kept going south.  Eventually they reached the Red River delta.  That is the English name for the river; today Vietnam calls it the Hong River, while China calls it the Yuan River.  Remember what I said in previous episodes about river deltas being the best place on the Southeast Asian mainland for growing rice?  This was one of those places, so the Viets settled down here, intermarried with the peoples already living here, and became the ethnic Vietnamese we are familiar with.  Now that the Vietnamese are in a place that will be part of their country from now on, our lengthy introduction to them is done.




According to what the Vietnamese tell us, the first state in present-day Vietnam was called Van Lang, the “Land of the Tattooed Men.”  It occupied the Red River delta and the land immediately south of it; supposedly the capital was at Phong Chau, about fifty miles west of Hanoi.  The founder was a legendary figure named Kinh Duong Vuong, and like the kings of Yue, he claimed descent from one of the earliest Chinese kings.  In this case he was supposed to be the great-grandson of Shennong, the second Chinese king and the inventor of agriculture.  88 kings are reported to have followed Kinh Duong Vuong, but the Vietnamese only remember the names of eighteen.  We also hear that a second state, Nam Cuong, existed next door, between the Red River and the present-day Vietnam-China border.


All this is probably nothing but a myth.  To start with, Van Lang has a founding date of 2879 B.C., too far back in time to be verified.  Secondly, the earliest version of this story that we have was written around 1200 A.D., meaning the account is closer to our time than it is to the time of the events covered.  One of the rules to remember regarding myths and legends is that the older the source, the more likely it is that the story is true.  Here it’s a safe bet that the impossibly old date was put on Van Lang to make Vietnam look as old as China, and maybe even older.  At best, Van Lang is a vague memory of the Dongson culture, the bronze age culture of northern Vietnam that we mentioned in Episodes 1 and 2.


The last Van Lang king was overthrown in 258 B.C. by an immigrant named An Duong Vuong, who renamed the state Au Loc.  My guess is that An Duong Vuong was the king of the Viets when they arrived in Vietnam.  Along that line, Encyclopedia Britannica points to the Muong, a minority tribe living in the mountains southwest of Hanoi, and suggests these are descendants of the people who were living in the Red River delta before the Viets.  Does this mean that the ancestors of the Muong were the citizens of the Van Lang kingdom, or the Dongson craftsmen?


Fifty years later, in 208 B.C., Au Loc was in turn conquered by a Chinese general named Zhao Tuo.  It was a successful campaign, which gave Zhao Tuo control over the northern half of the land of Vietnam, the Chinese province of Guangdong, and part of the province of Guangxi.  But even while he took over, his masters, the previously mentioned Qin dynasty, were overthrown, and the Han dynasty took its place.  Instead of serving a new emperor, Zhao “went native.”  He took for himself a Viet name, Trieu Da, put on Viet costumes, adopted Viet customs, and built himself a capital city on the same spot as modern-day Canton.  Then he declared the land that he controlled an independent nation called Nam Viet, with himself as its military commander in chief.  Nam Viet meant the Land of the Southern Viets; the Chinese name for it was Nan Yue.  Of course we get the present name of Vietnam by switching the order of the syllables in “Nam Viet.”  That happened in 1803 A.D., as a result of correspondence between the Vietnamese and Chinese emperors at that time.  The Chinese emperor didn’t like the name Nam Viet because it reminded him of times in the past when their countries were enemies, and the Vietnamese emperor really detested China’s favorite name for his country, Annam – more about that later – so Vietnam was the compromise name they came up with.  Anyway, because we now have Chinese records telling us what was happening at this point, true history will replace the legends.


Once his position was secure, Trieu Da decided that avoiding a fight with China was the best policy.  As a result, when a Chinese embassy came to Nam Viet in 196 B.C., he submitted to the authority of the Chinese emperor, Gaozu.  Chinese officials in return proclaimed Trieu Da a “foreign servant,” meaning he was the rightful leader of a vassal state.  This worked because Gaozu was a laid-back fellow, but the emperors who came after him weren’t as easy to get along with.  By 183 B.C., relations with China had deteriorated to the point that Trieu Da felt compelled to declare himself an emperor, equal to the Chinese emperor.  Man Viet, the other Viet state, was impressed enough by this to submit to Trieu Da’s authority, effectively becoming a vassal of his.  After that, he is credited with a reign lasting until 137 B.C., meaning he ruled for seventy years and an odd number of days.  While this achievement is possible, it is difficult to believe, in view of how few monarchs rule that long, even in our time.  For example, as I record this, the current king of Thailand, Rama IX, has ruled for seventy years, but he did it with the help of modern medicine, and the only living monarch I can think of who even comes close to that is England’s Queen Elizabeth II.


Anyway, whether he ruled for seventy years or not, Trieu Da outlived his son, and he was succeeded by a grandson, called Trieu Mat in Vietnamese and Zhao Mo in Chinese.  His reign was much shorter, from 137 to 122 B.C.  Because Trieu Mat was young and inexperienced, the king of Man Viet saw an opportunity, renounced his submission, and invaded Nam Viet in 135 B.C., forcing Trieu Mat into the embarrassing situation of calling on the Chinese for help.  The Chinese responded with an invasion that split Man Viet into two smaller states.


What makes Trieu Mat interesting to us is his tomb, which was discovered intact under the city of Canton in 1983.  The inside of the tomb was made to look like a palace; today there is a museum built over it, called the Museum of the Western Han Dynasty Mausoleum of the Nanyue King.  The most impressive artifact is a suit made of jade pieces, tied together with red silk thread; the emperor’s body was sealed up in this, and from a distance, the suit looks like a green and red robot!  Also in the tomb were ten swords, bronze containers made in the Dongson style, a silver box from Persia, and a bronze tiger inlaid with gold.  In addition, fifteen members of the emperor’s court had been buried alive, so they could serve him in the next life.  Finally, the emperor had a supply of pills made of sulfur, crystal, arsenic, calcite and alunite.  Trieu Mat believed this drug would keep him from growing old, but we now think he poisoned himself with his own five-colored “pills of immortality.”  Oops!


Nam Viet had five emperors in all.  You don’t have to remember the names of the last three because none of them were any good.  Also, their combined reigns lasted a total of eleven years; put together, these three could not even rule for as long as the not-very-competent Trieu Mat.  Meanwhile, China was under one of its greatest emperors, Wu Di, the “Martial Emperor.”  Nam Viet used diplomatic and military duels to keep the Chinese away, but then in 111 B.C., a Chinese army came, saw, and conquered Nam Viet completely.  On the way home from the campaign, the same army conquered Man Viet, too.  The land of Man Viet has been Chinese territory ever since, and China succeeded in assimilating its population.  Today there is an ethnic minority in Fujian Province called the Min; they speak their own dialect of Chinese, and wear traditional fashions resembling the traditional fashions of the Vietnamese, but otherwise they are considered Chinese, so we are done with them for this narrative.  As for Nam Viet, it became a Chinese province named Giao Chi.


At first the Chinese ruled leniently, introducing many things the Vietnamese welcomed, like writing, roads, canals, the plow, draft animals, and iron weapons.  But the people of Nam Viet refused to become Chinese; they also resented high taxes, and the drafting of their men for the army or labor projects.  As a result, from the first century A.D. onwards the Chinese did everything they could to convert the Vietnamese into Chinese.  Thousands of Chinese administrators, soldiers and scholars came in, filling the government jobs previously held by Vietnamese.  Confucianism, Daoism, and the Chinese language were taught; Chinese customs and fashions became mandatory.  Despite all this only the educated elite were affected much, and even they preferred to speak only Vietnamese at home.

The first major rebellion against Chinese rule happened in 39 A.D.  It was led by Trung Trac, the wife of a noble executed by a Chinese commander, and her sister Trung Nhi. They gathered the tribal chiefs with their armed followers, attacked and destroyed the Chinese strongholds, and proclaimed themselves the two queens of an independent Vietnam.  However, the Chinese returned with a new army in the year 42, and defeated the rebels.  The Trung sisters jumped into a river and drowned to avoid capture by the Chinese.  Today in Hanoi there is a temple dedicated to the Trung sisters, who are honored as the first Vietnamese nationalists.  If you are in a Vietnamese-owned business and see a picture of two women riding an elephant, chances are it’s them.

After that, China tried harder than ever to assimilate the Vietnamese.  This time their grip was strong enough that anyone planning a revolt had to wait until China began to break up, in the last years of the Han Dynasty.  In 192, a local official declared an independent mini-state in the area he was in charge of.  This was the southernmost part of the province, the land around the modern-day cities of Hue and Da Nang.  By now China was going through the Three Kingdoms Era, a time of civil war described in the famous Chinese novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  I can’t talk about the Three Kingdoms story here because that belongs to Chinese history, not Southeast Asian history, so I will just say that if you haven’t read or heard the story, check it out; there is even a Three Kingdoms podcast now.  Anyway, because of all the chaos in China, and because the breakaway district was so small and so far away, senior authorities had to let it go while they dealt with more important matters.  Remember that district, though; this will become Linyi, the first Cham state.

The second Vietnamese uprising came in 248.  Another woman, Trieu Au, was in charge, and she is remembered as an Asian Joan of Arc, for wearing golden armor and riding into battle on an elephant, leading one thousand soldiers.  Unfortunately she was less successful than the French heroine; China crushed the revolt in six months, and like the Trung sisters, Trieu Au escaped the Chinese by drowning herself.

There were three more revolts in the sixth century, and the Chinese won every time.  After the first uprising the Chinese general, Ma Yuan, erected two bronze pillars on the southern border of the province, because from the Chinese point of view, this was also the southern edge of the civilized world.  Beyond those pillars you could find only demons, ghosts, subhuman savages–and the Chams.


South of the border declared by the Chinese, a different kingdom was getting started.  This was Champa, a civilization I have hinted at until now.  You probably remember me mentioning that around 1000 B.C. some Malays landed on the central Vietnam coast and settled there.  From 1000 B.C. to 200 A.D. the people living in this area left pottery, bronze and iron objects, which we call the Sa Huynh culture; it’s a safe bet these are the descendants of the Malays.  Then according to Chinese records, a state named Linyi was founded here in 192; we talked about how that happened a couple minutes ago.  Ruled by a king clad in cotton, with gold necklaces and flowers in his hair, the Chams brought up pearls from the South China Sea and produced amazingly strong drugs and incenses.  Warriors wore rattan armor and rode elephants into battle.

At first most of the Chams were wild tribesmen, but like other Malays they were great sailors, so from the start they experienced the strong influence of Chinese culture, and the even stronger influence of Indian culture.  Indian culture won out because of the nearby kingdom of Funan in Cambodia, and because in the 300s and 400s A.D., northern India was ruled by the Gupta Empire, which saw a boom in trade and brilliant achievements in art and literature.  In the last episode I called Funan “superficially Indianized,” because the upper class of Funan accepted Indian culture, while the lifestyle of the common people didn’t change much.  Champa, by contrast, was totally Indianized; Sanskrit was widely used as a sacred language, and the kings gave themselves Sanskrit names – yes, that means you’re going to meet a bunch of kings with names ending in “varman,: just like we saw with the kings of Funan!  And the names of Champa’s cities were Sanskrit ones as well.  In 336 a king the Chinese called Fan Wen sent tribute to the Chinese emperor, with a message “written in barbarian characters.”  This suggests that the Chams were already writing in the Sanskrit alphabet.  At the same time Indian and Cham art styles were identical, so you could say that the Chams became more Indian than the Indians themselves.  By the late fourth century there were four Cham city-states.  I will give you the Sanskrit name of each city first, and then give the modern Vietnamese names:  Amaravati (modern Quang Nam); Vijaya (modern Binh Dinh); Kauthara (modern Nha Trang); and Panduranga (modern Phan Rang).

A king named Bhadravarman, who ruled from 380 to 413, pulled the four Cham states together, making Champa a unified kingdom.  He established the kingdom’s first capital at Simhapura.  This name meant “Lion City,” and it stood in modern Quang Nam province.  Unlike the other cities mentioned a minute ago, no modern city exists on this site.

Because the mountainous coast of central Vietnam could not provide enough farmland to keep the Chams fed, their economy was ship-oriented; from the start the Chams depended on both trade and piracy (with no particular preference) to make a living.  Most of the raids were directed north against the Chinese, until the Chinese retaliated by destroying Vijaya in 446.  Champa fell under Chinese rule until it regained its independence in 510.  Then in the 540s, the decline of Funan gave the Chams an opportunity to expand south, and they advanced all the way to the edge of the Mekong delta.  The result of this expansion was that the southern part of the nation became more important.  Around 750 Chinese records stopped calling it Linyi and started calling it Huan-wang; this name comes from Chinese attempts to translate the name of the southernmost city, Panduranga.

In 774 and 782, another naval power, Java, sent raiding parties against Champa; of course the Chams retaliated.  By now the Chams had the most powerful fleet in the South China Sea, giving them control over the India-China trade.  Champa even settled some of the tiny islands in the South China Sea.  These islands have been making news in recent years because China claimed all of them for itself, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have also claimed parts of the South China Sea.  As far as I know, only the Chams ever tried to live on those islands, before China dredged up enough sand to make one of the islands big enough for a modern military base.

After the year 800, the threat from Java faded, and the Chams renewed their attacks on other fronts, against the Chinese provinces to the north and the new Khmer empire to the west.  In 854 Indravarman II founded a new dynasty, the sixth in Champa’s history, and in 875 he showed he was more interested in the north by moving the capital northward again, this time to Indrapura, modern Da Nang.  This marked the beginning of the period when the Chams would build elaborate palaces and temples here, especially at a site called My Son.  Eventually My Son would have seventy temples, of which ten are still standing.  However, Indravarman II, unlike the kings before him, was not a Hindu but a Mahayana Buddhist, so he built a grand Buddhist temple, complete with a monastery.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much left of this temple; the Americans bombed it during the Vietnam War, and since the war ended, looters have been taking away the bricks.

Anyway, the skill of the Cham soldiers, their strong sea power and their virtually unassailable land position had all contributed to Champa’s success.  But Champa had also made enemies of all its neighbors, and the Chams got more than they bargained for when the Vietnamese regained their independence and proved themselves to be as aggressive as the Chams were.


Speaking of the Vietnamese, it is time to get back to them.  I will finish this episode by telling how they threw off the Chinese yoke, after wearing it for more than a thousand years.  In 541 a Chinese magistrate, Ly Nam De, became so disgusted by the corruption and cruel behavior of his government that he resigned, organized the local nobility and tribesmen, and launched a rebellion that expelled the rest of the Chinese administration.  Ly Nam De established a capital for the new state at Hanoi, and crowned himself king in 544, but then the Chinese returned and drove him into the wilderness.  There he was assassinated by a tribesman from Laos in 548; the crown passed to his brother, Ly Thien Bao, and he shared power with his best general, Trieu Quang Phuc, until they threw the Chinese out again in 550.  Incidentally, this is the first time we hear of the Vietnamese fighting with guerrilla tactics, something they will become famous for in the twentieth century.  Two more Vietnamese kings followed, ruling from 555 to 602, before the Chinese showed up yet another time and regained control; the last king abdicated when he saw the Chinese forces were more than he could handle.

In the seventh century a new dynasty of Chinese emperors, the Tang Dynasty, took over, and they were the strongest rulers China had seen since the Han dynasty.  Wherever their armies went, they were successful.  After their campaigning was finished, four special military districts were set up, to administer the conquered areas with non-Chinese populations.  Accordingly, they called Central Asia Anxi, “the Pacified West”; Mongolia became Anbei, “the Pacified North”; and Manchuria was named Andong, “the Pacified East.”  In the case of Vietnam, the Tang dynasty put down some minor revolts first, and then in 679 they gave this territory a new name:  Annam, “the Pacified South.”  This name stuck, though as we noted before, the Vietnamese hated the name; foreigners would call them Annamese or Annamites all the way until the 1950s.

Like other dynasties the Tang rose and fell, and their control over Vietnam began to weaken after 750.  This encouraged Java to stage a raid on Vietnam in 767, and in 780 Champa bit off the provinces of Hue, Quang Tri, and Quang Binh.  At this point, Champa was at its peak; it was larger now than it would be at any other point in its history.  Then in 862-863 Nanzhao, the first Thai kingdom, raided Vietnam, too.

When China’s Tang dynasty was replaced by anarchy in the early tenth century, another round of corruption, palace intrigues and peasant unrest followed, and then the Vietnamese saw another opportunity to make a bid for independence.  After seven years of fighting the decisive battle took place in 938.  Here a Chinese fleet brought reinforcements, and the Vietnamese commander, Ngo Quyen, defeated it with a trap; he had his men drive poles bearing iron spikes into the riverbed, at the mouth of the Bach Dang River, and then at high tide he had his own ships enter the river, giving the impression that they were fleeing.  The Chinese fleet pursued, sailing over the poles, and a few miles upstream Ngo Quyen ordered his ships to turn around and attack.  In this clash the Chinese got the worst of it, and tried to retreat, but because the tide had gone out by now, their ships were impaled on the spikes.  More than half of the Chinese force was killed in the last phase of the battle.  Among the dead was the commanding admiral, who also happened to be a Chinese prince.  This sent a very strong message to the Chinese emperor; he never came back, and the Vietnamese were free at last.

Well, this episode went a little longer than the usual thirty minutes; remember what I said at the beginning, about how having more written records would make a difference?  Join me next time when we go to the western edge of Southeast Asia, to see how the Burmese nation got started, and then we will look at the Thai kingdom I mentioned a couple minutes ago, Nanzhao.  And here’s a little reminder; if you like what you just heard, consider making a donation to support the podcast, using the Paypal button on the Blubrry.com page where you played or downloaded this episode.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!