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?
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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!
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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!