his wife’s family which was in the Co Loa royal residence – Page 6

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his wife’s family which was in the Co Loa royal residence. Soon enough, he
discovered the miracul ous claw, stole it and brought it back to his father. Right
away, Zhao Tuo launched his army against the Thuc’s territory. He easily
conquered Au Lac, added it to his realm and kept the old name Nan Yue to
designate the newly aggrandized kingdom. All that was accomplished in 179
History records that, in his defeat, the Thuc King jumped into the ocean to
commit suicide. A legend, however, discloses that a golden tur tle emerged from
the water, sat the king on his carapace and together they disappeared into the sea.
Another legend adds a rather tragic detail to this episode. King Thuc had sat My
Chau behind him on his horse to escape from the enemy. Upon seeing the turtle,
the king yelled in re proach :” O, Deity Turtle, why have you forsaken me? Why
did you be tray me?” The turtle replied :” I did not betray you. The traitor is
sitting right behind you.” The king looked back, and he understood. Drawing his
sword, he loped off his daughter’s head. On the back of the turtle, he entered the
When Trong Thuy found the princess decapitated body, –in her escape, the
princess had strewn her route with feathers plucked from her cape (would it be
the forerunner of the feather cape of the Hawaiians?) — he chose not to survive
his wife: holding her body in his arms, he threw himself into the palace well.
The local people believe that the blood of the princess has nurtured the oysters of
that region which give the most brilliant pearls in the world. These pearls acquire
a much more radiant orient if they were washed in the water of the Co Loa’s
Today, at Co Loa, in addition to a complex of temples honoring the Thuc
King and the Golden Turtle, there is a smaller sanctuary dedicated to the cult of
the Prin cess, represented by a boulder which worshipers dressed up into a head
less female deity. This legend saved Vietnamese national pride: Zhao Tuo did
conquer Au Lac and did annex it to his kingdom all right, though he had done it
not under his own power, but through cheating and treason. Sure, the Vietnamese
had lost their country, but they did it …with honor.
What was the situation of the Au Lac country at the moment of annexa tion?
Although we give the royal title to the Hung and to An Duong, neither Van Lang
nor Au Lac was obviously a unified kingdom. Under the best conditions, these
kings must have been the chiefs of the most powerful tribes to whom the heads
of many others paid obeisance or pledged loyalty. Indeed archaeological
excavations show plainly that about this time, in northern Vietnam, there were a
number of graves which were more elaborate in their designs and much richer in
their decora tions and funerary objects.
Indeed, later chronicles mentioned fifteen different “principalities” whose
officials bore distinctive ranks and titles. Some of the common people earned
their living through fishing: the name Van Lang ( ) would then mean: domain
of the tattooed, –and not as previously believed, the Land of the Literati– for in
tattooing their body, the divers aimed at blending themselves with the
surrounding aquatic fauna. The rest of the population derived their subsistence
from agriculture, for they already knew well how to use the tides in order to
cultivate their land. What they had no idea about, according to the Chi nese
chronicles, is the famous Confucian ritual, li, which informed hu man beings
about an appropriate behavior in social context and about ceremonies to be held
for important and memorable events which take place in the course of their lives.
They did not have a writing system and they used knots in strings in order to
count the passing of time. The only technology they have mastered was the
casting of bronze objects of which several centers have been unearthed within
the boundaries of their territory.
As with many other peoples on this earth, the Vietnamese believed in
supernatural powers invested in natural phenomena or in special personali ties.
Animism constitutes the sum total of their religious beliefs. Thunders, lightning,
wind, sun, mountain, trees, animals all have their religious justifications and
their impact on human lives varies with each occurrence. There was not much
people could do, for example, to change the flood that ravages parts of their land
every year owing to the hostility of the Water for the Mountain. And king Thuc,
on the other hand, was handsomely rewarded for obeying the turtle’s request.
Zhao Tuo did not alter in any significant way the governmental struc tures of
his new acquisition. The most important change he made that will exert an
impact on the relations between China and Vietnam for centuries to come
consisted in the merging of the four principalities he ruled over in China with the
land of Vietnam he just con quered. He gave the old name Nan Yue , Nam
Viet in Sino-Vietnamese, to the newly extended territory. He then divided the
Vietnamese portion into two prefec tures he named Jiao Zhi, Giao Chi and Jiu
Zhen, Cuu Chan.
Those were new names conferred on lands that were not nameless, and so it
is appropriate to search for their meaning. Literally, Jiao Zhi means Intertwined
Toes and Jiu Zhen means Nine Realities. I do not know what Nine Realities refer
to, but Intertwined Toes, according to what our teachers explained in elementary
schools, definitely describes the peculiar way in which the big toes of
Vietnamese people are point ing at each other instead of forward like the toes on
other people’s feet. That physical distinctive feature is said to constitute the
remnant of an earlier evolutionary phase or the result of walking barefoot in mud
and clay! That singular trait can still be observed on Vietnamese peasants and
poor people who can seldom afford any footwear.
In order to administer the two Vietnamese prefectures, Zhao Tuo sent two
military governors with the title of Jie Du Shi, Tiet Do Su, at the head of what
appeared to be two modest size garrisons of troops. Indigenous people filled the
rest of governmental positions; indeed, the Vietnamese ruler continued to hold
court at Co Loa as the other chieftains remained in command of their own
Zhao Tuo did not found an enduring dynasty, although his own rule lasted for
more than seventy years. When he died in 137 BCE, the independence of his
realm did not survive him for more than a quarter of a century.
9. Zhao Tuo’ s Nan Yue
The Han, who replaced the Qin in 202 BCE on the throne of China, were
eager to reaffirm their authority over a kingdom that should be a part of a unified
China, because Zhao Tuo was after all a Qin’s envoy who was sent out to bring
the southern region into the first Chinese empire. In effect, Zhao Tuo simply had
exceeded his mandate and, capitalizing on the decline of the Qin, he had made
himself into an independent ruler. The Han, shortly after they had consolidated
their authority as successors to the Qin, started a series of resolute moves
ranging from threatening persuasion to outright invasion with the aim of
bringing Nan Yue back to its appropriate rank within the hierarchy of the
imperial system. That means they intended to make Nan Yue a tributary state of
suzerain China. It is interesting to pay close attention to the diverse phases of
negotia tions as the protagonists were going to set precedents for many
institutions, practices, beliefs.
When the founder of the Han dynasty dispatched, in 196 BCE, an en voy to
invest him as king of Nan Yue, Zhao Tuo had no intention to recog nize the
Chinese Emperor as his suzerain, and so he received the ambassador without
suitable protocol or appropriate ritual: he sat crossed legged right on the floor
and remained seated at the arrival of the celestial envoy. The threat struck like
thunder: Originally, you are a Han man. Your ancestors and parents are bu ried in
Han country. Now, you have violated the customs of your coun try by
conquering this area to oppose the Han; don’t you think you have committed an
error? Now, if you refused to submit to the Son of Heaven, what will you be
able to do when the Emperor sends an army to chastise you?
Ngo Si Lien, Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu, Hanoi, 1967, vol.1, p.72
Zhao Tuo understood all too well the menace; right away, he rose up from
the floor, paid respects to the ambassador and received with good will and
humility the investiture; he thereby recognized the suzerainty of China and
surrendered his independence to China’s emperor.
The submission, however, did not last long. A little more than ten years later,
due to a discriminatory policy that forbade the Han people to sell iron, gold,
agricultural implements and female cattle to Nan Yue, Zhao Tuo occupied two
provinces of China, defeated a Han army of rein forcement, rejected the
suzerainty of China, cut off all diplomatic rela tions with China, and, most
sacrilegious of all, declared himself emperor. It was too much for Han Wen Di
(179-156 BCE), who acceded to the throne after the death of Empress Lu, author
of the above-men tioned discri minatory policy.
Again, the Chinese emperor sent an embassy to Nan Yue bringing with it the
same threats and the same persuasive arguments. It also ob tained the same

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