Formation of French Cochinchina




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When people first began to live on Earth, terrain was very different from what it is today. For tens of thousands of years, what we know as the country of Vietnam was the mountainous western edge of a broad plain. Now covered by the Gulf of Tonkin and the South China Sea, this plain extended in places for hundreds of kilometers east of the modern coastline and included a massif that we now call Hainan Island. Today we can imagine that beneath the mud at the bottom of the sea lie the relics of the people who inhabited this plain. But our knowledge of their existence comes only from the remains of quarries and workshops where they crafted stone tools at the tops of mountains along the modern Vietnamese coast. During that time, people also inhabited the mountains in what is now northern Vietnam, and we know of them from what they left in the caves where they lived.

About twelve to eight thousand years ago, the coastline shifted westward as sea levels rose with the melting of the ice-age glaciers. The water reached to around 5.8 meters above the modern level of the sea and penetrated into the mountain valleys. Thereafter, the sea gradually receded to its present level, exposing a chain of coastal plains that became the lowlands of what is now Vietnam. The most important of these plains for early Vietnamese history is the most northern of them. This is the plain of the Red River. It was formed by grey oceanic sediment emerging from the receding sea that has been increasingly streaked by accumulations of the red silt that has given the Red River its name.

The Red River flows in nearly a straight line from the Yunnan plateau to the sea. It follows what geologists call the Red River Fault Zone. This is a major geological discontinuity where for millions of years the land south of the fault has been shearing a few millimeters each year southeastward under tectonic pressure from the Indian subcontinent against the Eurasian land mass. The plain of the

2 / A history of the Vietnamese

Red River, along with the smaller plains of the Ma and Ca Rivers immediately to the south, make up the scene in which Vietnamese history was lived until the fifteenth century.

Between four and five thousand years ago, people with stone tools began to live on these plains in agricultural communities with rice, domesticated animals, and pottery. It is fruitless to speculate about the origins of these people. They lived so long ago and left such meager evidence of their existence that they are impervious to our strategies for using archaeological, geological, geographical, or linguistic evidence to identify them as having arrived from a particular somewhere. They may have come from the continental land mass, they may have come from the lands submerged beneath the sea, or, most likely of all, they may have come from a mixture of peoples from both directions.

During the succeeding millennium, people with bronze weapons gained supremacy over these communities. At that time, advanced bronze cultures existed in several areas of the Asian continent. There is no surviving evidence that would allow us to specify from where the bronze-age people came to assert their rule over the Red River plain, or even to determine that they came from elsewhere and did not arise from the existing society as a result of bronze technology being introduced through peaceful exchange. Thereafter, contact with expanding political powers in the north, which we now associate with ancient China, increasingly exposed the people living here to northern influence and power and led to incorporation into the Chinese imperial realm.

The Dong Son Culture with its distinctive bronze drums decorated with boats, warriors, musicians, dancers, feathered garments, birds, animals, reptiles, and amphibians flourished during the four or five centuries preceding conquest by the Han Chinese in the mid first century ce, after which this culture disappeared. During the next nine centuries, the people here lived under a local form of imperial administration as the southernmost members of a succession of Chinese empires. During the past thousand years, local dynasties ruled as vassals of Chinese empires, save for the last century and a half during which a brief French hegemony gave shape to modern Vietnam.

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