The Han inaugurated in 111 BCE a long era of Chinese domination over Nan Yue – Page 1

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The Han inaugurated in 111 BCE a long era of Chinese domination over Nan Yue which they proceeded to divide into seven prefectures: four of them located in China and three in Vietnam. Of the three administra tive units in Vietnam, two were old acquaintances: they were Giao Chi, Jiao Zhi, and Cuu Chan, Jiu Zhen, which understandably enough occupied the same territorial expansion as they did under Zhao Tuo. The third prefecture, Nhat Nam, Ri Nan, which means South of the Sun, extended all the way to approximately the area of present day Hue. The Vietnamese prefectures were subsequently partitioned into dis tricts: ten for Giao Chi, seven for Cuu Chan and five for Nhat Nam. The way the Chinese divided the territory into prefectures and districts must have made such a profound impression that, from then on, when ever they came to talk about Chinese domination, the Vietnamese never failed to mention that particular fact: “The Chinese invaded our country; they di vided it up into districts and prefectures…” This sentence conjures up a sure sign of foreign domination!

The Han set up a more elaborate control mechanism over the four Nan Yue prefectures that were situated on the Chinese territory; as for those on Vietnam’s land, they applied what we would now call the indi rect rule: they were indeed satisfied with sending a Chinese administra tor with a small garrison of Chinese soldiers. Their mission was to supervise the collection of taxes, oversee the operation of trade, and maintain a sem blance of law and order in the new colonial posses sion. The Viet namese ruling class thus retained its dominance over its own people so that the newly acquired colony found itself rather re motely and, there fore, loosely bound to the Chinese central government.

China, however, found more clever means to leave its mark on the new possession. In general, Chinese administrators did not highly value an assignment in the colony, although a few of them not only found the country worth residing in, they even tried to change the ways its people did things. The


Chinese chronicles had them teach the Vietnamese people the rudiments of agricultural science and the basic principles of a social life including marriage rituals and Chinese clothing. Parallel with these innovations, the colonial society underwent a tumultuous change in its structures wrought by the arrival of thousands of Chinese immigrants-refugees trying to escape the upheavals that resulted in the interlude of the Wang Mang usurpation of the Han dynasty. Although the disruption did not last long, from 9 to 23 C.E., it nevertheless subjected the dependency to severe turmoil. The indigenous chieftains who hitherto had continued to hold power in their hands could not fail to feel threatened by the Chi nese newcomers who in their majority belonged to the scholar-gentry class because they obviously were the most affected by the dynastic change. That situation bred the first rebellion against Chinese control.

In the year 40, two Trung sisters led a successful revolt against the Chi nese governor and expelled his garrison out of the Vietnamese terri tory. The cause for the insurrection raises some controversy but at least two things are certain. One, the Trung sisters must have belonged to the Vietnamese ruling class and,


therefore, initiated their revolt because they did not want to share their privileges with the new Chinese masters. Secondly, the rebellion made abun dantly clear the fact that pre-Han Vietnamese society reserved to women a status far superior to the one given to them by many other countries of Asia: the two sisters were, indeed, likely to enjoy the same prerogatives as men in the government of the country. Daughters must have suc ceeded their parents as frequently as sons did.

This is why we have two different explanations for this rebellion. Confu cian


Chinese chroniclers could not imagine any incentive for ac tion to women other than faithfulness and loyalty to their husband. The uprising, consequently, could not be fomented for any other reason than avenging the humiliation or, more probably, the execution ordered by the Chinese governor of one of the sisters’ husband who bore the name of Thi Sach.

The Vietnamese tradition did mention that Confucian explanation, but added

the hint that the two sisters either belonged to the family of one of the indigenous leaders or were themselves chiefs of local administra tive units that had been left intact by the Chinese colonial govern ment. That fact could explain the rapid success of the rebellion. For if the sisters had taken up arms only to avenge the death of the husband, it is doubtful that they could so readily rally many people to their cause. In order for it to spread far and wide, in addition to revenge, the revolt must have ad dressed the serious anxiety of the time which was the erosion of authority and power brought about by the arrival of the new immigrants from China. That was how, according to the tradition, the sisters were able to seize in a very short time “sixty three citadels.” These citadels must have referred to headquarters of the ruling families of pre-China Viet nam.

After  expelling  the  Chinese  from  their  land,  the  two  sisters  proc  laimed themselves queens and ruled over Vietnam for three years.

In 43, the Han dispatched an able general who had earned the frigh tening

title of “Tamer of the Waves” at the head of a huge army to quell the rebellion. Ma Yuan, that is the name of the general, did that and more.

There are divergent versions concerning the end of the two sisters-queens.


The most popular one made the two queens commit sui cide by throwing themselves into the Hat River, after they realized that they had no chance of fighting against such a huge army from China. Another version wants them to be taken back alive to China as war pris oners. The third version maintained that they were beheaded and their heads brought back to China. This last account indicates clearly the Chi nese understanding that Vietnam constituted an integral part of China, not a colony let alone a foreign country. In effect, the taking of the heads back to the capital city of China fit the usual punishment imposed on inter nal rebels and not on rulers of any foreign country.

Ma Yuan reorganized the administration of the reconquered colony. This time Chinese officials took over all the major positions leaving to the Vietnamese only the lowest echelons in the local government. Ma Yuan is also credited with the destruction of the bronze industry in Viet nam. According to excavations made in the area in the 1930s, Vietnam which sheltered the Dongson center of the bronze industry that spread all over southern China and Southeast Asia, stopped completely any produc tion of bronze artifacts after the first century of our era. That production supposedly moved toward the mountainous areas of Vietnam and to neigh boring countries where it prospered until the present day. In addi tion to all that, and to the disgust of the Vietnamese people, Ma Yuan erected bronze pillars along the southern borders of Vietnam to mark the limits of the Han empire, thereby incorporating Vietnam into that empire. Again, according to the same source, on these pillars, Ma Yuan had the following phrases engraved: “Should these pillars disap pear, so will all the people of Giao Chi.” The story then has it that Vietnamese who passed by these pillars each threw a stone against their base, so that, as time passed, the stones finished by burying the pillars under their mass.

Anyway, Ma Yuan’s repression of the Trung sisters’ revolt was ulti mately responsible for the division of the local population into two un equal groups. The majority of them stayed put and readily received the direct and intense influence of Chinese officials and immigrants. A small number refused to cooperate with


the new conquerors and withdrew into the highlands which remained forbidden, for a long time to come, to the Chinese as well as to other dwellers of coastal plains. The Vietnamese who remained in the plains and collaborated with the Chinese occupiers formed the majority of the inhabitants of Vietnam whereas those who took to the mountains supposedly constituted some of the ethnic minori ties that still to this day live on the slopes of the mountains of Vietnam. Some of them, such as the Muong, speak a language that is extremely close to that of the plain people.

Towards the end of the second century took place an important event which showed clearly that the political fragmentation of China due to the demise of the Han dynasty has drastically weakened her control over the southern province. In 192, a local chieftain by the name of Qu Lien, , moved away from the Vietnamese territory as well as from the Chinese authority to found an independent kingdom to the south named Lin Yi, Lam Ap , and to proclaim himself its first king. Lin Yi was to become known also as Huan Wang, Hoan Vuong     , and later on as Champa, Chiem Thanh     . The people of the new realm who speak a Malayo-Polynesian language were free to occupy the coastal plains of present day Vietnam approximately from the region north of Hue down to the area around Phan Rang. As they extended their control toward the south, they soon encountered the state of Funan, inha bited by  the  Khmer  people, whose territory included present day Cambo dia, Laos and, probably, most of eastern Thailand. As both of these coun tries were situated right on the maritime trading route between India and China, and as they were also cognizant of the military and imperialistic character of Chinese expansion, they gladly welcomed the culture brought over by Indian traders and missionaries. In effect, Funan and Champa became the first Indianized states of Southeast Asia.

The end of the Han dynasty ushered in the famous period of the Three Kingdoms (222-265). One of them, the Eastern Wu, Dong Ngo , inhe rited the control of Nan Yue. There was not much time or any real opportunity for the new  power  to  consolidate  its  grip  as  resistance  move  ments  brought  about

lawlessness into the colonial possession.

A significant rebellion occurred in 248 and again a woman warrior led it. She was known as Lady Trieu, Ba Trieu or Trieu Au or Trieu Thi Trinh.

The chronicles recorded that she came down from the mountains in the South


at the head of a band of rough and tough bandits and that her rebellion did not elicit much of the popular support that had been given earlier to the Trung sisters. Two hundred years of further Chi nese domination and assimilation had unmistakably shown their mark; the Vietnamese population no longer responded with the same enthu siasm to the calls to drive out the foreign dominators. They have, on the contrary, become either so assimilated culturally to or so mixed up ethni cally with the Chinese that they no longer recognized themselves in the insurgents led by Lady Trieu Au. Or perhaps their interests were so en meshed with those of the Chinese immigrant population that they already felt alienated from their former compatriots who had chosen to withdraw to the mountain. In these conditions, was it a surprise that Lady Trieu’s rebellion resulted in utter failure?

She never came close to the success that had crowned the movement of the Trung sisters. Yet, a few details worth noting are given below.

The Vietnamese iconography always represents Lady Trieu on the back of an elephant, suggesting the fact that she came from the jungle in the mountainous


areas where that kind of mount was as usual as it was unusual on the coastal plains. Half of her followers were made of women who constituted what the people call her Ashock troops.@ Finally, Lady Trieu should be very easily identifiable, for her breasts, according to the tradition, protruded to such length that she had to throw them over her shoulders.

Another explanation of her defeat goes something like this: Chinese troops who found themselves on the point of being driven away from their fortified position shed all their clothes and exposed themselves stark naked to the opposing forces. Lady Trieu and her shock troops were so embarrassed that she ordered her followers to retreat. Seizing upon that advantage, the Chinese army pursued her troops all the way to their encamp ment, destroyed it, and doing so, automatically sealed the fate of the rebellion. It is believed that Lady Trieu Au, like her predecessors the Trung Sisters, also committed suicide: she preferred to die honorably ra ther than be captured and humiliated.

In spite of all that unrest, the Wu, however, left a notable legacy in the Nan Yue colony. In 226, for the first time in its history, the old Zhao Tuo territory Nan Yue was split into two significant halves: the northern portion situated entirely in China was called Guangzhou and the southern part located to tally on the present day territory of northern and central Vietnam was known as Jiao Zhou, Giao Chau.

Although still an integral part of China, Vietnam, under  the  name  of  Giao Chau, nevertheless, had received a genuinely separate geographical identity and its inhabitants could from then on develop a distinct ethnic personality, the more so that the Giao Chau people did not share the same language as their next-door neighbors, the people of Guangzhou.

After the Wu, Giao Chau fell under the domination of the Jin, Tan (265- 420), and of the Southern Dynasties, Nam Triều (420-589), in which the Song, Tong (420-478), the Qi, T ề (479-501), the Liang, Luong (502-555), and the Chen, Tran (557-583) superseded one another to  control  the  southern dependency from 420 to 583. That was indeed a long period of confusion and


disorder for China, when small kingdoms vied for supremacy scattering people in all directions. Emigration must have been intense and, furthermore, in moving away, the victims did not entertain any hope of ever returning to their place of origin. The fact that the elaboration and transformation of the Viet  namese identity continued steadily throughout this period  was  supported  by  the perceived ethnic origin of the next leader of an anti-Chinese move ment.

He was Ly Bi, but people also called him Ly Bon, whose ancestors had


emigrated from China into Vietnam seven generations earlier. To that observation, the chronicler added a serious implication: “He was, therefore, considered a native of the land.” This might have been the rea son why he succeeded in expelling Chinese administrators and troops from Giao Chau in

  1. He changed the name of his country to Van Xuan, Ten Thousand Springs,

and proclaimed himself emperor with the title of Ly Nam De which means the Ly Emperor of the South. His own reign lasted only for three years, from 544 to 547, but the dynasty he created which was known as the Former Lý or Tiền Lý was carried on until 602 when its last representative surrendered to the Sui, Tuỳ,

(589-617) of China.

The Ly Bi rebellion shows clearly that by the 6th century, after three hundred years of having a distinct territorial base and after a prolonged phase of intense cohabitation, there was no longer much difference be tween the Chinese immigrants and the native people of Giao Chau. The melting pot concept has worked without a hitch. After a few genera tions, Chinese immigrants identified themselves and in fact were even identi fied by the Vietnamese people as local persons. A new “Viet namese” identity had now been forged which distinguished it from the Chinese as well as from the original Vietnamese. In effect, the 15th cen tury historian Ngo Si Lien who chronicled the past under extremely ri gorous rules and regulations did not hesitate to grant this dynasty its legiti macy by recounting its history in an albeit short but separate chapter he entitled the reign of the Earlier Ly.

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