The south

01

Dec
2021

The Provincial Era

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The empire comes south

After conquering the Yangtze River basin and proclaiming the Qin Empire in 221 bce, Qin Shi Huang, “The First Emperor of China,” sent thousands of his soldiers over the mountains into the valleys and coastlands of what is now South China. He also sent convicts and women to establish a population of northerners there. After years of hard fighting against local people, Qin commanders built a city on the site of modern Guangzhou (Canton), the main seaport for trade into the southern seas. When the Qin Empire collapsed after Qin Shi Huang’s death in the year 210 bce, this coastal outpost became the center of a regional kingdom ruled by the senior commanding officer, Zhao To.

As armies fought for control of the empire in the north, Zhao To proclaimed himself King of Nan Yue (Southern Yue). Zhao To is among the first historical figures with a role in Vietnamese history. Sometime during the first quarter of the second century bce, he extended his authority over the people living in the Red River plain of northern Vietnam. Yue had been the name of a state on the south-central coast of China (the modern province of Zhejiang) during the sixth to fourth centuries bce. It was appropriated by Zhao To and eventually applied to the Red River plain by ancient Chinese dynasties; in Vietnamese, it is pronounced Viet.

Zhao To was not the first conqueror to arrive in the Red River plain from the north. Armed adventurers, apparently fleeing the Qin invasion of southern  China, had previously arrived and defeated the local ruler. Their leader pro- claimed himself King An Duong (Pacifier of the South; An Yang in Chinese). He  occupied and rebuilt an existing fortress now called Co Loa. The earliest stories about this can be found in books compiled six or seven hundred years later. They tell about King An Duong and Zhao To struggling for control of the Red River plain. Several versions of this story have been recorded through the centuries; it is a tragic romance involving the transfer of political power.

The main line of the story is as follows. During a truce in the fighting between Zhao To and King An Duong, Zhao To’s son, Shi Jiang, visited King An Duong’s court. There, he and King An Duong’s daughter, My Chau, fell in love and were married. The young bride and groom resided at An Duong’s court until Shi Jiang managed to lay his hands upon the magic crossbow that was the source of King An Duong’s power. He destroyed the crossbow and fled back to his father, who thereupon attacked and vanquished King An Duong. King An Duong escaped to the sea with My Chau in tow. She surreptitiously marked their way so as to be  found by her husband. Perceiving this, King An Duong slew her for her treach- ery, and then disappeared into the sea. Finding his wife’s body, Shi Jiang leaped  into a well to join her in death.

This story exists today because it was interesting to compilers at Chinese dynastic courts in the third and fourth centuries ce, and maybe it was even created by them. At least three aspects of the story would have been popular at that time and place. One aspect is the theme of romantic love leading to tragic death, which was in literary fashion then. Another aspect is that it provides an explanation for how this remote part of the world was brought into the imperial political system; Zhao To’s kingdom of Nan Yue (Vietnamese Nam Viet), which eventually expanded to include northern Vietnam, finally became part of the Han Empire, and all subsequent dynasties considered themselves to be heritors of Han.

Another reason why this story was interesting to people in the empire is the dissonance between a matrilocal society in which a man becomes a member of his wife’s family, for which we have evidence from ancient Vietnam, and a patrilocal society in which a woman becomes a member of her husband’s family, which for several centuries had already been the rule among educated people in China. Ngo Si Lien, a fifteenth-century Vietnamese historian, even commented upon how strange and “wrong” it was that in this story Shi Jiang lived with his wife’s family and that My Chau did not go to live with her husband’s family. It was hard for him to think that there had been a time when people in this country did not know the patriarchal Confucian family system.

In fact, the people whom King An Duong and Zhao To encountered in the Red River plain were very strange to educated northerners at that time. Two hundred years after the time of King An Duong, around the year zero, Han imperial administrators recorded their efforts to promote agriculture, to open schools, and to introduce the institution of marriage among the inhabitants of northern Vietnam. They wanted to expand agriculture to maximize the taxable surplus; schools were a way to win the minds of intelligent young locals; marriage practices governed the social system and consequently the form of political authority that could be exercised. Yet, according to the San Guo Zhi (Annals of the Three Kingdoms), an imperial administrator named Xue Zong, who two centuries later spent most of his career in northern Vietnam, wrote: “According to the records, civilizing activities have been going on for over four hundred years, but, according to what I myself have seen during many years of travel since my arrival here, the actual situation is something else … In short, it can be said that these people are on the same level as bugs.”

Until the middle of the first century ce, outside of a few imperial outposts, local rulers limited the influence of Han officials. These local rulers can be seen riding in boats that decorate the large bronze drums that announced their authority. In their graves of boat-shaped wooden coffins, they have left their weapons, tools, jewelry, and daily life items made of wood, pottery, bronze, and iron. From such things, and from brief written descriptions by imperial officials compiled in later books, we can vaguely see the society ruled by these people. Imperial officials called them Lac (Chinese Luo) and Au (Chinese Ou), which  they understood as kinds of Viet (Chinese Yue), a name applied to southern non- Han people.

The Lac people were rice growers in the Red River plain. The Au had arrived with King An Duong, who combined his entourage with the existing class of rulers to produce what was recorded as the kingdom of Au-Lac. The Lac lords had previously served the ruler dethroned by King An Duong. In later centuries, historians used the name Hung for those who ruled before King An Duong at the place where the Red River emerges from the mountains, called Me Linh in old texts. It would have been easy for this place to be in contact with other bronze-age cultures up the Red River to the northwest in what are now the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Sichuan. King An Duong’s fortress of Co Loa was in the upper plain north of the Red River, located to  dominate the plain while defending it from intruders coming from the north- east, either along the coast or through the upland passes leading to Zhao To’s  kingdom of Nan Yue in the modern Chinese provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi.

One detail in the earliest versions of the story of King An Duong and Zhao To can be related to the archaeology of Co Loa. Cao Thong (Chinese Kao Tong), a man described in such a way as to indicate that he was from China, was the chief advisor of King An Duong as well as the inventor of the magic crossbow. As long as King An Duong retained the loyalty of Cao Thong, Zhao  To could not defeat him. However, King An Duong treated Cao Thong disres- pectfully, and Cao Thong abandoned him. Thereafter, King An Duong lost  the magic crossbow and was defeated. The archaeology of Co Loa reveals an adaptation of engineering practices from the Warring States of ancient China to the local terrain and a range of weapons similar to contemporary armies in China, which suggests that King An Duong’s magic weapon may have been some kind of “new model army” trained and led by Cao Thong, which was no longer effective without his leadership.

After Zhao To had expelled King An Duong, he posted two legates to super- vise the Au-Lac lords, one in the Red River plain, which was named Giao Chi,  and one in the Ma and Ca River plains immediately to the south, which was named Cuu Chan. Some records suggest that he also invested a king at Co Loa  who continued to preside over the Au-Lac lords. The legates established com- mercial outposts accessible by sea. Their presence was apparently unobjection- able to the Au-Lac lords, for there is no record of trouble between them. Access  to stable markets with goods from the north was surely a benefit to the local rulers. For the next century and a half, no recorded information survives about this place. The local organization of society and politics apparently remained fundamentally unchanged in the transfer from Hung kings to King An Duong to the kingdom of Nan Yue. The next transfer of suzerain also did not bring any drastic change.

When the Han General Lu Bode conquered Nan Yue in 111 bce, his army was met at the Giao Chi border by the two Nan Yue legates with cattle, wine, and tokens of submission. At that time, an Au-Lac lord received a titular reward from Han for overthrowing the king who had been invested by Nan Yue at Co Loa. Han subsequently established two new outposts as frontier garrisons, one facing northwest, up the Red River into the mountains at Me Linh where the Hung kings had supposedly ruled, and one facing the southern coast in Nhat Nam, on the plain between the Ngang and Hai Van Passes beyond Cuu Chan. The headquarters for Giao Chi and the entire region was at Luy Lau, a seaport amidst fields connected by river with the coast leading north.

Giao Chi, Cuu Chan, and Nhat Nam were given the status of prefectures in Han imperial administration. A total of twenty-two districts were organized, or at least theorized, in these prefectures, ten in Giao Chi, seven in Cuu Chan, and five in Nhat Nam. The districts were left in the hands of local lords who received imperial “seals and ribbons” as symbols of their status in return for what the lords viewed as tribute to a suzerain but which imperial officials over time began to view as taxes. Although this situation, so far as surviving evidence reveals, remained peaceful for the next century and a half, the accommodation achieved between a feudal aristocracy and the Han practice of prefecture and district administration was an expedient and would not be sustainable in the long run.

Han officials sought to maintain peaceful relations with the local population  while pursuing the complex, sometimes contradictory, goals of imperial adminis- tration. These goals included patrolling the frontiers to ensure security, monitoring the local leaders to maintain domestic tranquility, nurturing trade and agriculture to produce a taxable surplus, encouraging northern immigration to consolidate a mass of people directly responsive to imperial authority, and  seeking opportunities to change local ways toward northern norms with educa- tion and social reform. The perspective of the Han officials was largely limited to  their prefectural headquarters and garrisons and the security of the river routes that connected these places. They met with the lords who governed districts to receive a portion of the local surplus and to confer tokens of imperial authority and benevolence.

For their part, the lords upon whom Han officials were dependent for governing the non-Han population inhabited a world very different from Han people. Theirs was the realm of the Lac, and of the Au who during this time were probably for the most part absorbed into the Lac. People today apply the archaeological name of Dong Son to their culture. Here were communities of agriculturalists settled along riverbanks beside rice fields. The rulers sent men by boat to collect rice and other goods, armed with crossbows, spears, swords, and their distinctive bronze pediform axes. They proclaimed their arrival by beating on bronze drums to summon the people to submit what was due. Many of these drums still exist and are decorated with scenes of the boats bearing warriors with weapons, large jars to carry rice, and the drums. There are also depictions of people wearing clothing decorated with feathers. Some are pounding rice in large mortars with long wooden pestles. There are musicians and dancers, men and women copulating, and warriors holding decapitated heads. The drums also bear images of birds, deer, crocodiles, and frogs. The rulers of this society met with Han officials to exchange gifts and to gain access to markets with goods from afar, and they were buried with their weapons, wooden combs, bracelets, ceramic pillows, and Han coins.

An imperial census was taken in the year 2 ce. It recorded 143,643 households and 981,755 people in the three prefectures of Giao Chi, Cuu Chan, and Nhat Nam. It is doubtful that these enumerations came from an actual registration of the population or even that they were a compilation of estimates. It was at this time that some prefects in remote jurisdictions endeavored to become famous for claiming to have promoted agriculture and patriarchal marriage rites, activities related to the taking of a census. They typically made impressive but unverifiable  claims seeking to gain a reputation that would lead to more desirable assign- ments nearer the imperial heartland.

Despite many problems in evaluating the accuracy of this census, it is neverthe- less plausible evidence for the existence of a settled population in the lowlands of  what is now northern Vietnam that was significant and substantial in the context of imperial administration in ancient China. This is apparent in comparison with numbers in the same census recorded from the modern southern Chinese prov- inces of Guangxi and Guangdong, even allowing for the certainty of error and  fiction: 71,805 households and 390,555 people, less than half the households and only around 40 percent of the people recorded for the prefectures in modern Vietnam.

Who were these people and what language did they speak? Han immigrants aside, we can plausibly conjecture that much of the lowland population spoke what linguists call Proto-Viet-Muong related to the Mon-Khmer language family that apparently expanded northward from the Ca River plain in modern Nghe An and Ha Tinh Provinces. The geographical connection with other Mon-Khmer languages appears to have been via the Mu Gia Pass from the middle Mekong plain to the Ca River plain. Another plausible conjecture is that the aristocracy that ruled these people, called Lac in Han texts, came from the mountains north and west of the Red River plain and spoke an ancient language related to modern Khmu, another Mon-Khmer language now spoken in the mountains of northern Vietnam and Laos. On the other hand, the Au conquerers who arrived from the northern mountains with King An Duong might be imagined to have spoken a language related to the Tai-Kadai language family that includes modern Lao and Thai. In any case, it is too early to speak of the Vietnamese language.

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