Zhao Tuo renounced his title of emperor, accepted the Han – Page 7

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result: Zhao Tuo renounced his title of emperor, accepted the Han investiture as
king of Nan Yue, and resumed diplo matic and com mercial relations with China.
Nan Yue’s founder died in 137 BCE. His direct successor, Zhao Wen Wang,
Trieu Van Vuong (137-125 BCE) depended so much upon the protection of the
Han that they felt emboldened to require that he come to the imperial court as a
hostage. His son went in his stead and that compromise heralded the unraveling
of the independence of the king dom. While serving the Chinese emperor, the
Nan Yue prince fell in love and married one of the emperor’s court ladies. Later
on, when the Chinese courtesan became the Nan Yue’s queen, the Han sent an
old ac quaintance of hers in order to persuade her to work for a smooth transfer
of power from Nan Yue to China, thereby preventing any renewed at tempt by
rulers of Nan Yue to proclaim themselves the equals of the son of Heaven. A
strong resistance movement on the part of the Nan Yue people gave the Han an
excellent opportunity to send a massive army of invasion. That was the year 111
BCE. The Han expeditionary corps easi ly quelled the rebellion and,
subsequently, launched the era of Chinese domination. As far as Vietnam was
concerned, that domination was to last for more than a thousand years, from 111
BCE until 939 CE.
It is in teresting to note that in Guangzhou (Canton), there exists a museum
called the Nan Yue King Museum which houses more than a thousand relics
from the reign of Zhao Wen Wang: Trieu Van Vuong, 137-125 BCE. (See Gems
From the Relics of the Museum of the Western Han Tomb of the Nan Yue King,
Guangzhou, 1999.)
The Nan Yue kingdom left a very important mark in the historical develop
ment of Vietnam. That kingdom was, in reality, made of two dif ferent
territories: one encompassed the present day’s provinces of Guang dong and
Guangxi and the other consisted of what, at the time, was the land of Vietnam.
When the Han came to annex Nan Yue, they looked at it as one territory. The end
result of this is that dynastic China will for a very long time consider Vietnam an
integral portion of the Chinese territory, a piece of a home land to be reoccupied
and not a foreign country to be conquered. In the mind of the Chinese rulers, to
occupy Vietnam is, there fore, NOT an act of IMPERIALISM but a feat of
In fact, as recent as the early years of the Republic of China, I have
personally never seen them myself, but I heard from many different sources that
maps representing the territorial extension of China included, besides Tibet and
Taiwan, Vietnam as well! And Professor Han Xiao rong shared with me another
interesting anecdote covering the same topic. As late as 1936, in his interview
with Edgar Snow, it was Mao Ze dong who said that it was China’s loss of
Vietnam to France that had awakened his national consciousness!
As a result, it has always been Vietnam’s burden to prove and to make the
Chinese authorities accept the fact that their country was not within Chinese
borders; that Vietnam’s territory is totally different from that of China and that
Vietnam is definitely not a constituting part of China. The Vietnamese have done
it with an enormous amount of sacrifices and a no less deep-felt conviction,
many times. Some succeeded in repulsing the invading armies of China; some
failed, and thereby resulted in the establishment of Chinese rule, albeit none
lasted anymore as long as a millennium!
It looks as if the Nan Yue period has clearly defined the mold in the rela
tionship between China and its neighbors which was definitely not a relationship
between equals. At this point in time, it seems that China had already devised a
rather precise and specific conception of the world, placing itself at its center. As
there is only one sun in the sky, there should only be only one emperor on earth
and that emperor, huang di or hoang de , is the ruler of China, who was always
prepared to endow rulers of neighboring countries with a lesser title of king,
wang or vuong . The Chinese emperor was ready to impose such a conception
with force: To gain your territory makes us no richer, because it is so small, but
what would happen to you and to your innocent people, when we send a
chastising army against you?
Ngo Si Lien, Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu, Hanoi, 1967, vol.1, p.75
That was the question asked by the Emperor to all the kings of the sur
rounding countries. As for the latter, their noblest duty would be to revere and
serve the emperor in order to benefit from the sainted vir tues of a ruler endowed
with the mandate of Heaven and, on a more materialistic plane, to reap the profit
of commercial exchanges with the immense market of China. In order to be
allowed to trade with the suzerain empire, it was imperative that tributary states
acknowledge the dominant status of the emperor of China by sending tributes
which consisted principally of local products. Zhao Tuo expressed that sentiment
very appro priately; it is absolutely of no relevance whether that sentiment
bespoke of his sinceri ty or not: This old man has lived in the Viet territory for
forty-nine years now; I already have grand children. Unfortunately, day or night,
I feel persis tently anxious; I can’t find any taste in my food; I can hardly sleep at
nights; my eyes do not dare see beauty and my ears shy away from good music.
All that, because I have not been admitted to revere and serve the Han dynasty.
Ngo Si Lien, Dai Viet Su Ky Toan Thu, Hanoi, 1967, vol.1, p.76.
Zhao Tuo was the same person who had declared that he would not have
yielded in any respect to the Han emperor had he started his career in China
itself, meaning that he might have become the equal of the empe ror of China
instead of being simply the king of Nan Yue. By an interesting twist, this flippant
observation may explain why and how Vietnam has remained independent from
China after it got away from its control in 939 CE. I have suggested earlier one
reason, and that was to render Viet nam as distinct and as different from China as
possible in order to force the Chinese authorities to keep that fact in mind. The
second reason con sists exactly in the reverse of what Zhao Tuo suggested here:
it was for Viet nam NOT to be mixed up in the many power struggles within
China. In other words, no matter how hard the temptation was, no matter how
powerful the Vietnamese army was, Vietnam was not to step out of its domain
onto Chinese land. The two reasons I just evoked here are naturally corre lated:
if one wants one, which is to be considered different from China, one must heed
the other which is to refrain from being mixed up in the struggle for power
within China. The second rea son, however, seems to me the more important in
the sense that if Viet nam desires to unify China on Vietnam’s terms, then it
should also be ready to be unified by China, on China’s terms. In other words, if
a Viet namese ruler failed to realize his dream of unifying China under his own
scepter, then he should be willing to see his land being incorporated into a China
that would have been unified by another founder of another dy nasty. A slightly
rearranged old adage gives the perfect reason why: ” Better to be a big fish in a
small pond rather than no fish at all in a big pond!”
The Chinese authorities, too, were apparently aware of that eventuality. To
anticipate history, in the beginning of the 19th century, when empe ror Gia Long
of Vietnam requested through a tributary mission sent to emperor Qian Long,
Can Long, of China that the new name of his coun try be Nam Viet, Qian Long
must have thought of Zhao Tuo’s Nan Yue, which included in its territory two
Chinese provinces. Suspecting irredentist intentions on the part of the
Vietnamese ruler, the emperor pro posed to the Vietnamese ambassador to
reverse the order of the two words. This is how the name of Viet Nam came into

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