Early Vietnam

A Mosaic of a Hundred Viet

The area of the Red River delta and the hills that line it from three sides is considered today to be the cradle of Vietnamese civilization, the sacred land from which today’s Vietnam traces its national heritage back for thousands of years. Viewed from above, it’s a beautiful sight to behold: emerging from the cragged reliefs of southern China, the Red River slowly winds its way through a rice-terraced delta, then past the capital of Hanoi before emptying into the Gulf of Tonkin. For thousands of years, the low-lying Red River basin has been home to diverse peoples arriving via the eastern coast and overland from the surrounding hills. Austro-asiatic peoples moving into mainland Southeast Asia by way of southern China are thought to have been among the first to arrive in this area during the Neolithic period (10,000–2,000 BCE). Similar migrations occurred to the west, where three other waterways parallel the Red River’s descent into Southeast Asia—the Irrawaddy crossing Burma into the Andaman Sea, the Chao Phraya flowing through Thailand to the Gulf of Thailand, and the Mekong that winds its way slowly from Tibet to Saigon.

Some of the earliest settled agricultural communities appeared in the Red River plains from around 3,000 BCE as climatic changes began drying parts of what had until then been a very swampy place. As it did, rice cultivation spread in from northern areas in the Yangzi valley. Over time, thanks to the development of dikes and canals, inhabitants began to control flooding and used irrigation for double-cropping. Such intensive, wet-rice agriculture supported larger populations, as did early maritime exchanges with Asia. Dominant families emerged, clans united into tribes, and more complex socio-political institutions evolved. The spread of metal- and bronze-casting technology allowed craftsmen to make agricultural tools, weapons, and a variety of art objects as cloth production flourished.

Peoples inhabiting this area participated in a wider civilization covering large swathes of present-day southern China and mainland Southeast Asia. Archeologists refer to it loosely as the Dong Son culture. Thanks to archeological excavations, radiocarbon dating, and historical linguistics, we know that this civilization thrived roughly between the sixth century BCE and the second century CE, extending from the Red River plains to today’s north-eastern Thailand and northward into southern China’s Yunnan province. Its bronze drums, which one can see on display in the National Museum in Hanoi today, were used for religious and political purposes. These drums, some of which boast pictures of elegant cranes, have come to symbolize Dong Son’s brilliance and, for many, the origins of Vietnamese national identity. While the Vietnamese village of Dong Son, where many of these artifacts have been unearthed, was an important production site in this prehistoric civilization, the fact that peoples living far beyond present-day northern Vietnam produced similar ones during the same era complicates such nationalist claims.

The Dong Son civilization was home to a vibrant collection of peoples and cultures, but it was not always a pacific region or a unified one. As one group eyed the riches of another, conflicts inevitably arose. Local metal and bronze production meant that weapons were available. Ambitious rulers organized warrior classes to expand their territories and control populations. Local polities rose and fell as small dynasties, tribes, and their strongmen clashed. Indeed, Dong Son drums were often made with war in mind. As far as we know no one ruler ever gained the military upper hand or projected the charismatic force needed to create a single ‘Dong Son federation’ extending from southern China to northern Vietnam. Some scholars have suggested that power was perhaps organized locally around a collection of charismatic military leaders or kings. A local balance of power tended to prevail. Central control would have thus remained diffuse and moved through a multi-centered array of small territories, ‘a patchwork of often overlapping mandalas, or “circles of kings”’, who, in turn, often relied upon a spirit world to legitimate their rule. New research, however, suggests that a powerful, centralized political authority emerged in the third century BCE in Co Loa near Hanoi. A complex of walls, moats, and ramparts supported a surprisingly important urban population for the time. The large amounts of labor needed to build and defend such a center also suggest that Co Loa achieved a high level of political, social, and economic organization that may have allowed it to dominate other Dong Son locations concentrated in the Red River valley.

The nature of this ancient state formation continued to evolve when the ‘Chinese’ Qin (221–206 BCE) and especially the Han dynasts (206 BCE–220 CE) dominated and then began unifying warring tribes concentrated between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers into a single imperial core state. At the center—between heaven and earth—stood one divine leader, the emperor, equipped with a mandate from heaven. In theory, he ruled the empire through a bureaucratic state and military capable of holding and administering large swathes of multi-ethnic territories. Upon assuming power, Qin and Han emperors soon dispatched their forces southward to conquer new lands. Access to people and resources was essential to perpetuating the imperial state as it expanded from its core area outward. This, in turn, required authorities to devise an array of direct and indirect methods for ruling distant and multi-ethnic lands and peoples.

Casting themselves as the leaders of a universal empire, Chinese rulers, imperial officers, colonial administrators, and their explorers viewed the peoples they encountered south of the Yangzi (as well as in the Central Asian steppes) with a combination of curiosity, arrogance, disgust, and fear. Like the Romans also hard at work building an empire on the other side of Eurasia, the Han coined a range of terms to describe the inhabitants living beyond their empire’s confines, people they considered to be bereft of superior Han civilization and thus worthy of conquest. The Romans borrowed the Greek term for ‘barbarian’ to distinguish themselves from those living outside the civilizing domain of the empire. Han authorities used the terms yi, man, and others to make sense of those living outside the civilizing confines of the ‘central country’, zhong guo. They also used the characters for ‘beyond’ and ‘across’ to describe those living below the Yangzi. One such term was ‘Yue’ (‘Viet’), meaning ‘those from beyond’. Chinese officials often coupled it with the word for the ‘south’, ‘nan’, to indicate its geographical relationship to the Middle or Central Kingdom, giving us Yue Nan (Viet Nam) or Nan Yue (Nam Viet). The Chinese annals confirm, too, that there was never a single ‘Yue/Viet’ state, but rather a collection of dynastic and tribal polities operating across much of southern China into the Red River basin. Many had fled into this area in 333 BCE when the Qin destroyed an ancient Yue state located along China’s middle-eastern coast. At one point, the Han used the characters Bai Viet or Bach Viet to refer to the ‘Hundred Viet’ tribes located in what they now increasingly viewed as a ‘borderland’ below the Yangzi River.

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Vietnam: Traditional folk painting from Dong Ho village: The Trung Sisters (Hai Ba Trung) on a war elephant.

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Vietnam: Traditional folk painting from Dong Ho village: The Trung Sisters (Hai Ba Trung) on a war elephant.


It was during this shifting geopolitical context, as Chinese rulers began incorporating southern lands into their own protean imperial formation, that ‘Vietnam’ enters the Chinese empire and with it the written historical record. Vietnamese writing in the fifteenth century asserted that in 257 BCE, a local king named An Duong Vuong united the Lac Viet and Au Viet tribes into a single polity in the Red River area called Au Lac. It consisted of peoples coming from the delta and its surrounding highlands. While it is likely that An Duong Vuong took control of the Co Loa center located near today’s Hanoi, this early state did not last long. Around 170 BCE, it fell to a rogue Han general based in Guangzhou named Zhao Tuo. Without the consent of the court, he carved out a separate borderland polity and named it the land of the ‘Southern Viet’ (Nam Viet/Nan yue). It included the Co Loa area of the Red River delta as well as parts of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

Zhao Tuo’s regime lasted little longer than its Au Lac predecessor, as Han imperial troops moved in. In 111 BCE, the Han dynasty formally incorporated these southern ‘yi’ lands, consisting of Viet and non-Viet peoples, into their imperial state as a military commandery. Despite a few brief periods of independence, the people of the Red River remained there until the tenth century as China’s frontier province of Jiaozhi (Giao chi in Vietnamese). Initially, Jiaozhi included the Red River delta and much of today’s Guangdong province, the highlands as well as the deltas. In the late fifth century CE, the Chinese reduced the province’s borders to today’s upper Vietnam.

Control of this southern province was of major concern for the Han. Partly this stemmed from the attraction of its fertile plains and agricultural production; but trade also pulled imperial strategists southward. The Qin and Han had both extended canal building toward the southern coast in order to profit from international commerce coming from the South Seas and the Indian Ocean, what they often combined into one term as the ‘Southern Seas’ or Nanhai. The coast of today’s northern Vietnam provided an excellent opening for trading with Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, and as far as the Mediterranean. This attraction of the Southern Seas is worth keeping in mind here and for later periods, for just as the overland Silk Road connecting China to the Roman and Parthian empires drew the Chinese empire deeper into the Central Asian steppes to the north, so too did the Indian Ocean’s markets, peoples, and products pull it southward into the Red River toward Southeast Asia. In 231 CE, a Han administrator in Jiaozhi was categorical about Vietnam’s commercial value, writing to his superiors that agricultural taxes yielded little revenue compared to international trade: ‘This place is famous for precious rarities from afar: pearls, incense, drums, elephant tusks, rhinoceros horns, tortoise shells, coral, lapis lazuli, parrots, kingfishers, peacocks, rare and abundant treasure enough to satisfy all desires. So it is not necessary to depend on what is received from regular taxes in order to profit the Central Kingdom.’ The Chinese would in turn export highly sought-after products to international customers, including ceramics, tea, and silk.

Like their Roman and Parthian counterparts, Han imperial armies could be massive and conquest was often brutal, despite the lofty civilizing missions proffered by their emperors. Those ‘barbarians’ who refused to submit to imperial power often paid with their lives. Survivors found themselves jailed, banished, demoted, or homeless. Pragmatic-minded Han authorities realized, however, that such hard-handed methods would get them nowhere in the long run. Blind military conquest and assimilation without a political endgame were costly affairs and only created a sea of hate from which the ‘barbarians’ would recruit their own armies. Perceptive colonial officials also realized that while the empire circulated Han administrators, officers, and settlers to work in the south, their numbers would never be large enough to operate the state effectively at the lower, yet vital levels of the administration in which few spoke Chinese. One Chinese administrator posted to the south bemoaned the gap between colonial theory and practice in a report: ‘Customs are not uniform and languages are mutually unintelligible, so that several interpreters are needed to communicate. . . . If district level officials are appointed, it is the same as if they were not’.

Located far from the metropolis, many Han authorities had no choice but to accommodate local leaders by offering them a role in the provincial administration. Rather than defeating aristocratic families, warlords, or shamans, compromises were reached and concessions were made. Outside the provincial capital, colonial authorities used pre-colonial administrative structures, kinship networks, and cults to rule indirectly, regardless of the orders they received from on high calling for uniformity and assimilation. Over time, the court eventually opened the doors of the imperial army, administration, and academies to Red River Viet as a way of instilling loyalty, building legitimacy, and ruling effectively.

While resistance to Chinese imperial expansion was real, so was the desire of many Viet to build a better life from within the empire. This was often the case for groups that had been marginalized under pre-existing orders and saw a chance to reassert themselves and their projects in the new balance of power and within the new imperial formation. Well into the twentieth century elite Viets would serve at the highest levels of the Chinese state and army. Equally important, Han cultural, technological, military, and political modernity proved attractive, especially when it could be used to promote local interests, trade, and identities. As a result, over the centuries, a new Sino-Viet or Sinitic elite emerged in the provincial capital near today’s Hanoi, while much less ‘Sinicized’ chieftains and aristocratic families continued to exercise power at the local levels. But without the collaboration of these local Sinitic elites and rural lords who knew the land, the people, and its languages, the Chinese imperial moment would never have lasted a millennium.

Vietnam achieved a new level of development as a part of China. The foreign trade defended by our Han administrator above continued to drive change. But contrary to what he asserted, so did agriculture. In fact, by the second century CE, agricultural production had developed sufficiently enough to support a population of around one million people. New farming techniques and tools spread along with improved methods of diking and irrigation. Local manufacturing produced glassware from potash for local consumption and export. Bronze drum decorations reveal organized spinning and weaving production, based in part on slave labor. Drum-casting became a lucrative business with Red River manufacturers supplying them to nearby non-Han leaders who often used them as symbols of their local authority. The Chinese court taxed trade, agriculture, and manufacturing, with some of the revenue going to Jiaozhi lords.

Empires have always served as motors for change. They connect and circulate peoples and move ideas, material cultures, and languages, and not just theirs. They can also serve as a process for accelerating integrative, technological, cultural, and economic change. A thousand years of Chinese rule spread many aspects of Han culture into Jiaozhi. Chinese administrators introduced new notions of law, time, and space (legal codes, calendars, measures, weights, maps, etc.) as well as bureaucratic statecraft, weapons, paper, and a character-based writing system to accompany it. Elite Red River culture changed with the introduction of Chinese-inspired royal architecture, music, art, and culinary practices, including the use of chopsticks. Thousands of Chinese settlers also moved into the delta during the colonial period, bringing with them a collection of new ideas, technologies, and words. Intermarriage was common, as were mixed offspring and bilingualism. Like the Middle English born of the Norman conquest of England in the twelfth century, a similar ‘Middle-Annamese’ arose in colonial Vietnamese towns, allowing many Chinese words to enter the Viet language during that time. The imperial connection also introduced ideas coming from further abroad. From its Indian birthplace in the fifth century BCE, for example, Mahayana Buddhism travelled the Silk Road with traders and missionaries and, through southern China and the coast, entered Vietnamese history through Jiaozhi province. Indian missionaries also visited and more than one Vietnamese monk went abroad for religious study in the native land of the Buddha.

The Confucian repertoire of enlightened monarchy, good governance, and social harmony also circulated southward. In its simplest form, Confucianism turned on three basic relationships: subjects owed loyalty to the king; sons behaved with piety toward their fathers; and wives expressed submissive fidelity toward their husbands and sons. In theory, this male-dominated family hierarchy served as the bedrock for building an ideal government and harmonious social order. Just as sons submitted to their fathers, so too should subjects loyally serve their ruler. Ancestor veneration—whereby the living performed pious rituals ensuring the proper afterlife of deceased family members and royalty—reinforced this. The Chinese relied on Confucianism to erect centralized bureaucratic states and spread Confucian culture, after centuries of political instability and social disorder. This included the development of a modern civil service and examination system based on merit instead of court, family, aristocratic, or military connections. The importance and utilization of Confucianism ebbed and flowed over time and space. As a repertoire, it was a collection of techniques and guiding principles for regulating state and society.

What deserves emphasis here, viewed from a comparative world history perspective, is four things. Firstly, despite nationalist claims to the contrary, there is nothing particularly surprising about Vietnam’s entry into and extended participation in the Chinese imperial state. Like the Au Lac Viet peoples facing the Han from the third century BCE onward, Celtic Gaul came under Roman attack in 121 BCE, with Julius Caesar subduing the area in 51 BCE. For half a millennium, the Romans ruled what became ‘France’ as a number of provinces. Like its Chinese counterpart, the Roman empire served as a vehicle through which institutions, laws, architecture, religions, and the Latin-based writing system spread into Gaul and other conquered lands. Not unlike the use of Latin in Europe, Chinese characters became the written language of bureaucratic politics and religious expression in East Asia, including Vietnam. Chinese characters (hanzi) served as the models for the development of writing scripts in Korea (hangul), Japan (kanji), and Vietnam (han tu or chu han). Each word in han tu or Sino-Vietnamese is a Chinese character, but read with a Viet pronunciation. Viet elites also used Chinese characters later to construct an indigenous demotic script, chu nom, adjusted to represent spoken Vietnamese. A millennium of Chinese imperial rule features in the Vietnamese past, just as the Roman empire helped shape French history.

Secondly, whether in western Eurasia or on its eastern side, such transfers of power never worked out so easily on the ground. Chinese imperial power in Vietnam tended to be channeled through a few, small urban sites and handled by literate Sino-Vietnamese elites living in these administrative hubs. Few imperial channels fed directly into the countryside, where the majority (and largely illiterate) rural population resided. While elites had adopted many Chinese loan words in the ‘Middle-Annamese’ they spoke, the Mon-Khmer Vietnamese language (and others) resonated throughout the rest of the Red River delta. If imperial authorities wanted to reach this part of Vietnam, they had to connect to the pre-existing grid, staffed by local lords familiar with Sinicized ways, but operating in their languages and according to their customs. Located on the outermost rim of the empire, the majority rural population of Red River Vietnam, dominated by a dozen or so aristocratic families, lived in a spiritual realm where they venerated a host of deities and spirits reaching back into the depths of time. It was also a realm into which Buddhism had inserted itself, sometimes seeming as if it had always been there.

The process of Confucianization certainly began in Vietnam under Chinese rule, but it remained a largely urban, administrative, and elite male experience. Moreover, because urbanization in Jiaozhi remained minimal under Chinese rule, the line between elite and popular religions and cultures was never drawn sharply. They overlapped. Viet elites in Hanoi may have been well versed in the Confucian canon and taken pride in writing Chinese characters, but they were just as often at ease in the composite religious world of Buddhist monks, spirits, genies, and cults. To return to the Eurasian comparison, it was not because the Roman Emperor Constantine backed Christianity in the fourth century or a Frankish tribal leader named Clovis was baptized a century later that all Europeans or Frenchmen suddenly became ‘Christians’. They did not. It took a lot of time. The same is true for ‘Confucian’ East Asia and Vietnam. If anything connected the Vietnamese to China, indeed the rest of Eurasia during this early period, it was this world of spirits, local cults, deities, soothsayers, and millenarian beliefs permeating the lives of elites and commoners alike.

Thirdly, next to these cultural transfers, stood force. Not all emperors were benevolent father figures. Many used their armies to get what they wanted, regardless of the effects locally. Onerous labor requirements, heavy taxation, and corruption were sources of social discontent and revolt. Colonial culture and statecraft often collided with pre-existing political formations, privileges, cultures, identities, and languages. Resistance broke out often when the Chinese court pursued assimilationist policies or tried to impose direct rule instead of remembering the advantages of accommodation, flexibility, and indirect rule. The Trung sisters have gone down in history for their heroic rebellion between 39–43 CE. Fueling their defiance was the imperial execution of one sister’s husband against the backdrop of unpopular assimilation policies aimed at the local aristocratic class. The arrival of more Han settlers may have also triggered the revolt by removing local elites from positions of power, threatening their social status and landed interests. The Chinese emperor dispatched General Ma Yuan, who smashed the revolt before quelling another just to the north.

Lastly, imperial rule transformed the colonial elites, both Chinese and Vietnamese. Over the centuries, Chinese settlers, army officers, and administrators who spent long periods of time in the empire’s south married into local families, picked up local languages, traded, and sometimes just wandered about. In so doing, they distanced themselves physically, culturally, even mentally from the imperial center. Han army officers invading the south were shocked to find a former Qin official ‘with his hair in a bun and squatting on the ground’. One Chinese poet in the eighth century opened a poem on life in Vietnam as follows: ‘I have heard it said of Jiaozhi, that southern habits penetrate one’s heart. Winter’s portion is brief; three seasons are partial to a brightly wheeling sun.’ He then mused about how the warlord Zhao Tuo had created an independent southern land a thousand years earlier. Indeed, Chinese settlers, officials, and their offspring could join forces with Viet elites to promote their shared interests, including independence from imperial rule. This tended to occur when the Chinese capital encountered difficulties, allowing rogue officers to take the initiative in the borderlands. Some of these rebels were ‘Chinese’; others were ‘Vietnamese’. Oftentimes they were both. It didn’t really matter. What counted most was their ability to garner local support, often from this spiritual world swirling beneath their feet, in order to transform military force into lasting political change. In 544 CE, with the Chinese court locked in civil violence to the north, a certain Ly Nam De led a rebellion against corrupt imperial rule before creating another Nam Viet kingdom. This Jiaozhi man had long been a magistrate in the Chinese administration, was trained in the Confucian classics, and descended from Chinese settlers. Similar strongmen asserted themselves across the southern confines of the Chinese empire. Nam Viet independence was, in the end, short-lived. In 602 CE, the Chinese re-established control over their coveted maritime province and its agricultural heartland. However, Viet and Sino-Vietnamese elites continued to hold high positions in Chinese Jiaozhi for another three hundred years.